This is Africa

Since arriving in Toronto on Sunday, I’ve been asked about Sierra Leone (Salone) dozens of times. I haven’t properly articulated an answer to anyone. I use words like “incredible”, “amazing” and “fantastic”, but they are too clichéd to mean anything. So, I am going to try and write an answer here.

Bureh Beach, south of Freetown

Bureh Beach, south of Freetown.

Sierra Leone is a stunningly beautiful place. If you like nature, or sunshine, or perfect beaches with nobody on them, then just go! I do have to say you must also need to like an adventure. Every day is an adventure in Salone.

Team JHR. Hassan Bangura, Kaday Kamara, Yeama Thompson, Martha Kargbo, Ahmed Sesay and Kevin Lamdo

Team JHR. Hassan Bangura, me, Kaday Kamara, Yeama Thompson, Martha Kargbo, Ahmed Sesay and Kevin Lamdo

On a professional level, the four months have made me think more about the craft of broadcast journalism. It’s quite a responsibility teaching other journalists who have not had the education I have had. For the most part, they wanted to learn and soak up what I had to say. A generous donor paid for me to be here. I wanted to get it right and make it count. I think the process has made me, and hopefully some of them, become better journalists.

Mabel Kabba and Keziah Gbondo. It was pleasure to work with journalists like them.

Mabel Kabba and Keziah Gbondo. It was pleasure to work with journalists like them.

Patience. Without patience in Sierra Leone, you will go crazy. Anyone who knows me, knows that impatience is my worst fault. I worked hard on it. I hope to hold on to some of that. I can hear some of you saying, “give him a week back in TV news.”

Rainy season kicked-off before I left

Rainy season kicked-off before I left

I lived a 10-minute walk from a road where I could get transport to the city. It normally took me 20 minutes to make that walk. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew my name and wanted to chat every morning and evening. Now that I am back in Toronto, I find myself smiling at people as they walk past me.

Kids on my street, having fun with a Judas effigy on Good Friday

Kids on my street having fun with a Judas effigy on Good Friday. They called me Mister Red.

Anyone who has been to Sierra Leone will tell you about the aid culture. After the war, Sierra Leone saw dozens of NGOs and development agencies arrive to help. This has developed into a reliance on aid. Sierra Leone certainly still needs aid, but it has to stand on its own feet. The sooner it does so, the better. I’m not sure how that will happen, but it has to. The country has too much potential to be left behind any longer.

What once was my dinner of cassava leaves and rice. "4 for 4" was the 2012 election slogan of the ruling APC party.

Formerly my dinner of cassava leaves & rice. “4 for 4″ was the 2012 election slogan of the ruling APC party.

It almost goes without saying that the experience makes me appreciate what we have in countries like Canada and Ireland. This week I went straight to my sports doctor in Toronto to have treatment on my troublesome knees. My insurance covered most of the cost. That same morning, I learned that one of the young women I worked with in Freetown had just lost her mother to complications connected to a simple dog bite.

Kroo Bay in Freetown

Kroo Bay in Freetown

I’ve been asked if this was a life-changing experience. The answer to that is up to me and what I do with my life after this. I’ve also been asked if it was the experience of a lifetime. It is certainly not that, because I will go back. Sierra Leone is a place that you can not let go of. So much so, that Paddy the dog did not come back to Canada with me, after all. His owner misses Freetown too much and she is moving back there soon.

Paddy and me.

Paddy and me. (Incidentally, the CBC t-shirt was quite a friend-maker.)

The most memorable day of my four months was undoubtedly my birthday. As outlined in a previous blog post, I got caught up in gunfire while doing a feature story about Freetown Golf Course. Far from being a dark moment, it was a professional highlight. I had my camera and my recorder with me, and I was the only reporter on the scene.

Daniel Conteh (r) is the No. 1 Senior Caddy. His father was shot in the head during the civil war.

Daniel Conteh (r) is the No. 1 Senior Caddy at FGC. His father was shot in the head during the civil war.

One moment during the incident summed-up the chaos and warmth of Sierra Leone. I was running away from the gunfire with a group of caddies, but they seemed more concerned with my safety than their own. As I followed their instructions by running a zig-zag line, with my head low to the ground, the senior caddy Daniel Conteh grinned and shouted across at me. “T.I.A., Red!”

I yelled back, “What?”

“This is Africa!”

A story on every corner

My first full-time gig as a reporter was a wonderful summer in a small city in eastern Canada. Fredericton is the capital of New Brunswick. It’s home to the provincial legislative assembly and two universities. The problem for news-gatherers is that those three institutions are effectively in hibernation for the summer months. Between May and September, there isn’t much in the way of sensational news in Fredericton. I remember a day where the cameraman and I drove around looking for news. After a few hours of searching, we did a story about a small rise in the number of visitors to a provincial park.

Kambia is close the the Guinean border

Kambia is close the the Guinean border

Developed countries like Canada can be referred to as “developed”, because not much happens. Citizens are safe, healthy, secure and, for the most part, have their human rights respected. Here in Sierra Leone that is not the case. Before I came here, a former JHR trainer told me that “there is a story on every corner.” I think of that phrase almost every day.

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A good walk spoiled

Freetown Golf Club (FTG). Saturday, May 18th, 2:03 p.m. – I was finishing some interviews for a feature article about Sierra Leone’s only golf club, when I saw something remarkable for a golf course; people running.

Caddies charge back against the men who invaded the golf course

Caddies charge back against the men who invaded the golf course

To read the full blog post, click here.

You lucky dog

Paddy chews on a bone, as his friend Frisco looks on.

Paddy chews on a bone, as his friend Frisco looks on.

The goal of Journalists for Human Rights is to make everyone in the world fully aware of their rights. We do this through facilitating good human rights journalism, primarily in developing nations. It’s sometimes hard for visiting trainers like myself not to feel like we should be doing more than just this. When we leave, we leave so many problems behind.

However, this is the story of how one JHR Trainer helped a youngster called Paddy, and about how Paddy is defying the odds to prepare for a new life in a far away land. (Of course, it’s worth noting that Paddy does not have any human rights. Paddy is a dog. Some call him the luckiest dog in Sierra Leone.)

To read Paddy’s story, click here

 

 

 

Digging up the future

In Hollywood “romcom” movies, you’ll sometimes see the male lead whisk away his lady in a blindfold for a surprise holiday. When they arrive, he removes her blindfold and she gushes in delight. Maybe that was an episode of The Bachelor, but I think you know what I’m talking about.

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

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The life and death of 110-408

Sherbro Island Airport (BTE) just outside the town of Bonthe hasn’t seen any fixed-wing aircraft land or take-off for around 11 years. The runway has long since lost its battle with Mother Nature. It’s now so overgrown, it would actually be safer to land a plane on the grass beside the runway.

Sherbro Island Airport has  been closed to fixed-wing aircraft since 2002

Sherbro Island Airport has been closed to fixed-wing aircraft since 2002

The site is now used for two things: (1) It’s a helicopter landing pad about once a year, when UN or government officials come to visit. And (2) local kids use the abandoned Inter Tropic Airlines EMB-110 Bandierante as a climbing gym.

EMB-110, serial number 110-408 seen from the nearby dirt track

EMB-110, serial number 110-408 seen from the nearby dirt track

The plane caught my eye during my recent visit to the island. I saw the old Embraer, sitting alone beside the tiny terminal building. Her nose pointing in the air as she sat uncomfortably on her battered tail. Kids pestered her like a tired old dog. Her rusting shell was missing both engines and both nose wheels.

The Embraer EMB-110 was nicknamed the 'Bandeirante' or 'Bandit'

The Embraer EMB-110 was nicknamed the ‘Bandeirante’ or ‘Bandit’

I walked up to the plane, and the kids immediately invited me to join the fun inside. No passenger seats, no fittings, no avionics. But up in the cockpit the pilot seats and the yokes (steering wheel things) were still there. The kids followed me as I walked up the incline to the cockpit. I was looking down at the floor taking a picture of something when I noticed that gravity was decreasing.

I wish I had this playground when I was a kid

I wish I had this playground when I was a kid

BOOM! Before I realized what was happening, the nose crashed down to the ground, as the climbing gym became a see-saw. I shouted an expletive and the kids all laughed. This is what they do every day. Their grins said “fun isn’t it?” I regained my composure and had another few goes on the see-saw before leaving. It was indeed fun.

Air Creebec in Canada still operates an EMB-110 like this one

Air Creebec in Canada still operates an EMB-110 like this one

 —–

The Embraer EMB-110, serial number 110-408 rolled off the assembly-line in São José dos Campos, Brazil in 1982. Atlanta-based regional carrier Southeastern Airlines bought her and gave her the tail number N905FB. The turbo-prop started flying routes around Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and northern Florida. After a merger in April 1984, the airline became known as Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA). It worked as a feeder carrier for Delta Airlines. ASA still operates today under the name ExpressJet.

The plane pictured in Atlanta in 1990. Courtesy: AirNikon/Airliners.net

110-408 pictured in Atlanta in 1990. Courtesy: AirNikon/Airliners.net

After 14 years of transporting business commuters around the southern U.S. N905FB, and its sister N904FB, were sold to a small aircraft leasing company in Florida called Liberty Airlines in 1996. Inter Tropic Airlines in Sierra Leone leased both planes. They were re-registered here as 9L-LBS and 9L-LBR respectively. Today in Bonthe, you can see both the newer tail number in red, and the outline of the older tail number beneath the less-than-impressive paint job.

The old tail number N905FB is still visible

The old tail number N905FB is still visible

Up near Freetown, the wreck of 9L-LBR has sat at Hastings (HGS) airport since the end of the Civil War in 2002. An online incident report says: The runway at Hastings Field had been sabotaged by rebels overnight with concrete and steel projectiles dug into the tarmac. On an early morning sunrise flight from Lungi, the plane attempted to land and the obstructions tore off the right main landing gear. No passengers were injured.”

The sister plane 110-411, last registered as 9L-LBR, has sat in pieces at Freetown-Hastings Airport since 2002. Courtesy: Thomas Brügge/Airliners.net

The sister plane 110-411, last registered as 9L-LBR, has sat in pieces at Freetown-Hastings Airport since 2002. Courtesy: Thomas Brügge/Airliners.net

I can not find any online references to the other plane in Bonthe. All I know is from word of mouth. A Bonthe radio journalist and colleague at JHR told me that the plane has been stuck on the island since the late 1990s. He told me that it had a technical problem and the Senegalese pilot was unable to find a way to get her in the air again (I don’t think ground technicians were common during the Civil War). 9L-LBS has sat there ever since.

The abandoned terminal building is smaller than a Toronto condo

The abandoned terminal building is smaller than a Toronto condo

Very few instruments remain on the plane

Very few instruments remain on the plane

One bigger mystery remains, though. All available records show that N905FB (which become 9L-LBS) was assigned a manufacturer’s serial number of 110-408 (i.e. the 408th Embraer EMB-110). But printed clearly on the inside of the plane’s fuselage is “N/S. (número de série) 410”. 110-410 was still flying as recently as 2006, in Fiji.

Serial Number 410, erroneously printed on the inside of the fuselage

Serial Number 410, erroneously printed on the inside of the fuselage

My only guess is that a careless or compromised Brazilian technician installed the wrong panel, or placed an incorrect stamp on the fuselage of 110-408. If only he knew the time I wasted in researching the wrong serial number. No matter. He made up for it by helping to build Africa’s coolest playground.

A deafening silence

Bonthe is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It has no cars, no real roads, and just a few motorbikes. It is like stepping back in time. Crumbling colonial buildings line the town’s shore, looking across to the mainland. Behind them, are a mixture of mud houses, simple modern bungalows and metal shacks. For the most part, the only noise to break the silence is that of kids laughing, calls to prayer from the mosque and the ‘put-put’ of the odd boat weighed-down with goods like rice, cement and petrol. It could be 1913 or 2013.

Bonthe is home to around 10,000 people.

Bonthe is home to around 10,000 people.

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