Great Apes!

Alex and I spent last night at Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary, about 45 minutes outside of Freetown (still on the Freetown peninsula). We hired a driver to take us out there yesterday around noon, through the hills of the city, past the fortress that is the American embassy (some things are the same the world over), and smack into the village life of Sierra Leone. Still, there were always people along the road, selling fruit, phone credit and/or cookies or just lounging in the heat – rare was the instance where we were truly alone, until we turned onto the road for the park itself. The road up to Tacugama was paved at one point in time, but the lack of upkeep made the last 1000 meters a bit of a slog – luckily we had Med, a competent and kindly taxi driver (who was on time, too!).

The taxi deposited us at the bottom of a hill that I’m “inclined” (groan) to say was almost a 45 degree pitch. The sign at the bottom of this final stretch of road warns visitors that only 4x4s should attempt the climb – so it was up to us to hike the last 100 metres. We said goodbye to Med, set-up to meet the next day for the return trip to Freetown, and set off.

The sights, smells and sounds of Sierra Leone are no less intense outside the city, but they’re definitely different. The blaring horns, shouting voices and pounding music (or soccer match commentary) give way to chirping birds, screeching chimps, and the gravelly croaks of frogs. The lines of traffic snaking through the narrow and bumpy streets are replaced by hordes of ants marching their way along their own miniature highways. The half-finished buildings injured by war and ramshackle stores along the main roads give way to lush greenery and moss-covered trees (almost everything is covered in moss, in fact). Rich, damp earth fills your nostrils, erasing any lingering stench of burning garbage, exhaust fumes and body odour.

In short, it was a very welcome respite from the city. Don’t get me wrong, I love Freetown – the people and the energy are what gives Africa its charm, in my mind… but it’s also really nice to take a break from the hectic pace of life in the city.

We checked in and were escorted – along a skinny trail dotted with rocks and tree roots – to our quarters for the night: a round, thatched hut painted yellow inside, with a double bed, couch and private bathroom. Outside was a brightly-coloured rope hammock and small covered patio with a table and two chairs, overlooking the rainforest – in fact, the entire hut was shrouded by rainforest. Hello, paradise.

We dropped our bags, had a snack and decided to do one of the hikes that the sanctuary advertises as activities around Tacugama. There were a few short trails that were listed as about 30 minutes each, but we decided to make the three-hour-plus trek to Charlotte Falls – knowing that if I didn’t do it right away, I probably wouldn’t at all. We sprayed ourselves until our skin was thick with 30% DEET, and set off. The trails all started off wending their way down the steep, final incline to the sanctuary, but soon diverged into the bush. They were marked with a clever series of shapes – the trail to Charlotte Falls was marked with triangles, to get to Congo Dam you follow the circles – however, we sometimes came to a fork in the path where the way forward wasn’t clearly marked… and it became a matter of making a guess and then hoping to see your chosen shape within a few hundred meters.

The trail was the same lush forest as surrounded the sanctuary: damp, mossy and raging in so many different colours of green. The hike to the falls was mostly downhill – sometimes treacherously so, and I was tempted to sit down and scoot my bum along the red earth and fallen leaves – leaving an ominous feeling about how much energy we’d have for the return journey uphill. The trail took us through Charlotte Village, where we said hello to some of the villagers and admired their old wooden Krio houses. Seeing village life always leaves me conflicted – it seems like such a wonderful and uncomplicated existence, but I don’t know if I’d survive at it… I don’t know if I could adjust to the lack of “stimulus” – although, if traveled has taught me anything, it’s that I (like all humans) can be remarkably adaptive when the opportunity presents itself.

Anyway, we passed through the village and carried on to the falls, still downhill and through a series of wending and slippery paths – until finally on our left, over the dense foliage, we caught a glimpse of misty sheets of water cascading over water-worn rocks in the distance. We kept following the triangles until we had the falls in plain view (although still a ways away), at which point we came across a sign that said “No Trespassing – Property of Mr. and Mrs. Williams”. Not knowing what to do, we gladly sat down for a break, squished onto the only shady rock we could find.

After a bag of chips and a lot of water, we started hearing voices in the distance – the voices of children. Then, through the woods came a group of about 20 schoolchildren ranging in age from 8-10, coming from Freetown on a field trip. Their leader seemed completely happy to trespass, so we followed along with the kids, who were chirping “Auntie! Auntie! What is your name? Auntie, auntie, where are you from?” at me. We got right up to the base of the waterfall and enjoyed the spray on our backs, took some pictures of the kids and talked with them for a little while, and then we were back off (uphill) home. It was much less painful and shorter than expected, I think because we were both so dazed and sweat-soaked and dehydrated and hungry.

The lodge doesn’t provide dinner (but they do sell beer, which we immediately availed ourselves of) – so once we had showered in extremely cold water and relaxed with books on the porch for a while, we set about putting together a simple pasta dinner, carted in our bags from Freetown. The hut had a shared outdoor cooking facility, and a gas ring in the bedroom… with all the utensils one could need. (As well as a garbage disposal system that separated organic waste, cans/bottles/plastics, and papers – which puzzled me in a country that burns its garbage and certainly doesn’t have a recycling program). Penne and canned tomato sauce never tasted so good, and I’d be embarrassed to tell you how quickly we snorfed down our food, sitting out on the porch in candlelight. It would have been romantic if we’d actually stopped to think about it.

The hut had solar electricity, so we read in bed for awhile but passed out by 10 pm – four hours of hiking was probably more exercise in one day than I’ve done in three weeks in Freetown combined, thanks to the heat and the ubiquity/relative affordability of shared taxis.

We were up at 8 am, reading on the porch when a woman from the lodge brought us breakfast – instant coffee, hardboiled eggs, warm bread, butter (a first in three weeks), Laughing Cow cheese, strawberry jam and boiled cassava – to which we added a mango and two bananas. Sated, we headed up to the main building for the main attraction of the trip: the chimp tour.

Tacugama has been operating since 1995. It’s a sanctuary for orphaned and rescued chimps, the former usually a result of bushmeat hunters and the latter because of people who think having a baby chimp as a pet would be cute (or lucrative – as a performer or slave labourer). We started in the quarantine area, where new arrivals spend 90 days. Then, they’re moved into a starter area (still in a cage), where they have to get used to not being in direct human contact – they stay here until they’re acclimatized enough that the sanctuary thinks they can interact successfully with other chimps.

Chimps are extremely social, sharing 98.6% of their DNA with humans (although an adult chimp is five times stronger than a human, when provoked). Once they can be integrated, they start living together in large enclosures with jungle gyms and swinging ropes, where they can become dextrous at living the way a chimp lives – swinging from branches and sleeping in trees, not living in a house and sleeping in a bed, as they might have if they were a rescue. This is where we really first got to see the chimps in action – dangling wildly from the two-storey jungle gym, tightrope walking, galloping along the ground, stuffing their faces with potato. You’d have to be a really sour person not to get a warm feeling in your chest watching them play. There was some mesh strung up across our viewing area to protect us – the interlopers – from stones thrown at us by the chimps (who are very territorial)… but only one chimp decided we needed to be taught a lesson about trespassing, and he didn’t have very good aim.

One of the neatest parts of the tour was watching our guide interact with the chimps – calling out to them in chimp noises, addressing them by name, scolding them from stealing food from each other… and genuinely laughing along with their antics.

From the play-area, we moved along to the next stage in a chimp’s progression at Tacugama – jungle enclosures. We saw the chimps in both the smaller enclosure (where they’re not allowed to mate, made possible by an implant in the female chimps), and the larger one where four babies have been born. The end goal is to have these chimps released into the wild, but at this point they have nowhere to release them where they aren’t in danger of being poached for bush meat.

At the final, eight-acre enclosure, we were lucky to see the babies playing in the treetops and their mother Julie (the oldest chimp at Tacugama) lounging on a tree branch. One of the other chimps was playing on an overhanging branch and our guide kept calling out “Be careful, man, that’s dangerous!” with real worry in his voice. Julie just hung out in her tree and gazed right at us – what I wouldn’t give to know what was going through her mind.

Overall, it was a pretty magical 90 minutes, to top off a pretty wonderful weekend.

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.

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.