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.