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.

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