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.

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