Freetown, Baby!

Happy 50th Mama Salone by jc2010sl
April 26, 2011, 1:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

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.


Border Crossing by jc2010sl
March 25, 2011, 8:30 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

After living in West Africa more than a year, I finally made it beyond Sierra Leone last weekend. A 12-hour road trip took the team and me to neighbouring Liberia. Based on the advice on the FCO website I entered the capital, Monrovia, with more than a little trepidation. There were dire warnings of “prevalent violent crime” and we were advised to walk nowhere at night. Mind you, the FCO is always a little alarmist. If they provided security advice for the UK I imagine they would warn against “drunken marauding youths” in the sleepy town of Cambridge.

Even if the security advice was a little over the top, people didn’t seem quite as friendly as in Salone. On crossing the border I asked if I would be understood speaking Krio, and if there was a Liberian variant. I was met with an indignant “No; we speak American.” American it wasn’t quite, but there’s certainly a bizarre American twang to their accents, which is unsurprising given the country’s history.

Like Freetown in Sierra Leone, Liberia was founded as a refuge for freed slaves; the country’s name derives from the same Latin route that gives us the word “liberty”. Unlike Freetown’s former slaves, who were freed during the American War of Independence (and who’d fought on the British side) the Liberian settlers left the States in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

Freetown was by no means a heaven on earth, but in Liberia the intentions of the founders were turned on their heads. The country’s motto: “The love of liberty brought us here”, turned out to be a hollow promise. As it transpired, the freed slaves were against being slaves themselves, but not at all against the institution of slavery. The “Americo-Liberians” as they were called, proceeded to enslave the local population and re-create the social system they had left behind. The only difference was that they were now the masters. This gross inequality contributed to the huge divisions within the country and the subsequent civil war of the 1990s and 2000s which spilled into Sierra Leone.

The scars of war are far more evident in Liberia than Salone. As you drive into the city one of the two bridges crossing the Mesurado river is still being reconstructed, and there are bombed out buildings all over the city. At the top of the hill where the initial settlers arrived is the Ducor Hotel – the Ritz of Monrovia. During the war it was turned into a barracks and shells were fired between here and the Africa Hotel up the coast.

Walking around these destroyed buildings gives a sense of the scale of destruction wrought (holes have been dug into the walls to pull out electrical cables), but also how developed the city was, in parts at least, before the violence.

From the top of the ruined Ducor you can make out “Broad Street”, a classic American boulevard running through the city. It’s lined with street lights no less – something never seen in Salone – but in the distance on the left you can make out the shelled remains of the old city council buildings, also bombed to oblivion.

To the north of the hotel is the inner city’s slum; West Point, which must have borne the brunt of the shelling from the rival faction based up the coast.

I guess the level of development that the country had attained, and the fact that it was never formally colonised (only Ethopia shares this distinction in Africa) contribute to the evident pride of the people here. It also makes sense of the President’s Sirleaf-Johnson’s slogan, plastered on billboards across town; “Liberia will rise again.”

The Big Society by jc2010sl
March 17, 2011, 11:17 am
Filed under: public life | Tags: , ,

I got a rather bizarre message in the email circular to the Freetown expat community last Friday. “The government has declared that there is street cleaning tomorrow. This means that no one is supposed to be on the roads between dawn and noon unless you are helping to clean.” April fool come early I wondered? It turns out not. Some brave soul risked the prospect of arrest (or more likely public lynching) for being out without a dust pan and brush and confirmed that everyone else was indeed cleaning.

It’s an initiative spurred by the impending 50th Anniversary of Independence no doubt. The same motivation to tidy the place up is doubtless what has prompted the good women of Hill Station to make huge pyres of “doti” (the generic term in Krio for any kind of dirt or rubbish) and burn them by the roadside creating a lethal smog.

There is an interesting political precedent here too. The “National Provisional Ruling Council” set up as a result of the 1992 coup introduced weekly cleaning days as a nod to civic unity and renewal. Many people look back on the days of the NPRC as a relatively benign period during the brutal civil war, and I’ve heard the cleaning days cited as an example of the good times. Not quite “at least the trains ran on time”, but that sort of thing.

Maybe here is an example of the “Big Society” our Government is trying to build in the UK…

Obamania by jc2010sl
March 14, 2011, 11:26 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags:

“Jackie Chan! Jackie Chan!” shouted the guy in the car park as my friend got out of the car. It’s a universal greeting for someone of eastern lineage (and she’s a relaxed Californian), so she didn’t take too much offence, even though she is a woman. “Actually, I’m American,” she pointed out. “Ah,” he said, becoming very serious of a sudden, “Barack Obama – he is my president.” It’s a common sentiment here. While the fact his father was born in Africa made some Americans claim he isn’t genuinely black (because not descended from American slaves) it’s precisely what makes Africans feel even more strongly towards him.

His name & image is everywhere in Sierra Leone, from stickers on polio victims’ wheelchairs, to flip flops bearing his name, and of course the poda-poda’s and taxis in town. Here are a couple that I’ve spotted; from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Even on the remote Turtle Islands, with no electricity or water, someone was sporting the popular “Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States” T-Shirt.

Jewellery is a common medium for the great man’s image.

Even a humble mud-guard isn’t too lowly to be plastered with his name.

I love that this pen is so simple in it’s branding; just “Obama”.

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair by jc2010sl
September 3, 2010, 4:53 pm
Filed under: public life, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

On my office door there is a sign that reads “Office of Tony Blair, Consultant”. It’s not strictly accurate, as the organisation I work for is no longer the Office of Tony Blair, but a separate charity that has spun out from our patron’s office. I’m not really a consultant either, more of an advisor (although quite how my role should be defined is a matter of lively discussion with some of my Government counterparts). Anyway, the point is, it says “Tony Blair” on my door.

As I was entering my office just now a man I’d not met came and said hello. “My son is 9 years old,” he said. “I have named him after your boss: he is called Anthony Charles Lynton Blair Kamara, but we just call him ‘Tony Blair’.” He then very proudly told me how he was doing in school and asked if he could bring me to meet him. “Er I guess so” was my response. “You’ve met him have you?” I told him I had, and he seemed even more excited that his son come and meet me.

Never far from the news, Tony Blair has been particularly prominent this week. The usual suspects have said all the things that the usual suspects say. When his book is no longer front page news, I suspect they will continue to say much the same. What I took from my brief exchange this afternoon was some of the profound feeling that the people of Sierra Leone still have towards him. I can’t think of a time when someone I’ve never met before has wanted me to meet their family on such a flimsy personal association with my organisation’s patron. I doubt it will happen again.


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.