Wednesday, November 30, 2011

First impressions of Sierra Leone…

November 22, 2011

Sierra Leone is country I have longed to visit. This is a country that was destroyed by years of civil war, and an economic tailspin before that. I wrote two papers in my undergrad on Sierra Leone, one of the causes of the civil war, and another on the UN’s effort to lead the peace process. The war has made Sierra Leone famous for its diamonds and child soldiers. For most people, mention of the country conjures up images of chopped hands, drugged children with guns larger than themselves, and for those a bit more informed – the Kimberly Process which was the first international regulations to stop the sale of ‘conflict diamonds’. When I started studying Sierra Leone the UNDP’s data estimated the life expectancy in Sierra Leone at 37 years. This was 2001 data, today the life expectancy is estimated to be 52 years. This figure is so low because of the under 5 child mortality rate. Sierra Leone, despite the improvement of 13 years to its life expectancy is still one of the poorest countries in the world. It remains at the bottom of the UNDP’s development index.
There has been peace in Sierra Leone for nine years, almost ten. All the major NGOs work here. Every fifth car seems to have the logo of an NGO, UN body, World Bank, EU or other government aid agency. Despite all these efforts, I can say without a doubt, of all the countries I have travelled to in the world, Sierra Leone is notably the poorest.
How does one tell the level of poverty? Besides the high number of humanitarian aid cars… it is the small details. More women wear second-hand western clothing than African print cloth. (African cloth is more expensive.) Very few women here wear a weave or long braids, most have their natural hair breaded tight to heir heads or tiny dreads. As I learned in Ghana, weaves (wigs sewn into the natural hair) can be very pricy and must be redone every few months; same goes for long braid extensions. Private taxies are rare; almost all taxies are shared and drive a set route picking up passengers as they go. The more expensive but more convenient way to travel is by hired okada (motorbike). The general state of the taxies and poda podas (mini buses) are in welded/glued together, start with a prayer condition. The roads are bad, many are unpaved which can make okada transport more attractive. This is the case in the capital… conditions become more exaggerated in the rural areas.
More obvious evidence of the country’s troubles is the unreliable electricity. I have been told that during the dry season (December-June) electricity in the capital is rare, and might only come on every few weeks for a short period. In the wet season hydroelectric power is pretty consistent. Businesses that can afford it (and all NGOs) run on generators during the dry season. Again, if this is the condition in the capital, we hear most rural areas have no electricity, unless solar was being introduced.
As Kat and I walk through the business sector of Freetown, the numbers of beggars and homeless is striking. The numbers are still less than India, but too many for the population size, and far more than I have seen in any other African country I have visited. The misery on their faces is hard to ignore, and as terrible as this sounds, I have become mostly non-reactive to the faces of beggars… it is one of those survival strategies I suppose.
Another evidence of the poverty or lack of ‘development’ is the banking system. Most foreigners work with American cash, exchanging it on the street for Leones as required. Kat and I had a bit of trouble finding a bank that would accept her Visa (Mastercard is not commonly accepted in West Africa). We did find one but the largest sum we could withdraw was 400,000Leones (little less than $100), and that was double what we had been told to expect.

I promise you though, if you did not look for these things they would be far from your first impressions of this country. Our experience upon arrival at the airport was luckily not the norm. The hassle there was worrying, but we have not been hassled at all since then. Tourism, beyond the weekend jaunts of the expats community, is basically non-existent in Sierra Leone. It is safe, the beaches are easily the most beautiful of West Africa, but the tourists are not yet coming. The infrastructure to support them is slowly being up in place and I can imagine things will change a lot in the next ten years. I am, for the first time, exploring a country that has not yet become a backpacker destination. Maybe in the future I will complain about how much it has changed or how the charm has been lost, but hopefully that will be a conversation I have with my nieces in fifteen years after they strap on their backpacks and head over.
So the charm… Sierra Leoneans are lovely people. Really, just fabulous. Genuine, kind, helpful, and even if they see us as a dollar sign they don’t let it show. (My neighbours are blasting Celine Dion’s greatest hits, but I can’t hold that against them.  ) Kat and I have not felt like anyone has tried to cheat us, negotiations are not a headache. We have been offered rides by strangers (a necessary kindness with the state of the public transport system), and someone is always there to help us with directions or advice. The old adage ‘strangers in a strange land’ seems to apply to us here, and the help offered feels like a natural reaction to any stranger. Of course things are not perfect, tensions exist under the surface, the war broke apart families, communities, and involved almost everyone in one way or another. I asked the National General Secretary of the Sierra Leone YMCA if he was in the country during the war (knowing those who could fled), he said he left when Freetown was taken for the second time and he left because all of his friends from high school had joined the RUF and his father was afraid they would force him to join. He fled to Guinea, and when he returned all his friends were all dead. These memories and worse scars lie below the welcoming smiles of everyone old enough to remember. I have so many questions that I can’t ask, no one wants to talk about it, everyone knows someone involved if they were not involved themselves. They need to move forward. But if you don’t know the history, there would be little here to tell you of the war, babies are everywhere, laughter and life fills the air. Sierra Leone is under construction, roads, buildings, more roads…across the country. This country is moving forward, no one wants to look back.

Freetown is a beautiful city, despite the poverty. It is a city of hills and apparently the only areas in West Africa where mountains meet the coast. The city centre is formed at the base of a large bay, the downtown is along the water and the residential areas move up the hills. The views are stunning. Really almost picture perfect, certainly screams potential. It also feels more historic than the capitals of Cote D’iviore or Ghana, which is interesting as Freetown is a much younger city. It was created as a re-settlement colony for freed slaves after the abolition of slavery. Ghana in comparison was used to export slaves, and expect for the castles/forts that are relicts of this horrible history, Ghana does not have much historic feel. Old wooden homes are a common site down Freetown’s streets, as Kat remarked, have an old American feel to them. It is a distinctive charm to these homes, a charm that goes with fried chicken and grits. These homes were built by the British, but still feel like an American homestead over a British cottage.

Two of our friends in Ghana connected us to their friend Cindy who is living and working in Freetown. Cindy met us at the ferry wharf, hooked us up to an inexpensive room in the house she is living in, gave us tips on transport, and introduced us to her friends. It has been absolutely amazing to know someone here. Having someone, like Laura in Cote d’Ivoire, takes some much stress off the travels. We are so fortunate and we know it.

I can’t really explain the feeling I have here. Perhaps over the coming days I will be able to articulate it.

Wow a Prius just drove past…how does one get a hybrid car serviced here???

Sierra Leone has also inspired a new game – guess the NGO 4x4. Mercie Stopes, Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid, Planned Parenthood, UNDP, WFP, World Bank, DFID, Plan, Concern Worldwide, UNFP, World Vision, MSF, International Crisis Group, medical this and that, agricultural this and that, UN (white car with big black UN logo…which agency? don’t know), BRAC. Basically it is a branding game. But really, can you imagine if every 5th car you saw at home had a company logo on it? To make it more obvious, each of these branded cars is a white 4x4. What does this do to one’s psyche?

Kat and I will head to Tiwai island next to check out the interior, wildlife, and village life, and then we are planning to explore the beaches along the Freetown peninsula…the famed beaches of Sierra Leone. I am not worried about the limited tourist infrastructure, I have learned over the years to ask for help (something I have really struggled with) and I am certain we will meet some great people when we stop and ask.


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