Although he was unable to attend the Shift the Power conference in Bogota in December, Sierra Leonian Minister, Chernor Bah, made the time to speak with Alliance to discuss how to make the movement more than a slogan.
Charlotte Kilpatrick: What, yeah, so what does shift the power mean to you as an expression?
Chernor Bah: I think what it represents is an acknowledgment that there’s a power imbalance, that the world is unjust and that we must reactively take steps to address inequality. This means addressing the imbalance of power in the relationship between the global north and the rest of the world. This shift the power also comes to mean a movement to address that, a movement to acknowledge that, to name that, and to take steps to address that.
CK: It seems like it’s a phrase that many people are throwing around, but what does it mean for you to show results? What would a shift of the power look like to you?
CB: We need to think about it at different levels and at different spheres. So in the development sphere which is where kind of most of the activists in this space are, it’s about rethinking who has access to resources and what those resources bring. Because they have access to financial resources, they therefore have this hegemony on who should get that resource, on the nature of the relationship between those who have it and those who do not.
Results in that context will mean challenging that paradigm. We talk a lot about the oppression of grants. It means challenging this idea that there has to be a grant that’s based on an application, there has to be due diligence, there has to be risk, and all those things form parts of this colonial baggage that’s not necessarily fit for purpose.
So for me, so it’s just an example of a package of a relationship, and now we’re talking about how everything should be trust-based and we continue using the word grant-making. Instead you should talk about shifting resources, moving resources, and addressing entrenching justices. I think in terms of seeing progress, results will mean that you see more and more people having this conversation.
Every country tells itself a story. Unfortunately, ours has always been written by somebody else, and it’s always been dictated by somebody else. At the Ministry of Civic Education in Sierra Leone, our ambition is to challenge that and tell a different
It also means acknowledging that the system has never worked because it was not designed to work. It was designed to keep some people oppressed and make people who do the oppression feel good about themselves by giving just enough, to either earn tax breaks so they can sleep better at night.
One big step forward would be looking critically at the relationships between countries. Take for example the relationship between my country, Sierra Leone, and the UK. The UK enslaved my people and they plundered my resources here for years, and yet they give 110 million pounds and make a big deal about it. Then they want to try to control what I do and what I don’t do. There’s no acknowledgement of that history.
CK: Is part of shifting the power shifting the narrative or the stories we tell ourselves?
CB: Correct, it’s a foundational part of it. We must go outside the narrative and shift that.
CK: What does civic education in Sierra Leone entail? Can you talk to me a bit about that?
CB: It’s a new ministry, the government has decided that we need to rethink what our civic identity and our civic narrative and civic public education are. Right now our mission is to do exactly what I was just talking about. The narrative of most African countries is defined entirely from a very colonial European lens, even the very names of our countries that are given to us by colonialists have very little to do with our countries. They created this hegemony in our education that doesn’t really extol the values of our own history and our own past, and our own identity is created in an image that’s not necessarily rooted in true national cohesion.
But for us it goes beyond that. It’s not just looking at the past, it’s looking at the future. It’s defining what we want Sierra Leone to be. It’s an ambitious affair. How do you redefine a whole country’s narrative? First by going after the dominant colonial narrative and making sure that that’s not what it is. But then embarking on a whole national, inclusive process of defining what our own narrative is: what the values we want to aspire to and who do we want to be, and what do you want to tell ourselves. Every country tells itself a story.
Unfortunately, ours has always been written by somebody else, and it’s always been dictated by somebody else. At the Ministry of Civic Education in Sierra Leone, our ambition is to challenge that and tell a different; more Sierra Leonean, intentionally anti-colonial, anti-racist story about who we are and how we got here.
CK: I saw on your website that you describe yourself as a feminist. Can you explain to me why it’s important for you to identify as such?
CB: I mean it’s a bit like this conversation on shift the power. Being an anti-colonialist and I think I’m a, it’s very important because for me to say the feminist identity is a political identity. It’s not just a private identity because it’s political, it’s also a public identity. It’s an acknowledgement that there is a systematic exclusion, marginalisation of girls, females and that I want to be part of an active social justice political movement that is determined to overthrow this entrenched patriarchal system and create a more just and more equal world.
For me, my feminism is an overt political action and a political statement, it’s also what I’ve tried to do my whole life. I feel like with the feminist ideology, it’s something that you continue to learn and push yourself on because unfortunately we are all born in an entrenched patriarchal system and we inhabit some of those tendencies. It’s my own declaration that I know it’s unjust and I know it’s wrong and I need to push back and be part of fixing it.
CK: As a refugee from war, and as a teenager you found a parliament to help with reconstruction efforts. So given your experience, which I imagine is quite difficult, do you have a message for young people right now who are going through conflict?
CB: Yes, I think about this all the time. First, I think it’s the idea that hope is something to never lose, and that hope is the most important currency. It’s the currency that keeps you alive. It’s the currency that drives you to dream, imagine a different future and the different future is definitely possible.
I’ve also always said that education is hope. It’s important to educate yourself and think about education as freedom from oppression. The other thing I think about is to not to let anybody de-humanise you because you are a victim of conflict, and that if we organise and plan you can still define a different, progressive, positive future. Sometimes it’s bleak when you’re in the middle of it, but I think you don’t have an option. You have to have hope.
CK: I saw that you are the executive director of Purposeful Productions. Can you tell me a bit about this?
CB: The new name of Purposeful Production is We Are Purposeful. We changed the name about three years ago. Short form is just Purposeful. Purposeful is a feminist movement that is determined to frankly shift the power for girls. We move resources with and for girls, we proudly take monies that are in the development system and try to move them in ways that girls and activists want.
When we can we bypass the traditional means of the grant and the formalised system, we fund people, individuals and movements formally and informally. We move money through the banks so we also move money through money transfer into cash boxes because that’s how activists want them. We challenge the orthodoxy of the system, and we continue to poke holes at that system. We exist to service the movements and not the other way around.
Chernor Bah is a feminist leader, activist and champion who works in Sierra Leone and around the world for and with girls. As the Co-founder and Co-CEO of Purposeful- the first Africa-rooted global feminist hub for girls’ activism – he dedicates his time to building power and amplifying the voices of girls and young women while promoting the distribution of unrestricted funds to girls and feminist activists in over 150 countries.