Friday, February 5, 2016

My Visit to Sierra Leone: Part 1

Lungi-Freetown Ferry
I just came back from Sierra Leone. I went back home on a short visit after many years living abroad, or as they call it in Sierra Leone, "the diaspora." The saying "no place like home," sounds like an old cliche, but in all sincerity, no truer words were ever uttered. When as a nomad, which I am, you go back to the land where you were born, you get this strange feeling that this is where I belong. It is not even an African thing. I have been to many countries in Africa, but it is only Sierra Leone that completes me.

When I went to my village Nyandeyama, deep in the interior of Kenema district, everybody knew me.  Even the young ones who did not know me had heard about me. I was back in my element. I was back in the land of my birth. I was back in the place where I belonged. In Segbwema....... What can I say? I was back in my element, though the town had changed beyond recognition.

Nyandeyama

I had left Sierra Leone during a period of great bitterness, leaving behind a beautiful country blighted by war and untold human suffering. It was a period of insanity, a period when men temporarily took leave of their senses. It was a period in which violence became normal and death became commonplace. Sierra Leone today seems to have put that sad past behind. The people look happy, even in the midst of the grueling poverty and commerce seems to be really thriving. With Ebola over, everybody is back to their normal life, the struggle for survival.

Unemployment in Sierra Leone remains very high and the levels of poverty are just heartbreaking. But even in the midst of this terrible deprivation, there is an optimism that was absent in Sierra Leone just ten years ago. There is a general belief that the future will be better. The people thrive on hope and the solace of community. It was a beautiful feeling.

Having lived in Minnesota for many years, a land where people believe that the only hands in which you can trust your destiny is yours, it was sad to see the confidence the common people in Sierra Leone still had in the political class of the country. There are very few community development initiatives. Everybody blames the government. Sierra Leone communities, at the village or section level, meet for funerals, weddings, society initiations and other social programs, but communities do not meet to make their village roads better. The farmers' co-operatives of the past are either absent or exist only in few areas.
Mano Junction

When I went to my village Nyandeyama, I passed through the villages of Vaahun, Komende Station and Borbwehbu. Leaving Nyandeyama for Kenema, I came through Jormu Kafeibu, Nikabo and a spattering of other smaller villages. I was lucky that we had a trusty old Toyota. The roads to these villages were worse than I had left them years ago and some were truly dangerous. The people of the villages, including their section and town chiefs, do not even think of even getting the youths together to take some of the big stones off the road. The village roads are bad, everybody blames the politicians. Many top politicians in Sierra Leone have never even heard of Nyandeyama or Jormu Kafeibu, so how would they make these far off roads? Everybody seemed to be dancing in the dark.
When I told the relatives in my van that we could actually do some of this work ourselves, they thought I was crazy. "Unfortunately," I told them, it is not politicians who ply these roads everyday, it is ourselves. But I was like a methodist priest preaching to a congregation of catholics.
Segbwema Jaygay Power

So, until our politicians one day decide that the road to Nyandeyama is worth making, we will continue to seek treatment for the achy joints resulting from all the wobbling and shaking when traveling on bad roads, in these marginal lands.

The Okada, motorcycle transport, is now the only way to get to some of the villages. And the way I saw the Okada drivers maneuvering around the rocks and boulders on the roads, I firmly resolved that traveling on one of those contraptions to my village was just not on my immediate plan. Maybe I will try them on my next visit. I did ride one in Kenema though. The driver immediately told me that I had never sat on one of these before. I was sitting crooked. Back let me go back to the day I came to Sierra Leone, to Lungi International Airport.
Wesley Secondary School
My Alma Mater

My Air France Airbus landed in Sierra Leone from Paris an hour late. Where at most airports, only passengers and few airport personnel are allowed in baggage claims, at Lungi International Airport, as soon as the baggages get on the carousel, it seems as if everyone who has clearance gets into baggage claim. When the first of my bags arrived, a fellow who did not look like a traveler grabbed my bag with supreme confidence off the carousel and proceeded to quietly put it by his side. I walked up to him with even greater confidence and quietly took my bag.
"Is that your bag?" He asked.
"Is it yours?" I asked.
He faded away quickly, the embarrassment plastered all across his weather beaten face. I made no fuss.
With My Younger Brother

By the time we got to the ferry terminal at Lungi, the last ferry had departed for Freetown. As we had a Toyota van, we bought more fuel to take the long Port Loko route to Freetown. We generously gave lift to some travelers coming from Holland and their delegation. They had also missed the ferry. They were traveling with some relative who had come to receive them at the airport but had not brought a vehicle.
Kenema Plaza

So we traveled to Freetown, all our minds on some holiday makers from America who had died at the Rogbere bridge just two weeks prior. When we got to the bridge there was a bump in front of the bridge that could have been responsible for many accidents. We drove carefully on that bridge and drove slowly the rest of the way. The road was good all the way and many of the villages along the way had solar lights. It was a beautiful scene in the deep of the warm night.

There is one thing that is great these days about Sierra Leone. Many of the main roads have been repaired and tarred. The road from Freetown to Segbwema is truly great. Driving to Segbwema, which used to be a whole day's journey, could now be done in about three to four hours. The only reason you won't do it faster is the irritating speed bumps that are all over the road, before and after every big town. I know the speed bumps are for safety, but they are so many and so irritating, and could actually cause the same accidents they are trying to prevent, if a driver is not too careful.
But on the whole, traveling to the interior is now a happy affair and one of the signature achievements of the current President, Ernest Bai Koroma. Probably to remind the country of this achievement, every so often his beaming smile is on a sign post or a building with the slogan," Action Pass Intention."

Kenema
As a JC (Jus Cam), a term reserved for Sierra Leoneans resident abroad who occasionally go home to visit, I really enjoyed my short stay in Sierra Leone, though I went under sad circumstances. JCs are both loved, envied and sometimes hated in Sierra Leone, the latter because of their antics. However, people were extremely nice to me. I was a well behaved JC it seems.  I was neither obnoxious nor outrageous. I did the best I could to blend in.
Flew with Isha Sesay of CNN
Wow!

I stayed away from Freetown,the capital of Sierra Leone, for much of my  visit. I had initially intended to spend much of my time in Freetown, but the overpopulation, the traffic, the pollution, the dust and the lack of urban planning has made this once beautiful city into one big chaotic mess. It simply was not the place for me. I was not used to the frenetic pace.

The Bo School-My Alma Mater
Urban planning in Freetown seems to be virtually nonexistent. It seems as if people just buy lands and build houses in any direction that suits their fancy. You can look around a neighborhood and see houses facing in whichever direction. Many of the houses, built by affluent locals, politicians, and JCs, are truly beautiful. But it is beauty made truly ugly by lack of coordination. Another thing I noticed about Freetown was the dense smoke pollution that was everywhere, particularly in the Eastern part of the city. Why people will want to be burning garbage in such a densely populated city was a mystery I just couldn't fathom. The smoke casts a ghostly haze over the Eastern part of the city and sometimes it is difficult to breath. Western Freetown is still beautiful, but Eastern Freetown is like a large urban village. It is truly a tale of two cities.
To Be Continued..........,