War, What Is It Good For?
I had an idea for our next day: that Aaron and I should chat up JDK, our friend the motorcycle driver in Mile 91, and see if he would be willing to let us rent his and another motorcycle for the day. We could just drive and see where the road took us, then return in the afternoon to catch a poda-poda to Bo, the next city heading east across Sierra Leone.In the morning, I awoke at 6:30 and decided to take a short stroll until Aaron emerged from his room. I found Mohamed the hotelier's sons outside the guest house and they accompanied me as we walked through the nearby cropland in the orange light of dawn.
The boys, one of whom was focusing his education on agriculture, pointed out the palm trees which were grown for palm oil and showed me how the pods grew in dark brown bundles, which were then hacked off with machetes and pounded for their oil. They boys showed me how cassava was planted on mounds of soil, between which the farmers would walk. They explained that they did not manually water their crops; they relied solely on the rains. Cassava leaves are a staple food, inedible until they are pounded into a green pulp, and increasingly the only affordable food as the price of rice had risen drastically over the past 6 months, the boys explained. Occasionally, other villagers would walk past, carrying the morning's water in large buckets on their heads.
As we looped back toward the guesthouse, a woman called for my attention behind a house. I came over and as we greeted each other, a gaggle of children formed, excitedly vying for my attention. The woman's name was Adama, very close to my name, and she tried to show me around her back yard while the children begged for me to take their photos. In between shots, Adama explained to me some of the morning activities that were taking place: A gorgeous girl about 18 years old was busily pounding out cassava leaves in a piece of palm trunk hollowed out like a mortar. Another woman was roasting a pot full of nuts over the fire. Nut oil, Adama explained.
More children showed up, followed by Aaron who was smoking a cigarette. He'd taken a walk himself and had gathered his own little posse. We took more photos of the children, and were particularly taken by the braids the little girls wore. In all of Africa, I was impressed by intricately patterned hair braids, but in Sierra Leone they often braided the girls' hair so that the long ends tufted at the top of the head, making the coolest texture sprouting from the top of the beautiful faces that followed us around.
Adama shared her house with her husband, both of her husband's brothers, and their respective extended families. In all, there were about 15 or 20 living in a concrete-covered mud brick home about the size of a double-wide trailer.
Everyone had a role to play in the morning rituals. Some carried water from the well behind our guest house, one younger girl was responsible for sweeping the dirt yard with a short palm frond broom, one girl washed the dishes in a large plastic bowl. One woman hulled palm kernels with a hand-held stone, while her toddler daughter imitated her and pounded empty palm hulls with a smaller stone.
The cassava-pounding girl called me over and asked me to take a hand at her job for a moment. While I did so, to the entertainment of all in attendance, she walked over to the side of the yard and picked up a large axe. Without any production she began to chop a small log into firewood. Aaron and I agreed that there was something strangely attractive about a woman who would just pick up an axe and start chopping like that.
After a while, Aaron and I told Adama that we needed to get to town to find some breakfast and some motorcycles.
"Let me come with you; I will take you to the market and we will get some food. I will cook it for you!"
"Oh no, we can't do that; you've got your hands full here at home! We'll just find some omelets or something in town."
"No, there isn't anyone that will make good omelets here. Let me come with you and we will get eggs and oil and I will make them for you." Adama was adamant and we eventually acquiesced.
Pounding cassava leaves into something edible
Zen and the Art of African Motorcycles
As we strolled down the dirt road that lined all the homes in Mile 91, children and parents alike hollered at us and waved while we tried to chat about motorcycles.
"So, on a motorcycle, the left hand is the clutch?" Aaron asked. He'd had minimal experiences on two wheels, usually involving scooters that either broke down, or accidentally tossing a monk off the back of one in Asia.
"Yeah, and the brake is on the left hand, along with the throttle."
"Well, don't count on that right hand brake though. I don't know if it's the case across Africa, but in the other countries, the hand brake doesn't work, just the foot brake. That's under your right foot."
"Well, that's cool; I suppose the back brake is safer anyway, you won't flip over the handlebars that way, right?"
"Well, not exactly. Motorbikes have an anti-dive mechanism, and stopping power comes from the front brake."
"OK, and the gears?"
"Well, on the bikes I learned on, you stomped down on the shifter until you got to first gear, then clicked up once to get to neutral. All the other gears were clicks up from there."
"Well, kinda… Except that the bikes in Benin worked differently: all the way down was neutral and all the way up was first. Or something like that—you know, I'm not sure whether I ever really figured out where neutral was. In any case, you understand how to work a clutch and the idea's the same, we'll just need to figure out which gear is which. Oh, and the two things you should never do: don't drop into too low of a gear while you're going fast or the bike will throw you, and don't suddenly let go of the brake if you lock the rear wheel and start to skid, for the same reason."
Simple, right? I hoped I wasn't getting my friend in over his head.
We were interrupted by an unusual honking sound slowly increasing in volume. We looked over next to a house to see a handful of boys gathered around a bush, each with a long green horn protruding from his mouth. "Honk. Honk. Honk."
We walked over to take a closer look. Adama showed us that the horns were made from the stem of a large leafy plant. The leaves were torn off and a slit was cut in the stem. When blown into, the stem made a satisfying honking sound.
"Ingenious. Who ever would have discovered this?" Aaron asked.
The market was an adventure as well, with our presence and shopping mission providing entertainment and excitement for every vendor in attendance. Slowly we gathered a container of oil, a handful of eggs, some bread, some hot red peppers, onions, a pineapple. Aaron and I headed to the motorcycle drivers at the junction while Adama headed back to the house to begin cooking.
"So we were wondering whether it was possible to rent a couple bikes from you guys today." Aaron told JDK.
"Sure, that's possible. You know how to ride?"
"Of course, we both own bikes back at home," Aaron lied. "How much?"
We agreed to 5000 Leones per hour, about $1.50, a price Adama said she thought was appropriate. No waivers, no contracts, no licenses. We'd pick up the bikes after breakfast.
Back at Adama's house, she prepared our breakfast while we entertained the children. And when she did deliver our omelets, we agreed that they were heads and tails better than any we'd had on the trip so far. Unreasonable hospitality. Adama had plenty of work to do that day to keep her family in order, yet she and her family went out of their way to care for us strangers. They were so kind it made me feel guilty.
Give Peace a Chance
We finally got out of the neighborhood and to the motorcycles in the early afternoon. JDK offered us a Nanfang and a TVS, a Chinese and an Indian 125cc bike. We shared a gallon of gas for 15,000 Leones, about $5. The gasoline was manually pumped into a glass display before being drained into the bikes, proving to us we were getting what we paid for.
"OK, to get to first gear, click up all the way?" I asked JDK.
"No, down down down, always down!" he shouted.
We kick started the bikes and were off. I pulled behind Aaron, allowing him to set a pace he felt comfortable with as he shifted gears on a motorcycle for his first time. He picked it up like a natural, and at least had the appearance of a reasonable amount of confidence. As we began driving down the thinly paved road we just happened to be pointed down, I watched as Aaron drove right through someone's rice which was laid out on the pavement to dry. I didn't say anything; it was more important that he not hit anyone or wind up in the wrong gear.
Aaron cruised through easily 10 families' rice crops before I had the opportunity to give him a head's up that he also needed to watch the road itself, not just the horizon for potholes, chickens, and children. Riding in the third world can be a complicated affair, especially for a first-timer.
The pavement eventually gave way to compacted red dirt, surrounded by tall grasses and large green bushes. Alone on the dirt road, we rode side-by-side, CHIPS style, occasionally screaming out "YEEE-HAW!" We were on the road, totally free, in the middle of Africa, and having an absolute blast.
On the road
Every 15 minutes or so, we'd pass a small village. Each village generally consisted of six or so mud brick houses with thatched roofs. Every village we passed, we'd hear screams of "Opoto! Opoto!" the local word for white man. Children and adults alike went bonkers at the sight of us zipping by with our silly sunglasses and hats, a strange sight instead of the same old poda-poda or local on a motorcycle that they saw every other day of their lives.
"This is the only way to travel!" Aaron declared as we stopped at one of the villages. He was right. After my experience in China, I knew that travel would never be the same now that I knew the freedom and fun to be had in traveling by motorcycle. It was a blessing that we could arrange them so easily in Sierra Leone.
We stopped at most of the villages we passed, entertaining locals by taking their photos and showing them to them on our digital cameras, buying a drink or snack to provide a little commerce in otherwise sleepy communities.
Arriving at one junction with another road, we slowed to a stop at a monument with three empty flagpoles protruding from it. The monument read "PEACE WAS BORN HERE". We didn't have 10 seconds to ponder the meaning before a man called us over to his home across the road where he was sitting with a handful of other men under a mango tree.
The man explained to us that this junction in the road was the exact spot that the RUF rebels first emerged from the bush to meet the Sierra Leone government to begin peace talks which would eventually lead to the end of the war. The man walked with us across the street and read each word of the plaque to us.
"So the rebels hid out near here?" I asked.
"Oh yes, they had taken over many of the villages in this area. With the help of Bangladesh, the government was able to communicate with them and bring them to talk here at this point, where peace was born!"
We had enough time to squeeze out another question or two before word got out that there were two opoto at the junction. "Oooh boy!" Aaron called out, as two dozen women and children ran to us all hollering and asking for us to take their photos.
It was hard to believe that just a handful of years earlier, bloody war took place along that very same road, the very same people who were running to us with enormous smiles on their faces probably running in fear from murderers and rapists carrying automatic weapons and machetes.
Lazy River Road
After hanging with the peace junction villagers for a bit, we got back on the bikes and rode down the road marked with a sign that mentioned a ferry. We arrived at a serene, lazy little river. The road continued right down to the water and onto a floating contraption consisting of some steel pontoons and some rickety boards. Two or three locals stood at the river's edge, in their underwear, having just taken a swim. One took us through the general interview, what were our names, what was our "mission", how long we intended to be here.
"The ferry was destroyed in the war, but the government recently fixed it, and I am the operator," the man explained.
The ferry operator invited us onto the ferry and showed us how it operated. A car would drive onto the ferry and he would pull the ferry across the river using a steel cable that stretched across the river. While he showed us the ferry, a motorcycle arrived at the ferry and rather than pulling onto the ferry, stopped at the shore. A small boy in a long dugout canoe helped put the bike in the canoe and then began paddling it across the river. Ostensibly the boy in the canoe charged a slightly lower tariff for a river crossing for people and vehicles he could fit in his canoe.
Meanwhile Aaron and I talked it over and agreed that we were in a safe enough place that we could both leave our cameras and clothes on the shore and take a swim.
As luck would have it, the moment Aaron disrobed and stepped into the river, a poda-poda arrived and a couple families exited, waiting for the van to be arranged on the ferry. Suddenly our semi-private swim was a very public event, bringing stares and huge smiles to the families who had never expected to see a couple of opotos in their skivvies while they made their daily commute.
Again, in the exact location of a horrific war, we were met with curiosity rather than aggression, viewed with smiles rather than anger or jealousy, and our valuables and bikes were never even glanced at as targets of theft. Sierra Leone was proving itself a safe and friendly place to be.
War, What is it Good For?
Our plans to depart Mile 91 by afternoon didn't happen. With the long breakfast in the morning and the countless stops along the way, we arrived back in Mile 91 at dusk. After we returned the bikes, we went for a walk and ran into Mohamed, the guest house owner, at his friend's place, the local palm wine house.
We were treated to a couple glasses of the sweet, milky white tipple and then headed back to the hotel where we said we'd spend the evening with Mohamed again. When he arrived at the hotel, he had another bottle of palm wine with him, a gift from the palm wine purveyor.
As we sat in the dirt lot on wooden chairs illuminated by one bare bulb powered by a growling gas generator, we sipped the palm wine, and relayed our adventure that day.
"We just happened to arrive at a junction near the ferry where there was a peace monument."
"Oh yes, that was the place where the rebels first began talks with the government."
"So the war took place right around here, didn't it?"
"Yes, it did. It went on for years, just here in this neighborhood, making our lives miserable."
"Right here in this neighborhood? Did you stay here?"
"Yes, I stayed here in my house. The fighting often took place right there beyond the trees, every night we would hear the gunfire, the bombs. Sometimes we would leave, but we always had to come back to our homes. The rebels would come here looking for resources. They wanted the diamonds in Tongo and Kono, but they came to the villages for our food and women. They would take what they could find, destroy some things and then disappear into the bush again."
"How did you survive, how did you eat, if they were taking your things?"
"Well, we all had to look out for each other. If my neighbor over there had a little rice, he would share it with me, and if I had some cassava, I would share it with him."
"I can't believe you stayed here. That you lived right here in this house and survived."
"Yes, I didn't have any choice; moving away wasn't an option."
"And you had to somehow continue life through all of the killing and fear."
"Yes, we would spend our evenings sitting right here where we are sitting, listening to the sounds of the killing and wondering, just when will this rubbish end?!"
"And the rebels, what happened with them? I know that some of them even wound up in the government."
"Yes, well at the end of the war, we all had to agree to just forgive and forget. No one talks about who was a rebel, who was a killer. We are all brothers, and we all need each other to survive."
"So are there former rebels here in Mile 91?"
"Oh yes, plenty, but we don't talk about that. Now they are our neighbors, our friends." Mohamed took a pull off his cup of palm wine.
It was beyond my comprehension. How was it possible to just "forgive and forget"? How could someone, let alone an entire country just forget about the wives and daughters raped and killed? The children forced to torture their own parents to death? The innocent civilians who were amputated so the RUF could show their dominance? The homes pillaged and burned?
"We can't dwell on what happened, we need to work together. Alone, I don't have much earning potential, but I have more than some people. We all share. With the guest house, I can make about 150,000 Leones a month ($50)." Aaron and I were each paying 15,000 Leones per night, so I surmised that he filled about 10 room nights per month on average. An annual income of about $600 per year, which he shared with others. "The price of rice has increased since our new president came into office in January. It used to cost 700 Leones for a cup of rice but now it costs 1000 Leones, 100,000 for a bag of rice. I am lucky to have the guest house as my income. How is someone with six children who drives a motorcycle or sells shoes supposed to feed his six children? So we suffer here in Sierra Leone. We can only put fuel in the generator when there are guests in the hotel. We sit in the darkness the other evenings."
But the generator was a nuisance; the noise was so loud it was making conversation difficult. We asked Mohamed to turn it off and we gathered around the table inside the hotel and lit a couple kerosene lanterns. With the cost of a gallon of gas approaching the revenue from a hotel night, and knowing Mohamed's struggle, not to mention the peace and comfort of talking by lantern light, electricity to light the hotel and run our fans seemed so incredibly superfluous.
That night, after finishing the palm wine and retiring under my bug net, my mind was spinning. The things I learned that day were seemingly unfathomable. The serenity, the generosity, the trust, the community, the sharing that the Saloneans exhibited, that they could be the products of such a nightmarish war, it just didn't seem to make sense. How on earth could people just forget the war and become so supportive of one another? Were the Saloneans predisposed to such brotherhood and love, or was that the result of having been dragged through a decade of hellish war?
I can't explain it, but I can testify that it is true. Somehow, moving beyond the years of misery inflicted from the war, the people of Sierra Leone came out of the situation truly believing and living the phrase "forgive and forget". Mixed with a small dose of healthy skepticism, were able to put the atrocities behind them, look to the future with hope, and become some of the gentlest, most wonderful people I have ever encountered. There is a lesson and a bit of hope for humanity as a whole in the Saloneans' triumphant emergence from their war.
A goodwill tour of Sierra Leone