June 2012 — August 2012
SIERRA LEONE: LESSONS FROM THE LAND OF BIG SMILES
Week 11: Cheers to Rodgers and Hammerstein
Seven days, a box of cookies and a 16-hour bus ride later, I flopped back onto my sunken-in bed at Juba Hill. I never thought I’d be so utterly relieved to come back to a powerless, waterless, critter-infested bedroom, but after a week in a strange country by myself, I couldn’t have been more excited to be back in Sierra Leone. I had only two days left to bask in the ambiance of my summer home and was determined not to miss a thing.
I woke up the next morning to a beautiful, sunny day; a rare treat during the peak of the rainy season. I packed and wrote thank you letters to those who had touched me most, knowing that the words would never come close to how I really felt. The next morning, I walked to the market alone, soaking in every sight, smell and touch. I took my last okada ride and gave away all of the clothing, shoes and utilities I was leaving behind. But the remainder of my precious Kraft Dinner stash went to Aminata, who had become extremely fond of my comfort food over the summer.
My goodbye party was bitter-sweet. My coworkers and I went out for dinner, where I was showered with thank yous and gifts. Through tears, I told them how much I appreciated their hospitality and kindness, and that I would never, ever forget them. Millicent, Ezekiel and I finally had the dance competition we had boasted about for months, as I was desperate to disprove their “white people can’t dance” theory. We bounced, twirled and thumped for a couple of songs, until it was time for pictures and our last goodbyes.
I couldn’t have asked for a smoother transit back to Canada. Aminata sung for me on the way to the ferry, my flights were on time and my luggage made it back in one piece. My parents were waiting at the terminal with a video camera and a sign that read, “Ms. Pumui Magenda.” There were no tears this time, only smiles as my hampering mother jumped up and down. I really had come back a different person.
For the last two months I have been reuniting with friends and family in Canada. But now that the dust has settled and the food euphoria has passed, I am constantly thinking about the world I left behind – a world where I could sit on my balcony and watch children chase chickens; where I could hear hissing okadas, smell cooking cassava and pick mangoes from the tree outside. I could watch fishermen haul in their nets as I scanned the open ocean, thinking about how far away Canada really was. And despite all my adventures, these moments were the highlight of my trip – the still, quiet moments when I would look at the world around me and marvel at where I was, what I was doing and how blessed I was to be there. And I have never felt more at peace. Realization meets appreciation. I don’t know if ‘serenity’ is the right word to describe it, but I remember exactly how I felt after the first of these moments hit me.
I was sitting in a crowded poda poda one day with an American intern who had just arrived from Washington. I was showing him around Freetown and we were on our way to the beach. His neck was bent over (he was too tall for the van) and my head kept bumping the metal rails of the door handle. Squashed and sweating, there we were, chatting away about our favourite Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. At that moment it hit me – just how beautiful and incredible life is, that I could be in a broken van on a dirt road in the middle of West Africa, talking about musicals.
From that point onward, I called them the ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein’ moments. Now in Canada, I reflect on these moments often. I think about the lives of the people here and how different they are from the people in Sierra Leone. I am both fascinated and terrified by the idea that most Canadians will never leave the cushy bubbles they live in to experience life outside their comfort zone – the kind of life that the majority of the world lives every day. As they go about their daily business, complaining about this and that, thousands of miles away (or even in their own backyards) some people are suffering, praying for a miracle. This kind of complacency is dangerous and the direct result of knowing without engaging.
When I left Sierra Leone, my co-workers gave me one final job. “Tell them,” they said. “Tell them about us.” I smiled (cried) and promised. Mr. Sesay asked me to return to Canada and tell everyone about Sierra Leone – the REAL Sierra Leone. He asked me to say that it was a country full of kindness, warmth and hope for the future; that its people are not defined by their poverty, and that even in the Dark Continent, in a country of civil war and of blood diamonds, there is light. I sincerely hope that I am able to fulfill this mission, not only through this blog and the stories I tell, but through the work I do for the rest of my life.
So next time I see a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, perhaps Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music, I know I won’t be thinking about the stage in front of me. My mind will be far away in sweet Salone, the Land of Big Smiles.
Week eight and nine: No offence, Dorothy
In The Wizard of Oz, country-girl Dorothy wakes up in a magical world of flying monkeys, Munchkins and tin men. No longer in Kansas, I guess you could say she went through a kind of “culture shock.” From the fighting apple trees to the poisonous poppy fields, around every corner in that mysterious land, a new surprise was waiting for her.
I feel a bit like Dorothy here, wandering around my very own West African Oz. You would be hard-pressed to find a yellow brick road in this country, but everywhere I turn I find adventure, challenge and excitement.
Dorothy’s first surprise was being greeted by Munchkins as “the young lady who fell from the sky.” Though I arrived in a jeep, I too was greeted in a new land by children and a strange name – “Aporto.” I took a four-day trip to Njala, Taiama and Bo this weekend, and just as the Munchkins had never seen a witch like Dorothy, many of these children had never seen a white person.
But unlike Dorothy, I haven’t spent my time here wishing to be somewhere else.
At the end of the movie, Dorothy clicks her ruby heels together and utters the phrase, “There’s no place like home.” While I believe that’s true, I also believe our concept of home is constantly changing. After more than two months in Sierra Leone, I’ve learned that new places – even if they seem strange and intimidating – can feel like home too.
And there’s no doubt about it – Sierra Leone has been strange and intimidating. It took me seven weeks, a hundred flubbed attempts and a couple of really embarrassing moments to master this country’s handshake, which is an ever-changing combination of props, the electric finger-slide and a 15-minute hand holding session. I still haven’t gotten over the frustrations of living in AST and for the last nine weeks, my tongue has known only one sensation: burning.
But I expected these things as part of the adventure of coming to a new country. What I didn’t expect, is that I would learn more about myself than I would about Africa.
When I first landed in this mysterious place I was indeed like Dorothy, “the small and meek.” I was nervous around new food, skeptical of friendliness and focused on surviving rather than living. But now, leaving Sierra Leone, I am Magenda the Big and Strong. And Magenda has had the time of her life in a country that has tested, comforted and inspired her.
I know that my Oz is not as romantic as the fairytale. In Sierra Leone, no one travels by floating bubble and monkeys don’t fly. The idea of a Lollipop Guild is laughable, and if the country’s lions hadn’t been hunted to extinction, they would certainly not be cowardly.
But what it lacks in romance, Salone makes up for in courage and strength. Every day, women and children carry the weight of the world in baskets on their heads, while 22 people pack themselves in a single vehicle to get to a job where they earn three dollars a day. There is passion and conviction here like I have never seen before, from people who let faith and happiness guide them rather than material goods.
And I really do feel at home.
But despite how great I make everything seem in my blog, piles of things have gone wrong in the last two months. I’ve been sick, lost, trampled and bitten. Yesterday, I fell into a sewer and watched my shoe float away. All of my things smell like damp cheese and I will NEVER forgive the rainy season for covering my dress shirt, flats and camera case with mould.
I’ve had cross-cultural misunderstandings that resulted in hurt feelings. I’ve had travel plans ruined and I’ve sat in front of a computer screen in tears with an internet connection too weak to call loved ones.
But Sierra Leone wouldn’t feel like home if I never had to fight for it. I never expected this to be easy, and Magenda does NOT give up when things get rough. I feel like now I’ve earned my place here. After all, Dorothy may have defeated the Wicked Witch, but I covered a police shooting on national television.
“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard,” says Dorothy, safe at home and having learned her lesson. But if I’ve learned anything at all from my experience here, it’s that only through leaving our backyards do we come to truly understand what our hearts desire at all. And I’ve never felt more confident of anything else.
Dorothy went back to Kansas in a hot air balloon. I’m going back to Ottawa on Air France. And while there certainly is no place like home, Sierra Leone will more than do for now.
No offense, Dorothy.
Week Seven: Fighting the Fever
In the time I’ve spent here, I’ve tried my best not to look like a tourist. Like everyone else, I speak Krio, get lunch from Auntie Binta and wear Africana on Fridays. I bargain for my groceries, fight my way into poda podas and sing along to Sierra Leonean music. And then I see it – the cutest child or the most creative hairdo; a colourful crab or an interesting tree. Tourist fever sets it and I fight the urge to whip out my camera. At more than 200 photos a week, it’s clearly a losing battle.
Believe it or not, there isn’t much of a tourism industry in Sierra Leone. This isn’t for lack of things to do – there’s plenty to see if you know where to look. From the everyday rustics to the pounding nightlife, there are a thousand reasons to keep a camera with you at all times. As of now, I’ve discovered 2,073 reasons to be precise.
Last weekend, I visited one of the country’s most popular attractions – the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. The reserve is about forty minutes outside Freetown, in the depths of the rainforest-covered peninsula. For Le 40,000 (about $10) you get a guided tour of the sanctuary, which is home to almost a hundred chimps. Human encroachment, habitat destruction and hunting for bush meat have made chimps an endangered species in Sierra Leone and it’s illegal to kill or keep one. The animals in the reserve are all former house pets, kept in the cruelest of conditions until their rescue. Here at the reserve, they live in large enclosed forests and are slowly introduced to life in the wild. I was lucky I came during lunchtime, so I got a close up view of them as they collected their fruit and bamboo sticks.
What extraordinary creatures they are! Each has a unique personality and responded to our presence in a different way. The guides (whose chimp sounds were so convincing we couldn’t tell the difference) taught us to recognize the different calls and facial expressions. It seemed as though most of the chimps were very happy to see us. They jumped, laughed and showed off until their food arrived. They promptly devoured the meal and rolled over, bellies up, in a sort of monkey food-coma. Unfortunately, the chimps and I have that in common.
Sierra Leone is also world-renowned for its beaches. The best ones are outside Freetown and make Lumley Beach where I live look more like a dirty bathtub. I took a Land Rover with some friends up to Tokeh, on an incredible two-hour drive through the jungle. The terrain was the roughest I’ve encountered so far, but was well-worth the bruises. Surrounded by vines and brush filled with monkeys, deadly cobras and the insects of the most horrifying nature, I felt like the crocodile hunter as I splashed my way through the knee-deep rainy season mud puddles.
Tokeh is home to a beautiful resort, white sands and some of Sierra Leone’s best known civil war ruins. It was too cold and rainy to take a swim, but I took a walk along the beach and explored the remains of what used to be a grand hotel complex of more than 500 rooms. It was destroyed by rebels during the 10-year conflict and is now overrun by mold, algae and coconut husks. As far as “ruins” go, Tokeh is positively new in age – but it has no less of an impact on those who visit and are reminded of the deadly clash that took place there.
Freetown itself also has some great historical sites. Out near the Old Wharf facing the Atlantic Ocean lie the “Portuguese Stairs,” constructed in the early 1800s. Many African slaves took their last steps on home soil here, as they were led down onto ships to be sent overseas. Decades later, when freed slaves returned home, they took the very same stairs up to town, earning their local name of “Freedom Steps.”
(Images from left to right: Tokeh Beach, 10-year-old ruins from a hotel complex at Tokeh Beach, Freedom Steps, The Cotton Tree)
According to legend, when they reached the top of the stairs the first thing they saw was a massive tree in the centre of town. Once upon a time, the tree provided shade over the thriving slave market below. But today, still growing in the middle of Freetown – the Cotton Tree serves as a historical landmark and symbol of Sierra Leone’s colonial past. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to soak in its ambiance for long – I was soon chased away by a soldier, shouting at me with a gun in his arms. In a game of gun-camera-tourist, camera may beat tourist, but gun always beats camera. Some people just don’t understand about the fever.
Luckily, most of Freetown’s market merchants DO know about the fever, and are willing to put up with the symptoms if you ask nicely. I made friends with a few of the shopkeepers in the Big Market, where beautiful crafts, fabrics and artifacts stretch as far as the eye can see. I bought my Africana wear from Auntie Kadie, but had a hard time choosing between the thousands of different designs stacked in every square inch of the warehouse. If you plan on going shopping, be ready to strike a hard bargain. The market dealers will price everything at triple its worth and are experts at hassling tourists.
I tried to learn more about Sierra Leone’s history from the National Museum, but every time I stop by, it’s closed. I hear it contains an impressive collection of ceremonial masks, costumes and instruments, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be seeing them before I leave. Outside the gates lies a sign that reads, “Papa Government – wi don work for nine months wi nor get we salary,” which essentially means the museum workers are on strike because they haven’t been paid in nearly a year.
Looking for something with hours that are a little more reliable? Try the bar – the only place in Freetown guaranteed never to go on strike. The club scene here is phenomenal and the best spots are in Aberdeen, which is not far from where I live. The party doesn’t start until midnight and end until 5 a.m., but you won’t find better dancing or cheaper drinks anywhere. A favourite little hub of mine is Atlantic, which is closest to my house and crawling with expats, volunteers and locals by about 11 p.m. Atlantic opens right onto the beach, so if I get tired of hearing mainstream 90s hits (which seem very popular here), I hop off the patio and chase the sand crabs under the moonlight.
If you’ve got access to a vehicle (and you’re not too hungover), I highly recommend a driving tour of the peninsula. A good three-hour ride offers stunning mountain-top views and trails that run deep into the rainforest. The scenery is magnificent and the cliff-side roads are perilous, which make for what I consider to be an excellent adventure. Parts of the drive pass through small villages that sell fruit trees, wood carvings or forest-related products. As with most villages, children will come running when they see a foreigner, so expect to be hailed with calls of “Aporto!” or “Pumui!” wherever you go. In these cases, a wink, smile and a handshake go a long way.
I took a hike up Leicester Peak last week (a gorgeous hike if you have the time) only to be swarmed by the children from of mountain-side villages. I put on my best “pretty lady” smile and offered my hand for a high five. But instead of handshakes, these kids wanted a fully-fledged photo shoot! “Snap we! Snap we!” they cried, as I was instantly hit with the worst case of fever I have ever had. I let the symptoms take over and took a dozen or so photos. The kids were thrilled when I sat down with them to go over their new portfolio. It was a very special moment indeed.
Sierra Leone offers a wealth of unique experiences if you’re willing to travel a bit off the beaten track (one of my favourite expressions). There are four provinces and 12 districts full of culture and no two tribes are the same. When I met the Paramount Chief of Tonkolili I wasn’t allowed to take a photo – every place you visit will have its own laws and traditions.
Learning them is the most exciting part of travel in my opinion, even if it means I have to curb my camera enthusiasm. Slowly but surely, I am learning to control the fever and become a more selective photographer.
And I swear I’m improving… Okay, maybe not.
Week Six: “Democracy Begins with the Right to Speak”
This is the motto of the Independent Radio Network (IRN), the media station I work for in Freetown. After the commotion of last week, I thought it would be prudent to write about what I actually do here on a day-to-day basis. It may not be as dramatic or fast-paced as covering a shooting, but I genuinely believe my work here makes a difference.
I have gone over this phrase again and again since my first day in Sierra Leone. Democracy begins with the right to speak – simple words that pack a powerful punch in a country where voices are often oppressed. Coming from a country like Canada, it’s difficult to truly appreciate their meaning, but the more time I spend here the more I understand.
Sierra Leone’s past is marked by political violence, an overly centralized government and a 10-year civil war that has devastated the country. As a result, many of its people have struggled to participate in civil and political decision-making. For years, corruption has left out the voices of marginalized groups such women, children and the rural community.
Part of my job is to find ways to include these voices in IRN’s radio programs. IRN is a network of 25 community stations across the country, who believe this inclusion is vital to Sierra Leone’s development. I listen to their broadcasts with an ear for content and technical quality, make recommendations to the national co-ordinator and speak with producers from all over the country to resolve any ethical or production challenges they are facing. This is an enjoyable task not only because the programs and people are engaging, but because it forces me to learn Krio whether I like it or not. Sometimes, I even get to guest host radio programs on Skyy Radio 106.6 FM, a neighbouring member station of IRN.
I also work for Search for Common Ground (SFCG), the NGO that brought me to Freetown and placed me at IRN. I blog for their website, write project reports, search for sponsorship, and represent IRN at production meetings. SFCG is heavily involved with the November presidential elections, so part of my work has been to create an evaluation form to help the elections observers monitor polling and voter registration.
Finally, I am leading a project to boost IRN’s online presence and audience interaction. At the moment, I am redesigning the network’s website, updating its content and serving as a temporary photographer. Those of you who know me may be shocked to hear I can be of any computer-related assistance at all – rest assured I am surprising myself too. In addition to putting the words and pictures together, I’ve put IRN on the social media map and now spend a great deal of time doing shameless self-promotion:
Had to, sorry.
Before I leave, I will teach the staff here to maintain the work I’ve started. But despite the attraction of social media from an interactive perspective, radio remains the best way to reach an audience in Sierra Leone. In a country where income, literacy and electricity are extremely low, few people consume information through any other medium. For this reason, IRN’s programs cover a great deal more than the breaking news of the day. They cover current affairs, social issues, conflict resolution and peace-building.
As such, my work has taken me all over Freetown and outside of it too. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve read all about my adventures at Mile 91 in Tonkolili. I look forward to next weekend, when I’ll be on my way to Bo to talk about elections coverage with IRN’s member stations.
Not too long ago, I visited the Sierra Leone House of Parliament to discuss a new radio program with the Deputy Speaker. I am honoured to have been able to meet him, I suspect I am one of the last people who did. He unexpectedly passed away earlier this week and my condolences go out to the Sierra Leonean people. While I was there, I was fortunate enough to be granted a tour of the grounds, which included the Parliamentary library, the Well of Parliament and the MP’s lounge. I was also permitted to sneak a photo, which is strictly against the rules.
This week, I went to a conference about women and governance in Sierra Leone. In attendance were journalists, human rights activists, feminists, NGO leaders and educators from the Western Area Province. I have never met a more vibrant and spirited group of women, and felt right at home delving into issues of women’s education, health, representation and livelihood. I learned how Sierra Leone’s traditional social and cultural roles inhibit their active participation in political and professional life – a perfect example of how certain voices are oppressed in this country.
I thought about IRN’s motto – Democracy begins with the right to speak. I looked around the room as the women discussed these issues in small groups. They can talk about them all they want, I thought, but that doesn’t mean anyone will hear them.
I decided to listen to a few voices of my own, starting with my coworkers at IRN. I asked my colleague Ezekiel whether he felt his voice had ever been sidelined.
“I want to be a star,” he said, “a great stage actor.” His eyes lit up at the thought, but dimmed just as quickly. He said in Sierra Leone, pursuing such a dream is not in the cards.
“The government doesn’t listen to what you want,” he said. “There is no appreciation for talent here, they don’t care. Instead I have to go to school and be a doctor or a manager.”
On the weekend, some little girls challenged me to a dance-off. Well they didn’t actually, but as they started shaking and twirling and showing off, it sure turned into one. After having my butt kicked by some six-year-olds, I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. They looked at me like they had never been asked such a question before. After a moment of deliberation, one of them said firmly, “a teacher.” The rest giggled and said they didn’t know. Their indecisiveness surprised me – at their age I had already decided to be a singer, a police officer and an artist. Like the women at the meeting, these girls have the freedom to speak – what they are missing is the opportunity.
And what is freedom without opportunity? This is a question I have asked myself often during my stay. For years, both have been limited in Sierra Leone. The more time I spend here, the more I appreciate this difference – a difference I never really considered back in Canada. IRN believes the inclusion of these voices is an important stepping stone in bridging this gap, and works tirelessly on-air and off-air to bring them to the political table. So though my days are not always exciting or fast-paced, there is no doubt in my mind that my work is important. Everything my co-workers and I do at IRN – no matter how small – brings us one step closer to a Sierra Leone where people can do more than just get by, they can pursue happiness in whatever way is fulfilling to them. After all, democracy may begin with the right to speak, but the right to speak begins with the opportunity.
Week Five: My First Rodeo
I still can’t decide whether I was in the right place at the wrong time, the wrong place at the right time, or some combination of both. Since I struggled to find the best way to use this phrase as a title, post number five is called “My First Rodeo.” As terrible as this week’s events were, I learned a lot from breaking my first story in a developing country.
On Monday an unidentified police officer shot four unarmed civilians in central Freetown, critically injuring three and wounding another. I will never forget that afternoon and the days that followed, not only because I was the first journalist on the scene, but because I saw it all from my office window.
It was about 2:30 p.m. when I heard gun fire for the first time in my life. I counted one, two, three and four shots. People started screaming and by the time the second round of bullets went out, I had already run to the window to see what was going on.
Outside was chaos – people were running in every direction, trying to get out of the line of fire. A man whose t-shirt was covered in blood stood up, met my eye, then ducked out of sight and was not seen again. It was terrifying – like a riot scene from a civil war film.
My co-workers told me to stay away from the window. They said everything would be fine and I could go back to doing my work. Still shocked, I sat back down and just stared at them. Everything was not fine, not even close. People had been shot outside – possibly dead – and nobody was there to help. There were no police officers, no reporters and no ambulances.
What was worse, is that nobody seemed to care all that much. Around the scene outside, people craned their necks out the window to see what was going on, then went back to their daily business. My own co-workers shook their heads, muttered something about police corruption and went back to their desks. I was utterly bewildered with how nonchalant everyone was, as though this is something that happens everyday. And then I remembered, I’m not in Canada. I’m in Sierra Leone, and things like this DO happen everyday.
So I did the only thing I felt like I could at the time – I went out and got the story. Thanks to four grueling years of Carleton University’s journalism program, this was practically instinct. Somebody needed to do something and I refused to be passive in a situation of such injustice. My heart was pounding as I closed the office door and stepped into the shouting mob.
I was the only journalist there and stuck out like a sore thumb. As a foreigner and a young person, I was worried my presence would be poorly received. But as I fought my way through the crowd to get my quotes, dozens of locals offered their assistance in finding witnesses and getting the photos. They clearly wanted this story told, no matter who reported it.
The officer had already fled the scene and (to my horror) the victims had been taken to the hospital in a taxi cab. At least it wasn’t an okada, I thought. I took pictures of the street in front of me, which was stained with blood and chipped with bullet holes. One of the shots had gone right through a store across the street. A young man picked up the bullet shells and showed them to me. He offered to translate as the witnesses answered my questions in Krio.
“He [the police officer] was dressed in civilian clothing and carrying a gun,” said Edmond Williams, an eyewitness. “He thought the youths were smoking marijuana.” He pointed to the spot where the victims were shot.
The officer went to arrest the three young men, but was refused entry into their home. He drew his weapon and called for back-up. The men assured him they had stolen nothing would come peacefully. Three more Sierra Leone Police (SLP) officers appeared just in time to see their colleague open-fire on the crowd. All the officers ran before they could be identified.
All three of the men were hit and 20-year-old Bailoh Johnson was clipped by a stray bullet fragment during the shooting.
“My right hand is heavy and I’m in a lot of pain,” said Johnson, clutching his bleeding arm. “I was scared to death, the police officers are crazy.” He was not even involved in the altercation, he explained, but part of the crowd outside.
Though he was not seriously injured, he was worried about the other victims who remain in the hospital, two in critical condition.
“I want him to lose his job and go to jail,” he said of the offending officer.
Unfortunately, this shooting was not an isolated incident. For years, police corruption and violence has been widespread across Sierra Leone. Offhand, I can think of at least four officer shootings since I’ve been here.
“The government needs to stop the use of rapid firearms,” said 22-year-old Bakarr Bangura, who arrived on scene shortly after the incident. Standing near a trail of blood on the street, he said it feels as though somebody new is shot by an officer every week.
“It is their usual habit,” he said. “The government gave them the green card.”
Bangura is referring to President Ernest Bai Koroma’s purchase of nearly $5 million of firearms only a few months ago, using foreign aid money intended for Sierra Leone’s development. The weapons were bought for the SLP, who is said to be loyal to Koroma’s political party.
My coverage of the event included an on-camera interview and a print story. Clips from the interview played on the national news (SLBC) for the next few days and my article was in Awoko newspaper a day later.
Though reporting the story helped me feel as though I didn’t just let it happen, it took time to get over the shock of the shooting. I couldn’t believe the men were shot on mere suspicion of smoking marijuana, and once in the hospital, one was abandoned by doctors because he didn’t have the extra cash to pay for their attention. I still jump at anything that sounds like gun fire – I was heartbroken from the corruption and shaken from the scene. All these things made me feel weak and unprofessional, yet I know that they are a natural part of being human. The internal conflict came from the fact that while I’m reporting, I’m not human – I am journalist. And according to the world, journalists are not supposed to sob.
There are three important things I hope people will take away from this post, the first being that we should never take for granted living in a country where incidents like this are extremely rare. In many places around the world people live in fear of such conflict every day. Unfortunately, Sierra Leone is one of them. When it happens, justice is not guaranteed, nor is rehabilitation for the victims.
Secondly, I hope people are inspired by the courage and resolve shown by the people of central Freetown. In the presence of danger, they were willing to be quoted by name and face, hoping that justice would be served. I admire their willingness to involve me, a foreigner, in a very sensitive local issue, even though it shone their country in a poor light. This demonstrates a true desire for change and a grassroots commitment to creating a more democratic and transparent Sierra Leone.
And the third is that being human is a vital part of being a journalist. Despite our reputation for being stone-cold, and for substituting human feelings for the thrill of the scoop – many reporters find emotional detachment the best way to deal with the trauma they encounter in the field. But that doesn’t mean we don’t or can’t care and feel. On the contrary, it is only through passion and a deep concern for humanity that we come to do what we do at all. Covering this story made me realize that just because you report the story doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel for it. If you didn’t feel for it, you wouldn’t be reporting the story.
So whether I was in the right place or the wrong place, at the wrong time or the right time, one thing is certain: I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and did what I though was right. In retrospect, this may not have been the smartest move in terms of my safety, but the story got published and the officer accused is undergoing a full investigation.
Not bad for my first rodeo.
Week Three and Four: Life in African Standard Time (AST)
Now that I’ve been here for an entire month, people keep asking me – “So how do you like Sierra Leone?” I wish I could come up with a more descriptive answer than “good” or “fine,” but the question is deceptive in its simplicity. There is simply no way to describe my experience here in a phrase or two. In the last four weeks I have cut up my legs trying to body surf, waded through the flooded streets of Freetown and been stranded in a jungle. Last weekend, I broke a jar of jam in a restaurant and accidentally squashed a frog. But crazy and hectic is all part of my routine here, and all a part of living in African Standard Time (AST).
In order to beat morning traffic, my weekdays start quite early. I am out the door by 7 a.m. to start the hazardous, polluted and incredibly bumpy half-hour drive to work. Needless to say, I am wide awake by the time I get there. My office at the Independent Radio Network (IRN) is only 10-minute walk from where I get dropped off, but because of AST it takes double that time to get there. This is largely due to the rainy season puddles and the number of people who stop to greet me along the the way. Calls of “White girl, white girl!” follow me wherever I go – as do giggles, stares and jokes made in Krio. Every day, about 10 new people approach me and ask to be my friend, while 10 more ask me if I remember them from the day before.
By the time I get to work, the power is out and I am alone until around 10 a.m. I spend this time jotting down story ideas, writing my reports and observing the healthy lizard population that lives outside the office. If the blackout persists, Ezekiel and I play ting tang too – which is a more complicated African version of tic tac toe, but played with paper and seeds. Ezekiel beats me every time, but loses at ‘squares,’ which is a paper game I taught him. I eat a second breakfast and lunch with my co-workers Millicent and Sahr, who insist that all our meals be eaten together.
Last week, I was officially ‘initiated’ by the IRN team – a rite of passage that involved consuming the spiciest rice, followed by the sourest fruit on the market. After I passed the rice test and devoured my ‘monkey wine,’ I was given my very own Sierra Leonean name – Pumui Mangenda, which means “white girl” and “child of God born in the morning.” I am now so used to both this name and being called “white woman” that responding to ‘Elizabeth’ will seem strange when I get home.
I finish work around 5 p.m., and am met by what I call my ‘entourage’ of regular school girls. They follow me on the walk to the car every day, bouncing around behind me with their hips waving and their chests out. I turn around suddenly, and they all giggle and freeze as though they have not been making fun of me. I asked them this week why the way I walk is so funny, and one of them said, “Auntie – it’s because you catwalk!” They all roared with laughter. Apparently women here are supposed to walk slowly. I walk quickly, which makes me a “cat-walker.”
As I pull into my driveway around 7 p.m., I am greeted by Fat Boy and Kohla. Our two dogs are energetic and relentless, and so is Kitty – who will mew four hours unless we feed him our leftover fish. What picky eaters we have in the house! We bought Kitty his very own can of sardines so he would stop bothering us, but he turned his nose up at it because it wasn’t fresh. He shot us look that very plainly said, “That’s poor-cat food,” so I told him he was spoiled. The dogs on the other hand, eat only rice and cassava and refuse to eat the “dog food” Sue brought them from Canada. I suppose this makes sense seeing as there isn’t any packaged dog food here, but I still laugh at the idea of feeding rice to a dog back home.
A typical night for me consists of dinner, exercise, a bit of work and reading, then bed. If I’m feeling really wild, I watch a movie and even make myself some popcorn. Since we don’t have a microwave, I pour my bag of popcorn into a pot on the stove. I learned quickly to use a lid after the kernels exploded all over the kitchen the first time.
Thanks to a work trip out of Freetown, last week I had one of the most atypical nights of my life. My co-workers and I were sent to Tonkolili District in the Northern Province for a meeting with the managers of IRN’s 25 community radio stations. We discussed the production challenges and ethical issues facing our journalists as the November presidential election approaches. Across the board, the most common obstacles seemed to be lack of equipment, power failure, political pressure and transportation of material. Though I enjoyed comparing experiences with producers from from all over the country, the most exciting part of the trip was definitely the drive there and the adventure on the way back.
At 5:45 a.m. I walked to the bottom of Juba Hill in the dark to meet our driver. I had forgotten about AST, which meant he wouldn’t be there till around 6:30. By 7 a.m., my coworkers and I were on our way to Tonkolili, which is two and a half hours away on a pot-hole covered highway. We drove through fields, jungle and about 15 small villages. I can only imagine how silly I looked to my Sierra Leonean peers, snapping dozens of pictures of everyday items like trees, water pumps and palm rooftops. They all grew up in rural communities and see nothing extraordinary about such things. But for me they are a reminder not only of how beautiful and diverse the world is, but how blessed I am at home. I have always fought the stereotype that all Africa looks like the World Vision commercials we see on TV, but I have to admit that almost all of these communities were sponsored by one charity or another. In fact, they bore a striking resemblance to the ones in the ads, but with one important difference – these children were smiling.
Because the meeting was conducted in AST, it started an hour late and ended two hours late – which meant we would be driving home in the dark. This is dangerous even in a proper vehicle, so it was unfortunate that we then discovered our car had no lights, no speedometer and no rear-view mirror. We drove slowly and kept our four-ways on, but still only narrowly dodged a head-on collision in the lane beside us. A few kilometres later, we sped past a delivery truck whose underside was on fire. Both of these times I wanted to stop and help out, but my co-workers wouldn’t allow it. To stop the car in the dark, in the middle of nowhere with a white person was far too dangerous.
With every bump in the road, I could feel our car fall a little more apart. About five hours into the “two-hour drive,” the engine stopped working completely. I waited by the side of the road while the driver fixed the engine. I was nervous and exhausted, but as I stared up at the moon through the palm trees, somewhere in between Tonkolili and Freetown, I couldn’t help but think I was the luckiest person alive. The radiator broke down two more times before we finally pulled into my driveway, at around 1:30 a.m. The car was smoking and hissing furiously, and I was six hours late, but like I said – crazy and hectic is all part of the routine here. And thanks to AST, it didn’t matter that I was six hours late, Fat Boy and Kohla greeted me at the gates just the same.
Week Two: Survival of the Fittest
Everyone has different interpretations of what it means to truly ‘live.’ In Canada, we have the incredible luxury of defining the term as we please. For some, living means acquiring a certain amount of property or expendable income. For others, it is beautiful scenery, the enjoyment of a happy family and a glass of 12-year-old scotch. Either way, our definitions of living change over time as we age, mature and find new meaning in the conditions of our everyday lives.
During the last two weeks, I’ve been able to visit a few of Freetown’s slums. In these places, definitions of ‘living’ are restricted to ‘surviving,’ and in one of the poorest countries in the world, dreaming for more than survival is a luxury most cannot afford. Here, among the decay, swine and toxicity of garbage and feces, many urban Sierra Leoneans form their definitions of living. And as I passed by children – bone-thin but bloated from malnutrition, I wondered how their interpretations would change over time. Would things like travel, sports cars or a university education ever become part of what they expect for their lives?
Leaving the slums, I found myself re-evaluating my own definition of living. After seeing how blurred the line between living and survival can become, the challenges I encounter as I learn to survive here seem so incredibly insignificant. Nevertheless, they are helping me to better understand the conditions of the world around me. In a country where the ruling law is the survival of the fittest, I am learning to put my own survival in perspective.
In Freetown, I quickly learned that I would only be given one opportunity to learn how to do something before being expected to perform on my own. For the first time in my travelling experience, it is up to me to find my own methods of survival, which so far have included a number of interesting lessons, compromises and adaptations.
Already, I’ve learned that time is a very fluid concept in Sierra Leone. I now know that “20 minutes” is really an hour, “on time” means half an hour late, and “I’ll call you later” means “I’ll call you in the morning, afternoon and night, and probably send you three or four text messages in between.”
Only two weeks into my trip, I am expected to understand and respond to conversation in Krio, which is challenging even if spoken slowly. Many of my co-workers have stopped speaking to me in English, but will translate if I give them my best look of ‘pleading.’ But conversation with locals has revealed that my efforts to learn Krio are much appreciated, as are the few words I have learned in Mende, Limba, Temne and Mandingo. As such, I will continue my lessons with Ezekiel and hope that by the time I leave Freetown, I will be able to understand the seemingly constant flow of jokes people make about me as I walk by.
Another crucial part of survival is eating – a challenge to which, in my own opinion, I have risen marvelously. Out of necessity, my feelings for mango and pineapple have shifted from “dislike” to “tolerance,” as both are served for breakfast every morning. I no longer think twice about being served something that has eyes, teeth and fins, and am quite fond of the ground nut sauce, couscous and plantains that Aminata makes once a week as a treat. I can now stomach the spiciness of local dishes such as foufou and pepper soup but I don’t think I will ever get used to the honey, which comes straight from the bush and is unbearably sweet.
One of the most important “sink or swim” lessons I have learned so far is how to navigate the city. The roads here are tough (most unpaved) and covered in potholes, and the drivers are… prioritized. Pedestrians never have the right of way here and jumping off the road at the sound of an oncoming vehicle has become second nature for me. I am still getting the hang of public transport, which is complicated even at the best of times. Cabs are shared between three or four people, which means they don’t drop you off at your destination, but a landmark in the direction all the passengers want to go. It takes three cabs at three different landmarks just to get to work – if I am lucky enough to find one that will take me at regular price.
For these reasons, I prefer to travel by okada or poda poda. The okadas (motorbike taxis) can be dangerous, but I select my drivers carefully, choose a vehicle with an extra helmet and ask for them to drive safely. Okadas are a fast, fun and inexpensive means of getting around, and when you drive on a bumpy road, it feels just like a roller coaster. The poda podas are cheap too – large vans with makeshift seating and about 16 people crammed inside. I still have the bruises from my first poda poda ride, which took me all the way from work to home for about 25 cents. The problem with poda podas is finding one going in your direction and with enough space to seat you.
Another most important condition of survival here is football. For Le 1,000 you can go watch the game in a hall with a tiny television set and dozens of locals gathered around it. I went to my first match with Aminata and learned instantly that survival in Sierra Leone means being an England fan – people here are quite passionate about football and get VERY upset when their team loses. Needless to say, I have converted. In the case of pick-up football on the beach, survival means keeping up with the fancy footwork of the locals and dealing with the scrapes and cuts that come with playing on rough sand. I played last weekend and to everyone’s shock, I kept up pretty well. People seemed to get a hoot out of watching “the white girl play,” and were astonished that I continued to play after cutting my knee and bruising myself. Like I said, survival of the fittest.
Even my bedroom has become a kind of Darwinian chamber where only the strong survive. For the last two weeks, I have waged war on all critters intent on invading, including spiders, tiny worms, mosquitoes and flies. A few days ago, I was defeated by a Four O’Clock – a tiny little lizard who saw fit to jump on my desk while I was writing. According to local legend, if you are bitten by or kill one of these animals, you will die at exactly 4 p.m. the following day (hence the name). Had I known this while it was in my room, perhaps I would not have been so intent on catching it. He escaped this time, and I hope he uses his freedom to tell all his friends about me – I dare them to come back.
I am fortunate enough to be able to include a few creature comforts in my survival strategy. On the weekend, I went out for a for a beer with a co-worker and thoroughly enjoyed the local brew, called “Star.” It has a pleasant apricot flavour, is made from cassava leaves and costs less than a dollar. I also enjoy KD Fridays, the final day of the week when I treat myself to one of the boxes of Kraft Dinner I brought with me.
The noodles are a most welcome change to the fish and salad I eat every other day of the week and are usually accompanied by a movie on my laptop. I bought a disc containing 12 movies (out of a very wide selection of pirated DVDs I might add), three of which unfortunately, are Disney’s High School Musical. I am truly at a loss as to why this series is so popular here and seems to be the only Disney film anyone has heard of. Oh well, survival of the fittest I guess.
I have lots of things to occupy me in my free time. I read, write, exercise and explore the city. On the few days it isn’t pouring rain, I walk home on the beach and watch the sunset. I am not usually a romantic, but I enjoy the tranquility of the early evening after all the fishermen have gone home. For fun, I climb to the top of Juba Hill, which is as straining on my legs as it is stunning for my eyes. From the top of the hill, you can see virtually all of Freetown – the beaches, mountains and little houses below. Life in Sierra Leone is hard, but beautiful views like these ones make me think, even just for a moment, that perhaps some aspects of ‘living’ are naturally infused with ‘surviving.’
Week One: Welcome to the Land of Big Smiles
If you drive around Freetown, you’ll probably notice a sign or two welcoming tourists to the “Land of Big Smiles.” It’s not an inaccurate sign either – every day here, I am smiled at and welcomed to Sierra Leone by someone new. Despite their cheerful disposition, the people here live a hard life. Only 10 years out of a civil war that tore the country apart, most Sierra Leoneans struggle to survive and feed their families on less than $50 a month. Without basic amenities such as electricity, running water or compulsory education, many earn a subsistence living off of agriculture, mining, or in the worst of cases – crime.
My journey here began when I left Canada on June 9, to a very short and tearful goodbye from my parents. I was disappointed to leave my Nutella, spare batteries and lotion behind because my suitcase was too heavy, but otherwise, my flight from Montreal to Paris went off without a hitch. With few minutes to spare in Paris, I ran to my terminal to make the connecting flight to Freetown. Reality sunk in as I boarded a plane full African men, few women, and almost no other white people. I was lucky to meet Pat, a 50-something-year-old Irish businessman who has lived in and out of Freetown for years. He offered me guidance, his business card, and a few dollars in the local currency to get me started. My nerves returned however, when 90 per cent of the plane’s passengers got off in Conakry, Guinea. Sierra Leone was clearly not a popular destination.
The drive from the port to Freetown is difficult to describe. It didn’t seem real to me, even though it was as real as reality could get. I passed naked children playing outside of tin shack homes, women dodging potholes with giant baskets balanced on their heads and men working the fields with machetes. When I arrived in Freetown, it was unlike any capital I had ever seen – tired, run-down and broken. I couldn’t detect
an ounce of grandeur as I surveyed the chipped paint, pot holes and crumbling buildings – undoubtedly remnants of the civil war. But as I learned throughout my first week, the colour and vibrancy of Sierra Leone comes from its people, their big smiles, sense of humour and unshakeable hope for the bright future of their country. No matter where you go in this city, you are likely to find someone dancing, singing or arguing vehemently about the latest football match.
(Garbage covers the streams, and markets that supply most of Western Freetown. Somehow, little fish survive in the pools).
I live in a guest house on Juba Hill, in Lumley, Freetown. My room is modest and like most Sierra Leoneans, I live without running water, consistent electricity and toilet seats. I expect to have thighs of steel by the end of my trip from lifting the heavy buckets of water required to hand-flush them. I will also be a master of the art of bucket-bathing.
On Monday, Sue took me grocery shopping at the local market. I quickly learned that eating “Western” food is expensive here, and I paid about $35 for apples, a can of tuna, water, peanut butter, bread, jam and beans. I am now trying to do everything the “African” way, which means skinning my own fish every night and carrying my buckets on my head. I have done three fishes so far, but am still nowhere near as good as Aminata, who can get all the bones out cleanly without wasting an ounce of meat.
On Tuesday, Uncle Pat helped me learn how to cab from work to home. We had a difficult time getting a driver to take us at regular price, because most insist on having a white person pay extra for a private ride. With a bit of convincing however, Uncle Pat managed to get a driver to take both of us, but it still cost us double because of my skin colour. Even at a double rate, I was able to cross town for only 8,000 Leones (about $2). Before I leave, I am going to brave an okada (motorbike) taxi which is frightening, but much more exciting.
My great victories of the week were getting a local phone and an internet stick so I can go online at home. On the weekend, I went to Lumley Beach and ended up helping some local fishermen haul in their nets. I yanked my very own barracuda out of the twine and tossed it into the bucket like a pro. Here, fish are described as “life-giving,” or called “fish of life,” because of how many they feed and provide for. I also went to the local market, which was a… trying experience.
The market in West Freetown is busy and aggressive. Seeing exactly where my food comes from was difficult, because it forced me to accept that it sits on dirty newspapers and is crawled on by flies for hours before it reaches my plate (in the house we boil everything mercilessly before eating it). Regardless, I learned how much to pay for things and how to navigate the food stalls with less than an inch of space to work with. I also met our “Fish Mother,” the charming old woman Aminata buys our snappers from every week.
I learn about more about how to live and survive in Freetown each day, and I look forward to being able to navigate the town on my own. For now, I keep myself busy with reading, writing, and Krio lessons from my coworker Ezekiel. It goes without saying that the next two months with be the most challenging I have had so far, but with a sense of humour, determination and open-mindedness, I am confident they will also be the greatest. I am in for the experience of a lifetime, and as they say in Krio, “Jon soup trow away inside jon res,” which basically means that if you get yourself into something, you’ll get yourself out just fine.
I got to my house at around 7:30pm, feeling a bit overwhelmed and extremely jet-lagged. My welcoming party consisted of Sue (another Canadian with SFCG), Uncle Pat (a Sierra Leonean SFCG worker) and Aminata (the house keeper). Dinner was ready and waiting – barracuda, ground nut sauce and couscous. I ate, asked questions, and tried to go to bed, but couldn’t. I had set up my mosquito net in the most peculiar and claustrophobia-inducing way possible, which gave Aminata a good laugh when she came in the next morning. Life in Sierra Leone starts early and ends late, with the club music often playing until past 3 a.m. I know this because unfortunately, there is a club right outside by bedroom window.