Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond


A Sierra Leone Journal

FREETOWN, December 1986—The clatter of seat belts and tray tables ripples through the crowded cabin. As the plane descends, thick mangrove swamps are visible below, gradually giving way to rolling grassland dotted with palm trees. It is December, and the horizon is covered by the dry season’s dusty, smoky haze. I think back eighteen years to 1968 and my first visit along this steamy coast. The allure of being a teacher in West Africa was irresistible. Wonderful friendships blossomed here, friendships I have come to renew.

As the plane edges nearer the green landscape, a slender ribbon of concrete suddenly appears beneath us. We touch down with a bump at Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone. In 1968, Lungi was swarming with armed soldiers on alert in the aftermath of a coup d’etat. This time the flight is greeted by a single unarmed soldier, the brother of my Sierra Leonean friend and traveling companion Sammy Kamara. Sammy’s brother Sewa has come to assist us through what is often a painfully slow and exasperating navigation of baggage claim, passport, and customs checkpoints. We scramble to a waiting jeep leaving the other passengers behind to grapple in the terminal’s anarchy.

Riding from Lungi to Freetown, the capital, is a marvelous way to shift into the relaxed pace of African life—the African penchant for ignoring the clock has been the undoing of many a western visitor who wanted things to happen at precisely the moment one would expect in London or New York. Freetown and Lungi are separated by the mouth of the Sierra Leone River, which forms one of the world’s finest natural harbors. The nearly four mile distance is traversed by ferry in a leisurely journey of striking beauty. Freetown lies in the distance on a peninsula that shields the river mouth from the Atlantic’s crashing waves. The city sprawls along a narrow strip of lowland between the water and a range of lush, green mountains that rises steeply behind it. The mountains and claps of tropical thunder inspired fifteenth century Portuguese explorers to proclaim the place Serra Leao, Mountain of Lions. In this harbor, thousands of Africans were sold into slavery, and beginning in 1787, thousands of freed Africans were repatriated.

In 1783 an itinerant botanist named Henry Smeathman devised a “Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leone, on the Grain Coast of Africa: intended more particularly for the service and happy establishment of Blacks and People of colour to be shipped as freemen under the direction of the Committee for Relieving the Black Poor, and under the protection of the British Government.” The black poor were London’s free but destitute blacks whose presence was becoming a social problem. With help from British abolitionist Granville Sharp, a group of black poor landed in Sierra Leone in May of 1787. They were followed, in 1792, by several shiploads of black Americans who had won their freedom by joining the British during the American Revolution. These new immigrants named the settlement Freetown.

At the turn of the century, settlers in Freetown were joined by Maroons from Jamaica who had been duped into exile after revolting against the British. A fourth group came with the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 when many Africans bound for slavery were intercepted on the high seas and deposited in the colony. This mixture produced the Creole or Krio community that coalesced, under British mandate, with indigenous people to form the nation of Sierra Leone.

There is but one ferry plying the harbor waters these days, and it only has a usable ramp on one end. The result on our arrival at the Kissy terminal in Freetown is chaos, as drivers are forced to exit the ferry in reverse. The confusion lasts for nearly half an hour amid blaring horns, dodging pedestrians, and drivers jockeying for position.

Across town Sammy and I check into rooms at the Siaka Stevens Stadium Hostel. The hostel was built to house visiting teams and officials who come to participate in football (soccer) matches at the stadium named for Sierra Leone’s longest reigning ruler. Siaka Stevens came to power in 1968 following complications, including two military coups, resulting from 1967 elections which were among the fairest ever conducted in Africa—so fair that the Stevens-led All Peoples Congress opposition won. Stevens then saw to it that history would never repeat itself by outlawing the rival Sierra Leone Peoples Party and proclaiming a one party state under his APC banner. In 1985, after nearly eighteen years in office, Stevens joined the meager ranks of African leaders, including Senghor of Senegal, Ahidjo of Cameroon and Nyerere of Tanzania, who retired from office before dying or being thrown out. He handed over the nation’s problems to commander of the armed forces, Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh, in a slick move that seemed to insure for him a carefree retirement unencumbered by unpleasant inquiries into past appearances of impropriety.

My third floor room is clean and spacious, with two beds and its own bathroom and shower. The fixtures, however, are in a state of disrepair. Water runs constantly to the toilet, and the seat is loose from its moorings. A flick of the switch fails to produce any current to the shower’s water heater. The air conditioner is plugless with only the bare wires jammed into the wall outlet. In a country with an abundance of poverty only the most essential instruments of survival are maintained. Anything as superfluous as a plug or a road sign is quickly appropriated and recycled to meet the appropriator’s more immediate need for cash or food or shelter.

A bank of louvered windows along one end of the room looks across at the stadium, which seems to be constantly in use. On the opposite wall the main door leads onto a long, open balcony overlooking a large cemetery and, beyond it, Whiteman’s Bay and the point where the Sierra Leone River dumps into the Atlantic. I step from a cool shower one sweltering afternoon just in time to see a coffin being unloaded from the back of a Ministry of Works flatbed truck and carried by pallbearers to a nearby grave site. A white Catholic priest conducts a short service for twenty-five or so mourners. On the other side of the room students and “old girls” from Freetown’s Annie Walsh Memorial School are in the stadium participating in a sports competition complete with P.A. announcer shouting instructions to get everyone in the right place at the right time. The juxtaposition of the two events seems somehow symbolic.

I’m slightly nervous about going into town. It has been seven years since I was last here, and Sewa has been filling me with stories about how the place has changed. “People are living by magic,” he has told me. “Thieves are plenty. They look at how you carry yourself, and they can tell if you have something they want. You think you are careful, but when you drop your guard, even for a few seconds, they strike!” A white man, no matter the reality of his financial position, and mine is not particularly good, looks prosperous here. Sewa does tend to exaggerate though. My stroll into town is eventful only for the friendliness of the people and their surprise at seeing a white man walking along where one would normally be seen only in a taxi.

This is the perfect opportunity to test my facility with the Krio language. Although all official business and education is conducted in English, Krio is the tangible means of communication in Sierra Leone. All ethnic groups, the Mende, Temne, Limba, and dozen others, use it to speak to one another. It is a wonderful language to speak, more direct than English with a built in sense of humor. Krio scholar and historian, Robert Wellesley Cole, has described it as “English in African diction.” Where English has failed to provide, African languages, French, and Portuguese have enhanced the vocabulary. Krio speakers have produced such gems of wisdom as, “If yu no no usay yu de go, yu fo no usay yu komot.” If you don’t know where you are going, you should know from whence you came. And, “Da tik wey man klem go op, na in i go klem kam dong.” The tree man climbs is the tree he must descend.

Freetown is a hodgepodge of aged wood frame houses, tin shacks, colorful shops, and street markets. Seen from the surrounding hills it resembles a sea of metal, undulating waves of rusted tin roofs blending into each other, interrupted by an occasional office high rise. Vultures perch watchfully on roof tops, ready to scoop up discarded remnants of food. The center of town is dominated by an ancient cotton tree that towers over the law courts and the American Embassy. Just up the hill is State House, office of the president.

The main street, named for former president Siaka Stevens, is lined with shops belonging to Lebanese merchants. Lebanese first started coming to West Africa early in this [20th] century, as they fled Turkish control in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Today, to a large extent, they control commerce in Sierra Leone. Most of the better shops, travel agencies, auto dealerships, and industrial concerns are Lebanese-owned.

I turn left at the cotton tree and head for Lightfoot Boston Street to check on a few of my favorite haunts. The Sierra Leone Diocesan Bookshop, always a great place to browse and sometimes the source for a wonderfully obscure book, is only a ghost of its former self. The pitifully sparse inventory is nearly invisible among the empty shelves. I wonder if it is poor management or if the economy has declined that dramatically since my last visit.

Across the street sits the City Hotel, a favorite hangout of Graham Greene during the thirties and forties and featured in his novel, The Heart of the Matter, as the Bedford Hotel. Discussing his need to do a pub crawl in Journey Without Maps, Greene wrote of the City: “One can’t crawl very far in Freetown. All one can do is to have a drink at the Grand and then go and have a drink at the City. The City is usually more crowded and noisy because there’s a billiard table; people are rather more dashing, get a little drunk and tell indecent stories.”

The Grand is long gone, and so is the billiard table at the City. From outside, the place looks desperate for a new coat of paint, just as it has during all my other visits. Inside, the two-tone blue and gray walls are soiled with fifty years of dust and tobacco smoke. The dingy wooden floor creaks underfoot as I approach the old British expatriate owner who is working the bar. He has always looked about sixty to me and hasn’t changed a bit in the last eighteen years. Behind the bar are piles of old ledgers, yellowed and warped from years of tropical heat and humidity. An odd assortment of utensils, an orange juice squeezer, small vise, sizable cold chisel, and wire cutters are scattered about on the back counter. Remnants of liquor bottle holders that once dispensed whiskey and gin dangle from the wall next to a portrait of the president. The bar is nearly deserted even though it is noontime. By this hour in the old days it would have been packed with civil servants easing the transition from morning to afternoon with a few pints of Star or Stout. But the civil servants have moved to a new ministerial building out by the stadium, so it is left to me and a few aged holdovers to drink one for the good old days.

Down on Rawdon Street, a couple of blocks from the City, is the site of the Khadra International Restaurant. This was the place to go for a cheeseburger and chips (french fries) and homemade ice cream when one tired of the African diet of rice and sauce. But alas, it is empty now; only a small sign on the door directs patrons to a new location on Walpole Street near the Roxy Cinema. The new restaurant is a definite disappointment. It is much smaller than the original, and food quality has declined in direct proportion. No fried onion on the cheeseburger, only a slice of fried cucumber and a dollop of ketchup adorn the forlorn patty. Fried sweet potatoes are now served; chips are no longer available. Cheeseburger, potatoes and two soft drinks cost forty leones, nearly ten times the price one would have paid as recently as 1980.

The severity of Sierra Leone’s currency devaluation is most starkly revealed at the bank. In 1968, one American dollar would fetch eighty cents of the local currency, the leone. Today, one dollar exchanges for thirty-three leones fifty cents. I’ve been given $250 by a Sierra Leonean friend in the U.S. to exchange and distribute among his relatives, and I change $100 for myself. The process takes nearly half an hour, as endless debit and credit slips have to be filled out and posted to summary ledgers. With paper work in hand, I proceed to the cashier, an elderly lady seated behind an enormous pile of money chatting with a couple of friends who are standing outside her cage gluing together wrappers for various currency denominations. As luck would have it, she has no twenties. She begs one of her co-workers to contact the man in the vault downstairs so he can send some twenties for her. The vault is visible from our position on the balcony-like mezzanine, so when the man emerges to confirm her request she shouts instructions to him. The twenties finally arrive; my take for the transaction, less the inevitable bank charges, is Le11,666.38. I am presented with a huge stack of money, the amount of which I obviously cannot verify, so I pack it away in a small bag. Sewa’s stories of thieves suddenly re-surface in my mind. As I leave clutching the bag under one arm, I can feel the stares.

The phenomenon of urbanization has left its mark on Sierra Leone. The population of Freetown has nearly tripled from approximately 130,000 in 1963 to more than 300,000 today [1986]. The scarcity of jobs in Freetown has failed to discourage this trend. Among the many migrants are several of Sammy’s relatives and many of the children, now grown, that I once taught. Each night at the hostel our rooms fill with friends and relatives, who have come to greet and partake of the momentary prosperity we’ve brought. We dole out gifts and small amounts of money like a couple of delirious Salvation Army Santas. Sammy’s unemployed teenage brothers, Sangban and Dauda, plan to accompany me to Fadugu, our old home town, while Sammy goes to visit his sister in Kono, the diamond mining area. I’m glad to have company and someone to help me with the load I’ve brought. They are happy to get a free trip home for Christmas.

Travel in Sierra Leone is an adventure. It is fruitless to plan, because things seldom happen at the appointed time. The best strategy is to set aside one full day for travel, be in the area where vehicles load, be there on time, and count on a long wait. We choose to travel with the government bus, which is considerably cheaper and more comfortable than private transport. At noon, when the two boys and I arrive, the station is teeming with people waiting for buses and hawkers cajoling them into last minute purchases. We join the Fadugu queue that has optimistically begun to form. Sangban watches our things while Dauda and I go off to buy some onions and salt, items that are scarce and more expensive upland.

No hint of the bus at two o’clock when Sewa arrives from work to see us off. It’s just as well because I want to buy some rice to take along. Rice is scarce throughout the country, and all that is available is imported. A nearby cooperative has a few hundred-pound bags of four different varieties, the cheapest being Le340. When one stops to consider that the average soldier or teacher or civil servant makes less than that in a month, one begins to grasp the enormity of the country’s economic crisis. Sewa says 340 is too much, so we go to see some friends of his around the corner at a generating station. After much mysterious checking and debate there appears to be no rice. We head down the street to another shop near Connaught Hospital, but it is closed. Back at the cooperative—by now there are only four bags of rice left—I buy two bags for Le350 apiece; the cheaper bags are gone. So much for comparison shopping.

There is nothing to do now but wait and watch the action. Hawkers are everywhere selling cigarettes, soap, toothpaste, drawers, oranges, water, straw hats, brassieres, everything a traveler needs. A man with horns and balloons struts around alternately tooting on a horn and rattling a sand filled balloon. In the crush of people, a gentleman in a business suit accidentally bursts the balloon with a corner of his briefcase; a loud palaver ensues. Dancing about is an herbalist peddling his medicine hooting, “Good for the belly, good for the head.” Near the station agent’s office, a thief is caught. The agent bolts out screaming at the culprit and slaps him to applause from an approving crowd.

There is a sudden scramble as each bus approaches, Kono, Kenema, Kambia. At last, around six, the Fadugu bus arrives. The driver hands out numbered slips to those in line, the purpose of which is obscure to me since the order of entry depends more on one’s ability to push and shove toward the door. For twenty leones the baggage man agrees to put one suitcase and the two bags of rice in a compartment under the bus. Another agent tries to collect four leones for each bag people want to carry on; he meets with stiff resistance. We eventually all make it through the ticketing process, thirty-four leones to go to Fadugu, although I notice not everyone is issued a ticket. Perhaps this is some of the magic through which people are surviving.

The aging Mercedes Benz bus is jammed far beyond normal capacity. People are seated three abreast on seats meant to accommodate two. Center seats which fold down in the aisle are fully occupied, and people stand near the front and rear doors. I follow the boys to the “balcony,” an elevated row of seats spread across the back of the bus, where there is slightly more leg room and easy access to the rear door. The rear window affords a dim view as we roll through Freetown’s darkened streets and out onto the open road. At every stop the driver makes to take on even more passengers, the bus is engulfed by sellers carrying trays of oranges, bread, roast meat, cakes, and bananas—curb service.

About four hours and 120 miles later the bus stops in Makeni, the capital of the Northern Province, to unload passengers and allow those remaining one last opportunity to buy food. We then swing out onto the fine new Makeni-Fadugu road for the last leg of our journey. One of the real achievements of Sierra Leone’s post-independence governments has been the construction of a large network of paved roads connecting major towns, and bridges to replace ferry crossings at strategic points. The Makeni-Fadugu road replaces a dusty, rocky laterite track which was responsible for the quick demise of many a lorry. In the April-October rainy season the red laterite would quickly dissolve to mud, turning the fifty-mile journey into a six- or eight-hour ordeal.

Dauda and Sangban are dazzled by the “S” curves that have been carved out of the mountain sides as we climb from the savanna of Bombali District to the uplands of Koinadugu District. My biggest fear—that the new road has ruined the charming little town I called home—is quickly allayed as we roll into Fadugu around midnight. The moon is bright enough to see that no houses had to be torn down to accommodate the road. It is just a tar strip along the old route with only a minor amount of grading having been done. Despite the darkness the place looks great. We unload our things and wake my host, a former teaching colleague named A.K. Bangura, long enough to be pointed to a bed in the government primary school’s teachers’ quarters. The boys head off to their father’s house with a bag of rice leaving the other for Mr. Bangura.

Each morning in the teachers’ quarters I am greeted by a bevy of Bangura children sweeping and making the bed. Mrs. Bangura warms water for shaving, and prepares breakfast of boiled eggs, fried beef or potatoes, bread, and tea. A few of my old students come to greet almost immediately. Peter, who completed secondary school, is now a primary school teacher. Alie works with an agriculture demonstration project for discouragingly low pay. Alusine, a star pupil when he was in class four, is home for Christmas on leave from the ranks of Freetown’s unemployed. Sorie Limba stops by also; he did my laundry and dishes in the old days. Sorie is looking old, although I’m sure he’s younger than I am. Work on the farm is hard.

Protocol would normally dictate that I greet the paramount chief on arrival, but I’m told he has gone to Freetown. Sierra Leone is organized into provinces, each province into districts, and districts into chiefdoms. Chiefdoms are headed by a paramount chief selected from the ruling family of the ethnic group that first settled the area; in Fadugu it is the Limba people. There are several lesser chiefs, known as section chiefs, who oversee portions of the chiefdom where their families first settled. Chiefs govern the economic and religious activities of their people, allocate land for farming, and settle disputes. Under the British scheme of Native Administration, introduced in the 1930s, the paramount chiefs were made beholden not only to their own people but to the white man who began to pay them salaries and request actions that were often in conflict with traditional beliefs and wishes. The pejorative “native” has been replaced by “chiefdom,” but the scheme continues today, forcing paramount chiefs to do a balancing act between their people and the central government. Fadugu’s Paramount Chief Alimamy Fana II has the added responsibility of representing the district’s paramount chiefs in parliament, which accounts for his frequent absence.

Fadugu is a town of perhaps a thousand people. Its cement and mud block houses stretch out along the road for nearly a mile. More houses are clustered in groups off the main road named for smaller bush villages like Katimbo and Kasasi where the people originally came from. Traditional grass thatch roofs have given way to corrugated metal roofing imported from Japan and Europe. Several shops and a market for petty traders are clustered in the center of town near the foot of a large mango tree. The air is laden with dust, obscuring the lovely hills which rise up in the distance. Harmattan winds blow from the north during the dry season gathering dust from the Sahara and depositing it as far south as the Gulf of Guinea.

I see lots of familiar faces on my first walk through town. Pa Barrie is at his house near the school compound. His daughter Adama, who was a small wisp of a girl in my class four, is now a nurse and pregnant with her second child. Pa Fino, one of the section chiefs greets me warmly from his veranda as I pass. Across the road near the market is the home of Pa Saidu the oldest man in Fadugu. His son Yaya tells me the Pa died just a few weeks before my arrival. In the Islamic tradition they had hoped to make his forty-day memorial ceremony at Christmas time, but scarcity of rice has forced postponement since there is not enough to feed the large number of people who would attend.

Standing in front of the market is Mammy Thor’s new shop. When inflation set in, Thor abandoned her large general store to open this small kiosk stocked with only essential, sure-to-sell items. She also prepares small fried cakes and serves up plates of rice and stew to travelers. We talk about her children, many of whom I’ve already seen in Freetown. Her son Brima is just back from studying animal science for three years in Kenya. Hassan, son of one of her husband’s other wives, is in college in Liberia. Farther along the road old Pa Sewa is still going strong at the post office. He shows me a parcel from Mr. Steve, the town’s recently departed Peace Corps volunteer, that was opened and rifled before it reached him.

Santigie Kanu, the headmaster of the Roman Catholic primary school catches up with me along the road. Santigie was a class seven boy during my teaching days and went on to earn his teaching certificate at the Makeni Teachers Training College. We walk together to visit Pa Sorie at “one mile.” Pa Sorie is Sammy’s father, and I’ve always worried that he might be annoyed with me since I arranged for his son to go to school in America where he has since remained. But Pa Sorie is overjoyed to see me and presents me with a fowl, a sign of great respect. His wives and children greet me like visiting royalty. Having a son in the U.S. sending dollars home is an advantage during economic hard times.

As we sit talking on the veranda, Pa Sorie offers me the first of many cups of palm wine. The sweet milky liquid is extracted from the oil palm tree by tappers who shinny to the top and collect sap in large gourds. The process is similar to collection of maple sap for making syrup, but oil palm sap needs no processing. Palm wine produces a mellow intoxication and fuels the afternoon’s conversation as we try to catch up on the last seven years.

Throughout my visit, these palm wine induced conversations inevitably turn into discussions on the state of the economy. People are suffering, and their patience with the new government is wearing thin. The case of Sierra Leone is a classic of third world economics. Rich in minerals like iron ore, diamonds, bauxite, and rutile, the nation depends on foreign exchange earned from their sale abroad to finance needed imports. But world prices for raw materials have remained depressed, while prices for manufactured goods have steadily risen. Sierra Leone is heavily in debt to foreign lenders who have financed various development projects. Mounting interest and principal payments to these creditors are a serious drain on the country’s dwindling financial reserves.

Food production has declined in the face of an urbanization process that has stripped the countryside of much of its manpower and forced increased imports of rice, the country’s staple. Fostered, ironically, by the improvement in education, the new urban class is a generation of office workers with no offices to work in. As a result the cities are full of educated unemployed who are reluctant to go back to a life of manual labor on the farms.

OPEC and skyrocketing oil prices have also taken a toll on the economy. Although the industrialized West was OPEC’s target in the 1970s, third world countries like Sierra Leone suffered the most. Precious foreign exchange reserves were depleted as the bill for imports of petroleum and manufactured products soared. African members of OPEC had only sympathy to offer their non-oil-producing brothers. Despite the hardship, many Sierra Leoneans applauded OPEC’s muscle, and longed for the day when their country could exercise the same control over prices of its diamonds and iron ore.

Economic decline is further abetted by appropriation of public funds for private use, what Professor Ali Mazrui calls the “privatization” of government by politicians and civil servants. In Sierra Leone privatization takes many forms, including padding payrolls with fictitious employees or granting agricultural loans to non-existent farmers. Soldiers and police demand payment from diamond and gold smugglers rather than halt theft of the nation’s wealth. The most common method of privatization is to charge for a service that government ostensibly provides for free. This is a simple solution to the dilemma of government salaries that do not provide an adequate living.

In an effort to avert collapse many third world countries, including Sierra Leone, have turned to the International Monetary Fund for assistance. That agency’s standard prescription for economic recovery requires drastic measures. Cuts in government spending, currency devaluation to curb imports and promote exports, and removal of government subsidies are some of the more controversial provisions in a typical IMF agreement. The resulting inflation, unemployment, and reduction of real income increase the hardship of an already suffering population. Such measures are political dynamite and have produced mixed results, at best, in countries where rigorously implemented. Third world nations, which only a few years ago were being courted by international bankers offering loans for development projects, are now being told to live within their means, something the western nations that promote this policy have been unable to do themselves. But an IMF agreement is increasingly a condition for the granting of loans by the World Bank and other major donors, so countries like Sierra Leone are left with little choice in the matter.

My friends are suffering, but the consensus seems to be that President Momoh deserves more time. After all, it took more than a decade to bring the economy to the brink of collapse, so it will likely take more than one year of the “new order” to save it. Meanwhile the jargon of international economics has impressed itself into local vocabularies.

While the new order administration is preoccupied with the nation’s economic health, the physical health of its people is also a worrisome problem. Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of infant mortality on the continent, a staggering 200 deaths per 1000 births according to U.N. estimates. Average life expectancy is less than forty years. The night I arrived in Fadugu the men’s secret Gbangbani Society was playing in mourning over the death of one of its young members, a boy of about twenty. On Christmas Eve I learned of the death of the infant son of one of Mr. Bangura’s friends. International experts like to point to Africa’s high birth rate to explain its problems, but high birth rates are often a consequence of high death rates. Africans know many of their children will not survive into adulthood. For them, birth control is not a major issue.

Inevitably a visitor here is confronted with appeals for help from sufferers of various health problems. On my second day in town Dauda brings a young friend who has chopped his foot while brushing his farm with a matchet (machete). Fortunately he hasn’t severed any tendons, but he has a nasty gash on a big toe that should have been stitched and is badly in need of proper dressing. The local dispenser can treat him, but the boy has no money to pay. I give him forty leones.

My friend Peter takes ill a day or two later. Alie and I go to Katimbo to see him. When we reach the house people point to a motionless form wrapped in a blanket on a mat under a palm tree. It’s Peter feeling “serious pain” in his abdomen. A Nigerian herbal doctor, who happens to be in town drumming up business, has already diagnosed the problem as worms. For forty leones he will give Peter medicine and “de sick go done tomorrow.” I’m skeptical; my alarmist mind jumps to the most extreme possibilities like cholera or appendicitis. We decide to go to the government hospital in Makeni.

The next morning, after a two hour bus ride, we enter the crowded hospital. At the reception desk we learn that only one doctor is in; the other has gone to Freetown. There are nearly one hundred people sitting around waiting to see one doctor. Ironically, scores of Sierra Leonean doctors practice abroad, reluctant to return home to poor working conditions and low pay.

It seems hopeless, so Peter decides to head for another hospital fifteen miles away in Magburaka where he knows somebody. I give him some money and wish him luck. The next day in Fadugu he shows me the medicine he’s been given. It cost Le100 to see the doctor, Le20 for the medicine, and Le60 for transportation. The Le180 is more than half of his monthly teaching salary. The diagnosis, worms. We should have stuck with the Nigerian herbalist.

My favorite thing about Africa is the children. Everywhere you go there are beautiful, innocent children still unaware of the hardships they face. Each time I sit in the parlor outside my room, one small child will eventually appear at the door. He or she and a companion will come in and sit down to look at me as I read, all the while whispering to each other. Soon the room will be full of children talking and playing, making it impossible to read. I bribe them from my stash of fresh oranges, but as Ronald Reagan discovered in his dealings with Middle Eastern “terrorists,” once you begin to pay off you’re hooked; the process becomes self-perpetuating.

Mr. Bangura’s fifteen year old son, Junior, does my laundry, irons, and generally looks after me. In lieu of pay he wants some new clothes that he can wear for Christmas. I check first with his parents so as not to breech protocol, and they agree. Junior shops for “junks” from a nearby trader. Junks are used clothes that have, no doubt, been donated by well-meaning souls in Europe or America. Bales of the stuff arrive in Sierra Leone and wind up as a profitable commodity in the markets. Junior selects a pair of dark blue corduroy trousers and two shirts, one a madras-like creation which might once have belonged to a young girl in America and the other a two-tone dress shirt. Total cost, sixty leones, an extravagant outlay for most Sierra Leoneans, but for me the equivalent of two dollars. I give him the money, and Junior, a boy of few words, breaks into a broad smile that could melt an iceberg.

Fadugu is rapidly filling up for the holidays, as sons and daughters who have scattered themselves about the country continue to arrive home for family reunions. Sammy has finally come after an extended visit with his sister in Kono. Sewa and his small son have also arrived, so Pa Sorie has a houseful. He presents us with the goat that will be Christmas dinner. The two Christian churches, one Protestant, one Catholic, hold Christmas Eve services for the faithful. For Muslims and traditional believers there is a concert at the town court. The concert consists of a series of humorous skits based on familiar local stories performed by school children.

Christmas morning I’m awakened by the strains of “O Come All Ye Faithful” blaring from a radio next door—probably a BBC or VOA program. Christmas and Christmas carols seem strangely out of place here. Nevertheless, believers and non-believers gather together to eat and “bend elbow” with a few cups of palm wine. There is an outing at Sorie Limba’s garden sponsored by the Baltimore Social Club, a group of sons and daughters of Fadugu now living in Freetown. In the late afternoon, Fadugu residents and visiting relatives square off in a football match at the school field. The visitors win three goals to one.

In the evening there is a dance at the town court. A sound system has been hired to provide music for the dancers, and the generator that powers it can be heard droning away behind the building. Despite an entry fee of six leones, the dance is so packed that dancers spill out into a courtyard beside the building. I buy a pint of Star beer and stand around chatting. Junior wanders by; he seems to be enjoying himself. I buy him a Coke. Two Stars and two hours of dancing and talking later, I head back to the room to fall asleep with the sound of the generator echoing off my walls. Several hours later I awaken to the sound of the generator winding down. It’s dawn and the dance has just ended.

One of the people who did not show up for Christmas is my good friend Umaru. Our friendship began to blossom when Umaru played the part of the “Tortoise of Koka” in a class four skit in 1970; you have to like a kid who would agree to play a tortoise. We maintained this friendship over the years, mostly through a frequent exchange of letters, so it would be unthinkable for me to travel 5,000 miles to get to Fadugu and not go the last 100 to see him.

Umaru works for the Koinadugu Integrated Agriculture Development Program in a remote area of the northeast. To reach his station at Karawani, one travels twenty-six miles north to Kabala, the district headquarters, and there arranges other transportation for the eighty-two mile trek to Karawani on the other side of Mongo Bendugu. Early transport for Kabala is usually hard to come by, but around ten a Land Rover pickup truck from the United Nations wells program rolls into town. The driver is headed for Kabala and agrees to take me along.

The money to construct the new road ran out at Fadugu, so the remaining twenty-six-mile stretch is terrible. It winds through the hilly terrain over ruts and jagged rocks that have been exposed through years of erosion. The resulting “gallops” make for a slow, bone crushing ride. There are ten of us packed tightly in the back of the Land Rover along with several five gallon jugs of groundnut (peanut) oil and various other bags and bundles. The owner of the oil, a man named Foday, claims to be a brother of Umaru’s, which in Sierra Leone can mean anything from a real brother to a distant cousin or even just a friend. He promises to help me arrange other transport when we reach Kabala.

The pickup bed is covered with a canvas roof whose flaps have been lowered to protect us from the choking laterite dust. The canvas sucks in the warmth of the tropical sun creating a stifling atmosphere in the nearly airtight confines. To make matters worse people are smoking. I think of the hot box scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman is lying in a small iron cage in a prison yard under the scorching southern sun. But he didn’t have it so bad after all. At least he could move around a bit, and no one was blowing smoke in his face. Fortunately the Land Rover brakes occasionally to disgorge a passenger, so we get out to stretch and take a breath of fresh air. Finally, after two torturous hours, we reach Kabala.

Foday’s house is across from the NP petrol station near the center of town. We stop there to unload the groundnut oil. Kabala is extremely dusty since the paved streets have all disintegrated. The furniture in Foday’s parlor is covered with red laterite grit. He tells me to wait while he goes to the motor park to arrange my transport; “If dem see white man, dem go charge heavy.” I head for the bar across the street with Foday’s friend from the nearby M.A.G.I.C. Insurance Company.

Foday soon reappears on the back of a motorbike motioning for me to come. Kabala is full of motorbikes, the main method of transport in this area. Four wheel vehicles have great difficulty negotiating the terrible roads, and gasoline on the black market, the only reliable source, is running at Le110 per gallon, more than three times the controlled price. Foday has enlisted the services of Alpha Honda, the best rider in Kabala. Alpha claims to have already arranged some other business, but he’s willing to “spoil” it to help me. He wants Le600 to go drop me in Karawani—pretty steep. When I explain I don’t want to be just dropped, I want him to go, stay there overnight, and bring me back the next afternoon, the price doubles. I try reasoning with him that if he stays in Kabala he won’t make nearly that much, but he claims his other business will pay more. I beg him to accept Le1,000, about thirty dollars, and after some hesitation he agrees. Everything is set. We’re off by one o’clock; the whole arrangement takes scarcely one hour.

We turn behind the market for Alpha to shout a message to someone, then head out to the main northeast road past a fine new mosque in what appears to be a rapidly expanding suburb. Out in the countryside the road is instantly bad. Alpha neatly “balances the gallops” by careening from side to side while downshifting to climb a steep hill or to slow for a bad place in the road. A few miles along we hit a sheep who darts from safety into our path. Luckily it doesn’t upend us and doesn’t appear to be hurt. The dust is bad, and my eyes are watering from the rush of air. In defiance of all rules of safety and common sense, I have neither a helmet nor goggles. Soon my eyeballs feel like they are rotating in sockets of mud. I try to reduce the stream of tears by keeping first one eye, then the other behind Alpha’s helmet. This seems to work and keeps me occupied for a while.

My discomfort is enhanced by my position on the bike. Since we are carrying our bags on the back, the passenger’s seat has been removed to be replaced by a rolled up rubber raincoat making a seat about half the normal size and softness. I’m sitting scrunched up tightly behind Alpha with my legs spread awkwardly apart like a wishbone. My knees are bent sharply backward so that my feet can reach the resting points on either side of the bike. For someone with long legs it is especially uncomfortable and conducive to cramps.

The trip seems to take forever as trips usually do when you’ve never been where you’re going before. Actually only about four and a half hours have elapsed when we roll into Mongo Bendugu. We stop in the center of town to inquire after Umaru. I try to buy some oranges to get a little moisture in my body, but when I produce a fifty cent note, the essence of money, that acceptance by both buyer and seller that the scrap of paper offered is worth the goods sold, is laid bare. The seller refuses my money. “We no de take dis one here,” she says. It is legal tender issued by the government of Sierra Leone, but that doesn’t seem to matter. I replace it with a two leone note and accept one-fifty worth of coins in return. The Agriculture Officer isn’t around, but we are assured by others that Umaru is indeed in Karawani six more miles down the road.

We pull into Karawani just in time to see Umaru striding in from the garden. He and I shake hands and share a warm embrace. Seven years have brought dramatic changes. Umaru is now a tall handsome man, deep voiced and self-assured. We both thank Alpha for bringing me, and he speeds away leaving us to get re-acquainted. Umaru rents a small but pleasant room at the rear of a large, metal-roofed house. There is a double bed with straw mattress in one corner and a clothes rack along the opposite wall. Scattered about are his tools of the trade, various measuring devices, stakes, watering can, and shovel.

Umaru sees that water is fetched for me to wash, then escorts me to the wash yard. A yard it is. The bucket of water is sitting in the open at the back of a small building behind the main house; there is no enclosure at all. Oh well, it’s dusk and nobody seems to be around. I remove my clothes and hang them on nearby sticks that once probably supported an enclosure.

The bucket bath, a feature of most rural areas, requires a certain amount of strategy lest the bather be left with an empty bucket while still covered with soap. Dunking one’s head in the bucket then standing immediately upright accomplishes two things with minimal water loss: the hair is soaked while the runoff does a reasonable job on the rest of the body. The shock of rivulets of cold water running down the spine is an inherent liability of this method but can’t be avoided. After shampooing, one rinses one’s hair with cups of water while standing erect to take full advantage of the runoff. Soaping and rinsing the rest of the body follows, assuming proper calculation of water usage has occurred. After rinsing, the seasoned bather will have a small amount of water left in the bucket. While nimbly balancing on one foot he dips the other in the bucket, rinses it, dries it, and sticks it into a shoe without toppling over, or almost as bad, putting the clean foot back down in the dirt.

The bucket is much smaller and I’m much dirtier than usual, but I manage to get myself fairly clean. I drop the soap once encasing the wet bar in sand and small pebbles. Since I’m wearing Umaru’s rubber slippers, I do a final rinse by turning the remaining water over myself dropping the bucket in the process. The loud crash triggers some Koranko mutterings from inside—comments on my lack of dexterity I imagine.

After a night of much talk and little sleep, I awake to the sounds of a radio. Umaru has tuned in the news from VOA; it’s the first news I’ve heard since I left the states nearly three weeks ago. Not much of interest, Reagan to address the Soviet people on VOA; Gorbachev has declined to exchange broadcasts this year. Nothing on the Iran scandal, but then this is the Voice of America.

We head out across the village to the garden; it is a masterpiece as far as I can see. Umaru is nursing onions, tomatoes, and egg plants in neatly formed beds. The seedlings are in various stages of growth, the newest still covered with grass to prevent scorching from the sun. The most advanced are ready for transplanting, a process that takes place in the cool evening hours. All beds require water morning and evening, and Umaru methodically applies it, filling his watering can at a nearby stream.

The World Bank sponsored KIADP project is designed to encourage farmers to try new crops and methods through the example of extension agents like Umaru. He is currently working with 350 farmers from surrounding villages, planting vegetables and developing rice swamps. To make up for lack of domestic production, Sierra Leone imported nearly 180,000 tons of rice in 1985 at a cost of $36 million. With the country suffering from a critical shortage of foreign exchange, the incentive to attain agricultural self-sufficiency is powerful.

Mindful of this, President Momoh has launched a Green Revolution Program, the centerpiece of his plan for the nation’s economic recovery. Momoh has set ambitious goals, to reduce the rice deficit to 2,000 tons within two years and achieve a surplus of 75,000 tons within three. He has appealed to foreign donors for inputs of money, expertise, and supplies. Internally he is sponsoring a propaganda campaign, complete with theme song by a local musician named Big Fayia, urging farmers to produce more and urban unemployed to go back to the farm. Food is in short supply and prices are high, nearly ideal conditions to stimulate production. Many of Umaru’s farmers have begun to grow vegetables in the normally unproductive dry season. Some with rice swamps near year-round water sources are building dams for water control to enable production of two or three crops a year instead of the traditional one.

Time is running out on my visit. Around noon the roar of a motorbike approaches; Alpha has come to take me away from my friend. Umaru and I embrace mumbling a few inadequate words. Out on the bike, a quick handshake and I’m off. My visit was much too short, so little time to really talk. Out of all the students I taught Umaru seems to be the most serious, but I can see the struggle is hard and wish there was more I could do to help.

The sadness of leaving Umaru and the discomfort of riding in a cramped position on a bad road make the return journey painful. It feels as if every blood vessel in my rear end has been shattered. I start using my arms as shock absorbers on the bad gallops to keep the pressure off my seat. On the occasional hill where I must come down and walk, I welcome the opportunity to stagger along on foot while Alpha charges up the nearly impassable road to get beyond the obstructions.

The return trip is faster; it takes only about four hours to reach Kabala. Alpha veers off the main road as we enter town and circles around the market to show friends that he’s delivered his cargo safely. After my ordeal by motorbike, the Land Rover ride back to Fadugu is like flying first class. It’s New Year’s Eve, but I’m exhausted and can’t make it to midnight.

The dawn of the new year heralds the twilight of my visit. Junior is going with me to Freetown to see his capital city for the first time; Peter and Alusine want to come as well. I’m glad for the company because Sammy is remaining behind for an extended visit with his family. From our perches on the bus balcony we wave good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Bangura, Pa Sorie, Sammy, and the others. As the bus rolls out of Fadugu, my sense of sadness and separation is allayed by the presence of Junior, Peter, and Alusine.

Back in my room at the Stadium Hostel in Freetown there is time for reflection. Sierra Leone clearly fits within Ali Mazrui’s portrait of Africa as a “Garden of Eden in decay.” Whatever development has occurred in the country is the result of the efforts of post-independence governments. But the path of development chosen by the politicians has been difficult to sustain. Portions of the road network are already deteriorating from a lack of effort or lack of funds to mount a maintenance program. Freetown suffers from chronic blackouts as the generating system succumbs to age and scarcity of spare parts. The countryside is littered with skeletons of British and American tractors. Even symbols of power and authority, the once magnificent parliament building and State House, are showing effects of atrophy.

China has been an active and generous partner in the country, often providing manpower and interest-free financing for projects it undertakes. But China’s experimental farms have contributed their own tractor skeletons to the countryside, and the Chinese-built Siaka Stevens Stadium is missing a few fixtures and has more than a few broken windows. Meanwhile Siaka Stevens himself resides in a fabulous mansion on Juba Hill overlooking Freetown, and other politicians and government employees live lives beyond their apparent means.

Worse than decaying tractors and buildings is the disaffection of a generation of the country’s youth. The urban unemployed are restless, and crime is on the rise. The clamor to go abroad for educational and economic gain is increasing. Teachers and taxi drivers alike are abandoning their country. I met a young man in Freetown who is going to West Germany to accept a position in hotel management. My friend Sammy is reluctant to put his degree in broadcasting to work at the local radio station, which only operates intermittently due to power failures.

The evidence of physical decay is easy to spot, but if one looks closely there are also encouraging signs. As the new order administration gingerly nudges the old order aside, a certain invigoration of spirit is occurring. Most symbolic of this process is President Momoh’s appointment of maverick politician Alfred Akibo-Betts to the chairmanship of a newly constituted Freetown City Council. Akibo-Betts has launched a massive cleanup drive in the capital. Hundreds of petty traders that choked the streets have been relocated to organized market areas. Streets are being cleared of litter and shopkeepers directed to paint their establishments.

Out in the countryside the wells program is downright revolutionary. Scarcity of clean drinking water is a thing of the past for many villages; as a consequence, health problems are also reduced. An ambitious program of primary school construction is underway. School books and paper are still in short supply and teachers grossly underpaid, but there are many dedicated educators, like Mr. Bangura, who persevere.

Perhaps the most critical new undertaking is the move to revitalize the country’s agriculture. In this regard the underutilized Work Oxen Project is getting a second look. Unlike tractors, draft animals require no expenditure of precious foreign exchange for fuel and spare parts, not to mention the original purchase. Plowing with indigenous work oxen is particularly well-suited for Sierra Leone’s relatively small rice swamps. The Chinese have also returned to rehabilitate their experimental farms, and experts from India’s green revolution are being consulted along with specialists from Japan, Egypt, and Italy.

Most encouraging of all is seeing the work that my friend Umaru and others like him are doing. Enlisting young, educated Sierra Leoneans in rescuing the country’s agriculture injects that sector with new energy and enthusiasm and holds out hope that a green revolution may indeed be possible without massive foreign inputs. The sight of educated Sierra Leoneans becoming prosperous farmers will do far more than any government to stem the tide of urbanization and emigration.

As I pack for the trip to Lungi Airport, a feeling of sadness settles over me once again. Sadness for the hardship my friends must abide as their country struggles for economic survival; sadness for myself because I won’t be seeing Junior and Alusine and Peter. I wonder if I will ever see these parts again, but of course I know I will. On my final ride through Freetown, I think of Graham Greene and words he wrote in what I perceive to be a state of mind similar to my own: “Those days—I am glad to have had them; my love of Africa deepened there, in particular for what is called, the whole world over, the Coast, this world of tin roofs, of vultures clanging down, of laterite paths turning rose in the evening light.”

Previously unpublished, this article was written with the New Yorker in mind, but alas, its editors didn’t bite. Portions eventually found their way into the book Black Man's Grave.


Copyright © 2016 by Gary Stewart

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