Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Culture shock

A random entry today, the day after a national holiday. Yesterday we celebrated the Prophet’s birthday, later this week we celebrate Easter. The finest thing about Sierra Leone is its religious tolerance. And what better demonstration than this week. Everyone gets a three day week, regardless of their religion!

Last week we had a rare moment of culture, the US graciously sent us a jazz band. Terribly decent of them. We sat in the grounds of Forah Bay College, raised above Freetown. Hawks circled in easy curiosity overhead and the sun sank into the green hills around us. Ah culture. I realised how I missed it only when it was there in front of me. We swayed to the Charlie Porter Quartet. They were seriously good so I’m going to break a rule and not only name-check them, but recommend you look them up if you’re ever in New York. And if you do, tell them I sent you. I got to know Charlie quite well.

Atmospheric as that concert was, it was eclipsed by the journey home. My colleague and I drove out using a route we didn’t know and ended up surrounded by taxis and people in the east end of the city. I got boxed in and was being waved back by a taxi driver when I tapped the car behind. The impact was low, but the Landrover I was in is like a tank and though I thought it was undamaged at the time, it seems I broke the other car’s light. As a man stood alongside shouting at me to pull over, I could hear the swell of noise behind the car as people began to set the world to rights, loudly. Anna was shaking; I was trying not to appear as terrified as I was becoming. It was dark. The road ahead was clear. I looked at Anna, looked ahead, put my foot down and floored it. We ended up lost on the Kissy Road, heading further east. As if in some bad cop drama we did one u-turn and overtake after another to find our bearings and lose the driver of the damaged car (who wasn’t following us). Finally I spotted a slum I once visited, and got us into Ecowas Street and then the main drag. I’ve never been so grateful to see our guards opening the gates of the compound.

On Tuesday last week the driver turned up with the police. Fortunately, Inspector Sesay was a rational, practical man. We emphasised our good reputation and our desire to clear it up quickly. I physically shrank in the chair to demonstrate how small and young I was, and how the dark unknown east had been too much for my sensibilities. The driver was a decent guy who just wanted his car fixed. Inspector Sesay wanted to let us sort it out ourselves. I kept my license. He joked as he left that his call sign was ‘Charlie Mobile’. I laughed hollowly, warming to him mainly for his leniency. The next day the other driver returned with a receipt from the garage and I handed over a brick of cash, about £50. He asked me how work was going, and I him, and it was all very convivial. It could have been a lot worse.

Those of you who know me well will know that the last few months have been tough. That the party seemed lacklustre for me. That I questioned whether I’d really thrive here any more. The dry season has been unusually dark and empty. Last week as grey clouds arrived, signalling the creeping arrival of the rainy season, that darkness lifted. Maybe I’ll be singing in the rain after all…

Sunday, 1 April 2007


Sitting on the balcony restaurant at the Country Lodge, looking out at the city shimmering in the late afternoon heat, I freeze-frame a time and a place in my mind that I will seldom recreate. This country gets close to you. It owns you. I like to pretend that its only the countryside that I will miss, but it is also my circle of friends, this time of our lives, that I’ll pine for. To form such a close knit group among such a shifting social landscape. I'll admit I'm also bothered by the obscurity of leaving and being consigned to the past, to being spoken of to new arrivals who'll never meet me. That’s difficult to get my head around. And here’s me with four months still to run.

I’m aware of the vulgarity of my life here, and would love to say I loathe it, but its hard to. As an expat my perspective is extraordinarily privileged. Here I sit at my laptop, the sun playing on the keys, the breeze blowing strands of hair across my face, and a waiter bringing a fresh glass for my ice-cold water. Two weeks ago I met a woman whose baby died because she couldn’t afford the transport to hospital. The transport cost two bottles of water.

I don’t wish to become sanctimonious, or guilt-ridden. This is the way it is. I am playing out the same life as countless others. I was taught this life. I was told to leave my washing up, not make my bed, let the cleaner do it. I assuage my guilt at having, let’s face it, a servant, by reminding myself that unlike most cleaners, ours are on the pay role, get sick pay and annual leave. We look after them. I make a point of asking after them, of spending time in the mornings chatting in broken Krio; of learning Krio in the first place. I’m the only one who understands Pa Lamin our caretaker. I was the first person Sally our cleaner invited to her wedding. Their warmth and welcome each morning should shame me. And at the same time, our presence gives them a safety net many others do not have. Some friends were confronted with a frantic guard last week, desperate because his pregnant girlfriend was chronically ill with fever. James suspected malaria. They put her in their Landrover and drove them to Marie Stopes for treatment which they paid for. Over an imported Heineken we wondered what happens to the people who don’t have an expat on their doorstep. Unfortunately I know the answer to that question and I wish I didn’t. I wish it was consigned to books and reports, or better still to history. But it is here and now, and two weeks ago it was sitting in front of me.

Here’s a picture of Magra. I took it for our health campaign. I met Magra to get a ‘story’ to put the human face on the campaign. When I meet people it is usually to hear how great our organisation is; we hadn’t been working with Magra though, we’d just identified her as vulnerable. Magra lives in a reasonably large town in Kailahun District. Her husband died in the war, and her brother helped pay the school fees of their child. Magra met another man with whom she had three children. Then the man left. I didn’t ask too many details, the look on her face told me not to. I already felt bad enough for the translation by my colleague of my question into ‘and where’s the father of these children’. Magra doesn’t work, she doesn’t have anything with which to start a business. The look in her face is one of resignation and lethargy.

When her child got ill with routine diarrhoea and a touch of fever Magra took it to the local health clinic. With a little money scraped together from friends in the town, bought rehydration salts and Panadol. The baby didn’t improve. The clinic told her the child needed to be seen by Kailahun District Hospital. It costs 10,000 Leones to take a packed transit van from Pendembu where Magra lives to Kailahun Town. When you get there it costs to register at the hospital. And to see a doctor. And to buy drugs, if they have them, which they frequently don’t. Magra knew she couldn’t afford the transport, let alone the rest of it. She nursed her child and hoped. But hope doesn’t get you very far in Sierra Leone. For the sake of maybe 20,000 Leones or £4 sterling, Magra stayed at home with her kids. She had four children she told me. One at school, two here playing at her feet, and one dead.

I asked her if healthcare should be free. She said yes but she didn’t think the government could afford to do it. We are in SLPP heartland.

What’s sad about Magra’s story, aside from the obvious waste of life, is that had the ‘capacity’ of the staff at the local health clinic been higher she might have been able to have had her child treated there. There are no doctors. Doctors train and promptly leave the country, and who can blame them? The UK National Health Service (among others) encourages people to work in the UK. Nurses have to work for on average two years as volunteers before they get on the pay role. In Kailahun, the district time forgot, the small clinics are run by vaccinators or Maternal Child Health Aides (one below a nurse). And they rarely receive their pay either. If they had been paid, then they might have been keener to investigate Magra’s case. If they knew what they were doing, and perhaps they felt it was beyond them. As it was, she fell squarely into the government’s ‘vulnerable’ category, which meant she was exempt from fees. Except of course that they charged her for the drugs she needed. If you worked without wages you’d need to find money for food too.

In life and work I drop in and out of the lives of everyday Saloneans, snap them and leave. And as we drive away I wonder what that feeling is behind my dark glasses. Is it guilt, is it sadness, is it grief for them..? Perhaps it is all of those things. Also it is rage. But mainly it is relief. Relief that in a drawer at home in Freetown is a British passport and one hundred pounds in crisp sterling notes. Relief that the comprehensive school I found myself in helped me on my way, and that my degree was worth the paper it was written on. Could I have been Magra? Though she looks it, it’s unlikely that she’s much older than me.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Angelina Jolie I ain't

This week I went to see a family I know through a friend. Fatmata, Joseph and their new baby live in a small shack near the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Thanks to their proximity to the court they met my friend.

Fatmata seemed to have been pregnant forever when I first started to visit them. Finally, at approximately 10 months gone, she was told she needed a caesarean at a cost of US$100. Whether she needed this operation or not is up for debate. What was not was that the family didn’t in a million years have the money. My friend paid it. They named the baby after him. When life here seems impossible and my head is dark I go to see them and warm myself in their welcome. Joseph comes bounding to the roadside to greet me. A bench is rustled, Fatmata smiles through gappy teeth and adjusts her slipping lappa around her boobs. I get to hold the baby. And considering he’s a bit of a lump, and I’m not really maternal, it’s great to sit and chat about nothing with them. I’ve helped Joseph set up a bank account so he can receive cash from said friend in the UK for the baby. I didn’t do much, just listened to Joseph every time he called to tell me the bank had again refused him on some spurious grounds – the unspoken one being that he looked poor and was brandishing a couple of hundred dollar bills. And I know that Joseph’s savvy and wants to stick close to me because I can help in other ways. And why not? I’m happy to. Life’s not fair, why doggedly refuse to help the people you can just because you can’t help them all? Accept that it’s not fair, but that it’s human. One day I joked that their baby was so gorgeous I could take him home with me. I meant my apartment in Freetown. I was joking. Joseph got excited and suggested that I could take him to the UK. I’m not Angelina Jolie, much less Madonna. I left them that day really sad. The baby is their first born. And already they know its future will be tough.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

The curse of the crain crain

I woke at 5pm in stomach-churning agony. Seems I was right about that fish. Or else it was the greens (crain crain) or else the rice. Or probably the hands of the cook. Whatever it was I woke up feeling rough and got rougher. I sat through a meeting this morning drinking an ill-advised coffee to divert my mouth and my body from the urge to yawn. My stomach churning. As the day progressed I've been feeling better. Just as I was congratulating myself that after 7 months I don't get ill any more. This country has more germs than I have white blood cells.

In other news, the President of Gambia has announced a cure for HIV. It takes just 5 days and is a concoction of native herbs. I'm wary of scoffing in a condescending western manner. Who knows, he might be onto something. Onto something mind, not actually found a cure. From the little I know from friends who work in Gambia, he's a touch 1984 in his approach to silly things like, freedom of speech, so I don't expect his Chief Medical Officer, or anyone else in the medical profession to be making any contradictory statements about this miracle drug any time soon. I suppose we should be glad that a politician is taking an active interest in a disease which is so important to this continent. Unlike dear old Zuma in South Africa, who announced at his rape trial (for which he was cleared of raping a girl with HIV) that he had a good scrub in the shower afterwards to prevent him contracting it.

It's been a long day of tapping away at my laptop with my mouth shut for the first time in ages. Bliss. (Yes I know that will surprise many of you). I've been doing important things like turning my training notes into a manual while downloading podcasts from Radio 4 onto my itunes. I've missed shouting obscenities at the Today programme over breakfast. Tomorrow I shall simulate being back home and tell John Humphreys exactly what I think of his interviewing style.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Church Valentines party poster: 'Come Along and Bring Your Wives... or Your Lovers'

Happy Valentines Day lovers everywhere. How many of my friends got valentines cards I wonder? None of my friends in Freetown appeared to have, but then that just demonstrates how hard nosed and transitory we development types really are. Apparently. I actually did manage to get myself a valentines message. Unfortunately it wasn’t from anyone I actually wanted to hear from. Who can it be I hear you cry… I’m sure you can make a guess. Yes, you got it, my friend from Oxfam. First it was an apple and now a picture text message. It must be said I have a basic, green screen Nokia, so it was one of those stylised black and white jobs of a moonlit night. Very romantic. It did make me smile – well actually it made me laugh out loud – during a training course today. My trainees all looked expectantly to know what it was, but I decided it would be unfair to reveal my sources. The NGO community is small here. I also didn’t mention it to Bundu (who introduced me to said gentleman) as we had lunch in the only ‘restaurant’ in town, the Peace Garden. Sadly it is neither verdant nor peaceful, with Africa Magic blaring Nigerian soap operas from a TV in the corner. But the crain crain (greens) and fish was pretty good and filling.

More significant is the situation in Guinea, where the President has handed over power to the military, and is allegedly being personally guarded by Liberian mercenaries and Burkinabe soldiers. This has annoyed the Guinean military. So now everyone’s angry. Small numbers of people are still dying. We’re seeing more and more INGOs turning up in Kailahun looking a touch dishevelled and post-evacuation. I spotted a white woman taking photographs this afternoon. The drivers think she's a journalist. She had ‘new here’ written all over her. She didn’t know what to photograph first in our poor little town. I was abandoned for the time being as the pomwe. There was a newer ‘white gal’ to catcall. I wondered if I stand a chance as a photojournalist, being dropped into places and not knowing my proverbial from my elbow. How do you capture a place properly when you don’t know the first thing about it?

It’s true though that familiarity is as much of a problem as strangeness. As part of the photography training I’m running with the team here, I first get them to put their hands over their wrist watches and visualise their watch face in their heads. I ask them whether the watch has numerals, numbers, nothing at all. Without fail they always get it wrong. They have ceased to see their watches any more, they see them just too often. It amazes them that they get it wrong, and I get their loyal attention for the next hour. ‘This girl’s onto something’.

Except I can’t claim credit for the neatness of that trick, just for remembering to use it. A management guru made us do it at a conference in Warwick. His message was that as individuals we need to be more curious, to continually see things fresh. I’ve never forgotten it. Late this afternoon I had the teams out in the market of Kailahun, snapping people going about their daily lives. It’s lots of fun, and I get to sneak around watching what they’re doing. The team today is from the next district, Pujehun, so their eyes are pretty fresh here. One woman in particular took some promising photos. I think her manager was expecting to be the best at everything because of his seniority. In reality his quiet and timid colleague wiped the floor with them all at interviewing skills and photography. She saw people not issues. She used to do psycho-social counselling for us. You could tell. Calm and quiet beats bravado hands down.

While they tentatively left the safe haven of the office compound with the cameras, I took a breather on the porch with DJ and Carlos our guards, and listened to the familiar jingle of the radio - da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da-daaa ‘Welcome to BBC Radio in Africa’. The World Service. We’re glued to it. Guinea.

Every now and then I have what I have come to call ‘Constant Gardener’ moments. Those stereotypical ‘white woman living in Africa’ scenes we picture ourselves in before we arrive. You don’t notice so much until you stand back and see yourself in them. Walking through the slums of Freetown with an African colleague whose opinion you value. Sailing past poverty in a brand new landcruiser with the AC blowing and your driver dodging chickens. And today, standing on the verandah of the office, in a town cheek by jowl with a country on the edge, listening to a battered radio, and muttering things in broken Krio to the guards about the situation in Guinea, all of us shaking our heads. A UNHCR wagon rolled past. The moment was tragically complete. I headed out into the market to get back to sweaty old work. I saw the fish monger and the flies buzzing around her wares, and remembered what I’d had for lunch.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Countdown for Conte?

Sunday 11 Feb 2007
I woke this morning to the sound of the birds in the trees outside the compound. Crickets did their thing and the air was heavy. In my sleepy state it reminded me of rare summer mornings in London, the oppressive heat of the city before the yuppies got up and into their cars.

Except it isn’t Clapham, it’s sleepy old Kailahun town, almost as far east as you can get. And it shouldn’t have been silent, the generator should have been on, special weekend rations, daytime power. I felt slightly hungover. I didn’t drink enough water yesterday. Added to that Steph and I managed to polish off a litre of $2 white wine with dinner. It’s only drinkable when ice cold, but its main advantage is that it comes in a carton, and therefore can’t be smashed on the journey.

Elvis came to the door, I was dripping wet from the shower. Elvis is one of our guards here. We have three, but I only really know Elvis because he treats me like a human being and doesn’t call me ma’am. He’s hopelessly young and smiles constantly (I always feel guards should be stern), but he’s smart in a way the other guards aren’t. He doesn’t wear a uniform most of the time, something to do with sharing with the other guards. For a long time when I came down here I didn’t realise he was a guard and thought he was support staff, a cleaner or something. Mainly because he doesn’t wear a uniform, but also because he takes it upon himself to feed the ducks and chickens, keep an eye on the dog, play with cat and generally tidy up. He obviously doesn’t especially like sitting around all day like the others. His mother, clearly a star-struck lady, decided to name him after her favourite singer. Elvis’ full name is I kid you not, Elvis Presley Kamara. Kamara is an incredibly common Sierra Leonean surname, like Smith in the UK, so maybe she wanted to jazz it up a bit. We also have a guard at the office called Carlos. I don’t like to ask if he was born on the day the Jackal was captured.

Elvis politely ignored the fact that I was wrapped in a white towel that had seen better days, with my hair in my eyes, and told me simply that ‘de generator get problem agin Charly’. Great. I called Bundu our manager, he dragged the mechanic over. The same mechanic who came yesterday and swore it was good as new, nothing going to go wrong there, ‘oh no sa’. What a surprise, the same problem as yesterday.

While the mechanic tinkered Bundu told me he was on his way to see Souffian. Action Contre Faim in Guinea are considering evacuating. Bundu had booked them rooms at the UNHCR guesthouse just in case. He said ‘I listened to the BBC, 7 people were killed in Guinea this morning, the strikes are starting again. Ten towns are preparing to strike’. I’ll spare you my potted history of Guinea because it’s woefully inaccurate. What you need to know for the purposes of this blog are that for the last couple of weeks tensions have been mounting. The aging President, Conte, for years refused to nominate a successor, and now, faced with economic mismanagement and rising inflation, the trade unions and the population are demanding he stand down altogether and cede powers to a Prime Minister. After days of street fighting earlier this month, with 44 civilians dead, Conte agreed to nominate a Prime Minister and cede certain powers, making his role ceremonial rather than operational. However he naturally chose a crony and Guineans aren’t easily fooled. Now they’re demanding he go for good and nominate an outsider as PM. Previously the troubles were confined to the capital, Conakry, and one or two other places. That ten cities have been mobilised is significant. We’re watching it because the majority of Sierra Leone’s land border is shared with Guinea. If there is to be an influx of refugees, we will be called upon to run family tracing with separated children, and to form part of a team of INGOs and UN who will tackle the various issues surrounding refugee movement – water, sanitation (Oxfam), food (World Food Programme), shelter (UNHCR), health (International Medical Committee), child protection and tracing (Save the Children). Doubtless ICRC (Red Cross to you and I) will also be in there somewhere, they’re pretty formidable as a sub-regional force.

It would be a return to where he came in for Bundu, who began his career with us as an emergency co-ordinator, looking after activities in 4 camps, each in a different district. Bundu was off to see Souffian and convene the security group for Kailahun to assess the likelihood of population movement. I mentioned that I’d been at the border yesterday and how peaceful it seemed. Hard to believe that on the calm opposite bank was a country gearing up for fresh turmoil. I felt foolish for going there, not that I’d put myself in danger, but that I’d romanticised it. He made me feel more so by telling me a boy had drowned at the river yesterday. I’m assuming it was after I left as I didn’t hear anything about it. Just as I begin to feel at home here, like I understand this town, I realise I haven’t even begun to.

The generator rattled into action and Bundu headed off to have his Sunday. I had a mashed banana on some of Francis’ bread and went back to transcribing the week’s interviews. A two-inch cricket jumped in the window onto the table, looked slightly confused and hopped off. A few miles away, across the river, people are holding their breath. Is this it for Guinea? Is its power structure finally cracking up as people have said for years it will? As the sun sets in Sweet Salone, all we can do is watch and wait.

Sunday, 11 February 2007


Saturday 10 February
I’ll admit I was a bit terrified of this weekend. The only other member of staff in the compound went to Kenema. I have loads of work to do and have to stay in, alone, all weekend. I’ve been alone most nights and I’m getting bored and lonely. DVDs and books only sustain you so long. Friday night was a welcome tonic. Steph from the Special Court is in town interviewing witnesses. We met late evening in a bar in town, sat on the verandah in the dark knocking back welcome and lukewarm Star beer and looking at the hundreds of stars above us. There are some advantages to the lack of a national grid.

Suddenly it seemed half of my colleagues were there. It began with Mary’s warm hand on my shoulder ‘Charly Cox, and how are you?’. Then Bundu our manager, Abu programme co-ordinator, Martin the Logistician all turned up. We moved bars with them to Badawi Spot, the popcorn bar. It’s just a small wooden room, raised a couple of feet off the ground, but it’s fun, and with my team I met some interesting people. Notably Souffian who is the local Security Advisor for the government. We talked about the problems in Guinea, and he told me that he was keeping the border open for now, keeping an eye on things. I also met Bundu’s good friend from Oxfam. He told me about his livelihoods programme, though he mainly chatted Steph up. I was boxed into a corner by a chair and Souffian was telling me about emergency preparedness. I could see that Steph was bored and tired, but it took me a while to extricate myself. Eventually we made a move. After so many nights in, I could have stayed longer, but Steph had an early start and I knew it would do me good to get to bed too. I also knew that if I hadn’t driven Steph back to the UNHCR guesthouse, one of the gents would have insisted on walking her, and that would have wound her up (as it would me in that situation). Martin walked us to the landcruiser as it was which was kind, especially as there was a big ditch in the road that we both nearly missed.

So I awoke this morning with a vaguely Star hangover, to hear that the generator had broken. Great. Bundu sounded tired and hungover too when I called with the good news. He dragged the mechanic to the compound and between the guard and the mechanic, the generator was revived. I went back indoors to plan Monday’s ‘Filing Day’ and make ‘Filing Champion’ badges for my erstwhile helpers (never a dull day in my job).

I was rattling along nicely when one of the guards came to tell me I had a visitor. Bundu's friend from Oxfam (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become obvious in later posts...) was at the gate. Now it should be noted at this point that we live a long walk out of town, maybe 30 minutes, which in this heat is significant. I invited him in and gave him glass upon glass of water. He offered me a present wrapped in an A4 sheet of paper. It was an African apple, a smooth, round fruit with springy flesh and one large bean-sized pip. He said he’d got it from a village he's working in, and that it was rare. He’d only got one; he was giving it to me. I was touched and floored. I peeled and cut it and we shared it. It was sweet tasting, except at the edges where it dried your mouth the way kola nuts do. I had hesitated to peel it; I was glad now I had.

We talked for about an hour about livelihoods and the elections. After a while I wondered what was expected of me, so I suggested I give him a lift back into town on the pretext of doing some shopping. On the drive he mentioned that if I’d had more time he’d have shown me the Guinean border, some three miles away. This was a bit of a red rag to a bored bull. I said I could probably take time out of my busy schedule, and off we went. I was a touch nervous that I didn’t really know this guy, but he was good friends with Bundu, who I have endless respect for, and he was from Oxfam for goodness sake, must be a decent chap (I expect all my friends at Save the Children Head Office to be laughing as they read that, Oxfam being a sworn marketing enemy).

The road out to the border was idyllic, and carved a bumpy path through semi-cultivated farmland, dotted with tall, stripped trees and tree stumps. We passed the customs huts and headed down towards the river’s edge. The River Moa it turns out is the Guinean border. Which makes a lot of sense. At the official river crossing all was serene and peaceful. The river ran slowly past us and I found it hard to believe (islander that I am) that the opposite bank, some 200 yards away, was another country. Obviously it didn’t look any different. A sleepy policeman welcomed me as though an official visitor checking all was in order, and I shook his hand, he in stiff blue uniform and jack boots and me in a polka dot H&M dress and flip flops. My guide indicated this wasn’t it though, and off we drove to the swimming spot, which was packed with people. Hundreds of people were picnicking, swimming, gathering sand for building; you name, they were doing it. The river’s edge was bounded by many, many boulders, and covering almost every spare rock was laundry drying in the sun. And I suppose part of me thought they’d spoilt the view, cluttered it up, domesticated what was natural. But actually it was a pretty impressive sight all of itself.

Leaving the ‘beach’ was slightly trickier than I had expected. In a demonstration of complete ineptitude I managed to reverse the landcruiser into a pile of loose chippings at the rear and sand at the front. It was impossible to get out. Well, it was impossible for me to get out. I was shown how to use the four wheel drive and still failed. A sand truck started reversing towards me and I panicked. It turned out they were offering to tow me out. A rope was rustled up and men began to tie it to the front of the car. One scrawny man in a bobble hat was threading the rope through. I started to have nightmare visions of the bullbars being ripped off and the car staying put, but the young man supervising operations seemed to know what he was talking about (he’d found the four wheel drive button quickly enough). Just as they were about to commence pulling me out, a NaCSA wagon pulled up. NaCSA is the National Commission for Social Action, a government quango which implements community projects (health centres and the like). The man from NaCSA was terribly polite, would I mind letting him have a go at getting us out. I didn’t mind at all, be my guest. He got into the drivers seat. Revved the engine. Skidded a bit. And just like that, the car was out. We all cheered. People shook my hand. I shook his hand. I got in and off we went back to Kailahun. On the drive I said ‘You know, I shouldn’t say this, I’m setting back the women’s liberation movement twenty years, but I think it was much easier for me to fail at that than for a Salonean man.’ My friend from Oxfam chuckled.

Back in Kailahun, we parted ways and I went off to get some shopping. I love wandering round the market when it's sleepy and quiet. I’m a novelty still; there are less than five expats in Kailahun. People ask me how I am, for my name, as I soak up the market around me; produce I’ve never seen, or have never seen presented quite like this. Glossy fresh fish buzzing with flies, being stripped briskly of its scales by a woman sat on a table top, the white scales gleaming against her black arms like large mother of pearl sequins. Piles of sugar in perfect peaks. Small bags of MSG the size of a child’s fist. I didn’t expect a country where food is so wholesomely basic, to routinely include monosodium glutamate in its cooking. But it does. On the positive side, Kailahun has the best bread I have ever tasted. Francis at the bread stall has befriended me (even helping me find eggs the other day), and I found myself squealing with glee today over some bread so fresh it was still hot. I had it simply with butter, and sighed contentedly. Butter becomes spreadable pleasingly quickly in this heat. Evidently I don’t need much to be happy.

Most trading here is ‘small, small, petty trading’. Women buy and sell and make a bit of cash. Hence produce is packed small, sold in tens and twenties not hundreds. A table might have tiny clusters of red cherry tomatoes, five in a cluster, next to fifteen small bags of hot pepper. People cross to Guinea for produce and bring back what they can physically carry. Trucks come in from Kenema with the heavy stuff. Since the strikes in Guinea people are more wary of crossing the border to trade (frightened that the Sierra Leonean government might shut the border while they’re gone and strand them in Guinea). The price of eggs has nearly doubled, and onions, wow. Ten pence each now, which when you consider the price in the UK, is actually quite high. Now imagine you earn 40p a day as a family. Tough huh?

Here I am Pomwe (white man in the local Mende language) to every child and sometimes to the odd adult who shouts it to my back, not to my face. It’s not an insult, just a bit cheeky. It makes a change from Opoto, which is the Temne equivalent up in Freetown. Most people there just call you ‘white gal’ though, which I quite like in an odd way. (Maybe as I approach 30, being called girl is comforting!) Yesterday a woman called out ‘Pakistan’. That happens sometimes in this district, where the majority of people associate expats with the UN’s PAKBATT (Pakistan Battalion). I like being taken for a Pakistani; it gives me a mirthful smile when I imagine a Daily Mail reader wandering Kailahun town in my place. Interestingly I once came here with a colleague from London whose family was Pakistani. No-one called her anything but Pomwe, which was fitting when she tried to assert her Pakistani roots over some hot pepper soup and doggedly tried to convince me she could take hot food as tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘You’re a Brit love, just like me’, I laughed between gasps for breath and wiped the tears from my own face.