Monday, October 27, 2008

Air Fresheners for Obama

I am sitting in traffic near St. John roundabout on Saturday, after a trip to the tailor and for lunch at Diaspora Cafe.

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

An elegy for the beach bars

My favorite restaurant was just bulldozed to the ground, along with every other sand-in-your-toes, open-air beach bar on Lumley Beach in Freetown.

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.