Freetown, Baby!

The Game by mabrajeux
November 30, 2010, 11:44 am
Filed under: entertainment, photos, public life, society, travels | Tags: , ,

The first time I visited Moyamba, I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to stay in the recommended guesthouse, which also doubled up as … a stadium! It’s hard to explain the feat of architecture that allowed this amazing combination, but basically the rooms are underneath the steps which overlook the gamefield…

As I’m sure you’ll understand, I was therefore incredibly excited when, on my second visit to Moyamba, I managed to bag myself a room at ‘The Stadium’! Although the TV wasn’t working, the place still provided a predictable entertainment for my evenings in town: the national Sierra Leonean football tournament involving such talented teams as Bo, Bonthe, Moyamba, etc…

All three nights I stayed in Moyamba, I was greeted, as I came home from a day-long workshop, by hundreds of locals, cheering, shouting, sucking cough drops and oranges – you don’t eat oranges in Salone, you suck the juice out of them, this being the end result:

The atmosphere is hard to describe so I’ll let the shots do the talking…

Taxi Driver by jc2010sl
October 7, 2010, 10:53 pm
Filed under: society | Tags: , ,

It’s the same the world over – wherever you go the taxi drivers have some kind of scam. In Thailand they say the attraction is closed today, but they know a great little souvenir shop. Surprisingly enough it’s owned by their friend and you’re not allowed out until you’ve bought something. In India horns are attached to the meter so that every time your driver vents his fury, the price shoots up. One of my friends experienced Sierra Leone’s version the other day. Sitting in the back seat (and we’re talking 4 people squeezed across the back of a Nissan Sunny, not a Hackney cab) someone leaned over her to “close the door”. It was only afterwards she realised her phone and wallet had been snatched.

It suddenly occurred to me that someone had tried the same scam on me a few weeks before. I can’t say that I particularly suspected the guy leaning over to “close” the door; I guess I was just wary enough to avert an annoying phone theft. Even though I’d managed to avoid being pick-pocketed I still felt slightly pissed off that someone had tried to steal from me.

And then I realised how ridiculous this reaction was compared with the potential response of Freetownians each time they get into a cab. Most taxi drivers are ex-combattants from the civil war. A key plank of the country’s Demilitarisation, Demobilisation and Rehabilitation (DDR) strategy after the war was to give the disaffected youth a stake in society and a way out of their banditry. For many this meant trading their AKs for a little capital and buying taxis or okadas (motorbikes) or setting up carpentry shops.

Many have blood on their hands. Some of them must have taken part in “Operation no living thing”: the horrific campaign of violence and mutilation launched on Freetown in 1999. As a social group they wield some power, especially where ex-combatants are concentrated. Who knows what Freetownians think of their taxi drivers. On the rare occasions that the war comes up in conversation people mostly talk of moving forward rather than a lust for vengeance. It’s particularly unjust in a country where so many people have so little to see people gain from violence, but that was the price of peace. It certainly made my sense of affront pale into insignificance.


Jungle Style by mabrajeux
September 29, 2010, 9:00 am
Filed under: nature - wildlife, photos, society | Tags: , ,

A popular joke in Salone goes thus: “What side of the road do people drive on in Freetown? The best one”. This should give you an idea of the style of driving in the capital city here in Sierra Leone, and which generally extends to the rest of the country too…

Another variant is ‘jungle style’ driving, as we encountered on Saturday. We were driving down the peninsula on our way to the beach when we noticed a long line of cars on the side of what is normally a fairly deserted dirt track / road. We stopped and enquired what was going on before noticing the Caterpillar Digger on the flimsy one lane bridge further down the road. Turns out, as our new friend Lemuel explained, that a truck had nearly driven off said bridge the night before and was now stuck with a couple wheels hanging off and unable to pull back. Which is where the digger comes in, as the workmen currently fixing the beach road were summoned to help, in the form of pulling the truck up, or back, or somehow onto and off the bridge. This was somewhat complicated by the fact that the truck was full of sand and its owner understandably tetchy about attempts to ‘lighten the load’…

So what is “jungle style” driving exactly? Well, according to Lemuel, it refers to the truck driver’s situation the night before: driving in the dark, along a single lane dirt road / track, with no lights and no brakes…


That Sunday Feeling… by mabrajeux
September 26, 2010, 7:27 pm
Filed under: photos, society, travels | Tags: , , , ,

When I first moved to England, I loved the fact that shops are open on Sundays. I mean, what could be better than going shopping on a quiet Sunday when you haven’t had a chance to do in the week, not to mention the fact that you would never have to go milk-less again…
I never really bought the argument that Sundays should be saved up for family time or, in a more general way, non consumerist activities… But then I have to admit that there is something really amazing about the centre of Freetown on a Sunday afternoon.
We wondered there a few weekends ago to check the first church established by settlers in 1792 (that is one of the hazards of living with a historian…) and were completely shocked at what we saw, or rather didn’t see… The pavements, which are bustling with all sorts of vendors and peddlers in the week were entirely deserted and the streets, which are normally rammed full of cars, motorcycles, poda podas and the occasional livestock (check the photo on the home page for an illustration…) were empty but for a group of children playing football!

Give and go by jc2010sl
September 16, 2010, 3:18 pm
Filed under: society, Uncategorized

I’ve seen a couple of fascinating surveys in the last few weeks that have revealed something of the two sides of Sierra Leone.

The first I was a poll from Gallup about where people would live if there were no border controls. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that it’s one of the poorest countries in the world Sierra Leone “topped” the list for nations people wanted to leave. Given the choice, 56% of adults would leave Sierra Leone. That’s a pretty shocking statistic when you think about it. Imagine if every other person wanted to leave the UK because they thought they could make a better life somewhere else.

And yet, despite the hardships faced by the people of Salone there is an incredible warmth. I always found guide books more than a little patronising when they talked of the “friendliness of the locals”, but I have found myself saying it of Salones over and over.

Apparently this isn’t just my impression of the place. According to the World Giving Index, Salones are the eleventh most generous people on earth, only 3 places behind the UK. One of the measures that makes up the ranking is people helping strangers. I’ve been on the receiving end of assistance countless times, and in the oddest of situations. On one occasion, my driver took us over a large stone and the car got stuck. A man helped dislodge the item, and once we’d reversed, took it out of the road to clear our path. He wandered off without even so much as waiting to see if we’d give him any money, let alone asking for any. The government too has been generous without expectation of reward. After the Haitian earthquake the Government of Sierra Leone made a donation to the people of Haiti, despite the dire need at home.

Generosity like this, despite the state the country finds itself in, renews one’s faith in the place and gives you a new determination to make whatever small contribution you can.


Cultural syntax by mabrajeux
August 23, 2010, 8:09 pm
Filed under: education, society | Tags: , ,

One morning a week, I work at a great local secondary school in Freetown, Educaid. It’s the only free secondary school in the country and still manages to score the highest in the national end of year exams. Well, I say free but, as one of the girls from my ‘Girl Power’ group explained to me recently, it’s not really free because they have to pay for their education with ‘excellent attendance, excellent participation and excellent motivation’! Their motivation can hardly be doubted, especially as the ‘summer school’, running 4 days a week in August from 8:30am through to 1pm is attended by over 200 students…

It could be argued that some need a little more motivation than others to succeed however, when you see that dozens of students sleep at the school because they have no home, or when you work with the ‘women’s group’, as I’ve been doing for the last few weeks. In the ‘Women’s Group’, young women catch up on the education that they were denied as little girls, sometimes because of the war, often only because of their sex. Ages range from 12 til mid-20s and many have a reading level of early primary school and so in the couple of mornings I’ve been helping Miriam and her staff, I’ve been doing reading exercises with a couple of groups of these young women.

Learning to read is an activity so closely associated with childhood that it is hard to find exercises that will be relevant to teenagers, let alone adults. While thinking of a way to get them to memorize the vowel sounds, I realised that they might not be particularly excited at the prospect of drawing a cat, a hen, a pig, a dog and a turtle… But their passion and willingness to read generally overcomes those drawbacks and they happily tuck into children’s books about dan the rat and other fascinating heroes.

One hurdle that might be harder to overcome is the cultural gap between the ‘western’ interests pictured in the books and their own lives: after reading ‘In the Park’, one student said there was one thing she didn’t understand. I was expecting tales of verbs, letters or syntax but instead, she looked at me completely puzzled and asked: “why would the children want to play with a bucket and sand?”


Justice within reason by mabrajeux
July 16, 2010, 12:24 pm
Filed under: public life, society | Tags: , ,

As I try to keep up with UK news here in Salone, I read with interest of recent plans for court closures in the UK. The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announced on the 23rd of June that 157 out of 530 courts in England and Wales would be closed. So far, so normal in the political and economic context… But it also caught my attention because of the parallel it draws with some of the issues I have encountered here in Sierra Leone.

In my job as a legal consultant I have been going up country to learn about how victims of sexual and gender based violence can access justice, finding out from police staff, prosecutors, judges and local NGO workers how things can be improved for the victims of such violence. One of the most prominent issues that was highlighted is literal, physical access to justice, or rather, to the places where justice can be granted.

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Enthusiastic! by mabrajeux
June 7, 2010, 7:48 pm
Filed under: entertainment, public life, society | Tags: , , ,

Meetings in Sierra Leone generally follow very particular protocol:

    – first, the prayers, often conveniently replaced by a quick 20 seconds of silence…

    – then, the presentation of VIP members, listing their names, titles, position, and ‘observing all protocol’ (this is generally finished by an observation that all protocol was, indeed, observed. Just in case, you know, we were wondering or something…)

    – then, the presentation of ordinary members (that one can be skipped because, let’s be honest, they’re not VIPs…)

    – and, finally, the meeting / workshop / seminar can start…

On a recent workshop I was facilitating (think moderating 25 people trying to argue with each other and compete for my attention. For 6 hours…) I discovered a new ritual: the energizer! It was hard to imagine that it could be needed considering the argumentative energy deployed mere minutes earlier but I have to admit that our lunch of rice and sauce probably did get the better of us…

Cue workshop participant who hadn’t said a word all morning, standing up and enjoining everyone to follow him and repeat after him… What followed is a mix of reverse ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ and the hokey-cokey – think ‘toes, shoulders, shake it all about!’ while singing ‘I’m awake, I’m alert, Enthusiastic!’ progressively faster until the entire room is just a blur of shaking backsides!!

So, next time you’re bored in a business meeting of some sort or other and all protocol has been observed then, just imagine the participants (all VIP I’m sure) energizing away… Or better yet, suggest a little pick me up, you never know, they might just be awake, alert and enthusiastic enough!

Miscommunication… by mabrajeux
May 27, 2010, 12:29 pm
Filed under: society | Tags: ,

Mobile phones are ubiquitous here in Sierra Leone. There are very few landlines, and even fewer that actually function and so people rely almost exclusively on those for communication. Many even own more than one phone, in order to benefit from the cheaper network to network rates on all the networks. And considering my consumption of units so far, I have to admit I’m almost considering it myself!

Although you can’t rely on the internet or credit cards to make recharging your account easier, there is still quite a lot of different ways you can do it here… First, you’ve got dedicated shops in town centre, selling phone contracts and vouchers, and also some local shops who can also sell you vouchers. Then you’ve got little ‘shacks’ – and by that I mean anything ranging from a small convenience store to a cart filled with chewing gum by the side of the road – who can top up your phone for you.

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Yestide bete pas tide by jc2010sl
May 20, 2010, 9:08 pm
Filed under: society, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

It’s not uncommon for musicians to rail against the established order. It’s practically expected. Hardly surprising then to find that one of Salone’s favourite sons, Emmerson, has made a name for himself lambasting governments past and present. His hits include Borboh Beleh; a song which likens the current APC Government to an overweight boy who has fattened himself by stealing food from others.

In a recent hit Yestide bete pas tide – “Yesterday was better than today” he sings how things have got worse since the APC came to power. As well as lamenting corruption, Emmerson claims that Salone has failed to develop. According to him, “businesses are closing, taxes have risen and teachers’ salaries are the same.”

Enter Innocent, another popular local artist, and his riposte in the shape of Gie dem Chance – “Give them a chance”. Musical rivalries being what they are he can’t resist the odd dig at Emmerson: bete don cam, yu no see becos yu blind – “better times have arrived, you can’t see them because you’re blind. Rather than failure, he points to a Salone moving forward. Development de, yusef kin testify – “Development is here, you can see for yourself”.

Maybe it’s nothing more than musicians using politics as a way of taking a swipe at each other, but maybe it’s also a sign of hope in politics. Today can be better than yesterday.