Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Bloody Past

I’m home for the holidays and I just saw Blood Diamond, the new Leonardo DiCaprio / Jennifer Connelly film about Sierra Leone. Sitting between my parents in the tiny Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, VT, my stomach stuffed with seared scallops and pinot noir from the restaurant down the street, I watched blood-thirsty rebels and brainwashed child soldiers mow down their neighbors and family members in a fictionalized but relatively realistic 1999 Sierra Leone. Then, once Leo and Jennifer were finished gallivanting and proselytizing and falling in love, I emerged – slightly misty-eyed and a bit nauseous – into the clear night and snow-dusted streets, seemingly a universe away from Sierra Leone.

The movie was pretty good. Hollywood-ized, of course, with the requisite love story and journey of self-discovery, but powerful and with a point. And yet, to paraphrase Connelly’s character, it may be enough to make some people cry and others write a check, but it won’t be enough to make it stop. People are still killing one another in brutal ways in places like Darfur and Somalia, and we’re doing virtually nothing about it. “Sierra Leone is now at peace” reads the screen at the end of the film, but there are still “200,000 child soldiers in Africa.”

Meanwhile, back in a now-peaceful Sierra Leone, the memories of the war are achingly fresh. Peace was finally declared (after more than a decade of fighting) less than 5 years ago. The rebel invasion of Freetown, depicted in the movie, happened just 8 years ago. On that day in 1999, hordes of drugged-up, frenzied young fighters murdered, raped, and brutalized their way across the capital city, where I now live and work. Though much has been rebuilt, the city still bears those scars – shelled walls, burnt-out buildings – and so do the people within.

I’ve found that many Sierra Leoneans are disarmingly quick to recount their experiences during the war (or at least to recount a version of those experiences, however selective). It often makes me uncomfortable, hearing someone speak so openly and easily of events too horrible for me to even imagine. It’s a coping mechanism, I suppose – and perhaps a healthier one than the kind of collective silence that you find in many places – but can be strange for the listener.

As an example, I was sitting around with my local research team a few weeks ago at our guest house near Tombo, a fishing village not far from Freetown. We were chatting after dinner about this and that, and at some point talk turned to the war. Or, more accurately, to jokes about the war.

Now these “jokes” were not in the least bit funny to me or to my German colleague Tanja; to us, they were simply terrible (and quite possibly true) stories from the war. But to my researchers, trying – with newly-minted college degrees, new jobs, and hopes for the future – to escape the past and the memories that surround it, these “jokes” were probably cathartic, and definitely hysterical.

Let me give you a few examples. Just as we might say “A rabbi and a priest walked into a bar,” one of the researchers began a joke with “The rebels walked into a mosque…”

The rebels walked into a mosque and said, “Who is the most holy man here?”
People said “Our Imam” and pointed to an old man in the corner.

The Imam waved his hands and said “No no, I’m not the Imam.” The rebels said “Oh, because the Imam was the only person we were going to save.”

So the old man said “Wait, wait, I am the Imam,” to which the rebels replied, “Then you are the first man we will kill.”

Then they shot him.

Funny? The researchers thought so -- they laughed until they cried.

Or here’s another. Amputations were one of the more distinctive atrocities committed during the Sierra Leonean civil war. Men, women, and children alike were robbed of a hand, a foot, or multiple hands and feet, so their injuries could help spread terror of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, or of the other fighting forces. The practice is depicted in Blood Diamond, where a brutal commander says he is taking people’s hands so they will be unable to vote, saying “The government says the future is in your hands, but we have your hands, and we are your future.” (or something like that)

Also portrayed in the movie, and well documented in reports on the war, is the terrible question asked of many amputees: whether they wanted “short sleeves or long sleeves” – meaning whether they wanted their hands cut off just above the wrist, or above the elbow. Well, the Sierra Leoneans had a joke about this too:

A man was led to the cotton tree and his arm placed across the root. The rebel held a machete above his arm and asked “short sleeves or long sleeves.”

The man said, “you’re the tailor, you tell me what would suit me.”


Now I don’t want to portray my researchers – or other Sierra Leoneans – as the kind of people who find such brutality amusing. These are good, intelligent, hard-working young adults, who would no sooner cut off your hand than cut off their own. That is part of what made the whole evening so surreal for Tanja and I. We were not listening to hardened warriors joking around the fire about the day’s exploits, but to the light-hearted humor of “normal” young people.

But these “normal” young people are also people whose youths and childhoods – not to mention friends and loved ones – were stolen by 11 years of civil war, and who were lucky to escape with their lives. Humans forced to withstand the kind of horrors faced in 1990s Sierra Leone must find a way to deal with that trauma, and one way is through humor.

Another way is to move on. Last night, as I grappled with the incongruity of watching my adopted country be torn apart on the big screen while sitting in a movie theater in tranquil small-town Vermont, one of my Sierra Leonean friends was being married in Freetown. If I hadn’t come home for the holidays, I would have been there with him – dancing, laughing, and making new memories to erase the old.

Somehow, that seems the best way to move forward from a bloody past.

Monday, November 27, 2006

For Want of a Cup of Rice (Another Tale of Woe)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not for the (false) history of it – you know, all that jazz about the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down together to a happy cross-cultural feast – but for the meaning it now holds. I know it’s sentimental, but what better premise for a holiday than to join together with the people you love and give thanks for all the blessings in your life?

In Sierra Leone, I am constantly reminded of just how lucky I am, and just how immensely, enormously, profoundly thankful I should be – thankful for a Thanksgiving feast on any day I want it when so many people here go hungry every day; thankful for my Ivy League education when most Sierra Leoneans would be lucky to finish primary school; thankful for my first-world health care when one quarter of children here don’t make it to the age of five.

So, at the risk of dampening your Thanksgiving joy, I want to recount another tale of woe from the last few weeks here in Freetown. I hope you take it as I do – yet another reason to give thanks.

For Want of a Cup of Rice

Two weeks ago my friend Pam and I were driving home around 11 at night, and saw a woman lying face-down on the side of the road, arms and legs splayed and the pot that she’d been carrying on her head thrown a few feet ahead of her.

We were on Wilkinson Road, the main artery through western Freetown, and my first thought was that she had been hit by a car and left for dead.

Pam jumped out while I pulled the car to the side of the road. By the time I joined her, the woman had regained consciousness and a small crowd had formed. One man knelt beside her, fanning her face and trying to find out what happened.

The woman – a young adult, probably in her early 20s – didn’t remember how she ended up on the side of the road. She did not seem to be injured, but was definitely confused and disoriented. The last thing she remembered clearly was leaving her home in Tengbeh Town (a neighborhood a mile or so from where she now lay) to walk to an uncle’s house a few miles further on.

As it turned out, she was lying unconscious by the side of the road not because she'd been hit by a car, but because she hadn’t eaten in two days. She’d left her baby daughter at home (alone)and set off to walk across town to her uncle’s house so she could beg him for a cup of rice.

With a loaf of bread bought from a passing vendor and a bottle of water from my car, she got a bit stronger and more alert – and more concerned about getting home to her daughter. So we gave her some money and arranged for transport to take her home, and then got in our own cars and drove home to sleep.

Of course, we all knew we were doing almost nothing. Probably the very next day she would take to the streets again, searching for a bit of rice to keep herself and her child alive. But what could we do? She and her child are only two out of literally thousands in this city alone (and thousands upon thousands more nationwide) who live on the razor’s edge between life and death.

From time to time we give band-aids – spare change, a loaf of bread – and the rest of the time we work at the big systemic changes needed to end this sort of misery. But such changes are slow and success is elusive, and often you’re not sure if things are moving forward or standing still – or even sliding back.

And sometimes it keeps you up at night. And sometimes it makes you want to scream. And sometimes – like when a young woman lies on the pavement for want of a cup of rice – it makes you want to cry.

But this week, at least, it makes me thankful.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sorcerers, Thiefs and Curses -- A Tale of Woe

Have been much remiss in posting to this site. My apologies to those of you who are frequent readers. At first I was just too busy, and a bit lacking in colorful stories. Lately, I’ve have colorful stories to spare but have been reluctant to share.

You see, it’s been a rough few weeks in Freetown – weeks that boggle the mind and test the nerves – and I’d much rather be a bearer of good news from this much-maligned part of the world than a dealer in the same old tales of woe.

But that’s not really fair either to you or to this complex country and its brave, struggling people. I should portray this place as it truly is – the misery along with the beauty, the frustration and backwardness along with the hope and promise.

And so, a tale of aggravation and woe.

Sorcerers, Thiefs and Curses

My job here is primarily to study how people in Sierra Leone resolve disputes and access justice. I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the barriers to justice, about differing understandings of justice, about competing rules systems and the complexities of a dualist system that combines English common law, various systems of customary law, and deeply held traditional beliefs.

I never expected to become one of my own case studies.

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Pam arrived from the States. We dropped off her stuff at the house and then went out to get a bite to eat. When she checked the next day, several hundred dollars were gone.

It wasn’t the first time that I suspected something was stolen (the most obvious example is that another American friend had $175 disappear when he was visiting, and I convinced him he’d been pickpocketed) but it was the first time that I was sure it disappeared from inside the house. Besides, I didn’t want to accuse anyone without proof, and the most likely suspect – the person who spends the most time upstairs in my apartment, and who sometimes is there without me – was the person I was most certain would not have done it.

This time, we were sure the money had disappeared from inside the house – and, more startling, while the house was locked.

The story gets a bit convoluted at this point, so I’ll spare you some of the details. Basically, one person (the person I trusted the most) told me he’d caught another person (who also lived downstairs) coming out of my locked apartment on two occasions, including the night when the money disappeared. He said the other residents confronted this guy and he admitted to having a key, but denied stealing anything.

The others said this story was false, and begged me for a day to investigate themselves before I told the landlord or the police. I agreed, and they called a “native doctor” – a sorcerer – to find the thief. Such practices are common here, both to uncover guilt and to punish the guilty (by placing a curse). Belief in this sort of witchcraft (called “juju”) is very strong among much of the population – so much so that the mere threat of calling a witchdoctor can often convince a thief to return what was stolen. I later regretted allowing it to go forward, but at the time I was just trying to let them deal with it as they saw fit, particularly as it was a family matter for them.

So the native doctor came to the house to investigate our missing money. I was at work (fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not sure) but I got the story later. All the neighbors and assorted family and friends came over, and the ceremony was conducted outside in full public view. Using potions and spells and a thatched broom, the doctor tested each person in the house in order to discover who was responsible.

Unfortunately, the sorcery turned up nothing, and instead determined that Pam and I were lying and nothing had been stolen at all.

I convinced the people downstairs that this was not true, but we were otherwise at an impasse. We just had no mutual language – in terms we use in our work, no common sets of rules – to deal with the situation. It was like some sort of Through the Looking Glass courtroom, in which the rules of evidence and logic were turned inside out and upside down. Evidence that you consider incontrovertible (X person was seen leaving the premises on the night in question, and was found to be in possession of an unauthorized key to said premises) is deemed irrelevant and inadmissible. Evidence that you consider meaningless and even ridiculous (the sorcerer determined that Y person was innocent and, in fact, that no theft occurred) is deemed incontrovertible. You are left befuddled and powerless. How do you argue your case when you don’t speak the same language? How do you access justice when the rules make no sense to you?

It’s appropriate that I found myself in this position, a parallel to what we talk about as barriers to justice for the poor and marginalized. When a poor, uneducated Sierra Leonean ends up in the “formal” courts – run in the British common law tradition, down to the robes and powdered wigs – she finds herself similarly befuddled and powerless (if anything, considerably more so). Court is held in English, a language she neither speaks nor understands. Rules of evidence are strange and foreign. The facts she considers most pertinent – not only the outcome of sorcery, but also family linkages and historical background – are deemed irrelevant and inadmissible. Even the outcomes are unsatisfying: in small communities (and overcrowded cities) where people must find a way to continue to live side-by-side, even after a nasty dispute, the emphasis is often on reconciliation: “restorative justice”, as those in the business like to say. People seek outcomes like a sincere apology (to “beg” in Krio) or reimbursement for harm done. When the guilty party is instead imprisoned or punished by the courts, no one wins – the victim gets no compensation, the guilty person gets no chance to make amends, and the community is ripped apart.

In my case, things were eventually resolved – after much screaming and crying by everyone downstairs, and many (generally unsuccessful) attempts at mediation on my part – when my landlord called from London and ordered the guilty party evicted and the locks changed. (Typical for Sierra Leone, it took the intervention of a powerful Big Man to resolve the situation.) Tensions remained high for a few weeks, and there were rumors of curses (more juju) against me and my heroic whistleblower, but eventually everyone settled down. They even admitted last week that the whole key story was true.

Now things are pretty much back to normal and I’m starting to feel more at home again, though I’m definitely more suspicious and a little jittery. The other day Pam and I noticed a large bullfrog on my back steps on our way to work in the morning. “Do you think it’s a curse?” she asked. We both laughed... but I was still relieved to find the frog was gone when I got home that night.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A few stunning photos of Freetown's environs

My friend Ajay gets credit for these great pics.

First, the sky above the city.

Second, some kids at a school in Kroo Bay.

Third, a few scenes from that Sierra Leone-Mali game that I wrote about a few postings ago.

Thanks Ajay.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Things We Take for Granted -- Part 3: Emergency Responders

Ambulances and fire trucks have been part of the backdrop of my life for as long as I can recall.

As a child, our house was filled with the endless chatter of a "scanner," the emergency radio that announced calls for the region's volunteer emergency workers. Holidays and family dinners were not infrequently interrupted by the sudden departure of my father or mother to answer calls for the volunteer fire or ambulance squad, and family road trips were occasionally diverted by the smell of smoke or the sight of a roadside accident.

Later, my brothers got in on the act, and I'd be left alone at the table, feeding my mom's dinner to the dog. It’s not that I didn’t want to help – I was a trained first aider and a CPR instructor, after all – but I just never felt the urge to join. Maybe I had spent too long being irked by the interruptions. At my high school graduation, the moment my family liked best was when my speech was interrupted by an ambulance carting off someone's dehydrated granny. The photo, they'll tell you, is priceless: me at the podium in black robe and yellow tassels, trying to look learned and grown-up; behind me, an ambulance with flashing lights.

With such a background, I guess I'm bound to notice that Sierra Leone is, basically, a country without emergency responders. (It’s also, incidentally, a country without fire detectors. Chief Manning, wanna send me a few?)

A man and his young daughter were killed recently in a fire in Freetown. My research assistant, Gibrill, spent most of the night – with the rest of his neighbors – carting buckets of water to douse the flames. The fire department (I guess there is one, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truck) turned up only after all was said and done.

Last Sunday, I was at the scene of a nasty accident. Two motorbikes hit one another and skittered off in different directions. One driver was badly scraped, but the other was much worse. He wobbled away but then collapsed, unconscious, on the side of the road. As a crowd gathered, a few people fanned his face to give him air, while others stared at the carnage: thick blood dripping from his mouth, shirt plastered with blood. Several others scurried around trying to arrange a vehicle to take him to the hospital, while a man with a whistle (why does he have a whistle? does he carry it always?) tried to slow the passing traffic.

I stood nearby in a state close to shock, wanting to help but not really knowing how, waiting for the familiar sirens but knowing that none were coming. I stepped through the crowd to check if the driver was still breathing. I told the man supporting his limp body not to move his neck or head. I turned to ask the policewoman if they had found a vehicle yet – planning to offer to bring him in my car, something I should have done from the get-go – but was told that a truck was ready to take him. More minutes passed. The man vomited suddenly, and I began to think he might die in front of me. I started to wish that my mom was there.

Eventually they loaded the man into a poda-poda and sped him off over potholed roads to the nearest hospital. I had precious little hope for the outcome: Too much time had passed, he was too badly banged up, and the hospital (once they got there) was probably too short on supplies and expertise.

As we climbed back in the car and continued on our way, I was overcome with emotion – most prominently, anger and disappointment at myself for not doing more to help. I should have stepped in from the very beginning, taken charge, ensured that his neck was kept as stable as possible and his airway kept open, had him put in my car without delay, sped him off to the closest doctor.

But I didn’t. I was paralyzed with uncertainty. I deferred to those who had already taken charge. I acted only belatedly, and only with hesitation. A half hour after we’d left the scene, I collapsed in tears, haunted by what I’d seen and (not) done.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that I didn’t do more. Back home, I’m not supposed to be the one to take charge. I’m not supposed to be the hero. That role belongs to my family members – or to the others that arrive with flashing lights and blaring sirens. My job is to keep the person breathing, keep them still, stop any major bleeding, and call 911. That’s what the Red Cross taught me.

But here in Salone, calling 911 won’t get you anywhere. If you want to save someone’s life, you have to take a little more initiative.

Next time, I tell myself firmly, I will.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Alhassan's story

Alhassan* lives in a small room behind my house, next to the outdoor kitchen. He is just one of a whole cast of characters that share the downstairs of my house -- I'll introduce you some other time to Adama, Mariatu, Aja, Abdul, Alieu, and the kids -- but is one most responsible for "helping" me.

I know it seems strange to most of you living in the States, but here it is expected that you have People to do things like clean and carry and guard and go-for. Alhassan is my People. He manages the generator and stays up (or sleeps with someone's cell phone) to open the gate when I'm out late. He does my laundry, cleans my flat, and helps with various chores -- like finding someone to connect my new gas burner -- whenever I ask, and finds his own ways to help (like washing my car) if I don't.

Alhassan has quickly become one of my favorite people here (and not just because he does all the chores I hate). He has an enormous, infectious grin and flashes of irreverence and biting humour, and at 17 years old, strikes an odd and earnest balance between teenager and middle-aged worrying mother that is both endearing and utterly amusing.

Last night, Alhassan was hanging out on my balcony chatting about this and that, and he ended up telling me his story. I'd heard only bits and pieces before, and was struck by the confluence of hardship and perseverence -- and by his smile and light manner as he recounted even the most difficult periods.

Alhassan was born in a village in Port Loko, a district not too far from Freetown. His mother left him when he was just a baby -- he knows nothing of her -- and he spent his early childhood with an abusive father and stepmother. At the age of six, after a severe beating and a scary incident involving a large kitchen knife, he left his father's house and went to stay with his grandparents.

Though his grandparents and parents (like nearly two-thirds of Sierra Leoneans) had never been to school, Alhassan decided he wanted an education. His grandparents could not afford the fees -- and didn't really see the value of school -- and so Alhassan began cutting and selling wood to earn money for school. I can picture him: a tiny child (he's none too large even now) perched by the side of the road with a pile of wood, eagerly awaiting customers.

Some years later, Alhassan was slowly working his way through primary school when an uncle offered to bring him to Freetown. He came, but quickly became mired in a sort of domestic slavery for his uncle, who refused to pay for him to attend school.

Still fixated on getting an education, Alhassan spent every free moment (few as they were) downtown, porting for spare change. When he'd raised enough money, he approached his uncle and asked permission to go back to school. The uncle agreed and took Alhassan's money -- but then "ate" it (stole it).

Undeterred, Alhassan went back to town and raised the money again, and this time made sure it went to pay for fees and books and uniform. But things did not improve with his uncle, and eventually Alhassan came to the attention of "Mama Adama" (as he calls her), who offered to let him move into the house where I now live.

With Adama's help and his own hard work (and smarts), Alhassan won admission a few years ago to one of the best secondary schools in Freetown, and this year will take the exam to pass from junior secondary to senior secondary school. He plans to go on to college after that. (Somehow, I don't doubt that he will.)

Stories of hardship like that of Alhassan's childhood are not uncommon here -- and neither, amazingly, is his resilience. It's such resilience, combined with a dose of optimism, good humour, and hard work, that represent this country's best hope.

Also not uncommon is generosity like Mama Adama's. Foreigners are often annoyed by how often they are asked for money here -- not only by beggers on the street, but by coworkers, acquaintances and friends. Many assume they are being taken advantage of because they are white, or foreign. What they don't realize is that asking for help is perfectly acceptable here -- and giving help is almost expected of the "Big Men" who have the power to give.

If you stand with the beggars in Freetown's center, you'll notice that most of the big white SUVs -- NGO or development agency logos emblazoned proudly on their sides-- drive by without a pause, or with just a guilty, apologetic smile. But from the taxis and cars driven by Sierra Leoneans come spare coins and bills, and maybe a bit of normal, everyday conversation.

And if you ask even better-off Sierra Leoneans, many will tell of a time when they had to ask for support from a distant relative, neighbor, or even acquaintance -- help to pay school fees, help to pay hospital fees, help to start a small business. They accept that others will ask the same of them now that the tables have turned, and though they may not always relish the opportunity (and sometimes try to dodge it) I'd guess that most will eventually repay the favour.

A similar tendency is evident elsewhere in Africa. Steve, one of my closest friends here, is from Tanzania and works for an NGO in Salone. He is about my age, unmarried, and this is his first time living outside of Tanzania. Yesterday, Steve told me that he pays the school fees every year for five (5!) of his nieces and nephews back in TZ. Though he grumbles a bit ("It doesn't seem fair -- they're not my kids!") he also wouldn't refuse.

I suppose this generosity has a downside -- after all, hasn't self-interest and the concentration of wealth been a driver of "progress" in the U.S (or has it...), and familial expectations can lead easily to nepotism and corruption -- but it is a much-needed safety net in a country (and continent) where well-being is tenuous at best, and the state is ill-equipped to provide for those in need.

Besides, it makes the world feel a little less harsh.

*Alhassan is not really named Alhassan.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Chaotic Sunday with the Leone Stars

I spent yesterday afternoon at the national stadium, watching Sierra Leone's "Leone Stars" take on Mali’s national football team in a qualifying match for the African Cup.

Overwhelmed by the spectacle of sights and sounds, I seem to have lost all powers of narration, and can offer nothing more than a few disconnected snippets – a kaleidoscope of contrasting images.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. (Really, I did.)


Climbing over barbed wire and pushing through a jostling crowd to enter the stadium.

Police in riot helmets beating people with whips and batons.

An all-male pep squad (of sorts) clad head to toe in green, white, and blue – one sporting a Dr. Seuss striped hat and a cape, another wearing nothing but a g-string and a lot of body paint – clowning around on the sidelines: turning cartwheels, hamming for the crowd, kneeling on Salonian flags to pray.

Stunning views of Freetown’s hills.

A high-stepping band leader strutting his way along the sideline, leading his marching police band and balancing a four-foot staff upon his chin.

Masses of people pushing and shoving their way into Section 21 while a beleaguered handful of police officers tried in vain to hold them back.

A fat man beating back the crowd with an amputee’s cane.

Hot sun on the back of my neck.

Young men climbing in breakneck fashion along handrails and over razor-wire fences in search of a seat or a better view.

An army-green ambulance straight out of M*A*S*H.

Dozens of soldiers and police officers lounging near the teams’ benches, watching the game in peace, while chaos reigned in the stands behind.

Dancing, drumming Malian fans.

Shouting, cheering Salonian fans.

Sweating, scrambling players.

90 minutes of football.

Zero goals.

One fabulous, chaotic Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Soggy Freetown… and Dakarois Diversions

Today is a day that makes you want to crawl back into bed with a good book and a hot cup of tea. Actually, that's exactly what I did this morning (minus the tea -- I finished the kerosene last night making popcorn and so am stove-less). I awoke around 7 to the daily rooster cacophony and the telltale sounds of an all-out deluge. Pulling on a long sleeve shirt to ward off the morning chill (okay, only a chill by African standards, but you get soft to the cold quickly over here), I snuggled in with Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy. (Yes, I'm reading Pride and Prejudice in Freetown. Sometimes a little contrast is good for the soul.)

A few hours later, peering sheepishly at the clock on the wall and bemoaning the rain, which had not let up in the slightest, I finally dragged myself out of bed and into the shockingly cold shower. I’d allowed myself a lazy morning because I’d be sticking around work for a 10 p.m. videoconference (that’s what you get coordinating across Washington, Freetown, and Sydney), but I figured lying in bed still at 9:30 was pushing it.

And so, my pants rolled up to my knees and my feet encased in the clammy smelliness of my rain sneakers, I ventured forth into the dismal day. Our compound was mostly deserted: the kids peeked out at me from the back door, and my dedicated helper (houseboy/little brother/friend) Idrissa emerged from the dry comfort of the house to open the gate and close it behind me, but otherwise all I saw were two very soggy and pathetic chickens trying to shelter by the garage door.

It’s enough to make me positively yearn for the sunshine of Senegal, in which I basked shamelessly last week. Not to overstate things – it’s also rainy season in Senegal, and we did get drenched once or twice – but the weather there was spectacular compared to today. I still have the tan (and peeling shoulders) to show for several days of delighted sun worship: first while wandering around Goree Island (see photos) – a stunning place filled with bright Mediterranean colors, and with a somewhat contested historical legacy as a slave gateway – and then exploring the beach-turned-artist’s colony, Toubab Diallo.

I was in Senegal for a quick getaway with a friend from the States who had come all the way to West Africa to visit me. I figured Salone alone wasn’t enough to warrant the trip – and besides, was looking for an excuse myself to get out of town for a few days – and so we headed north a few hundred miles (by air, of course) to the French-speaking Senegal.

The contrasts between Senegal and Sierra Leone were striking (if predictable). Senegal is much more industrialized and much less poor than Sierra Leone. Dakar is officially twice the size of Freetown but feels much larger, with modern (if somewhat crumbly) high-rises, fully tarred (if often potholed) roads, and an arid flatness that stood in stark opposition to the lush forested hills of the Freetown peninsula.

I was fascinated by the trappings of modernity: Nando's fast-food chicken (a favorite from my days in South Africa), Mobil mini-marts with fully-stocked shelves, streetlights. Jason was fascinated by the mosquitoes – considerably more vicious than in Salone – and by the fact that all the street sellers spoke to him in Italian. (Dakar is a destination for European tourists, and we were usually pegged as either Spanish, to my delight, or Italian, to Jason’s delight.) The tourist traffic means that Dakar also sports a full retinue of vendors and con artists, all eager to talk, sell, guide... Freetown, on the other hand, is a vacation destination for – well, for the rare intrepid souls like Jason, and those living in places like Monrovia or Conakry – and thus tends to leave you to your own devices.

My favorite part of the trip, by far, was an evening of live music with a new friend and freelance journalist, Rose. (See her wonderful blog, now linked from mine.) Senegal is known for its music – having produced, among many others, the legendary Youssou Ndour – and Rose is a bit of an expert, writing extensively on West African music. I had never met her, but used the kind of thin connection that only works on the far side of the world – “I used to hang out with your brother’s girlfriend’s butler” – to convince her to take us out for a night on the town. And it was well worth it: ensconced in low comfy couches in a tiny lounge, just a few feet from the musicians, I soaked in the kind of rich, melodic, soul-stirring music that I long for here. (In Freetown, a “live” show is actually someone lip-syncing to their own recording, which itself involves no instrumentation beyond an electronic keyboard. Entertaining in its own right, but no Youssou Ndour.)

On the whole, though, I did not fall in love with Senegal or the Senegalese. To be fair, the fault lay in large part in my own inability to communicate with anyone we met. (Despite the best of intentions, I arrived in the country able to say little more in French than “I don’t understand” and “Where is the toilet?”) Perhaps the most entertaining consequence was one memorable night at a swanky Dakar establishment, where the bartender – who spoke not a word of English – decided to try to woo me via Jason. At one point, when I went to the bathroom, he spent several minutes trying to determine my marital status; Jason, though he understood the gist of the question, was not sure whether he was being asked if I was married or if I was single (an important distinction for a Yes or No question). It was all a bit like junior high, when you’d approach the best friend of the girl you liked instead of the girl herself. I spent most of the night in silent bemusement, looking back and forth between Jason and the bartender (at least 10 years my senior, by the way) as they struggled to communicate. Needless to say (?) Monsieur Bartender and I did not ride off into the sunset together, but Jason and I did get free drinks all night. That’s something.

But language difficulties (and generous bartenders) aside, I found the Senegalese to be much less warm than Sierra Leoneans. (Perhaps tellingly, the nicest woman we met – proprietress of a small eatery on the beach in Toubab Diallo – turned out to be from Sierra Leone.) Though I feel bad making the comparison, I’m also somewhat delighted to find that I’ve become so partial to Salone and Salonians. Just give this country a little time to fix up the roads and rebuild the hotels and the tourists will be coming in droves.

And on that note, out into the rainy night I go…

Monday, August 07, 2006

It's raining, it's pouring ...

I keep searching for words to describe the deluge of rainy season in Freetown: the pouring and rushing and gushing and flooding and all-out inundation that has saturated this city in recent weeks. It rains almost every day, and the sun is a rare and revered vision. Yesterday, the mere glimpse of morning rays spurred the city to an orgy of laundry-washing, stroll-taking, spring-cleaning, and sun-basking, and prompted some friends and I to pile into a battered IRC utility jeep and brave the flooded and potholed road to Lakka beach. (Unfortunately, the clouds arrived before we did, and the rain was not far behind.)

The mere frequency of rainshowers would be striking enough, but the truly jaw-dropping, mind-boggling, indescribable thing is the sheer power of the rain. Never in my life have I seen water fall from the sky in such quantities, so quickly, and for such duration. Take the heaviest, most violent rainstorm you've ever experienced – maybe a sudden afternoon downpour in a tropical locale that churned the ocean into a frenzy; maybe an early-spring drenching that seeped hungrily into the hard, semi-frozen ground and chilled you to the bone. Remember the pounding, drenching, driving rain. Remember how it poured in through that one window you left open; how it flooded your basement in a matter of hours; how it made you want to curl up inside, warm and dry.

Now, multiply that storm by a magnitude of 10… or 20… or 50. Imagine rain that arrives in a rush but lasts for hours – or days – without letting up for a moment, pounding loud enough to wake you from the deepest sleep and turning streets into rushing rivers. Within moments, water surges out of overfull gutters and rushes down every incline, washing piles of mud and gravel and hefty stones from dirt side-streets into the main tarred thoroughfare, and carving new gullies in already deeply-rutted roads. Sometimes it feels as though the whole city will be washed away.

Venture outside in the heaviest rain and even a golf umbrella won’t keep you dry. Many of the locals cover their hair with a plastic bag and just accept the drenching; others are clad head-to-toe in plastic fisherman-style rainsuits, with knee-high rubber boots. When it gets really bad -- when roads are impassible, when the rain seems to pour through your umbrella and to pound upward from the sidewalk – many people succumb, hunkering down somewhere dry. Appointments are delayed, plans revised, workdays interrupted… but not for long. As soon as there is the slightest easing of the monsoon – from a deluge to a mere downpour – people set forth again, picking their way along the highest ground or slogging through mud and shin-deep puddles.

Nonetheless, there is a certain romance and majesty and fellowship to it all. It can also be gloriously fun. I remember the very first really strong rain we got. It woke me up early one Saturday morning, pounding me out of bed and luring me to the open porch on the front of our house. I found my housemate, Ajay, lining the front courtyard with buckets and basins and giant pickle barrels to capture the precious drops (we were in the midst of a water shortage at the time), and filling dozens of empty 1-liter water bottles. I ran out to join him, ostensibly to help but really to revel in this remarkable, refreshing, invigorating shower. Laughing, I turned my face to the sky, feeling the giant droplets pound on my face, drench my hair and clothes, and run in rivulets down my neck, my back, my legs. I twirled in circles, face still upturned and arms outstretched. Then I squelched through the puddles and toward Ajay, splashing him with a full basin and shaking water from my hair until I dissolved into childish giggles.

Another shower early in the season caught me downtown, walking along Siaka Stevens Street. I was carrying an enormous black umbrella, and a young professional, umbrella-less, passed on my left and said with a wry smile, “Aren’t you going to cover me?” So I did, sharing my umbrella as long as we shared paths, then smiling to myself as he darted off down a side street with a parting wave.

The next day, in almost the same spot, I was walking through another afternoon inundation. A young girl of maybe nine or ten, drenched to the skin through her ragged tank top and shorts, passed me in a near run. “Sistah,” I called to her. “You want to walk with me?” Nodding shyly, she agreed, and we walked a few blocks under my umbrella in near silence – her nodding or shaking her head in response to my questions, but never saying a word nor turning her eyes from the pavement. When we reached Pademba Road, she turned up and I turned down and she ran off again through the pouring rain, dodging puddles.

I try to remember how much I enjoyed these early rainstorms, before the hassle of the rain and the unbroken greyness of the days began to get to me. Yesterday, when the shift in weather drove us from our spot on the sand and under the cover of a nearby restaurant, I tried not to grumble about the lost sunshine. After all, we were still sipping beers and playing cards on a beach – hardly a bad way to spend a Sunday. And the ocean was, if anything, more beautiful in the rain: a stunning silver-grey against a steely sky, the surf pounding boisterously upon the beach.

Besides, we’re just one week into August. There’s still a long, wet way to go before the sun returns.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Poda-poda proclamations

Most of the minibus taxis plying Sierra Leone's potholed roads sport rather dramatic proclamations across their battered, road-worn noses. The vast majority are religious -- divided roughly evenly between Christian, Muslim, and indeterminate -- and a good number (oddly) echo American patriotic phrases.

Here's a selection that I spotted in just one morning commute:

In God We Trust
Live on Hope
De Commoners
God na God (a Krio phrase meaning "God is God")
United We Stand
God Bless
Face Reality
Mother's Blessing
Fear Judgement Day
Praise Be to God

And two of my favorites that I see periodically around Freetown:

I am covered in the blood of Jesus Christ
The Sorriest Part

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Scenic Salone

More pictures, as promised. First, some of Koinadugu's beautiful green mountains. This is in the northern part of Sierra Leone, approaching the Guinean border.

Second, two views of Tokeh, my favorite of the beaches near Freetown.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Young Salone in Pictures

I've gotten complaints about the lack of pictures in my blogs, so I thought I'd try to remedy that, starting with a collection of kids' photos (I have a soft spot for them). The technology has balked at uploading any more pictures today, but I promise more will follow -- including some of Salone's stunning scenery. (And for those of you who were worried: yes, the water is back on in Freetown. Reservoir is up to 30 feet and a potential public health disaster seems to have been averted. Phew.)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Things We Take for Granted -- Part 2: Water

As I write this, Freetown is in the midst of a severe water shortage. It has me a little anxious (and more than a little dirty), and thinking about how much we take water for granted.

Walk into your bathroom or kitchen and turn on the tap. Out flows safe, clean water -- hot or cold -- for your drinking, cooking, bathing, cleaning, flushing, and general wetting pleasure.

This certain and bountiful supply is not available here in Salone. In much of the country, as in much of the continent of Africa, people (usually women and girls) spend long hours each day lugging buckets of water from wells or rivers, often over long distances. This water is not purified or treated, and is often contaminated, but nonetheless serves for drinking and cooking as well as bathing and cleaning. Waterborne diseases are common and sometimes fatal, contributing to a life expectancy of just 37 years, and one of the world’s highest child mortality rates: 296 boys and 269 girls out of every 1000 die before the age of 5.

Even in Freetown, and even under the best of circumstances, only a subset of the population has access to piped water inside their homes. Many use communal outdoor taps, like the one just up the path from my house, which means the sight of women and children carting sloshing buckets is nearly as common within the city as in the rural areas. But at least this water is treated and relatively safe to drink.

Normally, I have running water in my house (cold only) from the municipal water supply. Toilets flush, sink taps function. I shower by filling sawed-off 1.5-liter plastic bottles from a knee-level tap, which is actually much more pleasant than you might imagine – except on chilly mornings, when the cold water makes for a rude awakening. My house is shielded from periodic water outages by two water tanks, also filled from the municipal supply, which provide several days’ worth of water if the municipal supply runs dry. (In such cases our neighbors, particularly one very sweet 17-year-old girl and her young brothers, will occasionally turn up to get a few buckets of water from our tap.) Like most foreigners, I don’t drink the water, but I use it for everything else.

As I write this, however, Freetown is in the midst of a severe water shortage. The reservoir at the Guma Valley dam, in Freetown’s suburbs, has dropped to just 6 feet, its lowest level since it was built in 1967 and well below its 100 foot capacity. Blame is placed on deforestation and unusually low rainfall in recent months, but the water company’s failure to anticipate or take steps to mitigate the situation is also criticized. Another culprit is the swelling Freetown population; originally built to serve 300,000 people, the dam now provides water to more than 1 million.

As a result, water has been sharply rationed over the past week or so, leaving many people without enough for daily use. What does arrive is discolored and full of silt from the reservoir bottom. Some families have managed to dig wells in swampy areas, or are forced to collect water from the immensely polluted streams and rivers around town, but neither water source is safe for drinking. Others collect as much as possible when the taps do turn on, and then make do with what they have until the water comes back.

In my house, we still have a bit of water in our tanks, thanks to careful rationing in the past few days, but it won't last long. We bathe much less frequently and with much less water, and leave toilets un-flushed for as long as possible, but still we watch the level drop by a few inches every day. And we are far luckier than most Freetonians, not least because we can afford to buy bottled drinking water, and (if push comes to shove) pre-filled tanks at $50 apiece to use for other purposes. But still, I feel dirty and anxious – much more for my neighbors than for myself – and I worry that things will get much worse before they get better.

Concern grows by the day about the health consequences if the shortage continues. An unrelated but timely cholera outbreak in another major Sierra Leonean city, Kenema, feels like a dark warning of things to come. UN agencies and NGOs review plans for emergency measures. Prices for bottled water, already out of reach for the majority of poorer residents, climb as nervous residents stockpile drinking water. With a slightly guilty conscience, I buy my extra cases of water and make plans to head upcountry next week (where the rains have been normal and there is no shortage) if things don’t improve.

Meanwhile, everyone hopes for rain – the one way out of this crisis. A Muslim cleric called for a day of prayer today to ask God to send rain, and I’m sure many Christian services will do the same this weekend. I rather hope it works.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

World Cup, Kamalo-style

Just before England and Portugal kicked off their quarter-final World Cup game today, the streets of Freetown were awash in yellow-and-green clad Brazillian fans gearing up for their team's game against France later tonight. (The English fans, also plentiful here, presumably had already crammed into bars and makeshift theaters around the city.) World Cup fever is perhaps not as intense here as it is in much of the world – I hear Mexico City pretty much shuts down every time there is a game – but it has certainly captivated legions of Salonians over the past few weeks.

My own favorite match thus far was when Italy faced off against USA – an exciting game in its own right, but much more so for the venue and company with which I watched it.

At the time, I was traveling upcountry with one of my supervisors from Washington (Yongmei) and a Sierra Leonean research assistant (Phillip). We were spending the night in Kamalo, a remote village (officially a town, but you’d never guess it) and headquarters of Sanda Loko chiefdom in Bombali district. Sanda Loko, we were told, is one of the poorest chiefdoms in one of the poorest districts in Sierra Leone – but as the guests of the family of a high-ranking government official, we were showered with hospitality. The family even bought us a goat, giving us the choice to either bring it back to Freetown with us or let them slaughter and prepare it for lunch. (We chose the latter).

Incongruously, and thanks to the official’s family, Kamalo boasted a satellite TV “theater” in the center of town: a non-nonsense, rectangular clapboard building, zinc-roofed and windowless (to prevent non-paying peekers), with a chalkboard outside to advertise the feature show. These type of theaters are a common sight around Sierra Leone – dozens of similar but smaller versions pepper the neighborhoods of Freetown and other major towns, each with a chalkboard outside listing the day’s games and the price of admission – but it was not something I’d expected to find at the end of the long, rough dirt road we’d just trekked.

Showing that day were two World Cup games: Ghana vs. Czech Republic at 3 p.m., and USA vs. Italy at 7. We arrived in town too late to watch Ghana’s 2-0 victory, but for the second game, Yongmei offered to pay the admission fee – Le 500, or about 15 cents – for everyone in town, so we could all watch it together.

Thus, a few hours later, we joined a crowd jostling its way inside the theater. The room was large, hot, and dim. At one end was a medium-sized color TV, and facing it were several dozen rows of wooden benches, stretching back in tight formation. A second TV stood some ten feet to the right, with a corresponding seating area, but it was small and the picture was poor, and everyone chose to squeeze in front of the better set.

I took a seat near the front, so it was only at halftime when I turned around and saw the sea of faces behind me – men, women, and children, sitting, standing, and stretching to peer over shoulders and heads – that I realized just how many had crammed into the building. (We were later told the total was around 300). Smaller children clustered at the very front, plopping themselves down on the dirt floor, or clambered onto the laps of relatives or strangers (including me), and a gaggle of latecomers crammed the doorway, blocking any hope of a cooling breeze.

The crowd threw itself into the game, with loyalty split pretty evenly between the two teams. I also embraced the fun: trash-talking with a young Italian supporter to my right and celebrating (or commiserating, as appropriate) with an enthusiastic American fan in front of me. The game itself was an exciting one: two goals, three red cards (a penalty used to throw a player out of the tournament, leaving his team shorthanded for the duration of the game), and much drama in between. At one point, with the game still tied 1-1, the Americans slipped the ball beautifully into the net, and the middle-aged man in front of me – an elected local councilor and probably the most enthusiastic USA supporter in the room – grabbed me in a crushing embrace, bouncing both of us up and down in paroxysms of joy. Only after several minutes did the news filter through his enthusiasm that the goal had been called a no-goal by the referees. He released me in horror and disbelief, and I was really afraid he might start to cry.

The game ended in a draw, and as we spilled out into the darkness after the closing whistle, I joined my fellow USA fans in grumbling about the poor officiating and tough breaks, and commiserating about a game we felt we should have won. But really I was just delighted at the whole experience, and started grinning as soon as I was out of sight.

I'm heading down to a bar on Lumley Beach now to watch the Brazil game with a couple of Tanzanian friends. I'm sure it will be a great game, but I somehow doubt it will match Kamalo in terms of style.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Lungi departures

I recently traveled home to the U.S. for a wedding, a reunion, and some family time, and am currently posting from a friend's apartment in New York City. What follows is nearly verbatim from my journal entry while waiting to depart Lungi (Freetown's airport) a few weeks ago.

I love this airport scene. Okay, I love it and hate it, as I am stuck in an interminable line in steamy heat. But still...

I’m in Freetown’s Lungi airport, several stages into the rather extended departure process. First step was lugging – with the help of a very kind housemate – my enormous suitcase along the dirt road from my house to Wilkinson Road. Second was the taxi – crammed with 5 passengers, 1 driver, 2 suitcases and a backpack – to the hovercraft launch. Then the hovercraft itself: a large ferry, of sorts, bottomed with an enormous black inflatable tube, which brings you from Aberdeen across the bay to Lungi in 20 minutes. (For a bit more money, you can save 10 minutes and take a helicopter, but this time I decided to try the water route).

And now I’m standing in line for what seems to be security, to be followed (I presume) by immigration, check-in, and boarding. Three hours after leaving home, I still have three more hours to my 10:30 p.m. scheduled departure – if the flight departs on time, of course, instead of the frequent 8-12 (yes, twelve) hour delay.

Meanwhile, I’m entertained by the scene at the airport. Jostling and loud, chaotic and confusing, the crowd is a pageant of colors and personalities.

I’m dazzled by the array of West African matriarchs, splendid in their colorful regalia, serene, dignified, and utterly immune to the chaos around them. The elder aunties sit in a line against the wall; my favorite, even plumper than the rest, is bedecked from head to toe in shocking baby-meets-fuscia pink. I probably like her best because she smiled at me when I first passed, stepping gingerly over her toes and trying to maneuver my massive suitcase without any casualties.

I’m amused by the patchwork of uniforms. Policemen wear silly blue shirts with white sleeves, or the slightly more dignified pressed blue sleeves. (I’ve yet to discern the reason for the difference). The porters wear either mechanic-style light blue shirts and everyday pants, or ridiculous orange jumpsuits – a choice that seems roughly generational. And of course there are the white foreigners, too many of whom are outfitted in safari-style khaki, often involving too-short, too-tight shorts on pale white legs.

I’m intrigued by the occasional altercations that pop up intermittently around the hot, crowded terminal. The most recent was a shouting and shoving match between a cop, a well-dressed Sierra Leonean man, and a disheveled, wild-eyed white man with a mop of wiry black hair and the obligatory khaki green uniform. It ended peacefully, as far as I could tell, and provoked only mild interest from the crowd.

The line snakes endlessly back and forth, a parade of towering luggage carts, some pushed by passengers, others by porters. The cart in front of me has been abandoned – I think it had something to do with a noisy argument earlier between a plainclothes porter and an airport official – and is left to be pushed along by passing porters and, sometimes, me. Eventually, the people behind me in line convince me to skirt the lonely cart and push onward. As we leave it behind, I wonder what will become of it – or its owner – and I clutch my own cart tightly.

Of popcorn and peanuts

So for those of you thinking that Freetown seems to offer little more than frustration and privation, I’ve got two words for you: peanuts and popcorn.

Both of these everyday delicacies abound around town. Peanuts, known locally as groundnuts, are a staple in Sierra Leone, grown widely and used extensively in local dishes. But this does not detract from their deliciousness when purchased, warm and roasted, from a roving streetside vendor. They are carried in a large flat tin platter, balanced (like most loads) upon the head of a (usually young and female) salesperson. Measured out by the cupful and wrapped in newspaper, they cost just a few pennies for a healthy handful.

And such taste! Forget your can of roasted Planters, munched from the living room couch in front of the Patriots game. Forget, even, those steaming carts of roast nuts that pepper the streets of Manhattan. These Salonean peanuts are simply a delight: carefully roasted and then exposed all day to the beating rays of the African sun, they are an explosion of hot salty flavor.

If peanuts are a predictable Sierra Leonean treat, popcorn is an unexpected delight. I can't remember the first time I noticed, while winding in a jam-packed taxi through Freetown’s maze of narrow streets and alleys, an old-fashioned, movie-house popcorn maker perched incongruously in front of a tiny tuck shop. Dazzling beside the dusty street, these red and chrome poppers – seemingly more at home in a circus tent than an African capital city – are a common sight around Freetown. Much of the time they sit silently, bellies full of fresh, uniformly delicious (seriously, PopSecret can’t hold a candle to it) popcorn.

But sometimes, when you’re lucky, you find one in action: popping cheerfully above the whirr of the generator, tempting nearby noses with the heavenly scent of newly-popped corn. I think the proprietors of one particular popper, along the main road through Tengbeh Town, time their popping to coincide with my commute. They sit grinning beside their trusty machine, knowing that its smell is torturing those of us stuck in taxis in the crawling, often standstill evening traffic. When I (inevitably) cave and buy a plastic baggie-full of that delicious, freshly popped corn – available sweet or salty – they calmly take my few hundred leones, utterly unconcerned that they’ve ruined my dinner.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Overnight in Bumpeh

Last week, I spent five days "upline" or "upcountry" -- meaning outside of Freetown and its environs – touring chiefdoms in Bo and Tonkolili Districts. It was a rich and fascinating experience that I'm sure will provide fodder for more than one posting, but for now I'll start with one particularly memorable night spent in a village in Bumpeh-Ngao chiefdom.

I'm sitting on a hard wooden chair, wobbling a bit on the uneven dirt, and a young girl named Hawe is asleep on my lap. It's nighttime, the moon is nowhere to be seen, and we've turned off the kerosene lantern, so the only light comes from the expanse of stars above our heads.

With me are a small group of new friends. Vivek, the American founder of an organization providing primary justice services in these villages. Joseph, one of the organization's community-based paralegals. A few of Joseph’s family members and neighbors. Our driver Mr. Tarawally. A smattering of children play quietly in the dirt nearby, and from beyond our little circle come the sounds of evening domesticity, mixed with the buzz and churn of the jungle at night.

Vivek and Mr. Tarawally and I have just finished dinner: rice and groundnut stew (canned beans for the vegetarian Vivek) prepared by Joseph's wife. We are tired from a long day of driving on dusty, rutted, rocky, poorly-maintained roads, and from the sweltering heat of the Sierra Leonean interior. This is the third night of our five-day trip, and one of the more remote villages that we are to visit. We are staying at an amputee camp, built by international NGOs to house a few of the thousands of people who lost arms, hands, or other limbs to Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. (Earlier, when I’d shook the hand of one of our hosts, I felt fingers that had been cut off before the first knuckle. His other arm ended in a stump just above the wrist.)

Joseph is standing in the shadows a few yards away from me, recounting some of this area’s experiences during the war. A slight man with a soft smile, he has a deceptively calm demeanor, but is tough and independent. In measured tones, he tells of one night when the RUF rebels entered a nearby village in search of his brother. Not finding him, they punished the villagers instead, killing dozens and terrorizing the rest. The brother survived, but the village was decimated.

As Vivek asks questions, gently probing the raw wound of the story, I think about Joseph’s brother and wonder how he must feel when he remembers the lives taken in his name. And I think about Joseph, who speaks with quiet rage of the atrocities committed against his neighbors, and wonder where he – like so many of his countrymen – finds his reserves of forgiveness (or resignation?) that allow him to live side-by-side with his former tormentors.

As Hawe’s head lolls heavily against my shoulder, I am overcome by my own exhaustion, and I struggle to follow the conversation. Idly, I realize that these stories of brutality and hardship have become so normal that they barely keep me awake.

In the morning, Vivek and Joseph and Mr. Tarawally and I – accompanied by Joseph’s young son – walk down to the nearby river for a swim. We reach the water by way of a narrow footpath, and find a few adolescent boys already there, washing themselves and their clothes upon the rocks. The river is broad and deep and slow-moving, and appears black against the brilliant green of the surrounding vegetation. The locals believe that there are ancestral spirits that live in this river, and on this morning, I am tempted to believe them.

We dive in, and the water feels crisp and refreshing. Vivek and I paddle out and away from shore (to the great consternation of Joseph, who does not swim, and the great envy of his son), stretching our cramped muscles and washing away the sweat and dirt from the previous day – and, perhaps, the stories of the night before. As the men soap themselves and banter back and forth, I float on my back and listen to their laughter.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Things We Take for Granted -- Part 1: Lights

"Salone" (the local name for Sierra Leone) is frequently a lesson in "things we take for granted". Here is the first of many on my running list:

1. Lights

I'd been warned about Freetown's "frequent power outages" -- but it turns out this is more a case of "infrequent power provision." (Note: anywhere outside of Freetown, there is no such thing as a public electricity grid, so even the patchy power here in the capital is a luxury.) The National Power Authority, through some mix of ineptidue, corruption, and scarce resources, can manage to provide power to only a fraction of the city at any given time. If you live near a government minister or NPA employee, you might get light almost every night, for a few hours. If you live in a normal middle-class neighborhood, you might get it once or twice a week. If you live in a poorer part of town, your part of the grid will almost never be turned on.

Wealthier Sierra Leoneans and expats -- along with businesses -- have gas-powered generators, which guzzle expensive fuel and churn out electricity (in homes, usually just for a few hours a day) to power lights and fans, charge laptops and cell phones, and provide other luxuries of modern life. Everyone else just relies on candles.

The lack of electricity is perhaps most striking in the urban center, just after the sun goes down. The first time I stayed late at work and walked out of my building and into a pitchblack street, I was literally struck dumb. Around me were all the trappings of urbanity -- modern buildings, crowded streets -- but in near total darkness. Think about it: have you ever been in a city where things are completely dark? No streetlights. No neon signs. No light spilling out of storefronts or buildings. As I stood on the corner of Siaka Stevens and Howe Streets, smack dab in downtown Freetown, the only light to be found was from the headlights of passing cars -- or the candles set out by curbside vendors to illuminate their wares. It was truly disorienting.

Another casualty is the refrigerator. Only the truly lucky (or well-off) have electricity consistently enough to run a fridge. For most of us, that familiar appliance stands dark and hulking, used for dry storage and to keep food away from insects and scavenging critters. And as for having cold drinks or frozen food in the house -- well, you can imagine.

In my first few weeks here, I kept forgetting about the lack of power. At first I was staying in a hotel with 24-hour electricity (not to mention air conditioning and cable TV), and working in an office with the same. When I moved out of the hotel and in with friends, our generator was out of fuel so we literally had no electricity and no lights once the sun went down. TVs sat idle, and we played music on battery-powered speakers and read by flashlight, or (more frequently) sat on the porch and chatted by candlelight, watching the dark cityscape below us and the coastline beyond.

The lack of power became more of an issue when I was stuck at home for a few days with an eye infection. Unable to read because of my eyes, and feeling too sick and miserable to leave the house, I found myself with literally nothing to do. My portable DVD player and laptop both died with a few hours of use, and my iPod and cell phone eventually followed. With no way to charge any of them, I felt unbelievably isolated, helpless -- and utterly bored!

Now I'm much more aware of the value (and uncertainty) of electricity. I plug in my phone and iPod every time I'm in the office. And anytime our power comes on at home -- in my new house, we're at the whim of our neighbor, whose generator we share -- I scurry with my housemates to plug in computers, portable DVD players, and anything else we might want to charge. We then plop down together in front of our one fan, and bask in the luxury of moving air -- for as long as the power lasts.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Welcome to Freetown

I thought the best place to start my "dispatches from Sierra Leone" would be to paint a bit of a picture of the place itself -- starting with Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone and my home base for the time being.

Freetown is a ramshackle city of probably 1 million people, spilling across a series of lush green hills and marshy lowlands, which in turn cluster around white sand beaches and a complex of peninsulas and inlets.

The city has much of the chaos and confusion that typify urban areas in this part of the world: narrow, potholed or downright crumbling paved streets and even narrower dirt roads, crammed with cars, mini-buses (known here as Poda Podas), pedestrians, street peddlers, beggars, and stray dogs; air filled with blaring music, honking cars, shouted greetings, and the constant whirr of gas-fueled generators to take the place of the almost non-existent state power authority.

Maneuvering the street, whether on foot or by vehicle, is nothing less than an adventure. Pay too little attention to the ground beneath your feet and you may fall suddenly through a large gap in the sidewalk and into the teeming gutter below; pay too much attention to the ground and your may get whacked upside the head by one of the oversized loads people carry on their heads -- everything from building materials to crates of homemade bread to 5-gallon jugs of water. And at all times, watch out for the speeding, veering, careening, threatening traffic; NGO-mobiles, public taxis, motorbikes, and private vehicles of every stripe are equally unconcerned about the safety of pedestrians, and equally likely to veer suddenly and without warning into your path.

Most of Freetown's buildings, like its roads, are in an advanced state of disrepair – due both to wartime damage and the ravages of time and poverty – or have been abandoned entirely in favor of makeshift structures erected from assorted scraps and huddled in the shadow of the crumbling colonial buildings. But the bustle of commerce is clearly evident – not only in the petty traders peddling everything from scientific calculators and cheap flip-flops to cucumbers and CocaCola, but also in the thousands of banners and billboards advertising an array of competing cellphone providers, travel agencies, and brands of beer.

From downtown Freetown, if you wind your way up into the western hills you'll find stunning views and the larger houses of expats and elites. And if you wander down toward the beachfront you'll find beach bars, restaurants and dance clubs -- many of which are bustling nearly every night of the week, and filled to bursting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Even in the nicer parts of town you'll see heaps of garbage left to smolder and rot on the street, because the promised collection trucks never came; and even there the municipal electricity may come just once a week, or even less.

But in the city and the environs alike, you can feel the warmth of this nation's people; their rush to celebrate at the slightest excuse; and their love of life -- even when it seems that life has rarely loved them back. Shouted greetings abound: "Padi, kushe?" (friend, how are you?); "Ha de bode?" (How the body?); and the common and friendly (if off-putting), "Hey, white girl? Will you be my friend?" In response to that, there's little to do but smile.

(Photo credit: Y. Zhou)