A closer look at Democracy

Keziah Gbondo, Arnold Elba and Mabel Kabba share a laugh on a conference call.

Keziah Gbondo, Arnold Elba and Mabel Kabba share a laugh on a conference call.

For much of the past month I have been working with journalists at The Society for Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. Most people here refer to the station as simply “98.1”, but its name is a nod to its origin. The station was set up 16 years ago, in the middle of the civil war. It first broadcast in secret, from a location near the airport. The aim was to promote democratic values and human rights. A mission that remains important today.

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In the field, literally

Just like in most countries, Easter is followed by a four-day week here in Sierra Leone. That normally equates to less being achieved, especially after a lazy holiday weekend. Normally.

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours.

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours.

On Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., I headed for Bombali District with two journalists from Radio Democracy in Freetown – Mabel Kabba and Fatima Sesay. We were joined by one of JHR’s two Freetown-based trainers Martha Kargbo, and our driver Junior. Our mission: to gather material for three human rights stories in three days. Considering the infrastructure in Sierra Leone, this was ambitious.

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A Good Friday lesson

I started my Good Friday with an early trip to Lumley Beach in Freetown. I ran a wavy line along the soft, white sand, dodging the waves as they lapped up to my feet. Then I cooled-down with a quick swim in the Atlantic. There was no one else in the sea for maybe two kilometres in either direction. Not a bad start to the day.

Freetown kids with their Judas effigy

Freetown kids with their Judas effigy

As I made my way home, I saw what I thought was a child lying in a ditch.

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Foreign Export

There’s an old joke about my much-maligned hometown of Limerick. A Limerickman is on holidays in the United States. A girl serving him at a diner notices his strong accent. She asks him where he is from. He tells her “Limerick.” She asks “what state is that in?” He replies “It’s in an awful state.”

I like the joke, particularly because I have encountered similar situations. When I was 20, I spent a summer working in suburban Detroit with two friends (don’t ask me why we went there). When we would tell people we were from Ireland, the responses would vary. Sometimes we got blank stares, sometimes we’d hear about family trees, other times we were told that Arlington is indeed lovely at this time of year. Our favourite was a guy who said, with minimal confidence, “that’s near Poland, right?” True story.

A glass of sweet Sierra Leone Guinness

A glass of Sierra Leone Guinness

Here in Sierra Leone, the responses also vary. But, in general, people know Ireland. They know what it is and where it is. Part of the reason is the number of Irish NGOs working in Sierra Leone. You see the Toyota Land Cruisers every day with the logos: Goal, Trócaire, Concern Worldwide and Irish Aid. Consequently, there is both an Irish Consulate downtown, and an Irish Embassy up the hill, not far from where I live. People here are grateful for Ireland’s presence.

But alas, there is no St Patrick’s Day parade. Nor is there the city-wide, Guinness-sponsored, queue-and-drink-and-vomit festival that has hijacked Ireland’s national day around the world. The latter is an image that has become many people’s only impression of Ireland. Now, I’m not saying we don’t like a drink, but there’s more to us than just that.

Instead, the main Irish cultural event last weekend was a pick-up gaelic football match organized for inside the Siaka Stevens National Stadium. Unsurprisingly, the stadium had been double-booked. So the game went ahead outside, on the dusty, grass-free practice pitch. Most of the participants were not Irish, meaning the standard was so low that I was asked to be a team captain. Afterwards, everyone talked about how much fun they had had, and how they’d like to play again. I really enjoyed it too, but I also noted how gaelic football was never meant to be played in west African heat.

After the annual gaelic football game in Freetown

After the annual gaelic football game in Freetown

Having said all that, I would be lying if I told you I didn’t enjoy a Guinness myself this week. In fact, I had my first taste of the local version of the black stuff. It’s 7.5% alcohol, it’s very sweet and it’s more metallic than sucking on a spoon. But it’s nice.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, very few consumer goods are produced in Sierra Leone. That contributes to high prices and low employment. But that Guinness was brewed and bottled right here in Freetown. I guess our beer is not such a bad cultural export after all.

The patience of my job

On Friday, I was helping one of the employees at Skyy Radio with writing and recording her voice track for a radio documentary. We were forced to delay its recording twice, because others needed access to Skyy’s only recording studio for more urgent matters. When we did finally get started, we were again interrupted. This time, by Jesus himself.

Skyy Radio’s recording studio

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All your money where your mouth is

Six slices of cheese: Le 47,000 (C$ 11.33, € 8.47, £ 7.38)

Six slices of cheese: Le 47,000 (C$11.33, €8.47, £7.38)

One of the many embarrassing moments in my life was at a supermarket checkout in Hamburg a few years back. A teenage girl finished scanning all my items, and then asked me where I was from. Weird, I thought. I answered “Ich bin von Irland.” She looked at me like I had zwei Kopfs. She had actually said “how are you paying?”, but my poor comprehension failed me again. My face quickly matched my name.

As of this week, I can now start making a list of embarrassing experiences at checkouts.

This time, I got to the same point in the transaction, only to find I had nowhere near enough cash for my shopping (very few businesses accept credit cards here). That had never happened to me before. Not even as a student. But it happened to me in Sierra Leone – one of the world’s poorest countries.

Whenever I see someone else hand back items at a supermarket checkout, I can’t help but feel bad for them. I wonder what hardships they face every day, just to pay the bills. Now, other people were looking at me. But I’m pretty sure they weren’t worried about my bank balance. I am sure they guessed I was new in town – getting used to the high cost of food and juggling banknotes covered in zeros ($233 makes you a millionaire in Leones).

Many non-staple food items cost around double of what they do in the developed world. And it’s easy to compare, because many of them are imported with U.K. prices, printed on the packaging.

Let me walk you down the aisles with a calculator.

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Part of the problem is that Sierra Leone produces very little food itself. Margarine comes from The Netherlands, cookies from Turkey, UHT milk from Germany. The price you pay at the till includes the hefty cost of shipping the food to the small market of Sierra Leone.

It’s part of the cycle of poverty. Most people can’t afford fancy foods because they’re too expensive. They are too expensive because only small amounts are shipped here. Only small amounts are shipped here because people can’t afford them.

According to the IMF, the average Sierra Leonean lives on less than $2 a day, so most, or all, of people’s income goes toward food – basic food, like rice, beans, cassava leaves and safe drinking water. On an average wage, those six slices of cheese would need to last about a week. In other words, shopping in a supermarket is like a night at Trump Tower. Forget about it.

So yes, I did feel embarrassed to hand back my cornflakes. But cornflakes are for breakfast, a meal many people here rarely enjoy. How lucky I am to feel so stupid.

Divided and United

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Every Saturday afternoon, the chaotic streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone get a little quieter, as English Premier League football draws thousands of young men to the city’s sports cinemas.

These cinemas do not have wall-to-wall projection screens, Dolby Surround sound, or popcorn. These are humid, white-washed rooms, where the temperature inside can top 40 degrees. Soccer fans fight for the best seat in front of a banks of televisions mounted on the wall.

And today, March 2nd, the cinemas are a little more humid. A little more tense. It’s Manchester United against Norwich City.

“There’s a division now between club and country,” says local sports reporter Alie Turay.

That’s because, on the previous weekend, Kei Kamara became the first Sierra Leonean to score in the English Premier League. The striker was recently signed, on loan, by Norwich, from Sporting Kansas City. His goal made history and helped his new team to an important win.

Turay watched the game in a bar in Freetown’s seaside neighbourhood of Aberdeen. “That goal sounded like Sierra Leone playing a home match,” he says. “I never head a Sierra Leonean talk about Norwich City. Not until last week. Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Those are the four teams people follow.” And follow they do.

The jerseys and logos of those teams can be seen all around this city, this country, and most of this continent. But in Sierra Leone, the love of England and English football runs deeper.

Over a decade ago, British troops intervened in the country’s devastating civil war. Tens of thousand died here, before they helped to rid Freetown of rebel forces. A move that eventually brought peace to Sierra Leone.

“I like English teams and English people. The English people saved our lives. I appreciate everything they did for us,” says Osman Kiss-Conteh. He is among around three hundred men, and two women, cramming into the International Sports Cinema Hall on Rawdon Street. “Let them support Kei Kamara, but I’m going to support my team. Manchester United.”

Some United fans are not as loyal as Kiss-Conteh. “I like everything about Man U, but Kamara, he is our brother,” says Mohammed Sesay. “I hope he has a goal, but does not win the game.”

Fans of other teams have no such dilemma. “Definitely I’m going to support Norwich because I have my brother there,” says Chelsea fan Dowda Bangura. “I felt very happy [last week]. I felt very proud as a Sierra Leonean.”

Kamara starts the game on the bench. The crowd juggles its attention between the three games on show. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona – arguably the biggest match-up in world soccer – is being shown alongside. A round of applause rises as Kei warms up on the sideline. Cheers for their guy, literally living the dream.

Kamara enters the game, but seconds after his first touch, the game is over. United score their second goal. The game eventually ends 4-0. Business as usual for Manchester United. Kamara barely got a look in.

Fans file down the stairs. Booming postmortems move out to the sweltering street.

Santigie Sesay has his red shirt draped over his shoulder. “Manchester game is very good.” His English is halting. His joy is not. “I also feel proud today. I like Kamara. He will have the courage to try more in the future. I love my Salone brother, but I love Manchester more, because it’s my team.”

His friends – Arsenal fans – put their arm around him and agree. Another civil war in Sierra Leone is over after just 90 minutes. And life continues in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Norwich hosts Southampton next Saturday. And they’ll all be back here here again. Freetown united.