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Sierra Leone: How Influential are Facebook and WhatsApp?

The world, they say, is a global village where new technology has taken over. And there is no doubt social media is popular and has had a huge impact on the lives of youths and adults in the poor, developing African country of Sierra Leone.

The two key platforms that are topping the list are Facebook and WhatsApp. You can even see names like Facebook Internet Café and WhatsApp Bar and Restaurant. So it’s no secret now that Government agencies, Development Organizations and the like are using these tools to help spread their messages far and wide hoping to reach out to the majority across the country.

Using Social Media

I have been added into several Facebook and Whatsapp groups by friends and colleagues. Some knowingly because of the nature of my job and some without my consent. But it’s all good because I always follow politics, economics, development, culture and so on. Most governance issues have been placed on social platforms, from new government appointments, contract agreements, presidential visits, new acts, national events, anti-corruption commission indictments, constitutional matters, you name the rest. They all have either Facebook or WhatsApp accounts. During the past elections, these tools were used extensively to campaign, discredit political opponents, levy allegations and all that goes with it.

Popular amongst the list of social media accounts have been: Sierra Leone Issues, Sierra Leone Football Association, Journalists Meet, Talk About Sierra Leone, Let’s Talk, Youths Voices, and Women’s issues and lots of nicer names. Even the State House, the highest office of the land, has a Facebook account.

But interestingly, when I look at the contributions and responses, most of them are either coming from Sierra Leoneans residing outside the country or from the minority literate population who live in Freetown and other cities. These account for about 15% of the population; a fraction. Can we really use that number of respondents to justify a proper information flow in a country where over 60% are illiterate? Or are we consciously keeping the majority away from vital discussions that affect their lives?

Internet Users

When mobile phones were introduced in Sierra Leone for the first time after the war in 2002, they were launched with mobile internet connectivity. This definitely increased the number of internet users to a small percentage.

Literacy and internet usage however, are still very low. According to UNICEF’s 2012 survey, only 43.3% of adults can read and write. At about the same time Internet World Statistics calculated that there are less than 80,000 internet users in a country of over six million people. So you can see that the people that need the information to improve their lives, to hold their local leaders to account, to have their say in decision making in say the Kailahun, Bonthe and Koinadugu districts, are left out.

I asked Pa Osman Bangura, a farmer in Lokomasama, Port Loko district, 70 kilometers from the capital Freetown, what he thought and he said: “I did not even know what Facebook, WhatsApp or internet is. This is the same with most of my illiterate colleagues here. If there is information, be it governance, farming or health messages they want us to know, they should do that using our mother tongue Temne through our chief or our religious leaders. Even the mobile phone coverage here is not static. You have to look for locations to make a call, and above all we can’t read and write. So for me Facebook and WhatsApp are useless here.”

How Many of These Locals Are Using Facebook?

Temne is the second largest ethnic group in the country. The language is spoken by some people in the North of Sierra Leone which covers five districts, most parts of the Western Area and some parts in the South.

Fatmata Deen, a young educated youth in Freetown on the other hand told me, “Facebook and WhatsApp are the main sources of information on governance issues. Because I have to wake up very early to go to work, I don’t have time to listen to the radio or watch TV. But when I am in the office, and even in bed, I can scroll through my tablet phone and get all the latest news about everything.”

The WhatsApp groups of course are the fastest resource for information I rely on and can’t imagine a day without them.  Let me give you an example; during the funeral ceremony of our late President Alhaji Ahmed Tejan Kabbah (RIP), I was up in the provinces working, but Facebook and WhatsApp friends updated me on everything: the speeches, the tributes, the casket model, the cemetery. So for me with WhatsApp, I am really on top of information flow. I miss nothing. Whilst the first voice is speaking for the majority, the second voice is representing the minority.

So my advice to the various government bodies, development organizations, and other community motivators is, let’s go back to the basics of information sharing that will include the majority. These should include community meetings, local radio stations, the use of town criers and chiefs in people’s own languages, but also give a little prominence on WhatsApp and Facebook, or else we are missing the point.  Remember it is not compulsory to use Facebook or WhatsApp, but it’s against the law for someone to boycott the chief’s meeting or his town crier.

As American Computer Scientist Alan Curtis Kay once said, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born”. In that sense, let’s don’t forget about our people who are in the majority.


Alpha Kamara is a Blogger, Social Media Communicator and a Freelance Media Practitioner working with the BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone


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Alpha Kamara

Alpha Kamara is a blogger, social media communicator and a freelance media practitioner working with the BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone

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