Sierra Leone: Shifting from Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism

by Sierraeye

Tackle the roots, not symptoms

Is it too soon to talk about the elections? But this isn’t about the two parties that have dominated Sierra Leone’s political landscape since before independence 60+ years ago or about the strongmen at the helm of these parties and their machinations to grab, hold onto, and extend their grip on this benighted nation.

We should see the elections as a symptom of a deeper societal malaise. Political party conventions mirror national plebiscites in bribery, violence, malpractice, and controversy. We should spend more time tackling underlying causes.

Forget about the politicians for a moment. Let’s talk about the rest of us. We’re in a state of “learned helplessness”. Our morale is low not because we can’t see the seriousness of our predicament but because we believe there’s nothing we can do about it. “Ow for do, God dey.” “Mek dem try normor.” “We lef all ting to God.”

Piety has its place. There are many profound phenomena we can’t quite fathom. And many people worldwide believe in a Divine Order best not interfered with by us mere mortals.

Where dogs lead, humans follow

But we have somehow navigated ourselves to a position where fatalism is our preferred response to our plight.

In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, the psychologist Angela Duckworth tells the story of how two eminent psychologists, Marty Seligman and Steve Maier demonstrated through experiments how dogs can learn helplessness or be conditioned to act in ways to overcome stressful and painful situations through their evasive actions, in other words, learn optimism.

If we’re to move forward as a nation, we Sierra Leoneans, like those dogs in the experiment, will have to learn how to adopt behaviors to overcome our apparent learned helplessness. Yes, we can learn to be optimistic. Indeed, hope is a discipline. It’s not just a feeling.

(Re)think, talk, do

There are three things we all need to do to not only learn optimism but to go on and take our destiny into our own hands and own the 21st century. We need to (re)think, talk, and do.

First, we must embrace what mindfulness practitioners call a “beginner’s mind.” If in the early 1960s at least one economist could predict that Sierra Leone had better developmental prospects than Singapore, no one can deny we’ve earned the right to be a little disappointed in how things have panned out for us in Sierra Leone. Coups, war, kleptocracy, juntas, mediocrity, nepotism, tribalism, neopatrimonial bigmanism, imperial presidency, bad governance, violence, rigging, cheating, lying, and that’s just the first ten years! What terms haven’t political scientists, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, etc, used to describe the curious phenomenon of Sierra Leone? So, yes, the “Athens of West Africa” has messed up. Bigly.

But our history isn’t our destiny. Our continued slide down a slithery slope to ignominy isn’t inevitable. We’ve just experienced a divisive, violent election that has left us bruised, battered, divided, and demoralized. So, what next? “Mek dem try dey?” Do we fold our hands and step back? Do we allow our cynicism to generate a self-fulfilling prophecy? Can we embrace a “what if?” mindset?

Dialogue to bridge the divides

Second, after imagining a new beginning and hopeful possibilities, we must talk to each other across our different divides. Our divisions are a legacy of our history. We get along ok together until politics intrudes. Step outside our political divide, and we see we have far more in common when you factor in shared interests. How many of us don’t want harmony, progress, prosperity, peace, jobs, dignity, health, respect, hope? What does our politics have to say about these shared aspirations? Way too little. And worryingly, the space for political discourse seems to be narrowing rather than widening as it should.

Social media often helps to accentuate our apparent divisions and narrow the space. Yet, deeply embedded in most of our cultures and traditions is the concept of the palaver hut, where we air our differences, seek to understand different perspectives, and work hard to forge a shared understanding and way forward. Yes, Sierra Leone needs dialogue.

Common interests, real differences

No, it isn’t easy. It isn’t a panacea. We may have common interests, but there are fundamental differences we need to work through. Some of these are patrimonial political differences. Because we divide ourselves, we argue and fight about whose turn it is to chop. In the process, we’ve reduced ourselves to fighting over a diminishing cake. Sometimes we fight over the crumbs from this shrinking cake. We miss the more significant questions: What kind of cake do we want? How can we grow this cake in ways that work for all of us?

In his book, Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose, the economist Stefan Dercon (now an Oxford Professor but not that long ago the Chief Economist of DFID as it was then called) makes a convincing case that countries that have managed to shift from elite bargains to development bargains are the ones growing the cake and offering brighter prospects to more of their citizens.

Are we ready in Sierra Leone for a development bargain? Let’s talk. The elite Dercon refers to isn’t limited to the political elite. Elites exist in all walks of life and occupy different, sometimes surprising, spaces. Let’s think beyond the “usual suspects” to dialogue about who can improve Sierra Leone.

Small wins

So, we’ve had a (re)think, we’ve talked, so now, third, we need to do. We need to “fake it till we make it”. 60+ years on, we’re not Singapore. We’re not on the road to becoming Singapore. In any case, our vision shouldn’t be Singapore but the very best version of Sierra Leone we can imagine and bring into being.

And the way to do this is to embrace the concept of “small wins”. Make no mistake: our problems in Sierra Leone are deep, complex, and systemic. People who study such issues describe them as “wicked problems”. They’re wicked because even the experts rarely agree on the nature of the problem, let alone the solution.

Take the question of kush, for instance. Bring five experts around the table. You might hear it’s a law-and-order problem. Or it’s a symptom of profound youth disenfranchisement and alienation. Or it’s deeply mired in our complex political economy. Or it’s illustrative of a social breakdown in mores and values. Or blame globalization.

Each departure point lends itself to different approaches. Where do we start?

Some legitimacy is conferred through the ballot box, but more legitimacy comes through effective delivery. How can we not just hold this government to account for delivery but also lean in and support it? How can we suspend disbelief and fake it till we make it?

Again, “way for do?” isn’t a strategy. It’s not an acceptable response to our plight. Often, at best, when seeking solutions, we’ll only have a hypothesis to test rather than a defined solution and strategy. Rather than embracing “paralysis by analysis,” we can try a solution and see if it generates a “small win.” If it does, and we can make enough sense of the data and insight we develop, we can surmise ways forward from that starting point.

In some cases, this pilot will fail. That’s ok too. For as long as we are learning, we are progressing.

Such action generates its own momentum. It is the most potent antidote to our learned helplessness. We shall soon realize that our destiny lies in our hands. And the process of rethinking, talking, and doing isn’t one-off or linear. It’s iterative and continuous. Let’s learn to be optimistic. It works!

What impedes the way is the way

Imagine spending more time on social media telling stories about small wins and less time on trivia.

Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, wrote: “The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Timeless words of wisdom. A messy election with a problematic aftermath, deep divisions, and an impasse doesn’t impede the way. It is the way. Let’s lean into our problems, think again, keep talking, keep doing, keep learning. This is the way.

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie writing in his personal capacity

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy