Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Back in Makeni and busy....

I caught a picture of Mariatu today at an old typewriter that I thought were consigned to the museum until I came to Sierra Leone. A casualty of no electricity.

Sorry but these blogs have been slow coming. Quite a lot has been going on since I arrived back from Bo. Local taxes are quite a new phenomenon for people here and I have been organizing local meetings at the weekends for councilors to attend and explain and for people to voice concerns and questions. The meeting on Saturday afternoon was excellent. A turnout of 120 people and the outcome was far better than expected. People were keen to come and pay their bill and Monday was busy at Town Hall. I have also arranged for people to pay at the bank although not many are familiar. All of this is probably too boring and I’ll reserve more for a later blog.

My last entry was from Bo and I was concerned about getting back to Makeni. I didn’t want to take the poda podas. The 18 people stuffed into a Mazda van of unknown vintage and obviously poor condition did not appeal to my better senses, especially given the terrain that I had encountered on the way down enjoyed in a landcruiser run by the NGO, Action Faim. I called Pascal at Action Faim but bad news; no vehicle this week. More bad news. I had gone to the bank and found that my pouch with the travelers cheques had been lifted. A visit to the police station was an experience in itself and the subject of another blog. Feeling somewhat deflated I went round the corner to the store that sold mars bars. This is also the store that the NGO people seem to shop and I came across an Irish accent reaching also for a mars. Fergul Ryan from Dublin works for CARE, a large NGO and heavens above yes a landcruiser leaving in the morning. The only problem was that one of his drivers had hit and killed a pedestrian that evening and the depot was closed in case of reprisals from the community!!!. I considered my options and still didn’t like the idea of the poda podas. So the CARE cruiser vehicle picked me up after lunch and we took the long (but air conditioned) journey back.

Today I went to a small village Baikolo where the local councilor Ishmael Bangura is planning a food processing operation funded by a branch of the UN. The small building is just getting under way and I was given the royal tour. Various products such as milled rice and garri (a cassava product) are to be prepared and sold. Ishmael also showed me a place where handicapped people were making farming tools. I was interested in this as a community of women farmers had complained about their lack of such implements. Most farmers are women here. The handicapped people were almost all amputees or polio victims and they deftly showed their skill at blacksmithing old car metal into farm implements. Trevor Taylor would be interested to see this I thought. I agreed to buy some farm implements and I’ll find out from the community of farmers what they need.

Another day, another.. haircut and instead of a close up I’ll send this pic of my darkened room (no electricity) with me at the computer.

Another vignette is this boy up a 40 ft palm tree at the back of my house. He risked life and limb deftly climbing up to get just a few cocoanuts for his family.

Monday, January 22, 2007



My last leg of the week tour is a town called Kenema in the eastern part of the country about 80 kms east of Bo and I am writing this from my guest house on Monday morning before setting out for the Town Offices.

I left Bo yesterday morning having spent a nice evening with the valuation officer Francis Conteh. He turned up at the hotel and wanted a chat before I left and so we went for dinner and a couple of beers. I was pleased to have the opportunity to treat him to a meal and to have a private and relaxed discussion since I felt all along that my presence might have been a threat. On the contrary he wanted to explore and continue some of the ideas and he also wanted to thank me for treating his staff who I had taken for a meal the day before. This was gratifying. We talked about his work problems with staff training and motivation, acceptance of new technologies, and most of all how to handle the political machine; the Council who he felt wanted to micro-manage his administrative function. The separation of administrative and political functions is important and seems to be missed here and in Makeni, probably due to the obvious favours that political leaders wanted to control. Francis and I agreed to keep in contact.

Earlier in the afternoon the Deputy Mayor Joe Pyne had taken me on a tour of the City and he also treated me to a drink at the local “country club”. Well I was dumbstruck at the sight of this walled compound with tennis court, swimming pool and restaurant / bar that could have been a luxury resort somewhere in the Caribbean. The parking lot was almost full with white Toyota landcruisers repleat with important looking oversized antennas the status symbol of the NGO’s such as Oxfam, UN, Care, World Vision etc.. More about these organizations later. Joes beaten up 20 year old Mitsubishi was second class but as an important politician he was obviously accepted here. The relaxed and holiday atmosphere of the luxury “club” was too stark a contrast with the normal street scene and I was uncomfortable. (I even forgot to take a snap.) Nonetheless we enjoyed the drink and a chat and Joe introduced me to the locals. He also presented me with a Gara cloth, a locally made light cotton material that was nicely coloured and decorated. This will make a good African shirt since I am getting tired of the existing one. I was very pleased that Joe appreciated my effort to come to Bo and he wanted to adopt some of the ideas. He also wanted to tempt me to extend my stay in Sierra Leone and spend some time working in Bo with him. I gave him the contact details for the VSO office (and Trevor Marks) and politely avoided making a commitment.

During the morning I visited the local Njala University with Bo Councilor and Lecturer Mrs. Issa. The University had just finished it’s first academic year. In some respects it was good to see that there are enough people (2,000 students) who have the money to attend - $600 per annum fees. This amount is very tough to budget in Sierra Leone. Quite sad in many respects since the campus is run down, overcrowded and it seems at first glance that the courses are modest at best. I sat in on a business course and the lecturer was explaining how to complete a banking cheque. The University has no access to internet and computer courses were given in crowded rooms. Exams were being taken outdoors since there was no room inside. The students seemed happy and positive about the future although the main (almost desperate) question of me was how to immigrate to Canada.

My trip to Kenema was thankfully uneventful although I was a little too intimate with the passengers of the overloaded small Toyota car (7 people). I was met by Patricia a friend of a Makeni friend Maria and she took me to a local guest house. She was very nice and we spent the day looking around the town, visiting the local neighbourhoods which are very similar to Makeni and the small commercial core. Kenema is a dusty ramshackle of a place and although they have hydro power it is not as developed as Bo. Lacking are the banks and other commercial institutions, government etc. nor any industry. People here seem to experience extreme poverty. Patricia is a local 27 year old African and at her home she prepared a supper of cassava leaves with fish and rice. She has a harrowing story of her experience during the war. Husband killed, fled to Liberia and with her small child. Her neighbour Martin has an equally dreadful story and this really has affected me. Not too many people in Makeni want to relate their experiences. Kenema seems to be the main town where resettlement of refugees is still taking place. All of the main agencies are here.

At an internet café now and this is run by a local Lebanese who belong to a community that appear to run all of the local businesses. The meeting with the Town Council here was successful and the valuation officer Mr. James Ensah was enthusiastic about the Access routines that I will quickly adapt for Kenema. I learnt a great deal about what assessment practices they employed and had largely failed. I now have a good basis for making recommendations to Makeni. The Mayor and an entourage took me for lunch and the fare was groundnut stew and it was not too appetizing. I was already suffering from a bout of “runnebelle” but I had to be polite. Patricia is meeting me soon and we are planning a visit to the library. I am interested since Makeni has a new library building funded by the EU but seemingly no budget for books. I’ll treat Patricia to supper at the Capitol restaurant where it seems all the local NGO’s go.

Tomorrow it’s back on a bus to Bo and I am still hoping for a ride from Action Faim back to Makeni on Wednesday.

Friday, January 19, 2007


In Bo

I am on a road trip and I am writing this from a City called Bo about 120 kms from Makeni. I am here to do some research into systems and policies adopted in other parts of the country but it is also interesting to see and experience rather subtle differences in the city compared to Makeni. The obvious social difference here is that they have electrical power for several hours per day and this is truly a wonderful luxury.

The trip to Bo was quite an adventure. I managed to catch a ride with one of the better NGO’s Action Faim in their Land Cruiser and I’m glad I did. The road from Makeni is more or less single track, unpaved and so poorly maintained so that much of the journey is a bone jarring experience, the vehicle straining in low gear negotiating all manner of rivers, rocks and fallen trees. The tongue has to be kept firmly in the mouth. Some informal road blocks put up by the locals to extract money from passing opportos are ignored but other police checks are more or less polite. The Action Faim guys take all this seriously with 15 minute radio checks back to Makeni base and this increases the tension. I must admit I hadn’t anticipated all this. Along the way we came across several of the beaten up Poda Poda buses laden with people and goods and I really don’t know how they managed to survive the journey. This is remote bush country with small rivers and mainly palm trees and a relatively flat or rolling landscape. Small mud hut villages interrupt the jungle like journey and the children wave enthusiastically. Surprisingly some local subsistence farmers are seen walking along the track, heads loaded with goods, tools and all manner of stuff, even livestock. Needless to say, I’m making some enquiries with Action Faim for a ride back next week.

Bo is a rather ramshackle town a little larger than Makeni but there are subtle differences that indicate that the people here are better off. Streets are paved and relatively clean and the open sewers are less obvious. Shops are relatively well stocked with good variety and I was even able to buy two mars bars. I am staying in a rather “interesting” hotel in the centre of town, apparently the best available and the charge of $10 per night is expensive given the hard-to-describe standard. Nonetheless I am grateful at the opportunity of charging my phone, camera and computer, bathed in the light of a single fluorescent light tube. They even served me a cold Star beer downstairs on the patio and I chatted with some of the locals.

This is “Mende” country and a rather different tribe compared to the “Temne” dominated in the north at Makeni. The Mende people seem much more passive and reserved, interested in education and government and a pleasant change from the more aggressive directness of the Temne. The coming election is much on the lips and this is an SLPP supported part of the country compared to the north anchored by Makeni which is APC. The Government in power now is SLPP and partisan politics is an important factor it seems, leading to the better conditions here in Bo. If you managed to read Aminatta Fornas book you’ll appreciate the difference and it is interesting to see.

Yesterday I was welcomed effusively by the Deputy Mayor at the Town Hall offices and I spent much of the day discussing technical issues of revenue generation, clearly a critical issue. The database work I had done for Makeni was of particular interest as well as the publicity campaign and collection procedures that I had started. I was escorted on a tour of the city to see the market, the lorry park and the clock tower as well as some of the residential areas. All seemed similar to Makeni although the central areas are definitely better here in Bo. I was asked to address the full Council meeting with a presentation to take place at 10 this morning. I had better get ready and so I’ll finish here and see if I can post this blog at the internet “caffe” down the street. The effect of electricity on the economy is amazing.

It’s about 3pm and I’ve just come from the Council meeting and a lunch with some of the valuation staff. The meeting was lively and my presentation was well received. Clearly Councilors are keen to learn and adopt new procedures and several were adopted on the spot. Best of all from my perspective is that they are prepared to co-ordinate the taxing costs for the large companies. The mayor Mr. Wusu Sannoh was very welcoming and I am invited to supper at his residence. Tomorrow I am attending a breakfast at the Ladies Club hoted by one of the Councilors (it’s good to see 4 women Councilors of the 12 in Total). For lunch I treated the valuation staff of 5 ( 4 female) to a local meal of cassava leaves with fish and rice; all eating from the same plate as is usual. They were all delighted since it is unusual for an opporto to eat traditional West African food in particular in this “setting”. FYI the average salary is 134,000 leones or about $40 per month.

I’m off to the library to see if I can learn anything for the Makeni library.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Christmas in Makeni

Christmas was quite eventful and thankfully at a slower pace with time to relax. Some of the VSO volunteers located in other towns like to come to Makeni and so they came to stay for a few days over Christmas. Most of the NGO people like to go to Freetown to “party” in nightclubs etc. but I really dislike the Freetown congestion and the confining shanty town atmosphere. Above all I don’t really feel that safe, and thus Makeni is a good small town compromise. Staying with us at Teko Road were Larissa who comes from a small farming community, Mile 91, and she helps to set up micro credit finance for farmers. I am quite interested to see how this works and I’ll go down to Mile 91 and see her. She gave up her job in the HSBC bank in London as a credit officer. Rachel is from the UK and works for a farmers association; Psyche is from the Philippines and is a researcher at the local post secondary school Fatima Institute, run by the Catholic Church, Jim from Ireland and also works at Fatima, Nola from Minnesota gave up her job at Accenture and works in Freetown along with Marianne from the Philippines. All have widely varying backgrounds but share a common motivation and this prompts some really good discussion. It’s also good to air one’s work problems with non-Africans.

Christmas Eve we all prepared a dish for pot luck and I contributed my specialty, cassava leaves with groundnut paste. You buy the leaves in bunches from the young girls in the market (100 leones 5c) and then I go for the luxury route and get them ground by hand (500 leones). Similarly the groundnuts (700 leones) plus grinding (200 leones). In one pot with both oil and water you boil for about ½ hour and throw in a cube, fresh peppers and a local spice called tola (really nice but HOT). The taste of the leaves is strong but a nice balance against a bland rice.

Marianne couldn’t bare the thought of Christmas without traditional turkey. So we went on a special expedition to the market late in the day and although not a turkey could not be found or heard of, there were still plenty of chickens - live. Bargaining late in the day is not a good idea and the price was high 12,000 leones ($5). What’s more the chicken was still alive with feathers and a head with eyes that look plaintively at you. Getting the chicken home was an experience in itself and quite a laugh but watching Marianne do the deed turned me into a vegetarian. I certainly couldn’t partake of the boiled chicken dish that she made.

Desert of my M and S Christmas pud was delicious albeit small but the fruit cake was a real hit. Others revealed their stash of much valued sweet things and even a mars bar was much coveted and shared.

I contributed to the evening entertainment with a film on my computer. The only one of a dozen or more that would run, was a classic “In the Heat of the Night” with Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. No one under 50 knew of the film (most people) but it was a hit and a great film to see again. We could all identify with the heat of southern Mississippi, and for later discussion was the issue of black people in America and how this affects Africans now.

There are surprisingly few Christmas trees or decorations to be found in Sierra Leone and so a green oil drum and some sticks decorated with coloured ear pugs made do very nicely. Gifts were found under the tree the next morning. The local crafts people did well. I asked a tailor to make up a blouse for Psyche ($5) and Rachel got her much needed round table ($10). I received most notably a nice wood carving.

Boxing day was really nice. It seems that a large part of Makeni traditionally spends the afternoon at the top of the local hill about 300 meters up. There a large all day party takes place with music, dancing, picnics, palm wine and generally socialising. I met several of my youth group members there as well as a number of other people that I knew shopkeepers, breadseller, my one legged tailor, radio repairer (he still cat fix my wind up), and even the cassava leaf grinder and a couple of the now familiar honda riders. I got to know the youth group leader Sullay his wife Kadiatu and assorted cousins really well and I spent much of the time with them. I left with them before dark 7pm but in any case the crowd became a bit raucous encouraged by over indulgence of palm wine and cannabis.

New Years celebrations were really noisy. I had a relatively quiet evening get together with Maria and Rachel and a nice local farmer friend David Ngobay, over a dinner. David gave me a thumbs up on the cassava leaves although he said he prefers it with fish. The New Year was ushered in by an outpouring of all the local youths driving around the streets, horns and music blaring in a constant all night wedding like parade. Earplugs were mandatory for any chance at a kip.

The holidays gave me a good chance to meet people in a relaxed setting, to laugh and chat about local and work issues, make plans and gave me the opportunity to let my short hair down. I seem to have done a great deal in the almost two months in Makeni and I have really enjoyed meeting new and interesting people. More importantly, going forward I don’t have to feel the restraint of looking at the M & S fruit cake on my table. From now on it’s simply fried plantain for desert. Actually it’s not bad.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Home comforts

I could kill a Mars bar right now but there just aint none in the whole of Makeni. What deprivation one has to put up with here, and I’m suffering from a stinking cold so I need some comfort food. I’ll make some scrambled eggs and pretend baked beans, with bread and jam. Things could be worse. Having taken the afternoon off I was rummaging around my bags and at last found the missing home DVD. Thanks to Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters of 20/20 pictured here, I spent a comforting hour entertained by interviews with friends and family. After a couple of months away it was good, although incredibly surreal, to see scenes of Canadian homes, the Altus office, Toronto streets and trees all from my darkened bare residence here in Makeni. The zany humour of the production brought a smile to my face. Thanks everyone esp. Hugh and Barbara, I feel much better now.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Good read

I have just finished reading an interesting memoir written by a UK journalist, the daughter of a former Finance Minister in Sierra Leone. It is nicely written and it describes her experience and that of her father during the period from the late 1960’s up until 2002. Aminatta Fornah portrays Freetown as I have found it and it is nice to see how a professional writer reduces the image to words. The book fills in many questions I had such as the underlying reasons for the dilapidation and the extreme poverty when there are obvious signs that life and times used to be much better. The author also visits Makeni where she stays at the same house where I live. She also had a harrowing experience at the rebel headquarters, now the Town Hall where I work. It seems that very little has changed physically over the past 6 years although there are glimmers of progress. Two thumbs up!!!



It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon 30th and after an early morning session of some laps around the football field when the temperature was a reasonable 15C, it is now about 33C and too hot to go out “in the mid-day sun”. The dirt field is situated conveniently behind my house. Some local boys joined me – the picture shows one of the boys wearing a familiar Canadian shirt. Others came seemingly from nowhere and started an enthusiastic game of pick up football as they looked somewhat bemused at an opporto ‘ol pa huffing and puffing his way around the perimeter. Some younger wannabe footballers came later and I encouraged them to join me and it made the last few laps enjoyable.

I have mentioned this before but it is amazing how crazed Saloneans are about their football (soccer). It seems that this is the central and seemingly sole form of entertainment and thought among the boys/men although a smattering of women take an interest as well. Despite the huge distance, the English premier division is passionately followed with Arsenal, Man United and the occasional Liverpool or Chelsea being the most favoured and in that order. Games are shown on old style TVs at a number of shacks around the town where signal is received (stolen?) at a satellite dish. Entry is a mere 500 leones (20c or 10p) or 1,000 leones depending on the game and one stands to watch with a hundred or so other sweating and sometimes rowdy souls. For another 2,500 leones you can buy a Star beer or 500 leones will buy (if you dare) a cup of the local palm wine. I remember passing one of these shacks a few weeks ago when Arsenal were playing Liverpool (1,000 leones) and being impressed when the former scored their 3rd goal to none and the huge roar from inside was echoed when those outside discovered the news.

Football fervour extends well outside the shacks and satellite signals. The poda podas acting as buses, commonly very badly beaten up VW vans, are all decorated with football or religious slogans. One amusing slogan that caught my eye announced “Allah is Great – and so is Arsenal”. I’ll have to see if I can capture one on my camera. All of the trappings of football are here such as football jerseys (pre-worn) with the team insignia which sell for a premium in the “junk shops” and cost about $3.50. The photo shows a solemn supporter since Arsenal lost today 1- 0 to Sheffield. In Makeni football fields are laid out in several locations but not a blade of grass; just dirt. Nonetheless in the early mornings and late afternoons most will be used, in particular at the weekend. Players frequently play bare footed or with amazing skill in flip flops; rarely with running shoes. The ambition is to rise to the little league where professionals earn a pittance (playing occasionally in Makeni at Wusum Field). My last comment is that it usually pays to be an Arsenal supporter although I hadn’t recognized that my barber was a Chelsea supporter and you have seen the resulting short back and sides.

I have been thinking of family and friends and although I am enjoying this time and the adventure in Sierra Leone, I am reminded that it is far from home and I do miss everyone. A happy and a healthy New Year to all.

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