May 29, 2015 By Oswald Hanciles
Sulaiman Kamara, famously known as ‘Dr. White’, has an evocative rags to riches story that would give goose bumps to readers. He is a rich man today –with assets and businesses worth in the billions of Leones (millions of dollars).
On Tuesday this week, I went in search of him at one of the several retail stores he owns in Freetown – 9/11 Petersen Street, at the end of Garrison Street, opposite the ‘poda-poda’ station there. As my vehicle packed, he crossed the street to meet me. I did a double take to recognize him (as he had first come to my office in a silky Igbo-type greenish silk gown and ‘Igwe’ red cap), identifying him only with his goatee beard, speckled with gray – that day, he was dressed in a black sleeveless vest, with ‘junks-looking’ brown khaki short trousers, and, the thick black leather slippers on his feet looked similar to the one he would wear about forty years earlier when he was a dirt poor boy at Tombowala, an island on the Great Scarcies River in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone, Mambolo Chiefdom, in the Kambia District. In the 1960s, the sandal was called “Black Power” –made of disused vehicle tires, crudely sown together; with Sierra Leone being one of the two most prosperous countries in West Africa in the 1960s, that Black Power slippers was like an identification badge of the hundreds of thousands of dirt-poor immigrants from other West Africa countries who were just entering the country to do nearly all the menial work in burgeoning cities and towns. When Dr. White started prospering in the 1970s, he earned a reputation for being a snappy and fashionable dresser, mostly in resplendent white – which partly earned him the sobriquet “Dr. White”: but, today, he sniffs at such outward show of wealth; and prefers more substantive manifestation of riches. Like his 9/11 Peterson Street complex in close to Clock Tower in Freetown.
Prosperous Dr. White, with little formal education, today ‘worships’ Education
9/11 Peterson Street, owned built by Dr. White, are three plots of land with three storey buildings. He operates one shop there – and there are twenty stores in the three occupied by tenants – selling goods ranging from rice, soap, video CD plates, cooking oil….to soft drinks, clothes, shoes. He proudly took me to the second storey of the complex which houses a small mosque – showing me to the curtained women’s section of the mosque (one of Dr. White’s daughters, Ebony-black beauty, lithe, tantalizing, even dressed in ‘proper Islamic’ black dress, her body completely covered from head to toe, was helping in the store; with restrained manners and tone of voice), and low rough wooden stools where he said Quranic studies were being done. There were clothes and other gift items being sold in Dr. White’s store, but, nearly all the shelves from ceiling to floor, and every available space on the floor, was packed with school text books for Sierra Leonean pupils.
Dr. White picked up several of the books to show me as if he were showing me diamond jewelry worth millions of dollars. He spoke of his the books and their authors with the reverence of Catholics in the Vatican. I scanned several of them. There was “Sierra Leone National Primary School Exams – English and Verbal Aptitude “, written by Sierra Leone’s most renowned historian, Dr. Joe A.D. Alie. There was “Success in Agricultural Science for Junior Secondary School (Fifth Edition) by Ola Dixon”. They were inscribed at the back, “Printed and Marketed by Sulaiman International 11 Peterson Street, by Goderich Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone – 077 609 820”. Dr. White prints the books of Sierra Leonean authors in China. It is cheaper there, he said; and, more qualitative; but, he would need to print huge quantities to break even. He started off some fifteen years ago to print 20,000 books at a go, then, 50,000; and last year, he printed 110,000 – with a Le450,000,000 loan from the bank that has now morphed into the First Bank of Nigeria, located at the junction of Rawdon Street/Siaka Stevens Street in downtown Freetown. “I have almost completed paying that loan, only slowed down by the Ebola outbreak last year, when there was almost no demand for school books”, he proudly said. Dr. White’s worship affair with books could stem from the realization that whatever education he earned during those years gave him a slight edge over other traders who were stark illiterate.
“I am too old to start primary school” – at age 18. But he did!!
Dr. White’s father died when he was a three years old infant. Dr. White started rote learning of the Holy Quran – intense memorization sessions. He continued this school until he was about eighteen years of age. He yearned for the normal school in the educational system of the country, but, at about eighteen years of age, he felt it would be humiliating to go and sit in class with four to six year olds. One day, as he was on a trip to Port Loko town with his stepfather, he was transfixed by the sight of pupils in their school uniforms – tears rolled down his cheek. His stepfather noticed this. His stepfather asked him whether he would want to start school. Dr. White dismissed the idea, saying, “I would want to go to school, but, I am too old for that now”. Then, his stepfather took him into the school, and pointed several boys who were even older than Dr. White. Changed, his mind was!! When Dr. White’s mother was told that he would be starting school, she protested vehemently: “Who would help me at home? Who would pound my rice? Who would help me to carry my rice from the farm?..”
In 1968, Dr. White started attending the only primary school, Kambia District Council Primary School, in Tombowala. His about ten years in a Quranic school had significantly strengthened his memory capacity. In school, he wheezed through his lessons almost like a natural genius: “I spent one month in Class One, One Month in Class Two….One month in Class Three…then promoted to Class Four…”, he said proudly, his voice rising. “When I was in Class Four, I used to be taken to Class Seven to do mathematics that the Class Seven pupils would have failed to crack”. Spending just three years in school, he started secondary school at the Kolenten Secondary School in Kambia Town. His mother who had opposed his going to school was later proud of him. Then, at Form 2, he brought home a bill of Le45 for his school fees and other school needs. His mother, a subsistence farmer, was dazed by such a huge sum, clearly unaffordable to her. “Your schooling would have to stop”. Dr. White was not to be so easily stopped.
He urged his mother to go to a money lender – he who would lend out money to farmers at 100% interest; often, repayment made at the end of the harvest season, in the form of harvested rice. The loan was Le11.50 cents. The immediate school fees was Le5.20 cents. The about Le5 balance (about $5,000 or Le24,000 in today’s value) Dr. White invested in buying small items to sell. That necessity started his business career.
Sleeping on ‘granat bag’ bed; and having ‘granat’ for breakfast and lunch
Still, daily living for Dr. White was “suffering”. He would sleep in a store where there were bags of groundnuts that had been imported from Guinea. In the morning, he would take his bath in the stream at the wharf, in full view of other people. His school uniform and books were kept in the store – at risk of being spoiled or stolen. He would stuff his pockets with some of the groundnuts as he marched to school – chewing hungrily at his regular breakfast. He would drink water with his head bent towards the school tap in the school compound. After school, he would just walk along any road, climb up a coconut tree in a lonely place, and tug and pull out a coconut from an unoccupied compound. That would be his meal for almost the entire day – until the evening, when he would have the only single meal his mother would prepare for the day. Meat? No. Meat was luxury. Even fish was hard to come by. During the first term at school, the Catholic fathers who managed the school would fry cakes with USAID-supplied corn flour, and serve it to the pupils during lunch time. He looked forward to this. But, it lasted only for three months. The business that Dr. White had started was ‘growing’ in almost ‘microscopic bits’. But, grew it did – and today, Dr. White waved at one of his real estate, 9/11 Peterson Street (strategically located in the heart of the business district in Freetown, and easily valued at over Le2billion [half a million dollars), and said with pride, “This is the result of my Le5 over forty years ago…”
Dr. White’s business grew from Le5 ($5) to Assets of Billions today (millions of dollars)
Dr. White has two other shops in the very heart of the business district of Freetown, one on No 46 ECOWAS Street (being managed by his 4th wife, Florence, selling gift items), and another one he constructed from the ground up at 8 Fisher Street. There is another shop at 3 Bai Bureh Road in the Eastend of Freetown, strategically located at Ferry Junction – selling electrical items. (There is another shop at 36 ECOWAS Street, which he has given to his brother). He has two fairly large stores in Makeni, Bombali District – at 6 Mabanta Road; and 11 Savage Square. His real estate includes several three storey houses between 159 and 191 Bai Bureh Road in East-end of FREETOWN; property being developed almost on Lumley Beach, behind ‘Mohamed Kallon’s unfinished hotel’. About thirty years ago, Dr. White would make frequent business trips to imports goods from Guinea, then, Liberia and Banjul; then, the ‘graduated’ going to Dubai; and, today, he says, “China is almost like a backyard for me”. Not only did Dr. White grew, in being one of the co-founders of the Sierra Leone Exporters Association, he tremendously increased the courage and reach of other indigenous Sierra Leoneans to grow. There is much more to Dr. White’s story than space can provide here. (More on Dr. White later; including his rousing views on President Ernest Bai Koroma). What I hope is that he can inspire other Sierra Leoneans!! And, be ‘fallamakata-ered’!!