Ngadi Smart’s layered portrait of Sierra Leone’s complex water crisis

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Commissioned by WaterAid and 1854/British Journal of Photography as part of the WaterAid Climate Commission, Wata Na Life captures communities banding together in the face of an increasingly volatile climate

On 14 October 2017, following three days of severe rainfall, a mountain valley side slope in the Western Area Rural of Sierra Leone – located on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Freetown – collapsed. A catastrophic landslide developed into a breakneck stream of debris, which flowed 6km through the city. A World Bank report published several weeks after the event identified 1,141 dead or missing, making it the worst natural disaster in Sierra Leone’s history. 

The tragedy was but a single thread in the web of Sierra Leone’s complex battle with global warming’s impacts — and, in particular, how climate change is affecting the population’s access to clean water. In the wake of the mudslides, bacteria, blood, and human remains contaminated Freetown’s already-distressed water supply, carrying serious risk of a  disease outbreak. To this day, residents of Jah Kingdom still cannot drink from the water sources they used to.

“I find it really hard. Because a lot of Black communities are expected to be resilient. And they are. I just feel like it’s a shame that we always have to be. We can never really rest.”

– Ngadi Smart

Speaking over Zoom from London, the Sierra Leonean collage artist Ngadi Smart reflects on Freetown’s efforts to adapt to increasingly volatile weather patterns: “Sierra Leoneans are…” But after a moment, she trails off. “I find it really hard. Because a lot of Black communities are expected to be resilient,” she continues. “And they are. I just feel like it’s a shame that we always have to be. We can never really rest.”

Sierra Leone’s climate-exacerbated water crisis is the topic of new work from Smart, commissioned by WaterAid in collaboration with 1854 Studio and British Journal of Photography as part of the WaterAid Climate Commission. Namely, the charity selected Smart to shed a more authentic light on a narrative that has long been depicted through the white gaze. “In the past,” Smart says, “our [African people’s] narratives have always been told from a different perspective. Not from ours. And I wonder when I look at photographs of Africans under colonialism, what if they had the tools to take those pictures? What would they be taking pictures of?”

Smart’s resulting project, titled Wata Na Life (Krio for ‘Water is Life’), rejects the “dehumanising” way Western media has historically portrayed developing African nations: countering tropes of “poverty porn” with vibrant collage; celebrating the essence and identities of the people and places of her origin country. In a portrait of Pujehun resident Fatmata Koroma, for example, her fishing net – a central part of her livelihood – unfurls around her face, akin to a lion’s mane: she is strong, powerful and dignified.

In an era permeated by threats to our future, the intrinsic malleability of collage becomes a powerful tool for Smart. Throughout art history, the medium has been tied to ideas of resistance: concealing and revealing, deconstructing and reconstructing, to conjure new and different realities. Inspired by everything from the rich colours of Sierra Leone’s landscapes to the textures of wicker baskets and cement bags, Wata Na Life sees lush greens collide with vivid purples; piercing stares overlaid with jagged black stone. 

Mustapha Kamara, who is part of the Pewama community youth group, often helps to oversee the management and maintenance of the community’s water well. He is pictured holding a basket of palm kernels, which the community farms to produce and sell palm oil. ©Ngadi Smart
Uma James poses with brooms made from palm. The community grows, makes and sells palm brooms as a way to sustain themselves. ©Ngadi Smart

Collage is, in many ways, ingrained in the fabric of Smart’s life; she was born in Sierra Leone, but moved between the UK, Canada, and Ivory Coast growing up. She identifies as a “third culture kid”, meaning she was raised in a culture different to her nationality. “But, my grandma always taught me to be proud of your roots,” says the 33-year-old, “and Sierra Leone has such a rich heritage”.

Situated on the West African coast, Sierra Leone is a small country with much to offer its people. But a decade of civil war devastated the nation in the 1990s, overturning much of its progress. When Ebola broke out in 2014, more than ten years after the conflict’s end, less than one in four households had somewhere to wash their hands, and only one in 14 had any soap. The disease spread rapidly, highlighting just how many people were living – and dying – without clean water, decent toilets or good hygiene.

“The Guma Dam, Freetown’s main water supply, was built in the 60s,” explains Smart, “but it doesn’t provide water in all households.” The city is currently home to over one million people, but the Guma Dam is only sized to provide water reliably to around 800,000. What’s more, corruption amongst government officials and water vendors across Sierra Leone is rife and well documented; public funds are frequently misappropriated, and people are further denied their basic rights to clean water.

Water is equally scarce in the rural parts of Sierra Leone, where insufficient supply from municipal systems forces people to seek out other polluted sources. Typically, women and children are tasked with collecting water, triggering a host of knock-on crises: children are pulled out of school to walk long distances; an increased risk of sexual assault on the way. 

“I want Sierra Leoneans to look at this work and feel proud”

– Ngadi Smart

Aioh Mbayoh is one of four men who spent almost six months digging a 30-foot well for the Dwarzack community. The materials used for this collage come from the cement bags used to fortify the well. ©Ngadi Smart

Photographed by Smart under a cashew tree, Kadiatou H. Kamarra, a farmer from the town of Port Loko, is in charge of collecting water for her family of five. Kadiatou left school after her mother, who paid her fees, died from Ebola, alongside her father and brother. For that reason, Kadiatou married soon afterwards. “The water situation is very difficult here,” says Kadiatou. “The stream where we collect water is very far away. It takes 30 minutes to walk each way. The water is dirty so we put it down to settle for a while before drinking it.”

As a farmer, Kadiatou relies on rain to produce healthy crops, meaning longer dry spells in recent years – caused by global warming – have been incredibly damaging to her livelihood. Maa Kanu, another farmer from Port Loko pictured beside Kadiatou, is in the same situation. “We depend on the rain to help grow the plants for us,” says Maa, “but for the last three years we have been experiencing very late rainy seasons. The productivity level of crops harvested has dropped… Life has been very hard. Sometimes we go without food, me and my husband; sometimes we eat only cassava.”

WaterAid’s work in Sierra Leone is focused mainly in rural regions, where communities are often small and remote, meaning they can be neglected by government plans. The charity helps install water pumps and trains local men and women to maintain them, as well as supporting households to build toilets. They also work closely with the government to help build strong institutions that will provide long-lasting services. “People in Sierra Leone need a reliable supply of water that keeps flowing through flood, drought and natural disaster,” says Laura Summerton, Photography Manager at WaterAid. “With clean water, they can stay healthy, go to school, earn a living and be better prepared for whatever the future brings.” 

As we approach the COP26 Climate Change Conference – when governments have the chance to come together to tackle the climate crisis and ensure the world’s poorest communities are not forgotten – the situation in countries like Sierra Leone demands global attention. But, far from a story of helpless people, Wata Na Life is about people working to help themselves: communities banding together and finding ways to adapt. Like Amarra Samura, David Moingeh, Aioh Mbayoh, and Alimamy Nehemiah Kargb, who spent six months digging a well for their community of Dwarzack in Freetown; or the residents of temporary housing settlement, Kroo Bay, forging flood barriers from litter that washes up on their shores. “I want Sierra Leoneans to look at this work and feel proud,” says Smart, resolutely. “That’s the most important thing.”

In Mabettor, a small village in the Karine District, the community makes a living trading clay pots and vases made with mud from the nearby swamp. Smart captures them proudly holding their creations.Brothers Abuji and Mohamed Sankoh use the money they make from clay production to send their younger siblings to school; or Ibrahim B Conteh, who was taught the art by his mother 17 years ago, relies on the money to fund his child’s school fees. 

“I went to school until Grade 4 in high school, but I couldn’t go any further,” says Ibrahim. “As I speak my child is in Lungi School and has been promoted to Grade 5… From this clay trade I can take care of my family.” But during the dry season, Mabettor’s swamp dries up, sometimes halting the residents’ craft completely. “During the dry season it is very difficult for us to find anything to eat here,” Ibrahim continues. “Previously we had a man who had a machine for drilling water which was helpful. But we no longer have this.”

A portrait of Pewama community member Fatmata Koroma, who brought her fishing net on the day of our shoot. Each community member was keen to share the skills that contribute to the prosperity and wellbeing of Pewama. ©Ngadi Smart

Ultimately, Smart’s hope for the series is to galvanise action: whether that’s individuals donating money to a cause like WaterAid, or corporations working harder to reduce their carbon footprint. In an article by Gabriel Kpaka, deputy director-general at the Sierra Leone Meteorological Agency within the Ministry of Transport and Aviation, he asserts that “the diverse impacts of climate change have over the years severely affected the economy of Sierra Leone and changed my people’s lives and livelihoods… We urgently need nations across the world to take leadership on the issue.”

“It’s always the hope of my work,” Smart concludes. “To touch a person, and make a change. For this, I hope it makes many changes.”

For more information visit Climate change | WaterAid UK

The WaterAid Climate Commission is a collaboration between Studio 1854 and WaterAid. Want to work with major brands and NGOs on compelling, cause-conscious campaigns? View our current commission opportunities.


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Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where until 2021 she served as commissioning editor. She writes, edits and runs campaigns across arts, culture and feminism, and has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up.