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.