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.

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