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."