When I met Ibrahini Sorio Jalloh in Freetown, Sierra Leone, he was unpacking second-hand clothing from a huge hessian bag and setting up his stall in Kabiya Lots Market, a five-minute walk from the iconic Cotton Tree in the city center.
“I live with fifteen people in my house. That’s why I sell ‘junks’,” says the 22-year-old Jalloh. “I don’t have a job, so I come here. Without me, at home there is no money.”
Jalloh is one of thousands of young men in Freetown struggling to earn an income. Severe levels of unemployment and underemployment are visibly present across Freetown which, in line with the general trend across Africa, is urbanizing quickly. Young people sell low value goods in the informal market in an attempt to eke out an income.
Because the Kabiya Lots Market is set up outside, traders lose a lot of income during the (extremely wet) rainy season between June and September. ‘”When it rains we lose business,” says Jalloh. “When it’s Ramadhan people spend money on food, not clothes. Now it is rainy season and Ramadhan.”
In Sierra Leone it is important to understand the complexities associated with the development of young men like Jalloh. The country is slowly recovering from a civil war, which ended in 2002 but lasted over ten years and crippled Sierra Leone’s economic development. The conflict is largely known for the ways in which young people, especially young men, perpetrated the atrocities associated with it. The marginalization of young people in the build up to the civil war is one of the prominent reasons given for the onset of the prolonged violence in Sierra Leone.
However, as Marc Sommers points out, the vast majority of young men within populations that experience conflict do not get involved in the violence themselves. Despite this, young men are often associated with political instability and violence; their very presence in cities is thought to be an ominous one.
Since Africa has such a huge proportion of young people, inclusive economic and social policies are essential for stability and development in general. Furthermore, by recognizing that most young men are not perpetrators of violence and crime, we can move away from characterizing them, on the whole, as such.
In Sierra Leone, the government is trying to stimulate employment opportunities for youth, defined as those between 15 and 35 years old. But gains have been minimal. The establishment of the Youth Commission in 2011 has led to the inception of several small-scale projects aimed at empowering the youth. In addition to this, President Ernest Koroma has been vocal in acknowledging the importance of the country’s young people, as seen in the theme of the 2014 budget: “Improving the Livelihood of Youth, Women and our Workforce.”
The advent of development programmes such as the Youth Employment Support Project, funded by the World Bank, aims at improving the skills of young people by allowing them to work as electricians, plumbers and mechanics. Another project that is planned in the future is the $30 million ‘youth village’ which will be designed to serve as a center to empower young people with the opportunity to improve their employability skills.
Despite these initiatives, the regional coordinator of the youth commission, Victor Fornah bemoans the lack of funding made available for youth development. “These are small changes. Maybe 200 to 300 people can benefit per project. We have good, effective programmes that exist but they can only touch a tiny proportion of the young population,” he says.
Alphonso Manley, the youth representative on the Youth Commission board, argues that the “intervention by the youth commission has been minimal.” Manley emphasizes his point by stating that because Sierra Leone is so dependent on organizations such as the World Bank and UNDP for funding the government gets dictated to about which programmes to implement and how to do so.
Unaffected by small-scale youth development programmes, many young people have to improvise, sometimes illegally so.
Selling plastic ‘Rail Master’ train sets on the side of Siaka Stevens Street in downtown Freetown, Abu Bakar Kamara is a 19-year-old student in his final year of secondary school. “I am selling these trains to make something small to save money for university. I am lucky because my parents pay for my food. All the money I make I can save.”
Kamara sits about 10m away from a sign that reads ‘Freetown City Council; No Trading’.
“Life is tough,” he says. “Every day the city council comes to try arrest all the street traders on this street. I pick up my goods (4 or 5 small train sets) and run. If they catch me they confiscate my goods and I pay a fine. If I don’t sell here, where will I make money?”
Kamara and Jalloh represent a disjuncture between the promises made for youth empowerment by policy makers, and the struggles of young people in the capital city. They emblematize the young man in Freetown who is not, nor has ever been, a perpetrator of violence.
Sierra Leone has a large youth population: up to 75% of the country’s population is under 35 years old, according to the National Youth Programme of Sierra Leone. With this number predicted to grow, larger-scale policies are needed that encourage youth employment and skills development. Not only is this important for the stability and continued peace within the country, but it will address the foundation of Sierra Leone’s future socioeconomic development.
Rather than seeing Freetown’s growing population of young men as potential perpetrators of violence and instability in Freetown, scholars and policy makers should identify ways to include them in economic growth. Jalloh and Kamara are a symbol of many other young men attempting to earn an income in Freetown. Associating them with the violence of the past and potential perpetrators of current instability may undermine their potential to be key drivers of the country’s development in the future.
Brandon Finn has just returned from two and a half weeks in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He spent this time researching young men in the capital city with a focus on studying the mechanisms they use to earn an income, and the predominant hindrances that prevent them from doing so. In this post-conflict city, he found young men bearing the responsibilities of being the primary breadwinners for their families. Follow Brandon on twitter.
Main image: Hassan Bangura (23) stands in front of his stall in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he sells ‘junks’.