Annie Walsh Memorial School: A matter of history or a philosophy on the capital?
At the first glance and reading of the letter from President Ernest Koroma to Bishop Lynch regarding the possible relocation of the Annie Walsh Memorial School, I was struck by the absence of an introduction that would suggest that all options on negotiating the idea of removing the school to another location have been exhausted, necessitating a letter from the president as the last resort.
I still do not understand why the letter was sent from State House and not the Mayor's office.It appears to be a "thank you" gesture by State House to the traders for their support during the November elections. Furthermore, it was also strange to note that absolutely no strong lines of argument were made in the letter to justify the removal of the school and the construction of a public market at the location.
I am aware of prior discussions on relocating the school for other reasons among which was the existing wretched, congested and totally unacceptable overcrowding and noise in its vicinity. Rumours about the possibility of building a market at the property had circulated prior to the letter from State House. The letter confirmed the rumours and has made me ponder on the process(es) in place to arrive at a decision to request the removal of an educational institution in order to build a public market.
What role, for instance did the Freetown City Council and trustees of the Annie Walsh Memorial School play in the deliberations that resulted in the request from State House? The letter also did not suggest that there was an ad hoc Committee that did a thorough assessment of the situation that led to the decision to have a letter originate from State House, announcing that a public market should be built on the compound of the Annie Walsh Memorial School. In short, information on the process that informed the president's decision to send out such a letter is unfortunately absent. The result of that missing information gives one the impression that the decision by the president to instruct the Secretary to the President to write such a letter is political. Information helps to make sense out of a decision.
The above brings me to the issue of "history" and how it featured or not, in the decision-making process.
A lot has been said about the historical value of both the school, some of its buildings and its location. An argument based on historical significance and importance though sound, could not always be used in instances that revolve around city planning and remodelling, particularly in a densely overcrowded city in a post war country. History at times, may have to yield to objective realities about the planning and arrangements for remodelling a city with limited space and a growing population. However, history at times should yield to plans that are reasonably developed, anchored in a clear understanding of the vision of what a capital city should look like.
Based on the contents of the letter from State House, one could speculate that the vision from State House of the capital of Sierra Leone should look like is a constellation of public markets, albeit a glorified bazaar. One could speculate further that important institutions such as schools have no place in the capital but should rather be located in the outskirts of the city. One could speculate that schools such as St. Anne's and St. Mary's located at Howe Street and Charlotte Street respectively as well as the Convent should be removed and a public market built to accommodate the traders that occupy the entire neighborhood. Is it not reasonable, therefore, for State House to give citizens of Sierra Leone its vision of what the capital should look like since such an important letter emanated from State House?
And now let me address briefly the issue of a philosophy on a capital city such as Freetown.
The capital is tremendously historic. That cannot be denied and there is no need for persuading anyone about its historic significance. Only those not familiar with the history of Freetown would require such persuasion. And for those who fall within that category, let them go to school again or read up on the origins of the capital.
Given its history, one would expect to read about a philosophy of such a capital and how the capital is presented to both citizens and foreigners. In such a philosophical exposition, one should be able to discern distinct characteristic features of the capital. Among such characteristics would be monuments that represent the capital's ethos and its aesthetic dimensions. These monuments range from religious, educational and administrative artifacts in the forms of buildings and other paraphernalia. The philosophical exposition should also center the significance and importance of something that has turned out to be non-existent in Freetown and elsewhere for the past several years -- class. I had referred once to its demise with the hope that city planners would one day work hard to bring it back into play and make Freetown THE capital to visit in the entire sub-region of West Africa, if not the continent as a whole.
Even though I have discomforts when it is referred to as the "Athens of West Africa" when we have within the sub-region a historical city of learning such as Timbuktu, and the historic city of learning, Alexandria in Africa (these cities predated Athens), I cannot help but make reference to that tag as an indicator of what was once a classy and respectable city.
So I struggle to understand the logic of building a public market on the property of the Annie Walsh Memorial school and not a museum for instance. If the idea for the relocation of the school is really not a new idea, why not build a theatre there, preserving at the same time historical structures, that would be the home for plays that celebrate the capital's history and the country's culture contributing towards higher education as well?
Are Sierra Leoneans to assume that a philosophy and vision of the capital with a new public "makit" at the compound of the Annie Walsh Memorial School not too far from Dove Cot, Kissy Street, and Sewa Grounds markets making the entire area a grand and probably filthy bazaar given the history of the recent past influenced State House to send out such a letter?
As it stands, citizens of Sierra Leone are left to speculate on the philosophy and vision of the capital by State House, the source of this historic letter.
With the risk for other institutions and/or areas falling victim to an unstated philosophy and vision of a capital, but appearing to be very much a "makit" philosophy devoid of admirable, enviable and classy characteristic features, I hope citizens of Sierra Leone and for me in particular, born and raised in East end of Freetown, would be presented in the not too distant future, the philosophical basis that would serve as grounding for a vision of what the capital would look like not just in the next couple of years, but a much longer period. That long term vision would influence as well, future remodelling exercises for regional capitals.
Should the Annie Walsh Memorial School be removed from its present cite in order to build a public market?
I definitely do not believe so and would not support any such move. If relocation of the school is a possibility, should the property be used for other purposes necessitating a relocation? That is not a far-fetched idea. It is one that should be deliberated upon against the backdrop of a clearly articulated philosophy and vision of the capital, Freetown presented by relevant authorities for deliberation.
Professor Cecil Blake is currently at the Department of Africana Studies and the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. He served as Minster of Information and Broadcasting and Chief Government Spokesman in Sierra Leone. He also held senior research and administrative positions in the international system. Widely travelled he has authored several journal articles, and books. Former leader of the popular Golden Strings band in Sierra Leone in the 1960s, he plays an active role in Sierra Leone Diaspora activities in the United States of America and maintains very strong ties with his homeland.