In 2011 Australian Jo Dunlop moved to Freetown, Sierra Leone to work in maternal health. 

During her time in the country Jo developed an appreciation for street fashion in Sierra Leone, a country better known for civil war, blood diamonds and Ebola. Jo was inspired by what she saw to show a different side of the story and created Fashpack: Freetown, a street style doco featuring everyday people rocking their finest on the daily. 

We sat down with Jo Dunlop to discuss her experience of living abroad, and her return to Australia.

Fashpack: Freetown is currently available on ABC iView until August 15. To view the series click here.  


THE PIN. Can you describe your childhood?
I’m from a very white bread background. I grew up in the Hunter Valley in a nice middle class family. I had a happy, fun and carefree childhood, oblivious to the problems and complexities of the world. It was a long time ago and there wasn’t much diversity in regional Australia in the 80s. I think there was one Chinese kid in my primary school. It wasn’t until I got to uni when I realised that Australia is home to more than just a whole lot of white people.

Do you recall when you became aware of race and culture? Was it something your family ever discussed?
I probably became aware of race and culture when I went to boarding school alongside a lot of other middle class white girls with similar backgrounds to my own. But amongst that big majority there were also lots of Asian girls. This was in the late 80’s early 90’s when overt racism was still pretty rife in Australia. I remember there was a general negative attitude towards anyone who didn’t look the same as the majority.

After I left school I started to properly travel, that was when my world opened up and I started to learn about different races and cultures. I think when you step away from your own country you become aware of your culture and national identity.

Initially you went to work in Sierra Leone on a maternal health project. Was it your first choice of destination for work?
I was very interested in Sierra Leone because I had a background in public health and it’s a country with some of the most alarming maternal health indicators in the world. I had worked and lived in East Africa before but I had never been to West Africa and I was really curious about that side of the continent. When I arrived in Freetown it felt like I had landed exactly where I wanted to be, it was a lucky break.

What cultural differences really stood out in contrast to Australia when you arrived in West Africa?
Sierra Leone is obviously so different to Australia in every way. It’s very poor, it’s vibrant, Freetown is crowded and noisy and life happens outside of people’s houses on the street. There are of course all the cultural layers - food, music, language and religion that I had never experienced before.

But above all that I think it is the sense of community that is culturally so different to Australia. Freetown is a big city but it’s also a tight knit community. I would have so many interactions on the street after leaving my house in the morning for work. People are so much more connected to each other. In Sydney we don’t talk to each other unless we know each other. It can feel strange to say good morning to someone at your bus stop who you don’t know. I think that’s really sad, and I really miss that feeling of belonging to a community and feeling connected.

In Sierra Leone most people live in abject poverty in really, really tough conditions and people make certain choices because of their circumstances. With low wages, unemployment and a lack of basic needs like healthcare, education, clean water and adequate food supply, a lot of people are barely surviving. People are so vulnerable when they have no money and few choices and these circumstances. But what shines through in Sierra Leone, is that despite these circumstances, there is a culture of optimism, positivity and good humor that always prevails.

You see it in the Fashpack series, people have challenging lives but they are loud, flamboyant, expressive and resilient, and that to me is what defines the people of Sierra Leone and their culture.

Did the flamboyance and vibrancy continue throughout the height of the Ebola crisis?
It was a different mood during the Ebola outbreak but I don’t think Sierra Leone ever lost its spirit. It felt like everyone was carrying a weight and there was so much death and sadness. It was all we talked about for 18 months. I don’t think Sierra Leone every lost that spirit and you could see it in all of the health workers who continued to get up each morning and fight like soldiers. International media coverage of the Ebola response often presented the international doctors and nurses as the heroes, sweeping in and ‘saving Africa’. But in reality the backbone of the response were the local health workers, cleaners and burial teams. They were extraordinarily brave people who still managed to retain that spirit and smile in the face of so much darkness. They worked incredibly hard on very low wages and are now world leaders in Ebola response. If another outbreak emerges anywhere in the world, it will be the international community calling on Sierra Leone for help.

You’ve previously said you like being in Australia but that your worlds are very split. Do you feel like your identity changes when you’re living abroad?
When you are overseas you are to an extent defined by your nationality, you become an Australian. There weren’t many Australians in Sierra Leone, we were an ‘exotic breed’, I sometimes felt like I was very Australian in my manner and attitude. You get more of a sense of your cultural identity when you’re surrounded by people from a different place.

Whereas here you’re just like everyone else.

Do you think someone can comfortably exist in two cultures?
That’s a good question. I felt like I couldn’t live in Sierra Leone forever, I needed a break and needed to come home and be closer to family and friends. I think that’s more of a question for someone like you who has an Australian parent and a Nigerian parent, my family is Australian and I’m always going to be an Aussie in a different place.

There are things about Australia now that make me really uncomfortable. I think that comes from living in a place where people have nothing, and when you settle back into Australia you are reminded all the time that we have this very comfortable middle class comparatively so wealthy life but we still manage to complain.  I hope the lessons of living in Sierra Leone stay with me.  

Has it affected your day to day life?
It has certainly given me some perspective around material wealth and what actually makes me happy. I guess I have an uncomfortable relationship with money, I love having it as much as the next person but I do find myself quietly cringing at the excess around us. I’ve started to find any kind of waste intolerable, I’m not sure if that’s Sierra Leone’s influence or the general state of the environment. I like to think that I don’t have a thirst for new and expensive things like I perhaps once did but I’m still guilty of raking through celebrity Instagram pages and trawling through looking at unaffordable Sydney real estate. Hopefully I’ve started to show a bit more gratitude for stuff that’s easy to take for granted like our excellent public healthcare system.

How long have you been back?
Since January 2016.

As someone who has experienced being a minority in another country, now that you’re back here do you notice diversity here in the streets and on the media?
Yes. I am always looking out for it.

My partner is Sierra Leonean and we live in a very white part of Sydney, so I do get excited when I see another African on the street, probably more excited than he does.

I certainly notice the lack of diversity in Australian mainstream media. Commercial television is just so white and is definitely not reflective of our country. I also notice a lot of casual racism, I don’t think it’s bigotry more like a naivety. When are we going to get to a point where you don’t have to comment on someone’s ethnicity and make assumptions about them because of their ‘foreign’ identity’?


What’s the plan for Fashpack from now on in?
It’s had a second run on the ABC ARTs iView and will screen until August. We would like to get it more widely distributed to a more international audience. It’s had some success in reaching a few film festivals. I’m desperate for the Sierra Leoneans who are in it to see the show. It’s really upsetting to me that they haven’t seen it yet and so many other people have. I’d love to make another documentary, we are always talking about ideas.

THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
Never use fake tan and wear sunscreen.

This interview has been edited.

Photo credits: Jo Dunlop's blog