The Eagle has Landed

Apologies for being MIA… it’s a combination of not really having much to write about (I spent the weekend reading and enjoying the tropical breeze, which was wonderful for my mental state but didn’t result in any exciting adventures to chronicle), and finally having Alex here. I met him at the helipad on Monday night and we swept off to a nearby restaurant featuring a patio on the beach, feet away from the crashing waves. Waving palm trees and an ocean breeze – not the worst intro to West Africa. We gulped cold Star beer – the local brew – and ate hamburgers and French fries – putting off the run belly for one more night.

Tuesday we went downtown so Alex could start getting his bearings – and get a sense of Africa. I first visited the continent three years ago, so I had sort of forgotten the way it feels to be assaulted with the sights, sounds and smells for the first time. I’d be the first to tell you that one can’t lump all African countries into one pile, but in many ways the sub-Saharan region is similar… It’s complete sensory overload. I was able to relive the experience of stepping foot on the red earth of Africa through the expression on Alex’s face: wonder.

Things are dirtier here, they are chaotic, yet… they roll along. As I said yesterday to refer to our taxi (of course not to the driver’s face), which stalled numerous times and didn’t have the smoothest transmission, “It’s a shitbox, but it works.” We still got from A to B. The same can be said for day-to-day life here. Coming from the West, we’re so used to things working as they’ve been designed – and we get frustrated or indignant when they don’t, or when they’re delayed or have to be Frankensteined to run at all. Here, it’s about making the most of what you have. And when you live here, you have to live that ethos. Case in point: My Birkenstocks are literally rotting off my feet, to the point that the sole is cracking and I’m in danger of tripping with every step – as if the poorly-paved roads weren’t dangerous enough. I took my sandal into a local tailor, and he deftly stitched the sandal strap back into the sole – two quick stitches with heavy duty thread – and I was good to go. Yes, they’re not going to last me much longer… but they’re going to last longer than they would have had I just thrown them out at the first sign of
disintegration, and laid out the cash for a new pair. Another example: The poda poda (a van fitted with three rows of benches, used as a public taxi) I took home the other night had a broken sliding door. Instead of trashing the vehicle or trying to mend the finicky mechanism that makes the side door slide along the body of the van, they simply removed it altogether, and then welded on some hinges – now, the door swings outwards, kind of like a giant back-door on a normal car. It works.

Yesterday I had an interview in the morning at a local patisserie (five-dollar smoothies, but worth it for the fruit injection), then Alex and I did some groceries and flaked out at home. We went to the beach about 4 pm and frolicked in the soup-warm water, getting bowled over by waves. We went out for dinner at a local restaurant for Star beers and local fare… I think Alex was feeling the pull of something a little more “civilized” than eating fry-fry while sitting on broken wooden boxes beside the road. There’s no doubt that Africa takes a bit of getting used to… and there’s no reason to rush the process.

The power has been unfortunately shoddy since Alex arrived. We were getting power almost 24/7 for the first two weeks I was here and now it seems like it’s been off more than on. At least I have someone lying in bed with me in the stifling heat of the no-fan and
lots-of-candles. The trick is to shower and then get directly into bed, moving as little as possible… and leave the fan plugged in and switched on, in case the power makes a miraculous appearance in the night (so far, so good).

Today we planned to do the “attractions” downtown. This isn’t exactly a place for tourists, yet – but there’s a big arts market downtown (aptly named “Big Market”) and the National Museum housed in the old railway station (picture the depot in Road to Avonlea, not Grand Central Station). We took a taxi downtown and I headed into the offices of one of the biggest newspapers to interview the editor… and turned Alex loose on Africa. He returned to meet me at Nix Nax (downtown snack joint: Fanta soda, groundnut soup and jollof rice) in one piece – he’s got the hang of it quickly! However, our plans for sightseeing got interrupted with a text from one of the local freelance journos I interviewed last week, inviting us to attend the weekly government press briefing at the You Yi Building (a gift from the Chinese about 20 years ago, houses most of the government ministries). We both jumped at the chance.

The briefing was held in a mid-sized board room with chairs ringing a T-shaped table – the leg of the T about 3 times longer than the top. The government officials/guests sat along the top of the T, while journalists and members of the public sat along the rest of the table and on chairs ringing the perimeter of the room. Starting 20 minutes late, (“BMT – black man’s time,” Benjamin joked) the briefing dealt with the creation of the planning committee for the celebrations of Sierra Leone’s 50th anniversary of independence (1961-2011), and the Minister of Information briefly touched on the new agreement to lay undersea internet cables to Sierra Leone (so maybe it can finally be hooked up to the international banking system). Questions were permitted only on these two topics, and the Minister felt free to comment on the “quality” of the questions… and gave the first question to a reporter from the newspaper he owns, the New Citizen. However, the atmosphere was generally very friendly – the minister didn’t seem hostile or closed – although of course the only questions allowed were those dealing with the items on the agenda.

There were members of the planning committee for the 50th anniversary there, and some got up to speak. One member asked the room (filled mostly with journos) whether he would be able to count on the media’s support to further the cause and garner attention and publicity for the celebrations. The reporter from the New Citizen stood up to guarantee his paper’s support. So much for the fourth estate. As the editor I interviewed this morning would say, “If you want publicity, take out an ad in my paper.” Unfortunately not all media outlets share this vision. At least not yet.

Regardless, I scored an interview with the Minister for next Wednesday, so it was a day well spent. There was a Syrian Trade Fair (“First ever in Freetown!”) in the lobby of the building, so we decided to check it out. I expected booths of serious men proposing business partnerships and resource-extraction ventures: instead, it was a showroom of lush towels, decadent sofas in rich colours adorned with gold, glinting gold-and-glass teaware, garish costume jewellery in every colour, and a parfumier (mixing up imitations of famous scents for a fraction of the price). It was other-worldly… and Alex and I now have a friend to stay with in Damascus, if we ever happen to be in that neck of the woods.

We’re heading up to the FBC campus tomorrow to sight-see – and I, of course, have an interview. Then the weekend brings a trip to the chimp sanctuary, where I will be happy to spend 48 hours with my brain switched off – sort of a sanctuary for the mind as well, I hope. Hoping to finish my interviews by next week, so we can have a week and a half of true vacation… hard to believe this joyride chugs back into the station in two weeks.

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