Monday, April 7, 2008

Power Struggle

When we arrived in Mile 91, it was apparent that the town doesn't see many strangers. Mile 91 is essentially a junction of two roads with a small accompanying village, and anyone going anywhere in Sierra Leone just passes through Mile 91 without stopping. Sierra Leone is sparsely populated outside of Freetown, and this was a typical tiny town.
Our cohorts in the
poda-poda asked multiple times whether we were sure this was where we wanted to stop, rather than the larger city of Bo, where the rest of the van was headed. As we took our bags, we were immediately mobbed by the town's dozen or so motorcycle drivers, all seeming to ask the same questions at once:
"Where from?"
"Where going?"
"What is your mission here? NGO? Missionary?"
"American, Mile 91, and tourists, here to see and learn about Sierra Leone," I replied, a mantra that we both were to repeat dozens of times a day for the next week.

We befriended a driver named JDK who took us to the one guest house in town, John Smart Guest House, on John Smart Street, right off of Back Street, down from Old Police Street. JDK's brother Mohamed Kamara owned the house, which was a simple mud brick structure coated in painted cement. There were sinks and toilets in our rooms, but there was no running water serving them. Mohamed, an exceedingly gentle man, said they'd turn on the power generator for a few hours at nightfall so we could use our fans to cool the rooms and for some light.

Sierra Leone had some infrastructure at one time, at least by African standards. The war, corrupt government, and lack of money has caused electricity to be a rare commodity in recent times. In Freetown, one local estimated with pride that there is generally electricity to be found in the capitol for 18-24 hours a day, though that was purely nationalistic pride as far as I could tell. On my last night in Sierra Leone, as I rode the ferry back from Freetown towards the airport, I watched the city and its undulating hills shrink in the darkness. Unlike most cities of 1.5 million, Freetown emitted the equivalent light of a small town. I could count on my fingers the lights coming from each of Freetown's hills. This is a country without electricity for all intents and purposes. Outside of Freetown, we occasionally saw power lines, but they often were missing the wires, or simply didn't carry a current.

Power lines in Port Loko

That night in Mile 91, we headed to the main junction and munched on some grilled meat as the sun set. Each food, drink, or cigarette vendor lit a small kerosene lamp made of an old Nescafe can, creating a warm orange glow around each little table in the hot night. Mile 91, like every other place in Sierra Leone was dark after nightfall; kerosene costs money, candles cost money, and fuel to run a generator is prohibitively expensive.
As we walked through the Mile 91 and eventually made our way back to the darkened John Smart Guest House, the gravel road crunched under our sandals as we passed families clustered on front porches, quietly talking in the darkness. Occasionally, we'd hear someone listening to a quiet transistor radio or chuckling at someone's joke. In the darkness, we were Sierra Leonean as far as anyone could tell, and we were able to quietly soak in the serenity of a world without electricity.

Before experiencing it, the thought of a country without electricity conjured in me emotions ranging from annoyance to fear. But starting that night, it was apparent that without electricity life still goes on.
A phrase that locals constantly said to me in all West African countries, but particularly Sierra Leone was "in Africa, we suffer." Sierra Leoneans generally cited the cost of food, lack of jobs, and lack of electricity as their biggest sources of suffering. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The cost of food and jobs was an justified complaint, but the lack of electricity seemed to me to be a blessing, a gift that few places in the world experience anymore. If power were available and affordable, there would probably also be a television in each of the small homes we passed, the residents would probably be inside, gathered around the TV, cooled by air conditioning, separated from each other like we are at home in the West.

Grilled meat vendors in the center of Bo at night

Instead, in Mile 91 and all of the other places we visited, the only feasible evening activities involved listening to the radio or chatting, selling some food or going for a short stroll. Without light or television inside the house, without babbling newscasters, MTV, and The Apprentice Africa, without video games and the internet, people congregated on front porches enjoying good old-fashioned family time. The communal relaxation, on par with the Jewish or Adventist sabbath could surely seem like suffering if there were infinite options of things to do, but when everyone is in the same boat, when there simply aren't TV shows, restaurants, bars or sports events, people will still make the most of their time.
For our time in Sierra Leone, we were privileged to spend many of our evenings talking with those families, getting to know them as they know each other. Comparing our life experiences with theirs.
At the John Smart Guest House, Aaron and I dragged two wooden chairs to the dirt courtyard in front of the porch. The air was cooler outside than it was in our stuffy rooms. We sampled a few local libations we'd picked up in town, such as Bitta Kola, Cock Tail, and some local gin, while the neighborhood children cautiously ventured out of the darkness to take a peek at the strangers. We shook hands, smiled, and when we ran out of English words the kids knew, we resorted to making faces and performing stupid human tricks. When I showed the kids how to fart with their armpits, it seemed to break all the rules; the kids were in stitches. Body humor knows no borders.
"So this is what we bring to Africa, armpit farts!" Aaron sighed.

But after the little children joined their parents in their bedrooms and porches, Mohamed's teenage sons joined us. We listened to their radio, shared with them a few sips of our drinks, and they talked about their schooling. One boy was studying agriculture and farming, another was studying biology. Into the quiet night, they demonstrated to us how the parental generation has instilled the value of education and how the current younger generation has bought into it. Most of the boys didn't drink and a few explained that while they were on Easter holiday, they were still taking extracurricular courses to get ahead in school. As one person on the Freetown Ferry explained to me, "for so many people our lives were so fucked up by the war that we don't care what happens to us; we only care about our children. They are our only hope."
As we felt immediately integrated into the community of Mile 91, we dropped our guard and never even so much as acquired the keys to our rooms. We had no idea what to expect from the rest of Sierra Leone, but so far, any reports of danger or post-traumatic warriors were figments of the imagination. In Sierra Leone, we were finding intelligent, gentle, respectful people who were excited to welcome us strangers into their difficult world. Soon, we'd get some perspective on jobs, money, food, diamonds, the war, and its lasting effects on the people of Sierra Leone.

Dusk on the main road of Mile 91

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