Saturday, November 17, 2007

Pomp and Circumstance, Salone-Style

Sierra Leone held its presidential inauguration yesterday, and I spent most of the day at the inaugural events held at the national stadium. For the first time in its history, Sierra Leone opened the inauguration to the general public, reserving only a small “presidential” section for ticketed dignitaries. As a result, the stadium was filled to bursting with tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans, most wearing the APC’s signature red and white colors.

When I arrived at nine a.m. the stands were filling quickly, and the mood was buoyant. Large groups entered together dressed in identical “Africana”, outfits made from eye-dazzling local fabrics. Makeshift bands played boisterously from various corners of the stadium, leading people in popular pro-APC songs: “pak en go” (pack up and go home) one of them tells the past administration; another says their time “don don” (is finished).

Events on the field started well. The Biana Players dance group did a beautiful, if largely ignored, traditional dance to the sounds of African drums, waving flags in Sierra Leone’s national colors: blue, green, and white. Then some of Sierra Leone’s most popular comedians, a troupe of clowns known for bawdy physical humor, put on a witty skit about the election. Clowns dressed in the colors of the major parties – red for the APC, green for the SLPP, orange for the PMDC – staged a footrace along the stadium track, while a woman dressed in a Sierra Leone flag (representing the electoral commissioner Christiana Thorpe) tried in vain to keep order. In light-hearted snipes to the election’s real-life drama, the SLPP runner dashed off before the starting gun, then later dragged at the shirt of the APC runner to keep him from pulling ahead. If not a message of national unity, it was certainly one of optimism and fun.

But the program soon fell behind, the sun grew hotter, the stands became more crowded and chaotic, and tempers began to flare. A smartly-dressed honor guard from the Sierra Leone armed forces, accompanied by a military band, impressed the crowd with their sharp marching and salutes. They were then left standing on the field for hours while the program was on hold for some unexplained reason. (We later suspected that VIPs, perhaps including the president himself, were stuck in the crowds outside.) Several of the soldiers fainted dead away, and first aid personnel in red cross vests scrambled to carry the men off the field and into the shade.

First aid personnel were also busy caring for victims from the crowds, carting away those injured in the crush to enter the stadium stands as well as those downed by the sun and heat. In our section, like most of the others, crowds of people pushed their way into entrances, while those already inside pushed back. Dozens climbed the railings and made their way over the crowd toward the back of the stands. Dozens more simply pushed and pushed and pushed until they broke free into the seating areas, where they then squeezed themselves into a few inches of free space between the already densely-packed bodies. The whole scene reminded me of a football match I attended at the stadium last year, but seemed somewhat unbefitting a national inauguration.

As the stands grew more crowded, some of those seated began to grumble, shout, and fight back, while others called out to the newcomers and made space. “All man wan see,” said an old man next to me, kindly sharing the breeze from his plastic fan. True, I thought, but the stadium would not accommodate anywhere near the 1 million residents of Freetown (not to mention the 5 million residents of Sierra Leone), a staggering percentage of whom seemed to be trying to attend, so a limit would have to be struck.

By ten a.m., the place seemed packed to capacity, but still people kept coming. By eleven the military guard were in place on the field, the VIPs could be seen fanning themselves with programs in their shaded section, and people were literally dripping with sweat, but the events did not proceed. As the clock crept toward twelve, I purchased a small towel for 1000 Leones (30 cents) to try to shade myself from the beating sun, and vendors did a brisk trade in plastic bags of cool water. But still nothing more happened on the field.

Meanwhile, events in the stands were getting more and more chaotic. Fights broke out, with whole sections of people pushing and shoving. From time to time, a person would tumble down one of the stands – thrown, perhaps, when people grew frustrated with latecomers pushing their way through. As the tumbling bodies rolled over the rows of seated spectators and reached the rails at the bottom of the stands, I always gasped, praying the person wouldn’t plummet to the concrete walkway several meters below. I never saw anyone fall that far, but a journalist friend called us from the field and said he’d seen ambulances filled with seriously injured people. He warned us to stay put until the stadium had emptied out to avoid the crush, and then smiled and snapped a photo of us from the field far below.

The announcers came over the loudspeaker several times to beg the security forces to help stop people from coming inside, as the stadium was already full. I wondered why the organizers didn’t have a better way to communicate with the police and military officers than over the main sound system. And I wondered if they didn’t realize that the officers were unarmed and sorely outnumbered, and didn’t have the slightest chance of gaining control.

A friend still outside the stadium and hoping to join us called to report that the main gates to the stadium were still open, and the streets and surrounding areas were packed with tens of thousands of APC supporters hoping to come inside. I cringed; we thought the police had closed the gates hours before.

Then, suddenly, there was a commotion at our end of the stadium; the main gate allowing access to the football pitch broke open, and throngs of people started rushing the field. A few police and military officers fought to hold it closed and hold back the crowds, lashing out with wooden poles and switches. They wrestled it closed but perhaps a hundred people were already inside. Then the gate broke open again, and again. Hundreds of red-and-white revelers now lined the field. Dust clouds rose as police clashed with those hoping to follow them. We grew a bit concerned and wished the throngs pushing in didn’t make it impossible for us to leave. “You can have my seat,” we kept joking about the people fighting so hard to come inside; “there’s nothing much happening here anyway.”

Finally, the proceedings began again. A motorcade carrying former president Kabbah entered through the gate (along with another several dozen opportunistic spectators who pushed their way through when the gate was open) and made its way to the staging area. Then, after a long delay while the new president made his way through the crowds outside, the hero of the day finally entered through the same gate: the triumphant new president, Ernest Bai Koroma.

Even Koroma’s arrival was marred by scuffles. As he entered to wild cheers from the stands, resplendent in white robes and waving and smiling from the back of a pick-up truck, dust and police batons clouded his wake. Throngs of his supporters pushed onto the field, seemingly impervious to the beatings they received at the hands of the police forces. As the president circled the track once, then twice, a dozen black-suited body guards shielding his car, the numbers of people on the field swelled. And as he reached the staging area, the police and military gave up entirely and went off to watch the ceremony, leaving the gate unguarded. People began streaming in unhindered as Christian and Muslim leaders offered prayers to open the day’s main events.

At this point, the contrasts of Sierra Leone were in stark relief on the field. First, the pomp and circumstance of a post-colonial African state: the military guard standing at attention at midfield, with buttons gleaming and rifles at their sides; the supreme court justices seated under a canopy, their elaborate red robes and white wigs a holdover from the British colonial era; two men on horseback parading around the track, their steeds elaborately decorated with green, white, and blue ribbons and fabric.

And then, alongside these formal state trappings, were fiery demonstrations of traditional beliefs. Among the thousands of people that now filled the field were at least four or five “devils”: spiritual beings associated with Sierra Leone’s secret societies, clad in elaborate masks and long raffia skirts to erase any notion of a human being underneath. (See photos below) Each was surrounded by a crowd of society members: chanting, singing, dancing, drumming. From time to time the crowd around one of the devils would crouch to the ground, accompanied by most of the people in the neighboring stands. A man next to us explained that anyone who didn’t fall to the ground when told to do so by the devil would be shot by a “witch gun”, a magical weapon that strikes you down with sorcery without making a sound.

One of the societies was carrying a stretcher, covered with a pile of green palm fronds. We later noticed that below the fronds lay what seemed to be a motionless human body, draped in a white sheet. Blood soaked the sheet near where the person’s neck would be, and several of those dancing around were also smeared with blood (or what looked like blood). The man next to us explained that the person under the sheet had been sacrificed in honor of the celebrations, but would come back to life later. “What if he doesn’t come back to life?” we asked. “Well, then he’s dead,” he answered matter-of-factly. Staring in horror, I convinced myself that the body must be either fake or actually alive, just as I’ve generally chalked up stories of ritual murder to overwrought rumor. Surely the society, even if it had sacrificed someone, wouldn’t carry the body so boldly into the stadium, past police and soldiers and tens of thousands of people. Eventually the stretcher disappeared into the crowd. I never saw the body arise.

While we were fascinated by these goings-on, the official proceedings continued unhindered. Prayers were prayed; the national anthem was sung; the new president received the gold baton of office. President Koroma’s speech was perhaps the most surreal moment in a rather surreal day. While his revelers reveled, he spoke soberly of fighting corruption and bringing electricity to the capital and major provincial towns. While society devils threatened people with witch guns and proudly paraded a dead body (real or otherwise), he spoke of peace and prosperity. While the crowds overran the outnumbered security forces, he spoke of upholding the rule of law.

We kept waiting for him to address the situation directly, perhaps ask his supporters to stop their music and dancing for a moment and listen to the ceremony. When he didn’t, continuing instead with his prepared speech, it gave the events a “fiddling-while-Rome-burns” feel.

But then, Rome wasn’t burning – it was celebrating. Once the police stopped trying to hold back the crowds, the situation became much less tense, if still a bit disconcerting for those of us unaccustomed to such traditions (and uncomfortable with such enormous crowds). Perhaps Koroma and the other VIPs weren’t denying the chaos around them, but merely accepting its coexistence with the ordered events at the other end of the field.

All in all it was an exhausting day, filled with all the promise and peril of this newly peaceful Sierra Leone – a day of elation and anxiety, unity and partisanship, celebration and violence. I think the image I will carry most vividly is the proud figure of Sierra Leone’s new president – by most accounts a man of integrity, intelligence, and vision – greeting his people with a broad smile, unfazed by the messy confrontation behind him between the mass of supporters that helped get him elected and the state forces now under his command.

I can’t decide if his (non)reaction represents tremendous denial, or insightful recognition of the complexity of the country he now leads. I might wish the day’s events had been better planned and managed, that the organizers had anticipated that crowds would surpass the stadium’s capacity and that security forces would be hard-pressed to maintain control. I might have preferred an inauguration free of baton-wielding police, angry crowds, long delays, and ambulances full of casualties.

But then, every Sierra Leonean who could make their way to the national stadium got to attend the presidential inauguration, an egalitarian feat unrivaled by most nations. And everyone got to celebrate as they chose, whether with Western-style pomp and circumstance or African traditional beliefs.

And at the end of the day, it’s not my country, nor my celebration. I’m just a guest here.


Photo 1 (top): APC supporters outside the party headquarters on inauguration day.[source]=rss#m8514

Photo 2 (above): President Ernest Bai Koroma (in white) with members of the military honor guard. Photo credit A.P.

Photo 3 (below): Prince Charles with a masked devil and members of the national dance group in November 2006.

Photo 4 (below): A masked devil and dancing women greet visiting World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz in July 2006. Copyright The World Bank / John Fornah.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Please don't corrupt us

As you drive out of Lungi International Airport, the main airport serving Sierra Leone, a sign greets you:

"If you can help us, please don't corrupt us."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Cheering Section

I’ve never run a marathon.

I’ve never run a half-marathon.

In fact, I haven’t run a competitive race of any sort since the Turkey Trot in elementary school. (And I didn’t put in much of a showing there, in nine straight years of competition. I certainly never won a turkey to bring home for Thanksgiving dinner.)

But now – in Freetown, of all places – I’ve discovered the joy of a race course lined with cheering fans, the motivation of encouraging shouts, and the extra inspiration of running in a crowd.

Many developing world cities are miserable places to exercise. Crowded, polluted, dangerous… and filled with people who don’t understand why you’re running around in shorts and sneakers, dodging traffic and potholes, breathing heavily and sweating like a pig. At best you get odd stares and lungs full of exhaust, at worst you get harassed by people and attacked by stray dogs.

Freetown, it turns out, is an exception to many (though not all) of these rules. First, if you want to escape the pollution, you can head down to Lumley Beach, a great 1.5-mile stretch of flat sand. You might get a bit of attention, but most of it positive – boys wanting to run with you, girls asking to be your friend.

But more importantly, Freetown is a place that respects and understands exercise. People here do lace up their sneakers (or, if they can’t afford sneakers, their plastic sandals or bare feet) and dash off around the city. In fact, the runners are impressive in their determination. I’ve seen guys (because they are almost all men) running through the pouring rain, the searing heat, or along roads absolutely packed with people and cars. On even the steepest hill in a city of jaw-dropping inclines, you’ll eventually see someone jogging – step by painful step – up the hill.

Perhaps inspired by these examples, I’ve recently started running with the Freetown branch of a group called the Hash House Harriers (the “hash” for short). This international movement, originally started by British colonial officials and expatriates in Kuala Lumpur in the 1930s, is often known by the endearing if juvenile slogan, “A drinking club with a running problem.”

The idea is simple. A group of runners set out from a different location each week. They follow a trail – marked by piles of shredded paper, and rife with misdirection, switch-backs, and other surprises – that was laid earlier by “hares”. The switch-backs and other tricks help keep the group together regardless of fitness level, and everyone eventually ends up at a bar, at which group members (or so I’d heard) devolve into fraternity antics complete with silly songs, beer-chugging, and initiation rites.

Turned off by the fraternity reputation, I steered clear. But friends eventually persuaded me to give it a try, and I found that the run was good fun and great exercise, the group friendly and eclectic – an even mix of native Sierra Leoneans, members of the large Freetown Lebanese community, and white expats. Moreover, it turned out the Freetown hashers were more focused on the running than the drinking. (Or at least, they’d let me sneak away before the drinking began.)

So now I spend most Monday evenings on a winding run through Freetown’s hidden corners. The route is different each week, and always avoids main roads, so we find ourselves on tiny footpaths, alleyways, and empty lots. Often we’re running through very private spaces: between houses and their detached latrines, under clothes lines and alongside patches of vegetables and rice, among family members and livestock.

But few spaces in Sierra Leone are truly private, and most people don’t mind at all having a crowd of several dozen people dash through their courtyards and beside their front stoops.

In fact, they often embrace the fun. “No no, they ran that way” yells one man, pointing down a narrow gully. “Keep going, you’re doing great,” calls out another. “You’ve tired,” calls an elderly woman; “don’t give up.” A crowd of children from one household laugh and sing, and two small girls – barefoot and bare-chested – stand along the path with their hands outstretched, offering high-fives to the panting runners. On one particularly exhausting trek through the steep hills of the city, the group passed through a tunnel of cheering, chanting, clapping crowds, all happy to help motivate the runners through that last difficult stretch, much like committed spectators do for Boston Marathoners along the famed Heartbreak Hill.

Between that and my equally enthusiastic fellow runners, I can’t help but push myself a bit further, and maybe a bit faster. And listening to the laughter and warmth of Sierra Leoneans, and looking around at the gems of Freetown’s lesser-known quarters – a cozy domestic scene, with women plaiting each other’s hair while children play in the dust; a dirt lot turned football field, packed with talented young players; a sudden glimpse of a steep valley stretching to the ocean, with the setting sun behind – I can’t help but be reminded how much I love this city.

Election finale

I just realized I left the election story a cliffhanger. My apologies!

It seems ages ago, but here’s the barebones outline: the then-opposition All People’s Congress (APC) won the run-off by a comfortable margin (950,407 votes to the Sierra Leone People’s Party’s 789,651), and Ernest Bai Koroma was sworn in on September 17, 2007.

There were some dramatic final moments. The independent National Electoral Commission (NEC) invalidated 477 polling stations for apparent vote-rigging (including obviously faked tally sheets and vote counts well over 100% of registered voters). Most of these were in strongholds of the (then-ruling) Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which prompted accusations of bias by the SLPP and a last-minute weekend appeal for the courts to halt the count. At 10 a.m. Monday morning, with the court case still pending, the NEC called a press conference at which they surprised everyone by announcing the final tally, arguing that the invalidated votes did not affect the outcome. Hours later, the new president was sworn into office.

Some in the SLPP cried foul, but the party’s leaders – both former President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and former Vice President Solomon Berewa – accepted the results and attended the swearing-in of president-elect Koroma. Most independent observers praised the NEC’s handling of the situation, and just about everyone breathed a sigh of relief that the results were accepted without violent incident. Some SLPP members are still grumbling and calling for an investigation, but I tend to think they should be most angry at their party members who tried so blatantly to stuff the ballot boxes, and therefore led to the disenfranchisement of large areas of SLPP support. (Though by NEC’s calculation these votes would not have changed the outcome even if all went for the SLPP.)

In the end, most people – in Sierra Leone and internationally – were delighted with the election. Despite some sporadic violence during the campaign period and in the immediate celebratory aftermath, the whole experience was impressively peaceful. Remarkably for a country in which military intervention in politics is more a norm than an exception, the army and police handled themselves with restraint. And the Sierra Leone electorate – in roundly rejecting a president they elected by a large margin just 5 years before, but who was largely perceived to have delivered too little in the post-war period – proved itself to be politically and democratically sophisticated.

Since the final vote was cast, President Koroma seems to have impressed almost everyone, including many of his critics. His speech at the opening of parliament was impressive, and his nominees for cabinet ministers drew praise from many quarters, though also criticism for including too few Mende-speaking southerners. For my part, I’m delighted to see the strong, independent (and female) voice of Zainab Bangura – by most accounts one of Sierra Leone’s most impressive individuals, and one not afraid to speak her mind – filling the spot of Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations.

On the streets of Freetown, it is clear that Koroma is the darling of the capital city, which voted for him more than 2 to 1. Unlike former President Kabbah, an older and reclusive man rarely seen outside of the Presidential Lodge where he both lived and worked, President Koroma seems to be everywhere. He drives around town in a caravan of SUVs, escorted by police with sirens blaring, and people flock to catch a glimpse. In what has become his signature move, he always has his window down – the only exception in a row of tinted obscurity – and waves at the people lining the streets. They, in turn, love it.

Koroma’s honeymoon will soon pass and he will have to show genuine progress to keep the people’s affection. But for now there is an air of optimism in the streets that is like nothing I’ve felt since my arrival here nearly two years ago. The people’s expectations are sky-high, and they are watching Koroma and his APC government closely to see if they will deliver the new and better Salone they promised.

If they don’t, I think the electorate – as proven in the just-completed elections – will not hesitate to toss them out.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The vote count continues

Hi all. Below is an update from my intrepid guest-blogger and vote-watcher Adam. As the results roll in, so do many stories of obvious vote-rigging. These include multiple polling stations in which the number of votes cast exceed the number of registered voters -- a clear sign of trouble. The electoral commission is tossing out any such results, and will also investigate all polling stations with 100% turn-out and any polling stations with a turn out above 95% for which someone filed a formal complaint.

Some people have asked me what the rigging actually entails -- i.e., how do people mess with the votes. I'm not sure, but the conventional wisdom is that rigging is most prevalent in areas that are strongholds of a single party. If there are no independent observers or observers from the minority party, and everyone present is a supporter of the majority party, then perhaps no one objects if people vote multiple times or otherwise stuff the ballot box.

Anyway, by most accounts the rigging is pretty evenly split between both parties, and will not be decisive in determining the winner.

The key now is whether people accept the results once finalized.


Count is now on 76.1 percent and we're getting extremely close to being able to declare APC as the winners since on current votes they are ahead 60-40 (a huge lead of nearly 300,000 votes). The SLPP would need all but 5 percent of the votes yet to be declared to win, which to be frank doesn't look likely.

Incredibly, the APC currently has 43 percent of Bonthe votes with 94 percent declared, and 38 percent of Moyamba votes. The Margai factor has been huge. The projection is that the numbers will narrow a fair bit, to 55-45 since there are quite a few SLPP votes still to declare, but that would still be a big winning margin (around 200,000 votes in fact).

This will be my last message, as I am flying out tomorrow and there is no press conference now until Monday since it seems that the last 25 percent are mostly the subject of investigation. NEC [the electoral commission] are investigating all results with a turn-out of over 95 percent which have official complaints lodged, investigating all incidences of 100 percent turnout and invalidating all results with over 100 percent turnout, and, reading between the lines, this would seem to involve much of the final quarter of results.

Looking at districts still to post significant results, and if what NEC says about investigations on suspect turn-out mainly applies to these stations - as appears to be the case - then Pujehun, Kenema and Kailahun are the main suspects from an SLPP perspective, and to a lesser extent Bombali and Kambia for the APC.

If you add the votes remaining from the Northern districts yet to declare you get an estimated 80,000 APC votes which would take them very, very close to the mark. Meanwhile if a lot of these suspect results are cancelled then the APC will win by a country mile anyway. But the process will take a while yet, and there have now to be concerns about renewed violence in the meantime.

All the best from a very sunny Freetown.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The count begins

My friend Adam is putting together daily updates on the runoff vote count, so rather than trying to redo that on my own, I'm going to post some of his updates.

Here is his account of the runoff on Saturday and the returns thus far.

Thanks to Adam for guest blogging.


We've been having all kinds of fun here.

Bits and bobs of violence in the run-up to the election, but Saturday was pretty peaceful all round. A bit of ballot box stuffing and intimidation was alleged by both parties in the other's respective core areas, but hopefully it will come out as broadly free and fair, which is certainly what Christina Thorpe [head of the electoral commission] is saying. It was a lovely weekend to be in Sierra Leone, and the sun is even shining again.

Early provisional results suggest the APC has done quite well onpicking up PMDC votes in Bo, Bonthe, Moyamba, Freetown and Kono, which with a continued strong showing in the West and North would probably be enough for Ernest Koroma (of the APC) to take the Presidency. The independent news network radio, who collect provisional results from outside polling stations, are giving Koroma 54 percent based on a spread of 35 percent of results from around the country.

Today's official results, based on 22.2 percent of the vote are even more striking, with the APC taking 64 percent to SLPP's 36. Projecting these out gives a 60-40 victory for Koroma. The APC are picking up votes everywhere, running neck and neck in Kono, taking 44 percent in Moyamba, 40 percent in Bo and even over 30 percent in Pujehun of votes declared thus far. The Freetown margins are huge, around 70 percent APC. Charles Margai seems to have been a big factor. There are no results yet from Kailahun, Kambia, Bonthe or Koinadugu so the projections will be more accurate when these come in, but if these districts even roughly balance each other out then it will be a massive APC victory, not even close.

This doesn't happen very often in Africa. Stay posted!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Election Update

My apologies for not keeping this site up-to-date on the election results. I suspect many of you have seen coverage in the international press. Nonetheless, I’ll offer a little summary and update now.

The election on August 11 went very smoothly, and was deemed “free and fair” by most local and international observers. Sierra Leoneans were rightly congratulated – and congratulated themselves – for holding a peaceful election with very little violence or intimidation (though there were accusations of intimidation and vote rigging by both of the leading parties).

The opposition All People’s Congress (APC) quickly claimed victory in this first poll, supported by reports from the Independent Radio Network and other local media. Official results trickled in more slowly over the following two weeks, but eventually confirmed the early claims: the APC’s Ernest Bai Koroma won 44% of the presidential vote, followed by the current vice president, Solomon Berewa of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), with 38%. The bulk of the remaining votes (14%) were captured by Charles Margai, a former SLPP member who broke away and started a new party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), in January 2006. Parliamentary results were similar: 59 seats for the APC, including all 21 in the Western Area (the region that includes the capital, Freetown), 43 for the SLPP and 10 for the PMDC.

The story doesn’t end there, however, because none of the presidential candidates attained the 55% majority required to avert a run-off. The country will therefore go to the polls yet again, on Saturday September 8 – nearly a month after the first poll, and two weeks after the National Electoral Commission (NEC) announced the official results. This time, voters will have just two choices, the APC and the SLPP, and the party that gains a simple majority will win the presidency. (Parliamentary seats are awarded on a first-past-the-post system, independent of the presidential contest, and therefore – barring legal challenges – are already decided).

The PMDC’s voters will be crucial in the run-off. Support in the first round for the APC and the SLPP followed traditional regional divides, with APC polling strongly in the Temne-speaking (and ethnically diverse) North and West, and the SLPP in the Mende-dominated South and East. The SLPP’s poor showing in the Western Area, where the APC won all 12 parliamentary seats plus more than 60% of presidential votes, was a blow to the ruling party, but the greatest damage was the loss of votes to the PMDC in the Southern and Eastern strongholds. Margai won a majority in one southern district, Bonthe, while polling a close second – 37%, 44%, and 36%, respectively – to the SLPP in Bo, Pujehun, and Moyamba, as well as Kenema (22%) and Kailahun (15%). Almost certainly the vast majority of these votes came from former SLPP supporters.

Now, for the run-off, the PMDC’s leadership has cast their lot behind the APC, and Margai is campaigning alongside Koroma in the crucial South and East. This is a dramatic (and probably positive) change to Sierra Leone’s traditional regional- and ethnic-based politics, and it will be fascinating to see whether the PMDC’s voters in these areas follow their leadership and support the northern-based APC or revert to their support for the SLPP. Truly, Sierra Leoneans are getting a lesson – as American voters did in 2000 and 2004 – in the fact that sometimes, their votes really do count.

Emerging Violence
On a less positive note, the run-off period has already proven more volatile than the initial election period. The stakes could not be higher, with both parties realizing they could either win or lose on September 8. (Prior to the first vote, many analysts and SLPP supporters were confident in a win for the ruling party, which carried 70% of the vote in the last presidential election in 2002.)

As a result, tensions are also running high. Supporters who feel their party was hurt by intimidation or vote-rigging in the first round are now confronting their opponents, sometimes angrily and sometimes with violence. Fights have broken out in Freetown and in the volatile Eastern region, where a dusk-to-dawn curfew was temporarily imposed on Monday August 27.

Just yesterday (August 30), dozens of young people in the southeastern town of Segbwema, near the border with Liberia, stoned an APC convoy. The pro-SLPP youths and pro-APC guards and supporters then fought with sticks and stones until the police intervened. The local SLPP office was also set aflame.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah announced that he would impose a state of emergency if violence continued, while a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon expressed concern about the violence and called “on all parties and their leaders to do everything necessary to prevent the situation from escalating.”

The first question, therefore, is whether party leaders really do attempt to calm their supporters. (Thus far, both have proven relatively willing to do so). The second is how much control leaders actually exert over rank and file members, and whether a call for peace from the top will translate into restraint on the ground.

A week of campaigning remains before the next vote, which will be followed again by a long and careful counting period, and then the crucial test of whether parties accept the results.

Stay tuned.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Campaign in Photos

Here is another photo essay from the BBC, this one with pictures of political campaigning.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Freetown Slum in Photos

Check out this BBC photo essay about one of the worst slums in Freetown. I used to drive by it every day. It really is that bad.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Artists for Peace

Here are the Artists for Peace, mentioned in the last posting, on tour last week in Sierra Leone's "upcountry" provinces. (Photos are courtesy of Michelle Delaney, United Nations Development Programme.)

Artists for Peace on a peace rally through Kenema.

Another Artists for Peace rally.

Artists Daddy Ish from DX3, Camoflage and Wahid performing

Artists Cee Jay and Camoflage performing

Artists for Peace at a streetside concert

Monday, July 30, 2007

Vote vote, no violence...

Have you heard that Sierra Leone has a national election on August 11? I think I’ve been avoiding writing about it because I wasn’t sure where I stood – optimistic or pessimistic, anxious or confident, APC or PMDC or SLPP. At this point, though, it’s becoming difficult to avoid.

The election is certainly the only thing anyone is thinking or talking about here in Freetown, and indeed nationwide. It has been looming for months, and by now is everywhere: in the larger-than-life photos of the ruling party’s standard-bearer, “Solo B”, adorning banners around town; in the red-shirted crowds outside the opposition APC’s headquarters; in the hysterical and uber-politicized newspaper headlines; in the obsession with what color – red, green, orange – are your clothes… umbrella… vehicle… loyalty. (The parties each have a color, and any display is considered a vote of support.)

This is Sierra Leone’s second national election since the end of the war, and the first conducted without the help (and safety net) of a significant United Nations presence. The UN agencies are still here – UNICEF, UNDP, World Food Programme – as are a small number of Mongolian peacekeepers guarding the Special Court, but the more extensive UN forces were withdrawn at the end of 2005 and have been replaced by a much pared-down support mission known as UNIOSIL.

As countless observers have pointed out, this is a crucial turning point for Sierra Leone. Pull off another democratic election without major violence or insecurity and you’ve scored a major point in proving – and securing – Sierra Leone’s peace and political stability.

Fail to pull it off, and… well, as a local commentator said recently in Freetown’s Concord Times newspaper, “Failure is simply not an option.”

Making things more challenging, but potentially more meaningful should the election go smoothly, is the recent breakaway from the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) of a new party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). This third party has shaken up the electoral landscape for the two grandfathers, the SLPP and the All People’s Congress (APC), which between themselves have ruled Sierra Leone since independence in 1961 – the APC for 24 years and the SLPP for 16 years, including the last 9 – with the exception of various bouts of military rule.

Voting in Sierra Leone, as in much of Africa, is strongly regional and based in ethnic and family identity. Most places are strongholds for one or the other party – the APC in the predominantly Temne-speaking north; the SLPP in the Mende-speaking south and east – and truly competitive areas are relatively limited.

The splintering of the SLPP, however, has meant that areas that were previously strongholds for the ruling party are being hotly contested. Divisions have emerged within chiefdoms, communities, and even families, in places unaccustomed to political plurality. Moreover, the acrimony of the party’s own division and of the campaign thus far mean that this newfound democratic contestation could be far from civil.

The APC, meanwhile, is eager to capitalize on frustration and disillusionment with the ruling party, and to build on its recent electoral gains. After losing to the SLPP by a landslide in the first post-war elections in 2002, the APC gained ground in the subsequent local elections in 2004, including control of the Freetown City Council. Today, immensely popular songs by artists like Emmerson rail against what they call the corruption and ineptitude of the present government; one of Emmerson’s most popular, “Borbor Bele,” refers to the big round “bellies” of corrupt politicians, who “eat” (steal) money meant for public purposes, while his more recent “Tu fut arata” (two-footed rat) is a pointed indictment. Blasting from poda-podas (minibus taxis) and street-side radios around the capital, such songs serve as a sort of audio manifestation of the anger of those who feel they haven’t benefited from the last 5 years of peace.

The result of all of this is that tensions and emotions are high, and no one is sure – though many are hopeful – that the election will not spark serious violence.

Isolated incidents have already flared in several places: mild skirmishes between competing parades in Freeotwn on Sierra Leone’s independence day in April; a rash of house-burning in the southern province of Pujehun that many believe to be politically motivated; allegations of shots fired during a visit by the PMDC’s candidate Charles Margai in eastern Kailahun district; and, most recently, the beating of an SLPP supporter and former military officer named Tom Nyuma by the bodyguards of the APC’s Ernest Koroma, who claim they were averting an assassination attempt against their leader.

These events themselves are, sadly, not particularly surprising. Nor are they necessarily disastrous. No one expects the election to be completely free of violence; not in a country where thuggery was so recently (if not currently) used to promote electoral victory, and where so many people were so recently involved as fighters in a civil war. Observers of African elections (perhaps not unlike observers of Chicago elections not too long ago) expect a little political violence, though they hope to minimize it; they also know that such violence does not necessarily mean a slide into utter chaos and all-out war.

That said, there are some reasons for concern. Rumor has it that the APC body guards who assaulted Tom Nyuma – as well as his own guards – were all former members of the West Side Boys, one of the most brutal forces in a generally brutal war. Visitors upcountry report seeing guns in the hands of some of the political supporters, though all guns were supposed to have been collected during the country’s Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. (Popular wisdom has it that there are caches of weapons hidden around the country, but that these are not enough to wage an all-out war against the Sierra Leone military – not to mention any international forces that might turn up.)

But perhaps most worrying are the comments of the candidates themselves. Both Ernest Koroma (APC) and Charles Margai (PMDC) have publicly accused the SLPP of planning to rig the election, and have stated that they will not accept the results of such a contest. Though their suspicions are not unfounded (vote-rigging has been common on all sides in past elections) their threats raise the possibility of post-election violence should the losing parties not accept the results.

That said, the election season is still young, and much can happen between now and the final tally. August 11 is just over two weeks away, but if none of the parties get the required 55% majority – an outcome that many consider possible, if not likely – then the top two go to a run-off on September 3. With any luck, by then the party’s leaders will have toned down the rhetoric, and their followers will be ready to let the election go forward violence-free.


On that note, I attended launch last week of the Artists for Peace concert tour, followed by one of their first concerts. Twelve of Sierra Leone’s young and up-and-coming musicians, some of them relatively well-known and popular locally, have collaborated on a pair of songs promoting a violence free election. They are now off on a cross-country tour to give free outdoor concerts - at strategic venues like Lumley Roundabout and East End Police in Freetown, and major towns upcountry - promoting their message.

The artists launched the tour last Wednesday at Paddy’s nightclub. (Paddy’s is a Freetown institution where, legend has it, during the height of the war you could mingle with shady diamond dealers, humanitarian aid workers, and fighters from every side of the conflict. Today, still, you can meet nearly every swath of Freetown’s population at Paddy’s on a given Friday or Saturday night. )

The act might have be cheesy (“if you want peace, turn to your neighbor and tell them you love them”) but seemed to have a degree of resonance here in Sierra Leone that I cannot fully understand. The songs themselves are catchy and the artists both talented and entertaining. Possibly the strangest moment was when one of the artists, Wahid, capitalized on Sierra Leoneans’ fierce loyalty to English Premiership football teams to get the crowd fired up. “Arsenal, do you want a violence free election?” he said in Krio; then, “Manchester, do you want a violence free election?”, thereby inspiring vocal responses even if only in the name of the teams’ rivalry. (For you Americans, think Yankees and Red Sox.)

I certainly came out of the night a supporter of the Artists for Peace, and traveled to the impoverished and crime-ridden eastern part of Freetown on Saturday night to watch them perform in a parking lot alongside the main road out of town toward the provinces, at a place known as Shell Station for a now-renamed gas station. A crowd of several hundred people gathered to watch the Artists for Peace and their partner acts – a comedian, an MC, a drama group known as the Freetown Players, and for that night, a group of reggae artists known as Zion Lions – put on a high-energy free show. The crowd was rapt and engaged, actively participating in the call-and-response about violence and war and why Sierra Leone should not return to either, and then dancing and cheering as the musicians performed: “vote vote, no violence, vote vote, no violence,” as the catchy refrain of one song loudly proclaims.

I hope the crowds at future shows receive them with as much enthusiasm, and I hope their message is heard. You might think music is a thin shield against possible violence, but given its reach and popularity, it might be one of the best shields there are.

The artists themselves certainly think it is worthwhile. One of them told me he was somewhat nervous to go on tour, afraid they might be branded as supporters of one or another party, though they’ve been at great pains to remain neutral. “My mom doesn’t want me to go,” he admitted.

But he believes that music – the same force that can get a whole dance club bumping and grinding to the same beat – can also help promote a violence-free election.

I hope he’s right.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I’ll wash your hands, you wash mine…

I’ve become quite accustomed over the last year to bucket showers, which I use not only while visiting villages upcountry but also in my own (and otherwise rather cushy) Freetown house. (For the uninitiated, a bucket shower is where you literally wash yourself from a large bucket, usually using a smaller bowl or tub to pour the water over your head and body.)

In fact, I’ve come to prefer a good bucket shower to a dribbly overhead shower: the rush of water pouring over your head at once is much more satisfactory than a feeble stream of water from a rusty showerhead.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the hardest part of your body (by far) to wash without running water is your hands. One hand must be holding the bowl and pouring water, leaving just one hand to soap and rub and rinse itself.

A common solution is for someone to help you wash your hands. Before a meal in local homes or eating spots, particularly upcountry, someone will turn up with a teapot-shaped plastic jug or small bowl. You soap your hands and they’ll pour the water over them – into a bucket or onto the dirt ground – while you rub them clean.

It’s rather a nice ritual. Children pour water for their parents. Friends do so for one another. Cleansing is a shared experience.

As I struggled with my one-handed hand-washing the other night, I realized that the luxury of modernity – running water – has eliminated this need to ever have someone help you wash your hands.

Somehow, that seems like a bit of a loss.

Di rain don com

A member of my research team turned up in my office this morning soaked from his shoulders to his ankles. "U don soak!" I said in Krio. "Wetin happen, u no get umbwella?" He laughed. "I get!" he said, "I did have an umbrella. But an umbrella doesn’t matter in rain like this."

I won't wax lyrical about the rainy season this year, in part because I did enough of that last year, and in part because I am feeling less romantic and more depressed about the downpours this year, which came much earlier (it's already been raining off and on for a month) and, it seems, more intensely (we’ve already had days where you wake to a torrential downpour and get hardly a moment’s reprieve all day).

I will, however, show off the prowess of my new camera, which managed – with no help from its owner – to actually capture an approaching storm and then the dramatic rain and wind itself. (Note: These were taken nearly a month ago from my balcony, in one of the first rainstorms of the year.)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

... And Lows

On the other extreme, several English friends of mine have recently run headlong against the cold, unforgiving, soul-sapping wall of the Sierra Leonean health system (or lack thereof).

Sierra Leoneans will do all they can not to reach this wall, foregoing health care entirely or turning to native herbalists or quack pseudo-doctors, some of which are well-meaning and others pure crooks.

Foreigners often can’t understand this reluctance. “You’re clearly sick or hurt or dying,” we say. “You need to go to the hospital. Otherwise you will get worse. Otherwise you will die.”

So we get involved. We convince people to go to a “real” doctor. We help wrangle them a bed in a hospital. We talk with doctors and nurses. We buy drugs. We pay for treatment.

And only then do we notice that none of it is helping at all. That our money – for bribes as well as legitimate fees – is being sucked down a hole. That no care is being given. That the patient is being ignored, or even abused. That he is still getting worse, and is still going to die.

A friend is fighting this battle with one of the country’s best government hospitals, a place that has received extensive international support and a thorough facelift in recent years. The clean, freshly-painted facility seems from outside a cheery, healthy place, overlooking one of down-town’s main streets.

This is, in every way, a façade.

More than a week ago, my friend brought in an old man who lives in his compound, allowed to sleep under a zinc-roof shack in return for service completed years ago. He is given food and the occasional few thousand leones (few dollars) by the landlord, though he’s not really an employee any longer.

Recently, the old man became sick, and then sicker. No one else wanted to get involved in his care – not the landlord, not his own children – and seemed content to let him die on the concrete, in the rain, under his rusted tin shack.

But my friend, still filled with the optimism (naïve, perhaps) of the wealthy world, couldn’t allow this. He argued and persuaded and finally convinced the landlord to allow him to bring the old man to hospital.

At first, he couldn’t get the man a bed. Turned away day after day, he finally put in a phone call and pulled some strings with a well-connected doctor, and got the man admitted.

Then began the battle with the doctors and nurses. He gave them money: some legitimate fees, some bribes masked as the cost of supplies like gloves and syringes, and others outright requests for money for their own pockets.

The doctors diagnosed heart problems and prescribe a collection of medications. My friend bought the medication, only to be told it was the wrong medicine and he would have to give the nurses money to buy it themselves. (Translation: he should have let them buy the medicine in the first place so they could get a cut.)

He returned every few days to see how the man is doing, and found each time that no one had touched the man since he was brought to the hospital: not to clean him, not to treat him, and certainly not to give any real care. Unable to rise from the bed, the man lay in his own waste. His health had deteriorated rapidly, and as far as my friend was concerned, he hadn’t been given any of the medicine he'd purchased (twice).

Despite this, the doctors and nurses continued to demand money. “We haven’t been paid for months," they say. “We don’t have the supplies we need.” My friend argued and fought, but eventually paid – because, after all, isn’t this man’s life worth another $10? $20? $100?

After a week or so, the nurses and doctors started to mention death, and to prepare my friend for the significant costs involved if the man were to die in the hospital. My friend became convinced they were letting him die because it would be more profitable for them than keeping him alive.

All this made him wonder if the others had been right; if he would have been better just to let the man die in peace. He wanted to help, but was rendered helpless by a system of corruption and inaction, in which the patient’s well-being seems to be the furthest thing from everyone’s mind.

“What more can I do?”, he asked me one night. “And when do I give up?”

As for me, I keep wondering how you fix a system so thoroughly broken. Where do you begin? By paying doctors and nurses more, and hoping that in return they actually care for patients? By firing those who don’t and starting from scratch with recent graduates and new hires? By importing foreign doctors with foreign training and a foreign work ethic?

Another English friend is a medical student, here for 6 weeks to work in a children’s hospital. He listened to my story about the old man without a hint of surprise or horror.

After just a few weeks here, he’s gotten used to watching doctors ignore patients – even when those patients are children and babies. He’s gotten used to banging his head against the wall, trying to improve the quality of care, trying to save a life.

He’s gotten used to seeing babies die.

He came with us to the wedding on Sunday, and every time I turned around he was surrounded by small children and grinning like a schoolboy. There he is dancing with three little girls. There he is touching the head of a small baby, wrapped in a brightly-colored lapa in her mother’s arms. There he is sharing his camera with a crowd of kids. There he is lifting a grubby boy into the air.

“He's just glad to see children who are happy, and aren't going to die in a few hours,” someone said.


Of Highs...

I think I’ve said before, Sierra Leone is a country of extremes. A day is either a joy or a travail. A scene is either of breathtaking natural beauty or of breathtaking man-made misery. An interaction is either a model of warmth and generosity, or an inexplicable barrage of anger or sullenness. There is no in-between.

Sunday was a day of light and celebration, and a reminder of why I love this country and its people.

My housemates and I were invited to attend a wedding in Kissy, a neighborhood in the poorer eastern part of Freetown. The bride, Sento, was the daughter of one of our guards, Santigi Bangura. We were delighted to be invited, and he was ecstatic that we would attend.

The wedding was held in the rocky courtyard behind his home. A makeshift mosque – rough wooden poles covered with a blue plastic tarp, with rows of plastic chairs and the ground covered with prayer mats – housed the ceremony and the Muslim revelers. Other friends and family members spilled over into the surrounding courtyard, perched on chairs and stairs and walls.

As is typical in Sierra Leone, we were welcomed with overwhelming warmth, and – as the “strangers” at the celebration – treated like gold.

We were also swept immediately into the heart of the festivities: I was enlisted as an unofficial official wedding photographer, and even invited (nay, dragged) into the mosque itself, and to a spot on the ground just between the bride and her father. And my housemate Tom was spotlighted as the special musical guest, singing songs of his own creation to the amusement and enjoyment of the Sierra Leonean crowd.

I think the pictures speak for themselves, but suffice to say, it was one of the best days I've spent in Sierra Leone.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Poor, Poorer, Poorest

Apologies for the long silence, and I hope I haven’t lost your attention entirely. I should be posting more frequently now.

If you spend enough time in development, you are likely to start playing the “poorest of the poor” game. As in, “I work with orphaned children because they are the poorest and most marginalized children among millions of poor and marginalized children,” or “I work in post-conflict countries because they are so much more destitute and devastated than other poor countries.”

I guess on some level, that’s how I ended up in development in the first place. I was originally interested in poverty reduction and health promotion in the U.S., focusing on pockets of poverty in the inner cities, Native American reservations, and Appalachia and the deep South.

Soon enough, however, I figured out that even the poorest of the poor in the U.S. are well-off by global standards, and I set off for the developing world. I started in South Africa, a country with devastating poverty in the midst of dazzling wealth, with staggering rates of HIV and AIDS, and with the brutal legacy of apartheid still alive and well. And I spent time in Latin America, a region I love and in which misery persists – particularly among indigenous populations and other marginalized groups – even as countries stabilize and incomes rise rapidly for the middle- and upper classes.

But then you look around Mexico City or Johannesburg, and you realize that these are far from the neediest cases. These are the stars of the developing world, countries with growing economies and improving standards of living, countries with systems – private, state, civil society – that function more often than not.

And so you end up back in sub-Saharan Africa, a region with 34 out of 50 of the world’s Least Developed Countries. And you end up in a country in the “real Africa” (in contrast to South Africa), a country where the needs are immense and immediate.

You end up someplace like Sierra Leone.

And in a strange way you become accustomed to the conditions there. You become accustomed to the fact that the health infrastructure is somewhere between non-existent and barely functioning; that teachers don’t get paid and therefore don’t teach; that roads outside the capital are treacherous tracks of dirt and rocks; that there is virtually no public provision of electricity in the capital city (let alone the rural areas); that the government does little and the people expect even less.

And you start looking even within Sierra Leone – one of the poorest countries in the world – to find the poorest of the poor. Do I give a few coins to that begger? No, he’s able-bodied and only slightly disfigured by some disease or disaster. I’ll give them instead to the double amputee, whose arms both end a few inches below the elbow. Will I give my leftover breakfast to the Polio Brigade, an amiable gang of teenage boys in wheelchairs, racing on the strength of well-defined upper bodies while their gnarled and shriveled lower limbs fold pretzel-like below them? Nah, they seem pretty happy anyway, and at least they have wheelchairs and friends. I’ll give the breakfast to the woman by the cotton tree, either mad or dull or both, staring without comprehension at the world passing her by.

It’s a strange and vicious cycle, a sort of sympathy triage, and one consequence is that you start to overlook the misery of those along the way. If you’re not the most desperate person in the room, the most miserable I’ve seen today, then you’re not worth my time and psychological energy.

Another consequence is that you start to forget how extreme your situation is, that even those deemed “A-Okay” in your local triage are desperately poor and infinitely deserving by any comparative standards, that your own world is so uniquely destitute as to be almost beyond comparison.

Traveling to Malawi was a bit of a reminder for me of this latter consequence, this skewing of perspective that comes from living in the world’s second-poorest country.

Not that Malawi is exactly prosperous: according to the Human Development Index – a composite measure that takes into account income, education, and health indicators and then scores and ranks all the world’s countries – Malawi is 166th out of 177 countries in the world, just 10 countries “ahead” of Sierra Leone. The tiny, land-locked country is virtually devoid of mineral resources, and is one of the most densely populated countries in sub-Saharan Africa; as the U.S. State Department puts it, Malawi’s 12.5 million people live in a “land the size of Pennsylvania, with a lake the size of Vermont.” Nearly 90% of the population ekes out a living through subsistence agriculture. 14% of people aged 15-49 are HIV-positive; life expectancy at birth is just 39.8 years; and each woman will give birth, on average, to 6.1 children during her lifetime.

In short, Malawi, like Sierra Leone, is unacceptably poor. And yet, in the game of “the poorest of the poor,” Sierra Leone wins hands-down. Two thirds of Sierra Leonean adults are illiterate, compared to a third of Malawians. Half of Sierra Leone’s population but “only” a third of Malawi’s is undernourished. In Malawi, 17.5% of children die before their fifth birthday; in Sierra Leone, that number is 28.3% – nearly one in three.

Visiting Malawi for a few weeks, I was struck by the visible differences. The capital and even smaller cities are peppered with international corporate chains (Nando’s chicken, Shoprite supermarkets) as well as some (admittedly minimal) manufacturing. And there don’t seem to be nearly as many people lounging around with nothing to do. (In Freetown, street corners are filled with young men with nothing better to do than loiter, perhaps hawk some meager wares or money changing services, and watch the world go by.)

Paved roads stretch throughout Malawi, even along steep mountainous tracks, and though far from the smooth raceways we enjoy in the US, they are of reasonable quality. (In Sierra Leone, even the major highway between Freetown and the “second” and “third” cities – Bo and Kenema – is only smoothly paved for 20 miles; the rest is a mess of crumbled half-pavement, gravel, and dirt and rocks.) Government workers like teachers and nurses are provided with decent brick houses, a factor that might help ensure they actually turn up to work (though it doesn't ensure the clinics and schools have the supplies they need.)

All this is not to say Malawi isn’t in need of help. As my brother can attest, there are health problems and educational deficits and poverty to spare.

It’s just to highlight that there is a hierarchy of poverty in this world, and Sierra Leone sits near the very bottom. And it’s to remind me – and you – that Sierra Leone is hardly representative of the continent of Africa (and less so of the rest of the developing world.) Much of Africa is growing and developing and scrabbling its way into some share of global prosperity. The continent’s larger, wealthier, and/or more successful members – countries like Ghana, Kenya, or Botswana – increasingly sport a level of development and standard of living that contradict the common image of Africa, one of starving children, AK-47-toting militias, and bullet-scarred capitals.

Sierra Leone is an extreme, a country emerging from a decade of civil war and decades of governmental mismanagement, and with dramatic shortfalls in infrastructure, industry, and governance, as well as every measure of human well-being.

So when I describe Sierra Leone, don’t imagine that I’m talking about Africa as a whole. The Kenyas and South Africas – not to mention Malawis – of the continent would be very disappointed if you did.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Taaaaay Tambaka -- Stories and Photos

I’m heading off on a family trip to Malawi later today. People back home often think of Africa as a single neighborhood -- “Oh, you live in Sierra Leone?” they say, “My neighbor’s son’s girlfriend is spending the summer in Namibia. You should go visit.” In fact, the continent is massive, the world’s second-largest: 11.6 million square miles, spanning desert, jungle, savannah, mountains, and everything in between. (The U.S., in contrast, is 3.7 million square miles, and all of Europe is less than 4 million.) And getting around is never easy. Flights between African countries are generally infrequent, unsafe, and expensive. Often it’s easier and cheaper to fly via Europe. Trains are generally non-existent, except in southern Africa where colonial relics still ply old trade routes, and roads – well, let’s not get into the roads. But here I am, off to Malawi – 3,493 miles from Sierra Leone – where my baby brother is working as a Peace Corps volunteer. We thought we were smart, moving to Africa together, but his placement is probably as far away from me as it could be. Oh well -- $1600 and 16 hours of flying (via Accra and Nairobi) will get me there, eventually. **********************************************************************************

Last week I was at the border of another (much closer) country: Sierra Leone’s northern neighbor, Guinea. Nestled in a crescent-shape from the Atlantic on one side to Cote d’Ivoire on the other, and hugging Sierra Leone and part of Liberia in between, Guinea is as desperately poor as its neighbors and was recently named the most corrupt country in Africa. Strikes and civil unrest crippled the country in January and February, though things are now reportedly calm. (

I was with three of my researchers, exploring a very poor and remote part of northern Sierra Leone: Tambaka chiefdom, Bombali district. To get there you drive for 3 hours from Freetown to Makeni on a good road, then another 3 hours on a bad road to Kamokwei, then another hour on a worse road to the Kabbah ferry. The ferry itself is a glorified raft pulled by hand (with the help of steel cables) across the broad and deep river that marks the border of Tambaka chiefdom. (The picture above is actually another ferry, at Tamparay, which we were forced to take in one direction because a van had gotten stuck on the Kabbah ferry.)

Once over the river, the roads get even worse – narrow dirt tracks, often climbing steeply over bare boulders and across treacherous bridges. (The bridge above, located just before the Tamparay ferry in Sella Limba chiefdom, was actually one of the bigger and better-maintained bridges on the route.)

The chiefdom feels more wild than other parts of Sierra Leone, with sparse population and dramatic vegetation (such as enormous green ferns right out of Jurassic Park.) You drive for miles and miles between villages, and there is often little sign of human habitation. On one end of the chiefdom lie the Otamba-Kilimi national parks, probably the only place in Sierra Leone to see animals like elephants and hippos. We stopped by the park one Sunday morning and hoped to catch a boat (canoe) down to the hippo pools, but the park was short on paddlers and we were short on time. The views from the launching pad (see photo) were worth the stop, however.

Tambaka chiefdom is deeply neglected and breathtakingly poor. In the whole chiefdom – one of the largest in the country in terms of geographic area – there is not a single junior or senior secondary school, meaning children wishing to continue past primary school must travel dozens of miles (and cross a ferry), on terrible roads and with essentially no public transport, to attend school in bordering chiefdoms. Needless to say, very few do so. (See the picture above of a primary school in Taneneh village, with two elders in front of a blackboard with an English lesson. This is a community school, in which the teacher is paid not by the government but through contributions from the poor villagers themselves.)

Health facilities are similarly lacking. In Sanya, the section headquarter town nearest the Guinean border, elders told us they lost 2-3 pregnant women per month because there was no transport to bring them to the nearest facility in Kamokwei. Recently, 5 women died at once because the local dispenser – the only medical professional in town – had gone to Makeni or Freetown to collect medicines.

In such a setting, many people in Tambaka say they’ve been forgotten by Sierra Leone, and in many ways they are more connected to Guinea than to their own country. (At a weekly trade fair in Sanya, for instance, the traders selling fabric, ground peanuts, and flip-flops quoted prices in Guinean francs, though they accepted either currency.)

Back in Freetown, friends ask where I was last week and I tell them I went upcountry. Looking for props, I add that I went “Taaaaay Tambaka,” which means (with emphasis) “Aaaall the way to Tambaka.” But even Sierra Leoneans look at me with blank faces. Maybe Tambaka really is forgotten.

The last photo is of a taxi from Guinea as it passes through the Tambaka chiefdom headquarter town, Fintonia. I can't imagine how these Peugeots navigate the roads we struggled to pass with a sturdy 4x4, but I'm told they manage -- though with many stops along the way for passengers to disembark and even help push.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Salonian Hits: Tutu Party

Click here to see a video of "Tutu Party," one of the most popular songs in Sierra Leone. It's been on the top 10 list for years, and is played at least 4 or 5 times per night at each of Freetown's dance clubs.

The artist, Emmerson, has some really interesting political music that I'll try to track down and link to this site. This song, though, is pure fluff. The lyrics are in Krio, but I'm guessing the video will give you a pretty good sense of what it's about... But just in case, here's a taste of the chorus:

"mek we rub rub bode to bode. if you wan enjoy fine, come tutu pah-ty"

As far as I can tell, this means (roughly):

"let's rub our bodies together. if you want to have a good time, come have an ass party."

(Apologies to any Salonian readers for my atrocious Krio spelling, and an invitation to correct my translation if need be.)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The wheels on the bus

My car is out of service at the moment so I’m back to taking “transport”: the system of shared taxis, shared mini-bus taxis (known as Poda-Podas), motorbike taxis, and the occasional large government bus, which – along with old-fashioned foot power – serves to move most of the million or so residents of Freetown around town.

A product of individual initiative, market forces, and very little government involvement, the transport system is one of the few systems in town that work relatively well. Sure, there is a certain amount of chaos to it, and you’ll probably have to walk awhile and wait awhile longer, and your ride may be far from comfortable… But basically, you can start at almost any Point A within the city’s perimeter (and beyond), and get to almost any Point B. This contrasts favorably with, for instance, the postal service.

For me, my commute begins with a 10-minute walk from my house up to the main (tarred) roads nearby: Aberdeen and Wilkinson Road. My own street is actually a relatively well-trafficked residential area, but the road is dirt and rocks and pretty rough, and taxis prefer not to venture down.

I don’t mind the walk. I chat with neighbors, enjoy the array of brightly-colored school uniforms (or grimace when the kids hassle me for “2 block”, 200 leones, for candy or a cold drink), and buy my breakfast – perhaps a bunch of bananas or roughly-peeled oranges, or a small loaf of freshly-baked bread or freshly-fried donuts – from roadside venders along the way.

When I reach Wilkinson Road, I join the crowds of people lining the road to wait for transport: dodging traffic, calling out to passing taxis, or clambering into battered poda-podas.

Most taxis are small red or white sedans or hatchbacks – the Nissan Sunny is the most common – with a thick belt of sunshine yellow paint around the waist, roughly where the wood paneling on a 1970s station wagon would be. There are also a collection of battered Peugeot station wagons on the road, modified to add a third row of seats in the back for a total of 7 passengers (or more), plus the driver.

When a taxi has room for more passengers, it will honk and slow slightly (but not stop), and you yell out your destination as it rolls by: “John Street”, “New England,” “Congo Cross,” “P-Zed.” I yell "Siaka Stevens, Two-way" to indicate that I'm willing to pay a double fare for the relatively long ride to my office. (The normal rate for a ride is 800 Leones, approximately 25 cents, for both taxis and poda-podas, but the taxis charge more if you're going a long way. Poda-podas usually ply longer and more established routes.)

If the driver wants to take you, he’ll give a subtle and often indiscernible gesture and pull slightly toward the curb. When I first got here, I was often confused as to when I was being offered a ride and when I was not -- a cause of frequent embarrassment. Once flagged to enter the car, you clamber in quickly lest the driver change his mind and pull away. (At peak times, demand far exceeds supply, so the drivers can get downright snippy and dictatorial about their cars.) If you're lucky, you get the front seat and can sit out the rest of the ride in (relative) comfort. If not, you climb in the back with two other people.

All the passengers in one car are – or should be – heading in the same general direction, but all have different destinations, so people climb in and out of the car as you go. You may start on the right side by the door, get out a few blocks later to let the middle person depart, shuffle into the middle yourself when the driver stops to pick up someone new, and shift to the left door once that person gets out not far from your own destination. It’s like musical chairs without a prize. And then there are the drivers that insist on adding an extra passenger or two: a fourth in the already-crowded back seat, a second in the front passenger seat. You can (and sometimes do) protest, but that usually lands you back on the street.

The taxis themselves are a trip. Door handles and locks almost never work; often the driver must reach around and jiggle the handle from the outside to get it open. Windscreens are frequently cracked, and the seats are torn and worn and probably infested. Windows are left open, and if it starts to rain you’ll have to ask the driver for “the winder” – the handle used to roll up your window – because the car has just one, kept in the glovebox and passed around as the need arises. And then there are times when the window is lodged in place by way of a bit of plywood, wedge of folded cardboard, or scrap of wire, and “rolling it up” is just a matter of removing that stabilizing piece long enough to yank the glass upward.

But this is nothing compared to the poda-podas. This is the local name for the battered mini-buses which form the main form of transport throughout Africa, usually second only to walking. In Salone, the poda-podas are decorated outside with declarations of religion, politics, philosophy, or sport, and with giant stickers and decals (a favorite for poda-podas and taxis alike is a 1980s picture of pop-star Madonna). Inside, the original seats – and all other fixtures – have been ripped out and replaced with four rows of metal benches. On each are crammed four adult bodies (and perhaps a child or two on laps), wedged tightly from one metal wall to the other. As each row fills from the back, the bench ahead is extended by way of a sliding fourth seat on the right-hand side, so ultimately the van is packed with bodies like a can of sardines, without aisle or breathing room or a ready means of egress.

Once on the road, the poda-podas careen recklessly, blaring musical like a carnival and dodging fellow vehicles, small children, old blind men, and stray dogs with equal abandon. Many people – particularly professional drivers that drive SUVs for the UN, NGOs, or government officials –dismissively call the taxi and poda-poda drivers “DDR drivers.” This refers to the Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) programs that the international community sponsored at the end of the war, by which former combatants were invited to trade their guns for job training and other efforts to reintegrate them into civilian life. Apparently, in Salone a favorite option was a driver’s license. Upcountry, where motorbike taxis are the primary and often sole form of transport, this DDR denomination is particularly apt, and I can't help but picture a rebel with an AK-47 whenever I see a young guy speed by on a Honda bike, with a passenger clinging to the back.

Many foreigners (even those that do deign to take taxis) refuse to take poda-podas, and I understand. They are intensely uncomfortable and unsettlingly unsafe -- though they are never driving much faster than 10 or 15 miles per hour in rush-hour traffic, so the potential damage is limited.

But my evening commute is almost always by poda-poda, because it’s impossible to convince a taxi to brave the evening traffic from downtown to my home on the west side. (Taxi drivers have an oddly anti-capitalist, seemingly self-defeating approach to pricing: most will turn down an expensive charter fare because they don’t feel like driving in that direction. Asking one to name a price to take you on an undesirable route will provoke not an astronomical price but a simple shake of the head.)

And to be honest, though the ride home is hot and long and uncomfortable, I do generally enjoy the poda-podas for their color and sense of camaraderie. From the main side door of a poda-poda hangs a young kid, the “apprentice”, calling the destination in a high-speed, repetitive, sing-song manner suggestive of a carnival: Aberdeen becomes “abahdeenabahdeenabahdeenabahdeenabahdeenabahdeen” and if you didn’t know in advance what they were saying, you wouldn’t have a clue.

Once inside, you join an instant community, brought together in shared discomfort and the usual African warmth. If the music is not too deafening, the passengers are apt to break into spontaneous collective conversation. No topic is taboo; this week I was in a poda-poda where talk turned to politics, a touchy subject these days with a national election on the way, and the whole van seemed to erupt into point and counter-point, barb and counter-barb, in an impassioned but polite debate on the leading parties. I stayed quiet and tried (mostly in vain) to follow the rapid-fire Krio.

A favorite topic, however, is the driver’s driving. If he (because they are, without exception, men) gets particularly reckless, or turns down a road likely to be packed with traffic, the 17 or so passengers get in on the act, yelling abuse and advice from the depths of the van. These back-seat drivers will then often start arguing with one another about the preferred route or safest speed, in a loud and lively but nonetheless perfectly civil exchange. (Sierra Leoneans are quick to raise their voices and love to argue, about anything and everything, at the drop of a hat. It can be off-putting until you realize that they are not usually as enraged as they sound, and that all will be friends again once the topic is closed.)

One day this week, on my way home from work, I ended up with a particularly, um, innovative driver. Taxis and poda-podas love to take convoluted routes along side streets and alleyways, supposedly to avoid the traffic but also (I suspect) to keep themselves entertained. I’ve been in Freetown for almost a year now, and I’ve seen a lot of strange and hidden corners of the city in this way, and have had countless rides where I could swear we’d somehow wandered into another city. But this poda-poda ride rivaled them all. At one point we’d traveled for 20 minutes on a series of rutted, rocky footpaths, squeezing between enormous broken-down trucks and crumbling buildings. We then lurched our way inch-by-inch down a steep gulley and emerged back on the tarred road... just a few blocks from where we began.

The most interesting part of this stand-out ride was when the poda-poda decided to brave a particularly steep hill usually avoided by the weak and battered transport vehicles (and thus a favorite route for me when I’m in my own car.) The road runs through one of central Freetown’s most decrepit slums, Kroo Bay, and is lined with open gutters and ramshackle houses and packed with pedestrians. Though a two-way road, it seems barely wide enough for one and is further narrowed by the inevitable smattering of parked cars and trucks.

At one point the road curves steeply upward from the sea-level depths of Kroo Bay. To scale this obstacle, my intrepid poda-poda driver decided to zig-zag his way up the hill, across both lanes, ping-ponging from one gutter to the other. At the top, instead of returning to his own lane, he joined a few other jerks and pulled into the opposing lane, passing the standstill line of traffic on our right. I was both bemused and annoyed, wondering how far we would get before meeting an oncoming car and becoming embroiled in an inevitable stand-off filled with blaring horns and vehicular chest-thumping.

Sure enough, we quickly met oncoming traffic and everyone was brought to a halt. Passengers in my poda-poda started shouting at our driver, who seemed unfazed. Then an irate policeman appeared, understandably furious but storming about in an unhelpful rage. He started demanding that our poda-poda, and the cars before and behind us, reverse back down the hill we’d just climbed. The driver resisted for awhile and tried to pull instead into the line of cars on our right, but then started making signs of complying.

Now, I am not a generally nervous person. But there I was, in the very back corner of the poda-poda, with 16 people between me and the door, and a driver who was contemplating a backwards drive down a hill too steep for him to climb straight in the first place. I peered behind me and saw people and cars and an ominous telephone pole in our route, and I started to sweat. I knew these poda-podas were barely roadworthy, and apt to break down or fall apart at a moment’s notice. And I knew this kind of backwards drive would test both the driver’s skills and the poda-poda’s brakes. And I knew I wanted to get out of the car.

I was not alone. My fellow passengers were shouting wildly and threatening to revolt. Several demanded that the apprentice open the door and let them out. One woman in the seat in front of me – so also packed near the back – stood up and started trying to push her way over the sea of bodies toward the door. I decided that if she made it out, I would follow – and if not, I would climb out the window to my left.

But just as the driver was about to roll the van over the edge, he pulled instead into an opening in the proper lane, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. And then I started to giggle softly.

Because, all difficulty and misadventure aside, I really enjoy taking transport. Despite the fair amount of sweat, dirt, hassle and inconvenience involved, I tend to be much more positive about Freetown when I’m schlepping around in taxis and poda-podas than when I’m cruising by myself in my cushy and enormous SUV. Yes, there are times – particularly at night – when not having a car can put a damper on my mobility. And yes, there are days – like when a taxi driver starts bugging me for my phone number, or when I spend an hour in a poda-poda that smells of vomit– when I wish I could escape to my Nissan Pathfinder. But on the whole, I like the feeling of being part of this mass of people, and I like how interactive (and adventurous) a normal commute becomes.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night ...

Forget the wonders of modern communication. It is the old-fashioned postal service that deserves our awe and admiration.

Seriously. You can put a stamp (purchased in local currency) on a letter in Anytown, USA and pop it in a little blue box, and you can be reasonably confident that it will turn up exactly where it was supposed to, in whatever corner of the world, intact and unopened. And it’s not a matter of American efficiency; the letter is passed from the US postal service to those run by any number of other governments – or vice versa – before finally being delivered to its destination.

Of course, it doesn’t always work this way. I was the recipient of a package, shipped to myself from Durban, South Africa, that arrived in Marlborough, NH in one piece – and still sealed – but mysteriously void of all valuable items. In the place of books and African crafts were rocks, hair products, and hair extensions.

And yet often, remarkably often, it does. Wanna send a postcard home from Timbuktu, Mali? No problem, it will get to Grandma in Three Forks, Montana. Wanna post a love letter to a heartthrob backpacking through Asia? Don't worry, he can pick it up in a village post office in Bangladesh. Wanna resign from your job in New York while sitting on the beach in Tahiti? Go ahead.

Sometimes this is a feat of logistical and political coordination. Doesn’t matter if the trip requires trucks, planes, boats, or donkeys; doesn’t matter how many oceans or mountains or borders it must cross; doesn’t matter how many thousands of miles… Hell, it doesn’t even matter if the two countries’ governments are on speaking terms. More often that you would imagine, the mail will get through.

One of my favorite “packages” was a coconut, still in the pod, shipped by my Aunt Faye from Hawaii to New Hampshire. She didn’t bother with a box or any sort of packaging – she just wrote our address in big black marker on the outside, stuck on some stamps, and sent it off with the good old USPS. We were so charmed, we didn’t have the heart to break it open.

Unfortunately, in this – as in so many other things – Sierra Leone is a bit behind the curve.

I just received a notice this week for a Registered Letter waiting for me at the Freetown Postal Service. I was delighted, and began imagining all the long-lost letters from my brother in Malawi and friends in the US.

So I found a few minutes to venture into the post office – just a few blocks down Siaka Stevens Street from my office – and made my way past the magazine sellers and fruit vendors and down into the dark, cavernous interior. I waited 20 minutes for the woman at the “Registered Letters” window to finish her conversation with her coworkers, dutifully provided my identification, and signed the registered letter form. She took out an enormous sack of letters, sorted through a couple of stacks tied with string, and finally pulled out a manila envelope sealed with packing tape.

Excited, I turned it over.

An application for a spot on my research team.

Sent October 20, 2006. More than three months ago.

From Freetown.

To Freetown.