BONTHE /SHERBRO ISLAND
Bonthe district, which is one of the twelve administrative districts in Sierra Leone, lies in the south of the country about 90 nautical miles from the capital Freetown. The district is divided into mainland and island with a total population of 150,773 (2004 census projection for 2008). The Island by itself has a population of 20,448. The mainland which has Mattru Jong as its biggest town and which connects the island by sea, can be accessed by road from any part of the country though one a very bad road.
The island comprises of Bonthe town, Bendu Cha, Victoria and YorkIsland thus forming a small archipelago. SherbroIsland, as the island is often called was very important during the colonial period. It provided strategic naval base for the warships of both Britain and France during the First and Second World Wars as well as serving as a commercial centre for both foreign and local traders. It served as the source of plentiful supply of palm products (kernels and oil), kola nuts and piassava to the international markets. The export of piassava and palm kernels particularly became major industries until the late 1980s.
Bonthe district is politically divided into district and city councils. Besides Freetown, Bonthe is the only district in Sierra Leone that has municipality status. The district council which has oversight responsibility of the entire district is headed by a District Chairman assisted by 18 councilors each representing 18 wards in the district. The municipal council is headed by a Mayor who is also assisted by 12 councilors representing four (4) multi-member wards. The municipal council administers the Municipality of Bonthe Island which comprises the township of Bonthe and YorkIsland, a once prosperous trading centre.
As mentioned inter alia, for the past two decades the island of Bonthe has been the primary source for the supply of palm kernels, piassava and sea food for both local and international market. The palm kernel and piassava industry however collapsed towards the end of the 1980s. This once vibrant industry collapsed largely due to government neglect and mismanagement. Acres of palm trees from which palm kernels were obtained are still lined up around the outskirt of Bonthe town neglected. These palm trees were planted by the government through the now defunct Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB) which was the national body responsible for the export of produce from Sierra Leone. With the collapse of SLPMB in the late 1980s, these huge farms were thus subsequently abandoned.
For the majority of the locals of BontheIsland, the sea is their main source of income. Fishing is a common occupation done by men, women and children. In the 1980s, fishing was especially a lucrative venture as there were government owned companies on the island directly buying from the fishermen for preservation and onward distribution to the rest of the country. By the mid 1990s however the political neglect and mismanagement that befell the other industries had it toll on the fishing industry. With the collapse of the industry the fishermen resorted to drying their fish as a means of preservation which will then be taken to the mainland to be sold on specific market days. This marked the beginning of the total collapse of the island of Bonthe. Gradually, the commercial status that the Island had enjoyed was eroded as the scale tilted in favour of mainland.
Notwithstanding the Island’s status as the district headquarter town, its economic downturn and political neglect has forced all governmental officials to reside in Mattru Jong in the Mainland. The few paid government officials based in the Island include police, medical staff and teachers. The contribution of this staff to the economy of the Island is very meager as staff of these institutions earn an average monthly salary of about US$ 90. For this reason, fishermen transport their catch to market centres in Mainland where there is high cash flow. Now ironically, BontheTownship, tough an island starves of fresh fish. Even the government hospital is grossly understaffed as the nurses flee the economic deprivation of the Island to the Mainland town of Mattru Jong. The Medical Doctor assigned to the Island also spends most of his time in the mainland thus forcing patients with severe complications to travel to the mainland at a cost of more than US$ 100 for boat hiring only.At present, BontheIsland is one of the most economically backward districts primarily because its natural source of income, the sea, has been left unexploited.
The economic collapse of virtually all major industries in the Island resulted to mass exodus from the Island. This has a drastically negative effect on the educational system of the island. Prior to the 1990s, BontheTownship had four reputable secondary (high) schools. These were MiniMullGirlsSecondary School, BontheSecondary School, St. Joseph’s GirlSecondary School and SherbroSecondary School.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, MiniMullSecondary School particularly was the cradle of girl child education in the district. Children from all over the country and from the neighbouring country of Liberia were sent to the boarding school of Mini Mull. St. Joseph’s School was also another boarding school that attracted children from all over the country. With the economic collapse in the early 1990s however, these schools experienced huge reductions in the number of students attending them to the extent that Mini Mull and St. Joseph’s Schools though girls’ schools were forced to be converted to co-educational schools. SherbroSecondary School was forced to close down completely. At present, many pupils who complete their primary education on the island are tempted to leave for more economically viable townships to pursue their high school education.
The poor economic status has also encouraged massive brain drain of teachers to much viable towns. Thus, for the past decade none of the schools on the island have been able to produce a pupil with five credit university requirement in the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) taken every year.
The once Christmas Island of Bonthe which attracts hundreds of people every year is being gradually abandoned. The liveliness that it had has been eroded and the local hardly find joy in living in this natural paradise. The Bonthe Holiday Complex, a tourist attraction in the heart of the Island remains the most attractable sight but only for rich tourists.