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.