Featured Interviews

Sierra Leonean Blogger Shirley Godwin talks Mental Health, Teen Pregnancy and Growth

BY KENYA MANSARAY

Ever casually browsed through a social media site and ran across a thought provoking article? Well that’s how my very first encounter with Sincerely ShirleyGo occurred.

Shirley Godwin is a 26-year old Freetown native, who owns and operates her blog sincerelyshirleygo.com, and uses her writings to inspire, advocate, as well as to spread awareness on an array of topics.

Shirley immediately draws you in with her controversial topics, and has a way of expressing her thoughts, and making the social dynamics here in Sierra Leone relateable to people globally.

I was surprised to find that she was located here in Freetown, and jumped at the opportunity to meet her when she invited me to view some beautifully handcrafted art and handmade clothing. This was the meeting that allowed me to learn more about the person behind the blog.

Shirley Godwin on DUNIA

I’ve been following your blog for months now, and you cover a number of topics. What inspired your blog, and the topics you speak on?

Shirley Godwin: Sometime late last year, I got to a place in which I wanted a real change. I was fed up with the status quo. And I craved to be part of something bigger than myself. Through a conversation with a dear sister and close friend of mine, who I met during my college days at Creighton University, my interest in blogging was sparked.

The more I thought of blogging and the more I did my research on it, the more I realised that blogging, if done right, could be an effective tool one could use to bring about positive change or stir up a movement or create awareness or even unify people from various backgrounds in various countries towards a specific goal. And that is what my blog, Sincerely ShirleyGO, is about. It is a platform for positivity. A platform for unity. A platform for awareness.

You spent five years studying abroad in the United State; four were in Nebraska, and the last year in Georgia. What societal differences did you notice being in those two very different states?

Shirley Godwin: Nebraskans are the most friendly people I have come across in my life. It actually took a while for me to get used to. It always took me by surprise when a total stranger would stop and ask how I was doing and actually wait for a reply.

Nebraskans are down to earth, religious people who love Cornhuskers and their country music. They are family oriented and I was surprised to find out how important it was for most women in my age bracket to get married after college. Lol, people definitely have 5 minute conversations about the weather in Nebraska because it can really get gruesome.

Two things I love about Georgia, after coming so deep in the midwest, is the diversity found there and the awesome weather. I observed that people in Georgia are much more of go getters but they maintain that Southern hospitality.

What prompted your studies in psychology, and how can your knowledge help the people in Salone?

Shirley Godwin: On Career Day, during my secondary school days (high school) [in Sierra Leone], we had three people from three different professions speak to us about their careers. One of these individuals was a doctor, the other a lawyer and the last an accountant. Then and even now, in Sierra Leone, there are about five professions that Sierra Leoneans admire, that they believe give you status and prestige: medicine, law, engineering, accounting and large scale business. And I grew up with that mindset.

I went to Creighton with the intention of becoming a doctor. But during my first semester at Creighton, I decided to enroll in the ‘intro to psych’ course just to fulfill a core requirement. Plus, complete ignorance in the subject matter drew me to the course. And oh my daze! I fell in love with it. So I decided to pursue a major in psychology.

Psychology and psychiatry are two fields in Sierra Leone that are greatly overlooked by both the government and the people. People do not know that mental illness, to a great extent, is influenced by genes, chemicals in the brain, stressors and the environment. And I believe that culture plays a huge role in this too. They believe that someone is being a weakling for suffering from depression. In fact, there is not an equivalent word for depression in our language. They believe if you just wish it away or just try to be strong enough, the symptoms will just evaporate.

They believe that schizophrenia is caused by evil spirits, and through exorcisms or seeking the help of traditional healers, you would be cured. They believe that a child suffering from ADHD is a lost cause and such children are subjected to neglect and ill treatment.

I believe strong advocacy for the government to provide the much needed mental health system, infrastructure and equipment will be the starting point in seeing breakthrough in mental health care in Sierra Leone. I believe creating public awareness will muster up people to ask for the change they want to see, and if Sincerely ShirleyGO can help in doing so, that would just be delightful.

Many Sierra Leoneans suffer from PTSD due to a host of past trauma. Why do you feel there isn’t a system set for mental health facilities here, especially after mental trauma caused by the Civil war and the Ebola outbreak? From your professional standpoint, how would you say this impacts the survivors, and society as a whole?

Shirley Godwin: I believe a proper mental health system is not in place because the government and its people do not believe that it is necessary. The government would rather spend millions of dollars to open a new airport (the government recently signed a deal with the Chinese to construct a new airport in the country) but leave the mental health system in shambles.

But what is the point of having a new airport, when a good portion of your country is suffering from one mental illness or another? It seems every few months, the city has a new mentally ill person roaming the streets of Freetown. That is the reality! And with mental illness that is not properly diagnosed and treated, families are greatly affected and in turn, the country.

A single mother who suffers from depression and is being treated for it can still be a good mother. But a single mother who is suffering from depression and is unaware of it and is not being treated for it, becomes a danger to herself and her children. The children suffer from neglect. The children take care of themselves, and in the process are exposed to so many more dangers. There is a subtle negative ripple effect when mental illness is not treated, and I think, if not addressed, soon and very soon, the consequences will be dire for the society.

Teen Pregnancy is a global phenomenon, and I was blown away by the statistics I read about this topic on your blog. Can you speak about some of those statistics and factors of teen pregnancy here in Sierra Leone?

Shirley Godwin: Perception is a huge contributing factor. The average Sierra Leonean tends to define the maturity of a girl, more often than not, by her physical appearance. Consideration of her age is thrown out the window. Male adults (and even parents) assume that intimate relations with girls are permissible because they look physically mature or they behave mature.

I believe that lack of proper sexual education is another contributing factor; and I also do believe that information carries more weight depending on whom provides that information. Our culture finds it taboo for parents to speak to kids about sex.

But I feel there is power when a mother provides an environment in which she and her daughter can have an ongoing, open and honest conversation about such matters. There is power when a father speaks to his son about dreams and aspirations and the gains that await him when he focuses on that than occupying his time chasing girls. There is power when parents actively involve themselves in the lives of their kids.

I think parents need to come to the acceptance that you cannot bring up children in the way they themselves were brought up. They have to tweak things a bit. It is a different time and different generation, and if (and only if) we find positive ways to adapt to that, would we see a decline in teen pregnancy in our society.

I read that Salone had a huge rise in teen pregnancy during the Ebola outbreak, why do you think the outbreak caused this spike in teen pregnancy?

Shirley Godwin: I do not think you can find one person in Sierra Leone who is not aware that the Ebola virus can be transmitted via bodily fluids, touch or sexual intercourse. The government did an exceptional job in spreading awareness, and you would think with such awareness, abstinence would be on everyone’s mind. But no! It seemed the more the government sensitized people, the more people became complacent. And that is evident with the rise of teen pregnancy during the Ebola period.

One theory is that the length of time with which schools were closed contributed to the rise of teen pregnancy. Normally when most parents are at work, children should be in school, but during the outbreak, parents went to work and children stayed at home unattended. Thus, it is believed that more children became more susceptible to engage in inappropriate activities.

Another theory is that most girls were taken advantage of during the Ebola period. For example, during that time, there was a shortage of water supply in many areas. And quite a good number of parents sent their kids out to the streets sometimes till 2am (when taps usually opened) to fetch water. It is believed that men and boys took advantage of these girls in exchange for making water more accessible to them. Or enticed them with financial offers as a lot of people suffered financially during this time.

A good number of children lost one or both parents during the Ebola crisis and were ostracized by family members. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, having the aid of a man who met their [livelihood] needs was not a bad idea. And thus, pregnancy inevitably happened.

One of the topics you covered on your blog is Child marriage. Many are baffled to hear child marriage still exist. What factors do you feel play a role in why this is still happening in Sierra Leone?

Shirley Godwin: According to statistics provided by UNICEF in 2015, 44% of children in Sierra Leone have been victims of child marriage, and I do believe there are an array of factors that contribute to child marriage. Teen pregnancy, in my opinion has the greatest impact on child marriage. Followed by poverty. And then customs and traditions.

In 2013, 28% of girls in the age bracket of 15-19 were pregnant according to the government of Sierra Leone (these numbers climbed especially during the Ebola outbreak). And in a society where marriage is seen as more respectable than having a child out of wedlock, these girls are made to be child wives; and the data also shows that 71% of teen moms are illiterate.

So what happens here? An illiterate teen mom caught in the shackles of poverty, customs and traditions, who clings to her husband for everything (and he probably takes advantage of her and abuses her), finds it hard to break out and become a better person for herself and her children. And the vicious cycle continues.

You’re Krio, which is the founding group of Freetown. How do you view the special relationship and responsibility of the Sierra Leonean Diaspora communities and related groups “Gullah/Geeche, Jamaican Moroons etc. to the overall development of the nation?

Shirley Godwin: At a time, I thought that the problems of Sierra Leone were not my concern. I thought Sierra Leone will sort itself out and other people will step up and do something. But problems compound when good people do absolutely nothing. Problems compound when good people force themselves to believe that the other person will do something.

With the life experiences I have had thus far, I have realised that if Sierra Leoneans do not build Sierra Leone, who would? I have realised that having the right people in leadership positions will go a long way. And that is why Sierra Leoneans who have the expertise and right motives, the Gullah, the Jamaican Moroons and other associated groups should be able to come on board in unification to a common goal: economic, political, social growth and power.

We have to stop relying so heavily on foreign aid. We have to stop leaving all the responsibility to the government of Sierra Leone. We have to come together as one to build Sierra Leone. Most Sierra Leoneans go abroad seeking greener pastures. That is all well and good. But in the pursuit of greener pastures, we forget about where we come from and what we left behind. We forget that there is a need to rebuild our country with the resources and education we acheive abroad, and that should change.

African Beauty and fashion is displayed on your blog, why do you think it’s important to show this form of beauty?

Shirley Godwin: Like so many people, there are different sides to me. I want Sincerely ShirleyGO to be a reflection of that, and African beauty is one thing I am passionate.

What do I view as African beauty? Who we are as a people – our accents, our hair, some of our customs and traditions, our fashion, our art, and we should be proud of those things, and embrace them. But sadly, it seems Africans overlook and greatly under-appreciate what we have. Some are ashamed of their African names, others think their accent is embarrassing. Some do not even love their bodies and hair, and I would love for more Africans to just love themselves. Everything about them. I would love African women to just appreciate how they look. To love the skin they’re in and not try to live down to traditional standards of beauty.

What else can our readers expect from you in the future and how can others support your cause?

Shirley Godwin: Growth. I really want Sincerely ShirleyGO to be about growth.

In time, I would love to open the blog up to Africans and related groups for guest blogging.

I create shirts, necklaces, bracelets, amongst other items, with words or slogans that promote positive thinking and maintaining a connection, appreciation and love for our African roots. I also create products with the goal to bring awareness to issues in Sierra Leone. I currently have two shirts on the blog that would be sold year round and were created to bring awareness to child marriage, teen pregnancy and the stigma teen moms have to put up with. 50% of proceeds from shirts sold will go toward scholarships for disadvantaged girls in Sierra Leone who are excelling in academics during the 2017-2018 school year.

I appreciate positive interactions on the blog which can be achieved by leaving great comments and sharing of posts. And when the blog opens up to guest-blogging, I would love for people to participate in it.

Visit SincerelyShirleyGo @
Facebook: https://facebook.com/SincerelyShirleyGO
Blog: http://sincerelyshirleygo.com
Email: sincerelyshirleygo@gmail.com

>> VIEW PICTURES OF HANDMADE CARVINGS IN FREETOWN BY KENYA


Kenya MansarayKenya Mansaray is Chairwoman of Black Star Action Network International. She’s a pan African, an activist, public speaker & writer. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Kenya is currently based in Sierra Leone, West Africa where she is involved in humanitarian work.


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