By Abubakarr Talib Jalloh
Forgive me, dear Afsatu
My heart is heavy. I am weighed by my mother’s sickness; she has been hospitalized and I have been wondering if she would ever recover. My mother, in her late 70s, fell ill on May 25, the same day a policeman in Minneapolis nailed his knees for 8 agonizing minutes on a George Floyd. Deaf to George’s plea and unmoved by the agitating crowd, the police officer plugged life out of George. The policeman is white, George is black. The incident reloads the grim racial inequalities in America. Blacks or African Americans have been under the yoke of socio-economic injustice for decades and police brutality forms a part of it.
Afsatu, you are born in America three years ago and I know that all you care about today is your favourite meal- Mac and Chess and the Pepper Pig show. Your elder sister, Zainab, was among the earlier displayers of the racial remonstration statement “Black Lives Matter”. Ten-year-old Zainab’s WhatsApp profile in support of the black protestation meant that she was ready to have a conversation on racial inequality. It was an easier tête-à-tête we had; at 8, she had experienced latent forms of racial discrimination in school- one of New Jersey’s private schools. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, Zainab would prefer virtual classes to attending class physically in school- a pointer to her earlier interpretation of the deficiency in racial evenness.
Her first racial unevenness story: Zainab was threatened with rustication from school because a white American complained that she (Zainab) was ‘bossy’. The summary is this: while in class, Zainab’s pen fell to the floor next to her white American classmate. Zainab requested the classmate to kindly pick up and return the pen to her. The request was not granted. During break, Zainab would not play with the kid who as a result reported Zainab of passing ‘instructions’ to her while they were in class. Hence, the head mistress’ threat to expel Zainab.
Of course, I stood by Zainab and the issue was buried. The incident provided an opportunity for a parental dialogue with Zainab on racial dynamics. The history of America has taught the black American parents to prepare their kids to confront racial discrimination at their tender age. Dear black American parents don’t allow your child to grow up as a wallpaper to be silent when confronted with any form of inequality. Talk to them about racial roughness they might face as they grow up but emphasis that not all white Americans are racial.
It won’t be long before you come face-to-face with such realities dear Afsatu, and I can imagine you wondering; “Daddy, why did you choose America as my country of birth?”
Your granny, Haja Zainab’s experience will give you a clue. My mama is struggling to breathe and is on oxygen support as I post to you this card. The Kabala Government hospital is breathless as a result of neglect- no electricity (my family’s generator is supporting the hospital) and no modern medical equipment. The medical staff are under-paid and lack personal protective gears. This stanza is the same for the entire country for the past several years.
Ebola, which ravaged the country recently, is an offspring of the polygamous marriage between disease and chronic poverty, economic inequality and social injustice. The sad tale of socio-economic inequality and neglect has been the bane of the country’s stunted under-development since independence.
The paradox: a potentially rich country is practically poor. Sierra Leone possesses gigantic natural resources; diamond, gold, bauxite, iron ore, rutile, vast fertile farmland, extensive timber reserves and plenty of rainfall. Freetown City is bounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean, yet it is the only city where citizens queue for portable water and where unhygienically processed water is sold on plastic/ nylon bags tied with bare hands. Financial mismanagement and graft are the norms; honesty and transparency are exceptions among government officials -past and present.
As if economic inequality is not enough, political violence and intimacy are rife. Police brutality is rampant, and I am not aware of any policeman who has been held accountable for abuse of human rights. Let’s browse the pages of our recent history on police maltreatments of innocent citizens. Students of Limkokwing University protested in Freetown 2019. The students behaved perfectly normal and peaceful, but the police violently dispersed the students, beat them up with gun butts and kicked many like dogs. Some were grabbed and choked in cells for days.
August 16, 2018 in Kabala (my beautiful mountainous town) youths mounted a peaceful protest over government plans to move the construction of a planned ‘youth village’ from the district to another. Even though the youths sought permission for the protest, the police brutalized them, and a couple were shot. A 17-year old secondary school boy, who was innocently attending an errand to buy “something” for his mother was shot dead. The boy could not write his external examinations; hope was scratched of his family and the country was denied of the contributions from a bright son of the soil.
Incidents of these nature are many and, sadly, we do not see the lives of those brutalized and killed in Sierra Leone as Lives that Matter. I feel the weight of prejudice against my fellow blacks in America but the heft of inequality and inattention among my fellow Sierra Leoneans is heavier.
Malcolm X prophesized that there will come a time that ‘a black man will think like a black man and will feel for other black people.’ At that time, X continued, an attack on one black man will be an attack on all black men. Maybe, just maybe, this is what’s unfolding in America as epitomized by the nationwide protest following the killing of George Floyd.
Afsatu, I know you will in time (when you attain the intellectual capacity to understand the issues) join the fight for racial equality in the US.
You may not feel the need to stand-up for innocent Sierra Leoneans brutalized daily and you may not even get to meet your granny and hear her stories of gender inequality but if as you read this postcard and, perhaps research a bit more on violence, tribalism and regionalism in Salone, you may find it in your heart to forgive me for plugging you into a crisis of identity. And that’s the story of the black man in America- searching for identity; rooted from Africa but denied his/ her inalienable rights in America, where for more than 400 years s/he continues to help make America great.
Prayers for you, your siblings and your mum to survive the coronavirus and racial plagues in the US.
Stressfully happy dad,
Abubakarr Talib Jalloh