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.

Just call me Katic Couric

This morning started like any other: tea on the porch, a slow and winding taxi ride through Freetown traffic, gearing up for a day of interviews.

It ended with me on television.

I was set to interview the director general of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corp at 8:30 this morning. Since I’d never been to SLBC before, I asked my cabbie last night if he knew where it was and how long it would take me to get there in the morning – he said it would take half an hour, and he would be happy to come back in the morning to drive me. I agreed, stating “no cha-cha though, I pay three-way” – I didn’t want to charter the car (which would cost 15,000 leone – about 5 whole dollars). Instead, I’d pay him 3,000, but he was free to pick up and drop off passengers along the way.

So, I called him at 7 and asked him to arrive at 8 – he was perfectly on time and I was starting to feel good about the whole experience… until I started to doubt his ETA. At 8:20 we were still on the beach road. Now, as I said, I didn’t know where SLBC was, but… I knew we weren’t even close to it yet. At 8:28 I asked one of my fellow passengers how far we were from SLBC. “About 30 minutes… you know, the traffic!”

I started to freak out, since starting in two minutes I was supposed to be interviewing the top dog of the country’s only national broadcaster (TV and radio). But, there was nothing to be done – I called and said I would be late, the director general seemed unfazed and said it was fine, and we continued on our way.

I show up, find his office, and sit down to wait. I’d dressed respectably for the interview since he’s kind of a big deal (a skirt and t-shirt, I have NO IDEA how people can wear full suits and long sleeves here, I would die of heat exhaustion). He comes into the waiting area and greets me warmly, then asks the fatal question, “Before we do our interview, there are a few of our journalists here who want to do an interview with you. Is this ok?” Wait, what? Oh, he must mean that they want to be interviewed for my project. Feeling badly about being late, without even thinking I chirp, “Oh sure, no problem.”

And all of a sudden I’m standing in an air-conditioned television studio.

The producers and cameramen are buzzing about, the host welcomes me with a smile, they pour me tea, and look disapprovingly at my outfit. I start to apologize for my appearance, explaining I had no idea I would be on TV. Someone tried to tug at my sportsbra (which shows above the neckline of my t-shirt) so I’d be showing less skin, then gave up and returned with a maroon blazer about four sizes too big. I wasn’t wearing make-up, my unwashed hair was in a terribly unkempt pony-tail, and worst of all – I had no idea what I was going to say about my research. I felt like a kid dressing up in mummy’s clothes, playing TV news.

And that was my debut on Good Morning Sierra Leone. I tried to console myself with the fact that no one would see it… but my second interviewee today (head of the photo union) opened with “I just saw you on TV!” and walking home one of the local men called out “Hello Rose! I saw you on TV today!” Oh. Right. It’s the only television station in Salone. If you were in Salone and watching TV between 9 and 10, you were watching me. I hardly remember what I said, something about the improvements in the media over the last 10 years, and some stupid gushing white-person crap about how lovely the people are. I wasn’t the only person on the show – they were also interviewing two local men about development projects – so it was this weird experience where they’d ask them a few questions about their experience, then ask me a few questions, then back to them… and so forth.

The crowning jewel of the experience came at the end, when the other two men each wrapped up – they were both promoting certain
viewpoints/ideals/projects, so they just summed up what they’d been saying. Then the host turns to me and says “Miss Rosemary?” and I respond with “…what do you want me to say?”

I’m going back to SLBC on Monday to get some documents, and at the same time I should be able to get a copy of the interview. It will be handy to have around for any time I start taking myself too seriously.

So turns out, there’s no point worrying when you’re 20 minutes late for an interview. There are bigger fish to fry… and you don’t even know about them yet.

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.

Test Signal

I was up at the Fourah Bay College again today, and there must be a primary school up there as well… when they saw my camera, the kids came from every direction to have their picture taken. I’m testing out attaching a photo to this post (I post my entries via email because it’s less taxing on the molasses-in-January Internet here), so we’ll see if it works?

One week in Salone

It’s pouring. I’m sitting (where else?) on the back porch, watching the rain beat the tiles in the back yard. I don’t mind when it rains in the evening – although it would be better if it waited until AFTER I go out for fryfry – because it cools everything off. It rained a few nights ago and I actually wore yoga pants and a SWEATER to bed. Unheard of, when you think that last night I was sleeping naked and still endeavouring to move as little as possible so that I wouldn’t heat up.

I’ve done two more interviews, one with the author of the report upon which I based part of my thesis proposal. I met with him at a cafe on the beach (rough life for a student, eh?), and when we were done I walked to a nearby craft market. Being a Tuesday afternoon, there was no one there… except me and about 16 vendors. It was
target-the-white-person time. I didn’t really want to buy anything big, and I made that clear – not that it stopped vendors from trying to make a sale. It seems that they’re worried that white people don’t know about bartering, because when you ask how much something costs they say “X leones… first price, first price.” One guy even spelled out how bartering works, in case I didn’t know. All of the stalls seemed to have basically the same things, yet the vendors all said they were craftsmen and made the items themselves… which I have a hard time believing. All I really wanted for the time being was an ankle bracelet, but no stall seemed to have one – so I asked one vendor, and he got me to point out which beaded necklace I liked, explaining he could just break it down and make an anklet for me on the spot. I pointed out some dark brown, irregular shaped beads (which turned out to be coffee beans)… and whip, snap, the vendor and his friend had bitten apart the necklace strings, crouched on the floor with the beads and made me three custom anklets for 15000 leones total (about CDN$4).

I’m starting to really look forward to Alex’s arrival. When we parted at the beginning of May, the expanse until we’d be together again was large enough that there wasn’t even any point thinking about missing him. But now it’s only six days…. one hundred and forty-four hours… not that I’m counting. I’ve been here for a week now, so my honeymoon with Salone has worn off, but I’m really looking forward to getting to see Salone for the first time through Alex’s eyes. Also, it’s not that I’ve been depriving myself before he gets here, but there are some things I’ve held off doing because I know we’ll do them together – going to crappy (in a good way) ex-pat bars, buying handicraft gifts for family and friends (requests, anyone?), exploring downtown, and then the longer trips to the Tacugama chimp sanctuary, Banana Island and River No. 2 beach. I know six days isn’t very many, but it sure sounds like a lot from this end.

Okay I’ll stop complaining now about my First World problems. How are all you doing? (Seriously, send me emails with news from home! It’s really nice to boot up the computer and find emails in my inbox. rquipp(at)gmail(dot)com.) The rain has cleared up now so I’m starting to think about dinner and maybe getting some work done. I’m
desperately looking for distractions to keep me from pining for Alex’s arrival, but for some reason I’m still avoiding work. Good to know that I’m the same on every continent.