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.