Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Searching for Diamonds, They're Grabbing at Straws

Little was known of Sierra Leone
And how it connects to the diamonds we own

The moment we stepped out of the poda-poda, a 1998 Volkswagen Golf hatchback laden with 3 backpacks, 7 humans, 3 chickens and 3 goats, we knew we were in diamond country.
Lining the main street through Bo, beginning with the poda-poda park, virtually every storefront had a diamond painted on its sign. The names on the signs were very telling: "Saleh Fouad, Diamond Expert", "Hamuday's Diamond Office", "Mansour's Diamond Office", "Talib Diamonds". These were not African names, but Muslim names. Lebanese to be exact.

Three of 13 passengers in a VW Golf
Goats in a VW Golf

The Lebanese civil war, which spanned from 1975 until 1990 led to a widespread diaspora in which many Lebanese wound up in West Africa seeking opportunities to set up business in places that were at least somewhat more stable than their homeland at the time. As the diamond business picked up momentum, the Lebanese were in the right place at the right time and, despite a population reduction during the Sierra Leonean war, the Lebanese enjoy a strong majority as merchants who buy the rough diamonds after they are extracted from the earth.
The Rebel Unified Front (RUF) instigated the war in Sierra Leone, starting in 1991, with the primary objective of seizing control of the country's diamond resources. As if the money to be gained from diamond sales were not sufficient, the RUF kept their costs down by using forced labor, in the form of men and children shoveling mud at gunpoint. The advent of the Kimberly Process after the war attempts to ensure that diamonds are no longer harvested by children, at gunpoint, or used to fund rebel groups or oppressive regimes.
During the war, as now, the Lebanese live in Bo, Kenema, Tongo, and other diamond centers in Sierra Leone to buy rough diamonds. After 9/11 it was revealed that dealers in Sierra Leone sold millions of dollars of diamonds to al Qaeda, enabling the organization to hide vast amounts of funds in the highly portable little stones.
Still today, some of the largely Shiite Lebanese in Sierra Leone funnel a portion of their cash to their favorite political organization, keeping Hezbollah armed and wealthy. Who buys the diamonds from the Lebanese? Often, they are purchased by Jews, the very people Hezbollah is always at odds with. The Lebanese buy the diamonds in Africa, sell them to Jewish businesspeople in Antwerp, New York, and Tel Aviv, who then cut and polish them before selling them to consumers all over the world. So according to the Kimberly Process, Salonean diamonds are no longer "conflict diamonds," but that's simply a technicality.
The Lebanese control over diamond purchasing in Sierra Leone amounts to a cartel where they are able to agree upon low prices that they will pay miners for the rough diamonds. Diamonds are sold to consumers at prices that do not at all reflect their rarity as a stone, first enabled in Sierra Leone by the local cartels, and then on a worldwide scale due to DeBeers' monopolistic control of roughly 70% of the world's diamond production and sales. DeBeers has admitted to price fixing, leveraging their control over the world's diamonds in order to keep prices high.

Diamond country: Bo, Sierra Leone
Bo, Sierra Leone

The Lebanese part of the diamond trade was evident within moments of arriving in Bo and Kenema, the first two cities Aaron and I visited after leaving Mile 91. But I wanted to see the first steps in the diamond chain of production: how the diamonds were acquired. I wanted to know the methods used, the people employed, and the life that surrounds diamonds long before they become the shimmering, mystifying stones we are familiar with. Motorcycles would be required.

Wheeling and Dealing
Somewhere between Bo and Kenema, Aaron and I hopped out of our poda-poda in another tiny in-between town, Blama. Unbeknownst to us at the time, 90% of Blama was destroyed in the war, leaving a tiny settlement roughly 3 blocks long consisting of rotting, uninhabitable buildings and a handful of Saloneans trying to continue life as normal. We tracked down the local motorcycle drivers to propose a multi-day rental of two motorcycles. None of the drivers were willing to release their bikes for multiple days, apparently because they didn't own them. A larger businessman owned all the bikes in the area and rented them out to the individual drivers. They said we'd have better luck asking around in Kenema. We hopped on a bike and were driven back to the nearest junction to catch a poda-poda.
The junction also happened to be a police roadblock, and as we dismounted, we were stopped by a tall, surly policeman in a blue outfit who began to grill us, starting by asking for our passports and driver's licenses. We handed over our American licenses (expired by two years in Aaron's case) and our passports. The officer was silent for a moment as he flipped through our papers.

Blama, Sierra Leone
Blama, Sierra Leone

"What is your name?" the cop demanded, gruffly.
"I'm Aaron," Aaron answered.
"No, Aaron," Aaron repeated, responding to what had become a common misunderstanding of his name.
"Where from?"
"From America."
"And you?" the officer asked, turning to me.
"I'm Adam, what's your name?" I asked, extending my hand to shake his, I think mostly out of habit from going through the same question-and-answer routine with countless civilians each day for the past 6 weeks. The effect was sudden and impressive: the officer's face softened and he smiled. Just like any other Salonean, he was excited at the opportunity to befriend a couple of foreign strangers, a change from his daily routine.
"Officer K. C. Karebo."
"Nice to meet you!" I gushed, wanting to maintain the momentum of diminishing the officer's authority. I wasn't so concerned about trouble with the law as we'd done nothing wrong, rather, I was concerned we'd be forced into a bribery situation before being released, and I figured that it'd be more difficult for him to ask for a bribe from a friend.
"Uh, nice to meet you too. What is your mission here?" Karebo asked.
"Well, we're tourists, here to learn about your country, to see what life is like here, to meet the people," I explained.
"For how long?"
"About two weeks," Aaron explained. The officer turned to two other cops and a small audience of motorcycle drivers that had congregated, and translated the interview thus far into Krio, the local Pidgin English. When he explained the duration of our trip, I noticed that he used the phrase "two week feasibility study".
"Wait, no, we're not here for a feasibility study!" I said. "We're not here for diamonds, we're tourists, just wanting to learn about life in Sierra Leone!"
"Ookey-ookey-ookey," the officer said, seeming to better understand our intent. No question, we were in diamond territory. Perhaps that was his reason for initially approaching us with such authority.
As we explained our true intentions, the officer warmed up to us and we eventually explained that we were looking to rent a couple motorcycles for a few days.
"Oh, you should contact the Chairman in Kenema. He is the man that controls the motorcycles in the region."
The officer took my notepad and jotted down a phone number, instructing us to call when we arrived. Having had bad experiences with Chairmen earlier in my trip, I figured we'd try our luck with Kenema's motorcycle drivers before calling that guy. In any case, we were gracious to the officer and moments later we were on the next poda-poda, heading to Kenema. No bribe was ever requested.
As we pulled up to the main junction in Kenema, a well-fed man with a shaved head and wearing a bright yellow set of pajamas approached the van.
"That's the Chairman," Aaron said. No words had been exchanged, but it was clear; the Chairman was there, ready to talk business with us. As we stepped onto the chaotic street, and were descended upon by the horde of motorcycle drivers wanting to drive us, the Chairman and his cohort introduced themselves. They had already been debriefed on our mission by the cop in Blama by mobile phone. These are the days of lasers in the jungle.
"We have motorcycles we can rent to you, but we do not know you, so we will need to learn about you to establish…"
"That you can trust us, certainly, I understand," I said. "Let's grab a drink and we can talk it over."
That afternoon we sipped cold Cokes with the Chairman and a few other men as we explained why we were in Sierra Leone.
"You have to understand, in our country, Sierra Leone was in the news only during the war. Once the war ended, no one has heard anything else about your country. We want to know, to see with our own eyes, to take some photos, and when we get home, we will tell our friends and family. That way, people in our country can know about your country and your lives," I explained.
"And how do you find Sierra Leone?"
"It's amazing!" Aaron said. "The people have been so friendly to us, everyone has been helpful, and we've been assisted with anything we need. It's really been an amazing experience to travel here."
The Chairman was getting us. The next morning, Saturday, we drew up a contract in my notebook and signed it, promising that we had no intention to disappear into the bush with his bikes, and that the bikes would be back in his possession at dusk on Sunday.

Fire on the Mountain
We were back on the road, motorcycles blazing across potholed pavement and red washboard dirt roads, jungle greenery flying past us in the punishing sun. The heat dissipated as we picked up speed, as our skin and clothes quickly picked up a thick layer of red dust.
We were headed north from Kenema, aiming to arrive in Tongo a few hours later. Tongo was home to the Tongo Diamond Field, one of the largest fields in Sierra Leone. As a result, it was the main target of the RUF rebels as they wrested control of Sierra Leone and the diamond mines during the war.
The terrain was stunning, as we crested mountain after mountain, each covered in thick green jungle. Strangely, however, we noticed countless expanses that had been razed by recent fires, killing all the foliage and leaving a few charred palm stumps to stand over the charred earth. We assumed they were accidental fires, the results of slash-and-burn agriculture or garbage fires gone out of control. It was disappointing to see the destruction of such unbelievable terrain.
We veered off the main road onto a thin footpath that ran along a fire still blazing, radiating searing heat and crackling loudly, before we came upon a few men carrying machetes. They explained to us that they were in fact setting the fires intentionally. It was the first step in diamond mining.
"First, we burn," the man said. "Then we dig."

Burning before mining
Burning before mining

We arrived at the edge of Tonga in the early afternoon. We knew we'd arrived when we reached a police road block. The interrogation followed the exact same pattern as the one in Blama, with Aaron and I charming the cops into submission and including the same brief misunderstanding that our two-week visit was a two-week feasibility study. They insisted on taking us into the police station and logging our presence in their diary, repeatedly explaining that our "safety is paramount." Considering the violent history and the priceless land we were about to tread, it was only fair. We made it out of the police station with a nice group photo, several new friends, and no bribes paid.
We rode into the center of town and hopped off our bikes.
"Look at this place, it's the god damned Wild West," Aaron said. "Every store is selling pickaxes and sieves." All along the dirt road, the small ramshackle buildings carried mining supplies while motorcycles whizzed people from one end of town to the other. While only supporting a relatively small population, Tongo was clearly focused on a singular vocation.
As usual, we approached the motorcycle drivers to get the low-down. We explained that we wanted to see the diamond mines and a moment later we had a guide leading us to Tongo Field.

Diamond mining tools
Diamond mining tools

We could have found the mine unassisted; it actually would have been hard to miss. Just beyond the last homes along the main road, a vast expanse of undulating, lumpy dirt hills stretched as far as the eye could see. Open-pit mines.
We dismounted and took a stroll down to a large pit of yellow dirt, probably 30 feet deep. The bottom of the pit contained a shallow pool of rust-colored water and a handful of muscular men in their underwear busily rinsing small quantities of gravel in handmade sieves. As we stood at the rim of the pit, we received some skeptical glares and finally were called to come down into the pit. We did so and began to chat with the men. It was the same conversation about why we were there, requiring an extra amount of assurance that we weren't there to acquire diamonds, just to see how diamonds were extracted from the earth. The men remained aloof, however, telling us that they would not allow their photographs to be taken. We didn't insist and I hoped we'd be able to warm them up when suddenly a man's voice began to call to us from the rim of the pit.
The man was upset, interrogating us about our "mission" and what business we had at the mines. Apparently he was one of the main supervisors and mobile phone calls had alerted him of our presence. We'd need to go to the mining office and meet the Paramount Chief to get permission to view the mines. The man hopped on the back of my bike and we rode to the office. Along the way, I chatted up the man, knowing I'd need to be on his good side to get to the mines on our own terms. The man turned out to be just as gentle as the rest of the Saloneans. His name was Francis and I had him giving me an impromptu tour within moments.
"Over there, that is the former airport," Francis said, pointing at a stretch of land that had the last disappearing remnants of a pocked asphalt runway. "The rebels destroyed it in the war, and now people just live along it."
"What is that building?" I asked, pointing at a three story tall concrete arch and a few crumbling walls, something that was once a building at least.
"Oh, that used to be the main diamond processing plant, also destroyed in the war. All mining is done manually these days."
Back at the mining office, Francis introduced us to a man in a white ball cap and busy button-down shirt. As it turned out, the Paramount Chief was away on business, as they tend to be, and this man was something like the Deputy Assistant Secondary Lieutenant to the Paramount Chief, but was expectant of all the formalities, power and respect of the Paramount Chief himself, and we generously accorded them to him.
The office was decorated with a giant poster of a Caucasian Jesus, and the desk supported a back-catalog of Jehovah's Witness Awake! magazines and a transistor radio. The discussion was the same as all the others with the police, and the substitute Chief explained that our mission was perfectly acceptable, provided we took a Field Supervisor with us.
"See, many people come here for our diamonds and we need to make sure you aren't here to do business"
"And is it OK if we take some photographs?" I asked.
"Of course! We had two Spanish women come here a few months ago who wanted to and they took thousands of photographs. The Supervisor will make sure that you have no problems. Your safety is paramount!"

Searching for Diamonds, They're Grabbing at Straws
For the evening and the next morning, we were accompanied to the Tongo Fields by a tall man in a Best Buy uniform who had a grating penchant for repetition.
"Over there, that's the dike. Keeps water out of the mine. See the dike? It's in the mine. Snap a photo? Snap! Snap a photo! See the dike? See the dike? That's the dike."
"Got it, thanks."
"Tonight there aren't many workers, they've all gone home. More will be here in the morning. Not many right now. Usually a few hundred. More in the morning. All gone home for tonight. More in the morning. Sometimes hundreds of them. In the morning."
"Wait, let me get this straight," I said, stopping walking. "Right now, there aren't that many workers here because they've gone home for the evening? And tomorrow there will be more?"
"Great, got it."
"There will be more in the morning."
Aside from the mind-numbing repetition, the presence of the Supervisor made life easy. With the Supervisor, we no longer received dirty looks when we arrived. We'd approach each miner, shake hands, introduce ourselves, explain where we were from and why we were in Sierra Leone. Each miner warmed to us and generally was happy to have his photo taken in exchange for cigarettes which I had bought in town. Many of the miners took the cigarette as an opportunity to stop digging for a bit and talk with us. Through these conversations and conversations with the Supervisors, we were able to learn about mining from a miner's perspective.

Tongo FieldTongo Field, Sierra Leone
Glimmer of hope
Diamond sieve

The mines in Tongo Field were all alluvial mines, meaning diamonds were acquired by digging through dirt and bedrock to get to gravel which hopefully contains diamond deposits. The mining techniques were artisanal, meaning machines were not employed, just shovels, picks, buckets, sieves and bare hands. It's hot in Sierra Leone if you aren't shoveling mud all day. The miners often stripped down to their underwear, and those who kept their shirts on had varying tides of sweat demarcated on their shirts by visible rings of salt.
After the war, probably part of the Kimberly Process, every miner is required to have a mining license, which is granted through the mining office we'd already visited. The license was supposed to prevent child labor or forced labor in the mines. In our visits to the mines, I'd estimate the youngest person I saw working was about 15 years old.
Since it was the weekend, the mines weren't overrun with workers: on Saturday the Muslims take the day off, and on Sunday the Christians take the day off. Aaron, our guide, and I slowly made our way along the ridges of the pits, and paused at one with rust-red water filling the bottom. The sides of the mine were terraced, sometimes supported by branches pounded into the ground to prevent the terrace from sliding into the water. At 8:00 in the morning, the workers were drenched in sweat.

Terraced open-pit mine
Tongo diamond mine

"We're paid a weekly salary," one miner explained. "We get 2,000 Leones a day, plus housing." As we'd learned earlier in the trip, a cup of rice had recently increased to from 500 to 1,000 Leones. A Coke was 1,500 Leones warm and 2,000 Leones refrigerated. A hard-boiled egg was a few hundred, and a skewer of about 5 bites of beef cost between 500 and 1,000 Leones. Aaron and I generally paid 15,000 for a night in a guest house with no running water and electricity from a generator for a couple hours per night.
The mine's supervisor handed out some kola nuts to the workers. I'd tasted them before and had Aaron try one of the caffeine-packed seeds during one of our poda-poda rides. He couldn't comprehend eating something so incredibly bitter voluntarily. "How can you stand those?" he asked.
"They suppress your hunger," one miner responded.
"What happens when you find a diamond?" Aaron asked.
"We share the proceeds equally," the supervisor explained. It was clever; by making it equally profitable whenever anyone found a diamond, it served to ensure that no one would just hide it and try to sell it on their own. The upper supervisors interfaced with the diamond merchants, ensuring that the average miner didn't know the value of the diamond anyway, so they'd probably get a fraction of the local value if they attempted to sell a diamond without assistance. Nonetheless, diamonds are so tiny that it still seemed entirely possible that some people made away with a diamond from time to time, yet no one there agreed with my assertion.
Aaron and I asked numerous times how much money the miners expected to make from each diamond, and the supervisors and miners were intentionally vague in their responses. On average, it sounded like a decent stone could net the team between $25 and $30. You know what a diamond costs on the Western market.
At some of the other sites, the miners were paid only on commission; they would sell the diamond to the owner of the plot.
"We don't have to sell to the owner though, we can take them to town and sell to the merchants," one miner explained. On the surface, that kept the owner from undercutting the merchants, yet my research back home still indicates that the cartel keeps the payout small across the board.

Dig My Grave
As we proceeded from one mine to another, we crossed paths with a train of men hustling across the ridges from one mine to a larger pool of water. They were taking viable gravel from a dry pit to a wet one so they could sift through it to find diamonds.
"We have to dig down to the water level," a miner explained. "We go past the surface dirt, past the bedrock, and into the gravel below. That's where the diamonds are." Since their mine had gravel above the water table, they had to move the gravel to the water to process it.
We came upon a large mine where 8 men were immersed to their knees in heavy wet clay. A constant barrage of splats could be heard as the men heaved shovelfuls of clay up over their heads and onto the next terrace above them.
"They shovel it up to the next level in the terrace," their supervisor explained, "then after it gets to the top we move it out of the way. We need to get it out of the way because this site has a lot of clay to on top of the gravel. When we get the gravel to the top level, we let it dry for a few weeks and then take it down to the water to sift it.

Carrying sacks of gravel
Diamond gravel
Digging through clay for diamonds
Digging through clay for diamonds

"How long have you been digging at this site?" Aaron asked.
"About 40 days. And we keep hitting clay."
Aaron and I shook our heads, marveling at the amount of labor required to move that much earth.
"Before the war, companies invested more in the mines. We had Caterpillars. With a Caterpillar, we could make the same progress in a weekend. Now it takes us months."
Later we asked how long the supervisor had been working in Tongo. He had begun as a digger like the other men, but was fortunate enough to get to a supervisory position when his body could no longer handle the toil.
"Did your father work in the mines?"
"And your father's father?"
"All the way down the line?"
"Yes. In fact, my family dug here in this exact mine in 1968."
"You dug right here? This same mine?"
"Yeah, there are still some diamonds left..."
The diamonds on planet Earth are between 1 and 1.3 billion years old. New diamonds do not appear in the Tongo mines; these men were digging by hand for diamonds leftover by machines 40 years ago.

Take a Look At These Hands
I got into a conversation with a tall, slender man wearing a blue cap and camouflage underwear named Mohammed.
"How long have you worked at the mine?" I asked.
"This is my first mine," he said. "I used to be a civil servant; I worked for the government. But when 9 months passed without a paycheck, I had to find other work. This is the only option here in Tongo." It was apparent in Sierra Leone that some people in the government were able to earn substantial salaries. Someone was making money, but this man didn't. Was this the fate of the honest civil servant?
"Why don't you move to another city? Try something else?"
"It takes money to move to another city. And there are no jobs in Sierra Leone. This is difficult work, but I am assured of money, even if it is not much," the man said softly as he wrote numbers on a small scrap of paper, which he then tore into tiny pieces, meticulously rolled each one into a ball and then tossed them on the ground. The other miners came over and each man picked up a white ball.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Lottery. We choose numbers to see who digs each plot," he said, counting off the 5x5 foot sections of the mine demarcated by sticks. "Some are harder than others, so we choose numbers for each one."
As the men picked up their shovels and approached their plot, Mohammed showed me his hands. He was a lefty and the entire inside of his left hand had formed into a thick, leathery callous. He let Aaron and I touch it, and I could move the callous layer independently from the rest of his hand.
At our guest house in Tongo we met a South African who worked in the diamond business named Rizzi said that often months would go by before a team found a stone worth even $10.
"They have no foresight," he said. "When they find a diamond that will feed them for a few months, they will stop working for a few months, rather than save and keep working."
The men at Tongo Field have no access to banks, and as a result have no interest to accrue. Six days a week in seemingly bottomless pits of dirt under the punishing sun, their sweating bodies aching and becoming covered in calluses, the men breathe deep and plunge their shovels into the earth again, hoping for the one big find that could make a woman in another world gush or a hip-hop artist boast, and that could bring these men a little time off.

The hand speaks. The hand of a government man.
Miner's hands

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War, What Is It Good For?

Salone Hospitality
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.

Intricate braids

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."
"Easy enough."
"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."
"Easy enough."
"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.

Digging a new toilet near Adama's house

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.

Rural village

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.

One of these things just doesn't belong

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

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