Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of Freetown, Sierra Leone visits FHS


Photo by Andrew Haughey

English teacher Marina Gibson talks to Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of Freetown, Sierra Leone after asking her a question on Dec. 3.

     On Friday morning, the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, OBE, visited both Fishers and Hamilton Southeastern high schools on behalf of the Rotary Club of Fishers. Freetown is both the capital and the largest city in Sierra Leone, with a population of 1.05 million. Aki-Sawyerr is the first female mayor of Freetown since 1980 and has been applauded for her efforts in humanitarian aid, which include the founding of the Sierra Leone War Trust to promote the conditions of children in Sierra Leone during a violent civil war and her work with Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Center during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Former superintendent Dr. Allen Bourff gave a brief introduction before the presentation, followed by a more thorough description of Aki-Sawyerr’s humanitarian efforts by FHS sophomore Micah Derrer.

     “We are incredibly lucky to have Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr here with us today to talk with us,” Derrer said in his introduction. “As a wife, a mother, a citizen and a wonderful person, she has recognized the impact of climate change and made important moves to change what she can to better the cause.”

     Derrer also discussed some of the ways Aki-Sawyerr had become involved in helping solve climate change in Sierra Leone.

     “She has created large movements such as her Transform Freetown movement,” Derrer said. “The plan covers issues such as environmental degradation and the facilitation of creation of jobs and tourism.”

     Derrer then briefly listed some of Aki-Sawyerr’s accolades and accomplishments, including giving a TED Talk, being named in the BBC 100 Women 2020 list and Time Magazine’s TIME100 Next list. After the introduction, Aki-Sawyerr began her presentation with a focus on climate change and the Water is Life movement.

     “What I have found when talking to people who are out of school is that, when you’re talking about climate change, there are quite a few people from this part of the world who see it as something far and distant,” Aki-Sawyerr began. “The reality is, for somebody in my city, climate change is very real.”

Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of Freetown, Sierra Leone poses for a picture. (Photo provided by Wikimedia Commons)

     Evidence for this claim was provided by Aki-Sawyerr in the form of an anecdote.

     “On the 14th of August, 2017, about two months after I made the decision to run for mayor, there was a mudslide,” Aki-Sawyerr said. “We saw what was a consequence of climate change, which was abnormally high rainfall. In three days, we had the rain which we would normally have in one month.”

     The disaster struck an area just two houses away from where Aki-Sawyerr had grown up. Mud covered nearly everything and had buried nearly a thousand people under it within a period of three minutes. Aki-Sawyerr emphasized that effects of climate change such as the landslide were not exclusive to Sierra Leone, but were occurring all over the globe.

     “Flooding, disastrous fires; closer to home for you guys, maybe you have heard of Lytton, the small city in British Columbia [which was mostly destroyed by fires] this summer,” Aki-Sawyerr said. “Climate change is real, it’s happening now and the work that needs to be done to reverse that has to be done at all levels.”

     Although Sierra Leone emits less carbon (a greenhouse gas) than many other nations, Aki-Sawyerr discussed plans her city was enacting to help where they could.

     “[The biggest climate movement] in our city is #FreetownTheTreeTown,” Aki-Sawyerr said.” We’re planting a million trees in our city. We started the last rainy season, and so far we have 557,000 planted. What that does is it protects the ground, it reduces the risk of landslides, it protects water catchments and it creates jobs for thousands of people in our city—most of them young people.”

     In addition to the benefits to the ground and the boost in jobs, the project will offset 78,000 tons of carbon. Although the effects will be beneficial to the country, Aki-Sawyerr emphasized that they will be nowhere near sufficient to effectively curb climate change. In spite of this, she said that the project was a demonstration that every country and every person can do their part to help.

     “I had never been in politics, I had never been in a political party, but when I saw that things were going wrong in my city and I thought there was something I could do about it, I stepped forward, I ran for office, I won and now, although it’s very challenging, I am running my city,” Aki-Sawyerr said. “Wherever you are, you can make a difference”