The real Salone

Today is my seventh day in Salone… Stephen has left for North America, and I’m officially on my own.

Except, I’m not.

I’ve got 5 million Sierra Leoneans around to help me out. As a general rule here, people want to help in any way they can. Of course there are grumps like anywhere in the world, but if you need to get somewhere all you need to do is ask on the street how to get there. Someone will help find you a taxi, or tell you where to wait for one – all the while asking how you are, where you are from and why you are in Salone. I’m not nervous about getting around the city myself, since I know if I get lost there will be bystanders willing to help (as evidenced by the crazy okada driver when I was going up to Fourah Bay College). There aren’t a lot of foreigners here (3000 call it home, plus the people like me who are visiting), and certainly there are very, very few tourists… Sierra Leoneans are fiercely proud of their beautiful country, and my impression is that they want to make sure I enjoy my time here as much as possible.

Speaking of Fourah Bay College, they cancelled the election… after the votes were cast. The suspicion is that the white camp (backed by the current national ruling party, the APC) had lost to the black camp (backed by the opposition party, the SLPP) – again, remembering that the colours have nothing to do with skin tone. (I know nothing about the intricacies of politics in Salone, but I do know that both parties are ideologically very similar… so I was pulling for the black camp because they were running a woman for president – and it would have been revolutionary if she had won.) In general I’ve heard that the tides are turning against the APC on a national level, so it’s no surprise that they would try to do everything they could to ‘nullify’ an election where their proxy party had lost. However, as Adam said, “Can you IMAGINE if they just CANCELLED an election in Canada or the U.S. after we’d all already voted?” Before they officially cancelled the results of the vote, there were riots on the campus – stabbings and fights. Stephen got a call from one of his students who was stuck there, as it’s on a big mountain and any way up or down had been blocked off. He told her to keep her back to a wall and try to stay away from crowds.

I was speaking with Stephen’s girlfriend, Mary, who is from Salone – and she was saying that they know that the government and elections are corrupt, but they also know what war feels like. To her, and to many other Saloneans, it is more valuable to them to stay safe and live their life quietly than cause a stir and re-live the 1990s. Sad, but so, so understandable.

I just finished my first research interview, with a young journalist at one of the local private TV stations – which has been off the air for two months because of transmission problems. I have to do about 12-15 interviews to have a sufficient sample size for my thesis, so being able to say “one down!” is actually a big step in the right direction. This afternoon I’m hoping to interview the editor of one of the independent newspapers, but we’ll see if he’s free.

I had my first Freetown dance club experience last night – and I mean the REAL Freetown. There are plenty of ex-pat bars along the beach, Ace’s and Paddy’s to name a few. They’re mostly owned by Lebanese men and made for white people and richer locals. I haven’t been to any of them yet, but from what I hear, they are basically music, pool tables and lots of prostitutes. They’re ‘fancy’ for these surroundings but back home they’d be considered a dive (aside from the ocean view).

No, last night Adam and I went to Congo’s. It’s owned by the brother of one of the guys we’ve met here, Usman, and it is where the not-rich Sierra Leoneans go to party. Hidden in behind the local food market in amongst the improvised housing off the main road, you have to navigate unlit paths that wind through garbage piles and over open sewers. The club is built of corrugated tin and rough hewn wooden poles – it’s maybe 30 feet by 30 feet, with the dance floor spilling out onto the hard-packed earth outside. There is no bar, no servers – just a vendor or two outside selling cheap beer and one-shots of gin in little plastic packets (sort of like a juice box of liquor). You can barely hear the hum of the generator over the pumping African hip-hop, and every time a new song comes on the patrons cheer… doesn’t matter what song it is. The air is thick with sweat and smoke from all kinds of substances. The club was about 85% men (in fact I was told I was only the second white woman to ever come), and many of the girls there were ‘working’ – apparently you can buy a good time with one of these women for 5000 leones (less than CDN$2). It was depressing and uplifting at the same time to experience the abject poverty of these near-children selling their bodies for food – but at the same time, to experience the reverie and joyousness of the Sierra Leoneans living it up on the dance floor.

It’s 2:10 now… time to venture out for lunch and try to track down that editor for an interview… as well as bargain someone for a towel. I brought a towel with me, but one isn’t enough here – with three showers a day, by bedtime it’s not useful for anything at all.

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On Africa time

It’s a hot, hot day here in Sweet Salone. I write from the back porch, with my 1.5 L bottle of water close at hand. I managed to eat a real breakfast today for the first time (!), since so far I haven’t felt much like food in the morning because of my “running belly” as the Jamaicans call it, according to housemate Adam. I’ve kept eating street food because there’s no way I’m going to stick to ex-pat supermarkets for a month when the fry-fry is absolutely delicious.

Last night for dinner Adam and I headed up to the main road that goes past our house – about a five-minute walk away (probably shorter if you’re not a lazy white person who gets slowed down by the heat) where young men stand on the street corner selling small baguette-shaped white bread for 500 leones apiece (about 15 cents). You take your bread and do a 180 – right beside the bread vendors are a couple women selling fillings for what is about to become your dinner sandwich. They dab in some peppery-oniony sauce and then remove the plastic draped over their large round platters to reveal all sorts of goodies, all fried. A favourite of mine is the omelette – it’s fried up with onions and a hint of sweetness. They also have battered and deep-fried hard-boiled eggs, fish that have been breaded and deep-fried whole (heads, tails, bones and all – not sure how you’re supposed to eat them), pieces of chicken, deep-fried (sensing a trend here?) banana balls, etc. Last night I had omelette (500 leones) and two
beef-and-onion skewers bought up the street for 1000 leones – a big dinner sandwich for 2000 leones… less than a dollar. So delicious, and makes it so hard to justify cooking for myself… although a dinner at an ex-pat place – where you get a waitress and a table – runs you more like $10-15 for food and beer. I did go to a Lebanese supermarket yesterday to get some staples to have around if I get sicker – rice, tea, orange juice, sugar, powdered milk. They’re all neatly stacked in our roach-infested kitchen, waiting to be needed.

Spending time on the streets really drives home the enormity of underemployment here. As Adam and I sat and ate our sandwiches on a wooden crate near the man who sold us the beef skewers, I don’t think one other customer approached him for food. It’s the same with the Leoneans out during the day hawking food and goods (everything from face cream to Corn Flakes)… they barely make any sales. But as Malem (a local man who had guided us around a few times) says, the people would rather sit all day and make a little money than make no money at all. Underemployment beats the alternative. What makes it worse is that most of these underemployed people are not trying to feed only themselves, but many others, too.

The point is driven home here at our house, too. We have three guards… one who just sweeps and washes the yard all day (it’s tile, not grass, with large garden beds of tropical trees… but it gets covered in chicken and pidgeon poo), one who is by the door to the front gate 24 hours a day (seriously) to open and close it when we come and go, and one older man just to oversee the other two. (Yesterday, the older guard was trying to potty-train the goat, so I assume he doesn’t have a lot to do.) They probably get paid a meal a day and a pittance paycheque by our landlord (a big,fat Lebanese man who won’t share his generator with us when the power goes out because he needs its entire capacity to run his three air conditioners. That’s right, he needs his three A/C units which means we can’t run our FANS). But, it’s a safe place for the guards to pass the time and little money is better than none.

flying solo

Yesterday was my first day on the town on my own. On Wednesday, I was ferried around town with another group of Salone newbies, but yesterday was all me (with lots of advice and help from people who had been here longer, of course)… and it was quite the day.

I woke up feeling TERRIBLE – the usual gastrointestinal unpleasantness that comes along with international travel. I sat on the back porch until noon, gazing out at the palm trees and mango trees and other unidentifiable tropical plants. The landlords (who live upstairs) have a goat and some chickens – which just hatched some chicks. I watched the chicks chirp their way around, following their mother, and talked to my mum on the phone for awhile… then dragged myself up, into clothes and out the door.

Our house is at the bottom of a big hill, so the first stage of any journey out of the house is a 3-minute climb on uneven footing. Once at the top, the city begins – taxis whizzing by, vendors on the street selling food, little hole-in-the-wall shops selling everything from cell phone minutes to bread. I walked up to the Internet cafe (about 5 minutes away) to plug in my laptop and send some emails. While I was sitting there, Alex called – and from our conversation the man next to me gleaned that I was a student. When I hung up, he asked what I was studying and I said I was in Sierra Leone to interview journalists. He said he used to be one, and had written a report for the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands about the media, human rights and justice in Sierra Leone. “Wait,” I said, opening a PDF on my netbook. “Do you mean THIS report?”

I had just met the man who authored the report upon which I based half my thesis proposal.

I got his phone number and set up to interview him some time in the next few days.

Later, I managed to take a public taxi downtown on my own. Public taxis are cars that drive general routes, you just flag one down and tell them where you want to go – if they’re going your way you get in, and they drop people off and pick them up as they go. I met Stephen and he told me a little about the lay of the land of journalism in Salone, gave me some books to read, and then invited me up to watch the manifestos (campaign speeches) for the student president elections at Fourah Bay College, where he teaches in their mass communication department.

The first challenge was getting there – he put me on an okada, a motorbike taxi. I’d been on them before in Rwanda, but there the drivers carry helmets for their passengers to wear. Here, not so much. People take them though, because traffic in Freetown is BRUTAL and the okadas can just zip right up the side or in between lanes of traffic. It’s fairly terrifying, but efficient – I just tried to not imagine my brains splattered all over the road, or how much it would hurt to fall into one of the open storm sewers. Unfortunately, my driver was perhaps not the shining example of what an okada driver should be. He told Stephen he knew where the college was (basically the only/main college in Freetown) – but we certainly didn’t go straight there. I can’t decide if he was genuinely lost, or he was getting such a kick out of having a pink-skinned woman on his bike that he wanted to show off. I knew Fourah Bay College was at the top of a huge hill, and when it had been 10 minutes and we were still doodling around in traffic (and at one point he had turned around and swerved so sharply that I lost my sandal – which everyone in the street yelled at him for), I demanded that we stop. We’d gone through all sorts of narrow back lanes where he fist bumped a few friends as we drove by, and kids’ faces peered out of tiny shanty houses. I had no idea where I was. I asked him to stop as we went around a roundabout, so there were lots of onlookers who could help if things got ugly (Sierra Leoneans in general are happy to help a confused foreigner). I don’t know Freetown to begin with, but this was a part of town that didn’t look the tiniest bit familiar. I got off the bike and phoned Stephen, who was already at FBC even though he had left after me. He told me to find a regular taxi and ditch the crazy moto man. I walked back over to the driver and told him I was leaving, that he didn’t take me where I wanted to go and I would take a taxi. By this point, we had caused a bit of a scene – being white, my sheer PRESENCE was a scene in itself – and some of the other men nearby started jabbering at him in Krio. I told them what happened, they yelled at him some more, and it seemed like we were straightened out… so against my better judgement I got back on the bike. We made it to FBC with only a few traffic
close-calls. FBC is at the top of what I would almost call a mountain, so it gives a beautiful view of the city on the road on the way up, once your okada driver knows what he’s doing.

I loved moto taxis in Rwanda, but I think in Salone I’ll take a pass.

Now, the real point of this story is not how I got to FBC, but what I saw when I was there. Forget everything you know about student elections in Canada (or federal elections for that matter) – the apathy, the lack of passion. Let me put it this way: one of the first things I saw when I arrived on campus was riot police. At last year’s manifestos there was an out-and-out riot, so this year they were prepared. In an amphitheatre seating about 5000 students, the atmosphere was like something you’d see at a World Cup match… even more intense than a Sens v. Leafs game. The audiences was divided into two groups – the blacks and the whites (nothing to do with skin colour – in fact Stephen and I were the only white people there), each supporting a different candidate for president. (There were two other candidates as well, but neither had much backing.) The blacks and whites were dancing, cheering, insulting each other. The entrances of the two frontrunners – one male, one female – was accompanied by music, dancing and general chaos. Fights broke out in the crowd, police intervened, the music blared on. I’m not really doing the scene justice here, it was completely beyond words. Stephen shot some video of it, which I’m going to try to get my hands on. I won’t be able to upload it until I’m back in Canada, because the Internet here is worse than dial-up.

Unfortunately I wasn’t really able to hear/understand the manifestos, since the sound system was awful, I’m not used to the accent yet, and I was surrounded by 5000 screaming students. However, Stephen tells me that there is really very little difference between the two main candidates, much like there is little ideological difference between the SLPP and the APC at the national level. (In fact, the SLPP and APC back these ‘black’ and ‘white’ parties at the student level – not sure which party is backing which side – so what goes on at FBC is a microcosm of politics on the national stage, and contributes to the furor.)

On the way back down the mountain, we took a taxi… no more okadas for me that day. I headed home – and since the power was out we all went out to dinner at Ray’s, a restaurant on Lumley Beach. I had groundnut (peanut) soup with rice, yum. I thought it would be easy on the tummy since I hadn’t eaten all day, but I ended up back at home in bed with my arms crossed over my stomach, sucking back oral
rehydration salts.

Today I’m going to try to finish up the administrative things and actually do some grocery shopping since I haven’t cooked at all since I’ve been here. I’ve had my first of three cold showers for the day (when I wake up, when I get back from town or wherever I’ve been during the day, right before I go to bed), so I’m ready to rock. Stephen is supposed to give me the phone numbers of some local journalists today, so I can get my research underway on Monday.

Day Two in Freetown

I’ve officially been in Freetown for a full day (it’s now noon on day 2), and it feels good.
My flight from Brussels was uneventful but bloody LONG – I slept for most of it because of my general physical and emotional exhaustion. I was no longer feeling like I was marching into certain death, but I also wasn’t feeling particularly chipper, so I dozed for the full 8 hours. I got to see Dakar from the tarmac when we landed to let some passengers off (and take a few on), and seeing the beach as we took off was a salve for the soul. I was ready for what came next.

Coming from the glossy airports like Toronto and Brussels, airports in Africa are the first triggers of culture shock. The airport is a two-story building which would fit inside a hangar of a North American airport… and it is extremely hectic. I got through immigration and picked up my bag, and a porter helped me get on one of the early choppers into the city. It was a more expensive way to get in to Freetown, but the view made up for it… now I have a bit of a mental image of the city from above (since maps are hard to come by).

Stephen (my contact here) met me at the helicopter drop off with a big wave as the chopper came in, and quickly ferried me away in a taxi driven by Freetown’s only female cab driver, Rosalie. We met up with Adam, a law intern who is staying at our house until Friday, and then went to dinner on the beach. My appetite hadn’t really returned after my bout with the “travel-terror” and I hadn’t eaten since the flight from Toronto about 24 hours earlier… but I managed half a hamburger, topped with coleslaw and French fries. I guess they figure, why put the sides on the side, just pile ‘em on the patty!

Then, we came back here to bed. When I opened my backpack a rush of cold air came out, left over from the airplane baggage hold and insulated by my clothes – probably the last cold air I’ll feel for a month. The house is guarded 24/7 by 3 guards (one of whom is stationed outside my bedroom window) and 3 very bark-y but also friendly doggies. You have to be careful on the stairs into the house so that you don’t cut yourself on the broken glass and razor wire along the top of the concrete fence around the compound. I have a giant bed with no blankets (not that I’d need them, did I mention it’s like 40 degrees here?) or pillow (I’m making do with the one I stole from Jet Airways), draped with a massive mosquito net that will hopefully keep malaria at bay. I have a private bathroom with a tub and flush-with-a-bucket-o-water toilet – pretty nice digs for one of the least-developed countries in the world. We have (intermittent) electricity, usually 3-5 nights a week, I hear. Even when it is on, the lights get brighter or dimmer every few minutes, which is sort of an interesting mood effect.
Today Adam got me up around 9 and we hit the town – a bunch of other legal interns from Timap (his organization) arrived last night and we all needed downtown-type things. On the way to meet the interns we started with a breakfast of Fanta and ice cream (eaten out of a small, tightly-tied plastic bag and sold out of a baby carriage pushed down the street – with lots of blankets on top for insulation). One of Adam’s local friends (and a friend of his) took us around downtown to help us get good prices prices on what we needed. I intended to get a pillow, but at almost CDN$20 I decided to wait until Alex arrives with one (or two, maybe, babe?) – especially since they didn’t have pillow cases. Lunch was cassava leaves (in a paste with a bit of chicken, fried in lots of palm oil) and rice, and dinner was sandwiches off the street near our place… I had banana and egg in mine.

Best part of the day? The beach. We didn’t go to the
popular-with-ex-pats Beach No. 2 – instead we headed to Lumley beach, where the surroundings aren’t quite as picturesque… garbage and broken glass in the sand. We met some locals and had fun swimming – playing Co-co (the Salone version of Marco Polo), tag, teaching the kids how to float on their backs and tread water. The water is extremely warm but still refreshing, and a couple waves were so huge I was taken off my feet. We watched the sun set over the Atlantic and then headed home for dinner. Jealous?

Sierra Leoneans are lovely people. I expected it to a degree, but they really are some of the nicest people I have ever met. They smile, and offer their hand, and ask how you are and what your name is… but don’t follow it up with a request for money, they just want to be nice. This evening on the way to dinner Adam used me to buy some social capital – a few guys he knew in the neighbourhood wanted to meet a white woman. One man introduced himself by name (which I forget), then said “But you can call me President.” A woman also stopped us on the street today, but not to ask for money – she wanted us to take a picture of her kids, so they could look at themselves in the digital camera screen.

The city is humid and dusty. The roads are treacherous – if you’re walking, best to just put one foot in front of the other – don’t try to carry on a conversation… stones and concrete stick up at odd angles from the red earth, and there are open storm drains everywhere. Knock wood, it hasn’t rained yet. I imagine the rain must cool things a little, but I’m not looking forward to navigating the roads when they’re slippery AND rocky.

Today (Thursday) I’m venturing out on my own for the first time – first to the Internet cafe to send this entry, and then downtown to meet Stephen and get started on my research.

My poor computer fan is losing its MIND it’s so hot in here, so that’s all for now.

How de body?

I’m in Sweet Salone in one piece! I wrote you fine people a nice long blog entry at the Brussels Airport but I don’t have my netbook with me so I can’t post it — this is just an impromptu stop at an Internet cafe.

If I had to use one word to describe Salone: HOT. Hot and humid beyond all belief. Cold showers are a blessing — even when the power is out the water stays on, thanks allah. I think right-before-bed cold showers will become a nightly occurance.

I’ll write a long missive tonight… but I just wanted to let you all know that I made it 🙂

T-minus one day (…and counting)

Well, I’m basically ready to go. I have an extremely large amount of stuff… but I can carry it all  myself, which is the Number One Traveling Rule. I am taking no fewer than three backpacks: my big trekking 80-litre monster, my day-to-day school backpack as a carry-on… and my purse is a little slingpack.

But the bulk of my luggage isn’t clothing — I feel like a traveling pharmacy. Antibiotics, Imodium, Pepto Bismol, oral rehydration salts (sensing a pattern here?), anti-malarials, a thermometer (fever being the warning sign of any number of illnesses that strike in Salone — malaria, typhoid, meningitis — and how are you supposed to tell by touch if you have a fever when the temperature rarely drops below 25 degrees?), band-aids, Polysporin, hydrogen peroxide, anti-bacterial soap, sunscreen, bug spray… the list goes on… I’ll probably be leaving most of it behind so that there’s room for gifts and souvenirs on the return journey, but get your requests in early to guarantee space!

When I said in my previous post that I’ll be touching down in Freetown, I stretched the truth. Sierra Leone’s international airport is located in Lungi, a fair piece north of Freetown on the other side of a large bay/inlet. My flight lands at 18h30 and so to get into the city, my options are thus: take a water taxi across the bay and hope we don’t hit a rain storm or some unexpected obstacle in the dark, or take a helicopter and hope the Soviet-era chopper doesn’t end up in the ocean. (Let’s not even talk about the government-operated ferry.) Forget pickpockets, malaria… first we’ll see if I can get into the city in one piece.

Nevertheless, tomorrow I’m off — my flight leaves Monday from Toronto so I’m going down a day early to get in position, as it were. I fly Toronto-Brussels-Dakar-Freetown. Cross your fingers that Eyjafjallajokul is feeling placid and the airspace over Belgium is ash-cloud-free. With a little luck and a lot of jet fuel, I’ll be in Freetown in 72 hours. The plan for the first two weeks is research, research, research — after so many months of writing thesis proposals and giving presentations on media assistance programming in Salone, I’m fairly excited to actually get out on the ground and start talking to some local journalists. It will probably take most of the month to get all my interviews done, but if I get a lot of them out of the way right after I arrive then I hope I can take some side trips and days off once Alex arrives on June 7.

I’ll spare you the lyrics to that Chantal Kreviazuk song. Catch you on the flip side.