Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arrival in Sierra Leone

After a three and a half week hiatus, a return home to Toronto to see friends and family, I have returned to West Africa. Leaving the friendly embrace of Ghana was difficult to do. My last month was spent trying to fit in as much as possible. My attempt failed miserably. I did, however, manage to throw a pretty good going away party and finish the UNICEF youth reporter project. Leaving Toronto, my girlfriend, my friends and my cats was even harder to do. The road ahead will not be easy, but I’ll manage.

After a marathon of flight delays, including a passenger medical emergency and one bag in the plane’s cargo hold too many, I arrive in Freetown, Sierra Leone via Dakar, Senegal. Despite being three hours after the scheduled time I arrive by midnight with all my bags accounted for and a person waiting to bring me to my new house. It feels like a minor miracle. The warm and humid night at Lungi International smells earthy and hangs heavy in the air. Now, all we have to do is get to the ferry, which we in the plane have speculated will be waiting for us, as we are the last plane of the day.

I hurriedly make my way out of the airport past a young customs official who gives me but a cursory glance. The driver and I make our way to the ferry dock past a sign that reads, “If you can’t help us, please don’t corrupt us”, in a right hand side driven SUV with plush leather seats on the right side of the road, a US flag emblazoned tree shaped air freshener hanging from the rear view, the windows up and the AC on. We join the cue and turn off the engine.

A few cars turn around deciding to take the long way around instead of waiting. We wait. We don’t have enough gas to go that far. Rumors that the ship does not want to make another trip, one after midnight, floats along the line of cars. After a half hour the driver goes to investigate. He returns saying that there are some important politicians waiting at the head of the line. The ferry will come for them. We should wait so that the ferry does not have to go back mostly empty. Two hours later the ferry arrives. After some acrimonious jostling and negotiating with the ticket issuing cabal at the entrance of the dock we make our way to the boat.

An hour later we are on the other side of the river and on our way to the house. Upon arrival we bang on the locked front gate and wait for the security man to arrive and let us in. He does not. We call his phone. There is no response. We are stuck outside at 4AM. We go back to the SUV and climb back into the plushy seats. Two hours of sleep later, at dawn, we wake up and try banging again. This time we are successful. I get into the apartment and immediately get into bed. The biggest bed in the biggest room of three found in the apartment. I immediately fall asleep.

Four hours later there is a banging on the door. It’s Elvis. No, I am not dreaming. Elvis is the name of my new country director and he wants to take me on a brief tour of my new city. I join him for a drive, buy some extremely expensive Western supplies in Lebanese owned supermarkets, eat an omelet by the beach and then go back home to bed. I sleep and when I wake up I eat a bowl of granola, take my malaria prophylaxis, watch a few episodes of Arrested Development (thanks again, Matthew) and go back to bed.

The next time I wake up it’s the newspaper guy asking me if I want to resume the delivery of the paper. I do. I ask for 5 of them. I take the papers and go back to bed. When I wake up, I go get more granola read the dailies, including The Concord Times, my new employer. According to Lonely Planet the Concord Times is one of the most respected papers in Sierra Leone. It’s good - really good. I’m left wondering how I can help them. I ponder going back to bed.

Elvis calls and tells me there is a taxi on the way to pick me up and bring me to the JHR office. I quickly splash water on my face and get into some clothes. In the taxi a nice man named Sylvano takes me to the office. We have a nice chat and I ask him about the police in Freetown. “They like to chase us for money”, he says. They don’t stop you and say, you’re not wearing your seat belt - give me 5000 Leones. Instead they look at your particulars, your license, registration, even your tires to see if you and your car are road worthy. Sylvano, with all his particulars in order, is safe from the material losses of such harassment.

I make it to the JHR office, which is a two room box with a big desk and tiny reception area. There I meet with Elvis, we chat for a few minutes, and he gives me my JHR handbook. I leave the office and go looking for a map of Freetown. I find it, but don’t have the 900,000 Leones or $30 US to buy it. I take a poda poda (same thing as a tro tro, for my longtime readers) home. I get some of my cash and go back out for supplies. I eat chicken and jollof rice, my Ghanaian favorite. It falls under the continental part of the menu at an extremely expensive fast food with CNN playing on two TVs. I don’t think I’ll be going back there.

Freetown is an extremely expensive city. I think I've spent more money in my first three days here than in my first month in Takoradi. The NGO community supports the supermarkets and other places available for Western shopping sprees, making the prices in Freetown more like those found in Manhattan or Zurich. It makes me wonder how anyone can afford anything. Journalists make under $100 US per month. The difference between NGO and local people prices is steep. One taxi driver asks me to pay 10,000 Leones for a 900 Leone trip.

The divide between the NGO community and Sierra Leoneans is great and shockingly visible. The city streets are filled with brand new white SUVs with logos emblazened reading UN, WFP, UNHCR, and more, with religious, charitable and volunteer organizations following suit. Journalists for Human Rights even has a white sport utility vehicle. It's a broken down old beater sitting in a garage parking lot begging to be fixed. The rest of the cars are either fancy pickups, rusty old taxis or giant smoke belching trucks.

I don’t really know what day or time it is yet, but I’m sure that will come. I have the things I need for the next few months and I’m excited to start work, whatever it looks like. Freetown is a bustling little city by the ocean. It is recovering from the devastating effects of a rebel war fueled by diamonds and greed. People here are harder than in Ghana. They don’t give me a second look or thought. When I do meet eyes with someone on the street, and give a head nod, I get a bitter stare back. People's suffering is as easy to see as that. I guess that means my rock star “Obruni” days are over.

The following day I am introduced by Elvis to The Concord Times and its journalists. I am amazed that such a quality publication is produced by such a young staff. The editor and his team look like they are not five years out of school, yet they produce a high level of reportage everyday. I am immediately welcomed into the family and am put to work editing a few stories. Some of the reporters want to take me with them on stories out in the provinces, offers which I gladly accept. There are about 15 young journalists that work in a tiny office. There are 5 computers for them to share, including one that was awarded to the paper as the winner of JHR's Human Rights Journalism Award for 2007.

Easter is upon us, which in Sierra Leone means a 5 day weekend. I'll be enjoying it, with the exception of Saturday which will be the day of work towards the Tuesday paper. I've been invited Sunday to go on a guided tour of Kroo Bay, a shanty town notorious for it's horrible conditions.

Sierra Leone, ranking dead last in the Human Development Index, faces many obstacles towards its development goals. Expensive school fees for primary school education, which have been abolished in Ghana, delimit those who can afford a brighter future from those who cannot. Infant and maternal mortality are among the worst in the world. The health care system is “substandard”. Corruption reigns as mineral wealth escapes and poverty is left behind. Politics and organized crime could be confused with one another. Gang tags are spray painted all across Freetown.

, as Sierra Leoneans affectionately call their home, is struggling mightily. Any struggles that I may face during my time here will pale in comparison with those of the people who have survived here their whole lives.


Peter said...

Well, at least someone is about to do something useful. I feel pretty useless here in freezing Montreal, playing drums for a college theater production of a play called "Urinetown".

Keep it up Kevin.


aardvark said...

Sounds like your Freetown experiences are going to be markedly different and challenging in a whole new way. I admire your courage. I think you should change the name of the blog to "Freetalk".