6/8/10

The Secret Societies

Time for an exotic blog entry from an exotic country. And what could be more appealing than tales of secret societies and more exotic than circumcision of small girl children – too exotic?
Most Sierra Leoneons are part of a secret society – and yes that is also what they themselves call them. I will tell you about the two major societies: the ‘Poro’ society for the men and the ‘Bondo’ society for the women.

The Poro is an ancient and cross-ethnic society. Historically they played the role of turning boys into men. The boys left the save haven of their mothers skirts when they were coming of age to join the society in ‘the bush’ for several years. Here they learnt the tribal culture: the tales, the dances, drinking poyo (palmwine) and even how to be with a woman (I’ve actually been told that the codes of conduct learned in this regard probably prevented many rapes) but also to master a craft like farming, hunting or the like.
I’ve even read that the Poro society was so strong during colonisation (nothing more uniting than a common foe) that it was used to organize the famous rebellion against – what was seen as - an unfair British tax-raise in what is named the Hut-Tax War. The different villages had prepared pile of stones of equal size. Then every day the local society leader would remove one stone, and thus made sure that everybody could prepare for synchronic acts of rebellion.
Nowadays the society is far from its former glory. It still seems to play a big role as a transmitter of culture, but the educational part has been removed altogether. An initiation can now be performed in few days, and will leave the new member with neat, highly visible parallel scars next to the eye. A high endurance level in terms of pain has always been considered manly, and these scars as well as the different marks and scratches all across the body are all indicators, that the societies are very manly indeed.
Time heals all wounds, and it does seem important to present to the youth so sort of cultural heritage to offer an alternative from the in-your-face-with-it’s-bling-bling-and-hungry-materialism American pop culture, which has made its clear and extremely visible mark in the mindset of these youngsters.

The Bondo societies are responsible for more lasting wounds. In many ways they resemble the Poro, but becoming a woman of course is different from becoming a man – in Sierra Leone it involves circumcision (or what is often referred to as FGM – female genital mutilation). This is done by the society women themselves; the so called sowies, and it can involve girls from a very early age but also girls in their puberty.
I’m come across some different approaches to battling FGM by organizations down here. One local NGO explained how they offered the sowies money and seeds, animal husbandry or the like to “compensate” them for the lost revenues from the parents to the girls, that needs to be initiated. By biggest concern with that project, was that they really hadn’t set up strong monitoring mechanism. But it can be a bit problematic to monitor what is labelled ‘secret’.
A very interesting solution is provided by a local preschool being financed by a swiss lady. The institution is only for uncircumcised girls. But a school that excludes your daughter from the local society (and thus probably from marriage) isn’t very attractive or sustainable. What she did was to talk the Bondo society into accepting her as a member (without the FGM). This sort of positive dialogue – based in recognition of the importance of the local structures – has made it possible to many of the girls to be initiated in the same way. The teachers at the school told us, that the kids are still watched upon as a sort of second rate members; but that is still an improvement from not being a member at all.
That is really an illuminating example of the power of dialogue and mutual interest to understand each other despite hugh differences.

5/29/10

Turbulent times and bad policies

We’re very busy at the moment. Monday last week was the first workday for our new manager. So besides continuing on all our normal projects and plans, we also needed to make sure that Emmanuel got to know about, yeah really, everything about REACT and the work we are doing and want to do in the future.
But it has been a massively good process. Emmanuel is a very clever, analytical and innovative figure, who has already been able to contribute with many ideas and a lot of energy. And I have no problem being busy, if I feel that it is moving something – and I really feel we are moving a lot at the moment.

My stay in Masanga is indeed entering a new era. When something new is added something will also disappear. In this case the thing disappearing is most of the Danish volunteers. Tonight we are having a goodbye party for like half of the people here, which will all leave during the next weeks. So hostel-life will really change a lot, with only like 6 people remaining to live here for some time.

But we’re not the only ones keeping busy. I’m quite positive that also goes for the Sierra Leonean government these days. Sierra Leone’s public sector has long been suffering from low payments. That is good in the sense, that the government can keep expenditures low, but bad in the sense that you have a very real brain-drain from Sierra Leone to other countries. The best educated personnel simply find employment in other countries, where they can be paid decently.

The answer: to increase salaries.

The government realised that the right move to keep the working force in the country would be to cater to their needs and increase the salary. Another benefit from this would be to lower the need for health personnel to engage in corrupt practices, as it should be less needed for them in order to make a decent living. And this actually comes on top of new policies ensuring pregnant women and children under 5 free treatment and medicine (to battle the frightening percentage of child mortality), so a lot is really happening in Sierra Leone. The government is certainly taking responsibility – which is great.

The only problem was the way they decided to do it. Instead of giving gradual pay raises over maybe a five to ten year period, they decided that it needed to be done; and needed to be done now. This meant that the salary of most health personnel was raised by between 100-200 % and for some even 6-doubled over night!

This has resulted in three apparent problems.
Firstly, the government will have used all of the money allotted for the scheme (over a five year period – coming from DFID (the English pendent to DANIDA) in particular) in just three months.
Secondly, it has really alienated the other public sector employees, which has also suffered from underpayment for decades. The college professors has thus already been striking, and rumours has it that the teachers’ union is also threatening to make every primary and secondary school teacher go on strike (that is class 1 to class 12 so to say). That will paralyse the education sector.
The exact same thing goes for the health personnel in the military, which could spill over into the military ranks themselves. And if there’s any lesson which is apparent in Africa south of Sahara it is this: don’t get on bad terms with your military – they will coup up.
The police are threatening to strike and so are the road workers. Where the money for all of these people should come from, I for one have no idea.
Thirdly, more than half of the revenues of the Sierra Leonean governments’ revenues come from international donors and development aid (!!). That makes Sierra Leone the country receiving most aid-money pr. capita in the entire world. A place like Masanga Hospital is included in these statistics. Here, all of the employees have come together to form a union, that can make demands for the hospital to raise the salaries in accordance with the government hospitals. But believe me, when I say, that can’t be done. The money is simply not there. And I could imagine that goes for a lot of places. Few organizations will be prepared to simply double or triple their salary budget. Will that cause some to leave or concentrate on projects in other countries?

The good thing about all of this must still be remembered. This is really grassroots democracy working. People are organizing to make demands and hold employers and the government accountable. That is a beautiful and important thing. Hopefully things won’t escalate into violence, which will serve no good. If not I think the whole event can give birth to useful structures and empower certain organizations to become credible voices for the groups they represent. That is a sign of health in my eyes. But for now the government really has created a giant mess of things and will surely need to do a lot of cleaning up.

5/16/10

A night at the library

In Sierra Leone the sun sets around 7 pm this time of year. Once it sets the night is upon you, and nowhere is accessible without a flashlight. This is the time our library opens, as 7-10 pm is the only time of day that electricity is guaranteed. On the way from the hostel towards the library it is impossible not to linger at the glossy stars against the pitch-black sky. There are so many, and they seem so bright and strong out here in rural Africa, where electric lights aren’t present to compete for your attention. A frog leaps hurriedly across the small path (in flight from a predating snake?). The animals of the jungle commence their song to the night.
Arriving at the library is like arriving to a cathedral of light. Mostly because it – like the stars – stands as a striking contrast to the dark night. Inside you can find much encouragement. Secondary school pupils in a concentrated effort to brush up on the curriculum before the impending WASSCE examinations (which will give them, what corresponds to a high-school certificate). A middle-aged woman bringing her small child, sits absorbed in a class 2 english language book – meant to children at the age of 8 – in an single-handed attempt to battle her illiterateness.
I turn on a computer and call on the group of class 3-4 kids that is sitting around a table, each with their English language book. Enthusiastically the hurry towards me, and are a few moments later discussing the math-puzzles appearing on the screen. I explain the function of the mouse and the keyboard, and tell them to take turns. Not long time passes before they master the game, and seem as accustomed to computers as Danish schoolchildren.
The ability of children to learn is so amazing.
As we tell them goodnight at 9, they all promises to come back the next night. And it seems to me that the cathedral of light does provide some enlightenment.

5/6/10

Spaces and other avenues

A modern life in Denmark offers many different spaces: a workspace, a spectre of cultural spaces, a sleeping space, a relaxation space, a space for doing your exercise, a virtual space. In our pursuit for self-realisation (that we in the West for the likes of Inglehart are deemed to engage ourselves in because of our level of wealth) we try to develop our self in multiple ways in multiple arenas.

The same specialization of spaces is difficult to recognize in Masanga. And I feel that it has actually been a bit difficult to adjust to. In Denmark you can let the spaces guide you in your choice of persona and object of pursuit. There your day can be divided into the time you spend in each space. In the morning I go from my universe of sleep and dreams to the kitchen – my space of gastronomy. From here I would maybe go to the library and take on the persona of academia. Or I would go to a café, open my laptop and suddenly be at work, a coffee in hand. Later one could visit a fitness center in the chase of the perfect body or go to the cinema for a cultural journey towards beauty or simply a journey of escapism. The late evening hours could besides another gastronomic experience offer some designated time of cosiness as we Danes are so fond of – accompanied by chocolate and red wine – in front of the television.

Of course there if a huge blurring of spaces as the above suggests. The present day’s flexibility – or ‘liquid modernity’ as Bauman suggested (a term which I quite like) – can diffuse spaces. A café is suddenly not only a place of pleasant conversations, but can also serve as a portal to a virtual space, where you can shape a new self or refine the picture of your present self on platforms like facebook, twitter or a blog like this one. Or the flexible character of your work can enable you to turn every space into your workspace simply by pressing ‘on’. But even though you yourself can help shape and form the spaces of everyday life, it doesn’t change the fact, that if you don’t lose yourself and get lost in the waves of this liquidity – which is our present – flexibility is yours to command.

Here things are very different. Almost all of my activities take place at the hostel. This is where I sleep, where I eat, where I read literary classics or watch a movie, and very often where I work. And also the flexibility is not present in the same way. You never know whether power will come on during the day, which makes computer time a rare and strategic commodity, the kitchen ladies are in charge of the menu, internet access has long been missing, and even the freedom of travelling is inhibited by the insecurity of available vehicles (until you reach a larger city).

Even exercise is not always in your power. The local boys often play football, but you (and they) can never be quite sure of the starting time (time seems to be more relative in Africa than anywhere else) which can vary with many hours, and often is cancelled.

For many of the locals there seems to be mostly four or five spaces available to them. The homespace which is designated to eating and sleeping, and taking care of your giant family. The workspace which can vary between one place in the week – maybe at the hospital – and another in the weekend – for many the mines surrounding Masanga. The cultural space is for many dominated by the secret societies that resides in the bush, and where secret rituals (such as circumcision of girls) are carried out. For many there are added different football venues to this. Both local gravelpitches and ‘theatres of dreams’ in the television. Finally there is the religious space, where meaning can be assigned to all of the other spaces.

That is really a major difference from Denmark to Sierra Leone as well. The role of religion. In Sierra Leone they got few spaces to explore and shape their selves, but all of these can be contributed meaning, because that is what religion offers. Answers to the fundamental questions of being – the meaning of this life and our engagement in these different spaces.
In Denmark it is the opposite. A nearly unlimited amount of spaces if offered, but for many, religion have lost its former role as the answer to our lives questions. And many are left to themselves to find some sort of meaning in this endless navigation of spaces and personas.

Hmm just some unstructured late evening thoughts for you guys.

4/30/10

There and back again

”To travel is to live” is quite a famous quote. One of those quotes which are used so often that it becomes a cliché. I certainly don’t agree; but I definitely do love to travel.
Sierra Leone does have some obstacles for the traveller. Infrastructure is crappy, official transportation almost non-existent, and timetables exist to be broken. Nonetheless Africa just seems to work in its own logic. If you are a control-freak by nature, travelling here is certainly not for you. To have a journey planned out to the slightest detail, will just get you frustrated as you see your expectations tumble down around you. Are you on the other hand up for the impulsive journey, which doesn’t necessarily have to live up to westerners’ concept of comfort and relaxation you are in for quite an experience.

All of us Danish people living in Masanga have a land rover available, which we can use for our work and leisure related trips. That is indeed a very comfortable way of travelling and can be a must if our trips go beyond most of the major cities and thus beyond the asphalted roads (not that every major city can be reached by asphalted road). Especially when the rainy season sets in (Argh) this vehicle will become indispensable. A few weekends ago a lot of us headed for Outamba Kilimi, which is the biggest national park in Sierra Leone. The roads were terrible and we were many in the car, which resulted in that the people in the back had kind of a rough ride. This made me think, that I might as well sit on the rough instead of bumping my head against it. The driver didn’t object and before long I had mounted the steely, modern-day rodeo-bull. It was quite intense. Zooming through the African landscape, the vehicle spitting out a tail of red dust, people waiving and laughing along the way at the stupid Dane, the sunset revealing the awe-inspiring full moon and me dodging (most of the time) the low-hanging mangoes (unfortunately the one I managed to pick wasn’t ripe), clinging to the rope, which fastened our bags onto the roof.
Under the starlit night sky on the small forest path it appeared to me that travelling may not give you life. But it may let you experience it more fully. I remember my dad telling me how many years working at the same place seemed to speed up his life. How the drive there became this half unconscious routine, and the whole day could just wither away without any new impressions to linger at. Suddenly a month had gone by – suddenly a year. When you travel, you sentence your senses to a multitude of new impressions that needs to be taken in. And that will unavoidably – in my eyes – seem to lower the pace of how you experience the world around you. Because you cannot help to take in the small details, your senses will not allow it.
That is why I think that travelling doesn’t lead you to live. You can easily live without ever leaving your daily routines - if you call that a life of course. But maybe: to travel is to live longer. Because you live slower; because you notice that you live and that the world around you breathes.
Then travelling can as readily be a trip to the beach, a picnic in the forest, a canoe-trip down a river, or a dinner date at an untried restaurant as half a year in Sierra Leone.

But travelling in a land rover can seem quite inaccessible and exclusive. Often I prefer to travel by local means. As Sierra Leone haven’t rebuild the train lines, that did exist prior to the war (although Chinese building companies are in the process or changing this) the only official means of transportation are the government busses. These are very rare, only travel on a few select distances and cannot be booked in advance. I still haven’t been able to travel with them. But there are also the unofficial, private busses – the so called poda podas – which can best be described as a sort of minibuses, always excessively decorated with bright colours and philosophical mottos such as: ‘God Bless Allah’, ‘Big Boss’, ‘Never Trust A Stranger’, or the more common ‘God Bless Manchester United’. These busses is build for approx. 12 passengers but is not really filled until the double number are cramped together. They are cheap, a good way to meet people and just seem to be there, when you need them. If there isn’t a poda poda waiting for you, odds on is that a taxi is. Taxis function to a high degree like the poda podas with fixed routes and prices – slightly more expensive. Of course they can be chartered to go of the fixed route, but that will cost you. The same goes if you want to travel cha cha in the taxi – meaning only your (or your party of people) – but of course then you will need to pay for the entire taxi, which according to the locals easily carries min. 8 people (2 at the drivers seat (!!), 2 at the other front seat and 4 in the back). It should be unnecessary to point out, that you are not always that comfortable seated with this amount of passengers, but again you get to meet people.
A better way to travel cheap and comfortable is the Honda, which pretty much covers every kind of motorcycle type. Again they are difficult (and expensive) to get to travel outside the designated routes, but the feeling of flying through the countryside with the sunrays caressing your skin and the wind stroking back your hair is worth recommending. For me this is – as with the land rover roof experience – really among the moments where you take in the outside world. When you travel without a screen between you and the passing landscape, it seems closer, more real and forces you to notice where you are.
That is why I constantly find myself on Hondas going here and there and back again; in the generous sunlight, in the hard rain, and under the delicate moon – of for a new travelling tale.

4/20/10

Local ownership

Can there be responsibility without ownership? Can dependency be turned into a cultural trait? How much autonomy are you willing to trade-off for involving others in your decisions? These are some of the questions that work down here has given new life and meaning and put to the forefront of my mind. Not simple questions with simple answers but nonetheless questions that guide many of the choices you face in Masanga – professionally and personally.

A lot have happened during the course of the last couple of weeks, especially in the area of involving the locals in our work. We have created an advisory board for our own work. This board is made up of local stakeholders and capacities in matters of educational activity. The members thus include (beside us) a primary school headmaster, a librarian, a representative from the local teachers’ association, and the assistant business manager from Masanga. I was really anxious going into the first meeting. Were the members really interested in being permanent members, could the discussions reach the necessary level for giving qualified input to our work, what would they demand in return for their participation, and would they seriously participate or mainly observe.
I had prepared a PowerPoint show to partly explain our visions with the board and the various programmes flowing from the centre and partly make an agenda we could stick by. It worked like a charm. People paid attention; participated and made possible really useful brainstorming on some issues we were interested in getting their opinion about. I was quite positively surprised by the quality of our discussions and the board easily reached consensus on a lot of things regarding some otherwise difficult discussions.
In sum a really successful act of securing local ownership. Or was it?
Local ownership has long been a real buzz word among donors and NGOs working with development. Most project descriptions or funding requests therefore include this word in every second line: “the project will have special focus on matters of local ownership”, “participation of the locals will be ensured in every phase of the work”, “local ownership will guide the work”. The advisory board can serve as a good example for how easy this concept can be manipulated.
For how much local ownership is there really in selecting some locals by yourself (whereby you retain the possibility to choose members, that you know share your ideas about the project), to sit at meetings where you are in charge of the agenda (and thereby retains the advantage of the agenda-setting “hidden” power that lies in being able to structure the meeting) and doesn’t grant the board any real authority (so that you can always disregard their decisions).

As much as I enjoyed that the meeting (surprisingly) went according to my hopes and plan, it was necessary to make the board more independent. The next meeting was therefore used to select a new chairman, which should be given the responsibility to make sure that an agenda was made for each meeting, and that everybody have a chance to influence that. Luckily it ended up being the guy, we hoped would be selected.
For the position as secretary it was decided – with little invention on our part – that Hinduja should be performing the task with the assistance of our librarian, who in this way could receive training in doing minutes (first step was to teach him to actually take notes).

Still the board has no real power, but it is really a great way to hear the local voices, which have proven sufficiently, that they do want to speak – and are capable.

The power we haven’t yet given to the board we are on the other hand ready to give to the future manager. Right now we are in negotiations with a Sierra Leonean candidate. But I must confess that it felt somewhat strange to do interviews for this position. To suddenly be “on the other side of the table” to interview a guy, who have a better educational background and loads more experience than myself: “So, what do you consider your major weaknesses?”. Sometimes it feels like this internship let you skip 10 years of your career in terms of the character of your assignments. Which Danish company would let a guy like me be in charge of other people, or do interviews with a man tenfold more experienced than me, or be in charge of the budget?
And he certainly is qualified for the position. During our last conversation he told us, that he “was 85 %” about the job. Nothing is settled, but it has been great discussing the project with him. He has a lot of ideas and his many years working for different (western) NGOs are definitely visible in his choice of words and his perspectives on doing development. In other words he talks a lot about local ownership.

In time I think he could be the right man to show, that the concept can move beyond being the “façade décor” that many development thinkers criticise it of. But of course that will need us to dare transferring much responsibility and autonomy.

Local ownership is in my eyes extremely important. Sometimes it seems that the long, long record of NGOs working in Sierra Leone (from long time before the civil war) has had some perverse effects. The most visible of these is the culture of dependency that I sense in so many people I encounter. The idea that white men are like mango trees – if only you shake them enough (and in the right way) you will enjoy the fruit of your labour, and you will eat (eating is a far-reaching metaphor in Africa). The problem is then, that nobody want to plant new trees, and start up their own farm (to take the metaphor further), because that doesn’t feed you today. This culture of dependency thus produces an atmosphere of inaction. And maybe that is why it is so difficult to buy Sierra Leonean products. Everybody is to busy shaking the trees. That is a contributing factor why the cheap toothpaste you can buy in the streets are Chinese, the sweets are Lebanese, and the beers are Danish.

3/11/10

Book donations en masse

I'm sorry for not updating you for so long. But presently the internet in Masanga isn't working - this blog is therefore uploaded from an internetcafe in Makeni.

I’ve just returned back from Freetown – with a truckload of books. So far we have been extremely lucky with regards to acquiring new books.

The work started out in Denmark browsing the internet for possibilities of seeking donations and writing requests to Danish libraries. The later resulted in a donation from the main library in Copenhagen. Two bags of English novels for beginners. A great addition to the library.
The former revealed to me, that a number of organizations do exist, that aims at sending books to needing countries. But the problem is the expenses connected to logistics. A container across the Atlantic Ocean is surprisingly not the cheapest thing. Luckily it turned out, that an organization (Sabre) had already been sending such containers to Sierra Leone to be administered by the Sierra Leone Book Trust (SALBOT). That led Hinduja and I to write an application for a donation to the chairman, Sallieu Turay, discovering his email by reading a document on the internet he had written at one point, as they had no homepage themselves.

Along came our date of departure. As described offered one of the first meetings in Sierra Leone more books, as the District Education Officer, Mr Bah, gave us a couple of boxes filled with books used in the national educational system.

And then we received word from Sallieu, who would like to meet up with us in Freetown. It fitted perfect together with last weekends’ plans to go to Samsoes. So Hinduja and I stayed in Freetown to meet with him and some of our other contacts. Previous to the meeting we didn’t know quite what to expect. Would he have prepared a small donation of books, would he just turn us down after hearing more about our project or would he demand a lot of money in return for the “favour”?

When we arrived at SALBOTs humble office at the arranged time in the centre of Freetown, we found a small room filled with books – but no Sallieu. There was a girl, who worked for the organization, who could tell, that she worked voluntarily and that Sallieu was on his way. Not really a surprise – you tend to expect people coming late to every appointment after staying in Sierra Leone for a couple of weeks. And he did turn up after some waiting.

Sallieu works as the leader of the national library in Sierra Leone. Frustrated by the sorry state of the number of books and knowledge available to the Sierra Leoneans after the civil war he set up SALBOT – exclusively staffed by volunteers – to better this. The office contained a copy of every book they had received; the rest was stored away in two warehouses. After explaining more about our project – and how our library and material lending program (for the local schools) was a great way to make sure a lot of people would benefit from the books – he encouraged us to take a look at the books, and come up with a list of books, we would need. All he would need in return was a small donation.

This weekend I returned to collect them. The timing was great as Lærke (which curiously has chosen to use the English name Laura down here) was going to Freetown anyways to collect her boyfriend in the airport. I just needed to spend one night in Freetown, meet with them at 11, after they crossed with the ferry from Lungi (where the airport - strategically idiotic - is located) go to the office and pick up some of the books, then go to the warehouse and collect the rest, and finally head back for Masanga in time for dinner. Of course things turned out to be more complicated.

In Sierra Leone things tend to fall apart (as the title of one of the most famous books from a West African writer, Chenua Achebe, seems to suggest). This weekend the ferry was the victim. So I was left without wheels for most of the day. Back at the office Sallieu made it clear, that it was impossible to get the books as late as the new circumstances suggested. But as Lærke had a meeting the following day we needed the books right away. The solution became to rent a truck to take the books and yours sincerely to the ferry, where I could wait. Hinduja and I had decided to donate 100.000 Le (150 DKK) to SALBOT for their great help. After revealing this to Sallieu, there was suddenly some talk about “fixed donations” (at high rates pr. book), but after a brief discussed we agreed that the amount was fair and that REACT “don’t owe SALBOT anything”.

And so suddenly I found my self driving through Freetown on the back of an open wan loaded with books that any bystander with a quick hand could reach out and take. Nobody did.
I was dropped at the “harbour” with the quantity of more than 400 books, and word that the ferry would probably be there in an hour. Suddenly all the locals were teachers (that would very much like a book to use in classes) and came to talk with me about my interesting pile of books. But as always there were no problems as long as you offered people a smile and explained, that the books were meant to benefit a lot of students in the vicinity of Masanga.

The ferry arrived and all the local boys helped me load it (self-evidently expecting a little “gratitude”) and we could make our way towards Masanga. After dusk we were thus able to arrive in Masanga and unloading the books that doubled our total inventory of library materials.

2/28/10

Soulful shakes and the African walk-by

In Sierra Leone greetings are different from Danish greetings. I’ve come across three types. The occasional hug does happen and resemble what we do in Denmark to close friends. Other than that there is the handshake and the oral greeting.
I really like the handshake. When you meet up with someone you do this special shake. You meet the hand of the other in the normal fashion, but then both greeters twist their hand around the others thump interlocking in a new position and twist them back. This is sometimes repeated for a number of times. Then you keep hold of the hand, while you talk, for a long time having close eye contact as if making some kind of unspoken bond. A bond of trust maybe. As if you need to look closely in the eyes of the other to penetrate the blank mirror, reach the soul and communicate in a silent, forgotten language.
As intense the shake can seem as superficial can the oral greetings be. It seems like they’ve taken the consequence of just how meaningless the standard: “how are you?” can be. They still ask, but doesn’t even take the time to stop when asking it. Two people going in opposite directions can easily have a lengthy greeting session without ever slacking their pace. You start when the other is at arm’s length. “How are you?” [tu pendera?] “I’m fine, and you?” “Good – thank God. The weather is warm today (surprise), don’t you think?”… It can carry on like that for some time - the last sentences often half shouted long after the other has passed.

2/24/10

Samsoes

Running along the beach, as if my feet seemed to suggest, that it would be able to run away from the waves every ten second eating away at the sand beneath them, is a good place to appreciate life. With the sun setting over the wet horizon, it becomes obvious why so many Africans used to worship the elements of nature. They are indeed mighty, beautiful, and full of life – giving life, taking lives without ever asking.
I was running away from Samsoes. Not really that there was much reason for running away, but this place offers views – such as sunsets over the sea and the backdrop mountains – so splendid, that it seems natural to run towards it. With the waves caressing your feet.
The previous night Joseph (aka. Samsoe) had light a bonfire after serving the most delicious barbecued barracuda (it was seriously good) in an impressive effort to top the king-size lobster from the previous evening (for the royal sum of 60.000 Le (90 DKK) (for an entire lobster) and the barracuda at 25.000 Le (40 DKK)). There Joseph could tell the story of, how Lars Larsen had set up a hotel close by before the war. Therefore he had met some Danish tourists, which had all recommended him to go to the Danish island of Samsø. Many years later he made the trip, and deciding to name his own place (consisting of three bungalows at the beach) after it.

He and I later got to talk a little about politics. I’ve been noticing the strong presence of Chinese interests in Sierra Leone, which is to be considered as the natural consequence of “the new scramble for Africa” (the popular name for the phenomenon of the West and China battling over influence in and access to African resources). The newspapers (I managed to get hold of quite a stock of old ones in Makeni on a visit) often mentions Chinese prestige projects such as new railway construction (of course with an endstop in Farangbaya – a huge iron ore deposit) and even talks of a new airport, which should be located in Freetown itself.
As I tried asking Joseph, who he thought would fill the position as Sierra Leones closest allies for the coming years, he answered: “The British and the Americans because we can relate to them. We don’t like the Chinese – we only want to take their money”. That really leads me to think, that the greatest cultural diplomatic weapon down here is the Premier League. How should Chinese money compare with the joy these matches bring to the population?

I ended my visit at Samsoes promising, that I would be back in Juli, when my work in Masanga comes to an end. And with an accommodation price of 50.000 Le (75 DKK) the promise shouldn’t be a problem to fulfil.

2/18/10

In Sickness and Health

Lately I’m been feeling somewhat under the weather. This isn’t supposed to be a bad thing, when the weather most days is clear sun heating the air to 30 degrees – in the shade. But my body choose to play the card of irony in these conditions, and managed somehow to catch a heavy cold.

Life is odd.

But I have been improvising, and can now almost swallow without pain and walk five paces without getting dizzy (oh yes as all men I get the biggest cry-baby, when the smallest signs of sickness hits).

Sunday was Valentine’s. I was still not feeling at the top of my form, and sadly very aware of those not at my side – such as a certain Danish girl. But comfort was on the way, as I was invited to play in the local men’s football match between the married and not married men. I teamed with the later. A funny experience. A thing I found entertaining was to watch no. 7 (“My name is Beckham”) and no. 11 (aka. Carlos Tevez) argue about, who should play number 9. It was clear that the reason was – as I experienced in China – that they don’t argue on, who should play right back or left wing. Instead they discuss who should play the position as number 9; meaning striker.

Culture is strange.

Nowhere is the colonial legacy more apparent than in the way they played football – good English kick-and-rush. This made my position as midfielder a bit difficult. They played with the heart outside the shirt but played fair.
The match was very even, with the ball mostly high in the air or way outside the pitch. The Pitch! It is worth mentioning that it didn’t exactly encourage technical football, as they had been burning the vegetation here as soon as a month ago to make room, and the earth was still a bit sodden and very uneven. And not a single piece of grass.
Half-time. 0-0. It is an exhausting pleasure to play football in this heat – and my knee had as always turned into some unidentifiable mix of gravel and blood. But then teen minutes into the last half, I got the luck, that sometimes seem to smile on the debutant. A reflected ball landed at my feet at the edge of the goal area and with a left footed half-volley the ball found its way into the right corner. So unbelievably lucky, but the crowd went wild. Soon I found myself in the middle of a huge crowd of team players (high-fiving and embracing me) and spectators (shouting ‘Aporto’ or ‘White Man’) and ‘thank you’. A funny experience indeed.
As we won 2-0 I got to watch another player go through the motions, and it seemed impressive indeed.

Life is funny.

It has collectively been decided that this weekend will be spend on one of the world’s best beaches. Sierra Leone got amazing beaches, which hardly is visited, because of the small number of tourists (which will no doubt change as a long held stability will remove the feeling of danger many connect with the country). I was hoping to wait a little longer to go, but I seemed a pity not to enjoy it with the others. Hope the sandy beaches will drive away the memory of sickness, although it is now clear to me, that I am in Sierra Leone to stay (for a while) – in sickness and in health.
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