02 October 2010


Imperceptibly slowly, but surely, things are gradually falling into place. School has begun (I think!), my tiles are finished, although my roof still leaks, Im almost finished painting all the rooms in my house (only one left!) with the hope that it will look less depressing and dungeony, I’m finally getting the hang of how to consistently start and maintain the fire on my charcoal cooker (It’s pretty ingenious how this seemingly primitive device works), I’m learning more and more about the needs of the community that I live in each and every and I’m gradually falling into somewhat of a routine. It’s amazing how aware I’ve become of just how vital having a daily routine is to my well being, at any given time. You don’t become aware of it until you move to a very strange and different place and are forced to find ways to adjust. I’ve been at my posting now for about a month and a fortnight, and I have had my mental resolve tested on multiple occasions, both from my own experiences, and witnessing those of the people I’m living among. It’s really interesting.

Living in a country that ranks towards the very bottom on the U.N. development index in development really opens your eyes to all the things that makes every existing modern society run efficiently, things that are simply non-existent in Sierra Leone. Indeed by growing up as an American I have taken for granted all the technological advancements that seem all too banal and commonplace to most of us.

My goodness, I just can’t help but think about the poor state of road infrastructure in Sierra Leone. Anyone who has had the experience of travelling in this country will quickly understand how precarious an experience it is, especially when it comes to the ever present need of transporting goods and services from point A to point B. Back home, if I want something, there is very little standing in the way of me getting it. Hell, if I want an MP3 player, Ebay, Amazon, a quick drive to the local radio shack, next-day delivery and/or a smooth car ride and it’s mine, all with a money back guarantee, no questions asked. In Sierra Leone, especially if you live in a rural village that is inaccessible during periods of heavy rain (a constant occurrence during the rainy season) as I do, it takes SOO MUCH effort to obtain the items you want/need. And to transport them where you need them is another source of constant worry and stress, especially if you don’t own a vehicle! There are so many structural deficiencies in this country that it is easy for the average citizen here to feel as if they have no control over their fate, that it is all left up to God, and indeed I find in talking to people that that is a common attitude. I will share a personal anecdote regarding the tiles I recently installed in my house to try and reinforce this point.

It was about a few weeks ago that I travelled to Makeni, Sierra Leone one Saturday morning with the hopes…key word hopes…of purchasing the boku boku (Krio work meaning “many”) packets of tile, and boku boku bags of cement needed to commence with the laborious work of tiling my small house. It’s not easy to get to Makeni from my village. A distance of about 30 miles from Bumbuna on an all dirt road takes about an hour and twenty minutes with a driver who is good, and knows the boku boku bumps and potholes like the back of his hand. With the amount of material needed to begin the work on my house, it would have been impossible to transport any of it via taxi which by definition, must be cramped (two in the front passenger seat, and five to six in the back is pretty standard) so I spent many weeks waiting for the right opportunity. Luckily, I was introduced to a man by the name of Dennis a couple of days before. Dennis is one of the many locals who is employed by Salini Construtori (Construction) the Italian company under contract by the Sierra Leonean government to develop the damn project (which just now after 30 years of work, is providing Bumbuna with street lights…yes street lights!  Bumbuna is no longer living in darkness). About once a month, in correspondence with their monthly paycheck, his family, and the other locals who work for Salini Construtori, take a trip with one of the company vehicles to Makeni to do some needed shopping. After talking to Dennis about my desire to tile my home, he said it wouldn’t be a problem if I tagged along and purchased the needed materials.

Note: What I neglected to discuss with him was the shear number of materials I needed: 23 packets of tiles, 17 tiles in each packet at a weight of 18kgs each, 8 bags of cement (18kgs each), and 1 bag of white cement.

The morning we were to leave, I witnessed a scene that one local described as reminding him of apartheid times in South Africa when blacks, according to this man, were transported effectively as slave cargo on18 wheelers equipped to carry a large number of black South Africans to prisons. I was to meet one of the drivers for Salini at the “PK Camp”, where all the Sierra Leoneans who work for Salini live with their families. When I entered the compound, I heard a loud rumble and I followed the noise inside the camp to find a large mass of people, approximately 200, clamoring to fit into what can only be described as a prison on wheels. An 18-wheeler with a rusting yellow “cage” linked to it. This “cage” was completely enclosed, save a few spaces interspersed throughout the cage for openings to allow for air to enter. Of course the openings were barred! The entrance of the cage was full of eager and enthusiastic Bumbunians trying to enter, with the occasional motal-man (Krio for human-being, think mortal-man in English) falling out or hanging on to the outside of the cage if there wasn’t any space on the inside, with the hopes of staying attached one way or another. I asked a gentleman next to me what the meaning of this curious scene was. He said that once every month, Salini frees its cargo truck to anyone needing a ride to Makeni to do needed shopping. They leave early in the morning for Makeni and return to Bumbuna early in the afternoon. I walked away towards the waiting van thinking how luck I was to not be riding on the truck.

Little did I know that I would be returning to Bumbuna later that day with all of my materials in that very same truck, packed like cargo, human cargo.

When we arrived in Makeni (only after many random detours, many involving a “quick” stop to chat with a friend, which of course really means 30 minutes), we finally got down to discussing the business of transporting my materials. The only problem was that silly me!! I failed to discuss with Dennis beforehand the shear number of materials that I needed to transport. When I told him he immediately said it would not be possible because there were many other people in the van who were also buying items to bring back to Bumbuna, and the cargo space in the van was virtually non-existent. No sooner than when he said that, my heart sunk. Another wasted opportunity?! NOO!!!! Out of desperation, I asked him if there was any other possibility, I simply could not leave Makeni empty handed (Sound familiar? Think about my experience in Freetown with trying to find gas, oh and by the way, I have still yet to find a full gas tank in this country, there is a shortage J). And I’m sure you know exactly what he said. He said that he could refer me to his friend, the truck driver who could possibly allow me to transport all of my tiles and cement bags. He called him up and said that it wouldn’t be a problem. At this point all I wanted to do was buy the shit that I needed and get the hell out of there, bottom line, so I said fine. He referred me to one of his co-workers and friends who tagged along with us. He knew a guy that could give me a good deal on tiles. We went there, I found the tiles I liked and bought them, along with all the cement bags, and then transported them to the then empty cage waiting for me at a nearby lorry-park. After loading everything up, I left to do some more shopping in the marketplace.  Around 3 o’clock, I returned to a cage packed full of human cargo and all imaginable goods purchased during the day. I also returned to what would be the beginning of what some of my fellow Peace Corps friends have called “TIA” (this is Africa), meaning an unexpected, seemingly random turn of bad luck that has characterized so many of our day-to-day experiences thus far.  

Seeing as though I was one of the first people to load my belongings onto the truck, it was fitting that I would have to swim through 100Ibs bags of rice, bicycles, bed frames, ceiling fixtures made from the same material used in basket weaving, computers, mirrors, clothes, and people, seething with anger at this Black American who kept stepping on their feet while trying to get to the front of the cage to attend to his delicate tiles; Tiles that were in the process of being stepped and sat on by people seemingly oblivious to the delicate nature of tiles as a matter of principle. It was an acrobatic feat just to even get to them, luckily for me there were bars hanging from the ceiling and I engaged in a few gymnastic man I’ve been waiting for. In 2 hours time, I will finally have transported my entire set of tiles home to later be installed. Uhhh no, things don’t work that way here of course.

So the truck pulled out of the lorry park, and onto pavement. Smooth sailing here on out right?...RIGHT?....no. The first minor bump we hit on the asphalt sent me along with the tiles I was sitting with, sailing two feet into the air only to return to the earth with a resounding CRASH!! The crash being my tiles of course. I panicked and thought my God, the road to Bumbuna is all dirt and if that measly bump had that effect, my tiles will be powder by the time I arrive in Bumbuna. Of course the ride was on asphalt for a good while, only because we ended up taking the long way back to Bumbuna…naturally of course!...through Magburaka, where Carlos and Sarah stay. It was during the many minute bumps that I peeked inside one of my tile packets and noticed that it was a different design then the one I asked for. I was too careless when buying the tiles that I failed to inspect each packet as it was being loaded onto the van. By then I was just praying that my tiles make it home relatively intact to care about the different design.

It got progressively worse after we arrived in Magburaka. The road from Magburaka to Bumbuna is one of the worst roads I have ever ridden on, no lie, and I knew that once we set out on it, that trying to keep my tile packets in place would be a futile effort. All I can say is that being on that road forced me to revaluate any semblance of order I might have been striving for as a PCV. My tiles with every vibration of the truck it seemed were being demolished. Packets were falling over, and I recruited people to help me sit on top of them just to minimize the height the tiles flew with each perturbation. Long story short, we arrived in Bumbuna and all the passengers unloaded their cargo. I was towards the front so I was last to unload my belongings, but I waited until after buying a big bowl of cassava leaf soup with rice which was very therapeutic, only for Le 1000, or about $0.25, a deal you can’t beat. When my tiles finally arrived at my house, there were soo many broken tiles! I was soo annoyed that I didn’t touch them or look at them for a week because it would remind me of the traumatic experience of transporting them home. Luckily after doing an inventory, I found that I had just enough intact tiles to tile all three rooms in my house…Isn’t it funny how things work out in the end? The man who ended up doing the actual work…Patrone… was very entertaining if not frustrating at times. He, just like everyone I’ve met here, preferred to work at his own pace, and it took weeks to actually finish the work as a result. Although in working with him, I wouldn’t be surprised that if by the end of my service, I given a Limba woman to take back to America!...More on that later

SOOO the man who sold me the tiles ended up selling me two designs I didn’t ask for. Of course I was angry, BUT I was faced with two choices: 1)Go through the added inconvenience of trying to exchange the unbroken tiles I didn’t ask for, which meant either waiting a month for the Salini transport or hassling people in my village who own cars; 2)learn from the experience and make the different designs work for me. I chose the latter, and I’m quite happy with the choice. I actually went to Makeni yesterday and saw the man (A Lebanese man) who sold me the tiles. I let him know the mistake he made and how upset I was, but I forgave and told him not to worry about it, not that he would have anyway.

I turned stressful, potentially disastrous situation into a work of art. I’m proud of myself!

On a more somber note, the Vice-principal of my school passed away on Thursday, a completely unexpected event. It was especially traumatic because I was with him the day he was sick one day, had a serious seizure the next day and was dead within one week. I don’t have much power left on my laptop so I will write about it tomorrow...


Vickie Remoe 'Di Biggest Swit Mot' said...

welcome to sierra leone. just a quick correction...Sierra Leone is not a federation of states. It is the republic of sierra leone not the federal republic of sierra leone.