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My First Trip to Africa: Sierra Leone, Freetown – Kono
I always wanted to go to Africa. Like most Afro-Americans, I grew up in an environment idolizing everything, Africa. Once I got there, I realize I Knew nothing about Africa. My maternal grandmother made it clear that everything Africa is best. Granny did not, however, spend time disparaging the accomplishments of other cultures.
Growing up in Nicaragua’s Latino and black cultures. And for me, there is no differentiating between these two ethnicities. Latinos are blacks, and black are Latinos. But this is not so for everyone who finds favor with one group.
In Africa, these distinctions will magnify. Creating a surreal world where an elite minority will treat other with indifferent. Sometimes stereotype can explain things If it was easy as black and white. However, things are seldom black or white.
The usual stereotype can’t explain Africa’s ethnic differences; most folk’s look dark to me, but they’re differences; differences that go back for centuries. The Sierra Leoneans asked me often, “are you Nigerian,” “American” or “Hausa,” those usually came up. Chief Morsay defined Biko and me as “white.” He told us that we are foreigners just like people with white skin. His index finger was rubbing the top of his hand for emphasis. When Afro-Americans do this in a conversation, we know that it’s an obstacle akin to “Whites Only.” “You’re not Africans,” he said. In Africa, it matters where you come from, or from what side of the river; in the case of the Congo’s Bushong and the Lele ethnic group; what side of the river makes a difference socially politically and financially.
But none of that was on my mind. I was excited to go to Africa. Relating to my grandmother’s Afrocentric beliefs; I wanted to see for myself the grandeur of the continent that launched civilization and everything that makes us beautiful: The melanin, the curves, rhythm, the food. A list of defense mechanism, my self-esteem used to combat the constant influx of American racist propaganda, where everything is about color, and black is the shade that faints all colors.
Consequently, racism is the lens through which most Afro-Americans view the world. It’s not a distorting lens; for the most part, the lens is accurate; although limiting. Focusing only on the one view. In a world where human beings find myriad of ways to segregate one another, racism makes this division possible.
It is clear that the Belgians of King Leopold II acted in the most racist, inhuman way towards the people of the Congo. But ultimately Mobutu Sese Seko of the Ngbandi ethnic group arrested Patrice Lumumba of the Tetela ethnic group. I don’t think that ethnicity was the cause for Mobutu Sese Seko transgression towards Lumumba. Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, both are from the Mossi ethnic group of Burkina Faso. But just like King Leopold II, greed was the reason for Mobutu’s treachery towards Patrice Lumumba and the destruction of countless Congolese lives. Compaoré did the same in Burkina Faso securing privileges for a ruling minority; keeping power at the expense of Thomas Sankara and the people of Burkina Faso. Using corruption, expropriation even foreign assistance to maintain power. With no state to answer to, these men were no different than King Leopold II in the inhumane treatment of their countrymen.
In Sierra Leone, the (RUF) will implement the same, cutting off limbs and ad systematic rape and murder; dispersing thousands and enslaving the population to extract diamonds for their personal wealth.
But poverty is a relative thing. Having grown up in the Caribbean and Latin America. I was accustomed to third world reality. But none of this prepared me for Africa.
The volume on conversations goes up the closer you get to the African departure lounge. Things are direct. Laughter strengthened; the sucking of the teeth is loud, the smiles big.
The plane landed in Lungi International airport to a great chorus of cheers and applauses. Like a Hollywood emancipation scene, Africans are happy and grateful to be home. You can feel their excitement. I too was excited, to greet the African air. Stepping out of the airplane, I found the humidity familiar. What was different, was to look into a crowd and seeing one shade of black people. I tried not to look surprised; I pretend I’ve been here before. The Africans looked at me like if I’ve been here before too.
The tarmac and runway are huge, like all airports. But at Lungi you don’t see the buses, trucks or the walking tunnel protecting you from inclement weather. Everything is open and wide as the sky. I didn’t see commercial airplanes or business aircraft; just empty tarmac with a far far away blue-green forest horizon with no buildings in sight.
Walking into the slight immigration building was a surprise, no crowds! I thought this strange for an international airport. Somehow, I thought they might be connecting flights to the other part of Africa. Only the people who will be boarding on the same plane in route to Liberia. Right away as you enter the building, you see some old fashion cubicles with modern fingerprint recognition machines. Immigration officers were easy and quick. They ask for passport and yellow vaccination card. Welcome to Sierra Leone!
The people of Sierra Leone are friendly; they are generous with their comfort zone. They greet you, touch you gently with a common custom.
Waiting for our luggage, I was attracted to two large, very impressive, standing wooden sculptures. Two action figures carved from a single tree trunk. No one paid these any mind. They walk by them like nuisance African souvenir. I always appreciated the attention to detail of African art; there is a consideration for the viewer, the wearer, and handling of artifacts. This association of welcoming artistically with dance, texture, food and colors was for me African arts functionality.
Although very impressive, I did not know at the time; those two wooden sculptures will represent the culmination of my African artistic impression.
Leaving the airport, we see a sign with our names. Our host Chernor, we call him Cherry, arrange to have Lamin greet us and arrange the bus tickets that will take us to the beach and the ferry to Freetown. Lamin works for a company that assists travelers to Sierra Leonne. Having someone on the ground that speaks, Krio was calming. Krio is a better bargaining language; exchanging money is aggressive, some notes have preferences. So there’s room for saving if you can bargain in Krio.
Outside, they’re young men selling bus tickets along with Sim Cards. They’re competitive, but not pushy. There’s lots of cash in sight continuously exchanging hands. We wait for the air condition mini buses to fill with passengers. The ferry is not far away, about a mile. But it takes about ten minutes drive to get there. The road is wrong; I thought that this being the way to the airport it might be in better care, but no. It was just the begging of the many examples of neglect and corruption that the people of Sierra Leone live with day to day.
The beach is big and clean; I notice this because everywhere else seems to be litter with debris. I see some modest hastily constructed shanties. I was looking for colorful fishing boats but did not see any. They’re small children, playing with torn and dirty western clothes. They paid us no mind. At this time the little wharf was full of the passenger from the plane, waiting for the ferry; luggage and people under a wooden hut, with an armed guard. We waited for several hours. It will be sundown before they called our numbered tickets, the small ferry made several trips transporting us safely to Freetown.
The boat ride takes less than an hour to cross the sea estuary arriving in Freetown at night. The view was dark with no identifying features to see. Inside, our host Cherry and his driver Mohamed are there waiting. They picked us out of the crowd immediately before anyone offers to assist. Lamin had sent photos. Cherry made sure that Mohamed gets our luggage. Cherry greeted us with a big smile, sparkling eyes, on a bright round friendly face. He immediately asked us about the flight and are we hungry. He said he has cook food home, “it might be too spicy for us,” he said. So if we like, we can go out to get some food. We opt for the spicy food; it was very late for our jetlag bodies to go out. The streets in Freetown, at nighttime, are jammed packed with vendors selling everything. None of it looks appealing to me. Freetown just doesn’t look clean. And this is a surprise. A Big surprise!
We left the wharf on a two-lane paved road lit with occasional street lamps. Mohamed is focused on his task while Cherry does the talking. I’m glad he is. The road keeps getting crowded the closer you get to town. They’re lots of small children out selling stuff, anything. I see lots of bake good and fruits. Everything looks rent. Things feel strange, anachronistic, a bit out of place, like if I’ve traveled back in time. The people don’t seem worried about the traffic. The street is abuzz with African music. And the people are just moving with purpose in what seems like a chaotic order.
We travel on paved roads all the way up to College Road in Godrich. Then we turn right. And Mohamed slows to a crawl; the road now unpaved becomes a series of hills and gullies slowly leading up to the next turns, like the bus ride from Lungi to the beach. There will be more moments like this. Mohamed is trying not to have the bottom of the car drag on a hill, patiently he turns. Like if he has done this lots of time.
The car came to a stop at a large metal door, about 10 feet high. Surrounded by fencing just as high with broken bottles cemented on the top. We’re three turns off the main road, some of the houses have this barrier. A lot don’t; some houses are just boxes of corrugated scraps metal wood and cardboard put together. There is a sense that Freetown was not always like this. These dwellings bare the scars and the remains of political corruption and a vicious, inhumane civil war.
At Cherries home, he introduces us to his uncle Mohamed, his sister Mimona and his “House Boys.” Cherry has two “House Boys” and a “House Girl.” At first, I thought he was talking about his children, but no, that’s what they call the servants or help. Although they’re more than servants, they have to be recommended by a family member. They call you “Sa” like yessa. Like I said, It feels like you’re back in time.
Mimona placed a large bowl of “krain krain,” on the table. Cassava leaf pounded and shredded with hot peppers added to the pot of fish and boiled Jazmine rice on the side. It was hot; they had a good laugh watching our faces get bright. Although very spicy, it was delicious. The rice was helpful calming the krain krain’s heat. We needed something to drink. Small bags litter Sierra Leone. This night while eating hot Krain Krain we’ve introduced these ubiquitous waterbags. According to the water project “Infections and parasites, most found in contaminated water, lead to the largest cause of death in Sierra Leone.”
After a very long journey, the mellow dance of Mosquito Smoke Coils, I was feeling tired. I needed a bath. Reacquainting myself with these norms of the Caribbean and Latin America: The open shower and cold water. Making sure not to drink the water from the pipes during my shower. I went to sleep in Africa.
The next day I saw lots of children some in uniform. The schools are out early for the little ones. Education in Sierra Leone is legally required. But a shortage of schools and teachers has made implementation impossible the by-product of corrupt institutions plaguing this nation. I saw a group of three walking on the road with a basket on their heads. They look five or six, too small to be walking in a busy city by themselves.
I saw a person on the back of a motorbike balancing a door. They’re, always men, riding a little reckless swishing in and out of traffic on bikes with unstrapped helmets. Some carry more than two passengers; I’ve seen four and five including babies. They’re lots of bikes; people use them as taxis. Taxis have routes like buses. The DDR had a brilliant idea for the young combatants to turned in their AK 47 for Honda trail bike taxi. Although many of their raped victims, and amputees, would not think so. Freetown is a courageous place coping with a difficult peace.
That Night the dark room started to move. The curtains move like a ghost entering the room with a moaning sound that got louder. The wind began to intensify, roaring and moving the curtains vigorously. It was the annual dry Harmattan winds of the Sahara, making their seasonal journeys over West Africa. I was looking forward to them since I read about it in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book “Half of a Yellow Sun.” I wondered how all those corrugated shanties were bearing. The winds were as intense as a category one hurricane; I was settling for a long night of wind and noise. But it finished as quickly as it started. The next morning, I got up to what will be the familiar power outage. Outside, on the porch, the view reminded me of my childhood in Bluefields, Nicaragua’ Caribbean coast, with big lush, blue-green mango trees. That shades the blue sky relaxing the sun’s heat like the sunset after a long day. I was surprised. Nothing seemed out of place from the Harmattan winds. Trees were standing, and branches did not litter the ground.
ELECTRICITY WATER and POLITICS
With the electricity and water always going out. We use rainwater from tanks. Everyone drinks water from the plastic sachet, for sale everywhere. Gas generators serenade the neighborhood along with the smell of cooking smoke.
Our conversations with Cherry and uncle Mohamed centered on the politics of Sierra Leone and the devastating civil war. They say that most of the people from the country are in the city looking for work. Many women now in Freetown saw a different, more emancipated lifestyle, where unwilling to go back to the country. “Country life is hard,” say Cherry.
Corruption, the decade-long war are some of the reasons for the collapse. The economic policies that make the importation of foodstuffs cheaper devastated the local farming and young men who would be farming are looking for diamonds and trapped in a vicious circle, making import products necessary and poverty inevitable.
Most the big grocery stores in Freetown seems to be own by Syrians or Lebanese looking people (my stereotyping). In one of the grocery store. In every Isle, a Syrian person was looking watchful down the Isle. And another Syrian person sitting vigilantly behind the cashier, a young black girl. During the war, the Syrians were a target of elimination.
JAMMED PACKED STREETS
It takes a long time to drive through the jammed packed streets of Freetown. Lots of people are selling something, anything. You can find anything for sale on the streets of Freetown; it seems like everyone is on the street: Men, women with babies tied to their backs, children. And at times, many times, it looks sorrowful, like surviving is their only concern. It made me feel grateful for where I live. Folks here are struggling; it’s somewhat strange because everything they need is for sale on the streets. And their mineral wealthy country capable of providing for all their needs. Conversely, I saw the same dark complexion one after the other! Block after block, mile after mile, hour after hours, day after day, working, the same dark skin; this made feel grateful to visit Africa.
The next day we travel to the province of Kono to meet the Chief. It’s a long drive. Along the way I see Chinese men building a new road. Paramount Chiefs, because of divine right, owns all the land in a particular region; they are many chiefdoms. The Chiefs decides who gets what. If you’re not from the same tribe, you will probably won’t get land from the Chief. But for the most part, Chief will let you use the property. Chief Morsay was kind. Along with his African-American daughter Sia, an honest businesswoman with a kind streak. Sia donates her time and resources to correct injustices regardless of the social norms. Her front door often full of neighborhood children playing with her children’s toys. They know that Sia will feed them. We witness a group of high school girls asking for sponsorship. Because of her charitable reputation, Sia gets many of these. The Chief explains that this creates confusion. Things have their place in Africa. But Sia is making changes, and her father is listening. They share a mutual respect.
We got to Kono in the evening. After some friendly chat and introductions. The Chief took us around to see his town. Kono is far from Freetown but looked just as depressing. It was dark, with no streetlights and many diamond dealers. However, even in darkness, Kono is friendly, the people spoke and were excited to see the Chief. His personality is friendly. But, you couldn’t see, like a power outage. Did I wonder why, why so much poverty? Why doesn’t the government take care of essential services?
BACK IN KONO
In front of Chief Morsay unpaved home, bikes pass loaded with 3 to 4 peoples; sometimes with bundles of long grass for bedding. The blue smoke hangs in the warm air, morning, noon and night. Africans are cooking with charcoal furnaces, I see them for sale on the side of the road.
The Chinese are getting ready to lay down asphalt in this part of Kono; It’s dusty, a mixture of brown and gray dust and loose gravel. Outside everything is covered with dust. People walk up and down most of the time transporting water. I see lots of goats, geese, ducks, and chickens walking like members of the village.
No one pays the animals any attention. Cars are mindful not to hit them. They’re no traffic cops or crossing guards. There is a constant honking of horns; drivers honk people they’re about to pass. No one is in a rush. Teenagers walk holding each other’s hands.
Now and then a big lumbering truck will go by with muddy wheels. Some roads are like little lakes, with people washing clothes and taking a bath.
In the village, they use mud bricks to build homes. People are outside doing chores. Men are standing around guarding motorcycles waiting for a fare.
Sia and the Chief took us to a village where they are planning to build a hospital. They tell us the mortality rate is high. It’s a dangerous to get sick here. Driving into this area is difficult. The village chief praises Sia and gives her a blessing.
Sierra Leone has the highest rate of maternal mortality on the planet. Una Mullally reports from the Bonthe District in the rural southwest, where teen pregnancy rates are high, and necessities are scarce.
They will take us to see the mining of alluvial diamonds and coltan. The sight is so spectacular it’s hard to describe. Perhaps hundreds of people, men, and women mining individual plots on top of a hill; with hand tools. Workers moving up and town like and an ant colony. You can hear many languages spoken. The work looks hard.
I was amazed to see two ladies panning for gold in the brown river. They were happy to demonstrate. I was entertaining the idea that I’ll see gold, but not really. But after a couple of swirls, just like that the pan had specks of shining gold. I looked around, and all I saw is a forest. The ladies with gold in their hands have nothing to show for it. Over the years they most’ave generate thousands of dollars.
The people of Sierra Leone are kind. The SUV we drove has a battery problem; it will not start overnight. The men who come to help arrived with a wire. Not a jumper cable but with a wire peeled at the ends. I thought this was very dangerous. And why there’s no jumper cable and why this process is the alternative. Recycled water bottles filled with gasoline are for sale on the side of the road. They bump for gas with an antique hand-crank so old that I never even have seen it in the movies.
BACK to FREETOWN
We drove back to Freetown; it looks a lot dirtier that the country. I don’t think they pick up trash here. Although they most dispose of the garbage somewhere. I saw a burning heap of garbage. I couldn’t be sure. But I think it was the dump. It didn’t look that different than the other blocks. Except for the smoke. But I kid you not; Sierra Leone is full of trash and people shouting at each other, not in a rude way. If you’re soft spoken, nobody will hear you in Sierra Leone.
I was talking to the “boy” Muhammad, he is not a “boy,” that’s a cultural norm. Muhammad will turn 27 this month. He is a nice person who treats people with respect. I asked him “how much he gets paid?” He does a lot around the house, as well as drives everywhere. To my surprise, he told me that, “this is not a paying job,” he said it was his duty to be respectful to his elder, and that’s what he is doing. He said his uncle recommend him to come here. He said he hopes to be in the position to do the same for others.
We made a stop at Mohammad village; he was happy to drive pass every farm, waving at his neighbors. We went to his uncle’s farm to get a goat for supper. Mohammed was exhausted, although he wouldn’t say it. He’s been driving for hours. The chief negotiated for us a good rate with a colleague for an overnight lodge. He did not extend this to Mohammad. He told him that the place has a secure compound that he can sleep in the car. Or he can stay in the workers quarters. I thought for sure he was going to take the quarters, but to my surprise, he slept in the car. Although strange to us, Mohammed like the Chief understands that everyone has a place in Africa. Mohammed said that in Africa all you have to do is be respectful and pray.
Some of the root causes of the conflict lay in the marginalization of young people by the attitudes of elders and traditional leaders.
Traditional institutions, controlled by the village elite and court chairmen “paying themselves” through arbitrary and excessive fines.
Exploitation of the labor of youth through customary law is a long-standing practice in Sierra Leone and the wider region. Jim Crow was not just a racist institution. It was a system that exploited labor.
My thoughts, however, was for tomorrow’s supper. Cherry will bring someone to slaughter and butcher the goat for dinner. Goats are everywhere in the country. Cherry said that they always go back to their pen and people never steal them.
It’s sad how dirty this place is. I saw a man sweeping the sidewalk. He had a couple of piles of trash. It looked like he took it upon himself to keep his little corner of the road clean. But the trash was just to the side. And the people were already stepping on it.
The people are very friendly. Despite all the stuff they have to sell. No one is chasing you to buy something. But if you choose to buy something, they come rushing with a competing bargain. I thought walking at night might give me a new perspective on Sierra Leone, it did. It made me feel more depressed how sad the majority of the people are living.
You do see a few expensive cars. Here they rent an SUV for $100 US a day. You see expensive suits for sale on the sidewalk. They are so many people selling that you can’t see the buildings. All, a black economy. No one pays taxes. The country is broke.
Some people even have a police escort an officer walking with a machine gun. I have to remind myself that this place just got true a brutal civil war. Lots of the young men could’ve been child soldiers.
The people with amputated arms and legs look worst off. 1$US here is about 7,500.00 Leones on the streets. Cherry tells me that neighboring Liberia is worst and that the people from Liberian and Guinea come to Sierra Leone to work because it’s a lot better.
They are signs reminding civil servant that taking bribes is a crime. By now, I couldn’t blame them. They just don’t get paid enough. And the devaluation of their currency is no help. When the Governments can’t pay its debt, they print money. By Law, The Central Bank is responsible for regulating the financial sector. If, the Governor of The Central Bank would be brave enough to criticize spendings. He should remember that his successor in 1980 Sam Bangura, criticized Siaka Stevens’s policies for being profligate. Sam Bangura body was thrown from the top floor of the central bank building onto Siaka Stevens Street.
KAKROCH N×› GεT PAWA NA F×›L K×›NTRI.
The brutal civil war in Sierra Leone did not bring about institutional changes. A minority elite still controls the country and is intensifying their political power. The state all but remains absent. The democratic election 2007 return to power the APC, the party of Siaka Stevens. Although Ernest Bai Koroma didn’t have an association with Siaka Stevens, other members in his party did. Two of Siaka Stevens sons Bockari K Stevens Ambassador to the United States and, Jengo Stevens special advisor to the president and Ambassador to Germany. Lack of political centralisation, the people interest, makes this election just as volatile as the democratic election of 1971.
NO AFRICAN SOUVENIR
I like the food in Sierra Leone, especially mixed with the hot peppers. But my stomach was starting to flip. The weather is beautiful not too hot. However, Freetown is a city that I was ready to leave. By now even the noise pollution was bothersome. I tried desperately to buy a souvenir. But everything for sale was an import. I was looking for a handmade doll. There were none to see. All dolls are the plastic MATTEL type. Cherry took us around to find authentic African souvenir. I saw some beautiful African fabric. They’re all imported from China. The textile industry in Africa is all but gone. The cheap Chinese import makes it difficult to compete. At first, it was easy to identify fake African fabric made in China. But their technology has improved. The batik and Kente cloth look beautiful. It’s challenging and more expensive to get hand-dyed cotton batiks from Ghana and The Gambia. With an endless donation of clothes to Africa, they too are struggling to survive.
The bargaining was intense. When a vendor quoted me a price, another vendor would beat it. If I look at a particular color or style, another will show me similar. Soon they’ll get a feel for what you’re looking. Once Cherry came on the seen speaking Krio, the prices drop even more. His eyes will bulge in shock as he sucks his teeth and shouts Eh! I ask for and African doll. The vendor said he would get one. He came back with brown MATTEL. I told him I wanted one made in Africa. He said he has one, but I will have to come by tomorrow. I’m sure he would have created one over the night.
We got ready to leave. Lamin met us at Lungi Airport again. I was surprised; Chery told him to check on us. By now we were accustomed to the sound of Krio. But I was glad for his assistance again. He advised to check in and get our tickets stamped later. The plane will not leave for a while. He took us to a place across the road to wait and get a drink. It was a good time to relax in a courtyard under a tree. I asked about the number of children on the street. He said that some family from the country would send their child to another family in the city for an education. But lots of people exploit this or are too poor. So the send the child out to earn money.
THINGS CAN GET BETTER
Can things get better? Sure they can. Corruption will not change with governing. But at least The government can provide for clean water, electricity, education, telephone, a sewage system, public health and clear roads.
Expecting a reduction in the size of the Government sector, flexible exchange rates, privatization, improvements in the efficiency of public service provision might be too much to ask.
But if we’re asking, why not add a road network linking them to other cities in the area and the rest of Africa, and improving the functioning of the state anticorruption measures and, last but not least, how about some law and order for the government.
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