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.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

What's in a name?

There’s an exception to every rule however (see end of my last post). Pendembu town, Wednesday, proved that exception. Here I met a school teacher, Augustine, who gave me a decent interview about the family planning education he was now teaching, thanks to our training. He gave me all I needed in an interview, crudely, a bit of background to his life, his career, what the problems for his students were in terms of teenage pregnancy and the like, and finally, how marvellous our training had been. He voluntarily talked about the gender balance component of the training, and then out of nowhere said ‘I would teach that to my children, but I wouldn’t want my wife to hear it. Teach a wife that and one day it will be the wife beating the husband, not the other way around’. I looked at my colleague Margaret from the health programme. She was stunned too. She tackled him. I kept the ipod running, this was a lively debate. We got nowhere though, we were just women. I lamented afterwards to Margaret that it would probably take a man he respected to change his attitude. You can’t win ‘em all, and with some judicial editing, the interview will still say everything I need it to. And Margaret will be back to teach the module again.

On the drive that morning, Gassimu and I walloped along the country roads, him dodging the ruts and holes with the ease of a man who has driven this road so frequently he could do it blindfold – we call the three hours from Kailahun to Kenema the Gazza Strip (sic) because he can drive it in two. I bounced along firing questions at him about politics. Gazza wore all my idiot questions good-naturedly. ‘But why isn’t the APC popular here? Why only in the north?’ ‘It just not.’ But when I asked why the SLPP (the government) was so popular I got a surprising answer. ‘Well, a tink, its partly de name, yu no, de People’s Party. Its of de people yu no? And a tink its also partly de symbol: de palm tree. Every man e get someting from de palm.’ Is that it? People voted the government in because they chose a good logo? It would be like half of Britain voting labour because the rose was a really important cash crop which also produced a drinkable drop of moonshine.

And the irony. The SLPP made people feel they were grass-roots, and then they embezzled as much as they could lay their hands on. Made themselves African Big Men. Allegedly. The evidence is everywhere. A couple of years ago the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education was the victim of a 419 scam. He lost millions. But it’s ok, he didn’t use his own money. He used the salaries of the entire teaching staff for that year. And did I mention that lack of education was a trigger for the war? He went to prison. Lost his job too; the two don’t always go together.

Gazza didn’t realise how annoyed I was with the people of Sierra Leone for not scrutinising their government better. And how annoyed I was with the government for not providing quality education which might help them do it. How annoyed also with all political parties for campaigning on personalities not policies.

We were pulling into the outskirts of Pendembu when we had to stop. In front of us around four hundred women were dancing in unison, marching towards us in a hip swinging shuffle. ‘We better stop’ said Gazza, and looked a touch worried. If this was a secret society on the move we needed to keep a low profile, they could get a bit shirty. This is the time of year when young girls and boys are initiated into the secret societies. One society for each sex. They used to be about teaching adolescents how to behave as adults, how to be parents. Now they’re a vehicle for traditional leaders (Zoes) to make money. For the girls, part of the initiation is circumcision; or the sanitised acronym FGM (female genital mutilation).

As I had my breakfast that morning I had listened to a Woman’s Hour podcast of a Somali-born Dutch politician talking about her own circumcision. Sitting in the landrover, locking the doors in time with Gazza, I thought of this and winced as women moved past us, around the vehicle, young girls smiling among them. I try to understand everything I see and hear in this country, try not to judge that which I do not have to live with. But this I cannot tolerate, this disgusts me. It is barbaric.

When we finally arrived with Margaret, some 1000 women had passed us. ‘Were you scared Gazza?’ she teased. He mumbled something and clearly yes, he was terrified, but so was I a bit. Though I think we both knew that as white woman I was his ticket to safety. Last year one of our national staff was pulled off a motorbike when he drove into a village conducting the male initiation. They wanted to forcibly initiate him. Margaret corrected us both however. We were wrong, it wasn’t secret society, it was a march to placate the spirits. Three women in two days had died in childbirth. The women of the entire area had come together to plea for this to be the end of the dying.

Our first interviewee of the day was Teresa, a sweet and tender-looking 17 year old school-girl who has been teaching her peers about sexual health. We’ve been training groups of children to do this, and off they go with temerity, telling friends about STIs, masturbation, pregnancy. You name it, they talk about it, loudly. In her crisp, white burka, with blue fringing, Teresa looked like a nun. Her English was flawless, and it turned out she spoke French too – the only good thing to come of being evacuated to Guinea during the war. Teresa told me how joining our Children’s Club had given her confidence that she’d not had before. How now it was easy to stand up in front of 200 school kids and talk about periods. You had to hand it to her, this quiet young woman was pretty plucky. A perfect interview ended with an offer to visit her home, all the better for the photos. She went ahead while I interviewed Augustine. I was glad to get away to Teresa’s house. When we arrived she wasn’t in her uniform any more, and was instead wearing what looked like a swimsuit with a skirt wrapped around her waist. Suddenly this schoolgirl was an incredibly sensuous woman, in the swing of her hips and the low cut of her swimsuit. Not good for the photos. And also now obvious why teaching girls how to make sexual choices is so important. She showed me the washing she was doing, her school uniform. My heart sank. But then my camera’s battery ran out, so we decided to come back another day. I wished I’d got one of her at the school. But then the school was empty that day, all the women and girls had gone on the march. The boys just went home.

On the way out of Pendembu we saw the women slowly returning. ‘And the children have missed a whole day of school for this.’ Margaret said contemptuously. ‘And tonight another woman will probably die anyway’. Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Kailahun District has barely any doctors and not many more nurses. Instead Maternal Child Health Aides do both jobs with meagre training. People don’t have the money to pay MCH Aides anyway, so they go to traditional midwives who have little idea of what to do when a woman experiences complications during birth.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Kicking about in Kailahun

Tuesday 6 Feb
I’ve been in Kailahun since Sunday. It’s pronounced ‘cai-la-ow-n’, the h disappears, it’s only trace being to elongate the u. Anyway, Kailahun is on the eastern border of Sierra Leone, just shy of 300 miles from Freetown, and approximately 30 years away too. Kailahun is the town time forgot. It was home to the RUF, the rebel group who kicked off the ten year conflict. In surrounding villages, people will show you the ‘slaughterhouses’ unblinkingly. Just a local building which became the home to so many executions during the war; blood spots still discernible on the floors. The district was the last to achieve peace and so the last to receive any kind of outside assistance after the war ended. And since then, the government seems to have lost interest. I have met countless local people who all employ the same stark phrase, ‘we feel like we’re not part of Sierra Leone’.

And well they might, many newly-qualified public sector employees, teachers, nurses, the like, promptly quit the profession when posted to Kailahun. Unlike most district capitals, Kailahun doesn’t have tar roads, and it is littered with bombed out buildings. Its colonial past is evident in manys a crumbling balcony. People live in shacks near the foundations. I always wonder why in a country where so much is informally recycled, no-one has taken down the bombed and burnt buildings; surely the bricks could be reused? Or the foundations? I have no answer for you there. Colleagues don’t know either. But then, most of my Kailahun colleagues, and indeed most of the staff in all of the INGOs here, aren’t from Kailahun. The educated fled during the war and went elsewhere subsequently - followed the money to other towns.

Kailahun’s shops are small wooden shacks, its produce is all brought in from the next district town of Kenema or from just across the border in Guinea. You can’t get expat food here, you can barely get fresh fruit and veg, the only real beverages to be bought are Star Beer and those made by the Coca Cola Company (naturally). It’s the countryside. Coming from Freetown, life is blissfully slow. A small dark shack of a bar sells popcorn in the evenings from an ancient machine; the talk of the town. Naturally I love it here. It would be bonkers to say it feels like home, but it feels more like the kind of home I identify with than Freetown.

What I don’t like about Kailahun is the sense of guilt it inspires in me. The district has become an NGO circus. People have learnt a whole new language of development that they should have been shielded from. Local people will tell you how they need their ‘capacity building’ in order to grow groundnut, when they mean they need tools. Worse, they use acronyms such as GBV (gender-based violence), and talk about needing to ‘put in place modalities’. It’s depressing. Here’s how it happens. Expatriate staff with MAs in development studies train national staff using the language of development. The national staff either want to show how clever they are, follow instructions, or don’t see the need to convert the vocabulary for domestic consumption; or worse, don’t really understand it themselves, and use it to cover that fact. Add to this the fact that Sierra Leone loves a good acronym and you have a recipe for a nightmarish vision, an entire country speaking a new and pompous jargon. What’s sad is often this language is empty, meaningless, because people don’t really understand what they’re saying.

I wince every time I drive past a sign board announcing some new and useless building sponsored by the World Bank or the EU, or our own DfID. Useless because often the grant didn’t extend to providing staff, or didn’t think to the long term – who’ll fix it when it breaks? In one town that I visited, the male staff member at the Women’s GBV (see above, keep up) Centre had finished his contract and gone home. The women still go to the centre, but they use it as a place to sew and gossip because it’s cool. Maybe that’s quite fitting actually. And demonstrates the ill-planning of the well-meaning. INGOs tend to be a bit smarter (we made plenty of mistakes, just years ago when you could get away with them, and we learnt from them, a bit).

I fear, and have feared since my first months here that a generation of children is growing up imagining that this is normal, that all countries are swarming with INGOs and UN agencies (of which there are myriad; UNDP, UNHCR, WFP, UNFPA, UNICEF... the list goes on). The only real incomes in this town are provided by NGOs. The only major company represented here is Celtel, the mobile phone company. But they don’t have an office, just a mast.

If I were being self-righteous (and remember I’m the PR person for my organisation), I’d say how proud I am that we don’t put up signs everywhere we go, like a gingerbread house trail for new villages keen for development cash. But the only reason we don’t do it is because we don’t have donors who ask us to. Our donors are the people who give £3 a month through a direct debit, the people who get stopped on the street and can’t resist a pretty face.

But whether they use jargon or not, the people of Kailahun are kind, warm and above all proactive. Whenever I get tired in Freetown of hearing people tell me how much better this country would be if the British recolonised it, I remember the people I’ve met in Kailahun who would be disgusted with such an attitude. After years of abandonment by the government, and a fair bit of abandonment by INGOs (who left with the refugees), the people here have realised that if they don’t do it, no-one else will. I’m not trying to romanticise some rural idyll. It’s tough as all hell here, and people do expect some handouts. Our Child Welfare Committees frequently ask us for a stipend, but if I was a subsistence farmer being asked to do the job of the Ministry of Social Welfare (which they essentially are, reporting abuse, tackling rapists), I’d probably ask for a bit of cash too. Our staff explain that it’s not about us, it’s about them and their communities, and that when we leave, these committees must keep chugging along. When I came here in Jan 2005 I had my doubts, two years on I have a tremendous faith in their ability to do it. I meet CWC members who blow me away with their grasp of child rights and protection. I remember Mr Bundu in Buedu telling me how he was negotiating with a 52 year old Paramount Chief who was trying to marry a 14 year old girl – his 26th wife. This man was a diplomat, tackling the most powerful man in the Chiefdom because ‘it’s a rights violation, and girls of that age die in childbirth. Girls deserve education just as much as boys, and she would be economically vulnerable when that chief dies’. He told me he wanted his children to go to school, as he hadn’t had the chance, and then said ‘You see, I am just an ignorant man’. I have never felt so humbled. Pretty much every time I interview someone connected with us I have that experience.

Monday, 29 January 2007

The fat lady hasn't sung

I'm sitting at my desk avoiding that media landscaping exercise again by reading the UN's weekly security update from the subregion. The footer at the bottom of the page says 'UN - restricted'. It's been forwarded around all the INGOs in Freetown by the head of Catholic Relief Services. Contrary to the suggestion of the name, CRS is not a bunch of episcopalians running around helping Salonean Catholics deal with their religious guilt, but is instead an American development agency. A good one too if their staff are anything to go by.

I digress. Not too long ago the head of Care sent an email to our Country Director: 'I have been informed through the security tree that there are students demonstrating in the area of circular road. There is an unconfirmed report that shots have been fired'. An hour or so later we all sat in a meeting when the continuous sound of police sirens rang out around us. It sounded like New York outside. Unusual because most police landrovers don't have sirens. A colleague joked that she'd only heard them once before and maybe they were just testing them out. The Country Director somewhat humourlessly said 'I suppose that means we do have demonstrations downtown.' We got on with the meeting. What more could we do?

It's hotting up though. I'm glad I'm going up line this weekend for a couple of weeks. Get me to the countryside where it's calm and slow and tranquil. I've never been one for the bustle of the city, and it turns out that avoiding crowds is actually an exercise in self-preservation as opposed to misanthropy.

From the sub-machine gun to the ridiculous

As expected by the old hands, Freetown demonstrated that it is a city that has normalised violence. Things calmed imperceptibly. Atsons opened unusually on Sunday to recoup its lost earnings from the day before. I drove past it on Sunday lunchtime and all was exactly as it had been on Friday, and every other day. I woke up on Sunday morning much the same as many Sundays here; tired and hungover as all hell. I said I wouldn't talk about the social life, but I'm going to because it demonstrates that no matter what, we conceited expats will still have a good time. And that Saloneans will too.

On Saturday night, a friend’s birthday dinner turned into a viewing of the Borat film, which had us in drunken tears. We followed this up by putting in an appearance at a house party in time to move onto a club with them. At 2am, true to usual scheduling, local ABCTV turned up with Sierra Leone’s most famous singer, Emerson. This was the man who made it acceptable to voice political dissatisfaction through music by writing catchy, down-to-earth tunes people can’t resist dancing to. In a country where the press barely scrutinise government, it’s left to the rockstars to expose corruption and rant on behalf of the voiceless populace. I’m a big fan. I had mum and dad dancing to Emerson’s ‘Tutu Party’ on Christmas day. So, naturally I grabbed a friend’s camera and drunkenly took photos of the event. Possibly a little close to the great man, as I managed to get myself on telly at the same time, the arm of the presenter round me as we both waved to his camera. Only in Salone. Similarly only here would I find myself at 4.30am at Paddys, the city’s most famous club, singing along to Beyonce with a devastatingly beautiful Salonean woman, who was certainly there for business reasons, and was utterly charming. She was warm, fun, unashamed, and incredibly classy, even in a tight backless dress. Somewhere along the way a man cut in to our group and I never saw her again. Something told me she could handle herself.

This is more than I could say for myself on Sunday, getting out of bed at midday, barely able to stand in the shower without leaning on the wall. There was only one way to go. The beach. A friend drove us out there and we joined a big group who had managed to get up more successfully than me. There’s not much to say about Bureh town beach, except that it’s beautiful. This photo does it more justice than my words ever will. It’s the surf beach and yesterday the waves were rough. We go to the beach to escape the smell of the rubbish-strewn streets. To get away from the heat and the hawkers and breath out in the sunshine. Few of us ever try to get a tan. The sand is powdery and crunches like snowdrifts underfoot. At Bureh on a Sunday, Saloneans gather to dance to huge amplifiers belting out Emerson, Daddy Saj and Jimmy B.

As it started to get late, we drove back to the city. I watched the sunset from Leicester Peak, the city’s highest point. At the parking spot the US embassy had erected a tent, installed a cook and were having a barbeque. Of course. So we parked a bit lower sat on the roof to clear the treeline. Below the city shimmered in the late evening heat. The sea and the horizon became one in the absence of cloud to punctuate the skyline. From up there the city looked peaceful and lovely. The hills around Freetown, bunched with tall green trees, balanced out the brown of the houses. The awful sanitation, broken and burnt buildings, ragged children and bubbling unrest were invisible at that height.

As Graham Greene was first to notice, with dusk the city turned purple. The sun glowed progressively more orange, and then slowly disappeared. The moon came up behind us and a single star appeared as if on cue above the valley. It got chilly and we left. The Americans were still eating.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

Sometimes the sound of gunshot isn't a misfiring car

It’s Saturday lunchtime. I’ve jacked up my coffee table on piles of books to form a makeshift desk so I can work. True to most Sierra Leonean carpentry, my kitchen table is too high, making me feel like Goldilocks and giving me backache. So the coffee table it is. I’ve got work to do and should be doing it. I’m to write a synopsis of the ‘media landscape’ in Sierra Leone. I could probably write it in two words: ‘woefully inadequate’. But I don’t think that would quite cut it with Head Office or our Country Director. Instead of starting on that, I’m starting on this.

I just got off the phone from Simon, an old colleague from our Head Office, who now manages one of VSO’s programmes here. He lives opposite Atsons, one of Freetown’s better supermarkets – they sell nice beer, cheap cheese. Atsons is on one of the main routes in Freetown, running between two major roundabouts, in parallel to the beach road. You need to use it to access a lot of the places we expats hang out. This morning I texted Simon to warn him to stay indoors. He didn’t need me to tell him that.

At 6am a scuffle began outside Atsons. Conflicting reports establish roughly the following series of events: a street-vendor/taxi driver was seen by police with a jerry can of fuel. The police suspected it was stolen. Somehow (either accidentally or purposefully) the individual was set on fire. A mob gathered and fighting broke out between police and citizens. I remember waking blearily to a sound like gunshots, but they were muffled, probably a worn out old car. They were real all right; live ammunition, fired on a crowd from behind riot shields, the sound carrying on the cloudless morning air, from down in the valley up to my hill.

At 9am I received a message from our logistics team to say that strikers were protesting outside Atsons and to steer clear. I contacted my friend Ian, ex-army and Head of Security at the British High Commission. Naturally he knew about it and told me more, tear gas had been used; things were calming down now. It was a no go area. Brian, our logs manager called to say IRC and Care had told their people to stay indoors until midday. I tried to contact key people in all the houses in which I have friends, aware at the same time that this might be a bit over the top and that probably it would be over and done with by now. A friend from the Special Court called back and sounded as concerned as me. But he planned to be in the office all day – the most secure place in Freetown, the Court, guarded by Mongolian blue helmets. My closest friend called and oblivious to the apparent danger, said he was at the other end of the road with Atsons on it, and that all was calm. I was torn between thinking I was probably a touch excited (and enjoying it), and deciding that I was being appropriately cautious, this being Sierra Leone, this being the election year. I ate my boiled egg, thought little more about its implications (aside from not food shopping today) and sat down to read a report.

Half hour ago, Rob from Medicin Sans Frontiers called to thank me for texting him, and without sarcasm said he kind of knew what was happening though, thanks. MSF’s warehouse is behind Atsons; he had first hand reports from his guards, one of whom had run to their office in terror. It wasn’t just one-way fire, the crowd had guns too. He had it that ’30 minutes ago a policeman was killed by the mob’. It felt immediate, lawless. Dare I say it felt exhilarating? I have never been in a situation in which the police are as out of control as the crowd. I’ve never thought through to conclusion the what-ifs. And like most Sierra Leoneans, I just pray that if it got bad, the military, backed up by the largely British military training team (IMATT), would intervene and crush it. But here it was, for the first time in my six months. Fighting on the streets, the stuff of news stories. The stuff of news stories from Guinea every day for the last fortnight in fact; and now it’s on my doorstep. And here I was, here I am, sat in my house and glad of it. And if I’m serious about becoming a photojournalist, shouldn’t I be out there with a camera? Am I not a little relieved that my organisation would probably sack me for going near the area against orders?

Rob said that each time things calmed down they seemed to reignite again. In his affable Dutch way he said ‘But you know, we’re not getting overly-concerned. We’ve been planning a big staff party on the beach for tonight, so today we are busy getting all the food ready. Luckily we did the shopping yesterday.’ You can always rely on MSF to keep perspective in a crisis! This is a minor scuffle compared to the situations in which they usually put themselves. If he was MSF France not MSF Holland he’d probably be in the thick of it setting up a tent to treat the wounded and negotiating with the mob. They’re a bit GI Joe from all accounts. As a friend, I’m glad he’s not. We arranged to meet for a drink this week before we both go up line to the countryside. I wished him a good party. I told Brian about the armed civilians. ‘So much for disarmament eh?’ he chuckled in his usual Texan manner. He’s probably seen it all before. It’s just me getting overly excited.

Simon was calling to thank me for making contact as he cowered in his house and listened to gunshots ringing outside. He had no credit on his phone (a situation in which I frequently find myself) and couldn’t get any information on what was happening. All he knew was, he could see an angry mob and the police firing on them, NOT into the air. Tentatively linked to our past lives as we are, Simon and I share some unspoken connection; he seemed as disoriented as me by this.

I’ll readily admit that I probably dwell on the danger of this country when I talk about it at home, and yet when I’m here I’m probably far too blasé about it. I’ve driven past police roadblocks at 2am, been pulled over by the cops late at night, come upon large processions of young men celebrating the last days of school holidays, and driven right through them, parting them around my car. And every time something happens I feel naïve and foolish for not thinking through the what-ifs. That roadblock that I drove past stopped the car of friends behind me. The police had four foot long guns. It was 2am on a lonely beach road. One guy and five women in the car. Naturally they were fine. Naturally.

It’s embarrassing that it takes something bigger to happen for us to sit up and remember where we are. That the danger and the violence truly are under the surface, waiting. The warmth and near apathy of everyday Sierra Leoneans belies the unreasonable mob aggression which can quickly develop. Are we back to education again? Is it patronising and even racist to suggest that the inability to calm down and reason in a crowd is due to ignorance? Almost certainly yes. And maybe it’s just that people know the authorities only listen to aggression. That they will be fobbed off with empty promises if they petition. And maybe we as the international community reinforce that. You can be damn sure that the UN will meet with government to discuss this, and that the police will be chastised. And that they wouldn’t give a second glance to an orderly group with a clipboard.

This weekend was going to be unremarkable. And probably still will be. I stayed in last night listening to opera, drinking a Peroni and reading a book. I could have been in London. My book is about the UN, called ‘Emergency Sex & Other Desperate Measures’. Pretty famous here. It charts the journeys of three individuals – how they got into this game, and their developing impressions of the leviathan that is the UN. Two small letters, one semi-state. I cringe on reading it as I find myself associating with them, with their excitement at living in a country on the cusp of change, where unpredictability is the norm. And where frequently we’re too green or too determined to party to realise the danger we’re in. Where we can’t shake the ingrained democracies from which we hail, and blithely believe chaos cannot ring out. “Just like home really isn’t it?”

I want to be more urbane than the characters in the book, more understanding and culturally sensitive. More cautious and serious. But this book is clever. One of the characters takes a job little knowing where Cambodia is, and revels in the fact that with dollars she can command four star treatment. Another is seduced by the danger and by becoming extraordinary by virture of his location. And finally the third was in Cambodia before the UN and resents them, has Cambodian friends and stands apart, but is equally intoxicated by the otherness of the country, equally compares it to home. Equally cannot go home. I’m a blend of all three and don’t I just know it.

Two nights ago I cooked for a friend. We had a glossy red fish called grouper on puy lentils with a tomato and lime salsa and a half decent white wine. We sat up til two a.m. talking about photography – my friend used to be a fashion photographer in Tel Aviv – and drinking Lavazza when we started to flag. Then yesterday, hungover and sweating, I found myself on a comfortable sofa in the office of the Hospital Manager of Freetown’s teaching hospital, the Connaught. We had no appointment, but were immediately granted an audience. Because he wasn’t busy? I doubt it from looking at his desk. Because we were from an INGO and because we were white. The irony of these events is not lost on me.

I don’t discuss Sierra Leone with friends here because, well, we all live here. No-one needs me to critique this place for them. And it would just depress us. Going home I find myself ranting about this country, good and bad. Half an hour will go by and I’m still trying to explain to friends, to get them to see even a piece of what daily life is like for Saloneans. But it’s near-on impossible. It’s a million miles away. Even sitting here, it’s a thousand miles away for me too and always will be. I’ll never live like a Sierra Leonean. I’ll never do what Sierra Leoneans do. If I called my dad he could stop it all.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Money can't buy you love, but it can buy you anything else

Some things that you should take as read about Sierra Leone (which we take for granted at home)

1) There is no mains power to speak of. National Power Authority (nicknames include ‘Nothin Pass Advantage’) cranks up for the odd hour a day and over Christmas managed street lights in one street – interestingly the street named after one of Sierra Leone’s more corrupt Presidents, who was in many ways responsible for the fact that infrastructure, including power, is so non-existent. We run on generators. Expats have it good, Saloneans run generators the size of lawnmowers and get power for a couple of hours a day if they can afford it. Diesel is costly. Generators are noisy and polluting. It’s like living behind a fairground. Scream if you want to go faster.

2) Water is a problem. When I arrived in June the rainy season was late and the government turned off water to the capital for 3 weeks. Expats bought it in, the government used fire trucks to deliver theirs, the price of bottled soared, Saloneans went without. The rains started and the government forgot all about it. Now in January, a long way from the rainy season, we are facing shortages again, because, well, the government forgot all about it.

3) Post is a problem. My organisation DHLs things to us, but anything valuable is brought in by friends or colleagues. We lost a laptop from a DHL bag last year. DHL refuse to insure. Salpost may get you the odd postcard, months late, so in the city our drivers hand deliver mail when they’re passing. We send mail to colleagues up-country (or up-line as it’s called here) in the same way. So should anyone want to send me anything from the UK, please send this via a friend, who I can specify – there’s always someone going back and forward.

4) Credit cards are worthless here. The technology isn't there to support them, and the phrase 'credit rating' it fairly ludicrous. The banks don't have ATMs either. Computers are something of a rarity, many of the ministries don't have them, the police certainly don't, of course schools and hospitals don't. They're not likely to get them in a hurry either, furniture being slightly higher on the wish list. So no cards, just cash. Which makes mugging a lot more painless (as I can attest), but also makes you feel strangely light-headed when you realise you're down to your last 5,000 leones (£1). Which is where the friends we temporarily make in this shifting environment come in. And when few people have bank accounts, or any credit worthiness, why bring in a system guaranteed to put honest people in debt? I suppose banking is another indicator of development however. And in terms of security, we're pretty wild west here. Money's kept under the mattress, or more usually just spent. NGOs talk about families' failure to respond to shocks to their household economies. That's really just a fancy way of saying if you're skint, and your friends are skint, there ain't anywhere to go when something bad happens. And when you're poor, bad stuff happens a lot. So my extended family of friends who bail me out is mirrored by Saloneans, who lean on their richer relatives in times of trouble. I have colleagues who've moved cities to avoid being tapped for cash by family. None of my mates have needed to do the same.

5) Vegetables are generally in short supply. You don’t make friends with salad, and nowhere more so than Freetown, where it will give you giardia (a nasty diarrhoeal illness which comes with ‘foul smelling wind’ and ‘feelings of doom’). Carrots are fly-bitten, bendy and expensive at around 40p each. Greens are non-existent unless tinned. And thus bendy. Al dente it ain’t. So I eat a lot of fish, a lot of goat and a lot of chicken. And rice. And yes, I was anaemic inside my first two months. Those of you that knew the government of SL had banned the import of chicken due to overblown fears of avian flu, will be relieved to hear they lifted it. Fried chicken belongs to the people of SL once more. Malnutrition likewise. No-one here is taking the multi-vits I pop each morning.

6) Roads. Ah roads. Are appalling. Driving like a Salonean requires continually changing sides of the road in a slow slalom to avoid deep ruts. The Road Transport Authority (motto: 'No Pothole Too Deep’) doesn’t appear to be in a great hurry to remedy this, unless of course HRH Prince of Wales happens to be swinging into town. Thanks to Charlie we have a few regraded roads now. Going up-country is more arduous. A journey of less than a couple of hundred miles to the other side of the country takes 9 hours (in the dry season) and our vehicles frequently arrive in need of a mechanic. It’s usual to blow a tyre on the way. Our drivers are all mechanics and also magicians, conjuring parts out of the air in the middle of nowhere (see photo – the fastest tyre change in the east, Gaza took 8 minutes when a tyre blew in the jungle).
Sierra Leone is a vehicle Nirvana. Vehicles which other countries have condemned after a good innings, come here to be reborn. Taxis frequently do not have fixtures and fittings, just the seats and the engine. Poda Podas (transit van buses) are overloaded and prone to crushing on impact. That 9 hour journey for me, by Landrover, takes 20 hours by Poda Poda.

7) Education levels are very low. The well-educated were smart enough to get the hell out during the war. School is free, except it’s not because teachers are not paid on time and thus exact special fees (or sex) in return for grades or simply tuition. Some kids don’t attend because they need to work, some because they fear the daily beatings by teachers when they’re late because they’ve been farming since dawn, and some just can’t afford a 40p notebook. Never have I seen so clearly how much lack of education impacts upon everything. Generations missed out. Rote learning has a huge amount to answer for. Problem-solving is not a speciality, people aren’t taught how. Frequently technicians will suggest that whole parts should be replaced for the sake of something simple like a fuse. We lost a landrover to fire because the mechanics fitted a new stereo and didn’t earth it – so it could still be listened to with the engine off apparently. In the ensuing fire the windows blew out and the roof melted. Only the quick-thinking of James, one of our drivers, who disconnected the fuel tank, prevented a major explosion.

8) The justice system is weak. The police will frequently tell you with a meaningful look that times are hard for them. Expats don’t help by failing to get Salonean driving licenses, and therefore flagrantly breaking the law and paying bribes when caught (our organisation insists we have them, and in any case, it’s a sure-fire wallet top-trumps winner back home). In the UK, were I in trouble I would jump in a police car unthinkingly. Here, I would call a friend, preferably one with diplomatic immunity. Violence against Sierra Leonean women and children is widespread, and perpetrators frequently pay their way out of court, or are offered a fine OR a prison sentence. The law library burnt down in the war and many laws have not been made available subsequently. As a result, when a lawyer finds a copy, he or she sits on it, for use in court later, fairly certain that the opposing counsel, and even the judge, won’t know of its existence. In the absence of a working justice sector, society breaks down. If the system is corruptible why not join it, you can’t beat it. I’ve yet been put in a position where I needed to pay a bribe. I hope to god it doesn’t happen. Aside from the fact that I would be breaking my organisation’s code of conduct, it would go against everything I believe in. I would be joining a system I despise. A lawyer friend and I discussed this yesterday; his take on the damage corruption does is worth repeating. In a society where corruption is the norm, investment and business cease to operate properly. The certainty of regular taxes is replaced with the precariousness of bribes – one amount one day, another the next. Planning in that environment is fairly difficult I’d imagine. Aside from the fact that the type of business which is attracted to invest in a country with a stinking reputation may not be operating in the best interests of the people of that country, and will likely be attracted by opportunities to break the law with impunity and get away with it. Just before Christmas the Chief of Police was alleged to have helped an expat member of the board of a mining company to stymie the efforts of the same company, which had sacked him. Allegedly.

And for all this, despite all of this, I love this place. It's got me.

Happy Anniversary Madam President

All eyes in this region are on Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the President of our neighbour, Liberia, and more than that, Africa's first female President. This week marked the anniversary of her first year in office, and accolades flooded in from world leaders. Everyone is hoping against all rational hope that she might be 'the one'. Sirleaf was a World Bank economist, friend of the US administration, and Liberian parliamentarian for many years. There's a school of thought that says the US had hoped she would take power after the peace accords in Liberia were signed in 1999 (the first peace deal, in which Charles Taylor came to power). The story goes that the US had hoped to sideline the thuggish Mr Taylor. History shows that Taylor was not the sort to go quietly, and not quite the thicko the US had miscalculated he was.

But you can't keep a good woman down perhaps, because Ellen came back to take the Presidency in the first post-war elections. She beat footballer George Weah, a popular candidate, if not a very serious contender, and made a ground-breaking inauguration speech in which she cited rape as a critical problem for Liberia. It was the first time someone in power had said the word out loud.

Sirleaf has announced zero-tolerance on corruption, and in her first months sacked all 300 employees of the Ministry of Finance for being a disgrace to the people of Liberia. She has just handed back US$19,000 of unused expenses with detailed receipts for the rest.

As you can tell, she's a bit of a heroine of mine. In a sea of corruption she might be an island of hope - though I have many sceptical friends. I hope with all my finger’s crossed, that all of the above is truly true and not just spin from her advisors. And that she is the beginning of a new era for Africa. Or at least for Liberia. A man on the street the other day said we needed a woman in charge here. Sadly, I don’t think for one minute he was serious.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

What goes around comes around

Saturday 30th December 2006 – Shortlands train station, London

In the tree opposite my windblown platform there hangs a length of electrical cord. The plug, still attached, is hanging onto a branch for grim life, its cord dangling below it, swaying like some desperate snake, trying to regain its rest. Strange. How on earth did it get there? I’m inclined to believe it literally dropped from the sky, from some passing aircraft. The way it is hanging, dead, vertical, suggests this. But the severed end of the cord suggests some kind of violence. And I have time to think about it. The train’s late. I had been early.

Perhaps, some demented commuter did it. Did he (while it could easily be a she, it’s my daydream, it’s a he), having bought a new toaster from Argos, struggle through Victoria station, perhaps being uncomfortably jostled? Did he drop his ticket on the slick of thin wet mud on the floor and have to bend awkwardly to peel it off, put it wet in his pocket? Dirtying the lining? Finally he gets on the train, elbowing an old lady out of pole position for a coveted seat, feeling too hard done by to be guilty, he sinks heavily to the chair and unwraps his purchase. Did the weight of the day and his existing frustration with his old toaster – cord just too short – bubble up as he opened his bag, peeled off the security tape, lifted the toaster aloft and discovered… a similarly short cord? In anger, incredulity and frustration that became brute force, did he rip that goddamn cord from the body of the new toaster, stagger to the doorway and toss it out of the train when it stopped at Shortlands, making an Incredible Hulk style grunt as he did so? And then did he leave the train in embarrassment as familiar commuters wondered what had happened to their mild-mannered companion?

That would have made a nice and fairly plausible tale were it not for three things: the cord is actually very long (see photo);
train doors do not open on the non-platform side; and neither do trains any longer have windows. So I shall never know what happened to that cord. It shall remain a simple object of beauty and violence, and loneliness. And in an entirely pretentious manner, I shall say that it might signify the loneliness of the commuter; and my own selfishness as I sat alone on the platform listening to the ipod someone once told me ‘doesn’t make you look cool, it’s just a glib fashion accessory for the beach’ (good cuss). And I shall also say again that this loneliness doesn’t exist in Sierra Leone, where people are noisy and nosey. And that the cord wouldn’t have been left to hang, but attached to something else (albeit not electrical, given the lack of power).

Later, back at Marylebone, in need of a pen, but with nothing open from which to buy one, I approached a florist, furtively, and asked if I could buy a biro from him. He seemed completely confused until he spotted an opportunity to make money, showed me a blue biro and said 'Two pounds'. As much as I felt like a crazy person for asking I wasn't going to be mugged, so I told him that was a touch steep, how about a quid. He accepted. Only on the train, tucked in between drunken commuters, did I realise it was a free pen from Barclays bank. How very SL I thought. And laughed. None of the drunken commuters thought it odd.

Moany at Marylebone

Friday 29th December 2006 – Marylebone train station, London

Struggling with my rucksack, in which I seem to have stored a quantity of rocks, I stood on the concourse waiting for Cathy to make herself known to me. Cathy and I have known each other many years. We are both late. Habitually. The knowledge of which makes us later, knowing that the other won’t be there. I wonder if she’ll recognise me, travelling incognito as I am in large wool coat and hat low over my eyes. Jesus it’s cold in this country. Does no-one mind that their shoulder blades have been frozen together?

A tall, gangly man of around thirty and his mother are exiting the underground onto the concourse. He has a collection of items in his right hand, with which he is also trying to drag a wheelie suitcase. They seem a happy duo, neither antagonising the other. They appear to travel together a lot. It’s possibly a little sad for a man of reasonable attractiveness to be travelling with his mother, not his lover, but who am I to question, my dad still picks me up from the train with a thermos. As he wheeled towards the coffee stall, a pen fell from his suitcase-grasping mit and bounced onto the floor. It was a freebie, a hotel pen. I thought to myself ‘leave it mate, it’s not worth the effort of bending down and dropping everything else’. His mother said something, he replied more audibly ‘it’s just a pen, leave it’ and on they walked. And it struck me. That would never have happened in Sierra Leone. Pens are of inordinate value. I once offered a free conference centre pen to a boy on the beach and his face lit up. The money I had previously given him meant nothing against it. I had given him the equivalent of a day’s income for some families up-country (40p). But the pen signified an opportunity, to write and to access learning. In a country where education is yearned for more than diamonds, the pen is mightier than the caterpillar truck. Or something. And I tell you what else wouldn’t have happened. If that pen had been dropped, the person who picked it up would have put it in their pocket. But I’d like to bet that the cleaner who found it at Marylebone, threw it away. In our obsession with sanitisation and health and safety, no cleaner would risk such a germ-carrier as a pen. In a metropolis like London, who can say who’d been chewing it’s non-ink end? Consigned to a bin bag like so much else that could be reused. Taken for granted because it had been free. It’s monetary value signifying it’s only worth.

I waited for Cathy. I cursed myself for my right-on-ness. For thinking the words ‘that would never happen in SL’. You’re not in SL now. Get a grip. Cathy arrived 15 minutes late. I had been early.

Why bother?

I loathe circular emails. So why I am writing a blog, which is essentially the egotistical extension of the circular (assuming that not just family and friends but also strangers would want to read my ramblings) I have no idea. Except it seems quite a few people here have them, and I’m feeling left out.

Why I am choosing to send news of myself into cyberspace now I’m not sure (aside from the sense of exclusion from the cool club). I’ve been in Sierra Leone for 6 months after all. The awe and wonder and general idiocy of the newcomer have passed, and have been well-documented in emails to those of you who stayed awake long-enough to read them. But I suppose it’s exactly because of that, and because I’ve just returned from my first major break in the UK, that I want to start capturing what I’m seeing. And maybe now I can meaningfully comment on it (a little), rather than submit observations with ‘eh?’ next to them. Though they’ll still be a fair bit of that too.

Obviously I’ve chosen a dead easy style in which to write; that of the know-it-all, self-denigrating expat. Doubtless therefore you can expect me to comment on my daily mistakes and frustrations. I hope also that I’ll remember to write about the really beautiful things that touch my heart. Though I’d prefer not to use the phrase ‘touch my heart’ again - it smacks of those awful emails that beseech you to forward their schmaltzy tales to at least 8 people.

I should also say that I’m going to try to avoid writing about the parties, the clubbing, the expat lifestyle, and instead write about Sierra Leone. In some ways this is my travel diary. My moleskine keeps my secrets and the gossip. The world wide web will not. A friend’s husband recently told me to cut the photos of parties and show him ‘some African stuff’. Fair point.

If you’ve got this far, well done. Not sure I would have done. Now on to the real stuff – expect more of the same then.