Monday, January 07, 2008
Back in the land of the Cotton Tree it’s much easier the second time around. Everything is familiar but it is still bloody hot and humid here and it’s easy to forget the chilly parts from whence I had come. Today my overactive sweat glands were only calmed when I had the good fortune to find an air conditioner at a Government Office in front of which I worshipped for a good half hour before my meeting. The locals seem to cope but nonetheless everyone carries a small towel.
Travel to West Africa is always an adventure and this time was no exception. The BA plane didn’t carry food and I survived (in secret) with Mum’s sandwiches but there was quite a riot. At Freetown airport at a dark 9pm the only option to get into town was an old Russian helicopter since the hovercraft and ferry had broken down and I didn’t relish camping at the airport. The craft had been stripped down to the rivets and seemed like something out of Vietnam – quite unsettling. The 15 passengers were strapped and seated in panels along the walls with luggage held in the centre. Flight was initiated by an immense rattling and shaking, an incredibly noisy washing machine experience, requiring fingers in the ears and tongue firmly in the mouth. My religious beliefs were tested during the 7 minute ride and relief was palpable as the craft reached terra firma. I won’t do that again.
My home town Makeni, still appears ramshackle and quiet but familiar and warm. Formal welcome messages were delivered by members of the Council and all sorts of recognition in shouts of “Kalloop” (Fish! in the local Temne language). It’s nice to be home.
I have a new house, very small with 3 tiny rooms but it was recently erected and made of concrete more like the class A property that I showed to those in Canada. I share the house with another VSO volunteer from Kenya; Tomkin. Tomkin is here for two years to assist with the application of irrigation technology in agriculture. Living and sharing with someone from a different culture is quite a challenge but it is also interesting to learn. The house has no electricity or running water as usual and the well is some distance away. We have hired the services of a young lad on whose head comes a few buckets of water each afternoon.
At work the objective has been to reinforce the regime of applying the program of property tax and business licenses. Very little work had been done since I had left at the end of June. Good reasons were that everyone was distracted by the lead up to the General Elections in August, the rainy season was particularly rainy and that the valuation officer Mr. Williams was unwell. In any case just going through the routine again should hopefully kick start the remote control since I am unlikely to return. I am hoping that the young fellow that I am training, Adikale, will become proficient in the access driven software application within a short period of time.
Thus far I have been able to generate all of the tax bills for the beginning of the year again scrounging the facilities of a UN Agency. I am hoping that I can now justify the purchase of a new printer for the City of Makeni. I had to print 7,300 sheets each with it’s own individual calculation. These then had to be delivered. Last year delivery was a major headache but this time around Adikale had this under control, hiring several young people and using some council staff. The job was done in about 3 weeks and without much of my input. The Chief Administrator was impressed and I was delighted. Meanwhile I have been organizing the radio interviews again on each Tuesday evening with Councilor Bangura and open public meetings in each of 7 wards for January.
The valuation officer Mr. Williams who I think is about 50 has been quite unwell and I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it to Christmas. I went to visit him in “hospital”; not a pleasant experience. The small dark building was in poor shape with bare and dirty concrete floor and it was crowded with people. I was shocked to see that there was more than one person per bed. This is surely a very poor country. Mr. Williams greeted me and we chatted briefly and he graciously accepted my gift of a bunch of bananas. He remains in the hospital and I should go and see him again over the next few days
One highlight of the pre-christmas celebrations was that we put on several parties for children in Makeni. One of the VSO volunteers Maria from Philippines organized the Christmas parties with puppet shows, carol singing (frosty the snowman sounded a bit funny in 35C weather) and playing frisbee. We gave new shoes as well as some biscuits and sweets to everyone as a gift and this went down very well. Two of the parties were held at the Catholic Mission where there is a school / home for the deaf as well as a home for the very needy. They do good work it seems. The third party was held at a “therapeutic feeding centre” and I wasn’t prepared for the shock of meeting these kids and their mothers face to face. Nonetheless everyone enjoyed the parties even the vso volunteers and others who came along. I am glad I raided the Canadian Tire of all remaining frisbees last November since these went down really well.
Over the Christmas holidays I have been spending some time with some vso volunteers in Freetown. Up until Christmas there was no electricity but now there is now an almost continuous supply what a luxury. We have even watched some movies. There is now an occasional supply of piped water. It seems that all these conveniences have something to do with the new Vice President who lives close by. Freetown however is a dreadful place as I have described before. Much of the City of about 2 Million lives in a shanty of corrugated tin shacks all crowded close to the shoreline and hemmed in by a range of hills. Several rivers wind their way down to the sea and along the banks even more shacks are illegally squeezed. Streets are narrow, lined with ditches for sewage and to say the least the streets are not pedestrian friendly. There are no sidewalks and the traffic of exhausted poda podas, smelly trucks, assorted old cars, taxis and important NGO landcruisers take seeming delight in targeting the lowly pedestrian especially after dark. There obviously used to be better times in the past since I have spotted several old disused traffic lights. Some areas higher up the hills and to the west have a good collection of obviously better homes with barricaded security walls that would make Colditz seem friendly. By awful contrast there are some “poor” neighbourhoods close to the shoreline where legality of ownership is questionable and where even the local police don’t go. I visited Susans Bay just out of interest. These neighbourhoods seem to have their own street policing. Expansion of these areas is being made by filling in the shore with garbage and the pressure is apparently coming from those moving from the rural areas. Living in the “bush” is tough but I cant think how it would be better than these awful conditions. Shopping is usually done along the major arteries from small shops, from stalls lining the streets in front of the shops and from lively markets. The west end has three or four supermarkets that sell a good range of foods obviously catering to the large population of ex-patriots working for the UN or the large NGO community. This is where the VSO house their volunteers and the location is still rough but a darn sight better than Susan’s Bay.
More about those plates. Well my job it seems is to spin a whole pile of them and a couple of big ones seem to have fallen. My programmer at UNDP has decamped back to Norway as has the GIS guy Bernd who returned to Germany. Their sudden end of service was caused it seems by a blunt and abrupt cutting of service by Civil Service minded policy. There is no replacement and I have to scramble. Both people are trying to help out and I have found a new programmer at VSO, Howard. Other plates that have fallen or have serious cracks are the lack of support for Adikale who might decamp from Makeni, Councilors who are busy now with campaigning and don’t want to take action against defaulters. Thus the system breaks down. The Paramount Chief came to my rescue and he is joining my radio show to urge the contribution to the community development by payment of taxes. Here he is in his court or “Barrie”.