Sender: A Discussion of Sierra Leonean Issues <>
From: Alistair Coker <Alistair.Coker@AC.BAOBAB.COM>
Organization: Baobab Communications Gateway
Subject: Letter from Africa

Letters from Africa

By Alistair Coker, Freetown. 7 April, 1995

Letter from Africa
c. April 7, 1995 by Alistair Coker

Faced with the prospect of a beer and biscuits for dinner at home, I decided to eat out.

Just down the hill is a cluster of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores open until the wee hours of the morning. The place is more or less officially known as the Third World: a building adjacent to the men's dormitory complex of Fourah Bay College, housing six kiosks packed with fresh bread, tinned condensed milk, cans of beer, laundry soap bars, dried pepper, candles, cigarettes... Well, you get the picture.

Most of the kiosks stock cold drinks in coolers filled with ice shavings. The proprietors will also prepare a snack of bread with butter, or bread with mayonnaise. They stock single-serving sized biscuit packets and mints for the student on the run in search of a quick burst of sugar.

In the morning there is hot tea and bread with jam for sale. In the evenings a number of women set up tables from which they sell hot sandwiches: bread moistened with a spicey sauce of tomato and onions, filled with your choice of roast fish, fish balls, fried bean or flour "akara" balls, and boiled sweet potato.

Some students now call the Third World the Second World because they appreciate the quality and variety of the foods they can buy there. The honour of Third World has in turn been bestowed upon the College cafeteria, which is the never- ending butt of jokes and rude comments.

Implicitly, I suppose that means that the Second World is better than the Third World. Presumably the First World is best of all, yes? A subtle but telling commentary. I wonder if any students have considered the political implications of their labels.

I purchased a sandwich of bean akara and sweet potato, with extra pepper. I then bought a few sundries-- tinned sardines and mackeral, and a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. The young boy on duty in the kiosk attempted to calculate my bill, arriving eventually at the sum of 4,550 leones. He was apparently accustomed to people buying one or two small items at a time. I paid him the proper 5,650 leones, thereby saving him from the inevitable fate of a severe beating at the hands of his mother later on

After a pleasant chat with a colleague who was also searching for a late evening snack, we wandered over to the Senior Staff Common Room in search of a cool drink to wash it all down. We chatted on the side veranda outside until the chimes of the Kennedy Building announced it was 9 o'clock. Inside from the television we could hear the drums summoning us for the evening's news.

We watched in silence, some ten of us, as the camera panned from one hospital bed to the next. A man was interviewed, explaining that he had been roused from sleep and forced to walk from his village to another village nearby, all just outside of Songo, a small town at the edge of the Western Area near Freetown. He and many others were tied hand and foot, he said, and then the rebels began to hack them with machetes, killing many. I had earlier heard a BBC report calling it a massacre. No guns were fired, for the rebels didn't want to attract the attention of any Government patrols that might be nearby. The interviewed man himself managed to escape, but with horrible wounds to his neck. He lost an ear. He showed us his still moist wounds, blood showing through bandages.

I bid my colleagues good night and in the company of a friend walked toward home. We hardly spoke. A brisk but warm breeze blew in from the sea, and a quarter moon shone. I glanced down from atop Mount Aureol over Kissy and the Freetown harbour, and watched the lights of a plane floating slowly toward Lungi Airport across the bay. Palm leaves rattled. I caught the mixed scents of all the flowering trees of the late dry season. The rain of the previous day had washed the air clean, and the stars shone brightly.

Letter from Africa
c. April 8, 1995 by Alistair Coker

I was working on some papers yesterday at the table in my parlour when I heard a sharp cracking sound, like gunfire. At first I thought it might be the neighbour's boy, beating carpets against their cement wall. But the sound continued, from the direction of the centre of Freetown.

I later learned that the shots had actually been fired in the area below the outdoor ampitheatre on campus, and that they had been clearly heard in nearly every part of Freetown. For those 5 minutes, I suspect that all eyes were on Mount Aureol.

Children playing in the yard nearby scurried for cover, casting worried looks over their shoulders. Unable to continue working, I sat near my veranda door and watched the road. For nearly 15 minutes after the shooting stopped, I sat and watched, but saw nothing. No one walking by. No vehicles on the main road. A quite unusual lack of human activity. Then, faintly in the distance, I could hear shouting, as if by a cheering crowd.

Moments later, a passenger vehicle and two pickups brimming with well armed soldiers roared up the road toward Gloucester. A few minutes later, the same vehicles roared back in the opposite direction, their cargo of soldiers intact.

I walked to a neighbour's house nearby, and we tried to imagine what might have just happened. As we were talking, a small girl walked by selling fruit. She calmly informed us that Leicester, a village some kilometres from College, had just been attacked. My friend and I glanced at each other and exchanged slight smiles. We asked when this attack occurred. Two days ago, she explained.

Leicester was not attacked. I suspect the girl was not from this area, and was confusing Leicester with an attack that recently occurred near Songo.

Some hours later I was told that a drunken soldier had suddenly decided to discharge his weapon at a military checkpoint on the Freetown road near campus. My informant explained that the vehicles I had seen were security personnel sent from Freetown to detain the soldier and carry him away. They left behind reinforcements for security checkpoints on roads in our area.

That evening I was purchasing some small items at the Third World market centre on campus, when I heard a young man exclaim that it was he who had first captured what he called "the rebel". Another boy exclaimed that all the students had praised the man for his heroism. The man breathlessly recounted how he had been forced to release the rebel when the rebel displayed a grenade and threatened to pull its detonation pin. Soldiers moments later captured the rebel as he tried to escape.

Today I happened to be in a taxi with a friend in the Army, traveling to take up his duties. He quietly explained that the captured rebel was in fact a Government soldier. "We are fighting ourselves," he murmured, grim faced, staring out the window. A second member of the campus security forces later confirmed to a colleague that a soldier, armed but only half dressed in uniform, had been challenged and arrested.

A popular version of what happened -- no one really seems to have all the facts -- is that a drunken soldier went for a walk on the hill leading down to Freetown behind the campus ampitheatre. He went armed with a grenade and a gun, half dressed in uniform. A civilian saw him and challenged him. The civilian held the suspected rebel, but released him and ran for cover when the suspect revealed his grenade and threatened to pull the pin. Help was summoned. Soldiers fired shots into the air to stop the suspect, who was then captured. The shots were heard in town, and an armed patrol was immediately dispatched to investigate. The captured soldier was taken to military headquarters, where a witness reports he was severely beaten.

Letter from Africa
c. April 9, 1995 by Alistair Coker

In more peaceful times, some may consider village life to be a bit dull, but most of the basic necessities are quite well provided.

There is generally plenty to eat. Farms are fertile, though it is said that the hillside rice farms are becoming less productive as increasing population pressures force shorter fallow periods. Many farmers now plant in the more fertile valley bottoms, though rice produced from swamps is not nearly as tasty as the short, fat, often reddish grains of traditional farms.

Even during the so-called "hungry" season, we starve only for rice, for there is almost always an abundant supply of cassava. During the days of the All People's Congress when rice was imported at subsidized rates, farmers with a bit of extra cash from coffee or cocoa plantations could weather the hungry season quite well with a few bags of Thai or Chinese rice.

And water in the village is rarely a problem of quantity, quality being more a matter of education and organization than anything else in most places. In the village we tend to use water sparingly, not because it is in short supply, but rather because it will typically be necessary to carry it some distance in a bucket. The extra effort encourages economy.

In particular our village toilets require no water at all, whereas toilets in the infrastructurally more "advanced" parts of the country will consume two or more buckets with every flush. Flushing toilets is in fact a rather serious concern in some parts of the country.

Late last year a delegation from the then still operational Njala University College came to inform the Academic Staff Association as well as the University Senate of the rather sad infrastructural state of their campus. There was some resentment expressed of the fact that Fourah Bay College was in considerably better shape physically. Lecturers from Njala complained that they could no longer use their toilets because they had for many months been unable to obtain sufficient water to flush them. I will spare you a discussion of the implications.

I have often said to friends that I will suffer any number of months of an electricity blackout. Indeed, Freetown has had periodic and extensive blackouts beginning just after the notorious extravaganza of the OAU Conference in the early 1980s. But water is another matter altogether. If I am to live without water in my pipes, I would much rather return to village life.

In the dry season at least, water in the faculty residential areas of Fourah Bay College is supplied by a mechanical pump that must be turned on at intervals. As water is generally insufficient on campus for these three or four months, the pump is turned on usually only early in the morning, and then once again in late afternoon.

The storage tanks are not filled. Rather, the pump is only on long enough to fill the pipes for a brief time. Residents fill their home tanks for use later in the day. I myself keep a bath tub full of water for the periodic flushing of my toilet, and use the water heater tank (the heating element is inoperable) for the storage of drinking water.

We generally have no alternative to piped water. The population of Freetown is far too dense to permit us all to dig private wells. On campus, where our water supply is separate from the Guma Valley reservoir that supplies Freetown, in the short term our only choice in the absence of piped water is to abandon our homes.

One of my students was visiting a day or two ago, and took notice when I drew water for cooking from my hot water tap. He asked whether I had piped water. I explained my system, whereupon he informed me with a frown that the student hostels had gone without water altogether for quite some time. They did not get the twice-daily supply received in the faculty residences.

It being the short holiday period between the second and third academic terms, perhaps it is the case that whoever is in charge of the water supply for the student hostels decided not to bother. Hostel residents at this time are mainly displaced students who claim they cannot return to their family homes in the provinces. Perhaps the water lords decided they could ignore these hapless students.

This morning I awoke to the sound of chanting and singing emmanating from the direction of the male student hostels. It sounded as if there was some kind of celebration under way, though this would have been quite unusual for the early hours of a Sunday morning. After some time the sound grew louder, and eventually the chanters and singers came into view on the main road.

I had expected to see a club or organization of some kind, perhaps with a banner, the participants dressed in similar clothing or t-shirts, in celebration of some fraternity initiation or cultural festival. Instead, I was greeted with the sight of some five dozen half-clothed young men, some with only towels around their waists, others bare chested with towels draped over their shoulders, many with buckets in hand or containers perched on their heads.

They had come for a shower.

I followed as the prospective bathers marched smartly into the Principal's compound and surrounded his house. They continued their chanting, growing bolder and louder with each passing minute. Since the mood of the crowd was rather ugly, I maintained my distance, but did eventually observe a woman emerge to the cheering approval of the assembly.

She spoke briefly. Whatever she said must have worked, for after a few minutes the young men began to disperse. A few remained behind to fill their buckets and containers with water from an outside tap. Others stole a few mangoes from trees in the yard before making their way back to the hostels.

Perhaps the hostels will soon have water. In this somewhat distorted microcosm of Sierra Leone society, the voice of the people has been heard.

Letter from Africa
c April 18, 1995 by Alistair Coker

I woke this morning half frozen, with a stiff breeze blowing through my window, overcast skies, and a temperature of about 22 (72F). VOA reports it will be 33 (92F) degrees by afternoon, the hottest spot in Africa.

Radio Nigeria reports this morning that about 400 Liberian refugees, formerly housed on the abandoned airstrip at Waterloo, have been repatriated by boat to Liberia. I notice that the barge reported to be housing Sierra Rutile refugees is no longer moored in the harbour. Perhaps that's the boat the Liberians used for their voyage home, and perhaps now the Rutile employees have taken over the refugee houses at Waterloo.

Campus was nearly deserted over the Easter weekend, as both Friday and Monday were public holidays. Maltina (Sierra Leone Brewery) sponsored a big kite-flying contest on the beach. They say there were Le250, 000 (about 350 US dollars) in prizes. I thought about going, but a friend didn't fancy waiting in a queue to buy petrol for his car, and I didn't fancy fighting for a poda-poda seat out at Lumley to get back to town.

Throughout the day I watched crowded (diesel) vans loaded with young people heading for various outings. A bus from Gloucester travelled to the beach at Hamilton. Several chartered buses were to leave from Victoria Park for various events at Goderich and Lumley beaches. There was a DJ contest last evening at one of the "beach" bars. (None of the Lumley "beach" bars have been on Lumley beach since they were moved in 1992.)

Just in time for the holidays, we have been overwhelmed with radio advertisements for Pega-Pak, a shot of locally brewed gin in a convenient plastic pouch. The preferred method of consumption is similar to that used to drink/eat frozen yogurt and cold water, packaged at thousands of homes throughout Freetown in small plastic bags and sold by children carrying coolers on their heads. One simply bites off a corner of the pouch and squeezes the contents directly into the mouth.

I had the misfortune to be caught in a taxi on Kissy Road trapped behind a Pega-Pak van equipped with a loudspeaker blaring the various versions of Pega- Pak's jingle: "Eh Pega-Pak, Oh Pega-Pak, Give me Pega-Pak, Let me get some joy." In Krio of course. With its various rhythms -- traditional, high life -- Pega-Pak's advertisements are hummed to a far greater extent by both the sober and inebriated publics than the tunes of the competitors Rhino Rum and American Dry Gin.

The National Power Authority provided electricity continuously to my residence starting at about 6pm last Thursday, continuing through this Tuesday morning, apart from a three-hour outage in mid-afteroon on Monday (perhaps they assumed I would be at the beach). Normally these days we have lights 24 hours on weekends, and at night weekdays. It is a mixed blessing for some. Power rates for residences here are about 60 leones (about 9 US dollar cents) per kilowatt hour. Businesses pay twice that rate. I'm told this is considerably higher than power rates in America.

Hope all is peaceful wherever you are...

--- * Origin: African Connections (5:7831/102.61)

Letter from Africa
c. April 19, 1995 by Alistair Coker

I secured a seat in a Taxi at the Murray Town Road junction last night in a record 10 seconds. Traffic flowed nicely into town, understandably since a significant portion of the city's taxis had already parked for the night at their favourite petrol station.

I waited an hour and a half at the Model School Junction, waiting for a taxi to carry me to Fourah Bay College atop Mount Aureol. Fortunately, the student bus, a recent gift from Government to the Student Union, and powered by diesel, was making frequent trips at the usual price. As soon as the roar of the bus engine could be heard coming down to Model, students dashed to form a queue. Unfortunately, several competing queues would often form, and the head of each queue would then engage in angry shouting matches to determine who was the chief of the legitimate queue.

As I waited for the crowd to thin a bit, judging my chances for securing a seat, I watched the excitement a bit further up the hill where taxis normally stop for Gloucester and Leicester passengers. There the scene was chaotic. As a car would arrive, a crowd of perhaps fifty, some in necktie, others with headties and pans of vegetables, would descend upon the vehicle, snatching at the doors and jostling for seats. Passengers already in the car desiring to disembark often had a difficult time. I watched as one small Toyota sedan roared off toward Gloucester, loaded with a driver plus three others in the front, an astonishing six passengers in the rear.

This morning there were three empty taxis waiting to take me from College to Town, and there was hardly a crowd waiting at the Model junction. Government had earlier announced a coordinated plan whereunder all petrol stations would open at 7am and sell petrol simultaneously, perhaps to avoid the problem of long queues forming at particular stations. What tended to happen was that latecomers to the queue would sit for hours only to discover the supply of fuel exhausted as they neared the pump. Many an angry scene would subsequently develop.

I chatted with my driver this morning. He had parked his car at a petrol station the previous day at 9am, and had stayed with the car throughout the day, into the evening, and throughout the night. This morning he was rewarded for his patience with a full reservoir of fuel. Although Government had restricted taxis to 3 gallons per day, my driver had paid an additional 1000 leones for a full tank.

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