Sunday, November 07, 2010

Looking back

Dear readers:

I’m back in the United States, for now, and so will no longer be updating this blog regularly, though I may still occasionally post news or stories about Sweet Salone.

I will leave this blog up as a resource for those who want to learn more about Sierra Leone – through the eyes of a newcomer in 2006 and a not-so-newcomer in 2010. If you’d like more current news and updates, check out Visit Sierra Leone's blog or sign up for their newsletter. Please also visit the Welbodi Partnership, a deserving effort to improve child health in Sierra Leone.

For those of you who have been following this blog over the years, thanks for reading and for your patience with my infrequent posts. I hope you’ve come to develop a soft spot for sweet, striving, startling, spectacular Sierra Leone.

And if you’d like to join me in a short trip through memory lane, look back through the archives from the last few years, and find:

stories of dust and rain...

of lazy Sundays and hectic Fridays...

of a broken health system and young lives lost and saved ...

of poverty and presidential inaugurations ...

of football stadiums and tiny village cinemas...

of mountains and tiny villages and urban chaos ...

of optimism and giving credit where credit is due...

and so much more.

Sierra Leone is still a deeply poor country, but it is not the same country it was in 2006, when UN forces kept the peace and the lights were out across the capital. With any luck, it will celebrate its 50th birthday next year with an unprecedented – and deserved – sense of hope and possibility.

Maybe you should even go celebrate with them. As a recent article in the UK’s Independent newspaper notes, “wildlife, white sands, and a new wisdom” await you.

For now, kushe and tenki.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Help kids in Sierra Leone without leaving your seat

Tracy Dockray image Vote online NOW for Rebecca Cridford and the Welbodi Partnership to help us win support from the Vodafone Foundation for our work in Sierra Leone.

Rebecca and Welbodi are in the finals and it’s up to the public to choose the winners – so we need your votes NOW!  It takes just 60 seconds and could make a big difference to our work supporting pediatric healthcare in Sierra Leone.

The competition ends on Wednesday 28th July 2010, so just a few days left!

What can you do to help?

FIRST: Vote online for Rebecca Cridford through Facebook. Voting closes on Wednesday 28th July 2010.

THEN: Tell everyone you know to vote as well. Post a link in your status. Message all your friends on Facebook. Tweet or blog about us. Email your friends, family, colleagues. Forward to any listservs or groups you belong to. We have just until noon on Wednesday 28th July 2010 to get as many votes as possible.

WANT TO DO MORE?: Contact friends who have blogs or who tweet or facebook frequently and ask them to help spread the word. Ask your school or workplace if you can set up a virtual “voting booth” at lunchtime -- all you need is a connected computer. Call your local radio or write a letter to your local paper to encourage others to vote.

Just a few moments of your time can make all the difference.

Read more below about the Vodafone World of Difference contest, the Welbodi Partnership, and our work at the Ola During Children’s Hospital.

Who is Rebecca Cridford?

Becky Cridford is a UK trained nurse with 7 years of experience in the NHS and overseas. She plans to spend a year working with the Welbodi Partnership at the Ola During Children’s Hospital to support the nursing team to further develop the life-saving skills they need, and to put them into practice. Becky applied to the Vodafone World of Difference programme and was chosen out of over 2,500 applicants to go forward to a public vote on Facebook.

What is the Vodafone World of Difference International programme?

Each year, the Vodafone Foundation  supports a handful of inspiring people to work for a year with their “dream charity,” while also providing funds and publicity to those winning charities. More than 2,500 people applied this year for just 8 spots, and it’s now down to a public vote to decide which of 4 candidates will win one of 2 remaining spots! The competition closes

Vote now for Becky and the Welbodi Partnership

What happens if Rebecca wins?

The Vodafone Foundation will provide funding for Rebecca’s year volunteering in Sierra Leone. Vodafone will also make a sizeable donation to the Welbodi Partnership, and we will also benefit from significant free publicity in the UK and elsewhere.

Why do we need support for nursing in Sierra Leone?

Nurses are absolutely vital to save the lives of children in Sierra Leone. The Welbodi Partnership is working to support nurses at the Ola During Children’s Hospital in Freetown in various ways, including in-service training, support to nurse managers to improve supervision, and provision of essential equipment and supplies that help nurses to do their jobs better.

One in four children in Sierra Leone die before they are 5 years old (UNICEF, 2009). There is only one government children's hospital in Sierra Leone, which also serves as a training facility for doctors and nurses. The Free Health Care Initiative launched on the 27th of April this year, which made essential health services free to all pregnant women and children under five, was a wonderful step to improve access but has also resulted in a quadrupling of patient numbers. This puts an added burden on the hardworking nurses and doctors at Ola During.

What is the Welbodi Partnership doing to help?

The Welbodi Partnership’s volunteers work in the Ola During Children’s Hospital to provide on-the-ground training and support to the nurses, doctors, and non-medical staff of the hospital, to improve the quality of care and transform Ola During into a center of excellence for training the next generation of pediatric health workers. To learn more, visit .

Vote now on Facebook to help Rebecca Cridford and the Welbodi Partnership win support from Vodafone.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Things I don't expect in Sierra Leone: Public safety messages

Today I got a text message from the Sierra Leone Police.

“Please WEAR your seatbelts and safety helmets at ALL times when driving vehicles and motorcycles. Message brought to you from the Police Services Board.”

Mom would be proud.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The best salesman

Three boys are standing outside the Total station in Wilberforce. One is selling change to my taxi driver. Another is trying to sell cold  water in printed sachets. A third is pitching bags of popcorn. They’re all around 8-10  years old.

The popcorn seller, a head taller than the others and obviously the boldest of the bunch, entertains his friends with a tongue-in-cheek sales pitch. “I’m the best salesman,” he says in Krio, “buy from me.” The other boys giggle. “If you buy one, I’ll give you one. If you buy 5, I’ll give you 5.” He grins, infinitely pleased with himself.

“If you buy 25, I’ll give you 25. That’s why I’m the best.”

Laughter all around.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Snapshots of Freetown 2: Sani Abacha Street

As you reach the end of Kissy Road and pass the clock tower at Eastern Police Station, heading West towards the center of town, Sani Abacha Street slopes down in front of you and then up again, affording a clear view of what is to come. Chaos.

A mass of pedestrians swell and surge around vendors and wheelbarrows and poda-podas and massive trucks, the latter discharging their contents in a stream of speed-walking laborers or inching through crowds spewing toxic fumes. From above, it’s impossible to see even the smallest patch of open pavement. The street is a writhing mass of motion, both human and machine.

You take a deep breath and start your descent into this ocean of people and sounds. Horns blare as vehicles plow through the crowds, scattering pedestrians and, sometimes, vendors themselves – their wares, spread on flattened cardboard or nylon sacks on the ground or piled on makeshift wooden tables, hastily pulled back towards the curb.When two trucks meet, they scrape by one another by mere centimeters, squeezing all foot-bound souls into tiny spaces between the roadside vendors, onto the treacherous sidewalks, or into filthy gutters.

Next in size to the trucks and poda-podas, and often much faster, are dozens of wheelbarrows, omalankes, and other hand-drawn carts. The bare-chested men and boys who drag these, piled high with anything from scrap metal or building materials to cases of beer and soda, are among the hardest-working people in this bustling commercial area. Sweating buckets in the tropical heat, their chests and backs rippling with muscles that gym-heads in the US would kill for, they drag their heavy carts over potholed and unbelievably crowded roads. When they start to pick up momentum, they are loathe to slow down – and hence their urgent shouts join the din, calling out a guttural “hup hup” to anyone in their path, followed by more explicit and angrier commands to those who don’t catch on. Hesitate for a second and these carts, like the trucks and poda-podas, will run you down.

And then, from all directions, come the shouts of hundreds of vendors, pitching their wares at full voice and in an endless carnival-style repetition. Their Krio phrases run together in an often unintelligible stream, this already minimalist language abbreviated further to enable rapid-fire sales pitches. Often, only the prices emerge clearly from the din.

“Buy biscuits 2 for 1-5”.

“You don buy chocolate 1 block.”

“Umbrella 10-10 thousand.”

“Halfback 5 thousand.”

“Grafton 2 block.”

“Kola 1 block.”

“Buy 3 thousand.”

“You don buy?”

“2-2 thousand.”

“1 thousand.”

“5 block.”

And on and on.

The wares are more varied than you could imagine, and you wonder if there is anything you couldn’t find on this street. A mountain of radios to one side. A precarious tower of pots and pans to the other. A tray of chintzy gold jewelry atop a makeshift wooden stool. Familiar breakfast cereals – Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran – are sold in slightly battered boxes, as though they were carried across the ocean in giant container ships. (Which they probably were.) Vast assortments of personal hygiene products also include familiar names – Irish Spring soap, Colgate toothpaste, Head and Shoulders shampoo – alongside Arab brands and cheap Chinese knock-offs. You see a glamorous array of perfume bottles and wonder how the 90-degree heat affects their scents.

Many, if not most, of these stalls are run by women, and behind and among the displays are a smattering of young children: babies set on the ground, watching the crowds with wide eyes; toddlers wandering amongst the passersby and playing near the open gutters; slightly older children, some in school uniforms, helping to mind their younger siblings. If forced to the crowded sidewalk by vehicles or the crush of people on the street, you pick your way carefully with your eyes firmly on the ground, hoping you’ll neither step on these children nor fall through the large gaps in the sidewalk where cement slabs are broken or missing.

One of the most common items for sale is fabric, and you see stack after stack of brightly-colored fabrics: printed cotton, embroidered lace, hand-died gara, metallic shine-shine, textured brillante, sequined chiffon. These lengths of fabric, sold by the yard or by “lapa” (a two-yard length suitable for a sarong-style skirt), are stacked on tables, spread artistically at street level, or rolled and stuck into large plastic bins like the spines of giant multi-colored sea anemone.

Fabric sellers are almost always women, and rarely shout. Fruit and vegetable sellers, also women, are constantly shouting. Okra. Cucumbers. Tomatoes. Onions (“yerbas” in Krio). Avocado (“butter pear”) larger than you’ve ever seen. Bananas. Pawpaw. Mangos in mountainous stacks, the smallest smooth-skinned and fist-sized in uniform green or yellow; the largest a mottled reddish-green too large to hold in one hand. Large plastic tubs packed with oversized bunches of cassava leaves and potato leaves adorn the ground. Similar tubs are filled with gari (ground cassava flour), rice, or caustic soda.

As you draw closer to the end of Sani Abacha street, near the area known as PZ, the street widens slightly. The vendors have more space to move, and a few actual shops – as in brick-and-mortar buildings – blare Sierra Leonean pop music from their open doors.

To your right, a young woman shakes a plastic basket filled with cheap metal silverware, the jangling ringing out above the pandemonium around her. “5-5 block,” she shouts.

Ahead of you, a young man blows on some newfangled and deafening noisemaker meant to imitate the howls of a very unhappy baby. People turn to watch and laugh, ignoring the approaching traffic. An impatient truck driver blares his horn, hardly slowly as he drives the crowds out of the way.

Taxis, absent from Sani Abacha, meet you in force when you reach the PZ intersection, and you are forced again to the sidewalk. Your ears are ringing and sweat drips from your forehead. A few police officers try feebly to direct traffic. One gives up and calls to a passing vendor, a young man carrying women’s blouses on hangers. The officer admires one, a bold pink and yellow floral print, and they begin to haggle.

(Photos courtesy of and Sigma Delta on flickr. Tenki!)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Snapshots of Freetown 1: China House

In anticipation of leaving Sierra Leone (for now) at the end of the month, I’ve decided to do a series of “snapshots” of some memorable locales.

Is there someplace in Freetown you think I should include? Or would you like to submit a “snapshot” of your favorite Freetown spot? Let me know! Suggestions and contributions welcome.

And so, in no particular order, here is the first installment.

China House is a timeless, and utterly unique, Freetown institution. A squat, unassuming building, it huddles in the shadow of the main government headquarters, from which it is said to have gotten its name. (The Youyi Building houses a number of ministries and was donated by the Chinese government.)

I don’t know when China House opened, but walking in there always makes me feel like I’ve wandered into another decade – maybe the early 1960s, when the sweet taste of independence was fresh on everyone’s lips, and Freetown’s hottest couples would don their finest attire and shimmy their Africana-swathed behinds to Highlife beats.

Today, China House is a crumbling but still well-loved venue, one of the few places in town where you can hear live music on a weekly basis. (The house band, Africombo or Supercombo or AfriSuperCombo – I can never remember – plays old standards and covers of today’s hits every Friday night.) On a clear night, the band sets up in the open-roofed courtyard, and quickly attracts a crowd of gyrating couples of all shapes, sizes, and ages, some of them seemingly straight from the 1950s or 60s.

China House courtyard

During the rainy season, the band relocates to an adjoining enclosed dance floor, with levered glass windows and some very feeble ceiling fans. On a busy night, that dance floor can easily become the steamiest spot in an always sweltering city – the air itself sopping wet, clothes drenched, with hardly enough space between you and the stranger beside you to allow you to move independently.

Last week, I went to China House on a Monday night to bid farewell to a friend leaving for the US. The place was remarkably lively for a Monday, and not just because of our party. It also gets a respectable after-work crowd, with civil servants and other professionals in West African robes or short-sleeved business suits sipping cold Star beers. I ran into the former head of one of Sierra Leone’s tertiary institutions; apparently he was enjoying his semi-retirement.

Skewers of cold roast meet and smoked fish, draped in mosquito netting, were for sale at the bar. The scowling bartender, in a rooster-printed Krio dress and headscarf, studiously ignored her customers but eventually caved and served us a Heineken and Savanna cider. Opening the bottles, she flicked a bottle cap at my face – and pretended it had been an accident. Hmmm.

Drinks in hand, we headed outside to the bustling street, Old Railway Line, to buy some freshly-grilled meat from a roadside vendor. (The ones on the bar had clearly been there all day and were long since cold and congealed.) For 10,000 leones, about $2.50, we got two slabs of “beef” (we hoped!) with onions, pepper, and Maggi flavoring. Another 1,500 leones bought us three Fullah bread loaves from a vendor further down the street.

Back inside, we found the dance floor lively, if not full. My friend’s guests included, along with work colleagues from a development research outfit, a handful of guys from his neighborhood and his favorite Okada drivers. (Okadas are motorbike taxis, and their drivers are, without exception, men in their teens and twenties.)

Later, with a flash of inspiration, someone told the DJ to  announce a dance contest: 100,ooo leones ($25) to the winner. The floor went wild, with a dozen young people, mostly men, shaking it up for the prize money. My personal favorite was a lithe young Okada driver with an amazingly snazzy black-and-white-striped cap, but a red-shirted guy (seen in the back of this photo)stole the prize with some impressive shimmying.

China House dance contest

As the night wound down, the white people tried their best to keep up on the dance floor, and the DJ played “One More Night” on repeat – a favorite from late 2009 and a tribute to my friend’s departure the next day.

Caine Prize goes to a Sierra Leonean author

The 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded last week to a Sierra Leonean, Olufemi Terry, for his short story Stickfighting Days. If anyone knows where you can buy or read the story, let me know.

Sierra Leone has a number of highly-acclaimed authors. The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, a magical novel by poet and novelist Syl Cheney-Coker, has been named one of the best African books ever written.

I also have to give a special mention to my wonderful friend Namwali Serpell, from Zambia, who was also shortlisted for the Caine Prize. You can read an interview with Namwali here, or – if your internet is faster than mine is here in Freetown – listen to an interview here from the BBC World Service. Namwali’s short story “Muzungu” was featured in Best American Short Stories 2009.

Congratulations to both.





Monday, May 24, 2010

Teddy Bear Taxi

With my car disemboweled, I’m back to taking taxis – something I actually quite enjoy, at least for awhile, as it brings me face to face with some of Freetown’s wonderful wackiness. (Read more about the experience of taking public transport in this 2007 post.)

Last Sunday, I got into an unremarkable taxi driven, like many, by a rather tough and taciturn young man. Barely out of his teens, he made no eye contact with his passengers and did not trouble himself with intelligible speech, communicating instead with nearly-imperceptible nods and occasional grunts.

Obviously a hardened Big Man of the World and probably a former combatant, I thought.

And then I saw his gearshift, utterly transformed by a worn stuffed teddy bear which had been pulled down over the gearshift so its head covered the handle and its soft black body surrounded the shaft.

Each time he shifted gears, our hardened driver grabbed hold of this floppy bear, which smiled out amiably through his fingers, to the delight of a six-year-old boy in the front passenger seat.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What might have been -- or -- Of birthdays, cocaine, and counterfactuals

Today is Sierra Leone’s 49th Independence Day, and Freetown has been celebratory for days – from the first-annual Green White and Blue Ball on Saturday night, to the annual lantern paradeyesterday and a launch of free health care for women and children today. Spirits have been high, and the country seems to be standing a little taller in its almost-50-year-old shoes.

But the headline event, the capstone of this birthday celebration, was meant to be a concert tonight by Senegalese-American R&B star Akon. Sadly, that performance – by the biggest artist to visitSierra Leone in decades – has been scuppered by a surprisingly severe early-season rainstorm. And to make it worse, the storm seems to have shorted out Freetown’s electricity supply, and the filling stations are low on diesel.

Therefore, instead of grooving away at the national stadium, I’m stuck at home with a noisy generator and just a few hours before the house goes dark. Nonetheless, in the spirit of my newly-rediscovered optimism and in honor of Salone’s independence day, I think I’ll use this unexpectedly quiet evening to give a little more credit where credit is due.

Specifically, I want to talk about cocaine and counterfactuals.

In 2008, as I wrote about at the time a plane from Venezuela landed at Freetown's Lungi Airport filled with 600kg of cocaine worth $54 million. The plane was seized, its contents held safely and later destroyed, and its pilot and crew – including 9 foreigners from Latin America and the United States – were tracked down, imprisoned, and ultimately convicted, along with dozens of Sierra Leoneans also found to be involved in the trade. Two South Americans were even then extradited to the US to face charges there, and many high-profile and very well-connected Sierra Leoneans – including a brother of the then-Minister of Transport and Aviation and a former manager of the national football team – found themselves in Pademba Road Prison, where many remain today.

At the time, as you may notice from the tone of my blog, I was quick to poke fun at the government’s response. After confiscating the cocaine, they shut down a major Freetown thoroughfare (Pademba Road) for months and placed armed guards throughout the surrounding streets to prevent any daring prison break by the South American drug lords or their collaborators. Watching the somewhat bumbling Sierra Leone Defense Forces manning likely-ammunition-less anti-aircraft guns along residential streets, I was struck by a mix of unease and amusement. Even the extradition seemed overly dramatic: the prisoners were whisked away in great secrecy in the dead of night just after their conviction in the Sierra Leone high court. Even the involvement of my own government didn’t convince me; we all know the Americans can be a bit hysterical from time to time.

“How important could these guys be?” I asked disdainfully at the time. “Come one, would the drug lords really send anyone important to a tiny country in West Africa? Surely these are minor foot-soldiers, or they’re being punished for something, and the drug lords won’t risk any other manpower to come spring them from Pademba Road.”

Since then, as I’ve learned more about new narcotics routes through West Africa and on to Europe, I’ve tempered my criticism. And then I read this New York Times Magazine article, "Africa's Drug Problem", and it really shut me up.

The opening story of that article is eerily familiar to those of us in Sierra Leone. In 2008, a plane from Venezuela landed in a small West African country. As in Sierra Leone, the plane was filled with more than a half-ton of cocaine, and the crew were arrested. Unlike here, however, the cocaine vanished and the crew were later released – both incidents apparently with the help of the army.

Today, Guinea-Bissau is on the shortlist of incredibly fragile states in West Africa destabilized by the cash and criminality of the international narcotics trade. As journalist James Traub says in the NYT article, “Guinea-Bissau and its neighbors offer to South American drug traffickers what the impenetrable terrain of the Hindu Kush offers to Al Qaeda and the Taliban — a place beyond the reach of law.” According to the article, the narcotraffickers have openly purchased Parliamentary seats, Cabinet appointments, and even coastal islands in Guinea-Bissau.

Sierra Leone, in contrast, is launching free health care and attracting international celebrities in droves.


It is often difficult to get credit for averting disaster. Stop an epidemic before it really takes off? Deter terrorists before they begin to plan an attack? At best you will be quietly acknowledged. More likely you will be accused of “crying wolf”, and wasting resources or energy on something that turned out to be a non-event.

The thing is, we are not very good at appreciating a counterfactual – that alternative “what might have been” reality that could or would have existed if we had done, or not done, something differently. If the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control predict a major epidemic and then are successful in preventing it – perhaps through expensive investments in prevention and control – many people will use their success against them, pointing to the non-epidemic as evidence that they made a big fuss over nothing.

Similarly, if you take steps to prevent your country from being a narco-state, snarky foreign residents like me may well ridicule you for overreacting.

In reading the New York Times Magazine article, I’m struck that President Ernest Bai Koroma’s government has not gotten enough credit for its actions in 2008. Surely he knew that the South American drug lords and their local counterparts would likely offer millions if not billions of dollars for his (and his government’s) complicity in their trade. Maybe they even made the offer. But he didn’t take them up on it – and instead made a very public, very firm stance against drug trafficking.

The traffickers, looking for the paths of least resistance, most likely then opted for easier routes rather than risk incarceration in Sierra Leone. And certainly that’s a good thing for Salone – if not for the countries on those easier routes.

I certainly don’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the West African drugs trade, and I know there are still rumors in town of ill-gotten wealth (“See that guy with the Hummer? Guess where he made his millions…”) and of domestic cocaine use (another tragic consequence of the trade) here in Freetown.

But there’s no doubt that Sierra Leone has taken a very different path in the last few years than has Guinea-Bissau, and it seems to me that Bissau’s story could serve as an important reminder to Sierra Leoneans of what might have been – and perhaps a reason to give a little more credit where credit is due.

Perhaps, due to the government’s response in 2008, Sierra Leone avoided a much darker alternate reality, in which this long-suffering country reverted to instability, coups, and a general breakdown of the rule of law. Instead, Sierra Leone is celebrating a peaceful (if damp) 49thbirthday, and nearly 10 years of post-war peace and stability.

In 2008, two Venezuelan planes landed in two West African countries. In one, the army stole the cocaine and freed the dealers. In the other, the government confiscated and destroyed the cocaine and convicted the dealers – and their powerful local counterparts.

And that, as they say, made all the difference.

Happy Birthday Mama Salone. Well done.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Glass half full

I think I used to be more of an optimist than I am now. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded what that felt like.

Because I never have time to blog anymore (that should change soon -- watch this space!) I'll instead point you elsewhere, to a recent post by Otolo at Visit Sierra Leone on So how is Sierra Leone these days?

This is a post that I wish I had written. Though it's easy to be weighed down by pessimism in a country where so many basic things don't function well and so many people are far too poor, it's also important to recognize progress and give credit where credit is due.

I think it's fair to argue, as Otolo does, that in the first quarter of 2010 -- nearly a decade after the end of the civil war and a year away from the 50th anniversary of Sierra Leone's independence -- that Sierra Leone's glass may in fact be half full.

How's that for optimism?