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The title of this post is nicked from TBI’s official organisation values. The whole concept of organisational values is entirely foreign to me as chambers doesn’t have any (except perhaps “make lots of money” – unwritten, like the British constitution) and indeed gives me, in principle, a little bit of the same shudder as words like mindfulness, and vaccine hesitant, and reiki.  In practice, they give me a little bit of awe, especially the courage part. The usual example given is team Sierra Leone’s decision to stay in Salone during the Ebola crisis to assist with system design and implementation for the response: a reasonably high bar, then.

A high bar which I usually feel I’m failing badly (feelings of failure and sadness of course exacerbated a lot by Jane’s death).  I feel generally very anxious as to whether Freetown can be fixed at all; I feel essentially furious with everyone except the Mayor most of the time and it appears I suffer from the opposite of that thing where people can identify better with individual stories of tragedy than large statistics of death, disease, etc.  In my case individual humans are mostly annoying, but I care a lot about humans en masse.  I don’t think this is going to come as much of a surprise to my family and possibly my clients (eek) but my god, I’m not a patient person.

It’s also rainy season.  Most of June was ok, but now it’s July it rains and rains and rains.  And it gets worse in August and September is also pretty bad.  My new flat (newish, I moved in just after Easter; finally got it right 3rd time lucky) has a spectacular view when the sun is out and little birds nesting right outside the windows:

but it’s on the top floor so I am woken up by the rain drumming insanely loudly on the roof every single night (it rains every day and every night – last week there was a straight 48 hour period where it rained constantly). I get to watch the storms coming in across the valley and well before it starts raining where I am, I can hear the rain falling on the other side.  I’ve tried to take a video of this which is fundamentally underwhelming and really doesn’t do this justice but I’ve paid for the upgrade to let me upload it, so here it is (turn the sound on):

The other feature of rainy season is mould.  Inside your house.  Everywhere.  I did experience this last year but I was all new and enthusiastic and I ignored it. This year I’m documenting it carefully so I can moan more effectively.  Pictures below show the (plastic) interior of my car after 2 weeks of not using it and a cotton jumpsuit after 1 week in the wardrobe with no aircon on in the evenings (wardrobe also has 2 dehumidifier things in).  I’ve also found mould on a picture frame and growing in a tightly sealed jar of coconut oil.

I’ve been learning Krio with my TBI colleagues Tessa and Matt.  It’s very close to English so I can in fact understand a lot of what is said at the City Council, but it seems rude to live in a country for 18 months and make no attempt to get better at their main language. We’ve been doing dialogues in which people say that their favourite season is rainy season: unlikely is my considered opinion.

Oh yes and I got stung by a wasp at a party and forgot to clean up the scratch where the sting went in, so obviously it got infected and I got cellulitis and had to have a week of double antibiotics.


Mustapha’s wedding

My driver Mustapha got married!  He looks about 18 but he’s actually just turned 28 so he is very old for a Sierra Leonean in marriage terms.  Team TBI were very honoured to be invited to the wedding – we got dresses and shirts made in the same lappa fabric.  It’s a tradition for the same family or friendship group to go to weddings in the same lappa, it’s called ashobi.

I drove us up to Makeni which is about 3 hours away from Freetown, right up country. I was driving so I didn’t take photos but the drive was spectacularly beautiful with the countryside washed with green and glowing.  Makeni is a pretty small town but no addresses/road names just like Freetown, so Mustapha had to send his fiancee’s sister to come and collect us so I could drive there.

Mustapha had originally said that the wedding would start about 11am, and we assumed that could be an hour out in either direction given Sierra Leone time. In fact Mariama didn’t come until about 2.30pm (“African time is different to UK time, Lucy”) but the wedding itself was totally cool and fascinating to see.  Quite a lot of the ceremony didn’t involve the couple at all, but the male relatives of the couple as representatives of the families who are now linked.  There was even a ceremony where the hands of the relatives were bound together but no equivalent to an exchange of rings between the couple themselves.  Mustapha and Isatu looked lovely.

Saving the World progress update

I’m still working flat out and this is by far the hardest job I’ve ever done. What I would do without Emily (TBI Country Head) I do not know.  At the Bar, I think the last time I cried about a case was in 2004 (very bad day in court; my own fault).  Here, I cry about once a month and Em picks me up and points out the way forward and tells me to care a bit less, work a bit less and try get a bit more joy out of all the amazing stuff we’re doing with the Mayor.  And I am trying.

Last post I went on about all the cool sanitation-related stuff we’re doing and I’m going to give a progress update because I need to keep reminding myself of how far we’ve come in such a short time.  And not focus on the more despair-inducing elements, such as this:

This is an “office” within the area of FCC where I sit, directly in my sightline.  The Mayor asked the relevant FCC officer to get it tidied up and cleared out on 2 April 2019.  The pictures show some progress because you can see the floor, and it’s only taken 3.5 months to get this far.  On bad days (ok every day) it’s basically a really intrusive metaphor which, you know, I could live without.

On the other hand the Lord Mayor of Hull came to visit us – Hull is a twin city with Freetown.  This is obviously extremely random but Hull have been amazing, in particular donating lots of cash for Cleanest Zone.  For the visit, FCC smartened up the Council buildings with paint and tidied away lots of crap that gets left lying in the courtyard in his honour.  At the same time, they installed a “disabled access ramp”:


Not quite sure how successful that has been tbh.

I made a video (with amazing TBI tech person and Saviour Oli) to show at TBI’s West Africa team conference in Maya little bit of what the working environment is like at FCC.  It was an unusually quiet day in the Mayor’s office, but here’s the vid.

Registration Days

In the last post I was explaining that we were planning to register all the businesses and youth groups carrying out solid and liquid waste collection in Freetown, so that we would know which areas of the city have good service provision and which don’t – then we can target donor funds and our support to the areas where there’s no current collection service (we have funding to support the capital costs and business training for another 80 tricycles/youth groups – the selection process for this has just completed and these new groups should be launched within the next month), and provide an alternative for citizens to just chucking your rubbish in the nearest drain or watercourse.

In addition to support for new waste collection businesses via donor funds, we have also tried to create a favourable economic condition by passing our new byelaws, which both make it mandatory for collectors to register, and, crucially, make it mandatory for every waste producer in Freetown to have their solid waste collected a minimum of once per week, and their liquid waste collected sufficiently often to prevent any leakage from a cess pit. We intend to enforce these requirements via spot checks of houses, businesses and institutions carried out by FCC’s sanitary inspectors at the same time as they are responding to complaints.  We should therefore create a lot of demand for the waste collection businesses to service.

This took a huge amount of organisation just to get the registration itself to happen over 2 days, plus what I am trying to do is build a system where FCC can access the information itself, and where the data can be updated annually so that (hopefully) we can see the progress we’ve made.

All of this has to be done in a context which makes this very, very challenging.  I’m just going to list the main problems so you don’t get too bored: (a) most waste collectors have no access to the internet so cannot be asked to fill in a form online; (b) most waste collectors have very low literacy so even if you give them access to the internet it’s very difficult for them to complete a form – this means you have to have people who sit and ask the questions in person and enter the information into the database themselves; (c) the people collecting the data have never used excel and will not be able to correctly and consistently enter the data into the cells themselves, and their own literacy levels are not high – this means that we have to use a foolproof data entry form (using a very cool open source piece of software called ODK) and have drop-down menus where possible; (d) there are hundreds of waste collection businesses in Freetown, ranging from about 15 companies which own vacuum trucks or trucks to all the rest who collect using motorised tricycles, omolankis (locally made wheelbarrow) or just a basket on the head and the only way of communicating with 99% of them is word of mouth or radio – so we had to reach out via the councillors and staff at the dumpsites and community leaders at markets, heads of associations, etc, and find money for radio advertising, and make sure that the right dates and times and the requirement to pay the registration fee were passed on; (e) FCC staff have limited access to the internet themselves and no experience with excel (many of them don’t have a computer or smartphone of any kind) so that they don’t have the ability as yet to analyse the data we collect – meaning that Oli had to design an easy to use dashboard which enables FCC to use the data we have to make decisions before the staff are trained in use of excel/computers; in other words we can leapfrog the capacity gap (this is radical stuff ) and (f) no-one at FCC has ever had data to inform decision-making before, so we also have to do long term embedding of the use of the system to demonstrate that information actually is useful.  This is going to be a big part of the next 6 months.

TL;DR?  Oli made a cool video tour of the dashboard:

We did the registrations over 2 days on 25 and 26 June, every provider got a laminated Certificate and a photo of themselves next to a #Transform Freetown banner by way of a thank you/reward, we registered over 300 providers and collected about Le 18m in registration fees paid via mobile money so no leakage (only £1,800 but FCC is desperate).  Everyone in the Mayor’s Delivery Unit helped and worked two long days including managing a series of crises to make it happen.  It was truly truly fab.

I was on photo taking and crisis-dealing duty and I now have a phone full of photos of waste collectors:

I also have new friends – I was getting some petrol the other day and a random stranger said hello and ow de body?; he turned out to be one of the waste collectors who had registered and I said thank you very much sir for your help in transforming Freetown and we shook hands and gave each other big smiles.  It was good.

Complaints system

One of the other parts of the many things that FCC needs to do to make sure that it carries out its role as government is to make sure that the laws prohibiting causing a nuisance by dumping solid waste, allowing your cess pit to leak, burning waste, causing noise, etc, are enforced.

At the moment the existing systems at FCC to do this are fragmented and paper-based.  There is a backlog of 300 complaints which are all written down carefully in a ledger. The sanitation team tries to identify complaints from the same area and deal with them at the same time, but this is very difficult from paper records.  We are also incredibly short of vehicles and fuel, so it’s paramount that FCC is able to be as efficient as possible when in a particular area of town.

So I have designed a system which centralises and digitises all the complaints that come in, whether by phone, in person or via an SMS system we have set up which works on normal non-smart phones, allocates them to the correct FCC department, AND has a simple system to identify which area of the city they relate to, so that FCC can target all complaints in a particular area at the same time.  And Oli designed all the tech to make this work in a simple and foolproof way – we’re using the ODK form system for data entry again – and to produce a dashboard which shows existing complaints, whether they have been dealt with, how long they’ve been outstanding, whether a fine was levied, etc etc.  Training started last week (Oli and an MDU team member called Adams) on using the new system and we are going to enter all the existing backlog of complaints in the ledgers to enable FCC to pick those up too.

Oli made a video showing how this works too.  He’s the best thing since sliced bread.

Transfer stations and – yes! – faecal sludge

I said in my last post that we should have our donor-funded transfer stations across the city AND a faecal sludge treatment system at Kingtom up and running by July.  Well, this was it turns out wildly optimistic – not because it couldn’t have been done, but because it would require everyone involved to have been just a little bit more sensible.

Two things went wrong, both of which are typical of problems in development.

One of the NGOs involved was well over 2 months late in submitting their proposal, they had been advised by the funder of the approximate amount of money available, they submitted a proposal which came to twice that much and, even worse, most of the additional money was their “overheads” (it’s normal for NGOs to require 15% for their overheads but this was far more, and even 15% from a private sector background is just astounding), the funder asked them to reconsider and they then pretty much halved the amount of the proposal by reducing their overheads and – according to them – leaving the actual project work at the identical scope it was at previously.  The resubmission of the proposal lost us another month.

The other NGO was also late in submission, and when they finally provided FCC with their draft on the day before the revised deadline it included a fundamental change in approach to that which had been discussed and agreed with FCC and the Mayor.  The Mayor is approaching development as it ought to be approached – ie she’s telling the funders what she wants done, they agree (generally speaking they are delighted to be told) and we are working with NGOs to build those projects.  The usual way is for NGOs to put together projects with minimal/no involvement from government, get funding, carry out the project, and then it immediately collapses as soon as the funding runs out because no long term plan has been made for the relevant government department to operate/manage it.  To be fair to the NGOs and the funders, it is often very difficult to get proper engagement from government and corruption is often a massive problem. But to be fair to government, the funders and NGOs got all this wrong from the very beginning by failing to engage government when aid first started and by failing pretty much completely to provide help in building systems within government which would prevent corruption and enable proper management, and now government generally feels disenfranchised and fed up with patronising Westerners.

These are the reasons that despite the fact that Sierra Leone (for example) has had literally billions of dollars of aid spending over the past 25 years but still doesn’t have any form of functioning sewage treatment or a functioning health or education system.

Anyway the point is old habits die hard and so a radical change in project scope at the very last minute was not anticipated to be problematic.  Long story short, it was problematic and after a fair amount of intensive work we went back to the first solution and eventually got the proposal in – again after some weeks loss of time.

And all of the above happened despite the fact that all the individuals working at the relevant NGOs are super dedicated, hardworking people who are totally committed to working with the Mayor and implementing the Transform Freetown agenda, and who have personally gone above and beyond to make these pretty complex projects work.  It’s another systems problem, just this time with the aid industry as a whole.

We’re now just waiting for final sign off from the donor, which I am hopeful is imminent, and we’ll be able to get our transfer stations going and, my favourite project of all the projects, the faecal sludge treatment up and running at Kingtom.  I’m aiming for end of September now.  Hope springs eternal, etc.

Dumpsite management

Dumpsite management – to turn the dumpsites from uncontrolled to controlled – is, in the immediate term, pretty much the hardest part of all this. In the longer term, we have funding to carry out the design and construction to turn Kingtom into an engineered landfill, we have received preliminary engineering studies giving us options on how to safely close Kissy and locations for a new landfill site/recycling park, and we are pretty certain we will get funding to carry out the work of closing Kissy and to design and build the new landfill. All of that will happen 2020 onwards. But in the meantime the dumpsites are a terrible health hazard and are a liability rather than an asset to FCC, and every time I go to either Kissy or Kingtom I am just in despair.

Immediate term work is the hardest because it requires FCC to carry out seriously proactive management and requires money that we just don’t have at the moment.  The management aspect is to work with the Met Police (FCC’s police force who have jurisdiction in Freetown) to ensure that vehicles and tricycles/wheelbarrows entering the dumpsite don’t just dump all their rubbish right by the entrance but go to a designated working face area, and to prevent the waste pickers from burning waste.  It’s also to ensure a consistent system of charging tipping fees so that FCC actually receives the revenue stream that it should do for use of the dumpsite. The money is to buy or hire front end loaders and excavators so that we can move the random heaps of waste into structured areas and have a working face where the waste is compacted and covered with soil to prevent rats, smell, etc.

This just isn’t happening on any front.  Tipping fees are either not charged or are wholly inconsistently charged or the money which makes it to FCC’s bank account is a fraction of what it should be.  Just recently, I discovered that at Kingtom we had permitted vehicles to dump solid waste all over the newly completed infrastructure and area which will be used solely for faecal sludge (that area is easier to get to because there’s a newly completed road which is intended for the vacuum trucks with faecal sludge to use) – that all now has to be moved and we don’t have any money for heavy equipment to move it.

We’re still not policing the areas where people dump their waste meaning that the dumpsites get filled up close to the gates and the track which should lead into the back of the dumpsites just gets covered in solid waste which the trucks and vehicles either have to slowly manourvre over (meaning that the time it takes them to tip and leave is vastly increased) or they can’t get into the dumpsite at all so dump near the entrance and it’s a vicious circle.

We should have had a proper blockwork wall built around the faecal sludge area at Kingtom by now, with gates which can be secured, and a weighbridge and a gatehouse (with toilet! – there are no toilet or washing facilities for any of the FCC staff at either dumpsite at the moment) installed at the solid waste entrance.  This would help a lot in terms of controlling both entrance to Kingtom, and controlling where people dump – there are no walls or gates at Kingtom at the moment, so often people bring their trucks or vehicles in at night and, you guessed it, dump waste as near to the entrance as possible.

The funding for that work is in place and has been approved in principle since January this year.  In another display of development not working, the result of a combination of incompetence and a wholesale lack of urgency on the part of each of the funder, the implementing NGO and various government agencies (they took it in turns while I chased and chased and held meetings and chased and gnawed my knuckles and cried twice), it has taken until last week for the money to be finally approved.  And now it’s rainy season so building a blockwork wall with concrete foundations and digging a big hole to install a weighbridge is going to be 10 times more difficult and slower than it would have been in March.  Still.  I tell myself, at least we’re getting the infrastructure soon…

5 months to go

I’m finishing in Freetown in December which means there’s only 5 months to go.  My main feeling at the moment is:  oh my god, how am I going to fit everything in.  When I’m not busy despairing, that is.

By way of a tonic, I’ve got friends coming round this evening to watch ep 1 of season 3 of Stranger Things.  And can you all read all of Tana French’s detective novels and Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky immediately please.

I miss you all at home like mad and hopefully see you in September when I’m back in the UK next.  By then Boris will be prime minister so that will definitely sort everything out.




3 comments on “Courage, collaboration and compassion

  1. Stephen Day says:

    Lucy, I continue to be amazed and impressed by what you are trying to do in the face of so many obstructions. I hope you will be able to look back on your time in Freetown and know you achieved something tangible of long term use to its citizens.
    Best wishes, Stephen Day


  2. Kaley says:

    Your lappa dress is very beautiful! I had a great chuckle about chambers’ organisational values, am left feeling very inspired by how passionate you are about your work and confused about the mould in the coconut jar.


  3. Stephen Day says:

    Lucy, I remain in awe of what you are trying to do, and have already achieved.
    Stay safe and healthy.
    Best wishes, Stephen Day


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