Tom Shakespeare

The west African state of Sierra Leone has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over recent years: a decade of civil war followed by the Ebola epidemic, in a country which was already desperately poor.  On a recent trip to interview disabled people, beggars with disabilities line the major roads in the capital, Freetown.  I encountered unmade roads, urban slums and people living on refuse tips, and heard how domestic violence, drug abuse, unemployment and petty crime dominated the lives of the poor.  Lottery booths are everywhere: because there are no jobs for young people, they spend the time gambling, I was told.

In the last five years, social work has been introduced to the country, in an attempt to address some of those social problems.  Whereas before there were unqualified community workers, now for the first time, there are university-trained professionals.   The social work programme in Sierra Leone was devised by Dr Abiose Jarrett.  He is a Sierra Leonean who emigrated to Ohio to study for a doctorate, and ended up as a social work lecturer in Texas.  In 2009, foreign donors were looking to make a positive intervention.  “I like honest money”, Dr Jarrett told me in his deep, musical voice. “That’s why I like writing project proposals”.  Based on his PhD research, Dr Jarrett designed a social work programme for the University of Sierra Leone.  Since 2011, he and his colleagues have been teaching young people about mental health and human behaviour and case work and social justice and intervention strategies.  Now there are 761 students studying social work at the university.

Dr Jarrett explained to me that because of the range of problems facing society, he was training his students to be generalists.  “People think that social work is only dealing with people, but I teach them that their client be an institution… their client can be society itself.”

I met Ummu and Adama, two young Muslim women, impeccably dressed like all Sierra Leoneans.   As our pick-up wove its way through the dense traffic, passing colourful street stalls, besieged by street vendors selling everything from car parts to tissues to limes to eggs, music blaring from different loudspeakers, my young colleagues talked to me about their chosen profession.  Adama said:  “In Sierra Leone, we have so many social problems… Child abuse, child neglect… I just feel I am being pushed to do something about it, to try and help.” But she told me, “The idea of social work is new in Sierra Leone.  The public don’t even know what social work is all about”.

But how does it feel to be a social worker when there are so few resources available, I asked Ummu.  “Most of the time I felt helpless” she told me.  “I was working with a girl in a home.  She was having trouble with her stepfather.  He was beating her and stopping her go to school.  She had to do all the housework before he would let her go to school.  I wanted her to leave the house, but there was nowhere for her to go.  I found it very frustrating.  The usual thing in Sierra Leone is to just put up with everything” according to Ummu.  “ ‘Go bear’ people say, meaning ‘just deal with it’”.

Amidst the stresses, social workers can play a positive role.  Ummu said  “At least I feel I am doing something.  I intervene and advise parents and explain options to discipline a child without beating them.  I advise abused women about their legal rights.  There are success stories.  For example, helping the parents of a deaf child to find a special school.  The mother was completely unaware that there was this school.   It was very rewarding.”

Dr Jarrett has found it difficult to find placements for his students.  Community workers without qualifications are worried that they will be replaced by these young professionals, so they don’t want to give them a chance.  Already, there are 49 newly qualified social workers trying to find work in Sierra Leone.

When my time came to fly home, I waited on the airport tarmac to board the plane, accompanied by a friendly young man called Samuel.  He told me that he couldn’t find a job, so he was trying to get work experience by volunteering as an airport assistant. He graduated from the University of Sierra Leone with a first class degree last year.  He thought the reason he could not find a paid job was because he was came from the wrong tribe.  And the subject he had studied at University?  Social work.