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.