Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Culture shock

A random entry today, the day after a national holiday. Yesterday we celebrated the Prophet’s birthday, later this week we celebrate Easter. The finest thing about Sierra Leone is its religious tolerance. And what better demonstration than this week. Everyone gets a three day week, regardless of their religion!

Last week we had a rare moment of culture, the US graciously sent us a jazz band. Terribly decent of them. We sat in the grounds of Forah Bay College, raised above Freetown. Hawks circled in easy curiosity overhead and the sun sank into the green hills around us. Ah culture. I realised how I missed it only when it was there in front of me. We swayed to the Charlie Porter Quartet. They were seriously good so I’m going to break a rule and not only name-check them, but recommend you look them up if you’re ever in New York. And if you do, tell them I sent you. I got to know Charlie quite well.

Atmospheric as that concert was, it was eclipsed by the journey home. My colleague and I drove out using a route we didn’t know and ended up surrounded by taxis and people in the east end of the city. I got boxed in and was being waved back by a taxi driver when I tapped the car behind. The impact was low, but the Landrover I was in is like a tank and though I thought it was undamaged at the time, it seems I broke the other car’s light. As a man stood alongside shouting at me to pull over, I could hear the swell of noise behind the car as people began to set the world to rights, loudly. Anna was shaking; I was trying not to appear as terrified as I was becoming. It was dark. The road ahead was clear. I looked at Anna, looked ahead, put my foot down and floored it. We ended up lost on the Kissy Road, heading further east. As if in some bad cop drama we did one u-turn and overtake after another to find our bearings and lose the driver of the damaged car (who wasn’t following us). Finally I spotted a slum I once visited, and got us into Ecowas Street and then the main drag. I’ve never been so grateful to see our guards opening the gates of the compound.

On Tuesday last week the driver turned up with the police. Fortunately, Inspector Sesay was a rational, practical man. We emphasised our good reputation and our desire to clear it up quickly. I physically shrank in the chair to demonstrate how small and young I was, and how the dark unknown east had been too much for my sensibilities. The driver was a decent guy who just wanted his car fixed. Inspector Sesay wanted to let us sort it out ourselves. I kept my license. He joked as he left that his call sign was ‘Charlie Mobile’. I laughed hollowly, warming to him mainly for his leniency. The next day the other driver returned with a receipt from the garage and I handed over a brick of cash, about £50. He asked me how work was going, and I him, and it was all very convivial. It could have been a lot worse.

Those of you who know me well will know that the last few months have been tough. That the party seemed lacklustre for me. That I questioned whether I’d really thrive here any more. The dry season has been unusually dark and empty. Last week as grey clouds arrived, signalling the creeping arrival of the rainy season, that darkness lifted. Maybe I’ll be singing in the rain after all…

Sunday, 1 April 2007


Sitting on the balcony restaurant at the Country Lodge, looking out at the city shimmering in the late afternoon heat, I freeze-frame a time and a place in my mind that I will seldom recreate. This country gets close to you. It owns you. I like to pretend that its only the countryside that I will miss, but it is also my circle of friends, this time of our lives, that I’ll pine for. To form such a close knit group among such a shifting social landscape. I'll admit I'm also bothered by the obscurity of leaving and being consigned to the past, to being spoken of to new arrivals who'll never meet me. That’s difficult to get my head around. And here’s me with four months still to run.

I’m aware of the vulgarity of my life here, and would love to say I loathe it, but its hard to. As an expat my perspective is extraordinarily privileged. Here I sit at my laptop, the sun playing on the keys, the breeze blowing strands of hair across my face, and a waiter bringing a fresh glass for my ice-cold water. Two weeks ago I met a woman whose baby died because she couldn’t afford the transport to hospital. The transport cost two bottles of water.

I don’t wish to become sanctimonious, or guilt-ridden. This is the way it is. I am playing out the same life as countless others. I was taught this life. I was told to leave my washing up, not make my bed, let the cleaner do it. I assuage my guilt at having, let’s face it, a servant, by reminding myself that unlike most cleaners, ours are on the pay role, get sick pay and annual leave. We look after them. I make a point of asking after them, of spending time in the mornings chatting in broken Krio; of learning Krio in the first place. I’m the only one who understands Pa Lamin our caretaker. I was the first person Sally our cleaner invited to her wedding. Their warmth and welcome each morning should shame me. And at the same time, our presence gives them a safety net many others do not have. Some friends were confronted with a frantic guard last week, desperate because his pregnant girlfriend was chronically ill with fever. James suspected malaria. They put her in their Landrover and drove them to Marie Stopes for treatment which they paid for. Over an imported Heineken we wondered what happens to the people who don’t have an expat on their doorstep. Unfortunately I know the answer to that question and I wish I didn’t. I wish it was consigned to books and reports, or better still to history. But it is here and now, and two weeks ago it was sitting in front of me.

Here’s a picture of Magra. I took it for our health campaign. I met Magra to get a ‘story’ to put the human face on the campaign. When I meet people it is usually to hear how great our organisation is; we hadn’t been working with Magra though, we’d just identified her as vulnerable. Magra lives in a reasonably large town in Kailahun District. Her husband died in the war, and her brother helped pay the school fees of their child. Magra met another man with whom she had three children. Then the man left. I didn’t ask too many details, the look on her face told me not to. I already felt bad enough for the translation by my colleague of my question into ‘and where’s the father of these children’. Magra doesn’t work, she doesn’t have anything with which to start a business. The look in her face is one of resignation and lethargy.

When her child got ill with routine diarrhoea and a touch of fever Magra took it to the local health clinic. With a little money scraped together from friends in the town, bought rehydration salts and Panadol. The baby didn’t improve. The clinic told her the child needed to be seen by Kailahun District Hospital. It costs 10,000 Leones to take a packed transit van from Pendembu where Magra lives to Kailahun Town. When you get there it costs to register at the hospital. And to see a doctor. And to buy drugs, if they have them, which they frequently don’t. Magra knew she couldn’t afford the transport, let alone the rest of it. She nursed her child and hoped. But hope doesn’t get you very far in Sierra Leone. For the sake of maybe 20,000 Leones or £4 sterling, Magra stayed at home with her kids. She had four children she told me. One at school, two here playing at her feet, and one dead.

I asked her if healthcare should be free. She said yes but she didn’t think the government could afford to do it. We are in SLPP heartland.

What’s sad about Magra’s story, aside from the obvious waste of life, is that had the ‘capacity’ of the staff at the local health clinic been higher she might have been able to have had her child treated there. There are no doctors. Doctors train and promptly leave the country, and who can blame them? The UK National Health Service (among others) encourages people to work in the UK. Nurses have to work for on average two years as volunteers before they get on the pay role. In Kailahun, the district time forgot, the small clinics are run by vaccinators or Maternal Child Health Aides (one below a nurse). And they rarely receive their pay either. If they had been paid, then they might have been keener to investigate Magra’s case. If they knew what they were doing, and perhaps they felt it was beyond them. As it was, she fell squarely into the government’s ‘vulnerable’ category, which meant she was exempt from fees. Except of course that they charged her for the drugs she needed. If you worked without wages you’d need to find money for food too.

In life and work I drop in and out of the lives of everyday Saloneans, snap them and leave. And as we drive away I wonder what that feeling is behind my dark glasses. Is it guilt, is it sadness, is it grief for them..? Perhaps it is all of those things. Also it is rage. But mainly it is relief. Relief that in a drawer at home in Freetown is a British passport and one hundred pounds in crisp sterling notes. Relief that the comprehensive school I found myself in helped me on my way, and that my degree was worth the paper it was written on. Could I have been Magra? Though she looks it, it’s unlikely that she’s much older than me.