Thinking Pink in Sierra Leone

“Cancer shouldn’t be a death sentence. It isn’t a death sentence in the West; why should it be one in Sierra Leone?”

Cremelda Pratt, founder of Thinking Pink.
Cremelda Pratt, founder of Thinking Pink.

Who’s asking? Her name’s Cremelda Pratt, and she’s the founder of Thinking Pink: an NGO dedicated to fighting breast cancer in Sierra Leone.

A Business Administration graduate with a major in Marketing, Cremelda lived in the USA and worked for the Federal National Mortgage Association (‘Fannie Mae’) until a trip home for a holiday in 2008 set her on a new path.

“I’d travelled via Accra,” she recalls. “I noticed that there was a lot of breast cancer awareness in Ghana, just as there was back in the US. But when I arrived in Sierra Leone, there was nothing. And yet I knew that friends of mine had died from breast cancer.”

In 2012, Thinking Pink’s office opened in Freetown’s city centre. In its first two years, some 3,000 women (and a handful of men) walked through their doors. More than half of them had some form of breast cancer.

“We saw girls as young as 12 and 13 with lumps,” Cremelda says. “A 21-year-old had a mastectomy with no reconstructive surgery. Losing a breast is a big deal. And dealing with that with no reconstructive surgery or even a mastectomy bra is devastating. I’d see the tears every day, and I’d cry with them.”

And then Ebola hit. “Breast cancer basically got ignored during the Ebola outbreak,” Cremelda says. “Early detection became late detection; late detection became death. Since the outbreak ended, we’ve been seeing three to five people a day. We’ve noticed a surge amongst younger women; we’re seeing a lot of college students. A lot of teenagers too.

“I want to see a day when we have a dedicated cancer hospital, rather than the current situation where we only have one mammogram in the whole country, no oncologists, and cancer patients are in general wards in our main hospitals. We want to see palliative care happen too. Why should women suffer and die worthlessly? If we had a palliative care centre, at least people would have their dignity up until death.”

The challenges Thinking Pink faces are enormous. When I first met Cremelda (in 2014, in the very early days of the Ebola outbreak), Thinking Pink had a staff of five – including a patient liaison officer who was a breast cancer survivor herself. They’re now down to three. “I’ve had to drop people because there aren’t enough funds to pay wages,” she says, “and I’ve dipped too deeply into my widow’s mite. Without help to sustain the foundation, we might have to close doors. I could go back to the US, but where would these women go? We trust that things will turn around – but it’s on all of us. In Sierra Leone, women make up 51 percent of the population. We’ll keep knocking on doors, and hope that someday soon, somebody will hear us.”DSCF8134

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Peace and Hope in Latin America

This past week has been one of those “hyper Latino” weeks I have from time to time.

Yesterday, for instance, I spent the afternoon in a farm somewhere in Reading, helping my friends at Latin Link with the orientation weekend for the batch of (mostly young) people heading out in short-term teams to various Latin American countries over the summer. I myself was once a fresh-faced ‘Stepper’ (exactly ten years ago, as it happens) – one of a team of 10 sent to work at a home for Aids orphans in Santo Domingo de los Colorados in Ecuador.

Earlier on in the week, I was looking forward to interview the merengue “leg end” Juan-Luis Guerra, who had his first ever London gig at the Apollo in Hammersmith. Sadly, JLG wasn’t doing any press, so that didn’t happen (and the ticket prices were slightly out of reach, so I didn’t go to the gig).

However, not being able to go to the JLG gig worked in my favour, because I ended up at Church.co.uk on Wednesday evening, at the launch of the UK branch of Paz Y Esperanza (Peace and Hope). Paz y Esperanza is a Christian human rights organisation dedicated to defending and promoting justice on behalf of persons and communities living in poverty or affected by different forms of injustice.

I met two key members of Paz y Esperanza at the launch. Here’s my interview with the founder of the organisation – Alfonso Weiland (pictured above), a human rights lawyer from Peru:

And here I am in conversation with Loida Carriel, who heads up Paz y Esperanza’s operations in Ecuador. Here, their main issue is women’s rights and combating domestic violence and its effects on women.

Throw in Friday evening’s salsa classes (at which I finally managed to master the dreaded ‘Setenta’) and it’s been a right old semana hyper-Latina. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go and put on my bamba “100% Discoteck” reggaeton CD…

Africa Oyé!

Africa Oyé 2011
Sefton Park, Liverpool, 18-19 June

Liverpool’s African music festival has become a key event in my calendar. It’s a chance for me not only to hear great music and gather material for the Sounds of Africa show I produce, but also an opportunity to socialise and hang out with a few other World Music media types who’ve become friends of mine over the years we’ve all been attending the festival: people such as Geli Berg (a radio broadcaster and organiser of the Cultural Collage World Music festival in Manchester), and Maya Mitter of One Latin Culture. Sure enough, there were hugs all round when we caught up with each other.

Mariem Hassan

On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Sefton Park just as the first act of the day was being introduced. Mariem Hassan is incredible singer from the Western Sahara, accompanied by a pair of guitarists who played the blues with an unbelievable passion. Mariem was my first interviewee of the day, and set the pattern for how most of the rest of the day’s interviews would go; after agonising between her manager/interpreter (who’s German) and myself, I discovered that she spoke fluent Spanish and so I ended up interviewing her en Español. As Saturday progressed, language barriers proved to be more a source of amusement than a hindrance – especially when Maya, Geli and I did an interview en masse with the Ganbgé Brass Band.

the Ganbgé Brass Band in action

The band had a couple of members who spoke English, and at least one of us doing the interviewing spoke French. The ensuing interview was hilarious – but definitely gave you a sense of how the guys had become brothers purely by having played together for years and years. Questions and answers in English and French flew back and forth. The band talked to us about playing in the Shrine in Nigeria (they’re all big Fela fans, and covered his song ‘Shakara’ during their set). When Maya suggested to one band member that the easiest way for him to learn English would be for him to get an English girlfriend, the tent erupted with laughter.

Bonga

The legendary Angolan singer Bonga was also good fun. Again, we agonised over how to do the interview – and suddenly we discovered that one of the women on the Africa Oyé team was Brazilian and spoke perfect Portuguese! Problem solved! Maya and I were able to have a good chat with Bonga about what happens when the worlds of Angolan culture and politics clash – as they often do.

Amkoullel teaches some kids (and a few adults) how to rap at one of his workshops

Amkoullel (aka “the Fula Child”) is an upcoming young rapper from Mali, who uses traditional Malian instruments in his music. A very profound guy and a great interview. He did some workshops on the Saturday and performed on the Sunday.

This year’s Africa Oyé featured quite a few of the female singers (young and not-so-young) who are championing the cause of African women through song, and winning loads of friends and admirers with the

Kareyce Fotso

charm and humour with which they do it. The Cameroonian singer Kareyce Fotso was one such person. Embracing her acoustic guitar and playing a variety of percussion instruments, she charmed the crowd in no time. When Maya and I interviewed her afterwards, she told us the heartbreaking story of her elder sister’s forced marriage – one of the many issues she talks about in her songs.

Fatoumata Diawara: now she's on the ground...

Fatoumata Diawarafrom Mali was another one. I’d already seen her twice before – first as support for Staff Benda Bilili’s London gig, then at a showcase in an Islington pub called the Slaughtered Lamb (I kid you not!). On both those occasions, it had been just her with her guitar. This time she was with a band (and without the green tights that have kind of become her trademark),

... and now she's airborne! Watch her go!

and it was a whole different dynamic. She danced, she spun, she jumped… the energy coming off the stage could power a small city for a week. When I interviewed Fatoumata afterwards, she told me how Nick Gold (her producer – the man responsible for such World Music classics as the Buena Vista Social Club) had said he wanted the public to see all her different sides. Fatoumata (a former actress and one-time backing singer for Oumou Sangare) is another young African woman dealing with some of the heavy issues that affect African women, but doing so in a manner that invites people to join in with her.

It’s always a gamble recording interviews during Africa Oyé, as quiet locations for interviewing are very hard to come by. Listening to my recorded interviews later, I was glad to see that my “keep the record level low and the mike very close to the subject” strategy had worked – especially with Fatoumata’s interview, which we did whilst Marcia Griffiths‘ extremely loud band were on. We could hardly hear ourselves while we were doing the interview. But on the recording, Fatoumata came through crystal clear while the booming reggae basslines were distant enough not to be a problem. Yay for technology…

"Yo Liverpool, how you feeling?"

There was one point on Saturday afternoon when thought we were going to get washed out. But the very brief drizzle over Sefton Park was just nature messing with our heads (naughty nature!). The weather on Sunday held up even better than the previous day, give or take the odd occasion earlier on when the temperature dropped slightly and it got a bit windy. My first interview of the day was with Damily from Madagascar (with the help of a French interpreter), while the first act to perform was Steven Sogo from Burundi, with his band Hope Street. I interviewed Steve after his set, and he told me how some church musicians had taught him how to play guitar and bass. He’s only been making music a few years, but has already won an armful of awards from all over Africa.

Steven Sogo

The unscheduled interview of the day happened while I was watching (and occasionally photographing) the Ethiopian singer Zewditu Yohanes from the photographers’ pit in front of the mainstage. The set ended, and this lady who’d been standing next to me and simultaneously shooting the gig on a camera and a smartphone handed me a card as she walked past towards the backstage area. It read, “Princess Emmanuelle: the first Egyptian female rapper.” I wasn’t going to let anyone with such a claim to fame slip away, so I followed her and asked if she’d do a quick interview. Turns out she’d remembered my face from years ago, when she was on the performance poetry circuit and doing gigs with Soul artists such as the Escoffery Sisters. She was here as part of Zewditu’s team, and promised to help me get an interview with her if I was having any trouble. Funnily enough, so much stuff happened during the day, I ended up not being able to interview Zewditu – which was a shame, because she and her band and dancers put on an awesome show. But never mind…

The other act I didn’t see as much of as I should have was Khaira Arby from Mali. The little I did see of her set was amazing, though; another strong woman roaring on behalf of African women.

After interviewing him yesterday, this afternoon I got to see Amkoullel in action twice – performing on stage, and teaching a hip hop workshop. The audience at the workshop was made up mostly of young children who’d clearly taken to heart Amkoullel’s advice to rap about their lives and what was important to them; one little lad came up with the rhyme “Sometimes I wear a hoodie. But I’m not a baddie; I’m a goodie.”

Meeting the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars was definitely the high point of the second day for me. It was like a family reunion – even though we’d never met before! I interviewed two of the band members, Reuben Koroma and Ashade Pearce; between the three of us, we set all Sierra Leone’s problems to rights (as you do!); we discussed music, education, development and a million other issues, and I finally got some concrete answers to a question I’d been burning with since my trip to Freetown two months earlier: why had the All-Stars (easily the biggest band to come out of Sierra Leone in the last 10 or so years) not been a part of the 50th independence anniversary celebrations? (Let’s just say it wasn’t because they hadn’t wanted to take part). I missed their set because I had to catch a train back to London (the train I’m on right now, writing this). But phone numbers and email addresses have been exchanged, so I’ll be updated whenever the guys are in London.

"Me en mi fambul dem," Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars

And that was Africa Oyé 2011: a glorious two days of colour, vibrancy and brilliant artistry. Next year, the festival celebrates its 20th birthday. I can hardly wait…

My Road Trip/Hanging Out With the Women of Hope

All the years I lived in Sierra Leone, I was a spoilt city boy who rarely ventured out of Freetown. We had an uncle who worked as an air traffic controller at Lungi Airport, whose family we visited frequently, and my mum worked at the hospital there for a while, so we would always go and see her. But that was about sum total of my trips “upline” (Sierra Leoneans’ technical term for just about anywhere outside Freetown).

I probably wouldn’t have ventured out of Freetown this time round either, were it not for an email from a friend in the USA. I’ve known Paul Neeley for a few years now; we met initially via World Beat (the world music show I used to present on UCB). Paul emailed me to ask if I’d take some time out of my trip to go and visit the headquarters of Women of Hope International – a charity he’s involved with, based in Makeni.

Sierra Leone is divided into four provinces, although it’s only the northern, southern and eastern ones that are called provinces. The western one (where Freetown is located) is known simply as the ‘Western Area’ – but then it is tiny compared to the other three. Makeni is situated about 110 miles east of Freetown (well, most of Sierra Leone is east of Freetown. It’s that ‘Western Area’ thing). It’s Sierra Leone’s fifth largest city, and the capital of Bombali District in the Northern Province.

My old flatmate was the first to reassure me that the trip was easily doable. “You can do it in a day. It’s just three hours’ drive there and three hours back.” Another friend, Valerie (see next blog post), also egged me on to go when I was wavering. Finally, I emailed Kelsey Martin (Women of Hope’s US Programme Assistant, whom Paul had linked me up with) and said I’d try to come up to Makeni on Wednesday, the only free day I had left. The crucial thing for me was that I had to be there and back in a day. However, the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation only runs one bus there a day – at 6.00am. I could get there, but would have to wait until the following morning before I could come back. I did have an invitation to stay the night at Women of Hope’s guesthouse, so that wasn’t a problem. But nobody could tell me what time the bus back to Freetown was.

I left home just before five on Wednesday morning, and walked to the SLRTC’s bus station. It was still dark, and rather disconcerting to see the streets of Freetown so empty. Still, empty streets meant that this ‘JC’ could walk without being stopped every 10 seconds and asked if he had any £ or $ he wanted to change, so I made the most of it.

Getting a bus proved to be a total fiasco. According to signs posted all over the bus station, a ticket to Makeni costs 13,000 Leones. None of the buses terminate there, so you have to get the Kabala bus and get off at Makeni. Cool – but when I went to buy a ticket, I was told I had to pay the full Kabala fare (27,000 Leones)! Then when I tried to do that, I was told that there were no tickets and the bus was full. All this after waiting over an hour for the thing to arrive!

While waiting for the bus, I’d been talking to a couple of fellow travellers – in particular this one old man with two white plastic buckets in his hand, who was also waiting for the Kabala bus. After failing to get on the bus, I was ready to pack it in and go back home. The old man wasn’t having it. “Don’t worry,” he said encouragingly. “There are loads of vehicles we can get a ride with; we just need to go to Shell. Come on!” So I walked with him, having completely forgotten where “Shell” was! The old man was a brisk walker; before I knew it, we were at the East End Police station, where we hopped onto a poda-poda headed for Wellington.

We got off the poda-poda at the Shell petrol station in Kissy where, true to the old man’s word, minibus drivers were packing in passengers for journeys out to the provinces. I thanked the old man and signalled to the first person I heard calling for passengers to Makeni. A tall guy in a T-shirt came along and ushered me towards the front seat of a gold Chrysler Voyager.

We set off for Makeni at around 7.30am; me in the front seat with a lady and a little toddler on her lap seated between the driver and myself, an assortment of men, women and children in the back, and Beyonce, Rihanna and several random generic ‘urban’ acts repeated endlessly on the Voyager’s auto-reverse cassette player. The journey was smooth for the most part. However, our driver had seen fit to take more passengers than the number he was legally allowed to, and so he was stopped (and subsequently relieved of a few thousand Leones) at every single Police checkpoint we came to. Shortly after we reached Lunsar (the halfway point of the trip), my Comium mobile rang. It was Kelsey, asking if I had decided to come to Makeni. I told her I was on my way, and we arranged for her to collect me when I arrived.

Shortly after 10.00am, we arrived in Makeni. The vehicles that do this trip use the first NP petrol station as their terminal point, but our driver continued past it, further into town. I was looking for a suitable landmark at which to disembark when a white van with the Women of Hope logo drove in the opposite direction and stopped. I got off and took out my mobile to tell Kelsey she’d just driven past me. We had one of those “Hey! I can see you; I’m over here! I’m the one waving!” conversations; she drove up to where I was; I got into the van and she explained that one of their employees had also just arrived from Freetown and she’d come to collect her. Turns out the lady who’d been sitting next to me in the Chrysler Voyager worked for the very people I was going to meet! Her name was Rebecca and she had been in Freetown with her grandchildren for a few days, attending a family wedding. She does general housekeeping at the guest house, and wasted no time getting lunch ready whilst Kelsey told me all about herself and Women of Hope’s work.

Kelsey is originally from Seattle but recently relocated to Memphis (Women of Hope’s base back in the US is in the South). She’s spent quite some time in Sierra Leone getting things off the ground, and says she’s started to think of Makeni as home. Women of Hope was started by a group of American women who had links to Sierra Leone in one form or other, led by Kim Kargbo, a missionary kid who’s now a missionary herself and married to a Sierra Leonean. Kim had set up three NGOs in Sierra Leone prior to Women of Hope; the idea for Women of Hope came about out of the realisation that most of the NGO/charity work catering for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone tended to focus on men.

“Our goal is to support women with disabilities – spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially and economically,” Kelsey says. “We try to do that in the most grassroots way possible.” They had a period of consultation with local women, at which the women said their three biggest needs were shelter, education for their children, and money for food and business.

Women of Hope act more as facilitators, gathering women together and training them in health & sanitation and income generation. They also give women grants to start small businesses, and run support groups for mothers of disabled children. Right at the heart of their work are a team of local women who have been trained as ‘community health evangelists’ – basically social workers who pass on the training they’ve received to others around them.

Some of Women of Hope’s staff have disabilities themselves. Adama Conteh (their Logistics Officer) is blind, and one of Kelsey’s reasons for wanting to be involved in disability-related work stems from the fact that she was born with one arm. “I do this job to show others that disability doesn’t have to stop you getting on in life,” says Fatmata, Programme Assistant and Field Officer, who has walking difficulties.

Field Workers Fatmata (left) and Melvina (right) at work.

After lunch, Kelsey and I went out on the road with Fatmata and Melvina, the two Field Officers, as they visited women in one of the areas the charity covers. For logistics purposes, Women of Hope have split Makeni up into three geographical areas. The area we went to visit today covered Stocco Road and ‘Oslo’ – a residential area for amputees and disabled people, funded by the Norwegian Government.

'The Chief' holds court.

It was evident from the reception Fatmata and Melvina got that the local women appreciate the work Women of Hope do. They took me to meet Fatu (sorry, I mean ‘Mammy Fatu’), the matriarch of a compound just outside Stocco Road. Mammy Fatu is a larger-than-life bundle of laughs who everyone calls ‘the Chief’. As she joked about with Kelsey and I, little children mucked about and Sama (another older lady) sat making gari.

Field trip over, we headed for the office where I met Ruth Kamara, Women of Hope’s Programme Manager. Ruth used to work for another NGO committed to fighting human trafficking (another area Women of Hope is involved in). She decided to join Women of Hope because of its faith-based ethos, being a Christian herself. Also in the office was Adama, the Logistics Officer. I’d been in Freetown over a week and not had the “So why haven’t you found a wife and fathered a tribe of your own yet?” interrogation from some uncle or aunt. That lucky streak ended in Makeni, thanks to Adama…

After a nice dinner back at the guesthouse, Kelsey dropped me off at the NP station to find a ride home. The back seat of the minivan that took me back to Freetown was nowhere near as comfortable as the Chrysler Voyager had been. But not even that could put a damper on what had been a great day out.

The Women of Hope International staff. (L to R): Fatmata, Melvina, Patricia, Adama, Ruth and Kelsey.

Total ‘small ting’ expenditure on trip: Le 15k (actually, make that 5k. I did give the old man 10 grand, but he never asked for anything; I gave it to him because he genuinely helped me and I wanted to thank him).