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.