Thursday, December 07, 2006
An interesting day
It’s the dry season here now but the weather has cooled considerably. This morning the sky is a little hazy but it’s a comfortable roughly 15C and importantly dry. I even slept in my light sleeping bag last night. This time of year a dry air mass from the Sahara replaces the very humid air from the west and is an extraordinary contrast. Some of the locals even take to wearing jackets and woolly hats complaining of the cold. I don’t complain. Apparently March / April will see a fierce return of the humidity and extreme heat when the sun is right overhead, here at 8 degrees North
One of the nice things that happens in the morning is the singing at the school opposite my house where at 8:00 am sharp the children sing several songs including the tuneful national anthem just as I am finishing breakfast. The voices are young and strong, typically black and gospel like. This sets up the day nicely and I’m off to work. The street scene outside of the walled compound is a stark contrast to the calm inside – outside is a busy dusty unsurfaced dirt street typical of any street in this town and with lots of activity. School children in neat and clean uniforms look out of place by contrast with the unkempt and dirty looking houses and open sewers lining the street. The houses are like this because of the extraordinary humidity that encourages a form of growth. Also on the street are the seemingly constant flow of women walking to market from the villages sometimes 10 or 15 kms away; noticeable today carrying as head baggage long sticks of tree branches for sale as firewood. The women are very friendly despite their load and obvious fatigue. “Topandera” they say (a form of Timine greeting that literally means good health), “Indirai” I reply – good morning and they laugh at my attempt at their language. “Seke” they say or welcome and my response of “momoh” or thank you seems to set up more warm smiles. The women seem quite relaxed and I continue on my way with a wave. The very young children not going to school call out the now ubiquitous greeting or chant of “opporto”, literally white man – derived from the Portuguese who first visited the area. I have learnt that this is not to be taken as a derogatory term but simply a greeting. I wave and smile, sometimes with a Timine greeting. Occasionally I feign a movement toward the children and they scream with fright while the mothers laugh since they know me now. Going to work is fun. I find that I am now becoming accustomed to the poor state of the streetscape and I look past the derelict post office, the destroyed telephone exchange and the old wires hanging from disused electric poles.
Today I arrived at 8:30 to find Mr. Williams, the valuation officer ready to get going. He has a meeting later today and needs my input on various ideas. We are trying to get the Council to accept the notion that the City can earn a considerably higher income from shops that it owns. It is an uphill battle since many of the tenants are old cronies of the political body. I set out a two page memorandum and Mr. Williams is enthusiastic. We also go through the database of 160 shops I have set up for him and the wording of a new lease agreement.
There is a full Council meeting tomorrow and the many documents I have been working on that have been accepted by the Taxation Committee need to be approved. There is much to be printed up for presentation and I will need some power. The lack of any generated power is beginning to drain my first battery but I have given up complaining and shrug my shoulders to the Deputy Chairman Mr. Kargbo whilst he raises his palms and brow in explanation. No money for fuel. Instead I ask him for the name of the local person in charge of caretaking the old electric plant so I can find out the story about any future. There has to be electricity for a city of this size, I don’t care if this Sierra Leone four years after the war.
Two of the valuation department people wanted to go to survey the shops and complete my forms. I wanted to go with them and see the shops first hand but the Chairman’s private van was at last available so I could move my stuff from the Azolini mansion – my first abode. So I missed the visit to the shops and I had to collect my water filter and kitchen stuff.
By noon I was back at the Town Hall but still no power and I gave up in frustration. Andrew my assistant was continuing to drain the batteries doing data entry and I decided to put all my completed documents on to a memory stick and hope to use a computer and printer at the now familiar UN office. I honda’d (notice the noun use as a verb here for taking a taxi) across town and was greeted warmly by Mr. Leigh At last some power to charge my phone and camera as well as print up my papers and even sneak into the internet. I decided that I should not overstay my welcome at the UN and scouted several of the numerous “missions” funded by some country or another to see what facilities I could scrounge. One of them was called ENCIS funded by the Brits and they seemed overjoyed that someone from the City had visited them. There was the obligatory and important looking land rover parked by the door. They didn’t seem at all busy and I was invited to use their internet and printing facilities since this activity seemed to justify their mandate to help other authorities. OK by me but I really think that the staff are protecting their jobs by justifying their existence. I have very quickly become cynical about the NGO organizations “helping out” here. However I don’t complain too loudly since they offer me some electric power, a much valued commodity.
I also paid a visit to the now defunct electric plant to speak first hand to the caretaker / engineer. What an experience. I was welcomed like a lost brother or a visitor to a prisoner in jail At last he had someone to chat with and complain. He had plenty to complain about. The caretaker was an older well qualified engineer who was very articulate and fondly explained the history of the town and its former prosperity during the 1950 to 1980 period. The old buildings that contained the electric generators were standing but derelict and used to power all of the town as well as street lighting. All the equipment was destroyed by the rebels during the war. Not only the street poles and local generating equipment but also the large high tension towers some of which were still standing as stark reminders of former glory. It was quite a depressing but fascinating story. Mr Bangura explained fondly and with pride of his former equipment and power generation but also his own harrowing wartime stories.
Recovery is slow and frustrating for Mr. Bangura. The central government has moved a 1.3 Megawatt generator to Makeni and it stands proudly at the generating plant in a mobile truck trailer. The problem is that the generator soaks up 50 gallons of diesel per hour. Couple this with the lack of equipment and qualified labour to erect the lines to service the town and the cost is far too inefficient. Some work has been done connecting 200 homes over the past two weeks and the government has given 1800 gallons of fuel. However still no equipment for the remaining streets and roughly 7,000 homes. A positive development is a hydro dam about 40kms away called Bumbuna. This has been in the works for many years using donated World Bank cash and has been repaired and will be completed in August next year. Initially this is intended to service Freetown and then any surplus to Makeni. Mr. Bangura doubts if he will see any power for several years from this source but he is hopeful about the long term. Nonetheless it will only be effective during the rainy season and a shoulder period, say 8 or 9 months of the year. Thus the future for a recovered electric service is far from certain. I thanked Mr. Bangura; “seke” for an interesting tour and a good chat. I promised to return; what a lovely man and obviously working under difficult conditions.
As I left the derelict plant and Mr. Bangura I was approached by a couple of young men on motor bikes who said they were looking for Paul Fish. Just a little bit disconcerting. Now a couple of days ago I had been offered the chance through a Dutch volunteer to meet a youth group but only the leader showed up; the remainder had preferred a local football match. This is not too surprising in this football (read soccer) crazy country. Nonetheless I had an interesting discussion for an hour or so with the leader, Peter. He was very intense but articulate and complained mainly about the lack of connection with the local politicians, but also he described the lack of opportunities for youth. He said he would like to meet again. Somehow he had arranged for a meeting this evening at 5pm and had me tracked down so that I might attend. I agreed and the bikers said they would collect me. Punctually, (an often misused word here) David returned on his honda (actually a old Yamaha) and I jumped on the pillion and off we rushed to the youth group meeting under a tree by the old waterworks at the edge of town. Quite a ride. There were about 15 young people and the meeting was quite formal with introductions and positions. Maria, the Dutch volunteer was there as well and I felt more comfortable. The group discussed their frustration and they were looking for some advice on how they could participate. They very much wanted a better City and wanted to contribute but had felt left out in the past citing several examples. We chatted about more active participation in the public meetings and a gradual recognition by the political body. Since the youth group represented over 3,000 people they had a strong voice and had some influence. I agreed to accompany one of the members to the public Council meeting tomorrow that they insisted would exclude them. In return they agreed to my suggestion of doing some street theatre to support my mobilization of the upcoming local tax. I somehow have to encourage people that paying the tax is good for the community and this idea came to mind with my training in Birmingham. After an enjoyable two hours of discussion we parted and I declined a bike ride back, preferring to chat with Maria a little longer. The experience for me was very encouraging despite the obvious despondency felt by the group. Here was the vigorous future of the City and perhaps as an “’ol pa” I can give them some guidance.
A really interesting day with great adventures. I am feeling even more energized and enthusiastic.
Glad to hear things are going well for you. I've never known anyone who has had the experience of working in a third world country before, so reading your blog is definitely opening up my mind.
Things are going well for me. School is tough as ever, but I continue to work hard. I am already making plans to be back in Ontario next spring, and am looking forward to hearing stories of your voyage after a day a great soaring.
All the best and Season's Greetings!
I'm so glad you had a chance to post to the blog. Steph and I just saw Blood Diamonds (a tidy hollywood movie here with Leonardo DiCapprio about the Diamond economy in Sierra Leone) and it reminded me that you're actually there. Not exactly a place one can visit for 2 weeks, although I'd love to join you.
It's great that you're having such a real impact, meeting the people who makeup the infrastructure of the town, etc. What a difference!
Good luck with the rest of your work,
It took me a while to get to read your blog. Things have been busy here, and I wanted to save it for when I could read it with the respect that it and you deserve. Your experiences give all of us so much to think about. I want to wish you a very happy and healthy New Year. You will certainly make it a better year for the people of Sierra Leone. I look forward to learning about their New Year's customs.
From the looks of your skinny frame the last thing in the world you need is a bout of “runnebelle” . A steady diet of cassava leaves is probably the reason! It sounds like hydro electric power should be a government priority if they want conditions to improve. I guess the question is prioritization . Where does one start?