Sunday, 17 July 2011

This is a really old entry that I never got around to putting online – I’ve probably seen you all since and told you all about it but oh well, happy reading and I promise to put something more recent on soon!

Things that are not strange anymore

•    Meetings starting at least an hour late
•    Receiving at the very least a fizzy drink and some chicken and rice at every meeting (and often some sort of payment as well!)
•    Christian and Muslim prayers before every meeting
•    Filling up a bucket every time I go to the toilet to flush it
•    Putting mosquito guard on every day
•    Only wearing tops once before washing
•    Buying items in lowest denominators
•    Smelly money
•    Hardly being able to see my toes through dust
•    Taking a torch everywhere
•    Keeping food in closed buckets to keep rats away
•    Walking straight past chocolate and cheese in shops because they are all so corrupted with supermarket funk!
•    Post-meal luxury being fruit or fruit juice – unheard of in my previous life!
•    Calling the swimming pool before I go to check if there is any water in it
•    Yelping with glee when the power is on

The mountain
Mount Bintumani is the highest mountain in West Africa (although with a very tight definition of West Africa which excludes certain other high mountains), and I decided to try and climb it during Easter.

First of all, it is a day long drive from Freetown to Kabala (the same town in which we celebrated new year). Oh and it still has the charm – cooler temperature, glorious views of hills and valleys, safe(r) motorbikes to ride – love it! From there, it is another day’s drive to get to the foot of the mountain. This didn’t bode well given that even on the smooth Freetown-Kabala road, our tyre had burst and the battery had started smoking! We set off quite late from Kabala (three climbers, an unknown driver and a ‘fixer’ – a police officer recommended by our next door neighbour, who wore his uniform the entire time and only carried a flannel and a bag of water sachets as his luggage) and thus only reached the bottom at around 5.30pm. The setbacks along the way were the ridiculously bad roads – ‘pot holes’ doesn’t even come close, these roads were treacherous, up and down huge valleys, through rivers and back up the other side (I had to keep getting out as I was convinced the car was going to tip backwards), thankfully broken up by lovely villages with children jumping up and down madly and shouting ‘bap bap bap’ (which apparently means white man in the local language).

Once you get close to the mountain, you have to start negotiating with the chiefs in the neighbouring villages. We had been tipped off that we should take presents for them, so we arrived with salt and Maggie (jazzy stock cubes) which seemed to go down well. Next we had to meet with the village elders, youth and everyone else, to sign the guest book and then agree on a price for continuing. We elected a leader (all groups have to have a leader in SL, even if you show up at the beach in a group you will be asked, who is the leader of the group. I was the leader once, didn’t enjoy it – too much pressure!) So our elected leader (Fred) and the fixer (Marah) first moved away to suggest a first price to the youth, then the youth present this amount to the elders who thankfully agreed. After the same dissemination process in reverse, we all knew that everyone was happy with this price and paid it, and then were consented to continue onwards. The final village at the foot of the mountain was more of a struggle as this time we had to negotiate how much to give the chief, as well as how many porters to take and how much to pay them and the guide. Towards night time, we were finally on our way and climbing the mountain.

The terrain changed considerably throughout the climb. First we were strolling along flat farm land, passing fields, banana trees, palm trees and small huts. Quite quickly it got steeper and before long we were actually having to use vines (‘natures handles’ as they became known) to hoist ourselves up each ridiculously steep mud bank. The grandiosely named ‘Camp 1’ was just a slight clearing by a stream but it really was the great outdoors. We cooked outside, washed and drank from the stream (with a little help from some silver purification tablets) and listened to the sounds of the forest. The next day there was further cause for using nature’s handles , before we came out very sweaty at Camp 2 – a much more justifiable name for an amazing stretch of grassland, unlike anything I had ever seen in SL, with an amazing view of mountains in one direction and valleys in the other. There was even a waterfall to wash in! After a brief re-fuelling, a slight paddy from the guide (brought to reason by Marah), we set off to make the final ascent. I couldn’t stop exclaiming how much it looked like Devon, or when the sun went in, Wales. It was so nice to have a cool breeze, and I didn’t realise how much I had been craving different scenery. Although at times very steep, the climb to the summit was essentially quite short and we all made it, just in time for the clouds to clear and reveal the view across the valleys we had just hiked. Downwards was a lot more difficult (although the photographs don’t do it justice), as often we opted for running and hoping for the best.

That night at Camp 2 we cooked a veritable banquet – as there were 5 of us climbers (we had acquired 2 on the way), and each person had brought something they deemed to be quite luxurious, we managed to combine our efforts and cook five courses of mini meals on an open fire – glorious! It was so nice to fall asleep to the sounds of the forest; leaves and branches falling, unknown animals calling each other.  We awoke feeling pleasantly peaceful and cooked chocolate porridge just to end the climb in suitable luxury (although we met some people coming up as we were coming down who had pushed the boundaries of luxury to a whole new level and were planning to cook duck at the top!).

On 27 April 2011, Sierra Leone celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence from the colonial rule of the British. The official slogan was ’50 Years Forward,’ although most Sierra Leoneans I know would readily admit that actually the situation in the country 50 years ago was probably considerably better than it is now. For the entire year preceding the celebration, most people thought the Queen was going to come and celebrate with them, the hysteria got so great that at times we even started to believe it! All of the earnest road building was done in the name of her visit, everyone was talking about the last time she came in the 50s, creating lots of excitement. Then the week before, it finally dawned on people that she wasn’t coming, and a very forlorn front page of the national newspaper read ‘Queen is not coming’ – a lot less humorous than the April Fool’s Day joke stating ‘Colonel Gadaffi lands in Freetown’!

Preparations for the celebration began a long time ago – namely painting absolutely everything that is paintable in green, white and blue as per the colours of the flag. As the painting progressed, clearly the correct colours ran out and areas began to take on a pastel twinge, or the green would change from deep to lime. Nothing escaped the painting and branding – every building in town had huge coloured banners, some even painted their outside walls specially, bunting covered the whole city, plant pots, curbs, poles, bollards, even random lying rocks – everything was decorated. They tried to cover the ‘Cotton Tree’ (an enormous symbolic tree in the centre of town) with three huge coloured pieces of material, but alas someone had forgotten about the hundreds of bats that inhabit the tree who soon turned the white strip of material into a lovely brown!

As my office is next to the house of the Vice President, we managed to blag some 50th anniversary t- shirts, which we wore with pride on the day, with every item of green, white and blue that we owned, and lots of branded jewellery. In true Salone style, there was excitement in the air and everyone had been talking about ‘Independence’ for so long, but actually not much really happened. It was more of a feeling than an event! We went to the stadium, which seemed to be the only place actually hosting an event. In the morning, thankfully it was quite quiet and we could find a spot right near the front from which we could see the VIPs sitting on the lawn, the parade of military and medical staff (they even had a makeshift hospital mock up on a float!), the President doing his speech, Tony Blair’s representative receiving an award (we didn’t clap at that bit!).  After a couple of hours of enjoying the atmosphere but nothing really going on, we walked into town hoping for more excitement. There was no traffic at all which is almost unheard of in Freetown during the middle of the day. Even at the cotton tree that was nothing actually going on, just a general feeling of excitement – but where was everyone?

The beach was slightly more lively, lots of people playing football and enjoying themselves and the festival atmosphere. We were promised fireworks but they never did materialise – this country is so strange, they get things almost right! Maybe we just didn’t stay out late enough, and we trusted the timetable too much. Even the lantern parade, which is the biggest event of the celebration in which every community puts together a ‘lantern’ (or float) and parades them around the cotton tree to be judged by the president, started about 5 hours later than advertised. We didn’t attend the parade, but we did manage to get a sneak preview of a lantern made by my colleague Alfred’s community. It’s really bizarre that at a celebration of the end of colonial rule, actually most activities seemed to praise the British. The majority of the lanterns either showed the Queen, or the Royal Wedding – all in a complimentary manner!

Our new pad
So we have finally got our own place in Freetown after 5 months of living above my office – which was even more of a bonus as the rats there were getting increasingly cocky – strolling along window ledges and venturing upstairs! Anyway, our flat has a glorious terrace overlooking the sea, which sounds more luxurious than it is, given that when the tide is out is exposes the huge ‘dirty box’ – rubbish tip containing all the rubbish from the surrounding community. However, you can’t get away from that anywhere in Freetown, and it’s so nice to have somewhere to sit and eat and watch the world go by. You can see the children heading off to school, people strolling through with a ‘mobile shop’ on their head selling their wares, women having their hair planted (i.e. braided), people chatting, cooking, washing – everything. The best thing is listening to the community around us wake up in the morning. This normally begins with the very tuneful call to prayer at about 5.30am, followed by a woman who always shouts ‘Mustafa...Mustafa...’ – we’ve never met him. Then you can hear people getting their pots and pans ready, chatting, washing up, etc. There is a young girl who is obviously a bit of a tearaway because every morning we can hear her exasperated mother shouting ‘Cecelia.... Cecelia!’

We have been well and truly welcomed into the community. Everyone greets us when we arrive and leave the flat, when we buy our phone credit or drinks, employ the services of a plumber and a carpenter, or even watch football in the football ‘cinema’ shack. Nobody seems to be able to master my name and most people refer to both of us as David. When we left to return home, our immediate neighbours Abdoulie and Musu came running out to see where I was going. When I said I was going ‘to my village’ in the UK, Abdoulie said ‘UK, is that like United States?’ The strange thing is that, seemingly unlike everywhere else in Freetown, the area drops almost silent around 11pm (except on Bob Marley day). Often we end up turning our music down ‘so as not to disturb the neighbours’ – odd as at times during the day you can’t tell which noises are coming from within and outside of our flat, and sometimes have to shout!

Age and respect
The age hierarchy is very significant here, and seems to rule most acts that take place – from daily interactions to high level discussions. The older you are the more respect you command; most community decisions have to be passed through the village elders, which comprises of the chief and their various assistants. Even further down the hierarchy, it is very apparent that the oldest can rule the youngest at every level. The oldest child is often given responsibility to govern the younger children.

I was at a conference recently, in which we were instructed to split into smaller groups to discuss a topic. We were debating who would present and a young girl was trying to persuade an older woman to do it. The young girl was clearly very well educated and high up in her organisation, whilst the older woman had a very poor command of English and didn’t seem as well educated (although I don’t want to judge her on first impressions!). I was very surprised that when the older woman played the age card and the young girl acquiesced immediately. Strangely, there doesn’t seem to be any rebellion against this type of indiscriminate bossing around by older people. Younger people are so keen to obey this older respect, that at first it can be quite disconcerting. Quite often you will hear “I’ll ask the pikin to come with it,” or “I’ll send the pikin,” and someone’s child will dutifully obey to the order.

 I suppose this doesn’t sound too different to the UK, maybe it’s just how readily the youth comply with this respect and obeying of older people. Even at work, the oldest person always gets fed first, and everything always has to be checked by the oldest person. That’s not to say that there aren’t mini hierarchies within each hierarchy – within each professional group, there is a hierarchy which combines both age and status. The oldest/ highest status female is referred to as ‘the Mammy’ and everything will be passed through her first before any action is taken. And for men, ‘Pa’ at the beginning of the name either signifies age or status.

Culture shock
Something that shocked me on the flight leaving SL for the UK, was when we landed and took off in Accra, Ghana, was just how lit up the city seemed. It appeared that every single house had power and was lit, resulting in a huge metropolis of twinkling sparkles. Freetown does not even have enough electricity to light the entire city at one time, meaning that men are actually employed to travel around the city on bikes, flipping switches and swapping power between areas. They attempt to give business areas power during the day and residential areas power during the night, but of course even that is not guaranteed and often you will see the entire city plunged into darkness.  Then it struck me that you just can’t escape the certain aspects of SL that don’t work. However rich you are you will always have to drive along a dirt road with pot holes to get somewhere in the city, you will never have constant power (although of course you might be able to afford a generator), the water might not be constant and you will see poverty and litter as you drive around. There is no way to escape it, there is no sanitised route through the city as there are in some cities, where you could pass through without even realising there is any poverty there. Nairobi seems to be a city like this. Driving from the airport to the hotel I was struck by how the roads are all smooth, have three lanes and rules that are adhered to by all drivers. Huge buildings line each road, and high rise commercial buildings loom in the distance. This is a city that works. I know that there is huge poverty here and the chasm between rich and poor might even be bigger than in Sierra Leone, but the fact that you can take a 45 minute journey, end up in a hotel attached to the national power grid and with constant electricity and water, and see no slums, makes it significantly different to SL. This was a huge culture shock, and it made me realise that I had become immune to so much of the dirt, sewage and general not-quite-getting-it-right of Sierra Leone. How will I cope with London!?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Return to Kamakwie

In case anyone was wondering why I have been incommunicado recently, I’ve just had another glorious 2 weeks ‘in the field’ in Kamakwie. No water, no electricity, no loud music, few cars, plenty of children, a bustling market and so many other sights. Instead of being woken by drunken soldiers and howling dogs we were awoken by a crowing cockerel (actually waiting to die in our garage!) and the call to prayer. Everything really does feel so laid back there – previous week in Freetown I’d nearly got mowed down by a mini bus, and my friend had got mugged, so I was really feeling very on edge and jumpy, yelping every time I heard a car horn – which is almost every minute! So it was so nice to be somewhere peaceful where you can walk down the middle of the road at night with no torch and only really have to dodge dogs – even they seem more polite in Kamakwie.

As soon as we arrived, all of the children from across the road came running out to greet us shouting “Jooey and Lola” (Zoe and Laura) and grabbing our legs. There are about 7 children, who live in the area of small houses across the road, and none of them are looked after by their actual parents – they have either died or moved to Freetown, leaving them to be looked after older relatives. Their clothes looked particularly tatty this time, more so than last time, which was quite sad. I don’t think they get any affection at home because at first they seemed nervous about hugging us, but once one has done it and its ok, they all pounce and won’t let go!

The office/living space is really bizarre. It was actually designed to be the only night club and guest house in Kamakwie, so the main function room has blue mirrored pillars at each end and shiny blue patterns on the wall. Each room is named after a football team – mine is Manchester United, they don’t have a Wolves one unfortunately! The beds just defy logic – there is no electricity and thus you can’t have a fan on at night which means you sweat a lot, so you would think the most appropriate type of bed would be something with a lot of scope for aeration. Unfortunately not, as the beds are huge concrete slabs with a mattress on the top, leaving years of sweat from sleeping bodies hidden inside the concrete. I have been warned NEVER to lift the mattress up!

A trip to the village really is a mission in Kamakwie. Not because of the distance – it is only about 75 meters from the office – but because of all the greeting one has to do! There are always people hanging around the office – friends of HPA, their friends, people hoping for work, people coming to see the SGBV officer or people just looking for some company. So once you’ve battled through all of the various greetings with them, then you get mobbed by all the children from across the road. Walking up the hill on the left is a women called Abubatu, who is normally selling fried fish on the road side (more about that later) and has two lovely children called Isata and Mohamed. After chatting to them, and being pointed at by Mohamed who is still very confused about the colour of our skin, just further up on the right is ‘Auntie Adama.’ She is the actual Auntie of the office cook/cleaner in Freetown, and is always sitting under the huge mango tree. Next on the right is the tailor shop – three men sitting outside their shop, each with a sewing machine and surrounded by bright embroidered material in varying stages of completion. There is a little girl who has some sort of sight problem apparently “in the dark, her eyes don’t shake” so maybe she needs some sort of sunglasses during the day. She always shouts “white man, white man” at us and touches our hands. 

There is a yellow wooden room in which football matches are shown – often three TVs at the front of the room with people packed in watching their game of choice. After this is a shop/bar called ‘Pa Kanoos’ – every inch of the shop is filled with food and all sorts of soaps and materials, and roaming with cats (and apparently rats but haven’t seen any thankfully). Outside is the most bustling bar in town – just a couple of small square tables outside. We sat outside most nights having a beer and watching the town go by. It really is a hive of activity – so many people walking past, chatting to all the other shop owners, waving at us. It’s remarkable and very sad just how many children are out at night, even really young children of around 4 or 5 years old are just lurking around. Sometimes in groups, seemingly having fun and just behaving like children, but I can’t help thinking that they should be doing that during the day instead of late at night.

The market is really bustling but really quite small, probably the size of a tennis court if not smaller. Each stall is merely a wooden structure, all packed in closely selling virtually the same fare. To me it seemed very small, almost quaint, especially compared to Freetown. But all the young girls from out of town who came to the workshops we were holding were raving about how huge the market was, and all went about buying ‘Lappa’ (material for clothes) and shoes.

Mammy and Daddy business

So our main purpose in Kamakwie was to hold four Family Planning workshops with young women, nurses and Traditional Birth Attendants. We were trying to get them to identify the biggest barriers preventing the use of family planning in Sierra Leone. There is a huge issue of teenage pregnancy here, one of the highest rates in the world. This often leads to health problems for the woman as young women’s bodies are less developed and therefore less able to handle the trauma of pregnancy, leading to complications and a higher risk of child and maternal mortality and morbidity. Also, girls who get pregnant at a young age normally leave school and do not return, exacerbating the issue of illiteracy among girls. Many are forced to marry the father of the baby, even if the pregnancy was a result of a rape. People having children at an early age often leads to larger families and furthers the situation of poverty for the whole family, with parents often not being able to afford food for all of their children, let alone to send them all to school.

We held workshops to try and assess the issues and listen to what these young women thought were some possible solutions. Overwhelmingly there were four main issues raised. Firstly, a lack of availability of family planning – most people said there was no family planning available in their community, meaning they would have to travel long distances to find it. Secondly, a lack of awareness about family planning – many of the girls were unaware of what was available to them, had heard ridiculous myths about the consequences of using contraception, such as that it would prevent them from ever having children or cause health problems. Thirdly, cost was highlighted – contraception is supposed to be free but it is being consistently charged for, thus making it too expensive for young people. And finally, men’s attitudes and conduct were the biggest issue – many of the young women said that not only did their husband refuse to wear a condom, but also refused to let them use any sort of family planning because they wanted a large family to show that they are strong, despite the health and economic impacts to the woman, children and family. Various people were identified as key stakeholders who might be able to influence the situation – predominantly men, such as traditional and religious leaders, chiefs and counsellors. Such is the patriarchal society here, everything that women do depends on men, be it in the family or in district or national level politics.

The participants then came up with ideas for plays and songs that promote family planning and everything we had discussed in the workshops. My group did a play showing a planned and an unplanned family and we asked all of the children opposite to come and help out and make up the numbers for the unplanned family. They had a whale of a time, even those who were supposed to be depicting a huge, poor and miserable family couldn’t keep the smiles off their faces that they were being given attention and a role with so many adults.

So I mentioned Abubatu above, here is her story. She normally sells fish by the side of the road every day. Her children are normally well dressed and wearing shoes; the oldest goes to school every day, and doesn’t hang around the street at night. This time she wasn’t cooking fish, as she had been taken ill a few weeks before and had had to go to hospital. Because of the high hospital fees, she had spent all of her money and was suddenly unable to afford the cost of the fish, oil and other ingredients to sustain herself and was left with no form of income. So many people live by the day to day, and so an unexpected cost like hospital fees immediately takes away their ability to continue with income generation activities. Hopefully she can start up one of her new business ideas and get back on her feet again.

Freetown delights

Just a few snippets about Freetown that have amused/interested me recently:
• We were in a taxi recently in which the driver tried to sell us some lettuce!
• The road building has now progressed and there are now huge gulleys on each side of the road for the drains to go in. The only way to cross to the roadside is by ridiculously treacherous bridges (one large or many small planks of wood that bow in the middle), which Sierra Leoneans seem to take in their stride but we can’t seem to master and end up wobbling around and yelping in front of an audience!
• We were at the beach the other day and there was a SWAG (i.e. coach load of Sierra Leoneans from Freetown) there, taking up most of the beach. They had brought a huge sound system and were blasting out the tunes which enabled us to realise that dancing in the sea is amazing! People here dance like no one is watching, much like we were dancing in the sea where no one could be watching. It reminded me of being at a festival where there might be one person dancing on their own, looking quite hammered but like they are having the time of their life, and everyone behind them is nudging each other saying “look at that person” – that is how people dance here! Granted, they move with a lot of rhythm (more than the average festival goer) but with that air of not caring at all and just enjoying themselves. The dancing that we only achieve at the end of a large night of drinking, they can achieve at 1pm in the afternoon – I love it!
• Newspapers here are hilarious – most of the time, the point of the story does not become apparent until nearing the end of the article and often includes so much superfluous information that you nearly give up. The pictures are so graphic – if there has been a death there is always a picture of the actual body – and apparently this is because people are so distrusting of the media that they would not believe them if they just said it had happened, so they need the proof.

Mercy Ships

You might have heard about the Mercy Ship. It’s a huge hospital on a ship, that travels around the world, docking in certain countries and providing essential surgery to the nation it’s holed up in. Interestingly, it has recently arrived in Freetown, after a few months of scoping the country, screening potential patients and advertising its arrival. They adopted the same approach that they have done in every West African country so far, which is to use a stadium for two days to screen people and book them in for their surgery over the next 10 months. Normally they section off areas of the stadium for different types of need, have an elaborate queuing system and manage to get through everyone. Freetown, it seems, was not ready for this.

On the first day of screening, there were such horrific crushes – with people jumping over fences, violence, pushing and selling places in the queue – that they had to cancel the entire thing for safety reasons. Unfortunately, at least one person died in the crush. It is so strange that the exact same approach has worked in so many countries previously and just didn’t work in Sierra Leone. I can’t help thinking that Sierra Leonean people have been lied to so many times before, they have had their hopes raised and dashed so frequently, that they just don’t believe it when they hear that they will get seen to eventually, that they will eventually receive surgery. The same thing happened with the launch of free healthcare – people were in such disbelief that they all arrived at health centres, even if they weren’t ill, just to try and get drugs in case they did get ill in the future, because they thought it wouldn’t last. We likened it to crushes that inevitably happen in Western countries, mainly just for entertainment events – football matches and music events spring to mind. Can you imagine ever having to go through this to get some sort of medical care?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

This is by far my favourite walk in Freetown so far. I set off from my office (and where we currently live) and immediately I’m faced with a wooden shack brimming full of soldiers (they are actually policemen but they’ve recently changed the uniform recently and been given urban camouflage outfits, making them even more menacing). It really is like walking into a bullring, so many faces just looking at you, sometimes more than others depending on whether it’s ‘chop time’ or not. They are guarding the Vice President’s house, which is next door to my office, and do shockingly long 24 hour shifts and so anything as exciting as a white girl passing by is clearly the highlight of their day! When we first arrived we were too scared to say anything to them and just tried to sneak passed anonymously, but had to re-think this strategy when one of them categorically stated that it was vital to our personal safety that we greet them! Since then we religiously wave and greet them, even if nobody is looking – “couchee... ow di body... ow di evening.”

So once I’ve survived that gauntlet, it becomes a lot friendlier. The first building on the left is ambitiously named a ‘Film Centre’ but it is really just a shack showing videos each night. At first the noise really kept me awake at night, but now I don’t notice it at all. Next along is Pa Ba’s little shop. He is a jolly fat man who always wears a grey vest and seems to be there all hours of day and night. Since I arrived, and having walked home at all hours of the night, I have only seen his shop closed twice! As there are three little shops on our road, and everyone is equally friendly, we try and distribute what we buy between them. So Pa Ba is our official seller of water bundles – huge bags of little bags of water which when we first arrived we turned our nose up but are now our water receptacle of choice. So I greet him, then pass the next little shop where we buy tomato paste.

Next along is a shop owned by the friendly brothers ‘A-Boy’ and ‘T-Boy’, who are always ready for a chat. They are our chief sellers of boiled eggs (yes, you can buy them already boiled, saves so much time!), bread and toilet rolls. All three ‘shops’ are just tiny wooden/ corrugated iron shacks with every inch of the wall action packed with their wares, ranging from mosquito coils and washing powder, to cigarettes and soft drinks. Everything can be sold in its absolute lowest denominator. Laughing Cow cheese is sold by the segment, cigarettes by the cigarette, butter by the scoop and washing powder in tiny packets that only do one wash. It’s such a huge contrast to the opportunity of bulk buying in the UK.

I carry on along the road, jumping slightly over a small cattle grid, often with a stream of sewage running underneath. To the right is a steep hill which is always full of children and random clumps of goat/sheep hair (goats and sheep look exactly the same here – every time I confidently shout “that’s got to be a sheep” it turns out to be a goat, and vice versa!), and to the left is a road with my favourite bright turquoise house at the bottom. In the distance you can see the sea, spattered with cargo ships. I carry straight on for another 30 metres or so, and now the street is lined with slightly bigger houses. Next on the left is my good friend the tailor Alpha Jalloh – what a legend he is! I’ve had so many things made and he always welcomes any feedback and requests for amendments. He sits there all day in his tiny room surrounded by fabric and dresses, with his two apprentices and their sewing machines. Occasionally he hasn’t finished something because “dis machine, it give me problem”, but mostly he is very prompt and his work is always of high quality.

I carry on past around 15 dogs – all beige and therefore exactly the same colour as the road and thus deadly camouflaged and ultimately more of a threat – as well as 5 cats and 10 families of chickens, all of whom are either sleeping on the road or running around in the rubbish/sewage that lines the side of the street. I have seen a family of chicks all pecking around in sewage before – glad I’m not eventually eating them! I turn to the right momentarily before turning left onto a dirt road that cuts through to Wilkinson Road, one of the busiest in Freetown. This dirt road always has the most troublesome dogs, especially at night, with the highest risk of accidently stepping in a huge puddle of who knows what. Just before it meets the main road there are two or three women who sell a very small selection of wares – boiled eggs, sometimes bananas, and a couple of sweets. One woman who always wears a black crotched hat had obviously only seen me and Dave separately and when she realised we were together she was so excited – ‘dis nar your man?!’

It all becomes slightly manic for a while when I hit Wilkinson Road. They are digging up the roads “for when the Queen comes to visit,” which is supposedly for the 50th anniversary of independence celebration on 27April, when clearly she will be getting ready for the royal wedding. Wills and Kate really have a lot to answer for because there are so many Sierra Leoneans who really think she’s going to come! They are attempting to widen the road, which involves bulldozing everything 10m on both sides of the road, regardless of whether it is housing or shops, leaving two huge gullies at each side. It is actually a pedestrians paradise at the moment because this is the first thing that vaguely resembles a pavement and therefore journeys that used to take 30 minutes of treacherous jay-walking are now 15 minutes of glorious uninterrupted striding. Not for long though, motorbikes are already starting to stray into this area, and as soon as it is the same level as the road it will be another free for all traffic wise, with no priority given to pedestrians at all. I then cross the road, which always takes a long time because I have to account for all different shapes and sizes of vehicle tearing along, with no regard for pedestrians. Some buses are almost horizontal and treacherously full of people, with motorbikes weaving around them.

Once I’ve made it across, I take a very steep hill up to the left. At the top is a woman who once sold me an amazing roasted cassava root and now always gets very excited when she sees me and gestures towards whatever she is cooking that day. As I’m normally on my way for a swim, and I strictly observe the 45 minute rule, I normally turn her down but sometimes I just can’t!
The route then passes through another community, this one much less affluent than the previous one, and actually resembling a favela in parts. Tens of houses all spill into each other with no beginning or end, everyone is playing, washing, cooking, shitting, sitting and anything else possible in the same place and a huge brook brimming with rubbish passes through the middle, not very savoury at all. Everyone gets very animated when they see us, shouting “white man, white man” and insisting on shaking our hands. This is where we had our first experience of people thinking we were Chinese! Yes would you believe they shouted “Chinaman” at us! After finding it hilarious for a while, we corrected them and now this little boy takes great pride in shouting ‘British’ at us every time we pass. The first time we went through there was a new born ‘pikin’ sitting in his mom’s arms about halfway up. We stopped and congratulated her and now we check in each time and watch as, baby Suleiman grows and gets more hair, and apparently already has a wife in the pipeline!

Once we get to the end of this community and cross the road, we are finally at the UN compound, where we go swimming. First you have to negotiate with the guards on the door who are sometimes very friendly, others menacing. Then you enter the compound, which strangely resembles a holiday camp. It used to be a hotel before the UN started renting it, and now each of the rooms are painted white and blue and look like bunkers. The pool is bizarre – sometimes clean, sometimes filthy and with permanent ridiculous ceramic stools at the shallow end, presumably for people to drink cocktails from but actually only serving as a dangerous obstacle to all swimmers. I’m greeted by the ever smiling Younis and Abu, who manage the pool, They sometimes challenge me to a race, but never win!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A New Year adventure
We set off on Friday morning for Kabala, a small town in the north of Sierra Leone famous for its wild parties on New Year’s Day, the best and most extravagant in the country! We stopped for lunch in Makeni, and had to persuade the restaurant to buy an egg and a bread roll for me to have an egg sandwich, which surprisingly, given the palaver, was absolutely delicious. We travelled through beautiful scenery, distant mountains, roads framed with dense foliage and palm trees. We had arranged to stay in the VSO house which was empty – it seemed like a flawless plan. Then around 15 miles away from Kabala, the engine started to make a strange noise and we smelt a smell which resembled pork scratchings but turned out to be something more sinister. Finally the accelerator gave up and the car stopped.

Almost immediately, a car stopped and tried to help us – it was something of a Mary Poppins car with what looked like 15 people and a newborn baby squeezed in. Unfortunately they didn’t have a tow rope, but sent someone back to save us. He turned out to be a saviour in more ways than one, when it turned out that the VSO house in which we planned to stay was actually abandoned and uninhabitable. Immediately he invited us to stay with him and took us back to his compound. We did feel slightly bad when he obviously turfed someone out of one of his rooms in favour of us - he came scurrying out looking bleary eyed from sleep and we were welcomed into the room in his place. But our Sierra Leonean friend (and owner of the broken car) assured us that this was just the Sierra Leonean way! As our friend was returning to Kabala after many years away, we really felt that we were the entourage of a local celebrity and that his presence was attracting some of the hospitality. Still, it really was remarkable the lengths that this family went to to make us feel welcome and to care for us during our stay, cooked all of our food and guided us everywhere. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this level of kindness would ever be bestowed on random strangers who broke down somewhere in the UK or whether we would be too suspicious. And this in a country that has so recently experienced civil war, to have come back from the situation of not being able to trust anyone to being so trusting and giving, really is remarkable.

So the party did not disappoint. It began on Friday evening at pretty much the only pub in town, ironically titled ‘Choices.’ And from there to the club, which was employing the lost art of ultra-violet light – making everything white stand out brightly – teeth, dust, bras! The club was absolutely jam packed with people of all ages, in fact some seemingly as young as 13 drinking gin from sachets, which was quite worrying! It really felt so surreal to be counting down to 2011 in a random club in North Sierra Leone, but at the same time amazing!

The night took a slight turn for the worse when our camera got stolen – these ‘teef men’ really are like Fagin – you don’t even feel a thing before you notice it’s gone, and then you really can’t tell and wouldn’t dare accuse anyone of taking it. And so suddenly you can’t trust anyone again, and everyone could have been the person who took it. I know we shouldn’t have taken it there, but you really do get so swept up in how friendly everyone is and how welcoming, that it is easy to forget that actually we do still stand out and if someone has a camera and there is the opportunity to steal it, of course they will. Having said that, all of the Sierra Leoneans we were with and those we had met that evening, took it as a real insult to them that this had happened. They were so apologetic on behalf of their country and so mortified that this had happened in their presence. There was even a shout out from DJ Wise appealing at least for the memory card but we presume the thief had already left by then with his/her ill gotten gains. It really didn’t ruin the night though thankfully, we just had to face the fact that there was nothing we could do about it and therefore should just enjoy the evening, which we duly did. We rounded it off perfectly with a slightly drunken ‘okada’ (motorbike) ride home, which in the haze of the morning really felt like we were all on broomsticks flying home (or maybe I had had more to drink than I thought!).

The party continued the next day with a hike up the hill that towers over Kabala, which is really the main celebration of NY. People from miles around plough through the masses of dust wearing socks and flip flops (we silently mocked them before realising that actually, they were having the last laugh at the top when their feet emerged from the socks clean, whilst ours blended into the ground with all the dirt that we had attracted on the walk). The hill was packed with people, all in their best clothes (many changed at the top from their walking clothes, again having the last laugh!) and there was dancing, drinking and all sort of merriment throughout the day, with the beautiful backdrop of Kabala. It really was a sight to behold and an amazing experience. Here I was approached with the best chat up line so far “I am a promising geologist, here is my compass, I hope you are not married,” – while I sneezed my way through the conversation because of all of the dust – he just didn’t give up! After a two hour power nap (waking up at 11pm which is something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to!), we were out again, this time at the slightly more sedate community centre. Although it turned out to actually be a political rally as well as a dance, and only slightly more sedate than the night club, with the dancing still going on when we left at around 3am. These Sierra Leoneans really know how to party – people of all ages were rocking the dance floor and swapping dance partners like there was no tomorrow!

We were in a very happy daze the next day when we bade farewell to our hosts and thanked them for their hospitality. We got a unique insight into the family life – the compound in which they lived had many rooms and seemed to cater for a very extended family. In fact, even by the end of the weekend we still weren’t totally sure who was married to whom and who was whose child! Amid all this friendliness, we did return from the hill to witness the severe beating of one of the children for supposedly getting a bit drunk on the hill. This seemed so shocking after the personalities that we had been privy to and highlighted the huge contradictions in society, in which the family is so close knit and integrated, and yet an action that is deemed to bring disgrace on the family leads to such severe punishment, even in the presence of strangers. Of course we couldn’t stage a large protest but our disquiet was definitely noted and the punishment stopped, or possibly was merely postponed under after we had left.

I was always prepared for it to be difficult to be a vegetarian in Sierra Leone and braced myself for the worst! It really doesn’t compute at all that someone would not want to eat meat. Even when in a restaurant, I explain “I no want meat,” “I no want fish” they will still respond with specific type of meat – “chicken?” Recently I was at the Ministry of Health canteen, and requested a salad with chips, with no meat, chicken or fish, and when it arrived it had ham in the salad and a huge leg of chicken on the top! (And randomly some cold baked beans on top of the salad which seems to be a delicacy here!) Good vegetarian meals tend to come in bouts, so I can have a few days in which I’m living off rice or eggs and then suddenly it’s all go in the vegetarian world. A few weeks ago, I had just had a luxurious vegetarian lunch, and returned to the office only to find that the Xmas dinner time had been changed and there was an enormous vegetarian meal made especially for me, and I was sitting next to the cook – so two huge meals in 2 hours it was for me!

When I visited Kamakwie though, I really had an epiphany of just how luxurious it is to be able to be a vegetarian. To be able to afford to maintain a healthy diet without meat is something almost unattainable to most people here, to whom meat is an occasional luxury to supplement rice, vegetables are even more of a luxury, and vitamin supplements are unheard of. So when visiting the communities, I really felt that it would be so rude to turn down the food that they were providing, even though the smell of the fish and meat (mixed in one big stew!) almost made me retch. I resorted to tactically picking the rice around the meat and hoping that it didn’t look suspicious.

Supermarkets are the most tantalising of all the shops here. Most big supermarkets stock everything you could possibly want – Kellogg’s cereal, Cadbury’s chocolate, Fox’s biscuits – luxurious you might think! However they are mostly always tainted with what we have coined as ‘supermarket funk’ – an indescribably pungent taste that combines mechanical engine type smells with chemicals. Rumour has it that it is something to do with the storage, but every supermarket smells of it, and a lot of the packeted food is just ruined by it. I am now at the point of almost retching when entering the supermarkets at the smell, having to cautiously smell all food stuffs before eating, and having to write off all similar food stuffs after a ‘funk incident.’ I actually returned the first box of cereal that tasted like it, I think it was Mini Chocolate Weetabix, and had to present my case to the supermarket management. I was allowed to take a different packet, only to find out that it tasted the same horrible taste!!! – like the old saying ‘water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink,’ except with glorious food!

Friday, 24 December 2010

So this is my first blog and it all feels very strange and daunting, much like addressing a huge room full of people which is something I would usually avoid. But I’ve decided that there is so much to tell and so many people to tell it to that I will just go ahead and create one. I’m hoping that writing it feels less daunting as time goes on, fingers crossed!

Making friends
There is something very odd about arriving somewhere and not knowing anyone at all – quite unsettling, but also quite liberating as you have the potential to reinvent yourself as whoever you want to be. However, of course, I didn’t reinvent myself, just introduced myself as Laura and it was business as usual! So that first outing, the one in which you really have to sell yourself as someone that people might want to swap numbers with and meet again, is really quite crucial and scary. But at the same time, you know that almost everyone out will have been through it before when they first arrived. Which then gives you the confidence to approach people in a way that would appear brazen at home – “So did you say you were going out tomorrow...?” “So can I take your number please, just in case...?” – and it’s strange how you suddenly feel unstoppable after the first person accepts, and you just go around touting your number to everyone you meet.

By the end of the first week I ended up with a huge list of numbers of people that I couldn’t even remember their faces, so much so that most numbers were preceded by a hair colour or a nationality. Thankfully after a few weeks that all calms down, and we have found ourselves amid a really nice bunch of people in which we feel really quite settled already.

So I’ve been jogging on the beach twice a week to try and maintain fitness. It sounds glorious, and to some extent it is in the right conditions. The first couple of times the tide was out, the sand was hard and there was a slight breeze which at least stopped me looking like I had just been for a swim, so the only thing you really had to look out for was the jelly fish.

However, when the tide is in it becomes an assault course of madness, more like orienteering than jogging. Not only do you have to dodge the waves coming in ferociously, but you also have to dodge the debris that the waves are bringing in to shore. Shoes, clothes, plastic, soiled bandages (and not disguised in a pirated Tweenie!), syringes and a whole host of undesirable materials and substances all come thundering towards your feet every time the tide comes in. I think most of the hospitals in Freetown expel their waste straight into the sea, and therefore Lumley beach is just a junk yard. So it’s not just not wanting your feet to get wet that makes you dive out of the way, but the horror of what might be drifting into your trainer. Rest assured that there are some glorious beaches just up the road from Freetown, which are unspoilt by sewage!

The hospital
There is something very unnerving about seeing a hospital in the dark. I don’t just mean a hospital whilst it’s dark outside, I mean a hospital building in absolute darkness at about 9.30pm. This is the Kamakwie Wesleyan Hospital (KWH) in which my organisation (Health Poverty Action) works, and they do not have a constant power supply. They have a generator, but this is only used between 7pm and 9pm, and if there is a caesarean section being administered. To see the building so dark, you could hardly even pick it out against the sky, it just makes you think how ridiculously lucky we are in the UK to have a free healthcare system that functions. Here in Sierra Leone, most people cannot afford medical care as it’s so expensive.

The government has recently instigated free health care for pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under 5, but only in government hospitals which KWH is not. Therefore, the people of Kamakwie have to pay to come to this hospital which only has electricity for 2 hours a night, has rats, goats and dogs running around all the time (the rats have a particular preferred route apparently although thankfully I didn’t see any!), poor quality and insufficient equipment, lack of trained staff, the list goes on and on. There are only two ambulances serving the hospital, and they can only afford to collect women in labour, and even then it’s often a 3 hour round trip on horrific roads so it doesn’t make for a pleasant journey. In some really remote areas within the district, someone needing to go to hospital would first have to rely on someone to carry them on a stretcher, then take a ferry journey across a river (canoe if the ferry is not running, which happens frequently), and only then they would have enough phone signal to call for an ambulance. So when I think back to the UK NHS, and yes it is by no means perfect, but at least it’s free, and we can normally choose between a number of hospitals, then it really does feel very luxurious compared to SL.

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to ‘the field’ 2 weeks ago. The difference between Freetown and the provinces is stark and immediately apparent. After a sitting on the ridiculously busy Kissy Road in traffic for an hour trying to leave the city, it really is a welcome break to suddenly be surrounded by lush green trees, bright orange dust and children everywhere. I don’t think there are any more children outside of Freetown than inside but they must just take a bigger interest in me. Everywhere we stopped we were greeted with “white man” “white man” – given that both of us are women this seemed quite rude! But I quickly learned that it’s almost always shouted in excitement and with glee. In Kamakwie itself, which is actually a large town in SL terms but felt about the size of the small village in which I grew up (Brewood), I really did feel an immediate relaxation that I hadn’t realised I had been lacking in Freetown. There was noise, there is always a lot of noise in SL – singing, music, generators, motorbikes, etc. – but it also had such a peace to it that I felt immediately relaxed.

There was something very liberating (and grounding) about having no water and electricity, about settling down at 9pm as there was just nothing else to do and the battery from the laptop had died. It was very grounding as well, though, as I was immediately struck by all the inconveniences caused by being there, but also the mechanisms put in place to cope with them. We didn’t have enough fuel for the generator to be on each day, so on the non-generator days we would take them to the power plant to get them charged, take our phones to the phone charging shop (literally a shop devoted to charging the hundreds of phones left there), work on our laptops with no lights on and have our torches surrounded by flies until it became unbearable and cooked on a charcoal fire outside – and all in all I did find it quite glorious. However, for me this was a trip, I knew I would be returning to Freetown at the end of it, and even if I wasn’t, I knew there would be some respite somewhere along the track. Everyone was so friendly, it actually became quite exhausting moving along the street because of all the greetings I had to do. To each person you had to greet once, ask how their sleep, day, night, work, morning, etc. had gone, then discuss when I would see them again. By the end of the week I felt like a local celebrity!

I am really trying to throw myself into everything and most importantly, the local language of Krio. After a while it becomes quite simple to understand, or at least some things do, as others remain a mystery. You can definitely get away without learning krio in Freetown as everyone speaks English, however you do miss out on a lot of office jokes and people talking about you whilst walking behind you down the street. In the provinces, as soon as you leave Freetown, it becomes a lot more imperative that you understand at least the basics.

I think the most difficult aspect of speaking Krio is just letting yourself do it. It just feels wrong as it sounds so much like lazy English with an African accent. Of course, when you get to know it in more detail you realise that it’s much more complex than that, but the basics just feel bizarre and a bit rude! For an English person particularly, it is difficult to swap our classic “excuse me, would you mind terribly, please, thank you,” for “I wan dis” and “I go take dis.” Equally, all responses to greetings tend to be just “fine” – “how de body,” “how you sleep,” “how de morning,” the only response that people give is “fine” – it all seems a bit low key. Some phrases sound really sweet like “how much o’clock,” whereas others are just strange like “which side you de go” – meaning where are you going? Having said all that, I am thoroughly throwing myself into it and hoping to become fluent soon!

On the whole it doesn’t really feel like Christmas at all, at least not as we know it. You just can’t feel all that Christmassy when sweating like a pig! There are quite a few Christmas decorations about but it really feels like some fool has put them up in the middle of summer more than it actually being the festive season. In fact, in our local shop there is a really terrifying dwarf Father Christmas pushing an equally dwarf like trolley filled with presents, that makes me jump every time!

We have been embracing it though, and have been to two carol concerts – one at the Cathedral in town, which was more of a performance than an interactive concert, in which we yearned to sing throughout and were only given two opportunities, and the other at a rest house for people with disabilities which was much more about audience participation and letting yourself go – most enjoyable! We also attended the IRC Christmas party last night which really was a world away from the work Christmas parties I went to last year! It took place in the car park of an apartment block (the IRC house), with the loudest music imaginable and people dancing right from the beginning of the evening. In fact, even though it was also someone’s leaving do, they wouldn’t even let him open his present in order to get on with the dancing! Right from the word go EVERYONE was on the dance floor, old and young, senior and not so. Raucous dancing as well, a type of dancing you would normally reserve for dancing alone in front of the mirror, or a very drunk and debauched night. But that just added to the enjoyment of the evening, and soon we were up there too, dancing like we never thought we would in front of colleagues!

The general atmosphere does seem to have developed an extremely jolly tinge, well more jolly then usual. There is a tangible excitement in the air, parties everywhere, music louder than usual, everyone very jolly. There are also a lot of ‘JC’s’ which to people here means ‘Just Comes’ (or Jast cams in Krio!) This term describes all those Sierra Leone diaspora who return to the country for the festivities. Amazingly, it is really easy to spot them, often wearing their finest clothes, travelling in huge cars, stocking up on bottled water and making a very obvious show of their fine English. Yesterday someone approached me to ask in the ‘Queen’s’ English whether I was in the Peace Corps. Having said all that, we are very excited to be spending our first Christmas out of the UK, and will be basking in the glorious sun and mopping our sweaty brows!