IT WOULD be an understatement to say that the past six decades have been tumultuous for Sierra Leone: political unrest, civil war, an Ebola-virus epidemic, and various natural disasters have all been packed into this period.
But today in the country’s capital, Freetown, there is a sense among many of the people that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Much of this is thanks to the city’s Mayor, Yvonne Denise Aki-Sawyerr. In February, Time magazine named her one of its “Next 100 most influential people”, and included a glowing tribute from the Hollywood A-lister and fellow Sierra Leonean Idris Elba, who praised her for her “young energy, genuine dynamism, and can-do spirit”.
In the 1990s, she was part of a group of Christians from Sierra Leone living in London — as was I — and meeting in the crypt of St Mark’s, Kennington, to pray for the country, then in the grip of a horrible civil war. The founder of that group, Modupe Williams, heads the urban planning sector within the Mayor’s Delivery Unit.
For Ms Aki-Sawyerr, faith and life are intrinsically linked. “I’ve always had a burden, which I believe is from God, to help the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised,” she says. “My reason for going into politics was very much about being in a position to make a difference.”
It feels natural that she should now be running Freetown, after her work on the response to the country’s Ebola-virus outbreak, for which she was awarded a medal by the country’s then President, Ernest Bai Koroma, in 2015, and an OBE by the Queen in 2016.
It’s timely, too, given the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. How has Sierra Leone’s Ebola-virus experience helped it to deal with Covid-19?
“When we started seeing Covid-19 on the news,” she explains, “even before the World Health Organization declared an emergency, or we had our first case in Sierra Leone, I called an emergency meeting of my team here at the city council, because Ebola was just so fresh in my mind. I knew that being prepared was going to be key.
“One guiding principle that came from our Ebola experience was community ownership: making sure that people understood and owned the message. The only way you can end a pandemic or an epidemic is through the people.
“Of course, you have to trace and isolate to contain it and break the chain of transmission. But, ultimately, that’s only done through people and their engagement. My biggest lessons from Ebola, coming to Covid-19, were community ownership and getting in there on the planning early. And that’s what we’ve done.
“Our experience has been so different to what’s going on in the UK, with the numbers of deaths. We’ve registered less than 80 deaths since the outbreak started a year ago. Even at its peak, I don’t think we’ve ever surpassed more than 42 cases in a day.
“I think there’s something about this from a scientific perspective that we don’t understand. We do have challenges we have still to address. We were giving out face masks for free by May; we gave 140,000 masks. We were helping communities access water, so that they could have more opportunities for hand-washing.
“But I do think there’s something about the way the virus is behaving here. I guess science will tell us at some point, if the right studies are done. I don’t know if having Ebola go through our cities and our communities has anything to do with it. I’m not a scientist — and there’s a lot of research we would need to be done to answer these questions. But those are the lessons that I would highlight.”
WHEN the Ebola epidemic ended, Ms Aki-Sawyerr was asked to lead the team given the task of rebuilding the Sierra Leonean economy. “I got to see more clearly the terrible state of sanitation and waste management in Freetown, and also the environmental degradation,” she says. “These two things really impact people’s lives — and the life of the city itself. I was so troubled by them that I felt I needed to do something. And the only way one could actually make a difference was by being the Mayor. . .
“I’d worked on sanitation, and in my role as head of the delivery team I saw the gaps and I developed a passion to fix them.”
“On 23 May 2017, after a lot of prayer, I had a conversation with someone. By 4 June, I had gone from never having ever thought about being Mayor to deciding to run.”
She joined the then ruling All People’s Congress (APC) Party, winning the party nomination against diehards who had been members for decades. In the election itself, she was the only female candidate, running against seven men. She won with a 27-per-cent margin. “Everything we’ve been able to achieve has been miraculous,” she says. “The miracles we experience on a daily basis are just amazing.”
BORN in 1968, Ms Aki-Sawyerr attended St Joseph’s, a Roman Catholic girls’ secondary school in Freetown, where she was head girl. She went on to read economics at Fourah Bay College, West Africa’s oldest university, graduating with honours in 1988.
In the same year, she became the first African to sit on AIESEC’s international-exchange committee in Brussels. She earned a Master’s degree in international relations and the politics of the world economy at the LSE. In 1993, she received her certification from the Institute of Charted Accountants in England and Wales.
Her involvement in Sierra Leone’s social issues began with the launch of the Sierra Leone War Trust (SLWT) in response to the devastation that Freetown experienced when rebel forces entered the city on 6 January 1999.
The war had already been raging for eight years at this point, causing untold suffering in other parts of the country. But that date, when 3000 people died in the nation’s capital, is burnt into the Sierra Leonean psyche.
“Everybody I know had some horrific loss on that day,” Ms Aki-Sawyerr says. “My parents, thankfully, weren’t in the country, but my husband’s aunt was burnt alive. I was working at the accountancy firm Arthur Andersen & Co., on the Strand, and watched it on TV in the office. After work, I called a friend and said: ‘We have got to do something.’”
Three months later, SLWT was a registered charity with funding from Comic Relief. Its annual 5k fun runs in Battersea Park became a focal point for Sierra Leonean Londoners. SLWT worked initially with women and their children in refugee camps.
When the war was declared over, it went on to work with former child soldiers, and to provide scholarships to disadvantaged girls. “After Ebola, SLWT began to support Ebola orphans,” Ms Aki-Sawyerr says. “Then, after the 2017 mudslides, we took on board some of the mudslide victims.
“We’re still caring for that community of children, but we’ve now gone into a partnership with an organisation called Focus 1000. It’s been 21 years since SLWT began, and most of our trustees now find themselves pulled in other directions — especially me, with this job.
“So we were really grateful to be able to hand over the management of the organisation to Focus 1000, who are doing a great job.”
She also has ambitious plans to create 4000 jobs. To date, the programme has created about 2500. “I would love for us to not just meet that target but exceed it,” she says. “We set out 19 targets, and I know we’re not going to hit all of them, but I’d like to see us get as close as possible. I trust and pray that the overall cumulative impact will be transformational. It feels that way already.
“One major thing that is missing is that we have a mandate — but we have not been given the responsibility. In theory, we’re responsible for land use, planning, and building-permit issuance in the city. But, in practice, it’s done by the Ministry of Lands, and that has devastating consequences for our ability to manage the urban space.
“This is one thing that I’m really praying will be fixed before the end of my term, because you can’t talk about transformation if you can’t manage the space. If anybody can build anything anywhere, that’s the beginning of all the wrongs. So that’s something I’d really love to see happen.
“And for that to happen, we need the government to make good its promise to effect decentralisation and devolution fully, and let functions come to the cities, including ours.”
It’s apparent that Ms Aki-Sawyerr will not leave the work unfinished. “I’m intending to run for a second term, so that we can complete those targets that we haven’t met yet — and, hopefully, do more.”