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.
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.
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.