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!