Sierra Leone Marks 50 Years Of Independence

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Sierra Leone's independence from Britain. But the West African country is still struggling to rebuild from a devastating civil war that ended in 2002. Sierra Leone's government has organized a year long celebration to mark its golden jubilee �" calling on award-winning American actor, Jeffrey Wright, to help publicize the celebration. Wright reflects on the country's past and its future with Tell Me More host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This year, the West Africa nation of Sierra Leone celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence from Britain. But the country will have more than just independence on its mind during the celebration. It's been eight years since the end of a brutal decade-long civil war which left about 50,000 people dead.

Since then, Sierra Leone has been through democratic elections in 2007. But the government is still working to get the country back on its feet. So they've named an award-winning American actor to help publicize the independent celebrations. And joining us now, Jeffrey Wright, winner of the Golden Globe, a Tony and an Emmy - he's with us now from our studios in New York. Jeffrey Wright, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. JEFFREY WRIGHT (Actor): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: How did you come to be involved with the Sierra Leone effort?

Mr. WRIGHT: I started following the war very closely for a number of reasons in the late '90s. The war was fought for many reasons, but one of the seminal reasons was for control over the diamond-producing areas. And there was a parallel here in urban culture of a fetishizing of the diamond through hip-hop and bling-bling culture.

And there wasn't a correlation being made between the suffering of these young African kids who were tied up in this war in Sierra Leone and these young African-descendent kids on this side of the water who were growing increasingly, you know, ravenous over the diamonds. So I became curious about the war.

Cut to 2001. I was working on a film in Mozambique - "Ali," with Will Smith -and met a gentleman on that film set who lived in Sierra Leone and who had been involved to some degree in the war on behalf of the government. He was intrigued by my interest and I was intrigued by his experience and he invited me to go back with him.

The war was in its last phases. There were some skirmishes in the North. Freetown was relatively stable. There were about 17,000 U.N. troops in country. And I went just to bear witness to what was happening, because I was fascinated by the place. It really sucks you in once you've visited, and so it did me. I went on to set up a company and also a foundation that works in parallel with the company, and we've been developing some ideas around economic development centered on empowering local communities to benefit from the natural resource potential in their area.

MARTIN: Can I just stop you for a just a second? There's a lot of - you know, many causes and groups have figured out that getting a celebrity to advocate a cause is a good way to get attention right now. So I would imagine that there are a lot of people clamoring for your attention. And I'm - so I'm wondering about what it is about this particular country and place that seems to have so captured your imagination.

Mr. WRIGHT: After the first visit, I think I, you know, like many visitors to the place, was sucked in by the beauty of the place, the sheer beauty of the place. And also sucked in by this intriguing contradiction between the extraordinary promise and potential of the place and the reality on the ground. What I mean is many Sierra Leoneans live below the poverty line. But they are among the most verdant tracks of fertile land that you could ever imagine.

There is abundant potential mineral wealth to be harnessed. And so trying to source through that dilemma became something of an obsession to me. And I put together a company around trying to narrow the disparity between the reality and the potential. We're trying, you know, in the areas in which we work, to work in partnership with local communities. We're really, you know, targeting job creation and economic growth.

I feel very honored that President Koroma and the government of Sierra Leone has asked me to represent their interests. Because, you know, the media has, I think to some degree, misrepresented the story. I'm playing my role as someone who has, you know, can shine something of a media spotlight on the country's efforts because I think to some degree my side of the business has done a disservice to the country.

MARTIN: I don't think it's a secret that there's still a lot of trauma that people are experiencing, even though the war is 10 years ago. There is still a lot of trauma that people have experienced as a result of it, with children who were pressed into, you know, service, who should not have been, women who have been raped, people who have been maimed. And I'd like to ask what role you feel, if any, you can play in bringing some of that healing.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, one of the big concerns of the government is employment of the youth. Some of these - many - not most, but many were involved in the war, some of the youth combatants, and finding ways that they can integrate themselves back in society in a healthy way. And that comes through building up the self esteem, which comes through finding meaningful employment, some through finding educational opportunities, which has implications community-wide. It has obvious implications on the security and well-being of women.

I think this is one of the biggest hurdles that we find, is trying to establish trust among a community that's been so traumatized and trying to be a part of the rebuilding of the self esteem of the individual, but also the national self-esteem. And so that's very much a part of my mission as the piece by piece ambassador, is to shine a new kind of light on what is beautiful and what is powerful and what is singularly Sierra Leonean, to really celebrate all that is the country.

Because I think people there as well too often underestimate how extraordinary they are. And so that's very much a part of the mission and very much a part of why I'm a part of this.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Wright is a Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning actor. He is involved in independence anniversary celebrations in Sierra Leone. He was with us from New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you, Michel.

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