Reflections of my mining internship in Sierra Leone – The good, the bad, and the frustrations By Ruby B. Johnson

In summer 2013, I spent two months doing an internship at Koidu Limited – Part of Octea Mining in Tankoro Chiefdom, Koidu Town, and Kono District. I am currently a student at Virginia Tech with a major in Mining and Minerals Engineering and a Minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. Sierra Leone is a big reason why I chose the path of mining engineering in my future, and ideally I would love to work in that industry in Sierra Leone in years to come. Besides being a college student, I am also the reigning Miss Sierra Leone USA (2012-2014) under the Miss Sierra Leone in DC organization and my personal platform is advocating for the recruitment and retention of girls and women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.

During my official Homecoming visit to Sierra Leone this past April, I had the opportunity to visit Koidu Limited in Koidu Town, Kono district since I was a mining engineering student and this company has also been a sponsor of the Miss Sierra Leone USA pageant in the past years. I enjoyed the tour I was given, and expressed my interest in doing a summer internship. After my return to the United States, I applied for the summer internship position with Koidu Limited and was offered the position. I was very excited about this opportunity because I saw it as a great way for me to gain experience in my future career, learn about the Sierra Leone mining industry, and also actively promote my platform of STEM and journal my experience there through my blog. Before heading back to Sierra Leone for the internship, I was given a lot of advice on what to and what not to do, as well as the good and bad. However, I do believe one can never be prepared enough or understand situations unless it becomes their lived experience.

Although I am citizen of the United States, I have always identified myself as a Sierra Leonean in the United States. Living in the US for the past 10 years, I have maintained my morals and values as a Sierra Leonean, and take pride in being an African woman. However, I found it interesting that when I was in Sierra Leone, I realized how I was very Americanized and a part of me felt that I am more Sierra Leonean when in the US and not so similar to those living in Sierra Leone. Whenever I was surrounded by the locals, I looked around and saw no difference between us, but they felt otherwise. I recall a co-worker of mine telling me that he always forgets that I am a born-Sierra Leonean and just sees me as an American. Initially, I was bothered by comments such as that, but as time went by I began to embrace my multiple identities.

I have worked in the US as a mining intern before going to Sierra Leone, so I am knowledgeable that the mining industry lacks presence of women doing physical work. So to be a shocking factor to the individuals I worked with in Koidu was not unfamiliar to me. I recall working in the quarry; there were several moments whereby the men took double takes at me with surprise that a woman was down there working with them. Some of the Sierra Leonean men told me how proud they were of me, that their fellow Sierra Leonean was in a position such as mine and that was something rare to see in a sector that high-ranking positions were dominated by expatriates of non-Sierra Leonean origin. Whenever they made comments about how much they loved seeing me (a woman and Sierra Leonean) working and doing hands-on work with them, my usual response was “good, now go tell your sisters and daughters that they should get into mining as well; we need more women in the mining sector.”

Being that I am Miss Sierra Leone USA, I had opportunities to visit communities in Koidu Town and interact with the people, as well as participating in radio interviews. During these interviews, most of the comments were very positive and uplifting, and I was very grateful to know the people saw me as a great role model for the girls, women, and youth of the town. However, one of the moments that shook me up a bit was during my interview on Eastern Radio’s  The Bundle; a caller wanted me to address some issues: the low wages of the local workers at Octea, and the effects of blasting on the town. The mining industry is one that is often victimized by negative criticism and I am very familiar with that in the United States, with individuals stating that it does more harm than good to workers and society. For my two years in mining so far, half of the time I receive praises on how great it is that I am in the industry, and half of the time I am put in situations whereby I have to defend the industry and what we do. So I was not shocked to hear the comments by the caller; however, the aggressive tone of the caller and repeatedly calling the station for the questions to be answered made me feel very uncomfortable. In no way was I trying to avoid those questions, but I had a long list of questions that needed to be answered before those. In the end, I did respond to him but also let him know that as an intern I do not have any control over some of these situations. After my responses, I could tell the caller was not satisfied with my blunt answers and thought I would say something different, but I spoke with utmost conviction as Ruby and not as an Octea robot. A moment like this made me realize that spreading knowledge and having transparency of the mining industry in the community is very important in Koidu town, and in Sierra Leone as a whole. Because people are misled by those that have minimal knowledge on certain issues, and I know I used to be part of that group before becoming enlightened.

During the duration of my internship, something that bothered me a lot was how much some people could only do something for another if they knew they were going to be rewarded. Living in the US and learning the value of giving a tip is something my mother instilled in me from a young age, so I have no qualms with giving someone money in return for gratitude. However, I hated that some people demanded it, and they would only assist you if they knew you were going to get money in return. I am a firm believer in personal responsibility, and that one should work for everything they earn. Some may have thought of it as being greedy, but I saw it as a matter of principles. The idea I had of Sierra Leoneans back home before coming to the United States is that we are very helpful and hospitable people, so after returning ten years later I was very shocked at how different it is. I found situations such as these to be very frustrating. Instances such as this, I was left thinking what may have caused these changes over the past ten years or I had created a fantasy of what Sierra Leoneans are.

I know Sierra Leone has a culture of respect but I found it very weird the ways that people referred to me, such as mommy, sissy, aunty, di mami, etc. Most of the time, I was given these titles when someone wanted money from me. As time went by, I was able to read when being given titles such as this was a compliment or when it was a language for monetary feedback. Something else that came to my observation was that it was very important to be tough in dealing with certain individuals or situations. I subconsciously made this attitudinal change and after returning to the United States, my mother told me that she noticed that I am more aggressive in the way I act and speak. I guess I had to gain a backbone while I was in Sierra Leone, because I realized being tough is necessary in order to make a point.

In conclusion, I am aware that Sierra Leone cannot be what it used to be ten years ago, but with optimism I know that it will not be the same way ten years from now. Some may reference the former civil war as a reason for the attitudinal change in the citizens; however, I choose to put less emphasis on it because I also know that Sierra Leoneans are individuals that rise after unfortunate events and experiences. My wish as a Sierra Leonean woman that proudly represents the green, white, and blue flag wherever I go is to: have a nation that is full of individuals that willingly help and do not seek benefits; have a nation that rewards those that work hard; have a nation that makes it a priority to take control of its natural resources; have a nation that promotes equal education for its boys and girls; have a nation that has respect for all Sierra Leoneans regardless of their level of education; have a nation that is not cynical about the good intentions of individuals that want to make a positive difference; have a nation that makes effort to enlighten communities about the need for its mining industry; and a nation that welcomes rather than discourages its diaspora and listen to how they can contribute to the development of the nation.

By Ruby B. Johnson

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