Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Remarkable Sound

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

Cocaine busts

I returned to Freetown a few weeks ago to find a city abuzz with one word: Cocaine.

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 Freetown’s Lungi International Airport without a valid flight plan. According to the official story, the pilot and crew fled before the authorities arrived, but left behind a plane full of cocaine. In the hours and days that followed, the crew – including 9 foreigners from Latin America and the United States – were arrested, along with dozens of Sierra Leoneans believed to be involved. In all, some 60 people have been arrested in relation to the case. The Minister of Transport and Aviation has been suspended from office for suspicion of involvement, and other powerful men, including Gbassay Kamara, the former manager of Sierra Leone's national football team, have fled or gone into hiding.

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 Europe, West Africa has become a favored route for traffickers bringing drugs from source countries in South America to the lucrative markets of Europe. In tiny and impoverished Guinea-Bissau, drug trafficking has eviscerated already weak government and security institutions and overrun the legitimate economy, turning the country – according to media coverage – into “Africa's first narco-state.”

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 Pademba Road beside the prison, and on all the smaller roads that intersect with Pademba. They’ve brought in major military hardware – including anti-aircraft guns, I’m told – and have announced a no-fly zone over the prison. On days the prisoners appear in court, they extend their blockade down to the law courts building, on the main drag of Siaka Stevens Street next to the city’s iconic cotton tree.

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 Sierra Leone jail. Even the quantity of cocaine confiscated – though a record for Sierra Leone – is small potatoes for these guys. And anyway, there is no way the cocaine is being held in the porous and severely under-funded Pademba Road prison. (Best guess on the street is that either the British-led International Military Advisory and Training Team, IMATT, or the few remaining UN soldiers guarding the Special Court for Sierra Leone have been put in charge of the $54 million stash.)

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 Sierra Leone as a gateway to Europe.But it seems to me there are some more practical steps they could take.

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.