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.