When the words “Thank you!” seem inadequate
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Sometimes the words, “Thank you!” seem inadequate. This is one such time. When I sent my WhatsApp message on the evening of 16th August 2017 asking for your help regarding the Sierra Leonean mudslide disaster, nothing could have prepared me for your overwhelming response of generosity. It brought new meaning to the words “being your neighbour’s keeper”. Please accept my deepest gratitude for all you did for me and my people during that most difficult of time.
So much has happened since the day the appeal was launched. My sincerest apologies for not having come back earlier with a full account. Let’s just say that the journey embarked upon took far longer to complete than anyone could have possibly envisaged, with numerous twists and curves and bumps along the way. The good thing is that we eventually arrived.
I first drafted this thank you note in February 2018. Little did I know that it would take another two and a half years to finally be able to share the full story. Africa, my Africa!
Let me take you back to the beginning….. On the 14th of August 2017 mudslides occurred in Sierra Leone that resulted in the loss of over 1,100 lives and the displacement of more than 3,000 people. I led the launch of a humanitarian appeal, here in Nigeria, two days later which saw tremendous support from you, together with the most moving show of care and compassion. I was working together with my older brother, Oluniyi Robbin-Coker, who was handling the Freetown end. We also partnered with the non-governmental organization, Africare, in Nigeria for the organisation to handle the receipt of monetary donations. At the Freetown end, we selected the Sierra Leone Red Cross (“SLRC”) as the best placed entity to receive and distribute the materials we were sending. Over 500 large nylon tote bags (trying to avoid using the usual name J) and cartons of food (including baby food), water, clothes, shoes, bedding, toiletries, and household items were collected; almost 10 tons.
We had the “good problem” of collecting far more than we had initially envisaged. This meant we needed to “expand the operation” very quickly, requiring more collection locations, more canopies and tables to receive donations, more hands to sort the donated materials and expansive storage space. Thankfully, so many people rallied around to ensure this all “came together”, albeit with some difficulties (e.g. holding on to a moving company’s truck for more than 24 hours because it was full of donated material with nowhere to store them 😊).
We also had to re-strategize regarding how to transport the items to Freetown. Based on the original plan, within 3 weeks of the devastating event Medview had kindly transported (free of charge) close to a metric ton of food items to the Sierra Leone Red Cross for onward distribution to the victims. Oluniyi worked with SLRC to ensure the prompt clearance and distribution of those items (I sent an update and photographs at the time).
As we were grappling with how best to transport the rest of the items to Sierra Leone, Orode Doherty, then Country Director of Africare Nigeria, and myself did an interview with CNBC in September 2017 to talk about some of the challenges of getting relief material to disaster victims. The interview can be viewed at https://www.cnbcafrica.com/videos/2017/09/13/challenges-relief-teams-face-in-africa-after-disaster/.
Having considered cost, transportation time, and security of the items, a decision was made to sea freight the rest of the items in a 40-foot container. A subsequent appeal for monetary donations was made to cover the transportation costs and by the end of September the shipping costs had been paid and the items loaded onto a container in Apapa, Lagos.
I wish I could say that within a few weeks of that, the donated items were firmly in the hands of desperate yet grateful victims in Sierra Leone. Not so! The items got embroiled in Nigerian red tape. What seemed to be a “simple ask” from the Lagos Customs office took some four months to accomplish. In hindsight, I ask myself whether there was anything I could have done (other than “facilitate”) to have made things move faster. Perhaps; but, you see, for the uninitiated (which I clearly was) you simply do not expect the process to get customs paperwork done to take so long. Given that I had my High Commission firmly on the case and a shipping agent who was tirelessly doing his part (God bless you Mr Oba!), you keep thinking, “Any day now the papers will come through!” so you don’t shout for help. I mentioned my predicament to a few people but the honest truth was, the world had moved on – Nigeria had had its floods in Benue State, not all the Chibok Girls had been brought back and not everyone was experiencing the resurgence from a recession.
But then I asked myself, why should it be so difficult to accomplish certain things in our part of the world? Why must I have to escalate things to “someone who knows someone” to be able to help someone? Why should I have to cry for help from the beginning to the end to effectively complete an initiative? Why is it that the ingredients that make projects successful in most other parts of the world – proper planning, necessary resources, and sound execution – are not enough in this corner of the Continent? Please do not for one minute think I am here as a Sierra Leonean criticising Nigeria (you’d be amused to learn that both my Nigerian and Sierra Leonean family members think that, after so many years here, I am as “Naija” as they come 😊 and you’ll hear the “Salone saga” shortly). I speak as a West African who wants to see progress in our land.
Some things should not require the “old boy network”; some things should simply work – whether or not I am, or know, a “big man” or “big woman”. To see real change, things must indeed change. Without this, we shall continue as we have done for so long … suffering and smiling!
Anyway, the donated items finally set sail from Lagos to Freetown on the 17th of February 2018 (having incurred a whole lot of demurrage charges). It was on that basis that I first drafted my report; little did I know….
The goods arrived in Sierra Leone in early March 2018 whilst election season was in full swing. Sadly, Sierra Leone was no different to so many other places (at least in Africa) in that a lot of government activities slow down significantly, if not grind to a halt, around elections time. The first round of presidential elections held on the 7th of March 2018. Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive so there was a run-off on the 31st of March (can you hear the clock ticking?). The opposition presidential candidate won.
Yes, you guessed it, more delays. Of course, if a new president is coming into power in our part of Africa things often go into some form of stagnation until the new president gets his feet firmly under the table. It just so happens that the new President came in with new changes; one of which was the suspension of duty waivers. This had significant implications for our container which was meant to be cleared duty-free given that the contents were humanitarian relief materials. Alas, this was not to be. We entered new “wahala’. Time jus’ dae go…
Backing up a bit, whilst we were going through all the stress in Lagos in the last quarter of 2017 to try and ship the items, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) had issued a statement expressing its outrage at evidence of fraud having been uncovered during its 2014-2016 Ebola operations in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Of course, this had set all sorts of “kata kata” within the SLRC requiring personnel changes at a time when we needed them “battling” with government officials to get the container released. Oluniyi was in and out and in and out of SLRC trying to resolve the issue. We called the International Federation, wrote emails, etc., etc. We were still stuck.
Eventually, in October 2018 SLRC appointed a new Secretary General/CEO. As he was an external hire, he too needed a bit of time to get his feet under the table and then get to grips with our particular matter. By then, however, the container had incurred a significant amount of demurrage (again). Of course, the SLRC was reluctant to pay huge sums on duty and demurrage (and we didn’t have much left in the kitty) so they were seeking to secure some form of forbearance on the costs.
Fast forward to early April last year and I (and my siblings) were in Freetown for my father’s funeral. Yes, you guessed it; the Robbin-Coker clan made time to also harass SLRC (lol!). Do you want the good news or the bad news first? The bad? By then the shipping company was about to put the container up for auction ☹. The good news was that the new Secretary General not only seemed keen to try and bring a speedy resolution to the matter, he seemed capable.
At the end of May 2019 we got the good news; SLRC was working together with the auctioneer to clear the container. On the 15th of August 2019 we got good and bad news. There had been more floods in Freetown (which sadly is becoming more common place) with more loss of lives and destruction. Some of our donated materials were distributed to the victims. Literally a day shy of the second anniversary of the launch of the appeal. I cried. I cried that there had been more loss. Then I cried with relief that all our effort had not been in vain. The donated items had gone to victims in need; just two years later than expected. The “spiri” part of me just put it down to God loving those 2019 victims so much that He had gone ahead two years before to prepare what they would need exactly when they needed it. 😊
So why didn’t I write to you then? Because I couldn’t say to you that the mission had been fully accomplished.
Oluniyi and I are pleased to report that at the end of this July we received confirmation from SLRC that the remaining donated items had been distributed to victims of a fire disaster in Freetown. You, Friends of Sierra Leone in Nigeria, were specifically mentioned in the TV coverage of the distribution which can be viewed here: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=662760727916064&id=126023825461892.
We could finally say “Mission Accomplished!”. Once we were certain that all the items had been distributed, we donated the remaining cash contribution to the Federation of Urban & Rural Poor Sierra Leone, a credible organization that supports flood-prone slum areas.
Had we known at the start of the initiative that it would be such a long and difficult journey would we have done it? The honest truth is, I don’t know….. Do we regret it? Absolutely not! Should a similar need arise, would we do it again? I pray to God that we would have the moral courage to do so! We have tried to hold on to the perspective that whatever doesn’t go how you’d like it to is character-building. Let’s just say that a lot of character has been built in Oluniyi and I through this project 😊.
Thank you once again for your support and may God bless you and your generations for the blessing you have been to those in need. Special thanks go to Dapo Otunla, Cake Flair, Dana Air, Health Strategy and Delivery Foundation, High Life Church Kemabom Catering, Medview Airline, Sierra Leone Nationals Association in Nigeria, and The Tent Event Ltd for going above and beyond in their support of the initiative.
Below is a summary of the project financials.