Nathaniel Lamin Turay: Interviewing An Emerging Leader in Sierra Leone

Nathaniel Mohamed Lamin Turay (b. 1995) is a daring, brilliant and optimistic community activist and organizer in Sierra Leone. Speaking over several weeks via Facebook video messenger and telephone, I have had the privilege of learning about his personal and public journeys. Turay was born in Bo, in a district called Yemorh town, in Sierra Leone. Life has been hard on Turay, yet he has an inner light that shines through, even as he describes a life I can only (barely) imagine. His mother was driven out of her house when she became pregnant, and his father abandoned them both. Turay recounts, “My mother sold palm wine by the gallon and wood after giving birth to me, she was living with people she wasn’t related to, and after I turned a year old she took me to the village and left me there with my grandparents.  Then she went to Freetown.”

Being raised by his grandparents in a remote, rural village, he lived in absolute poverty. Asking about the living conditions, Turay depicts a desperate and long-standing crisis, stating “We did not have toilet facilities, we went into the bush to relieve ourselves, we did not have showers, or access to clean water. We all cleaned ourselves in the same streams where we collected drinking and cooking water.” People often fall ill, causing incredible and unnecessary suffering, because of the lack of proper sanitation in Sierra Leone’s rural areas. Sierra Leone’s average life expectancy, for its roughly 6.5 million inhabitants, is approximately 51 years as of 2015, lower than Somalia. Electricity is nearly non-existent outside of major urban areas, like Freetown, and Turay recalls a childhood without this essential service. As for transportation, “I did not even see a car, a motor-bus, or anything like that until I was 14 years old.” When he was 14, his mother returned from Freetown and took him into the city, and he was amazed to see cars. Shocked, I realize, he had not seen a vehicle with an internal combustion engine until 2009.

Mosque in Bo, Sierra Leone / Courtesy:

Despite an incredibly impoverished childhood, Turay notes he “attended the Roman Catholic Model Primary School where I sat my National Primary School Examinations (NPSE) in Bo, and I later gained admission to Saint Paul’s Junior School.” Academically gifted in mathematics and sciences, his love of education combined with the brutal realities of life in post-colonial Sierra Leone. The nation has faced six military coups since its independence from Britain in 1961, including a civil war that ravaged the nation between 1991 and 2002. More recently, a severe Ebola virus epidemic in 2014 caused mass death, along with economic, political and social turmoil. Turay conveys a daily life very removed from the experience of most Euro-Americans, “I sold wood after school as young boy in primary school, and later when night came I sold kerosene until 10pm. After that I would read some of the notes given to me at school then go to sleep. Early in the morning I would wake up to do my domestic chores at home before leaving for school, a 2 1/2 mile walk away. I lived in an area with very strong tribalism.” Dreading the rainy season, he says, “everything would be soaked, totally wet.” Furthermore, “it wasn’t just a leak in the roof, the rain came inside as if you were outside; inside, outside no difference, everything got wet.”

Describing tribalism, Turay gives me an example, “When a fowl, a chicken, from one tribe crosses into another tribe’s compound, when the fowl returns to the other tribe, they will drive the fowl away because they think it is possessed.” Continuing he says, “I had friends from other tribes’ compounds, and we would play without parents around because if their parents saw, they would call them back.” Turay’s biological family is mixed, his grandfather is from the Temne tribe and his grandmother is from the Mandingo tribe. He grew up as a Muslim with people in the Mende tribe; given his overlapping backgrounds, his openness to the world, it is no surprise that Turay seeks to overcome tribal divisions; these divisions run like always potentially volatile fault lines through parts of the country. Researching the history and contemporary politics of Sierra Leone, I came across articles like “Mendes and Temnes brought Tribalism to Sierra Leone,” where Kabs Kanu writes as the Chief Executive Officer of COCORIOKO, a major news source in Sierra Leone,

“Mr Kai Lebbie, one of the most fiery spokespersons of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) has debunked the opinions of New Jersey-based journalist, Mr Sekou Dauda Bangura, who recently accused the SLPP of sowing the seeds of tribalism, nepotism and violence in Sierra Leone politics.

Talking exclusively to COCORIOKO last Thursday, Mr Lebbie, who is one of the bulwarks of the SLPP in New Jersey, said he hated nothing in his life than hearing a Mende man or Temne man speak about tribalism in Sierra Leone. Without batting an eyelid and pulling no punches, Mr. Lebbie charged that tribalism was brought to Sierra Leone by Mendes and Temnes and not by the SLPP. He described the SLPP  as a liberal party which was formed in the North.

Tracing the roots of tribalism in Sierra Leone, Mr Lebbie said that rather than the SLPP, it was the Mendes and the Temnes who introduced tribalism in Sierra Leone, because of their love of power. Mr. Lebbie went on to say that there were certain tribes that were not tribalistic at all and they belonged to the SLPP,  which was why it was not right to generalize that the SLPP  sowed tribalism in Sierra Leone.”


Clearly the situation is complex, and it is beyond the scope of this single article to address the entirety of Sierra Leone’s tribal conflicts. Turay is confronting tribalism, alongside corruption and violence through his initiative, Sierra Leone Youth Awareness. Therefore, I would be remiss if I omitted talking about the historical and contemporary functions of tribalism in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, in the article cited above, Kanu notes that Milton Margai, a member of the Mende tribe was selected to be the nation’s first leader by a coalition of tribes concerned about the economic and political dominance of the Creoles. The Sierra Leone Creole people, who were the main intermediaries between the British and the colony, are “Descendants of freed African American, West Indian and Liberated African slaves who settled in the Western Area of Sierra Leone between 1787 and about 1885. The colony was established by the British, supported by abolitionists, under the Sierra Leone Company as a place for freedmen. The settlers called their new settlement Freetown. Today, the Creoles comprise about 5% of the population of Sierra Leone.” Their language Krio, historically a language of trade, is spoken widely in Sierra Leone, alongside the official language, English.

Turay continues, “Yes, so my mother met a man in Freetown, he has a son and daughter; I was brought to the city by my mother to forward my education and to live with them in a three-room apartment, my stepfather is an electrician, a Mende, and my mother, a Temne-Mandingo, has a small business for trading goods. So as you can see, inter-tribal relationships are common, they happen; only in some parts of the country and [among] the older generation do you see a strong tribalism, however, it is gaining speed among the youth, which is why I am working to counter it with a sense of national unity. In Freetown the divisions are far less, but the violence is bad. I remember my first day at school in Freetown, coming home and someone stole everything from me. I didn’t see this type of violence in the province, they didn’t want us to mingle between tribes, except for in the school, but the violence I have seen in Freetown is terrible, far beyond anything in the provinces.”

“First day at school in Freetown, coming home and someone stole everything from me. I didn’t see this type of violence in the province, they didn’t want us to mingle between tribes, except for in the school, but the violence I have seen in Freetown is terrible, far beyond anything in the provinces.”

Turay has sat his West African Senior School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE), at the Prince of Wales school, and he is awaiting acceptance into the prestigious Fourah Bay College, where he plans on studying statistics and population dynamics. Returning to Bo, to do outreach to schools for his initiative, he states “I took some friends with me and lodged them at my family’s place. We were giving my family some money to cook. We spent two weeks there, visiting 5 schools in the province of Bo. Absolutely no financial support, we receive nothing from the government, of course, people come to me and say, ‘Nathaniel you are doing such a great job, I really support what you are doing,’ and then they leave without giving a penny. So yes, down there in Bo, we began running out of income. Returning to Freetown, I have been back since January 2018. I have decided, while I am awaiting a spot at university to start in Freetown.” He says he ran a little competition, at the local schools, “I selected six candidates for the topic ‘the government and the people, who are more corrupt?’ The winner received books, a bag, pens and pencils, she was very pleased. The program was very successful, the principle of the school chaired the program, I gave a speech on the 16th of February, and this has given me more power and self-confidence. Yet, I am not a politician. I actually tell the youth: none of you should involve yourself in political activity. But this is because the current system is so corrupt.” I ask him what he means about being non-political, and I can tell it is a useful strategy in avoiding government censorship or worse. Essentially, he agrees, “Yes, the current leaders, many of them are only semi-literate or illiterate, they can’t even write their own names, they send their children to expensive foreign schools and send the nation’s wealth to bank accounts outside Sierra Leone. I want to create a space for the youth to engage, without the hassle of these old men.”

Turay Speaking to Comprehensive Junior and Senior School / December 2017

We discuss a part of his organization’s mission, namely participatory democracy, Turay continues, his voice getting a little bit louder, “In this nation of ours and this current government, they don’t value the youth, all they care about is to use the youth for elections; they are not giving any rights in terms of participatory democracy, in Sierra Leone the government is not giving any citizen the right to participate. I want to create a real participatory democracy, where everyone can speak, give opinions and actually have an impact. I always say, everybody is somebody. These are things I want to accomplish: every citizen involved in peoples’ assemblies and congresses, which are inclusive so everyone has this opportunity to come on board. In terms of organizing, I am not the only one, the organization has a board.” In terms of broader outreach, the reality is that, Turay will need to broaden his message via the radio, as the adult literacy rate is only 48%. He says, “Absolutely, I want us to engage ourselves in radio and TV programs to allow us to reach the youth, I want to have a district representative in each of the 14 districts, to host a coming together, a peoples’ assembly, to educate those who are illiterate. We do not war, we cannot have any more fighting here. We are not for any politician. Our national program is for peace, stability and development against tribalism, violence, and corruption. For too long, the politicians have foreign accounts where they take tax money and support their families, send their children abroad to educate them, and then their children stay abroad! It is killing Sierra Leone, especially the provinces. In the provinces they don’t have clean water, even schools do not have good water systems; so we have problems with cholera. There is no road construction outside of the big cities. Education is also corrupt, many of the teachers aren’t qualified and they don’t have supplies, they also take bribes to teach, even though education is meant to be free. Lastly, there are vast lands available for agriculture, but rice is being imported! We could make our own food here. Sierra Leone spends so much on imported rice. Why? The government is not giving the people the chance, they could support farming in the provinces. When I visited my grandparents I brought them okra and rice seeds, and my family was very happy, they will harvest them and sell them at market.”

“For too long, the politicians have foreign accounts where they take tax money and support their families, send their children abroad to educate them, and then their children then stay abroad! It is killing Sierra Leone, especially the provinces.”

Turay has a steep battle ahead of him. We discussed possible strategies for raising money, and in light of a series where I am featuring artists from Africa, he sought out The Barray, Contemporary Visual Artists’ Alliance Sierra Leone. Turay trekked to the The Barray’s director’s house, and the two of us met with her via Facebook video messenger; after Turay’s phone malfunctioned, I found her number and called via Skype, which  costs an outrageous $1 USD a minute. I am reminded of the technical and financial barriers that Africa faces (Skype only has call packages for three African nations). Yet, hope is still present; there is a possibility that proceeds from sales made via commissions and promotions through this site will be shared between artists and Turay’s organization. Creating the coalition between artists and youth activists like Turay requires time and patience, especially when money is involved. However, he is in for the long haul. Patience and persistence seem rubrics of his personality; both radiance and resilience are evident in his smile, a smile that is genuine and optimistic, despite his material conditions. I have never met such a resilient, politically aware individual.

 . . .

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