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.

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