Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Freetown, Moyamba and Magburaka

The last couple of weeks have been a bit hectic

Last week I was invited by the Chief Administrator of Freetown to spend a couple of days in their Municipal offices. The City had heard of the program I had started in Makeni and the C.A. had a couple of his people visit Makeni the previous week to check out what was going on and to offer me cash of Le400,000 to induce me to visit Freetown. Flattered (it gets you everywhere) I arrived on a hot and humid morning and Mr. Bowenson Phillips, the C.A. picked me up in his private car to tour the different neighbourhoods. I was still quite taken aback by the sheer overcrowded squalor. Even a lot of metal homes built illegally in the river beds and that get flooded in the rainy season. The task of tracking all these properties is a vast and a huge undertaking. Nonetheless Mr. Phillips seemed to have the backing to get things done and seemed more convinced than Makeni that this was what he wanted done and “…please Mr. Fish can we do it before June” Back in the City offices I pondered the enormity of the problem. No mapping, dreadful existing records, limited transportation and awful traffic jams in any case. They certainly need a new taxation system but this needed a good 9 months from the get go. Then a political problem saved the day. The Mayor had not been introduced to me personally and since the Mayor had not been actively involved in the idea, his nose was out of joint. The visit was abruptly cancelled and I would have to return at a later date. This is Africa!!!

The trip was not in vain however since I spent very productive time with a branch of the UN in the design of the computer application that will run the new Makeni system. More than that, the UN building was air conditioned! I also had a challenge to a game of squash from one of the UN mapping people. Unbelievable in Freetown I thought. Close to the beach Bernd took me to the Freetown Golf, Tennis and Squash Club. This was the place to be seen and although the club was in dreadful condition it was obviously expat. central. A lot of white faces; the only black faces being those that served. I did not feel comfortable at all but we went ahead with the squash. The day had been very hot and humid and the warm-up was enough to get the perspiration flowing. No air conditioning. We played a good 5 games and struggled into the bar. I have never felt so wiped.

I stayed for the weekend and enjoyed more strolling along the beach. Monday I visited a town called Moyamba in the south of the country. The Council wanted some advice on revenue generation and had asked VSO to send a volunteer. I gave them a presentation and also wrote up a placement outline for any unsuspecting surveyor. They also need an accountant to advise on administrative and reporting standards. I went in the VSO landcruiser – air conditioned, mmmm. The ride was quite nice and the countryside was typically palm with poyo (palm wine) being the main product. The taste is bitter but the effect is the same. The town is small and the homes similar to Makeni. A pleasant place I thought.

This weekend a friend invited a bunch of us to Magburka a small but important town about 15 miles east of Makeni. Jess is a construction engineer, employed by an Irish NGO, “Concern” and he is housed in relative luxury. The offer of a weekend with a real kitchen, a fridge and power for 7 hours a day etc could not be turned down. Jess even had a TV with satellite which felt quite surreal. I hadn’t watched TV for 6 months. Jess is coming to the end of his contract and had resigned. I had an interesting discussion with him about my favourite subject – the effectiveness of the NGO. His organization has a very attractive operation, building schools in mainly rural towns, training teachers, buying books and encouraging children to attend. Wonderful. In reality the actual delivery of the service was poor, caught up in logistical nightmares, run by a huge bureaucracy of red tape based in Freetown. The effort and the waste, not to speak of the money spent in getting the buildings constructed is enormous and too frustrating for Jess to handle. His description of the need for roofing material was a priceless story where the impending rainy season requiring critical protection for the mud walls took a back seat to other administrative needs. We spend a lovely couple of days there and consumed a lot of food including lots of superb pineapple

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Food in Sierra Leone

It’s comforting to know that people out there are thinking of me. A few have commented that there appears to be a diminishing amount of me. Pictured here is taken last weekend in Freetown with the VSO country director, Chals Wontonwe. Well it is true that my trouser belt is a couple of notches further in but I seem to be able to have a balanced diet although without the added Mars Bar calories. The food markets have a very limited selection of “western food” and there is a complete lack of any Loblaws or Sainsburys type supermarkets. Kelloggs and Cadburys type stuff can be bought in the west of Freetown where most of the international NGO’s have their compounds and the foods are quite expensive. Makeni clearly doesn’t make it; the nearest thing being the PZ petrol filling station that also has a selection of canned tuna, mayonnaise, pasta for the Italian priests, laughing cow cheese and occasionally some jam. In the town there is quite a lot of bread made and sold by the Fullah tribesmen from stalls along the road. They know me now and I try to distribute my trade among them. The staple diet among Saloneans here is rice and no matter how much other food is consumed, people will say that they have not eaten unless rice has been on the plate. More about rice later. Most of the vegetable food is available from stalls in the market and there appears to be a good supply but of very limited variety.

Having adapted now to the local foods my diet has certainly changed and I eat a combination of rice dishes with locally grown vegetables mainly cassava, sweet potato, crin crin including and sometimes solely the leaves. There are no fridges here – no electricity – and the hot climate means that all the food you buy has to be eaten. Groundnuts are locally grown and I have a favourite fellow in the market who will grind the nuts into a paste; much like peanut butter. I favour those dishes that I can cook in ½ hour and over a single kerosene stove ‘cause that’s all I have. So I make cassava leaves mixed with groundnut paste and a good helping of fresh peppers, sweet potatoes etc. Also an easy one is Jollof rice, a sort of dahl made with lentils and sweet potatoes. A gourd known as pumkin, tasting quite unlike the Canadian pumpkin is nice with tomato paste. I must admit that my waistline is smaller but I feel more healthy without the western sweets and sugary foods.

It is a sad day though. Today was the first day that I was not able to buy my regular supply of grapefruit. For 4 months this has been one of my comfort foods and the locally grown fruit has been delicious but the season is over I am told. I have tried some substitutes and an interesting one is the cashew fruit. This is a strange looking fruit that is available for about 200 leones (10c) each and is about the size of a small apple. The juice is very sweet and syrupy and takes getting used to. The kidney shaped cashew nut at one end is roasted and like most people I’ve only ever seen these in a tin at Loblaws. The mangoes are about to ripen on the tree near my house and I’ll see if I can adapt from the sharp sweet tasting grapefruit. Coming into season however is pineapple and I cant wait.

A new development has occurred over the past couple of weeks where a small stall strangely located at the back of a straw football game showing hut, has a trader that sells fresh European vegetables, runner beans, tomatoes, cabbage and even carrots. The farmer himself travels to Makeni from a place called Kabala in the hills about 1.5 hours away where the climate is cooler and where the vegetables can be grown. The farmer is only here on a Monday and Friday mornings. These familiar vegetables are unusual looking African sights that have caught the eye of the various NGO types and the Lebanese. It is amazing that a lowly runner bean and a cabbage can look so appealing. The Kabala farmer is doing a roaring trade among the non-Africans, selling all his produce but to the average Salonean population a single small cabbage for 1000 leones is just too expensive. By contrast a huge sheaf of cassava leaves is about 100 leones.

The absence of locally grown rice is really intriguing. The stalls and small shopkeepers sell huge 25 kg bags of rice costing about 70,000 leones that is only bought by better off Saloneans. Most rice is sold by the cup (less than 1/8 kg for 500 Le.) from the ladies in the market and at almost double the bag price. The poor suffer as usual but I am intrigued that little if any is locally grown despite the accommodating wet climate in the rainy season.

Chatting with the shopkeepers reveals that a whole selection of rice in their stores is from around the world, India, Thailand, China, Bangladesh as well as from Uncle Sam, Italy and other European countries. Even charity bags that explicitly state “not for re-sale” are openly sold. My travels to Freetown and across to Bo and Kenema have revealed large areas of uncultivated land that appear to my untrained eye to be suitable for rice growing. Low lying and swampy land. My intrigue has driven me to talk to the local farmers associations; usually organized through an NGO.

It appears that the only rice that is farmed is almost solely for subsistence. There is no mechanization at all and the rice fields that I saw all have manual workers. Further chatting with some of the more enlightened farmers reveals that fertilizer is too expensive since it is imported. Cattle are very few in this country. A report from the European NGO Action Faim states - according to our nutritional assessment, 25 % of the population is not eating enough during more than 6 months of the year. They are the vulnerable households. Their farming system is not performing enough to feed them for more than a few months in the year. The general farming system of the District (the country…) is unable to reach self-sufficiency in terms of rice, the staple food.

I came across a book in the Fatima Institute library that told me that rice used to be grown commercially up until the 1980’s. However after that time the huge devaluation of the currency meant that all imported fertilizer and machinery plus parts became enormously expensive. Also the ore and minerals formerly exported suffered because the world prices collapsed. At the same time the World Bank decided to help out by subsidizing imported rice, a policy that appears to be very laudable rather than risking a famine. The 10 year civil war here also did much to destroy any infrastructure and market system and it is understandable that help from outside the country was needed. It is now however 6 years since the war ended.

What has happened is that the imported rice has been subsidized to such a degree and for a long term (over 15 years) such that the local commercial farmers have been unable to compete and skills are lost. The alarming result is that there is now only subsistence farming but where rice is a staple diet. The paradox is that Saloneans almost always eat their staple diet of rice bought by “the west” from the Bangladeshi or Thai farmer and to the detriment of the domicile Salonean farmers. There is perhaps more to this ridiculous situation that is somehow hidden and one logically thinks that this must be a mistake. Surely someone has to realize that this can not be made to persist and that Saloneans should be able to feed themselves? Why doesnt the World Bank subsidise the local Salonean farmers? Surely if it is good to subsidise the American, French and British farmers to produce butter, and the Bangladeshis to produce rice, why not the lowly Saloneans?

Perhaps when next eating at your favourite restaurant, demand rice from Sierra Leone.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Back in business

I am back in blogging business. Sorry for the absence but my camera was stolen and I was really quite upset. Thanks to John O’Bryan for magically winging a new one to Freetown via a few other places. The photo is me relaxing in Freetown last weekend.

The past few weeks have been quite eventful mostly at work although a few other projects have progressed quite nicely as well. I don’t think I have worked harder in my life and under such stressful conditions. It seems though that the greater the challenge or impossibility to many, the greater is my satisfaction. A good psychologist is obviously needed, and this doesn’t need any comment from those that know me.

The recent overriding element here is the incredible heat and intense sunlight. The sun is pretty much overhead now and we havnt had any rain for over 5 months. Sweating in 40C has become a way of life. People bring a small flannel or towel to work and even attend meetings placing their towel easily to hand on the table, ready to wipe. It’s really comical but quite acceptable. Regular shirts are impossible to wear since they become drenched in ½ hour. I wear much more comfortable and free flowing African shirts. I drink about 5 litres of water per day and spend a lot of time boiling and filtering in the evening. The dry season here is harsh and brings additional problems of disease. Finding water is quite difficult now; wells are running dry and people will use poorer quality water that is likely to carry disease. Only a few can afford the filter I use in addition to the fuel or wood needed to boil the water. All of this dryness is surprising since I have read that Freetown is the wettest capital city in the world with over 3500mm per annum. The wet season starting in May must be incredible.

My task at work has been to mobilize revenue for the City Council at Makeni and the people seem pretty pleased with the results so far. Someone (I think Suzanne) asked me why it is a good idea to tax poor people and as a corollary how does this alleviate poverty. Good questions. Simple answers though. Services such as health, education, sanitation are expected to be provided by local municipalities. At the moment much of the effort comes from the NGO community with questionable results and they will gradually pull back. An effort however small by the community to raise revenue locally will be recognized by donors at IMF / World Bank and instead of funding NGOs they will be more inclined to assist and fund Government effort directly. Thus I have been working at installing a simple but progressive taxation system. I’ll explain the professional side in a more detailed blog later but thus far we have raised about 150 Million Leones locally this year or about $60,000 compared to about $5,200 in the whole of 2006. People here are pretty pleased and so am I.

These taxes are tiny amounts of dollars but in Sierra Leone the money stretches a long way. People survive here on literally $1 per day per family. I know since I pay some of them. My chief valuation officer with 30 years experience earns just $208 per month and this is considered a valuable job to which many aspire. I am training a computer literate fellow, Adikali to become a valuation officer and he has 4 years of work experience with Makeni City earning now $60 per month. It is just incredible. Many, and I would say more than 50%, are out of work. Nonetheless somehow people do survive. The survival spirit is incredibly strong and brings a good supportive community and family spirit that seems to be much more attractive to me compared to the rather more individualistic and meanness of the western world today. Social problems here are many but there is a genuine desire and effort to help others that I find very attractive.

Among other projects that I have been able to get involved with, I have pushed ahead with the local library. There wasn’t one when I arrived and with the literacy rate at only 26% this seemed like an obvious advantage. The EU (European Union) had recognized this and funded the building which was completed about 12 months ago. However the budget and planning did not include furnishing nor books, an incredibly ridiculous situation. The remaining work was the responsibility of the Makeni Council and without money, an impossibility. My discussions with the EU representative here Paul Giordani ended with his statement “I am very sorry”. Some Canadian funding paid for the shelving, tables and chairs etc all made locally and for about $2,000. This was delivered last week along with some books from the Sierra Leone Library Board via CARE a large NGO. The Board is delighted with the results and they have sent a librarian. Hopefully the opening will be soon. I have announced all of this on the radio (my weekly community radio slot – Paul Kaloop) and people are anxious for the opening. Another NGO Action contre la Faim will donate computers. The central government have allocated an operating budget. I am pretty pleased so far although we still need more books.

I have spent a quite a bit of time in Freetown meeting various people to assist with resources for the revenue projects in Makeni. I am off again today for two days with the City of Freetown who want to install a similar system. There is a good social scene there along with a nice beach nearby. Also some restaurants where I can get more than hummus and chips that appears to be the only menu item available in Makeni. There is a sizeable community of Philippinos and they love to Karaoke even encouraging me to make a fool of myself (under some alcoholic influence) singing Roy Orbisons “Pretty Woman”. Quite a laugh.

Over the Easter weekend a few of the VSO volunteers went traveling up to the north of the country near the Guinean border, to a town called Kabala. A small sleepy town nestled in a valley with some lovely hills and with a 2,500 ft high elevation that makes the temperature appreciably cooler. Local fruits and vegetables are plentiful here as there is more moisture around and less heat. A huge crop of mangoes, avocados as well as garden farmed cabbages, lettuce and carrots. We stayed at the ½ star guest house in town and gladly paid the $8 per night for a room with running water and a generator for a few hours. The town had suffered significant damage during the war and not much had been repaired. However the people are very friendly; different tribes of mainly Fullah but Kuranko, and SuSu. We even met an American PHD student studying rare buffalo in the nearby Loma Mountains – don’t ask why - and he served us a real cup of coffee – Starbucks no less. It was interesting to chat and relax.

Off to Freetown now. The taxi or poda poda trips seem almost routine now. One of the German fellows at UNDP has challenged me to a game of squash tomorrow. I’ll write a blog.

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