Freetown, Baby!

Big Brother by jc2010sl
June 30, 2011, 7:55 pm
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A couple of months ago adverts started appearing in the local papers advising residents to obtain National Identity cards. One presumes the system was paid for by considerable cross-subsidy given that expats paid 440,000 leones (about 100 US Dollars) while locals paid 50,000 leones.

I was surprised to find the process not nearly as labyrinthine as I thought. I was fortunate that someone in my team had gone as a Guinea pig the week before. I was further aided that my colleague shared a surname with the head of the office – a co-incidence he seemed to delight in. I was shuttled from place to place and accorded the due dignity owed to “Mr’s Goodman’s colleague.” If anything, it was Kafka in reverse.

Given the recent furore in UK over the proposed introduction of ID cards, you might well ask if there was a similar debate in Salone over the need and rationale for the cards. If there was a debate, it passed me and everyone I know by. The Government Press Release was equally uninformative, stating baldly “The National Registration Secretariat is pleased to inform the general public that it will soon commence nationwide registration and issuance of biometric national identity cards.”

The cynic in me thought that whatever the purpose, the police would find a way to profit. “No ID card, sir? I’m sure we can make an arrangement.” But 3 months on (and having been asked for my driving licence on a couple of occasions) I’ve yet to be asked for my ID card. Maybe the police aren’t as enterprising as I thought, or maybe just more honest.


The Syrians by jc2010sl
June 16, 2011, 1:13 pm
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It’s a phenomenon all across West Africa. Wherever you go you’ll find most of the local businesses – shops, restaurants, letting agencies – are run by Lebanese. There is a similar pattern of expatriate ownership in East Africa, but there the immigrants are from the Indian sub-continent. The trip across the Indian Ocean makes some kind of sense, but I can’t get my head around why Lebanese in the mid-nineteenth century sailed all the way across the Mediterranean and then down the African coast. Apparently they were on their way to South America and got lost – or ripped off on the fare depending on which story you believe. Whichever is true, it begs more questions than it answers.

Despite having lived here for 3 generations, the Lebanese tend to keep themselves apart from African Sierra Leoneans. They have retained a distinct cultural identity, re-enforced by regular trips back to the Lebanon. The national identity of the older generation is even more confused. At an electronics shop the other week I was asked by the owner where I was from. “I’m British,” I told him. “Me too!” He looked Lebanese and I asked him when he arrived in Sierra Leone. “Oh no, I was born here in the last days of the British Empire – so I’m one of you.”

The cultural separation from Salone is ironic given many Lebanese are so keen to become Sierra Leonean citizens. The Lebanese landlord of some friends, a well known Freetown personality, recently went on a hunger strike in protest at being denied citizenship. The reason citizenship is so sought after is that enables various forms of land-ownership denied to “foreigners” (even those born in Salone).

And the final twist? In Krio, they aren’t even known as “Lebanese”, because when the language evolved the Lebanon didn’t yet exist. What became Lebanon was part of a larger entity. So they’re known by Sierra Leoneans as “Syrians.”

Guma by jc2010sl
June 12, 2011, 3:54 pm
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Days of sunshine are a rarity these days. When I woke up last Saturday to a nigh-on cloudless sky I decided this was probably the last chance for a forest walk before I head back. A friend and I headed down the beach road and parked just past one of the rickety bridges that cross the streams flowing from the peninsula forest. A three hour scramble up and across the hillside brought us to the Guma Valley Dam, the reservoir that serves most of Freetown.

It was constructed in the 1940s when the city housed just over a 100,000 souls. A far-sighted colonial bureaucrat reckoned on serious population expansion, so provided for more than double the need at the time. Unfortunately, he didn’t see far enough ahead – the dam is now woefully inadequate for a population estimated at 1.5 million and growing. Water shortages are particularly acute in the poorer east end – by the time the supply has worked its way through the city, there is barely any left.

The chronic lack of water is a huge problem, and one set to worsen if deforestation on the peninsula continues. The forest is critical to the peninsula’s micro-ecosystem – it prevents rainwater running straight off to the sea, and keeps the city cooler by absorbing less heat than bare rock or savanna would.

Driving home, we spot a spurt of water shooting into the road. Presumably it’s one of the many illegal taps from the main pipeline that’s been badly installed. Whatever the cause, these drops are too precious to waste.