A Writer Writes

    Blood Diamonds, Failed States and African Youth
    by Kevin G. Lowther (Sierra Leone 1963–65)

    IN DECEMBER 1963, two Peace Corps colleagues and I were lost deep in the Sierra Leone bush. Exhausted from having climbed the 6,000-foot slopes of Mount Bintumani, just north of the country’s diamond region, we were trying to find a path to the nearest village. But the sun was setting and our circa 1940 colonial map was no help.
         Then one of us spotted a wispy column of smoke. We made for it and soon confronted two men cooking chicken and rice in front of a rudely-thatched hut. When they had recovered from the shock of seeing three white men stumble into their midst, they immediately offered us their food — and their shelter.
         We could barely communicate, even in Krio, the patois which serves as Sierra Leone’s lingua franca. But these two men, who were tending their fields, had taught us the first law of Africa: Thou shalt be hospitable to all, especially to strangers.
         Who could have known that, more than 30 years later, the remote villages scattered within sight of Bintumani would become a killing ground in one of Africa’s most gruesome wars? Or the backdrop for the film “Blood Diamond,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a mercenary Rhodesian diamond smuggler.
         “Blood Diamond” leaves little to the imagination in depicting the wanton bloodshed and cruelty of Sierra Leone’s civil war. It also shows how the international diamond trade helped to stoke this and other African conflicts. But it fails to capture the underlying reality of Sierra Leone as a failed state.
         Sierra Leone is a fairly typical example of the result of the haphazard manner in which European powers created colonial boundaries in Africa. The independent nations that emerged in the 1950s and ’60s were, by their very genesis, primed for instability and, in some cases, failure.
          After completing my tour as a teacher at Sierra Leone’s most prestigious secondary school, I corresponded for several years with many of my students. Not long ago, I reread their letters. I was stunned by their collective message: “There is no place for me in this country because I do not have the right political or ethnic connections. I am hoping to get a scholarship abroad.”
         Many, in fact, did escape what, even then — in the hopeful first years of freedom — appeared to be an empty future. Tens of thousands of talented young Sierra Leoneans have since arrived at the same conclusion and departed for greener — and safer — pastures in England, America and elsewhere.
          Blood diamonds did not drive this mass emigration of Sierra Leone’s best and brightest. Diamonds did eventually distort the economy and corrupt the political system. The blood came later.
          “Blood Diamond” misses what my former students understood long ago: That there was nothing for them in a state that already was failing; and that throughout Africa there are many millions of young people who have few prospects, and thus no vested interest in maintaining the states that have failed them.
         Sierra Leone descended into its madness in part because the leader of the Revolutionary United Front could appeal to disaffected youth who had been left behind by a dysfunctional educational system and were ill-equipped to escape abroad.
          I once asked a Sierra Leonean, who fled the country following the rebels’ sacking of Freetown in 1999, to define when the rot actually set in. Without pause, he said it was in the 1970s when the government began systematically to under fund the education budget.
         There is a cautionary tale here for all of Africa. It is not the need to regulate the diamond trade. It is the urgency of ensuring that African youth — literally half the continent’s population — have access to an education and the means to earn a decent living. Africa otherwise will become a continent of increasingly alienated young men and women — potential recruits like those who maimed and killed thousands of their fellow Sierra Leoneans.

    Kevin G. Lowther has served as Africare’s Regional Director for Southern Africa since 1984 During this period the organization’s presence has grown from two to eight countries in the SADC region. He served as Africare’s first country representative in Zambia (1978–83) and spent eight years with the Peace Corps as a Volunteer (in Sierra Leone) and staff member for in Africa and Washington. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he is a former newspaper editor and has written extensively on development and related issues. He is co-author, with C. Payne Lucas, of Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, a critique of the Peace Corps’ first decade.