Building networks between the UK and Sierra Leone
Reflecting on partnership through AKN
by John Oldfield
For the past four years it has been my privilege to be one of the Co-Is on AKN, an ambitious collaborative project that has pushed barriers, not least in the way it has been run and organized. The AHRC’s Network Plus funding model has been hugely effective, empowering local communities and providing local NGOs, charities, citizens groups, filmmakers and artists with an opportunity to shape and direct their own projects, working in co-operation with UK partners. The results have been astonishing, revealing new insights into the dynamics of the transatlantic slave trade, documenting modern slave routes, instigating cultural interventions and bringing to light life stories from across Africa that document in frightening detail the dehumanizing effects of slavery and human trafficking.
My own work on AKN focused on Sierra Leone, where in Phase 1 we set up a number of pilot projects. Working against a background of considerable political unrest, we forged a number of important partnerships, not least with the British Council. Other partnerships proved less durable but at an early stage we were fortunate to make with contact with Lansana Mansaray, or ‘Barmmy Boy’, as he is better known, who runs an arts co-operative in Freetown called ‘We Own TV’. Barmmy delivered a number of films for us, including his sixteen-minute documentary, ‘Seaside and Borderline Communities’, all of them reflecting his sense of what stories needed to be told about the exploitation of young children, whether engaged in fishing, mining or prostitution. Barmmy also introduced us to people like Brima Sheriff, an ex-Human Rights Commissioner in Sierra Leone, who has gone on to make a documentary film for us dealing with the life experiences of survivors of modern slavery.
AKN has given artists like Barmmy an opportunity to shape and direct their own projects, while at the same time enabling them to take advantage of international networks, including film festivals. This work has been immensely empowering but also challenging. Barmmy literally ‘broke’ a vehicle while doing work on ‘Seaside and Borderline Communities’. He also had to manage expectations. Even remote communities in Sierra Leone are not unfamiliar with teams of researchers, usually white and often full of their own sense of what these communities need and how they should ‘develop’, a loaded term that inevitably reflects Anglocentric (and Eurocentric) modes of thinking. The result is a kind of fatigue, a sense of ‘what’s in it for me?’ Suspicious of outsiders, local communities are, understandably, often resistant to sharing their life stories with strangers, however well-meaning they might be, arguing that co-operation of this kind is ‘not likely to change anything’.
Such reactions go beyond the simple questions of compensation. Cultural co-operation, like any kind of co-operation, depends on reciprocity and trust. Relationships have to be nurtured; local traditions respected and observed. There also has to be some kind of exit strategy, as well as a sense of how the research will be exploited (for want of a better term) and disseminated. Building trust is all the more important because so often vested interests are at stake here, which sometimes carry with them the threat of violence and/or political risks. For this same reason, partners and participants can sometimes withdraw with very little notice, or suddenly find themselves ousted by changes in local and national government, particularly if they qualify as civil servants, as happened to us in one case in Sierra Leone.
AKN has given all of these issues a greater sense of urgency, emphasizing the importance of safeguarding, both in terms of policy and practice. If we have helped to empower people, we have also been made painfully aware of our responsibilities towards those who have been traumatized by their experiences or who face the likelihood of exclusion and stigmatization. AKN has also shown in startling clarity just how important the arts and humanities are in effecting social and cultural change, helping to build resilience in communities threatened by exploitation and criminality. As we have discovered, even discussing some of these issues for the first time, openly and without the fear of being shouted down, has been immensely liberating for those communities that so often live on the edge, threatened by forces over which they have little or no control, some of them local, others (Chinese fishing fleets in the case of the seaside communities that Barmmy studied, for instance) external.
In so many ways, AKN has set new agendas and created important networks across Africa and between Africa and Europe. Sitting in a conference room in Nairobi in February 2020, listening to our local project teams talking about their research and the challenges they had faced and overcome, I was reminded how powerful and far-reaching such networks could be, particularly at a moment when international aid is under threat and we live in a climate of fear, bolstered by populist leaders who demand that we must protect our borders at all costs.
AKN has deliberately set itself against this agenda, stressing instead the value of inter-cultural dialogue, co-operation and, above all, active listening. To say that I have learned a lot on this project would be an understatement. The challenge now is to ensure that our legacy survives and that the working methods we have trialed and tested, not least in terms of empowering local communities and recognizing the transformative power and influence of the arts and humanities, help to shape the future direction of UK policy in its relations with ODA-compliant countries in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.