Hats off

(Ed. note: I wrote this yesterday but the Internet was so
infuriatingly slow last night I didn’t want to sit on the back porch any longer waiting for the post to send, for fear of malarial mosquitos.)

Today I saw a man carrying a toilet bowl on his head. I’ve been avoiding the “People carry everything on their heads here, it’s so crazy!” blog post, because it’s so cliché… not to mention condescending. But, people really do carry everything on their head – it’s not just an over-played image from National Geographic, and I continue to be impressed by Saloneans’ balancing skills. I can’t even carry a single book on my head, but here is a sampling of what I saw people carrying on their heads today (often completely balanced, not even using a hand to steady it): a stack of towels tied together three feet high; a two-foot heap of women’s underwear on a platter; about 100 bananas; 12 pairs of folded jeans; everything you need to sell cassava stew on the street (a pot for rice, a vat for the stew, bowls, utensils…); a two- by three-foot slat stacked with bread loaves; six dozen eggs; a small tree wrapped in a tarp; and a tricycle.

I didn’t have fryfry for dinner tonight, but I did discover some incredible street snacks downtown on Siaka Stevens – doughnuts and “groundnut cake” (giant chunks of melt-in-your-mouth peanut brittle which I am definitely smuggling on the plane back to Canada for everyone to try… too bad fryfry doesn’t travel well). So yes, I am coming home fat.

I was downtown because I interviewed the chairperson of the Independent Media Commission (like the CRTC of Sierra Leone, in a way), who I met by chance when I was up at the college… and it turns out I used some of her writings in my thesis proposal, too. I guess the Salone media scene isn’t a huge one. Tomorrow I have an interview at 8:30 am with the director general of the SLBC (Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation)… not too keen on getting up so early – the heat makes me lazy – but I can’t really complain since I’m getting an interview with one of the top dogs. It’s amazing how scheduling works here: I’ll call to ask if someone is willing to be interviewed, and they say “Come over now!” or “I can come at three today.” The furthest in advance I’ve organized an interview is about 22 hours… except for the one interview I have with a foreigner, who asked, “How’s next Wednesday for you?”

The heat makes time float by. For example, today the IMC chairperson was an hour late in meeting with me… but I just sat in the lobby of her office and stared into space. At home I would have been extremely bored, so I don’t know if it’s a heat or the fact that I have so much to think about and digest being here, so an hour with nothing to do is a welcome chance for my brain to catch up with my surroundings. I also passed about three hours just sitting in “my” office (Stephen is letting me use the Journalists for Human Rights office as a home base)… I guess I sent an email or two and read a journal article, but still. It’s the same on mornings at the house when I have nothing to do. I sit on the back porch with tea and read or write, and all of a sudden it’s noon.

One thing I’m starting to get really sick of is being stared at in the streets. Just like Rwanda, there are very few white people out and about (and most of them are hiding in air conditioned 4X4s)… so just by virtue of walking in the market, I attract a fair amount of attention. At least in Rwanda they had a Kinyarwanda word for foreigner (“muzungu”) – here they just call me “white girl!” Most people stare as I walk by, waiting to see what I’ll do or where I’ll go. Vendors assume I have lots of money and try extra hard to get me interested in their wares. Men take my hand and say they want to be my friend, they tell me I’m beautiful (I tell them my husband will be glad to know they think so), and a popular phrase is “I like your style.” It’s mostly men – the women just seem to watch me or ignore me – and it really runs the gamut from creepy to friendly. Some I can tell just genuinely want to say hello, whereas others are more persistent. It’s another reason I’m looking forward to having Alex here. Partly because it will discourage the men’s attention, and partly because I’ll be a little more oblivious to the staring – I’m sure they will still look, but I won’t feel quite so naked.

The kids can stare all they want. I have yet to see an ugly Sierra Leonean child. The kids up at the college yesterday were totally adorable; the girls kept wanting to touch my hair and my skin, and the boys wanted to take pictures with my camera. I think I find children here easier to get along with because they are much more open – less socialized into certain behaviours that are foreign to me. Cultural difference doesn’t turn me off (just the opposite), but it’s also exhausting. It’s tiring to adjust my behaviours and expectations, encounter after encounter, day after day. But kids? They’re just soaking it all in, and so am I.

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