Monday, December 22, 2008
Little Ryann Sesay was born just 6 days ago, to my cleaner, Susan.
It's less of an honor than you might imagine to have a baby named after you. It certainly doesn't mean I'm beloved or revered. In fact, Susan was quite clear that the motivations were partly financial. "If it's a girl, I'm going to name her Ryann," she told me when I learned she was pregnant. "Then you have to throw the party."
The party is for a naming ceremony, usually held about a week after birth. (Ryann's isn't yet planned, in part because I didn't realize I'm supposed to choose the date. Oops.) Other obligations for supporting one's namesake can range from occasional birthday gifts to the payment of school fees. One Lebanese businessman I know is now paying tuition at the University of Sierra Leone for his namesake, Mohamed -- not a blood relation.
I am happy to play this role. (Well, maybe not the college tuition...) I like Susan, and have known her for 2 years now. And it's nice to feel part of a Salone family, even if only tangentially.
The weird thing for me is to call another person "Ryann". I'm the only Ryann I've ever known!
But deep down I'm pretty chuffed about the whole thing. I mean, isn't she beautiful? As you can see, my housemate Tom was smitten. And maybe jealous -- the baby would have been Tom if she'd been a he.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Monday, December 08, 2008
Here are a few such moments from my first week back:
My elder guard, John, when I first arrive home, gesturing enthusiastically with his arms to suggest a stout, hefty body. "Yes, I know John," I say in Krio. "I've gotten fat." John grins wildly. "Yes!," he replies. "Such a body! You must have enjoyed your trip home!!"
A citywide fuel shortage because the price (negotiated between the government and the fuel companies) just dropped to $4.17. Long lines at filling stations, pumps shut down by mid-day, my car running on fumes until it finally refused to budge from a spot outside my office. Finding someone to find me a 5-gallon drum of petrol, then trying (in the dark) to pour said drum of petrol into my gas tank without wasting half of it on the ground and all over my legs and feet. Failing. Leaving my car behind for another night and heading home smelling of petrol.
At one of the most successful companies in Freetown, the CEO's personal assistant: wearing an unremarkable black skirt suit, and as her dress shirt underneath, a Hooters t-shirt.
Being stood up for not one, not two, but four separate business meetings in the space of a few days. Feeble apologies and blaming of "traffic", Freetown's catch-all villain for the incurably tardy and absent-minded.
A surf board and a sunny Sunday.
The sound of prayers for Eid-al Adha. Goats tied up for sacrifice outside every home that can afford them. Feasts divided in thirds: one third for family, one third for neighbors and friends, and one third for the poor.
Monday, October 27, 2008
A gaggle of young men cluster around the car, trying to sell us the usual street-corner goodies: cheese balls, seat covers, bootleg CDs. I am a bit grumpy and my friend Marisa is on the phone, so we ignore them and wait for the traffic to move.
Then, from outside my window, I hear: “Obama air freshener.” This (needless to say) catches my attention.
I turn to see a teenager with an aren’t-I-clever smirk holding a plastic-wrapped air freshener in patriotic Red, White, and Blue. It looks like it belongs on a Chevy truck deep in Red State America.
“That’s not an Obama air freshener,” I say to him in Krio.
“Yes it is,” he replies.
“No it’s not,” I say. “Where do you see Obama?”
“His face is on the back,” he says without hesitation, handing it to me.
I turn it over. “No it’s not,” I reply. The back was simply more stars and stripes. It occurs to me that he had no way of knowing I am American, or an Obama supporter.
“Oh, but it says Obama here on the package,” he argues, pointing to the instructions (listed in at least 8 languages, starting with Chinese).
“No,” I say, now a bit peeved. “It does not.”
He pauses, not at all deterred and still smiling.
“Obama is American,” he says at last. “American is Obama.”
Ah. The logic is hard to combat. Besides, I like Obama, and love the idea that in this corner of Africa, America=Obama. (We could do worse than that particular association.) And that a man once criticized back home for not wearing an American flag lapel pin is somehow synonymous here with a pine-scented bit of cardboard in Red, White, and Blue.
I give the guy a smile for his effort, but resist his salesmanship.
“You’re not going to buy one?” he says, genuinely surprised.
“Then you don’t support Obama. If you did, you would buy my air freshener.”
Thursday, October 09, 2008
Okay, some of them were distinctly dilapidated and ramshackle structures. And some blasted music at ear-splitting decibels, eliminating any possibility of a peaceful walk on the beach. And I’m sure many of them lacked legal permits.
But what they had – in spades! – was character. From barebones Harris at the Aberdeen end, where some of Salone’s top pop stars smoked ganja in the gazebo; to skeezy Sea View, where prostitutes mingled with old white men; to De Village, where on Sundays you could buy a plate of delicious peppery goat meat with onions and white bread; there was a beach bar for every style and every mood. As edgy and laid back and no-frills as Salone itself – most of the bars sold only soft drinks or beer, and frequently ran out of either or both – they were a cornerstone of Freetown’s leisure scene for expats and locals alike. I can’t imagine what all the diaspora Sierra Leoneans (“JCs”, for Just Comes) will say when they come back for Christmas!
But the biggest loss for me is lovely, quiet, friendly Ramada’s, which served the best meal (by a long shot) in Freetown. Plastic tables on the sand, under the stars, and with the soft rush of waves in the background. A few soft lights scattered around, but mostly left to the moonlight. Two options on the menu: fish and chips, or chicken and chips, and both prepared better than any place else in town. The barracuda was always perfectly cooked, moist and delicious, and topped with a delicious peppery sauce. The chips were crispy and hot. The meal always took a long time to prepare – we’d joke they were out catching the fish – but you didn’t mind with such a gorgeous setting.
For two years, Ramada’s has been my go-to spot – for visitors on their first, or last, night in Freetown; for special meals with friends; for a romantic date. I feel like someone I loved has died, and I didn’t have time to say goodbye.
I hope the Ministry of Tourism has a good reason for bulldozing the bars, and it’s not just so they can give permits to their friends and families. I hope that from the piles of rubble will rise wonderful new options, part of a fresh tourist-friendly post-war Salone. I hope there will again be somewhere to kick off your shoes, curl your toes in the sand, and dig into a delicious plate of goat meat or barracuda, or tip back a crisp cold beer.
I hope so, but I’m doubtful. And for now, I’m in mourning.
Read more here.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
I had the most amazing experience this week.
On Friday, I donated blood at the children’s hospital, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. There is a blood bank at children’s, shared with the neighboring maternity hospital, but blood is in chronic shortage – in part because people are reluctant to donate and in part due to difficulties with storage. As a result, patients needing blood are required to replace the blood they use before they’ll be given any from the bank.
What this means in practice is that a severely ill child will lie in a hospital bed – sometimes for hours – while family members run around trying to find someone willing to donate. (A similar scene unfolds in cases of trauma, or when a mother starts hemorrhaging after giving birth, and often to similarly tragic ends.) This process is complicated by local beliefs that only men should donate blood. In addition, families must buy the blood bags from a pharmacy across the street – the hospital itself is out of stock – which for many means trying to beg or borrow the money to do so.
Sometimes the family manages all this in time to save the child.
Sometimes they don’t.
So on Friday, I found myself lying on a worn leather examination table in a dark, cluttered room marked “Bleeding Room”, a needle in my arm drawing my A-positive blood for a little girl named Dora. (And yes, the needle was straight from a sealed package and the technician was wearing gloves.)
Dora’s mom waited outside the room. Dora, an adorable toddler, lay unconscious on Ward 2, watched over by her grandmother. She had malaria and was severely anemic, so much so her hands and feet neared mine in paleness.
My blood was out of my body just long enough for the team to test and label it. Just as the technician told me I could get up from the couch, a nurse hurried off to Ward 2 with a bag of my still-warm blood in her hands. I followed, and watched as they prepared the transfusion, then came back later with a doctor friend to check how Dora was doing. The doctor was worried that her heart might be overwhelmed by the volume of fluids given to her – not just blood but malaria meds and other fluids – but she seemed to be coping. We left her still unconscious and with her worried (but grateful) mother and grandmother at her side. I prayed she’d make it.
On Monday, I arrived at the hospital to find Dora not only alive, but sitting up and smiling at me from a windowsill. She was pink and alert and looked perfectly healthy. We took her photo (see above), though she refused to smile for the camera.
I was positively glowing all day, and kept stopping by to visit my personal little miracle. There were lots of jokes among the doctors about the super-duper powerful blood the little girl had been given – in other words, blood from a white foreigner – but they all knew as well as I that almost anyone could have given that life-saving blood.
The American Red Cross blood services no longer wants my blood, because I’ve been exposed to malaria and other sorts of nasty African pathogens.
No problem, I’ll happily save it up for little girls like Dora.
To learn more about the children’s hospital mentioned here and to find out how you can help, please visit the Welbodi Partnership, which supports paediatric health care in Sierra Leone by partnering with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to establish the Sierra Leone Institute of Child Health.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Recently, however, at least some of the city's poorest residents are paying their local tax with pride, as documented in this BBC story.
The untold story in that piece is the enthusiastic collection practices by the local council, which has resulted in the shuttering of many small shops and kiosks for failure to pay back taxes. Many of those shopkeepers walk a very fine line between survival and starvation, and would probably express much less pleasure with the new tax collection regime.
Sometimes, however, I yearn for an evener keel.
Last week was triumphant and thrilling, filled with hope and possibility. At the children’s hospital, we got the water running through all the wards for the first time in years, thanks to just $800 in plumbing equipment and the hard work and diligence of the hospital’s maintenance team. We found a source of medical-grade oxygen to use on the wards, a first in many years not only for our hospital but for all government health facilities. On Tuesday, I met with the Minister of Health and Sanitation, who was delighted with our successes and looking to replicate them elsewhere. By Friday, I roved the hospital with camera in hand, capturing the faces of our heroes – plumbers and maintenance technicians – and of the oxygen canister connected and ready to use. As we left the hospital on Friday afternoon, a junior doctor put one of his patients on oxygen, and we had visions of young lives being saved.
A few hours later, we settled in with cold glasses of wine at the Hard Rock guesthouse at Lakka Beach, watching the sky turn brilliant shades of orange and red. We awoke the next morning to find a beautiful sunny day, a rare gift in the midst of rainy season, and spent the afternoon soaking up vitamin E and positive energy from the surf and one another. By Sunday night, as I sat with friends along another beach, I was feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready for anything.
And then, with a crash, came this week: the proverbial Other Shoe.
After spending Monday in the office, we returned to the hospital on Tuesday. We should have noticed the ominous buzz in the air, the palpably chaotic edge, but we did not. We were too pleased with ourselves for the accomplishments of the previous week.
We walked blithely past the packed wards, the hallways filled with waiting mothers and crying children. My colleague, a doctor, went off to check on the oxygen while I roved the corridors with a pile of posters to congratulate the maintenance team for their hard work and introduce our nurse training team. As I hung them, nurses gathered around, murmuring approvingly. “Di white pipul, den sabi mek!” said one. I laughed and then noticed one of the maintenance guys standing behind me. I pointed to his picture on the board. “What do you think?” He grinned.
Then, suddenly, his smile faded and he took my arm, shifting me away from the staircase. I turned and saw two men carrying a body wrapped in orange and yellow fabric. Numbly, I estimated the age: maybe 6 years old, definitely no older than 8.
A few minutes later, my colleague came down from the Special Care Ward, where we’d been delivering oxygen. She was a bit frantic, and we escaped to our office. Turns out she’d just seen a child die, the fourth to die in that ward since Friday, of the five who had been put on oxygen. The nurses were staging a revolt: they didn’t want the oxygen anymore, it just brought them destitute and dying children, and scared their other patients.
The oxygen canister was also empty, a nasty surprise, so we bundled it off to the factory down the street to be refilled. On the way back, sitting in standstill traffic just outside the hospital gate, a poda poda (minibus) behind us lurched suddenly forward, plowing through a crowd of market women and pedestrians and coming to a stop to the right of my car. My colleague, sitting in the passenger seat, recoiled in horror. “There are children under there,” she cried, jumping out of the car and into the melee. “Get the car inside and come back with gloves!”
And so I did, parking quickly and running back with the latex gloves I keep in my first aid kit. By the time I got to the street, a crowd had formed, curious and jostling. Two women sat on the curb, dazed but not seriously hurt. The children had been brought inside. Miraculously, they needed nothing more than a few stitches and some gentle words.
By this point, though, we were deeply shaken. We might have written off the day and headed home, but a delegation from the Ministry was due in an hour. Instead, we opted to hide in our office for a lunch break. I let my colleague and another doctor go ahead, while I returned to the outpatient ward to buy a cold packet of water.
A bad idea.
On my way, chaos found me yet again. Near the entrance to the hospital was a small crowd, with a woman in the middle in a dead faint. She was the mother of one of the injured children, and had been told her daughter had been “mashed” by a poda-poda. When she arrived and heard the truth – that her daughter needed stitches but would be okay – she literally collapsed in shock.
As this calmed down and I snuck past to buy my cold drink, a roar arose outside and I saw dozens – maybe hundreds – of people rushing the entrance of the hospital. Two cleaners in DayGlo orange vests stepped quickly outside and closed the door behind them. The crowd arrived, hungry for blood: if they couldn’t have the driver’s, who had fled immediately to turn himself into the police and get beyond the reach of vigilante justice, then at least they wanted to see the injured children. They milled around outside like the spectators at a rowdy football match. Inside all was quiet, but still with that ominous energy in the air, which I could no longer ignore. My little friend Ibrahim snuck up behind me and put his hand in mind. “Are you scared?” I asked. He shook his head. No. Mentally, I nodded mine. Yes.
Eventually things calmed down, and we even managed a half-normal tour of the hospital for the ministry representatives. By 5:10, my colleague and I were out the door and on our way home, desperate for the day to end.
The week since then has been much less traumatic but no less frustrating. Now, on Thursday night, I am dreading my return trip to the hospital tomorrow. I’m afraid the bad luck of this week is still not spent.
To learn more about the children’s hospital mentioned here, please visit the Welbodi Partnership, which supports paediatric health care in Sierra Leone by partnering with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to establish the Sierra Leone Institute of Child Health.
Monday, September 08, 2008
My friend ABJ beat me to it with this touching short film about boys making a living by searching for jewelry and scrap metal in the gutters and streets of Freetown.
It is a glimpse of what it takes to survive among the poorest of the poor in this poorest of poor countries – teenagers elbow-deep in filthy gutters just to earn a few pennies for rice and a roof over their heads – and of the energy and ingenuity that allows them to do just that. Survive.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Another day at the children’s hospital.
Not a good day, overall.
Chaos on the streets outside, under a searing sun.
Chaos inside, the junior doctors overwhelmed. Patients and parents line the corridors.
In the hospital courtyard, my little friend Ibrahim – covered in scars from a long-ago kerosene burn – in hysterics. “I beat him for playing in the gutter,” says a man nearby.
A meeting with the maintenance team. Frustration all around. A suspiciously inflated invoice. Still no plan to fix the water pump. Another deadline.
On Ward 2 a little girl close to death, her eyes glassy, her mother terrified. A nurse adjusts the flow on her blood transfusion. “She’s improving,” she says, unconvincingly.
We trudge upstairs to Ward 3, short on optimism.
And then we hear it.
A remarkable sound.
A child laughing.
Towards me, down the center of the ward, runs a little girl in a flowered dress. Her belly peeks out through a missing button.
She laughs again. The sound brightens the ward.
I run towards her and she shrieks with delight, turns and runs away. Her steps are those of a typical toddler, unsteady but fearless.
Children nearby watch us through the bars of their beds. One or two smile weakly.
I ask her mother, who sits grinning on the windowsill, how long she’s been here. A few days, she says. Before that, another hospital. They gave her blood. Her feet and hands still have marks from the IV.
I ask the nurses. She has tuberculosis.
Her name is Mary.
She is playing hide-and-seek. Behind the curtains, around the cement pillars, under the worn metal cots. She giggles while I search.
I catch her and she collapses under my tickling hands, squealing with pleasure.
This is the best part of my day.
I say goodbye and walk away. I have to work.
She sneaks up behind me. I turn and see her impish grin, and can’t resist.
The game begins again.
Mary is laughing.
So am I.
To help support the hospital described here, located in Freetown, Sierra Leone, please visit the Welbodi Partnership.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
I returned to
On July 13, the Sierra Leonean authorities confiscated a plane filled with 600 kg of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $54 million. The Venezuelan plane, a fake Red Cross decal on its tail, landed in
This is all exciting, of course, but is also deadly serious for this small country working so hard to maintain peace and order after a decade-long civil war. In recent years, as demand for cocaine has increased dramatically in
To avoid this, or even the perception of this, the government of Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma has treated the case very seriously. Not only have they moved quickly to arrest suspects, and even to suspend very senior members of their own government, but have also taken steps to ensure those already arrested don’t manage to slip away. (Suspects and even convicted criminals have a way of disappearing from police custody from time to time.)
Therefore the police and military, afraid that South American drug barons might swoop in with a paramilitary force to bust their companions out of jail, have blocked traffic all along
Now I personally think it’s a bit far-fetched that the drug lords will risk any more men to rescue the small fry rotting in a
I can't fault the government for what is certainly an admirable show of force and a clear message to any drug lords looking to use
For one, they could do something about the laughable airport security. Last time I flew out of Lungi, the female security guard tasked with patting me down for weapons or contraband – because they don’t have a metal detector or any sort of scanner for persons or bags – decided I wasn’t a threat. Laughing, she gave me a big, friendly bear hug instead.
Monday, June 30, 2008
This first installment introduces some of my favorite neighborhood police officers. Before I tell the stories, however, I'd like to offer a bit of cautionary context.
1) Not all public officials -- and not all police officers -- are corrupt. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, not every public official in Sierra Leone is on the make. In more than two years in Sierra Leone -- and in part, I admit, thanks to luck and sheer persistence -- I've never paid a bribe or other "encouragement" to a police officer, immigration official, or government functionary of any sort. (I have paid "kola", a traditional gift now usually given as cash, to local chiefs, but I'd argue that's a greyer area.)
In that time, I've certainly encountered officials looking for some palm greasing, as evidenced by the stories below, but I've also encountered countless individuals who chose not to take advantage of a potentially lucrative situation. (As one example, a friend visiting from the US realized that he had a single-entry visa to Sierra Leone but plans to enter the country twice, on either end of a side trip to Senegal. He was clearly in the wrong, and legitimately owed the government at least the $100 difference in price between the two visas, but when we explained the honest mistake to an airport immigration official, he waved us through without even hinting for a bribe.)
2) Small-scale corruption is often a matter of survival. When a senior government official embezzles hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for a life-saving project -- such as child immunization, school feeding, or rural road construction -- and buys himself a BMW and a big house, he deserves to be harshly judged. So too does a police detective who refuses to file a rape case unless the impoverished and terrified young victim collects enough money from family and friends to pay for paper, a pen, and transportation for the investigating officer. But when a low-ranking policeman paid approximately Le5,000 ($1.67) per day asks someone like me to give him Le15,000 to let me drive away with a cracked side mirror, I have a bit more sympathy (though I still refuse to pay). With skyrocketing food prices, the officer can hardly afford to feed his or her family on the normal monthly salary.
Certainly the collective impact of small-scale corruption can be enormous, and certainly such demands are more onerous on the transport drivers also scraping to survive than they are on rich expats like myself, but there is still something different -- in my view -- between a poor and poorly-paid small-time official scamming a bit of extra income, and a fat cat "big man" stealing big money. I don't accept either type of corruption, and go to great lengths to avoid paying even the smallest bribe, but I also don't judge the small official as harshly as I do the big man.
So, with those caveats, here are my favorite police corruption stories:
As a driver in Sierra Leone -- or, at least, as a foreign driver -- you generally don't face the kind of aggressive harassment you might be led to expect by typical stories of West Africa. However, police officers do pull you over, frequently, if you are driving a car without diplomatic or NGO (non-governmental organization) plates. They invent moving violations or imperceptible problems with your vehicle to try to extort a bit of money. (Once, when I was still new to Sierra Leone, an officer insisted that my left headlight was a bit dimmer than my right headlight and threatened to arrest me. It was false and rather silly but hard to prove.)
I've discovered that the best approach is to greet them from the outset with enthusiastic cheer, chattering away in friendly Krio before they even get a word in edgewise. "Officer, I am so glad to see you out here on the streets protecting us. How is your day going? Is the work too difficult? Is the sun too warm? Thank you so much for your hard work." Often, this approach preempts even the request for money, and after a quick and friendly chat, they wave me on my way.
Occasionally, I still find an officer who makes noise about this or that invented offence. My cracked side mirror is a frequent target, even though my car passed inspection (without a bribe) with the mirror just as broken as it is today.
The most memorable interactions, however, are with those officers that dispatch with the formality of pretending I've broken a law and simply ask point-blank for money. The first time this happened, I was driving down Wilkinson Road -- the main thoroughfare of western Freetown -- with a Nigerian friend of mine. The officer approached us with a smile and started chatting in rapid-fire Krio. (I remember being surprised, as people usually don't expect me to speak and understand Krio as well as I do.) He told us that he'd decided not to act like his fellow officers and threaten to arrest us for some nonsense offense. He didn't want to bully us, he said. Instead, he would just ask us nicely to give him a bit of money.
I kept a straight (but friendly) face, thanked him for his fresh approach, and politely declined. He looked disappointed but let me drive away.
The second time was during a city-wide crackdown on unsafe vehicles and other offenses. The police department itself was quite open about the purpose of the crackdown -- to generate revenue for the department -- and bragged publicly about the hundreds of drivers arrested in a 72-hour period and the millions of Leones collected in fines. I've no doubt that hundreds of others avoided arrest by contributing directly to the "revenue" of individual officers.
One afternoon during this crackdown, I was stopped by a cheery, ruddy-faced male officer with a somewhat grumpier female colleague. I gave my normal friendly greeting, and he replied with the following (conversation in Krio, English translations in parentheses):
Officer: "U no sae wi dae pa dis check." (You know we're on this "check".)
Me: Innocently. "Oh? Us kin check dat?" (Oh really? What kind of check?)
Officer: Chuckles. "Na u finances wi dae check." (We're checking you're finances.)
Me: "Mi finances?" Chuckles. "Ow u go check mi finances? Bank no dae naya." (My finances? How are you going to check my finances? There isn't a bank here.)
Officer: Chuckles again. "Well, na di finances na u pocket, na dat we dae check." (Well, the finances in your pocket, that's what we're checking.)
Me: Now genuinely amused, turn out my empty pockets. "Ah beg, finances no dae na mi pocket." (I'm sorry, but it looks like there aren't any finances in my pocket.)
He smiled at me. I smiled at him. Then I drove away.
No "finances" changed hands.
Below are a few photos of Bureh, including a table "with a view" and Prince, the proprieter mentioned in the story. The weathered old man is the coconut man, also mentioned, and a wonderful character.
Friday, May 16, 2008
A children’s hospital.
Down the concrete ramp from Ward 2 (general inpatient) to the main entrance comes a group of six young men. Barely more than teenagers, they walk in a loose V formation like soldiers – in uniforms of t-shirts and jeans – to battle. They carry an air of solemn concentration, duty-bound, and the cloud of silence around them pushes back the din of the hospital to a dim distant hum.
One of the boyish men, a few steps in front of the others, carries in his arms a child-sized bundle wrapped in a blue blanket. He doesn’t look at the bundle. His eyes are dry.
Behind this group come two women, also young. Their gaze is riveted on the men in front of them, oblivious to their surroundings. One of the women wails and clutches her breasts, grasping for the child who nursed there. Her face is haggard, and you know she has been crying for hours or days.
The procession passes through the doorway and into the glare of the courtyard. Past parents toting sick children. Past student nurses gathered in the shade. Past security guards and drivers and curious onlookers.
For the small group of mourners, however, all that is far away. The traffic of the hospital and of the street beyond belong to the world of the living. Theirs is the grim task of accompanying the dead.
A dented white pick-up truck waits for them just outside the entrance. The father climbs into the front seat with his precious bundle. The child is small enough to lay across his lap, even with the bulky blanket. I find myself wondering how old she is – was – but shake my head and push the thought aside. Too young.
The rest of the men – brothers, cousins, comrades-in-arms – climb into the back of the truck. They reach down to the mother, to help her up behind them, but she is trembling with grief. Her leg buckles when she steps on the bumper. It is all too much.
As the truck drives away, I can still see the small blue bundle through the front window. I imagine where they are going, what comes next. A tiny casket. A simple gravestone. A memorial service. A lifetime of sorrow. “I had three children, and two are alive.”
I turn away. It is all too much.
To support the children's hospital portrayed in this posting, please visit the Welbodi Partnership.
Sunday, May 04, 2008
… the church drummer warming up at
… a sermon in my bedroom.
… a lazy breakfast of papaya and mangoes on the balcony, or chocolate croissants and smoothies at Bliss Patisserie down the street.
… the long drive to
… sun and surf and freshly-caught barracuda for lunch.
… outings, outings, and more outings: a caravan of buses, taxis, jeeps and poda-podas bound for beaches out of town; stereos blaring, bodies crammed in every available space, and clinging to roof-racks and bumpers. On the beach, speakers piled high, music drowning the waves and the seabirds, revelers bumping and grinding, helped by free-flowing alcohol and the occasional joint. Attention-seekers climb atop rocks, then seduce the beach with their swaying hips and chiseled bodies. Others splash in the waves and chase each other – squealing and shouting – across the stark white sand, against the most beautiful backdrop imaginable.
… back in town, an evening walk on
... the call to prayer.
... the hum, the murmur, the humble din of beggars outside a mosque.
... noble men in caps and robes.
... statuesque women in their Friday Africana, stunning from their elaborate head scarves to their pointed heels, wrapped in eye-dazzling color, texture, and pattern.
... walking through the crowded East-End streets en route to the Children's Hospital, dodging motorized poda-podas and hand-drawn omalankis, the former packed tight with bodies, the latter piled high with goods. Tip-toeing through sludge and garbage and over open gutters, ducking under panbodi zinc and 10-foot wooden poles carried recklessly atop the heads of quick-moving bodies. Sweating and sweating and sweating under the searing mid-day sun.
... walking back through markets teeming with Friday salesmanship: a wall of vendors flooding the streets, channeling pedestrian commuters through a narrow gauntlet of flashing goods and shouted prices. A bit of cardboard hung with cheap gold-painted earrings; a basin of ice-cold water packed in plastic bags; a woman’s skirt (slightly used) for $0.30; a hundred metal spoons jangled to grab attention; an armful of fake designer sunglasses; a sequined handbag; a pickled pig’s foot; a live chicken.
... suffocating traffic, where the crippled man with legs twisted from polio pulling himself along on his hands and knees moves faster than you in your car.
... a cold shower to wash off the day.
....a beer at sunset at Ramadas Beach Bar, with the hills of the city behind and the waves before you, and your bare feet buried in the sand.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
I was sitting in front of the Ministry of Health and Sanitation last week, trying to arrange my hair into something more respectable before my meeting with the Minister. (In the April humidity, my curls generally explode into a frenetic and chaotic mop, and in
In my car vanity mirror, I noticed a smattering of grey hairs sprouting cruelly from the top of my head. Though I don't generally stress about such things -- I am almost 30 and a few laugh lines and grey hairs seem like part of the bargain -- I do usually pull them when I find them. And so I did, yanking the most obvious before combing my hair into a semblance of order.
But then I started thinking: in
So perhaps I should have left the greys. Maybe the Minister would see me in a different light if I looked a bit older. Perhaps I’d no longer be a “small girl” to most of my colleagues and acquaintances, but someone more serious and important. Perhaps people would call me Madam or Aunty instead of Sister.
Perhaps… but for now I think I’ll stick with my more American approach. Yank away, Yankee.
Monday, April 21, 2008
It's also an amazing model of religious plurality. There is good-natured teasing but absolutely no tension between Christians and Muslims. Intermarriage is so common as to barely merit a mention. If a Christian lives in a village without a church, he or she will often turn to the Imam for guidance, and vice versa. Muslims all go to church on New Year's (because that's what you do).
This religious tolerance is worthy of a much longer and more serious post (one I've been meaning to write for some time). For now, however, I want to be a bit lighter.
One of the most visible trends of Christianity in Sierra Leone is big, bold, unapologetic, fire-and-brimstone evangelism. Posters and banners adorn walls through the city, announcing visiting preachers -- many from Nigeria -- special redemption campaigns, and revivals in the national stadium. I used to live down the street from one of many branches of the Flaming Bible Church, with its logo of a burning cross, and I now spend every Sunday morning lying in bed and listening to a hundred exalted voices calling "hallelujah".
I'm certainly happy to live-and-let-live (as the Sierra Leoneans do) when it comes to religion. People find faith and guidance in many different forms. But sometimes I can't help but giggle a bit at the more notable campaigns.
One of my favorites was from a year or more ago. Operation P.U.S.H. -- Pray Until Something Happens. I wonder if anything did.
Then today I saw an enormous poster (taller than me) for a month-long crusade. Among the many miracles on offer was a declaration that 2008 was the year of Supernatural Wealth Transfer.
I imagined money falling from the sky, or a mysterious transfer into all believers' bank accounts from the Bank of God.
Hmm, maybe I should give this church business a try... a Supernatural Wealth Transfer doesn't sound too bad.
Thursday, April 03, 2008
In an effort to embrace and perhaps understand this cultural practice, I went to the market a few weeks ago and bought myself a length of Ernest Bai Koroma (President of Sierra Leone) fabric. Here I am in a makeshift dress, with the President staring jauntily from my hip. What do you think?
Friday, March 28, 2008
At 1,995 meters (6,542 feet), Mount Bintumani in northern Sierra Leone lacks the body-taxing altitude and snow-covered peaks of its larger sisters. (Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, stands at 5,895 meters above sea level, while Everest is 8,850 meters high.) It is instead a gentle giant, with sloping grass-covered skirts rising to an improbable rocky plateau, which perches like a slumbering stone bulldog upon an oversized knoll.
Climbing Bintumani is even less daunting than it might be because 1) if you go by the shorter eastern route you have just one day’s hike to the summit, followed by another day down; and 2) for $5 per day plus food you can hire a porter to carry the bulk of your things. I felt a bit foolish sweating my way up the mountain in my high-tech hiking shoes with only a daypack on my back, while Musa followed in flip-flops and a rucksack packed with 6 liters of water (for me, plus the 4 liters in my own pack); oatmeal and sugar for 17 breakfasts; a pot packed with cooking and eating implements; extra socks and warm clothes (also for me); and various other “essentials.” But I probably wouldn’t have made it otherwise – or at least it would have hurt a lot more.
Here is one of our porters, Saiyo, ready to leave his home village with someone’s pack on his back, and then further up the mountain with a bunch of plantains on his head.
The plantains – harvested partway up the mountain – were the only food, besides a few cups of uncooked rice, that the porters brought along. Despite our request that each of them bring a pot of rice and sauce for their dinner, they came empty-handed. They also brought nothing to sleep on or under, nor warm clothes for the damp and cool mountain evening. We’d been warned and had budgeted food and some water for the 9 guides and porters as well as the 8 of us, but did not have extra tents or sweaters. (In fact we were somewhat under-prepared ourselves: my friend Aongus slept in a makeshift shelter under the “porch” of one tent, while a couple snuggled in a mosquito-dome made for one. And all of us were cold at night.)
It made for some gentle joking as we made 17 peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, stirred a pot of oatmeal for the porters’ dinner, or handed over our extra tarp (meant to cover our bags in case of rain) for the guys to sleep under. And joking turned to frustration as we shouted and struggled to keep pace with our guide, who had a tendency to hurry off with the porters, seemingly unconcerned that we trailed behind without a clue to the path.
But the guys were good-spirited and we eventually grew on one another. I even got to play doctor, which probably redeemed me in their eyes for not having a spare tent to share. As we settled into our mountain camp, in the shadow of the summit, we discovered that our guide Pa Mara (see photo below) had a festering axe wound on his thigh. Two days old, the wound – though seemingly minor from the outside – was probably deep and definitely infected, swelling his knee and thigh and giving him a mild fever. We unpacked our UK government-issued first aid kit – actually more of a mobile hospital – and I began washing Pa Mara’s leg with bottled water and dressing it with layers of sterile gauze (thinking all the time, “If my Mom could see me now.”) Another dressing in the morning and a few paracetemol (Tylenol) and he was in much brighter spirits.
Helped by moments like this, we all made friends in the end – not only through our mutual gratitude (how can you not like someone who totes your heavy pack up a mountain or ministers to your festering wounds?) but also through the exhilaration of our shared experience. Most of the porters had themselves never scaled the mountain, and a few shared our nervousness as we neared the top. Our banana-toting porter Saiyo became particularly anxious as we scrambled through a thick morning mist up the steep upper reaches of the mountain, just short of the rocky plateau, until my friend Drucil started teasing him that if Drucil, a “Freetown boy” could make it, so could the country-born Saiyo.
As we emerged on the top, a vast rocky expanse, the porters and guides stepped immediately aside to pray, before joining in our more secular revelry. When I later asked if the mountain was a sacred space, they said simply that Allah could hear them better when they were up so high.
Most of the porters also refused our offer of celebratory champagne, which we raised in our own tribute to the gods of the mountain. (We even poured a bit in libation, in case the mountain god were more a reveler than a teetotaler.) But they did enjoy posing for light-hearted photos, as well as exploring the summit and its breathtaking views.
After a long trek back down the mountain, and a bumpy, dusty, 11-hour drive back to Freetown, I’m struck by how happy we look in all the photos from the trip. Scratched legs and sore knees and sweat-soaked packs and all, I think Bintumani refreshed and rejuvenated us.
Perhaps Allah or the mountain god were indeed listening from the top.
A sad postscript
In a sad postscript to the trip, we returned to the porters’ home village of Sangbania to find that Saiyo’s son was vomiting blood and had been moved that day to a larger neighboring village to seek medical attention. Saiyo grabbed a ride on the roof rack of our Land Rover, and we drove through the quickly-failing light until we reached the village. While we pitched tents and strung hammocks on the newly-built school outside of town, Saiyo went to see after his son, and returned later with news.
The boy, 18 years old, had fallen from a palm tree some months earlier. At the time he’d been very hurt and vomiting blood, but later grew stronger and seemed to have recovered. Then suddenly the vomiting returned, and after vomiting blood for the better part of a day and night, the boy was now too weak to walk or even sit upright for more than a short time.
The village lacked a government clinic and the family – subsistence farmers when not earning a bit of money trekking tourists up the mountain – lacked the money to bring him to a hospital or clinic. Instead they paid a nurse to give him an injection (quite possibly of sugar-water or some other useless substance) and a “native doctor” to find an herbal remedy.
We knew the boy was in serious trouble if he had internal injuries – as it seemed to our inexpert selves – but that his best bet was with a clinic or hospital with trained personnel. So we woke early the next morning to visit the family and offer to bring the boy most of the way to the nearest government hospital (in Kono’s district headquarter town) and to give them money toward treatment and transport.
In the end they refused the ride to the hospital, preferring to go to another clinic where they had some family nearby, but gratefully accepted our contribution (about $70) to the transport and treatment. They promised emphatically not to spend the money on native doctors or anything else except the boy’s treatment.
We’ll probably never know what happened to Saiyo’s son, because we have no way to contact the family. But I hope they indeed brought him to the clinic, and if necessary to a hospital, and that the nurses and doctors somehow found a way to give him the help he needed with the limited supplies on hand. In an act of forced optimism, I envision not the likely tragic outcome but the grin on the teenager’s face as he learned how much money we’d offered his family, and as the terror in his eyes was displaced – momentarily, at least – by hope.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
The first is a wonderful travel article from last Sunday's edition of the UK newspaper, The Observer. It draws in part on the same island-hopping trip I described in my last post. The cover photo (shown here) is by my stellar photographer/journalist/travel-guide-writer friend, Katrina Manson, who is also responsible for the photo essays on cleaning day and a Freetown slum linked from earlier posts.
The second is a video from the Sierra Leone National Tourist Board, so you can see the sights and sounds for yourself.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
There is something deliciously luxurious about boarding a boat (no, not the boat in the photo) for five days of island-hopping. Coolers full of beer and soft drinks. Crates of canned goods and snack food. Waterproof bags protecting cameras and iPods. Backpacks stuffed with mosquito nets, sun cream, bikinis, and beach wraps.
The island itself was tiny, with a circumference you could easily walk in just a few hours. The village was home to maybe a few hundred souls, all of them making a living from the water. Transport from the mainland arrived every Wednesday and returned a few days later. If anyone needed to reach the land in the interim – for instance, in case of a medical emergency, as there was certainly no clinic on the island – the only choice was a fisherman’s dugout canoe.
In the center of the town I found a fenced-off area filled with fishing nets rolled and put away for the night. I asked and was told this was to keep the women away from them. If a woman entered the area or touched a net, the fisherman would no longer catch any fish.
Returning to our “hotel,” I found the chief helping a few of my friends to string mosquito nets from exposed roof beams and palm fronds. I chose a spot on the sand between two palm trees for my own bed, while the other two ladies went for a swim in the fading light.
Later, filled with fish and rice and roasted marshmallows – and rum – we played silly games and listened to birthday-boy Tom sing and play the guitar. The full moon shimmered off the sea and glimmered through the palm trees. From nearby came the muffled sounds of a village evening: men’s voices, children’s laughter.
In the morning we set off again, with a promise to return soon.
We meant it.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Monday, January 28, 2008
Still lying in bed, I gazed blearily out my window and found a sky hazy and white, an unusual sight in Freetown. “Fog?” my sleep-addled brain briefly asked, before I put together the pungent smell irritating my throat and the clouds of white outside.
Burying my head under the pillows, I thought with resignation: national cleaning day.
I had time on Saturday to write this blog (after a long period of silence) because I wasn't allowed to go anywhere or do anything until after noon. Friends who ventured out (wittingly or unwittingly) on previous cleaning days have been turned back by police checkpoints and – more commonly – self-styled civilian enforcers. If you’re not going to help clean, they say, go back to your house and stay there. (Fair enough).
I swear I’ll help with a cleaning day at some point, but for now the idea of shoveling out gutters filled with human waste makes me shudder. Instead I hid in my house like a spoiled brat and wrote about it instead.
The idea of a national cleaning day – at least in the capital – is usually credited to one of the handful of military dictatorships that took charge in successive coups in the 1990s. Perhaps the most hapless of these regimes, the NPRC (National Provisional Ruling Council) came to power in 1992 and ruled until 1996, when elections returned the government to civilian hands.
According to conventional wisdom, their coup was mostly accidental; the young group of military officers simply wanted to file a complaint, and then found themselves in charge of the country. They spent most of the next few years throwing lavish parties in the presidential mansion and doing little for the country, but are nonetheless frequently named as the best government in recent memory. The reason? Cleaning Day.
Under NPRC rule, every man, woman, and child in Sierra Leone was required to spend one Saturday morning a month cleaning: their own house and yard, the streets, common areas. Sierra Leone has a long history of communal labor in the rural areas, where (for instance) chiefs will designate a day for “road brushing” – the backbreaking work of clearing and repairing the roads, bridges, and footpaths surrounding a village or chiefdom. Overgrown footpaths are one of the first signs that something is seriously amiss in a given area.
But I’m not sure anyone had ever brought the concept to Freetown before the NPRC, and people loved it. “The NPRC, now that was a government,” many people have told me. “With them the streets were clean.”
The idea has been resurrected from time to time since then. On the very week that I arrived in Sierra Leone – late March 2006 – the then-Minister of Trade and Industry called for a cleaning day to prepare the city for the investors and businessman that would be visiting Freetown the following week for an International Trade Fair. People responded with enthusiasm, turning out in droves on Saturday morning to sweep yards and shovel gutters and gather garbage.
And yet when I arrived on Sunday, the city was absolutely filthy: covered in massive mountains of rancid garbage. Over the next few days, the piles remained – in places blocking entire lanes of traffic – and began to smolder.
The Freetown residents had done their part, dedicating their Saturday morning to making their city clean, but the government had failed at its task: collecting and disposing of the waste. Some say that money was allocated to hire trucks, but was stolen by corrupt officials. Others say the government simply didn’t think things through beyond asking people to gather the garbage in central locations. In any case, the result was clear: Freetown was had laid out a welcome mat of garbage and filth to potential foreign investors it wished to woo.
To paraphrase Paul Theroux, it’s the old African story: great people, terrible governments.
The government subsequently obtained a number of shiny modern garbage trucks – donated by someone – and figured out the basics of cleaning up after cleaning day. And the new APC government has apparently decided to usurp the NPRC legacy and make cleaning day a regular event.
The most amazing part about all of this is the spirit of collective action. Though the police will turn you back if you’re wandering the streets on cleaning day, Sierra Leone is far from an authoritarian state. In fact, the government and police alike are generally too bumbling to enforce much of anything.
No, people clean on cleaning day because they want to. They are willing to give their time, and to work at a filthy and unpleasant task, in order to make up for the lack of a comprehensive government-run sanitation and waste-disposal system.
Imagine if your local government suggested that. Cleaning Day USA? Would you turn out with a broom and a shovel?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.