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.