Thursday, May 7, 2009

Attempt #2: The Blog is Back

As some of you may have noticed, my blog sort of disappeared after only five entries. Since then, I have traveled around most of Sierra Leone, spent about 5 months in Liberia, made my way back to Sierra Leone a few times, visited Guinea, and gone on vacation to Ghana and France. You may also notice that my blog title now says, “Kondén Diara: Travels in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Uganda, and Rwanda”. As rainy season fast approaches, I’ve decided to dodge the insane humidity and downpours of the West African coast and make my way east. But first I’ll be taking another trip for a few weeks to the forest region of Guinea, right on the border with Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Since I have not posted anything for the past 8 months, I have lots of stories to tell. Some are about my experiences, and some are about the interesting people I’ve met throughout the year. Plus there will be lots more from Guinea, Uganda, and Rwanda. Get excited!

The Lumley Boys

During my first month in Freetown, I spent my days interviewing a group of ex-combatants who live on the streets in an area called Lumley. After I finished with all of the interviews and a big group discussion, we decided to celebrate with a feast. We bought ingredients at the nearby market to make a traditional Sierra Leonean dish called "Groundnut Stew", and then cooked the meal in their "kitchen", aka a patch of sidewalk on the street where the guys spend most of their time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mr. Sandman

This past Sunday I was enjoying a lovely afternoon at the beach with some friends, when all of a sudden the Sandman emerged. August is the height of the rainy season, so sunny days have been few and far between since my arrival in Freetown. But on Sunday I woke up in my new house to a beautiful sunny day. As much as I had enjoyed my time living with Emmanuel and Abraham up the hills of Babadurie, I had quickly accepted an offer from a Canadian journalist to move in with him and his roommate the previous Friday.

My new flat is in a much more convenient location, and even has electricty (whenever the city has power, which seems to be about fifty percent of the time). Since moving in, I have quickly been introduced to the ways of the expatriate community living and working in Freetown. Falafel sandwiches at Basha bakery just around the corner, candlit dinner parties (because the power is out in town) eating chili and drinking wine at a neighbor's house while singing along as some of the guys play songs late into the night on the guitar...and of course, weekends spent hanging out at the beach!

This particular Sunday the Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up try the leaders of the country's brutal war, had organized a mini Olympics at a sports facility in town, complete with volleyball, soccer, table tennis, and pool. They even had nice, hand painted wooden plaques made for the winners of each sport. After enjoying a leisurely lunch at Basha bakery, my new roommate, Kevin, and I decided to head over and check out the games. We got there just in time to catch a ride to the beach with Andre, a tough looking Russian guy, and some other friends. In Andre's big UN vehicle, we made our way through town to the beach road, along which sit many bar/restaurants along the sand. On this beautiful Sunday, it seemed like half of Freetown had decided to soak up the sun's rays and go for a swim in the pleasantly warm ocean water. My crew and I climbed out of the vehicle and staked out a prime table in the shade, where we settled in to pass the afternoon sipping beers and eating roasted groundnuts.

But soon our peaceful daze was broken by a crowd gathering right by our table. Everybody was staring at a large, round basket covered with a blanket resting on the sand to our right. Soon the blanket was yanked off to reveal a man curled up in the basket, sticking his hand out through the side. We all looked around at each other confusedly until we began to realize that this was the act of the Sandman. A youngish Lebanese guy even had his friend snap a photo of him shaking the hand poking out of the basket. Now that the Sandman had everyone's attention, he put on a little show for the crowd, moving around in the basket. After a few minutes he slowly emerged out the side, and then fell down on his knees in the sand. As the grand finale, he lifted up a large pile of sand in his cupped hand, and then brought it to his mouth and proceeded to chew and swallow all of it. I kid you not. He probably ate at least three large handfulls of sand before it was all over. At the end of the show, the Sandman went around to all of the tables asking for some money. I guess he has discovered that he is able to make more money by folding himself into a basket and eating sand on sunny days at the beach than by begging on the streets.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Life in Freetown

Sunday, August 10
I’m sitting in a giant brown chair in my living room listening to Ice Ice Baby blasting at full volume from the stereo in the corner, completely overshadowing the hum of the generator. I just finished an early dinner of rice and a tasty fish stew with my housemates, Emmanuel and Abraham. I’ve been sitting in this chair for the past hour or so beginning to transcribe an interview I conducted this morning with a former child soldier, my first such interview. We met near his house by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and then headed over to Victoria Park in the downtown area. Over a couple of sodas, he detailed his experiences first with the RUF rebel group, and then with the government forces.

Where I’m living
But now back to my living room. I am staying with a Sierra Leonean guy named Emmanuel, along with his best friend, Abraham, and foster daughter, Josephine. Emmanuel runs a local NGO called the Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI), and has studied in the UK, Hungary, and South Africa. Josephine, a 17 year old half-French, half-Sierra Leonean girl, has been put in Emmanuel’s care. I’m not sure exactly what the full story is, but her mother died when she was young and her father lives in France. Emmanuel just moved in a few weeks ago, and every day the place gets nice and nicer. We’re still waiting on electricity and running water (I’m not hold my breath that either of these things will come soon), but we now have a television, stereo, freezer, fans, and even a coffee table. At night and on the weekends, my housemates like to turn on the generator and watch movie after movie.

The house is in an area called Bobadurie, and is about a ten minute walk from a main road. By this point, I have gotten to know a lot of the people who live in the area, so whenever I leave the house I hear shouts of “Rebecca! Rebecca!” coming from all directions. The trek to the house is a bit of a pain because the stretch of “road” before you come to the place is made up of two hills, the first of which is impassible by car. The problem with these hills is that they are steep enough to leave me drenched in sweat when I walk up during the hot or humid part of the day, but also become very slippery when the rain comes (which is at least once a day). Sometimes the bottoms of the hills even turn into mini rivers when the rain comes down hard. But the good part of the hills is the gorgeous view of the ocean and the town that we have from the veranda!

What I’ve been doing
I’ve basically spent my first two weeks settling in, getting to know Freetown, and making contacts. I knew that I was going to have to figure out how to focus my research more once I got here, and at first this proved to be quite a challenge. The war has been over here officially since 2002, and all of the reintegration programs for former child soldiers closed down long ago. Right now in Freetown, peace is prevailing. When I first arrived in Uganda two years ago, all I kept hearing from the people I met was that “Everyone has been traumatized by the war.” But in Freetown, people keep telling me how peaceful the people and the country are. In fact, if you came here without knowing anything about the history, the only hints you would find of the brutal 10 year civil war are the groups of amputees sometimes hanging out around town.

After many frustrating brainstorming sessions and crossed out pages in my notebook, I have finally gotten a handle on my plan for the year. I am going to document the reintegration experiences of former child soldiers in my project countries, trying to understand how they have been living since they went through demobilization. I have gotten permission from the Watson foundation to add Uganda to my list of destinations for the year in order to look at the consequences of reintegrating into Internally Displaced Persons camps in a context of ongoing war instead of into communities as part of a war-ending peace process. Also, I may try to add Rwanda to look at the reintegration of children who fought in the neighboring war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Here in Freetown, I am conducting interviews with former child soldiers who now live in the streets in an area called Lumley. I wasn’t sure how I could safely get access to these guys, but then my friends at the Lumley internet café came to the rescue. A number of these ex-combatants hang out around the café, and the manager has gotten to know them throughout the past few years. I was chatting with him a few days ago and explaining what I wanted to do, and he offered to help me out. So we met yesterday with Alieu, a former commander with the rebels, and Alieu has agreed to connect me with all of his friends. I interviewed four of them today, and am going to continue interviewing as many of them as possible throughout the next few weeks. I’ll post some of their experiences on the blog over the next week. Their stories are really horrifying and terrible. Many of these guys were forced with the threat of death to become rebels, and now they are left with no prospects for the future and no one to help them.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Many Faces of Freetown

Throughout my first two weeks in Freetown, I have mostly just been meeting people and getting to know what their lives are like. Here are a few sketches from some of my encounters.

Lamin, a 25 year-old guy working at one of the internet cafes near my house, is an aspiring professional golfer. His family lives in a rural village far from Freetown, so he is now alone in the capital. He has never actually even been to his home village. He lives near the Freetown Golf Club, a country-club originally built by the British offering golf, tennis, and squash. He started caddying for the golfers at the club when he was younger to make some money, and now he has become one of the best players in Sierra Leone (or so he says…I haven't gone to play with him yet so I can't vouch for his claim). He lives in an area called Ghana Compound (although there are not currently any Ghanaians staying there), in a two-room shack with two other guys. Together, they have made as nice a home for themselves as possible, and have in a way become each others' family.

Mask and Patrick
I had just finished up a late lunch with a friend at Freetown’s new sushi restaurant when the rain started to pour down. August is the height of the rainy season, and some days the rain comes down in intense downpours throughout the day, leaving you stuck in whatever location you happen to be in. I decided to brave the rain for a few minutes to make my way over to an internet café where I could wait out the rain and get some work done at the same time. But of course the power in town went off just a few minutes after I arrived, leaving all of us in the café with nothing to do for a while except chat with each other. Two guys came up to me and introduced themselves as Patrick and Mask (I thought I heard him wrong and that his name was actually Max, but then he wrote his contact info on a sheet of paper and it is indeed Mask). Patrick and Mask both come from Kono, the diamond rich region of Sierra Leone, and run mining companies. Patrick is actually the son of a chief in Kono. They have traveled all over the world to such places as Miama, Lesotho, and Europe to meet with their business partners. They both said that they are extremely happy right now because business is good and they are making a lot of money.

My friend and I had to make a quick stop at the beach on Sunday to meet someone before heading into the downtown area to do some work. We decided to splurge a little and have lunch at a nice restaurant along the beach. As much as I like cassava and potato leaves, a decent meal was sounding pretty good. So of course we made our way over to Chinatown. Yes, there is a Chinatown in Sierra Leone, or rather a Chinatown complex, complete with a Chinese restaurant, grocery store, guest house, wine bar, and even a sauna! As I was eating my vegetable fried rice, a Lebanese man came over and introduced himself as Mussa. We got to talking and I learned that Chinatown was a creation of Mussa's brother and sister-in-law. Mussa works with a construction company in Freetown, and has no desire to go back to his country. He has been in Sierra Leone for over 20 years now and has made quite a nice life for himself here.

And now for another funny few lines from a conversation I recently had during my first meeting with a random guy who lives near my house.

Random guy: “Are you married?”
Me: “Yes. I stay with my very over-protective Sierra Leonean husband.”
Random guy: “Oh, because if you were not married I would have told you that I love you.”

Note: I am not actually married, especially to an over-protective Sierra Leonean husband. However, I have spread this rumor around my new neighborhood so that the men leave me alone.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Arriving in Freetown

I left New York on Wednesday night and traveled the six and a half hours to Casablanca. Getting off the plane, I met a Liberian woman who has been living in the US for almost 30 years working with the UN. She was also planning to spend the day exploring Casablanca, so I invited her along on my pre-arranged tour. I asked her what she thought of the current president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and she answered that Ellen was a friend and they would probably get together over the weekend. I left Casablanca at around 9pm, and arrived at the airport in Lungi, Sierra Leone, at two in the morning. I got off the plane just hoping that Harry, the guy who had offered to pick me up from the airport, was actually going to show up.

Eventually I located Harry and his friend Joseph waiting for me outside. Joseph lives really close to the airport, so they instructed me to hop on the back of his motorbike and then took me straight to his house. Had I not had my experience living in Uganda, my introduction to the country would have been quite terrifying. I had arranged to stay at a nice hotel in Lungi for the night since I would have to wait until the morning to take the hour long ferry ride into Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Although I had been reluctant to pay the $100 for the night at the hotel, by the time I arrived after two days of traveling I was really looking forward to what might be my last night of some luxury for a while. But instead I found myself sharing a bed with Harry in a room in Joseph’s house. I asked for the bathroom, and was led outside to a latrine with a hole about 1.5 inches in diameter and of course no toilet paper. Welcome back to Africa!

I am now finishing up my fifth day, and things are actually coming along quite well. I spent my first Freetown night at a guest house, and then moved into a house with Harry and his friend Alfred. The house is on top of a hill overlooking the ocean, and is right across from a giant but dilapidated mansion that used to be the residence of the former president Siaka Stevens. I realized that first night that it would be really easy to get overwhelmed and hide in my room for a while, so I have made an effort to keep moving forward every day. I have started to figure out the crazy transportation system, carried out my first two meetings with NGOs for my research, and begun to explore the area in which I’m staying.

And now, I want to share a bit of an entertaining conversation I had with one of my neighbors, Joseph.

Joseph: “Where are you from?”
Me: “I’m from the US.”
Joseph: “I have a relative who has gone to the US.”
Me: “Where does he live?”
Joseph: “I’m not sure, but I think Mexico.”

Then later in the conversation...

Me: “How many children do you have?”
Joseph: “About four.”
Me: “How many boys and how many girls?”
Joseph: “Four boys and two girls.”

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Why Kondén Diara?

“You musn’t be afraid.”


I knew whatever my fear might be I must be brave. I wasn’t to show fright or to run off and hide. Still less was I to resist or cry out when my elders carried me off.

“I, too, went through this test,” said my father.

“What happens to you?” I asked.

“Nothing you need really be afraid of, nothing you cannot overcome by your own will power. Remember: you have to control your fear; you have to control yourself. Kondén Diara will not take you away. He will roar. But he won’t do more than roar. You won’t be frightened, now, will you?”

“I’ll try not to be.”

-The Dark Child, by Camara Laye

Konden Diara. After deciding that I was going to keep a blog for my Watson year, I started racking my brain for an appropriate title. I thought about it for a few weeks, but I couldn’t seem to come up with anything that was both meaningful and not incredibly cheesy. Nothing seemed satisfactory. During this time, I was reading a book by Camara Laye called The Dark Child. It details Laye’s experiences growing up in Upper Guinea before leaving to study in Paris. In one chapter, he describes the night that he underwent a ritual to join the society of the uninitiated, a mysterious society run by the elders of the community consisting of all the young, uncircumcised boys aged twelve to fourteen. This was the night of Kondén Diara.

The day the ceremony was to take place, a crowd moved around the town and stopped to pick up all of the boys of the right age who would participate in the ritual. The boys had all heard stories of Kondén Diara, a bogeyman of sorts, a “lion that eats up little boys”. The boys were warned by their fathers to be brave, and then at night were led by the older boys into the forest. They were instructed to kneel in a circle facing a big fire, and when they were all settled in place, they began to hear the roaring of twenty or thirty lions. It was Kondén Diara! They tried to remain brave for their fathers, but they spent the night terrified, facing the fire with their eyes tightly shut. In the early morning, they were finally allowed to get up, and the ordeal was over.

Laye explains that some time later he learned who Kondén Diara really was. It was not real lions they had heard surrounding them that night in the forest, but instead just the older boys using wooden boards to create the sounds of many lions. The description of this ritual got me thinking about fear of the unknown. As Laye says, this ritual was “childishly simple,” nothing to actually be afraid of. But as a young boy spending the night in the forest face to face with Kondén Diara, it seemed terrifying. I was about to leave for my Watson year, traveling into the unknown and coming face to face with my own Kondén Diara. So I decided that this would be the name for my blog, so I can always remember that the unknown is usually not as scary as it sometimes may seem at first. Stay tuned for news from Freetown, Sierra Leone!