Ghosts from the Past, Prayers for the Future: Sierra Leone, Part II

Tuesday, September 25, 2007 | Bo, Sierra Leone

At a roadside stand, locals sell bush meat in all its hairy, gristly glory. 
When I arrived back in the country shortly before the runoff presidential polls, Sierra Leoneans were tense. Sure, they reasoned, the first round had gone smoothly, but with the country's two oldest rival parties again pitted against each other, anything could happen. A nation was once more glued to its radios, hopeful but apprehensive.

For the runoff election, I was assigned to travel to Bo, the capital of Sierra Leone's southern region. From Freetown, to drive the approximately 200 miles to Bo took nearly seven hours.

Just outside Freetown, palm, mango, papaya, and banana trees populate the hillsides, while the lowlands are stocked with rice paddies and rows of cassava. Along the road's edge, native ferns and caladiums collect the red mud splashed by passing cars. Pied crows circle overhead, and brilliant songbirds flit among the fruit trees whydahs trailing long tail plumes like kite streamers, weaver
birds in elaborate colonies, and near rivers and pools, spirited blue pygmy kingfishers with fiery underbellies.

High in the mountains overlooking Freetown, the newly constructed American embassy squats atop a peak like a medieval fortress. With its high perimeter wall and neatly clipped grass, the embassy's clear-cut grounds and stark concrete buildings clash sharply against the native forests around it.

Traversing the Western Area Peninsula—formerly the heart of the British colony—we rolled through areas with names like Wellington, Hastings, and Waterloo. As we entered the country's interior, we passed Songo, Magbuntuso, and Masiaka. Near Yonibana, we stopped for gas at a small roadside station, where attendants pumped the fuel by hand through a series of chambers, measuring by sight and tallying the cost (at roughly US$4 per gallon) with pocket calculators.

* * *

As we drove down the ragged road toward Bo, not repaired since before the country's bloody civil war, I asked the driver, Anthony, if he was here in Sierra Leone for the duration of the war. "You stayed the whole way through, yeah?"

"Yes, yes, I was here whole time. Even throughout the war I would go from Freetown to Kenema, by Freetown Highway, for work."

Kenema was diamond country, in Sierra Leone's southeastern region, where the Revolutionary United Front held sway. "Weren't you afraid of the rebels?"

"No, not so scared." And with perhaps a touch of pride, "Me, I was in a rebel ambush three times."

Now I was genuinely surprised. "Wow. You really weren't scared of them?"

"No, no..."

I gathered my thoughts, sensing the story that flickered through his head. "But you knew people who were... uh... killed in the war, right?"

"Yes! Many people, oh yes..." He lingered, then added softly, "I saw them with my own eyes, some of them."

He let this sink in. Slow, slow, slow...

Then more fervently, "Even my older brother was killed."

Slow, slow.

I gulped, staring out the windshield.

"I was there when they killed him..."

Slow, slow.

"... just nearby him—yes..."

Slow, slow.

"They told me I had to watch when they did it."

Slow, slow.

The acrid air-conditioned humidity we sat in tasted metallic, and too cold. I had nothing to say.

"... and they told me I had to cheer them—yes... or they would kill me, too."

Slow, slow.

"So I had to cheer them..."

Slow, slow.

I had nothing to say. Was I supposed to say anything?

* * *

In terms of population, Bo is the second largest city in Sierra Leone, but the atmosphere on its streets is a far cry from the crazed bustle of Freetown.

Most striking to me, a visitor versed in the country's history, were the diamond sellers. As the capital of the southern region and nearest major city to the country's southeastern diamond fields, Bo has long built its economy on the diamond trade. Scattered among Bo's grocers, pharmacies, and general stores were many jewelers: Ibrahim Khalil's Diamond Center, Western Diamond Shop, Muhammad Amin Diamond Warehouse, Ali Mustapha's Diamond Store, and many simply labeled "Diamond Office." The influence of Sierra Leone's entrepreneurial Lebanese community was unmistakable, as it was throughout all sectors of the country's economy. Most of the diamond shops were mere storefronts. Inside the austere, bare-walled space, a middle-aged Lebanese man would sit at a lone desk, yawning, sipping tea, rubbing his stubble, and waiting for a buyer or seller to arrive. A large metal door, heavily bolted, was always just behind him, more suggestive of a desire for secrecy than security.

The day before the runoff presidential election, our small group of expats and local drivers relaxed at our hotel, on the outskirts of Bo town. One of the drivers, Abdul, and I sat quietly outside, sipping Star beers. Suddenly, from beyond the wall that ringed the hotel's yard, a series of shouts echoed. Abdul and I rushed out the gate and up the road to a small mud-and-grass home nearby, where a crowd had gathered around several men and women shouting angrily between themselves. Just hours before the polls were set to open, violence appeared poised to break out in this quiet roadside community.

Abdul approached the crowd and zigzagged his way through the tense bodies of the onlookers. As I hung behind, he spoke calmly to people in the crowd, and finally to those arguing loudly at its center. Soon, he made his way back toward me, his wide smile plastered with an infectious grin.

"What's happening?" I inquired.

He chuckled and, demonstrating an impressive command of English, replied, "Dey say de dispute is not electoral, but matrimonial."

* * *

We woke early on election day in Bo, and set out for a local elementary school. As the sun rose, voters gathered in small queues before the classroom entrances in the dirt schoolyard. Polling staff rushed around the building, arranging materials, desks, and voting booths, and working to contain overeager observers sent by the political parties. At 6:50 AM, ten minutes before the scheduled opening of the polls, the presiding officer called the staff and observers out of the classrooms and called for the attention of the assembled voters. He briefly outlined the voting procedures, which most voters knew from the first round of polls in August, then said, "An' now we mek stop foh prayer."

I watched, rapt, as an imam and a preacher stepped forward and turned to face the voters, who bowed their heads. The Christian prayer was offered first, in Krio mixed with familiar Biblical phrases, punctuated with "Amen"s from the crowd. The preacher finished with Lord's Prayer, and gestured an invitation to his Muslim counterpart. The imam stepped forward and offered his own prayer, as the preacher had done, beseeching the voters to obey the country's laws and vote in peace. Hands cupped before his face, he recited several Qur'anic prayers, finishing with al-Fatihah, which I struggled to make out through his thickly accented West African Arabic.

Once the imam had finished, the polling officer invited the voters to come forward in an orderly fashion. After this utopian display of religious tolerance, the voters started shambling, in their neat queues, toward the classroom doorways. Election day had begun.

* * *

At 5:00 PM, I stood on the damp earth of a nearby school yard. The building was raised off the ground, and a small set of steps led up to a wide porch before each of the five classroom doorways. Voting was now officially closed, and across the country, the counting process began.

A police officer unrolled a cord in front of the school and staked it into the ground to hold back gathering bystanders. With the political party observers in tow, the polling officials, exhausted from more than twelve hours of work, stepped onto the school's porch. They dragged with them rough hewn wooden tables from the classrooms, upon which they placed the large, clear plastic ballot boxes.

Ceremoniously, each of the five presiding polling officials snipped the locks on the boxes and dumped the ballots onto the tables. Across the school porch, the five presiding officers lifted each ballot above their heads one by one for the assembled voters to see, and called out the vote, "APC"... "SLPP"... "SLPP"... "APC"... "SLPP"... This process continued for over an hour. When the polling staff's calls faded and grew hoarse, they cleared their throats and, momentarily reinvigorated, continued the count. Observers ticked off tallies in their notebook, and voters watched, scrutinizing each ballot held aloft.

When the polling staff finished separating the ballots, they counted them and posted the totals of APC and SLPP votes, as well as invalid ballots, above the polling station door. Ours was among the stations in Bo with a fairly balanced result, falling in favor of the SLPP. Elsewhere in the southern region, however, some stations recorded suspiciously high turnouts, with nearly every vote cast for the SLPP. Stranger still was the fact that observers who visited these polling stations couldn't find a voter in sight, though several of the stations recorded nearly 100 percent (or in some cases, over 100 percent) turnout. The local community leaders who had intimidated APC supporters and ordered polling staff to fill out ballots on behalf of every voter in the area were ultimately disappointed, however, when the Election Commissioner chose to disqualify those polling sites with clearly rigged results.

* * *

Outside of Freetown, it is even more evident why the country ranks 176 out of 177 on the UN's Human Development Indicators index. With the world's second-highest infant mortality rate and an average life expectancy barely above age 40, Sierra Leone has a long way to go. Driving through the countryside to return to Freetown, I reflected on these facts, and decided that for all the excitement over the election, the post of president of Sierra Leone is not an enviable one.

On our long trip back to Freetown, Abdul and I talked about presidents, god, war, school, reggae, family, and much more. We set aside the conversation periodically when one of us spotted a wild "bush chicken", the sight of which prompted Abdul to slam on the accelerator and careen toward the unsuspecting bird. Each time, after passing the chicken, he would immediately brake and reverse the car to the intended collision spot. Standing beside the car, he would then marvel at the bird's uncanny ability to slip past the wheels at the last possible moment. The hunt was repeated several times before Abdul succeeded, producing a cloud of feathers across the roadway. He gleefully scooped up the unlucky bird and threw it into the backseat of the car to bring home ("for my wife to prepare so nice," in his words). By this time, the car was rapidly filling with a small grocer's worth of fresh vegetables from roadside stands. If not for the car, we might have looked the part of true hunter-gatherers.

An hour later, hungry for lunch and curious, I suggested we stop at one of the many shacks selling palm wine, known locally as poyo. We pulled over near a hut by the roadside where a crude sign advertised "Best Poyo" and plastic soda and petrol jugs hung from a post, filled with a milky-white liquid. To make the infamous tropical spirit, the seller explained as I took my first sip, in the evening he climbs a palm tree (of which there were many all around us), inserts a tap and hose, and lets the tree's sap drain into one of the jugs, tied to the tree. By the next morning, yeast in the balmy equatorial air has already fermented the sap, and it's ready to sell. The acrid, sour liquid was potent, and well beyond the bounds of even the loosest definition of "wine."

As Abdul (yes, the driver) guzzled the contents of his recycled 7-Up bottle without a second thought, I slowly choked down my own. Before I finished, a girl crossed the road toward the stand, a steaming container on her head. When she placed it at our feet and opened the lid, a rich and fiery aroma rose toward me. I looked down at the gnarled meat, and my appetite again dimmed.

"What is that?" I asked Abdul.

He grinned, and said, "Dis de bush meat," that being the term for a wild boar, monkey, snake, or any other wild animal that can be caught and cooked in the West African forests.

He handed the girl a few coins and scooped out several pieces from the stew. I did the same, and wondered if I shouldn't have as I put the first bite in my mouth. It bristled with rough hairs, and felt chewy like an eraser. "Abdul, what animal is this?"

He spoke with the girl, a short exchange in Mende, but apparently reached no conclusion. "Maybe the bush pig?" he finally said to me, as if his guess would satisfy my apprehensions.

Whatever its source, the mystery meat was prepared well—the peppery juices gave it an appealing flavor, but its alternately spiky and sandy textures and unfamiliar internal organs kept me from eating more than a few pieces.

Abdul and I hit the road again, with several chunks of bush meat added to the farmer's market developing in our back seat. The bush meat's smell soon filled the car, overpowering even the dead chicken, and was accompanied by the poyo's tangy scent as we passed trucks carrying palm wine toward Freetown. Encouraged by the cloying odors, the ride over the heaving roadway soon churned the foreign concoction in my stomach into a first-rate third world science experiment.

* * *

Later that afternoon, Abdul pulled the car to the road's edge near a small brook. A woman washed her laundry in the stream, her bare breasts sagging toward her waistline. We borrowed her bucket to clean our car before the final hour's drive into Freetown. All the while, she scrubbed and paddled the garments with a board—not unlike a canoe paddle—to purge the dirty water from the cloth.

WHAP! Splash, splash, splash. WHAP! Splash, splash, splash. WHAP! Splash, splash, splash...

In two weeks, the Election Commissioner would again stand at her podium in Freetown and announce the results to the nation: Ernest Bai Koroma, candidate of the opposition APC, would win the election with 54.6 percent of the vote. But for now, by a road near a village whose name I did not know, a woman beat her clothes while Abdul and I scrubbed our mud-caked wheel wells. Slowly, a boy on a bike pushed up the road toward us. His gears squeaked and clicked as he labored up the road's gentle rise in the afternoon sun.

SCREEEEAH. Tchikiti-tchikiti. SCREEEEAH. Tchikiti-tchikiti. SCREEEEAH. Tchikiti-tchikiti...

The kid drew even with us, and I stood to watch him wobble past. A ballot box, filled with votes, was strapped behind his seat, but seemed to give him purpose, and not to slow him down, as he pedaled toward the capital.

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