Another Calamity in Sierra Leone

Just when fellow Sierra Leoneans, sympathizers, and I thought our country had suffered enough in a brutal civil war that had lasted for more than ten years and the fatal Ebola virus epidemic that had terrified our people for about 18 months, another calamity befell our country on August 14, 2017, in the form of devastating floods and mudslides.

Flood victims in Cline Town line up for free meals. Tzu Chi volunteers and staff from the Lanyi Foundation urged people to use bowls and spoons instead of their fingers to eat so as to improve hygiene and lessen the risk of contamination.


A girl waits in line for free breakfast provided by Tzu Chi at the Old Skool camp at Hill Station for mudslide victims.

Although floods affect thousands of people every rainy season, especially those in disaster-prone areas such as wetlands and slums, the magnitude of this year’s disaster, precipitated by a rainy season with triple the average rainfall, was unprecedented and by far more deadly and costly in property damage than ever before.

Three days of torrential rains caused flooding that damaged properties across Sierra Leone. The Western Area District suffered most, especially the areas of Regent, Cline Town, and Lumley. The most severely affected of these areas was Regent, where a mountainside collapsed and caused a large mudslide that destroyed homes and buried people alive.

Regent is situated in a naturally beautiful, mountainous setting that has been changing from a village to a highly gentrified town. It is home to diverse groups of people from all walks of life and economic classes, including me. When I moved back to my country as a Tzu Chi volunteer, I chose this area as my home because of the serenity of the mountains, the quietness of the area, and the beauty of the topography. It is impossible to be in Regent and not admire the beauty of Mother Earth. So one can argue that the rapid population increase in this area is due to the quality of life its geography provides for the people who live there.

However, when people fail to take care of Mother Earth as she takes care of us, her beautiful face can shed tears that cause sorrow and death. Such was the case in Regent on August 14. Because of destructive human activities in the area—deforestation, building of homes in disaster-prone areas, blocking water pathways, and other behaviors that aggravate Mother Earth—a foothill of beautiful Sugar Loaf Mountain collapsed during heavy rains on August 14, 2017. Gigantic rocks rolled down the hill in a massive mudslide that collapsed or buried houses and killed at least a thousand people. The unfortunate incident began around 5:45 a.m., when many of the residents were still asleep. Rescuers recovered more than 400 bodies, while about 600 people are still missing. A large area at the bottom of the collapsed mountain is feared to be a gravesite, where hundreds of people, including women and children, were buried alive. 

Volunteers from the United States survey a mudslide site in Regent, Freetown. Freetown is situated between the ocean on one side and hills on the other. Forests there have been heavily harvested, making the hills susceptible to mudslides. With no sewage system, the city is vulnerable to floods, too.

This was yet another tragedy that brought confusion, chaos, and tears to Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad. The aftermath of the disaster included not only damaged homes and lost lives, but also lost hope and broken hearts. The atmosphere was very depressing; children cried for their parents and siblings, mothers sobbed for their children, spouses wept for their partners, and communities mourned in confusion and panic for their dead and lost neighbors. The tears of the people were visible even as they stood in the heavy rain. Some sad and painful stories include the deaths of sleeping families or of family members who could not make it out of their homes in time. Survivors watched as their families were swept away by flash floods, crushed by heavy rocks, and buried in mud. Some bodies were found dismembered. Voices of people crying for help from under the mud and debris could be heard. 

As the nation mourned the dead, volunteers joined government emergency responders in digging to save lives and recover corpses. Burial teams placed recovered corpses at the Connaught Hospital mortuary. (The Tzu Chi Foundation donated a lot of medical supplies, beds, and blankets to Connaught Hospital in 2015 and 2016.) The number of corpses overwhelmed the limited capacity of the mortuary. The government quickly decided to bury the dead in mass graves because the 400 bodies at the mortuary were decomposing. The government and social groups conducted a mass burial at Waterloo, a town about 31 kilometers from Connaught Hospital. Religious groups conducted burial ceremonies, including prayers for the departed, before lowering their corpses into the ground. Many of the people who attended the event cried uncontrollably, especially those who had lost loved ones. 

After providing hot food at the Old Skool camp, Tzu Chi volunteers entertain the children.

My small, poor country, already stretched beyond its ability to address the many needs of its people, is facing new challenges—shortages of food, clean drinking water, medical care, clothes, shoes, and housing—brought about by the mudslides and flooding. Even though one could make the case that the government is responsible for providing for the needs of those affected, the reality in Sierra Leone is far different. The government has extremely limited resources, so it must beg the support of nonprofit organizations, private sector initiatives, and individuals to help address the needs of the affected communities and persons. Many different groups and individuals have responded to the call for help. The response of the nonprofit sector has been and continues to be the most beneficial to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other victims. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation was one of the first humanitarian organizations that responded to their needs. 

On that same morning of the mudslides and flooding, local Tzu Chi volunteers joined our local partners—Caritas Freetown, the Healey International Relief Foundation (HIRF), and the Lanyi Foundation—and visited Regent and Lumley. They provided assistance to rescuers and volunteers, and they assessed the situation and submitted reports with recommendations for providing relief. On the second day the Tzu Chi volunteers and local partners also visited other affected communities, including Culvert in Cline Town, where heavy flooding had directly affected thousands of people. Tzu Chi teamed up with its local partners to cook and serve hot meals for affected persons, especially women and children, to alleviate hunger and prevent starvation. Tzu Chi provided delicious rice donated by the Taiwanese government for all the feeding programs, while HIRF and Caritas Freetown provided funding for local vegetables and sauce.

Tzu Chi volunteer Debra Bourdeaux consoles mudslide victims in Regent.

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation collaborated with Caritas Freetown and HIRF to feed survivors in Regent, Culvert, and Old Skool. Tzu Chi also collaborated with the Lanyi Foundation to feed survivors at Lumley and Regent. The Old Skool relocation camp at Hill Station in Freetown is one of two temporary shelters where survivors relocate before moving back into their communities. The Tzu Chi partnership served 35,261 meals in Culvert, 5,785 meals in Regent, and 11,226 meals in Lumley in two weeks as part of their emergency response efforts. As of the end of September, they had also served more than 11,500 meals to survivors who had relocated to the Old Skool camp.

The swift intervention by Tzu Chi and its local partners did not include just these hot meal programs. Tzu Chi volunteers from countries including the United States and Taiwan visited Sierra Leone from September 16 to September 26 and distributed additional relief items, including blankets, rice bowls, and spoons. They also cooked and served food to survivors in three affected communities: the Old Skool relocation camp, Culvert, and the Juba relocation camp. Volunteers visited Sugar Loaf Mountain, assessed the damage, and interacted with survivors in the community. The team also visited and provided donations to unofficial IDP shelters in Regent, the St. George Foundation Orphanage, the Polio Community in Grafton, Don Bosco Fambul, the Ro-Saleneh Orphanage, and the Rogbere School of Excellence.


The provision of hot food after a disaster helps keep children fed.

Furthermore, Tzu Chi volunteers visited Connaught Hospital and 34 Military Hospital and assessed the possibilities of adopting wards in those hospitals to boost the Sierra Leone healthcare sector. Tzu Chi also discussed with 34 Military Hospital Surgeon-General Dr. Foday Sahr partnership possibilities for research development and capacity building. Moreover, volunteers attended a “World Peace” service at St. Edward’s Catholic Church, where Father Peter Konteh, executive director of Caritas Freetown, preached and Tzu Chi volunteer Debra Bourdeaux shared Master Cheng Yen’s message of cultivating hearts and purifying minds to change from negative behaviors to positive, so we can reduce future disasters in Sierra Leone. At the Freetown Catholic Archdiocese memorial service for those who died during the August 14 disaster, Tzu Chi volunteers participated and explained Master Cheng Yen’s vision of advancing humanity through selfless undertakings and behavioral cultivation, which can reduce negative karma in Sierra Leone and the world at large.

As usual, the people of Sierra Leone, especially those who benefited directly from Tzu Chi relief support, thanked the volunteers who had left their homes and families in Taiwan, the United States, France, and Spain to cook and serve them food and donate relief items. Survivors were grateful to see so much commitment, support, and love from Tzu Chi and Master Cheng Yen. The Tzu Chi love shown to survivors included feeding the hungry, playing with and teaching children, giving psychosocial counseling, cleaning living areas, providing compassion to restore hope, and praying for the serenity of the earth.


Old Skool Camp, Sierra Leone

By Derek Hsieh

Photos by Hsiao Yiu-hwa

Derek Hsieh (謝公達), who works in the mental health field, went on a Tzu Chi relief mission to Sierra Leone in September 2017, after the country was hit by heavy rains and mudslides. Here he gives an account of his experience there.

After serving meals at the Old Skool camp, Derek Hsieh plays with children there.

After serving breakfast to survivors of the August 14 floods and mudslide, I went for a walk around the Old Skool camp in Freetown. I saw Sister Debra Boudreaux and a group of people talking to Franake, 21, who was limping and barely able to stand in one position as Sister Debra asked him questions. He was visibly in pain, so we helped him to slowly sit down on the ground. Since he only spoke a local dialect, we communicated with him through a translator. Debra and I learned that he had a lot of pain throughout his body, including pains in his neck, throat, chest, rib cage, and legs as a result of having been buried in a mudslide for 18 hours. His entire body, except his face, had been covered with bricks and mud, and floodwater would wash over his face from time to time. He had lost 11 family members in the mudslide, and he was the sole survivor of that entire block of his neighborhood, as over 1,500 people died in this mudslide. He told us he couldn’t eat any solid food because it caused pain around his rib cage as the food was digested in his stomach. He was in the hospital for ten days and was discharged because he didn’t want to stay there. Concerned about his medical needs, with the help of another man I walked him over slowly to the medical clinic at the camp.

There was a team of volunteer medical doctors from France stationed there. One doctor listened to Franake’s complaints, examined some of the locations of pain, and seemed a bit puzzled. The doctor shared with me that he had looked at his X-ray a few days before, and he had seen no fractures and no disc dislocation in his rib cage, contrary to what Franake claimed the hospital staff had said. The doctor also noted that Franake jumped at a gentle touch around his neck and complained of sensitive pain, yet when the location was pressed more strongly he seemed to be okay. He could raise both arms on his own. On another day this doctor saw Franake chew a bowl of rice contrary to his report that he could only consume liquid food. A number of these signs suggested the possibility that his physical complaints could be psychosomatic in nature. With that information, I led Franake to a quiet space and talked to him through a translator.

At the Old Skool medical clinic, Hsieh listens intently as a French doctor describes the condition of Franake, a mudslide survivor.

My interaction with Franake included four steps, roughly in this order: I asked him to tell me (1) what and how it happened the day of the mudslide, (2) what was going through his mind at that time, and (3) how he felt at the time. Then (4) I provided psycho-education about some of the common traumatic stress reactions which he was experiencing, such as difficulty sleeping, anxiety and distress at reminders of the traumatic incident, startle response, tiredness, feelings of sadness and fear, etc. I suggested to him that sometimes the physical pain people experience could actually stem from pain in the mind: When one has experienced so much trauma, intense fear, and pain, it’s as if the body remembers the pain of that time, and any distress in the mind such as anxious thoughts or reminders of the traumatic event can trigger the body to feel physical pain at the present time. I further told him that the doctor at the camp medical clinic had examined his X-rays and found no fractures or disc dislocations. I told him that sometimes the mind healed and got better with time, and that through talking about his experience with someone such as the camp counselor, the physical pain may also go away. He listened intently and seemed relieved to hear this information. I then demonstrated abdominal breathing, guiding him to practice noticing the rise and fall of his stomach with each in-breath and out-breath. I suggested that he practice this whenever he had free time throughout the day, especially when he lay down. I explained to him that even if he could not fall asleep, this practice could help relax his body and give his mind some rest from thoughts of the past or future.

As we walked out together to his tent, his translator, Dubble, told me about his own trauma of losing family members in the mudslide. He said he thought that the abdominal breathing that I had taught Franake would be helpful to him as well. I explained to him that when we do something to allow the body to relax and the mind to rest, when we take care of our body, the mind gets better too, and we can think more clearly about what we can do in this moment to make our lives, and the lives of others, better. It can be a very small step, but sometimes just climbing up a little higher on a rock or a hill, we can see more. When we engage actively in something that is positive and helpful to ourselves or people around us, the mind is engaged in that activity and thus gets a break from all the traumatic memories as well as anxieties about the future.

Dubble was very receptive to this message, and he seemed to really understand the concept. We talked about what might be one positive thing he could do now while in the camp. He said he could teach reading to children. He could find other young men who also had a college education to join him if we could help obtain textbooks and notebooks for the kids there. He agreed to make a list of kids in the camp, their grade levels, and what books they needed by the next day. By that same evening, he had already visited most of the tents at the camp and identified 130 youngsters by name and grade level. I took him to present the list to Sister Debra, and she immediately agreed that we would work with our local partners to purchase books, notebooks, and pens so these children could engage in some learning while waiting for the local school to reopen. This was a wonderful example of how engaging in a positive activity to help others can be very helpful to one’s own psychological well-being by creating hope and a positive energy in one’s life.

Later that afternoon, Franake came to me. He held my hand and walked with me around the camp. I noticed he seemed to be walking without difficulty, so we walked out of the camp and quite a ways down the street. I shared with him some basic tips about walking meditation, and we stopped to feel the texture of a tree trunk and enjoy the breeze on the skin. I also asked him to pay attention to the sensation of the sole of his foot touching the ground as he walked. He really seemed to enjoy this practice, and it brought a big smile to his face as we walked together hand in hand.

Father Jorge Crisafulli, sdb (right), director of Don Bosco Fambul, a shelter for abused children and youth, has served in Africa for more than two decades.

The most inspiring and moving part of the trip for me was our visit to Don Bosco Fambul, a non-profit organization in Freetown, and seeing the good work they are doing there. They provide short-term shelter for over 400 abused children and youth and help reunite them with relatives. Their volunteers operate their 24/7 hotline (323) for help, and get these physically or sexually abused young people needed medical care and forensic evidence gathering.

Father Jorge Crisafulli, sdb, director of Don Bosco Fambul, told me that the vast majority of sexual assaults in Sierra Leone go unreported. For the 14,000 cases of sexual assault of girls under 14 actually reported to the legal authorities each year, only two policemen in the whole country are tasked to do the forensic evidence collection. Due to the long backlog they often do not collect evidence in time, or they accept bribes, so perpetrators are rarely ever prosecuted. For this reason Don Bosco has their own attorney to prosecute the perpetrators, and they have successfully put many of them in jail. They also rescue young street children involved in prostitution. Seventy-six percent of street kids have lost some family members to Ebola, and 24 percent are orphans of the disease. Although the government tries to reunite them with surviving relatives, it provides no follow-up support. Young girls often end up working prostitution to make money for school tuition for themselves and their siblings. Father Jorge also told me police there arrest any youth walking on the street at night for “loitering” and lock them up for two years for that offense. These children are often physically and sexually abused in prison. Father Jorge and his staff visit them at the prison every day to bring them hot meals and try to bail them out. Don Bosco social workers also visit the villages where many young girls are forced to engage in prostitution in order to feed their families. They bring rice to “homes” (brothels) to persuade girls there to give up that livelihood. They convince them they can have food to eat if they are willing to come to Don Bosco Fambul, where they can get support to go to school or learn a vocational skill so they don’t have to stay in that line of work. At the old, rundown Don Bosco Fambul building, where many large tents had been set up for flood victims and the constant influx of abused youth, it was clear to me that in the darkest and loneliest corners of the world, there’s also light, strength, love, and hope, and people who tirelessly help these young victims. Father Jorge also trains young people who have gone through trauma and abuse to become peer counselors or outreach workers so they can help other kids who are going through what they went through. I am so glad Tzu Chi is supporting organizations like Don Bosco Fambul, which shines a clear and sustained light in a dark corner of the world.

This trip to Sierra Leone was amazing. The people there have very difficult lives, but they are friendly, grateful, and eager to help themselves. They are hungry for any kind of vocational skill training or tools or micro-financing to develop their own livelihoods. The children there are beautiful and incredible. Even at a very young age, they help take care of their younger siblings, and they are grateful for our help. Just a kind smile and willingness to hold their hand evoke sheer excitement and joy, and they rush over to hold your hand or hug you. I have never seen so many kids so joyful—and ironically in the poorest of places.

Derek Hsieh was born in Taiwan and went to the U.S. at age 14. He received a B.A. in psychology from UC Irvine, a Master of Social Welfare from UC Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from UCLA. For many years he managed the Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, aiding individuals at risk for suicide or homicide, responding to disaster incidents, and assisting law enforcement agencies with hostage negotiations. He is an authorized trainer for the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Currently he is the Clinical Program Head of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Long Beach Asian Pacific Islander Family Mental Health Center. 

November 2017