Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Den Dae Pan Check

Picture 117

Waiting at a joint military-police checkpoint at Bottom Mango on a rainy October night – consequence of a new (and apparently successful) government of Sierra Leone initiative to stamp out a spike in armed robberies.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When good news isn’t

On my flight back to Freetown on Tuesday night, I sat next to a group of drunk rough-and-tumble middle-aged guys, many of them Scottish. A friend and I sized them up and figured they must be miners. Or mercenaries, but there aren’t as many of those running around Freetown these days.

In fact, as we discovered later in the flight when a particularly drunk and offensive member of the group tried to chat us up – “You actually live in this godforsaken country?” he slurred, throwing back yet another gin and lemonade – they were members of an oil drilling team working for a large petroleum company. According to him, they’d just struck oil off the coast of Sierra Leone.

After another offshore find last year in Ghana, this wasn’t particularly surprising, but I still put even odds on the fact that he was full of it. But sure enough, Wednesday morning brought headlines on the BBC, Financial Times, and others, that the US Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and its partners had found oil off the coast of Sierra Leone.

This should be good news for Sierra Leone, I suppose. A new and lucrative industry to create jobs, generate tax revenue, and bring foreign currency into the country is surely welcome. Images of tiny Gulf states made impossibly rich by oil revenue, or a childish cartoon with an oil geyser bursting from a backyard, come to mind. “We’re rich, Ma, we’re rich!”

Sadly, among the world’s poorest countries, the presence of valuable natural resources has tended to lead not to the reduction of poverty, but to the creation of rent-seeking, kleptocratic elites growing richer while the vast majority of the population continues to live in gripping poverty. Take the Niger River Delta in Nigeria, where abundant oil resources have failed to benefit the local population and instead have fuelled terrorism and popular unrest, while causing tremendous damage to the natural environment. Or the many poor economies in which, as Paul Collier argues in his book the Bottom Billion, “resource rents … make democracy malfunction.”

So I want to celebrate Sierra Leone’s latest opportunity for economic growth, but I worry that oil – like diamonds in the 1990s – could prove more of a curse than a blessing. Two members of the Visit Sierra Leone online forum express these duelling reactions: saint_dracula says Genuinely horrifying, depressing news...Yet another curse... Don't expect much,” while SaloneBoy celebrates, in Krio “Betteh don kam oh, betteh don kam!!”

I hope you're right, SaloneBoy. I hope good things have come.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Making the Video

I love this BBC audio slideshow by Glenna Gordon. It shows all the sass and energy of the Sierra Leone pop music scene. It also demonstrates why, after three years in Sierra Leone, I sometimes feel compelled to defy my age and buy teeny-tiny clothes made of shiny synthetic fabrics from stores like Forever 21.

I also love Glenna's blog, the Scarlett Lion. Her photos are nothing short of breathtaking, and her commentary is incisive and true. She's based in Monrovia but has written about Sierra Leone -- apparently I just missed meeting her on a recent visit, when I opted not to attend a mass disaster drill by the country's emergency services. (But that's a story for another day.)

Here is one of my favorite photos from Glenna's recent trip to Freetown. If it were my photo, I would title it: In Which A Man Has An Idea.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


A policeman in a riot helmet, carrying a wooden bat. With him, a man in a DayGlo vest talking on his cell phone, and another man, in a white T-shirt, walking a few paces behind.

Emblazoned across the back of the T-shirt: “Attitudinal and Behavioral Change Secretariat Enforcement Squad.” On closer inspection, Mr. DayGlo Vest had the same shirt. I suddenly had visions of Orwell.

The men walked unhurried along Jomo Kenyatta Road . Thanks to the traffic, we kept pace – I’d drive slowly ahead of them for a moment, then wait for them to catch up. As we performed this slow dance , I stared at them surreptitiously, wondering what they were up to.

A few meters on, I got my answer. A larger group of vested  and T-shirted Enforcement Squad members, most armed with crude tools, clustered by the roadside. One reached up and began to tear off the locked shutter from a small makeshift kiosk, painted in the neon colors of Zain. The owner probably sold cell phone credit and simple provisions – candles, soft drinks, cigarettes – for a meager living. Until now.

When President Koroma introduced the concept of Attitudinal Change, everyone had a different idea of what he meant – and without fail, it involved a change in someone else’s attitude rather than your own. To  the poor, it meant that wealthy elites should stop pursuing their own interests to the detriment of the masses. To the rich, it meant the poor should stop demanding handouts. To commercial drivers, it meant the police should stop harassing them. To all other drivers, it meant the commercial drivers should start driving more responsibly. To more than one of my friends, it meant that the staff of restaurants, bars, shops, banks, and offices of all sort should start serving customers with a smile, rather than treating them like an unwelcome disruption.

Attitudinal Change became a buzz word for everything – and, as far as I could tell, it struggled to move from the realm of rhetoric to the arena of actual change.

But now it seems the Freetown City Council had its own definition, and is ready to put it into action. Attitudinal Change Enforcement means clearing the sidewalks of small-scale vendors who are trying to make a living a few thousand leones at a time. Never mind that the City Council hasn’t yet managed to build a single new market to provide an alternative space for the displaced sellers.

At least the Enforcers have riot helmets and batons. We wouldn’t want any trouble.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Glimpses of Paradise – and Paradox

I love this collection of photos by filmmaker and photographer Chuck Moss. They capture some of the heartbreaking contradictions of Sierra Leone: beauty and devastation, joy and melancholy, vibrant motion and frustrating stagnation.

From afar, great beauty…


… and also beauty up close…



…but then a touch of devastation: what a million new inhabitants do to a mountainous, coastal city.




A few shots of what it takes to make a living…




… and a few more on how to live it up with style.




A sense of the color of commerce…



… of the looks of joy….



… and then, in the quieter moments, of a touch of sadness.


For more of Chuck’s stunning photos, see the full collection here.

Friday, May 29, 2009


For better or worse, Freetown is now developing an upper crust scene typical of what you find in most African capital cities.

This occurred to me last night, as I sipped passable white wine and ate an artfully arranged plate of barracuda and mashed potato on the balcony of the Country Lodge, while a live jazz band played in the background. The tinkle of glasses and silverware mixed with the muted strains of Ella Fitzgerald, heat lightening brightened the sky over the coastal city far below, and a well-dressed crowd of the well-to-do – European, Lebanese, and African alike – chatted away.

This is not Freetown, I thought. This is Abidjan before the war. Or Dakar. Or Durban, for that matter.

But it is Freetown. It is now. It is again, because certainly Freetown had these kinds of places before the war.

Maybe tonight I’ll flash back to 2006 and seek out one of my old haunts, like PB’s restaurant on the side of Spur Road, separated from the traffic by a woven thatch screen. Burgers and pumping hip-hop. Pools of florescent light and vast stretches of darkness. The occasional smell of garbage or sewage. Raw and real.

Or maybe not. The jazz band is playing again tonight, at the Aqua Club, a members-only boating and sports club.  Sunset cocktails by the sea.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hierarchy of Professions

A police officer smiled through my passenger-side window as I crawled through traffic at the Eastern Police clock tower yesterday.

“Don’t you want to hire me to be your driver?” he said. He wasn’t kidding.

I looked at his name tag.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stories I Like to Tell Part II – My Friendly Airport Security Lady

This is the second installment of Stories I Like to Tell About Sierra Leone. (Also check out the first one, about my friendly corrupt policemen.) If you are a blood relative, close friend, or have bought me a drink anytime over the last year, you’ve probably heard this story already. Sorry. 

If, however, you are one of the 3 people who read this blog despite having no personal obligation to do so, read on!

To preface the story, I must describe a bit about Lungi Airport, Sierra Leone’s national airport and gateway for the small number of tourists the country has begun to attract, thanks to – as Tony Blair wrote after a recent visit – its “unspoilt beaches, beautiful tropical islands, world-class fishing and diving, and a rich cultural and historical legacy.”

Infamous for the astonishingly bad urban planning which located it across a large body of water from the capital city, Lungi is also notable for being the approximate size of a postage stamp. One  runway, bordered by broken-down planes and a debris-strewn grassy plain, leads to an unimpressive two-story building with gap-toothed yellow-and-black letters spelling out Freetown Freetown Air Port Arrival International Airport.  Inside are perhaps 5 main areas – lobby, departures immigration, security and departure lounge, arrivals immigration, and baggage claim. All together, the airport’s square footage is probably about the same as two average middle class American homes. And that limited space is always a swirl of color and mild chaos, as I described in a 2006 post shortly after I first arrived in Sierra Leone.

Lungi has a few other characteristics worth noting.

The duty-free shop (the size of a NYC newsstand) sells a remarkably good selection of single malt whiskey at remarkably good prices. Or so I’m told.

The only other shop (the size of a NYC phone booth) sells candy bars and small canisters of Pringles for criminally high prices. This I know from experience, from trying to buy last-minute provisions for an empty stomach before a long flight.

An historical “landmark,” of sorts, is the porter who has been working at Lungi Airport since before Sierra Leone’s independence in 1961. He remembers military dictatorships, fledgling democratic regimes, and a war. He remembers colonial governors, tourists, diamond miners, journalists, peacekeepers, development workers – an endless parade of light-skinned visitors. He now stands about 4’11’’ – my grandfather’s height – and wears his brown uniform pants pulled up to that old man waistline, just below the armpits. He has a cataract in one eye, an impish smile, and a questionable command of the English language. He is far, far too old to tote bags.

“How old are you?” I ask him one day in Krio. He looks perplexed, embarrassed, and I immediately regret the question. He probably has no idea. I smile kindly in apology, and he tells me he put in his request for retirement this year. “They said no,” he said. “I have to keep working for a bit longer.” I was dumbfounded.

This porter is perhaps my new favorite Lungi story to tell.  But before he came into my life, I used to wax lyrical about the thoroughness and professionalism of Sierra Leone’s airport security workers.

Now, security at Lungi is profoundly questionable at the best of times. There is no metal detector, no x-ray scanner, no narcotics-trained bloodhounds. Security consists of a cursory search (repeated three times but never involving more than a superficial rifling) of all luggage, and a physical pat-down to check for weapons or contraband.

First problem: it would be profoundly difficult for this process to uncover any but the most blatantly obvious breaches of law or security. When someone opens my backpack zipper, peers inside, and then zips  it closed again, they’re apt to miss anything smaller than an AK-47. As proof, I can tell you that I have on several occasions brought 1.5-liter bottles of water through security in my carry-on backpack without detection.  (Purely accidentally, of course – I have the utmost respect for the “put your 3-oz facial moisturizer in a plastic baggie and we’re all safe” rule, and would never try to smuggle extra drinking water on board.) In case you’re not clear, a 1.5-liter bottle of water is quite large. Almost the size of a big jug of Coke. If they can’t find that, how exactly will they find hidden narcotics or diamonds?

Second problem: it is tremendously easy to bypass this procedure entirely. You don’t have to be much of a VIP or pull too many strings to find someone to walk you straight out onto the tarmac and on board the plane. If my businessmen friends can do this with one simple phone call because they’re late and want to catch their flight, a cocaine baron could clearly arrange something of the sort to facilitate his multi-million dollar cargo. And anyway, the grounds of the airport are totally open to the surrounding community, so pretty much anyone can wander in and out as he pleases.

But all these problems pale in comparison to what happens when the security officers themselves stop taking their job very seriously – or at all seriously.

Last year, I was accompanying my friend Amie’s 14-year-old daughter through the airport security. I was flying to London and she was heading to Philadelphia for the school holidays.

We walked through the non-functional metal detector and placed our bags on the counter. The one female security guard – always responsible for female searches – is a generally jovial woman, and we smiled and chatted with her as she did her cursory bag check. She teased my companion about having to wear an “unaccompanied minor” tag around her neck.

We then walked over to the pat down area, where the guard is meant to make up for the lack of a metal detector by doing a thorough pat-down.

Instead, the guard looked both of us up and down, in our slim jeans and fitted tank tops, and laughed.

“I can tell you’re not hiding anything,” she said. “I don’t need to search you.”

“No?” I asked.

“No.” She stepped towards me, arms outstretched. “I’ll just give you a hug instead.”

And she did. A big bear hug. And then one to my young companion. And then she sent us on our way.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sierra Leone, On the Move



It does feel like this sometimes.

(Thanks to Ajay Patel for the photo)

Monday, April 06, 2009

Groundnuts and Running Companions

I went for a run today on Lumley Beach, after work.

The sun was enormous and low in the sky, a shade of orange I would have sworn did not exist in nature, reminiscent of 1980s short-shorts and plastic bangles. The tide was high, forcing me to dodge the long arms of occasionally enthusiastic waves and venture reluctantly into softer sand.

I ran from Family Kingdom on the northern end of the beach, past the rainbow umbrellas and temporary tables of the new makeshift beach bar replacements; past the florescent orange Africell signs and Sierra Leonean national flags marking the site of a recent beach volleyball tournament; past the rubble of the old Bunker Bar, untouched since its demolition months ago. I turned back just short of the southern end, perhaps two and a half miles down the three mile stretch, at a billboard advertising a new national insurance scheme.

On my way back, the sun now hidden behind the wide band of haze that rings the horizon this time of year, I passed two little girls. Zainab and Mumuna, I later learned. 8 and 13 years old.

Zainab wore a pair of knee-length shorts and a black t-shirt. Mumuna wore a long flowered skirt and a tank top. Both walked barefoot and carried their halfbacks (flip-flops) in their hands. And both held, upon their heads, a wide tin platter topped with a bundle of fabric the size of a soccer ball. Within, I knew, were parched groundnuts – roasted peanuts – warmed by the sun.

The platters were much broader than their slender shoulders, and besides the bundle of groundnuts, each held a series of accessories – Zainab a pink plastic bowl tucked precariously into the side – including the halved tin cans they used to price sales. The largest tin, roughly the bottom third of a Campbell’s soup can, represented Le1,000 worth of groundnuts, about 30 US cents.

I passed the girls with a small smile and little thought. And then, a few minutes later, I heard the patter of small feet and intermittent giggles behind me. I turned and the girls were running just a few paces behind me, hands still holding halfbacks, platters barely moving at all. I marveled at their poise – models with a stack of encyclopedias on their heads had nothing on these two – and called out in Krio. “You want to run with me?” I asked. “Come, let’s go.”

I thought they would give up soon – you often get running companions on Lumley, but they usually bore quickly – but they followed me most of the way back. Past the orange volleyball court, past the beach bars, past several soccer games, past a pack of malnourished dogs and a smattering of young couples, holding hands and pointing at us with obvious amusement.

At that point I started to realize how it must look. Me, in proper sneakers and running attire, being matched stride for stride by two half-pint girls with wares on their heads. They rarely even reached a hand up to steady their loads, except once when Zainab dropped a pen she’d salvaged from the beach and in stopping to pick it up, upset her pink bowl. And they chatted amiably, if shyly, with me while we ran, turning their heads gingerly to not upset the trays balanced on top, but otherwise running confidently, coltish legs flying.

Eventually they started to tire, and though they egged each other on for a bit longer, they finally fell behind with another round of giggles and a wave. I finished my run alone, shamed enough by their impressive showing to sprint the last few hundred yards.

Next time I’ll try it with a tray on my head.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A coup? Mutiny? Civil war?

This Sierra Leone headline caught my eye in my Google News alert today:

Sierra Leone: Murray Town, Police Surrender to RSLAF

RSLAF are the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces, so you can imagine my surprise.

“Jeez,” I thought. “This is big news.”

And then I read on.

Freetown — The Murray Town and Sierra Leone Police cricket teams were the latest to be subdued by the highflying Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Force (RSLAF) as the 'soja boys' defeated both teams in the ongoing 20/20 cricket league.

Ah. Cricket. Of course.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Salma Hayek and Sierra Leone

So it seems that Salma Hayek’s breast is all it takes to get pediatric health in Sierra Leone on the public’s radar.

We should have thought of that a long time ago.

In this ABC News piece, Salma first visits the Ola During Children’s Hospital, Sierra Leone’s only government children’s hospital, where I work with the Welbodi Partnership to help improve the standard of care provided to sick children. There she watches a week-old baby die a terribly painful (and utterly preventable) death from tetanus.

Tragically, this is not unusual. One in six children in Sierra Leone die in infancy. One in four die before their fifth birthday.

Salma then goes upcountry, to the provincial capital (misleadingly called “a remote corner of the country” by the ABC folks) of Makeni. Once there, she decides to breastfeed a tiny baby whose mother did not have milk to give.

This, of course, is what set the news media and blogosphere abuzz. Famous Hollywood actress gives breast to poor African child. History upended as light-skinned wet nurse feeds dark-skinned child. Bodily fluids shared on camera.

Breastfeeding is incredibly important to the health of young children, particularly in places like Sierra Leone, and is one of the best ways to ensure proper nutrition and protect against illness. And if Salma Hayek’s breast helps raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding, so be it. (Though I can’t help but point out that Sierra Leoneans are much less abuzz about this than the rest of the world. The vast majority will never see this footage or the headlines that have accompanied it, and in any case have no idea who Salma Hayek is. At the hospital, we turned up the day after this film crew and were told only that some white people had visited the day before; none of the staff knew how famous she was.)

But the film’s focus on breastfeeding and on other preventive measures – specifically a vaccine to prevent tetanus – ignores another reality, one evident in the first few minutes of the piece when Salma watches that tiny baby die in what should be Sierra Leone’s premier pediatric care facility.

The Ola During Children’s Hospital should be in a position to provide accessible, high-quality care to sick children. Parents should come to the hospital early, as soon as their children get sick. Drugs and supplies – at least for the most common illnesses – should be available and free of charge. Nurses and doctors should be properly motivated and trained, and should have the medical tools and enabling environment they need to provide care.

In reality, however, the dedicated staff of the children’s hospital struggle to provide even a basic standard of care. The hospital has no x-ray, rudimentary laboratory facilities, and no back-up power supply. Doctors and nurses are forced to charge impoverished and severely ill patients fees for consultations, laboratory tests, and drugs and supplies in order both to provide the hospital with revenue to meet its running costs, and to supplement their own meager salaries. (A trained and experienced nurse makes less than $50 per month, not nearly enough to feed a family).

These fees mean that many parents wait far too long before they seek medical care for their children, and that too often they cannot afford urgently-needed medical interventions – medicine to treat malaria or pneumonia, a blood transfusion for a severely anemic child, fluids to treat dehydration in a baby with diarrhea. These delays cost the lives of hundreds if not thousands of children each year.

Prevention of childhood illness is absolutely essential, and UNICEF is right to invest in vaccines and the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding.

But even with the best prevention, many children will still get sick. If there is not a pediatric health system capable of providing effective, low-cost treatment for the most common illnesses, the country will continue to lose far too many young lives.

The Welbodi Partnership supports pediatric health care in Sierra Leone by partnering with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Ola During Children’s Hospital. To learn more and to find out how you can help, please visit our website.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Party favors

I had forgotten this story, but was cleaning my room today and found a little money-sized manila envelope, and I remembered.

Back in September, I was at a party thrown by some Sierra Leonean friends. It was a professional crowd, lots of IT specialists and bankers, and they liked to party. In typical Salone style, the drinks were plentiful, the food – meat on a stick, chicken wings, fish on a napkin – spicy, the music loud, and the dance floor filled to bursting.

At one point, I escaped to the balcony to rest my sore feet and cool down. As I sat chatting with friends, admiring the grinding bodies inside, another guest came around handing out little bits of paper. I accepted mine and turned it over. A party invitation? A complementary ticket to a new hot club? A flier for an upcoming concert?

No. It was an envelope for a church offering.

“St. Patrick’s Church, Kissy,” it read. “Friends of St. Patrick’s 10th Annual Thanksgiving Service, on Sunday 21st September 2008 at 9:30 a.m.” – just a few hours hence.

I looked at the man in mild disbelief. He misunderstood my questioning look. “If you can’t make the service but would like to make an offering,” he said, “you can just put it in the envelope and give it to me now.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. He smiled and moved on.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Flip Flops and Foreign Affairs

On Tuesday I tried to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to drop off a document.

At the entrance, a handful of police and security guards stopped me, demanding to know where I was going and why.

“To the fifth floor,” I said. “Consular section. To drop off a letter.”

A particularly cocky officer leered at me self-righteously and pointed to my feet. “You can’t go inside in slippers. We only allow people in decent clothing.”

Now, before I continue, let me clarify a few things.

First, I was not wearing slippers, nor shorts and a tank top, nor beach attire of any sort. I was wearing a perfectly professional dress, which covered both my knees and shoulders (neither particularly mandatory in Freetown), and matching jewelry. I carried a briefcase.

I was also wearing flip-flops – a simple black pair – because I’d left my heels behind at the office in order to brave the uneven, often muddy, and always treacherous Freetown streets. I’ve learned the hard way that running errands in nice shoes is a danger to both the shoes and myself.

But calling my clothes not “decent” was a bit unfair.

Second, I am very sympathetic with the desire for professional attire in professional places of work. It is a particular pet peeve of mine that some visiting expatriates feel they can attend meetings in what amounts to safari attire. One of my most embarrassing days in Sierra Leone was when I met with both the Chief Justice of the Sierra Leone Supreme Court and the Inspector General of Police with two colleagues from Washington wearing jeans and T-shirts. (The CJ was in a suit, and the IG in dress uniform. I was in a skirt and blouse and heels.) I mean, would they have met with the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court or the head of the FBI without putting on a suit and tie?

I therefore would have no problem with a Ministry issuing a code of conduct for such visitors, explaining the expectations for attire befitting the office of the Sierra Leoneans involved. And for the record, if I had been meeting the Minister of Foreign Affairs (or anyone else in the Ministry, for that matter) I would have worn my “decent” shoes.

This is somewhat different, however, from barring my entry to the building itself on the basis of a harmless pair of flip flops – a point which I made to the Fashion Police and to a senior official who happened by and explained that the police were merely enforcing a new Ministry policy.

“This is a government ministry, is it not?” I asked the official.

“Yes,” he said.

“So are you trying to exclude poor people from accessing their own government offices?” I asked, totally hypothetically as I am far from poor by Freetown standards.

“No, of course not,” he said, now looking around as I began to raise my voice. In my defense, I was hungry and hot and cranky after a morning of annoying errands.

“But you are excluding people who don’t have fancy shoes?” I insisted.

“Yes,” he said.

“So poor people without nice shoes can’t come visit their own government?” I asked, now enjoying my metaphorical high horse.

“Everyone is welcome,” he said. “They just have to wear decent attire.”


In the end, they let me pass. As usual, my white skin overrules most rules – unfairly, of course, but then I really did need to deliver that document.

Monday, January 05, 2009

December is…

… four straight weeks of parties. And counting.

… lying in bed on a Monday evening (or Tuesday morning, or Sunday afternoon) listening to booming club music. The speakers must be right below my window.

... empty hospitals. No money to pay for medicine. No time to take the kids to the doctor.

… outings. The normally-tranquil peninsula beaches are taken over by parades of cars and taxis and poda-podas, hordes of people, free-flowing alcohol and freely-smoked ganja, and giant stacks of speakers blaring music. And waterside reveling galore.

… weddings. Processions of cars bedecked in pastel ribbons and flowers, with horns blaring and emergency lights flashing, stampeding their entitled way through jam-packed streets. A videographer perched precariously on the windowsill of the first car, facing backward to film the parade in all its glory. Along Lumley beach, one… two… three wedding parties taking photos: bridesmaids in dazzling colors, small children in chiffon dresses and tuxedos, groomsmen goofing around, everyone grinning.

… JCs. Sierra Leoneans living abroad (the diaspora) who come back for the holidays. Known somewhat disparagingly as “Just Comes”, this exotic breed can be identified by their flashy plumage (spanking-new designer clothes and lots of bling), strange accents (Krio infused with a Texas twang is perhaps my favorite), sense of entitlement (especially on the road – apparently if your car still has its shipping label from the port, you’re allowed to blast past everyone else) , enthusiastic partying (bottle of Baileys under one arm, bottle of wine in the other hand), and frequent displays of frustration and disapproval (‘What has this country come to!?’).

… amazing Christmas decorations. My local (Lebanese-owned) grocery store had: a life-sized dancing (mechanical) Santa Claus; a 10-foot-tall inflatable snowman; a sparkly silver reindeer with tinsel for fur and a red light bulb for a nose; spray-painted fake snow spelling out holiday greetings on the windows; strings of colored lights covering the roof and awning; and, on Christmas day, two unhappy cashiers with sparkly two-foot-tall Christmas trees – one silver, the other gold – on their heads.

… “Christmases.” Small gifts of money owed to staff, colleagues, friends, neighbors, strangers – basically anyone whose path crosses yours anytime in December has the right to request a “Christmas”. Many stores, restaurants, and office buildings put out brightly-wrapped boxes for the staff, with a tiny slot at the top and a holiday greeting scrawled on the side. A friend was badgered by the security guards at the main government ministry building until she dropped a few thousand leones in their Christmas box, at which point they pulled out a second box. “And for this one?”

… Christmas Eve at the national stadium. Kiosks set up around the perimeter, with thatched roofs and bamboo walls. Some sell cold beer, soft drinks, fried chicken, roast meat, fish balls, and popcorn. Others play music or movies. One, hidden behind a thatched doorway, is showing porn. Several are photo booths, with assorted backgrounds to choose from: flashy plastic flowers, a British flag, Arsenal and Manchester United team paraphernalia, a fake Christmas tree. I posed on a miniature armchair with a poster of the Chinese countryside behind me. Then we went in to watch the concert: hip-hop and pop stars, celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus with gritty lyrics and grinding hips. As we staggered out around 4 a.m., leaving thousands of our fellow concert-goers going wild in the stands – dancing, shouting, and occasionally throwing fireworks – a drunk policeman yelled at us for leaving before the main act. We had to give him our leftover beer to shut him up.

… Christmas Day with the family-less strays and castaways, eating roast duck, fish casserole, and a dazzling array of delectable desserts, including a Christmas pudding imported from London. ‘Yankee Swap’-ing gifts under the palm-frond Christmas tree.

… Boxing Day on an outing to John Obey beach. Childhood friends, now with children of their own, playing childhood games. A potluck picnic lunch. Cold beer. Speakers and a deejay. A sassy game of musical chairs. Sun and sand and good cheer.

... New Years Eve Salone-style: first church until midnight, then promenades in the street, then parties until dawn. Ringing in the New Year itself on a street in town, lined with vendors selling snacks and drinks, pop music blaring into the night.

… New Years Day, waking up at 10 after just 3 hours of sleep, exhausted and hung over, to the sounds of club music from a house down the street. The party continues, but I just can't keep up. Salone man dem sabi enjoy!