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.