Monday, April 7, 2008

Danger, I've Been Told To Expect It

It's safe to say that most Americans haven't heard of Sierra Leone aside from those that remember it peeking into American headlines occasionally between 1991 and 2002 as they suffered from a long and bloody series of civil wars. The final phase of the war was perpetrated by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which worked in conjunction with the presiding warlords in Liberia and the employment of child soldiers to overthrow the government, pillage, rape, torture and murder as they succeeded in taking control of Sierra Leone's vast diamond mining resources.
After a hired peacekeeping militia helped end the war, and a peace accord was signed in Lome, Togo in 2002, Sierra Leone virtually disappeared from the news. When the war ended and Sierra Leone disappeared from the news, the weapons were bought back by the UN, and all former rebels were given complete amnesty and allowed to either participate in the government or find another way to go on with their lives.
The 2006 film, Blood Diamond, accurately portrayed many of the methods used by the RUF including the use of drugged child militias, amputation by machete, and the assault and murder of innocent civilians. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans were forced to either succumb to RUF or become a victim in its wake. The film brought more attention to what had happened in Sierra Leone during the war, yet my reading about West Africa in determining my itinerary for this trip led me to wonder what life was like since the war. What would such a war do to a population? How would former child soldiers reintegrate into society? How would those who were forced to kill, who witnessed killing, or were permanently injured by rebels be affected?
When I told my friends and family of my decision to add Sierra Leone to my itinerary, I know it caused some anxiety. It did for me as well; I really had no idea what to expect. People cited tales of war and murder, risks of theft and worse. One friend even went so far as to ask why I would choose such a place, saying "those people are animals."
I knew I was receiving opinions from people who really had no idea, though. And what few accounts I had read online indicated that while the travel was tough, and the country lacked in typical tourist sights, Sierra Leone was a reasonably safe place to visit. The US Government had no travel warnings against visiting Sierra Leone, and one former UN worker who I met online spoke so lovingly of "Sweet Salone" that I wanted to find out for myself.

Mama Told Me Not To Come
Arriving from Ghana, where I received nothing but exuberant welcome, I steeled my nerves and prepared for the worst. Not having been immune to my mother's genetic propensity for concern, I had to assume that every man on the street would be a deranged former murderer, angling to take what he could from me without any regard for my life. I hoped I would be pleasantly surprised.
The Freetown airport was your typical third-world facility, with luggage being moved from plane to terminal by tractor from the single, slightly decaying runway. As I emerged from the air-conditioned comfort of a Bellview Airlines plane cobbled together from used equipment bearing the names of countless European airlines, I stepped into the searing heat with a handful of African businessmen and was approached by a man in a faded polo shirt asking if I needed a visa. Assuming him to be the first of countless scammers, I firmly shooed him away, though he was persistent. After a few attempts of me declining his assistance, he got frustrated and exclaimed, "but I work here!" Oops, better safe than sorry, I figured.
Through customs, the first order of business was figuring out how to get to Freetown. The Lungi Airport is inconveniently located on a peninsula a wide river's distance from the city. The best information I could find was that the helicopter service, operated by drunk former Russian soldiers, had experienced a recent fatal crash, the hovercraft service had recently experienced a non-fatal fire and sinking, and the aging car ferry was the best remaining bet.

Pulling into the Kissy ferry terminal in Freetown

At the insistence of a police officer, I paid far more than what I knew was a reasonable fare for a "safe" taxi driver, one he assured me would not steal from me or murder me, and we arrived at the ferry just seconds before it was to depart.
On board, I watched the sun set over countless steep hills which comprised Freetown. Hardly developed, but densely populated, Freetown seemed to me what Hong Kong must have looked like 100 years ago. A city of 1.5 million people, many of whom relocated to the city after the war, Freetown appeared to be smeared over a surface as varied as the gyri and sulci of the human brain. Countless small homes piled on top of each other, threatening to collapse and slide down the countless valleys leading to the ocean.

Freetown from Kroo Bay

It was Easter Monday, and a handful of well-heeled Sierra Leoneans were riding the ferry back to the city after a day of relaxing with family. Small children carried platters of grilled meat or fried yam chips on their heads, while slick teens dressed like hip-hop stars hawked knockoff sunglasses and hats. I was chatted up by a few younger guys and the line of questioning was very similar to that of the Ghanians. The conversations were innocuous, essentially a string of questions as to why I would bother to visit their country if I wasn't an NGO volunteer, journalist, or diamond prospector. When I finally conveyed that I was just there to learn about their country and to understand how people live there today, people were excited to chat and tell me their stories. When we arrived in Freetown, my new friends hadn't hassled, scammed, or even hit me up for money. It was a genuine conversation for our mutual benefit.
I hopped into a shared taxi to the Aberdeen neighborhood, which proved to be a lengthy trip due to the day's festivities. In the darkening evening, from the obscured view from the center of a crammed van, I could see thousands upon thousands of people moving though the streets. Loud music seemed to be erupting from every shop and automobile. Several flatbed trucks honked and surged their way through the crowds, laden with shouting revelers dancing to the cacophony of the clashing music. This was definitely not going to be a relaxing city.
When I pulled up to the Family Kingdom hotel complex, my prearranged meeting place with my lifelong friend Aaron, I shouted out the window to him.
"Mistah Aaron! Ow de body (how's the body/how are you)?" I asked, curious to see whether he'd picked up any of the local pidgin, Krio, in the day he'd already spent in Freetown. He looked up from his book, skeptical, and sunburned to all hell. Exactly what I was hoping for. It felt so good to see a familiar face. That night, over cold beers and barracuda we caught up on travel tales, his recent engagement, and chatted about what he'd experienced so far.
"Well, it's too soon to say for sure, but it seems that the only people to watch out for are the ones that tell you to watch out," Aaron said. He'd been befriended by a guy who identified himself as Chuck Norris due to his fighting style in the war. Chuck said he'd protect Aaron from any dangers or hassles amid the chaos of the Easter weekend, and did a reasonable job until Aaron caught Chuck attempting to nab a handful of cash out of a wallet that Aaron had in his hotel room. We'd need to be cautious.

You'll need a graffiti, don't heed and you'll be bleeding

As I told stories from my trip so far, I mentioned that my favorite experiences had tended to take place in the tiny towns off the beaten path, something Aaron had also experienced in his travels. The next morning, we glanced over the map that accompanies the scant 25 pages of information on Sierra Leone in the Lonely Planet, pointed at a town 91 miles away from Freetown, cleverly named Mile 91, and figured we'd hop off the poda-poda (bush taxi) there, and try our luck.
Freetown by daylight was mind-boggling. The city boasts 1.5 million people on a wide expanse of steep hills. The war and economic crisis that Sierra Leone endure has made the place a stunning combination of rotting old wooden homes, crumbling concrete structures, and a few more modern attempts at construction. Definitely favoring the latter, decaying structures, as Aaron pointed out. There is no denying it; while Freetown seems to have some of the more fashionable people I have seen in Africa, the poverty is striking. Countless people are clearly living with just enough to survive the day; their homes and threadbare clothing on the verge of disappearing into thin air.
There was a menacing feeling however as we moved through the streets. Seemingly every single wall was covered in layers of gang-related graffiti. Not nearly as artistic as what one would find in Europe or America, probably due to the expense of paint, and the spelling was often comical, but the turf documented by the tags was duly noted.
The Wesc Side Crew (creepily similar to the ruthless West Side Boys gang from during the war), Black Eyed Pies, Eminent Krew, Terror Unit, Dry Eye Crew, Gees Up Squad, Dip Cent Squad, D12 Boys, and Positive Krew ("Fuck To You") had all staked their claim along the streets and alleys of Freetown. While there were plenty of upstanding citizens roaming the streets, the ominous tags and the throngs of youths dressed to kick it with 50 Cent or Lil Jon made the city feel that much more lawless.
We came upon a set of stone stairs seeming to spiral down into a valley in the bowels of the city and I gestured that Aaron and I should follow them. At the bottom, we found a bizarre little courtyard where some men were lounging, one was getting his haircut, and a few were in a heated debate. The debaters ended their discussion after catching sight of us and gave us a brief tour of the courtyard, explaining that it was the remains of a colonial-era building and the small tunnels leading out of it once funneled slaves out to the Americas. The men gave us a friendly tour to the nearest jetty and up to a market before we parted ways. To our relief, these men didn't warn us to watch out for dangerous people, and thus weren't dangerous themselves. Our walk was concluded without so much as a request for a gift in exchange for the tour we never asked for; they were just being friendly and had nothing better to do with their morning.

Courtyard in Freetown

We later picked up two motorcycle drivers to get a ride through the circuitous city to the Total station that everyone refers to as the Shell station where we were told we'd find a poda-poda heading east. In Sierra Leone, as in the other West African countries, the bush taxis depart when they are full, so we spent a couple hours sampling the snacks being hawked from platters balanced on peoples' heads.
As we waited, we chatted with the hawkers that milled about the waiting poda-podas, and were occasionally asked for change. Most people were content when we'd share some food, a handshake, or a short chat, but one woman was particularly rude and persistent. As she nagged us, a well-dressed man befriended us and began to give us his version of the state of Sierra Leone, at the cost of the woman's pride.
"She is Temene, the largest tribe in Sierra Leone. I am Mende," he explained. "I have been a doctor here in Freetown for 35 years, through all the wars and all of the problems. People here suffer and much of it is the fault of the Temne! They have turned this country upside down! They are lazy and will not work!" The doctor paused, and translated his diatribe into Krio for the benefit of the woman, and then continued.
"The Temene were given enormous amounts of machinery to do construction, an opportunity to fix our country. Instead of working on it, they just sold all of the machinery and took the money! Now we have no progress and they have wasted all the money they made!" Again, he translated to Krio and the woman listened, not arguing with him.
The conversation continued, rather racist, but an interesting glimpse into one man's opinion of things. It was the first of the countless little puzzle pieces we were to pick up as we wound up in conversation with one local after another throughout the trip.
Finally, the poda-poda began honking frantically, indicating it was time to go. The ride was your typical African fare; Aaron and I shared the single bucket seat at the front of the van as the driver tore down the paved roads, bouncing and swerving over potholes and around motorcycles and pedestrians. As Freetown's hills dissipated, the terrain turned immediately to lush, uninhabited greenery. Savannah trees and palms stood tall over thick green underbrush and the occasional farm.
"Wow, the roads here really aren't bad at all," I commented, just a bit too soon. A moment later, the driver suddenly swerved to avoid some potholes and straddled the jagged edge of the pavement, dropping two wheels down into the gravel pedestrian path parallel to the road. "Wooooah!" I hollered as if on a roller coaster, as the van rode at a heavy lean of at least 20 degrees to the right. Branches whipped at me through the open window. A moment later the driver righted the van again, before dropping right back down into the gutter on the other side of the street. Back and forth, the driver continued like this, until Aaron and I agreed that the driver was executing these heavy leans with impressive skill. He was able to drop down into the ditch and then pop back up onto the road with a deftness and rhythm that felt like an amusement park ride. We felt completely confident in our driver.
"When we finally get to Mile 91, I expect this guy to pull the emergency break, spin the van in a donut, hop out, and scream 'ta-daaa!!'" Aaron said, perfectly summing up the feeling.

Poda-poda straddling the edge of the road

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