Freetown, Baby!

Land that we love
July 18, 2011, 6:30 pm
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They love a bit of ceremony in Sierra Leone. No occasion is too lowly for pomp and circumstance, speeches and votes of thanks. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to receive an agenda for my “Farewell Ceremony” on my penultimate day:

“1. Prayers
2. Master of Ceremony
3. Speeches (15 mins)
4. Statement from Mr Samson [sic], (10 mins)
etc. etc.”

My first thought was that it was a joke – I being the guy who continually pesters my counterparts to plan in advance (including by writing agendas). But when Musa asked if I would be around at the appointed time, I guessed they really must be serious.

Somewhat typically, the time on the handout didn’t match the time in the email sent round, which led to all kinds of palaver. When we got round to them, the speeches were genuinely touching. I just about believed the kind words, interspersed as they were with plenty of jokes at my expense. When my turn came I found myself welling up; my thanks too were genuine and it will be a real wrench to leave.

As the “Ceremony” wrapped up and people wandered out, I thought of the President’s public meetings. They open and close with the National Anthem played from a grainy old recording. When the tune it reaches the rousing final bars, I feel the hair on my neck stand up. I think about how much I’ve come to love the place, how much it will stay with me, and what an amazing experience it’s been to be part of the country’s journey, if only in a small way. And as the last phrases of music play, I hear the words in my head:

“High we exhault thee, realm of the free
Land that we love, our Sierra Leone.”

Big Brother
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
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.”

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.

Pastor Pratt
May 27, 2011, 11:24 am
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A couple of weeks back I received and invite from Musa to his church’s annual choir celebration. Despite not being religious – a concept as alien to Sierra Leonean as the idea of not getting dressed before you leave the house – I thought I’d go along to support his church.

The service was due to start at 10:00am, but having been advised to show up on “Salone time” we rolled up 45 minutes late (it isn’t uncommon for meetings to start one and a half hours late). Imagine our surprise to find the service well underway. Fortunately though, we hadn’t missed the main acts. In addition to the choir from the host church (a fairly low, Wesleyan, congregation), there was a visiting choir from the East End of Freetown. Each sung a medley of hymns. The first was slow and ponderous and wouldn’t have been out of place in an English church, the second was full of gusto, with finger clicking, swaying and “hallelujahs”.

This set the scene for the lesson from guest preacher; Reverend Pratt. Appropriately enough for a celebration of the choir, he took as his theme the power of music to inspire and educate. Having commended the hymns he launched into a diatribe against the Salone chart; songs about loose women, lovers, and liars. With each song or artist he name-checked there was an increasing roar of recognition from the congregation (especially our friends from the East End). Scowling and warming to his message, the pastor roared at the congregation; “Dis na sexual biznes, dis na wickedness!”

Alongside the predictably conservative injunction was an uplifting message. People should be happy being who they are. “If you’re fat, you’re fat, if you’re thin, you’re thin. Don’t try to be like anyone else.” And gesturing towards us: “let the white people be white, you are black, and should be proud of it. Just imagine it; we are now preaching the gospel to them!” He certainly put us in our place.

May 20, 2011, 1:44 pm
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One of the oddest things about the expat life is having staff working for you. Guards man the gate at your apartment, cleaners tidy up after you, messengers in the office run errands and drivers take you “hither and thither”, as well as generally managing your life. I read PG Wodehouse for the first time the other week and was struck by the similarities between the faithful Jeeves and my driver, Musa. Maybe not the digressions into poetry (from classical to romantic), but the laconic “Yes, sir”, “No, sir”, and the ability to deal with any situation with minimal fuss were eerily familiar. Car slides off the road – Musa gets it back on track. Petrol shortage in town – Musa will find some. Something stolen – Musa knows where to look for it.

He is a man of few words and two passions; God and football. He is a regular church-goer at the Wesleyan Chapel in Lumley, where he sings in the choir. When I asked him what he’d like from the UK when I made my last visit the answer was immediate – a good Bible. Maybe it’s his religious faith that gives him such eternal optimism regarding the fortunes of Arsenal FC. Victories are confidently predicted before each match, whether we’re playing Birmingham or Barcelona, and each defeat is met with the same shrug of the shoulders and confident assertion that we’ll win next week.

Driving in and out of State House I noticed a lot of people call him “Cannavaro” – I presumed after the diminutive Italian who captained them to World Cup victory. “Musa, do they call you Cannavaro because you play in defence?” “Yes boss.” I thought for a moment, “but he is short and you’re tall. Why Cannavaro of all defenders?” Hunched over the wheel, he let out a small laugh, and gave a classic one word response: “Aggression.” Placid off the pitch, it appears the game unleashes an alter ego. I can’t imagine any other situation where Musa would be described as aggressive, least of all while singing from the stalls.

Message from the President
April 27, 2011, 6:21 pm
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It’s not every day that you get a text from the President.

“Congratulations to all Sierra Leoneans on our country’s fiftieth Independence Anniversary. May the patriotism, unity and dedication we have shown during this great moment always abide with us as we move fifty years forward with the new Sierra Leone.

Ernest Bai Koroma President.”

Happy 50th Mama Salone
April 26, 2011, 1:14 pm
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Bunting lines the streets, a Public Holiday has been declared and there is a palpable sense of excitement everywhere you go. It’s not the Royal Wedding, but an event happening tomorrow – the Fiftieth Anniversary of Sierra Leone’s Independence. Saturday street cleaning has continued over the last month or so, and every paving slab, tree or stone by the roadside has been painted with the Sierra Leone tricolour – blue, white and green. Slogans are painted on walls through town: “Slavery lasted a time, Freedom forever”, “Happy 50th Mama Salone”.

To coordinate the celebrations, the Government set up a committee. A few months ago several senior members, including the National Co-ordinator, were sacked by President following accusations of embezzling funds. But this doesn’t seem to have stemmed the popular enthusiasm: there is a real sense that the country has put its darkest hour behind it. Even the scandal offers some hope would the perpetrators have faced any consequences 10, or even 5 years ago, people ask.

At the weekend I took some friends over from Liberia for a stroll through the Krio villages on the peninsula. We bumped into one of the team drivers who lives in Leicester, and got talking to him about the decorations in the village; the paintings and the bunting. “Did the Government provide money to buy things? Were the village elders involved?” It turns out that the youths had scraped together the money. “Come, I’ll show you the tailor’s shop.” In his little stall the tailor was stitching together lengths of fabric with blue, white and green triangles. Every yard of bunting through the village, and there was plenty of it, had been made here.

I’m sure the English revellers will be enjoying the Royal Wedding later this week, but I wonder how much people would be willing to pay out of their own pocket for the privilege.

Sign Language
April 15, 2011, 2:57 pm
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Despite being the official language, there are occasional signs that English isn’t the first language in Salone. Sometimes its the choice of archaic vocabulary; people are asked to “proffer” views, and situations are often described as “obtaining”. But sometimes you’re just hit with a phrase that an English speaker of English would never use.

I can only wonder at the dregs of Freetown society left on the shelf from “Desperate Chicks Vol. 1”.

Revellers would probably do well to take heed of this warning on the Masiaka highway.

Safe journey? I’m not so sure.

Echoes of Empire
April 12, 2011, 3:19 pm
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It’s easy to forget that Sierra Leone was once part of the British Empire. There aren’t many colonial era Government buildings in town – just the Law Courts and the Finance Ministry. The only houses left from the 1940s are the lathboard abodes in my neighbourhood – reportedly bought flatpacked from Harrods! There is the odd colonial-era building still standing in town, but they have often acquired a distinct West African patina.

Just occasionally though, there is a sight that reminds you that the Union Jack once flew. I’ve never heard of letters being delivered by anything other than hand, but on the Murray Town Road is a faded red letter box. I wonder when the last letter was collected, and I dread to think what’s in there now.

Out of the way on the peak of Sugarloaf mountain outside Freetown is a survey stone which has sat uninterrupted for over a hundred years.

And on the road round the peninsula there is a disused railway station.

Were it not for the walls made of laterite blocks and the tropical trees one might almost be on the South Coast.