Ashley Hits the Road
After completing her first year in the MPP program at Berkeley's Goldman School, set off to spend her summer interning in Sierra Leone with a program sponsored by the Innovations for Poverty Action. While there, her primary interest is their program on Reconcilation, Conflict and Development in Sierra Leone. Check out their website here and the reconciliatin project here.
We don't have any photos of her trip to share yet: Internet connections in SIerra Leone operate at the speed of a slug. Be we do get the occassional email from her. Here are the first three:
Freetown so far
Sent: Thursday, May 31, 2012 12:52 PM
Hello from Sierra Leone,
I have only been here a week, but it feels like I have lived well beyond that. Freetown is a brutal siege on your senses, demanding they work overtime to keep up. One of my friends here says she can only have two or three senses going at a time, and she often stops listening or smelling in situations. The colors are bright and varied; people, cars, vibrant dresses, neon-colored school uniforms, chickens, dogs, mopeds, and shopkeepers hawking used items are everywhere. Even the dirt refuses to be calm, instead opting for a bright red color, and whipping itself into the air, adding texture and substance to what your eyes take in. In fact, the air is heavy with heat and emissions and smells of body odor and rotting from every object, and the air barely has enough room for all of the noise vibrating from everything. Chickens cluck, dogs bark, cars constantly honk, and shopkeepers bargain. Sierra Leoneons are some of the friendliest people I have ever met, and everyone seems to know everyone; add that to the fact that they yell rather than talk, and the streets are clogged with screaming friends. I, too, suffer from meeting and now knowing everyone around our work; as I walk together ice cream or a snack, all the women yell “Asha Asha our friend! Hi friend!” (so far, no one can say my name). The smells vary from body odor to toxic to rotting to worse, and I always wish it were the one scent I could lose.
I arrived late last Thursday in a madhouse that passed as an airport. The “customs” consisted of two stalls, where people jostled in line begging to be let through. I then was forced to flash my yellow fever card to an agent trying to control a mass of moving people, but he quickly waved me on as I started to explain why I did not have mine (it did not arrive in time). Every person there to pick up an aid worker (UNDP, USAID, SNAP, etc) came up to me as I waited for my bags and asked if I was Anne/Ruth/sleuth of western names. After getting my bag and hopping the ferry to town, I was greeted by two of my coworkers, Evan and Josh. We stayed up the first night watching NBA semi-finals, drinking, and getting acquainted about the adventure ahead.
On Sunday I escaped the madness of Congotown (where I live) and headed twenty minutes by car to No 2, one of the more remote beaches in Freetown. The beaches here are stunning. Between the hours of 4 and 7 everything glows orange, and the ocean becomes a sheet of pulsating diamonds. The sand is soft and the water is so warm it makes the world melt away. On the beach, or in the water, everything is calm especially in contrast to Congotown. My senses finally took a break, smelling nothing but fresh salt air and watching the waves lap gently on the shore. It felt surreal to be on such a beautiful beach with less than 20 people after the madness of Congotown. I felt like I was cheating, sitting and enjoying a beauty of Sierra Leone not everyone in my neighborhood would get to see.
We sat on the beach under umbrellas being served beer until Evan and Sam decided to play Frisbee. Within five minutes we had made friends with three little boys, who asked if they could be our friends. We gave them water and joked with them, excited to have some new friends. On the way back we stopped at a restaurant on the beach and ate while the sunset. We were served Carpachio, and it was a fish they caught as soon as we arrived at the place. The fish dissolved on your tongue and the sun dissolved behind the sparkling ocean. Evan and Josh made friends with a dog, who wanted to play Frisbee with them.
Even though it has been less than a week, I feel as though I already have a million stories, all of which are concurrently mundane and epic; mundane in how they involved ordinary actions, and epic due to their settings. For lunch on my first day we went to an alley by the office and four of us stuffed ourselves into a tin and cardboard shack (this is not literary license- the shack had cardboard recycled from boxes on spots where the tin had rusted away). It is already hot in Sierra Leone, but it is even hotter in a tin shack with a hearth going. I felt like I was in a steam room in a gym, except instead of wearing a towel I was in a button down and appropriately long skirt. We ate a fish stew prepared by a incomprehensible woman, and we hunched over the main bench so tightly packed like sardines that even her little child had to wait right outside the doorway. He, of course, stared and smiled at us the entire time we ate. The fish stew cost was lava-spicy, so an already hot day became even more ridiculous. When I left, pleasantly full with the tasty food, I felt like a towel that had been completely rung of all of its water.
I live in a three-story house with an NGO on the bottom floor and a family of at least 7 children on the top floor. We have two dogs, an 11 month old named Miss Jack and a 2 month old named Snoopy. Miss Jack belonged the IPA worker who used to live in my room, and she found him outside her door one day. She is wonderful, and always runs around me when I get home. Unfortunately, one of the children dropped her from the third floor about a month ago, so she can only really use three of her four legs. She is a good cuddler, as is her friend, Snoopy. I live with two girls named Sam, which affords me the opportunity to call them “the Sams,” which I find way more entertaining than anyone else.
The office is nice enough, and only a twenty-minute walk from my home. The people are great, but we all work from around 830 am to 7 everyday (and sometimes we bring home work). The office is a mix of Sierra Leoneans and ex-pats, and everyone is insanely friendly and kind. Luckily there are quite a few people able and willing to show me the ropes around here, and I am excited to do even more exploring.
And with that, I am off to bed. One of the Sams and I go to the UN gym every morning, which has “air conditioning” (ie kept at 80 degrees instead of 90), and therefore is the only place I am physically able to go running in the mornings.
Much love from Salone (what they call Sierra Leone here)
Five days without running water
Sent: Monday, June 18, 2012 6:05 AM
Nothing is ever easy in Sweet Salone. This is one of my new sayings, and I already have everyone at the office saying the aphorism. Whether it be getting a generator fixed (a two week ordeal that involved a new drama everyday) to visiting a friend’s house (up a harrowing hill that requires a motorbike, which is something I promised myself I would not take) to paying a tab, nothing is ever easy. For a country whose development has stalled since the 1960s (the GDP per capita is lower now than it was then, a fine distinction even for an African country), this country is constantly moving. The people, the bikes, the flies, and the time. As such, nothing is ever easy- contracts are constantly being negotiated, roads are constantly under construction but never finished, and obstacles are constantly moving into your path as soon as an old one disappears.
And then our water stopped running.
To many people, this may seem like a minor inconvenience. In fact, even for me, I never thought running water was entirely necessary. I could go camping for a week without running water! So you get dirty, so what. From this past week, there are three main contentions I have with my own pre-judgment of my situation. First, one expects no running water in the woods. However, one expects running water in a city, let alone the capital of a country. You are not expected to look dirty when you work, and you are expected to have clothes and clean underwear. Secondly, one can’t wash dishes without running water. The lack of water was not discovered until after we had cooked dinner, leading us to the frightening decision of “what to do with the dishes until the roaches come.” They always come. Combined with the lack of places to eat, and the pittance of a salary supplied here for eating at the places that do offer food, this was a frightening prospect for every minute the tap would not turn on. Thirdly, in the woods, one is with nature. When nature calls, you can have your pick of tree, bush, or rock. In the city, when nature calls…
What happens in the five days when one’s water stops running in a country that never stops?
On the first day, I found myself in one of my books. A rare down-day, a few friends and I spend the day in Oasis, an ex-pat café aptly named for being one of the quiet places in all of Freetown. My friend Katy sees a tall, slightly weary looking white man at the table next to us and calls him over. He only asks after Katy’s well-being, waiting to be introduced. It was there that his British politeness ended, and he asks us questions, only to follow up with a long, ornate, and enthralling story about the subject that came before. It was clear; he is a journalist. His stories are fascinating but detached, and I both hang on his every word and hate the air around him when he speaks. I do not know when in the conversation I realize it, but I had seen this entire scene before. I had seen the ex-pats, a collection of Brits, South Africans, Aussies, Hungarians, Mexicans, and Lebanese, sitting at the Oasis, the NGO workers, those aiding the current regime, and the flippant war journalist. I had seen this scene in the multiple books I had read, the books about Bosnia, Rwanda, Vietnam, Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo. I was sitting in a cliché I had read about, had dreamt about, and it felt odd. I am still trying to figure out how I feel about it- to say I feel bad or negative in anyway about this would be a lie, but to say I look back on it positively would also be a farce. I guess that is the burden of my generation- self-awareness with no idea what to do with it.
On the second day I discover that the rainy season is not just the rainy season here in SL: we are entering the “hungry season.” In the coming two months, 98% of rural SL will run out of food staples, such as cassava and rice. One in four children will miss school because of the lack of food at home. Many farmers resort to eating their own seeds, which will only increase the cycle of poverty and hunger. I stop complaining about not being to eat cheese for the three months I am here.
On the third day I took my first African dance class. Six white females from the UK, Australia, Hungary, Poland, and Austria headed to this dance studio in downtown Freetown. The studio is small and cramped, lined with uneven wooden planks that creak and groan as you walk down them. Two old pianos, which look as though they came over in 1940, and sound as though they haven’t been tuned since, wear placards that beg you to “be gentle with her.” Our instructor is a compact Sierra Leonean, as black as we are collectively white, and all the ex-pats know and joke with him. We remove our shoes and pound on the wooden slats as he looses us up. He has come up with a routine for us, easy enough that it can be performed by six women, only one and a half of whom have any rhythm or talent. As we no longer have NPA (or power), we practice into the dark, never pausing for water but constantly moving and dancing and jumping and swimming. Around sunset, another class is let out, and the children all come to laugh at the whites dancing. They stand in the doorway at first, and then slowly work up the courage to follow behind us, doing our moves more perfect than we can ever dream. The class devolves, and a woman from the back yells at our dance teacher for not teaching us “the real African moves.” She leads us in an impromptu lesson, and quickly has us all rolling on the floor and on all fours doing dance moves that might make even Madonna blush (singer not virgin). The children laugh, and by the time the class is over it is pitch black and I can’t even see my own tan bag I need to leave. We thank and pay our original instructor, and make our impromptu female instructor promise to come back and teach us some more moves. We then all pile into Allie’s “Save the Children” branded jeep and giggle the whole way home about our recital (which might be sometime in July).
On the fourth day I realize how to make small talk in Sierra Leone. In the States, and elsewhere in the world, weather is a good conversation starter. In SL, where the days fluctuate 3-4 degrees, it is best not to talk about it. However, the main topic in Sierra Leone- NPA, or National Power Association. There are two power plants in SL, one for the miners, and one for the rest of the country. This one for everybody else also happens to be a hydropower dam, which makes sense during the rainy season, but is not as logical the other 10 months. Power outages are frequent. Again, this would be usual in a developing country, and not surprising, if this were not the power for the entire country. Even the capital of the country cannot even guarantee its own power. So, in SL, you talk about NPA. “We have had NPA for ten whole hours!” my coworker Alpha once said to me. “We have had NPA every day this week!” Alex, another SL I work with, started a conversation with me in the hallway. “The fan has not been on for six hours. I hope NPA comes back soon,” I now begin with Fatu, my SL deskmate. She nods approvingly, and we begin a conversation.
On the fifth day, the water came back. After a day in Pizet, the market for Lapas and fabrics (more on fabrics in another installment), the Sams and I came back to our apartment hot and sweaty and looking for a break. I flop down on the couch and a few seconds later hear cries from Other Sam. I run into the kitchen and the water is running. We both scream and dance around our kitchen, pouring water all over our dirty dishes, and then rushing to the bathroom to flush the toilet as many times as possible. We then turn our music up as loud as it can go and have the longest buckets of our lives (I refuse to call them showers- you take water out of a bucket and dump it on yourself.) Dirt rushes off my body, no matter how many times I pour, the constantly moving water is always brown. After a good half an hour the water slowly becomes clear, and I finally have pale legs and feet. Even though I am still dirty by even my own lax American standards, I have never felt so clean in my entire life.
I hope you are all having a clean Monday.
Poda Poda Party
Sent: Tuesday, June 26, 2012 5:13 AM
Last week was easily my favorite week so far in Sierra Leone. The office is going through a huge transition, and many of the staff who have been here for a year or two are leaving. Last week we said goodbye to Evan, one of the people who picked me up from the ferry, as well as two other amazing coworkers. The festivities began at work with a “Sierra Leone Saloon,” which involved every single person standing and making a speech about the three departing coworkers. It was amazing to see how close the entire office was, and that 30 people, from those who guard the front gate to clean the floor to manage the entire office, could all say such lovely things about one another. Although the full 2 hours of speeches were amazing, one speech in particular was especially moving- Alpha’s. Alpha is my age, but when I was getting braces put on my teeth and entering sixth grade, Alpha was a soldier in the RUF, the rebel army in Sierra Leone during the civil war. After the war, he studied for five years under Father Franco to be a priest, but after he got his girlfriend pregnant, he had to stop that path. He is an avid reader, and has read all the books dealing with IPA and its mission. Alpha was one of the first to volunteer to talk. “My beautiful country cannot thank you enough, thank you all enough.” Through his thick krio accent, I could not understand all of the words he was saying, but I understood all of his sentiment. It is hard to try to explain something in words, when the exact words Alpha used were not important. It was how he said the things he tried to say, the conviction, the passion, the desperation and immediacy of trying to thank people for volunteering to help, help his country help itself, figure out a way to make lives of his fellow countrymen better. As he continued, his gratitude spilled upon us all, and everyone’s eyes became wet.
After the speeches, we had a dance party in the office, followed by a surprise for the leaving ex-pats: a poda poda. A poda poda is a small van- think emptied out Volkswagen bus with four rows of chairs. It is impossibly small, and the hard benches fit four to a row. You can’t actually rest your legs forward, so you end up lifting them up off the ground and resting your knees on the bench in front of you the entire ride. You can’t turn them to the side, because another body is there. We fit 20 people in the poda poda, and then the armada of two bikes, one poda poda, and one passenger car went off to the bars. We went from bar to bar, causing a stir whenever we showed. DJs would announce the arrival of us, this crazy mix of whites and Sierra Leoneons, who all danced so very differently and yet seemed to know the words to every song. My coworkers taught me how to sing Rihanna songs in Krio (“Wha na ma name”). They played my favorite SL song at every bar, which I suspect was the work of one of my coworkers, who I had admitted to earlier in the day that the song was stuck in my head for a week. Each bar we went to, a small crowd would gather at the edge of the bar, children and adults alike, who laughed at the way we enjoyed the evening. The festivities lasted until 6 am, and involved some late-night ocean swimming.
That Friday I got my first opportunity to go up-country, which is the term used for basically leaving the peninsula of Freetown. I travelled with my coworker Fatu to a small village outside of Makeni. The embarkation point to anywhere off the peninsula is called “the Shell,” after the shell station that used to be there. The trip to this station is almost as long as the trip to Makeni, due to the terrible state of Freetown roads and traffic. As soon as we were halfway across town, the sky opened up. We quickly sought refuge in a church awning, among many other trapped spectators. We watchedn as the streets became orange rivers that looked like 1960s Technicolor water from a movie about biblical rain, as if they had been painted in post-production to be more vibrant and surreal. I bought a SL flag umbrella, which promptly leaked all over. Fatu looked at me, laughed, and repeated “nothing is ever easy in Sweet Salone.”
We finally reached shell, and got into a bus (think your mom’s miniwan, but sitting four to a row, and those four people are adults) and headed to Makeni. Makeni is another city in Sierra Leone, closer to where minerals are mined. On the way, the bus, the two rows of four (and three in the front seat, which meant two in the shotgun seat), became animated. “Look, look!” the driver said pointing wildly at the window. Everyone leaned into the windows (and over me), and Fatu smiled proudly. “What is it?” I asked. “See that there, the train??” I saw an old, rusted, large train bumbling along in the distance. “The train?” Yes!” Fatu exclaimed, “Isn’t is beautiful? It is the first working train in Sierra Leone for over 30 years. It is carrying African minerals for the mining company” She paused, before adding “I have never seen a train before. That was my first time.” I did not know what to say, having trains been such a common part of my life for four years, when I was lucky enough to take one everyday around DC, or a longer one to go home to Philadelphia. I remembered bemoaning the lateness of the metro, the delays on the red line, the constant construction on orange. How did I not constantly marvel at what worked, at the plethora of trains in my country, of the ease to get from one place to another? After some silence, she said “Maybe, one day, they will have trains with people on them. I would like to ride it then.”
We arrived in Makeni, which is much smaller than Freetown, and as much of a city as Burlington, VT. We woke early the next morning to take okados, or motorbikes, up to the small village where we would be monitoring the intervention. We hailed my driver for the day, Moses, a cool Makenian with black ray bans that were stylish among American hipsters and a puffy jacket. It was 80 degrees, and he wore a puffy jacket. We raced between the hills on his okado, often straying from the road when the potholes became oppressive and flying through rural villages with thatched huts, scattering chickens and avoiding hanging clothing. The children would start chanting “apato” when they saw me fly through, and I would try to wave, while desperately clutching onto Moses. Moses mocked me for shaking like a leaf on the back of the okado. “I will teach you how to drive the okado, then you will not be scared.” I politely declined. I was aware of the heavy symbolism of a man named Moses leading me on this sojourn, but I feared that if he tried to teach me to drive, we really would be stuck somewhere for forty years.
We got to the village, a tiny place with a government hospital. The hospital, no more than 3 rooms made of brick, serves eleven villages. We hiked to see the construction of a bridge by the river, which would finally connect the hospital to many of the villages during rainy season. I met the architect of the bridge, who stood up very straight when he told me “it is the longest and tallest bridge designed by an indigenous in all of Sierra Leone.” We then headed back to the meeting.
The meeting involved stakeholders of the various villages, coming together to identify the biggest health issues in their community, action items various actors could take to try to overcome these issues, indicators of implementation of the actions, and deadlines. It was not my first town hall meeting, but it was my first in Sierra Leone.
I have this running joke, mostly with myself, that Sierra Leone is just like Vermont. I was walking home in the dark one day (no street lights, and mostly no lights) and was very adept at moving around. I thought “I guess I am so good at moving in the dark because of living in Vermont for so long. Vermont is a lot like Sierra Leone in that respect,” to which I started laughing out loud of the absurdity of this thought. I tried to explain to Sam why it was funny, but it took 30 minutes to explain “VT is 98% white” and “it is always cold there” and such to get her to understand how UNLIKE Vermont it is here. It comes up at random times, both as a facetious joke, but also as a semi-true statement.
I could not help think of it during the town hall meeting. At one point an okado driver stood up, asking that the community pool money to buy an ambulance. He was not well equipped to handle hurt and dying patients, and the roads did not allow him the speed necessary for sick people. I could not stop thinking of the famous Normal Rockwell portrait of the poor farmer speaking during a Vermont town-hall meeting, wearing slightly grungy clothes and grasping onto his hat. How would he paint this man, this dark Sierra Leonean, with a black used polo and matted hair? Would the light highlighting the man’s face look different, as it was not filtered through glass on the wall? How would he find the dress of the fellow villagers, the women with bright and tattered lapas and headwear, the men forgoing crumpled 1940s suits in favor of used shirts that said names of American towns and English football team? How would he paint such a scene? Would it be jus like Vermont?
During the meeting, a group of young children from the village had gathered outside my window to stare at me. One child became two, two became four, and so on until there were seven outside giggling and pointing. I walked outside to talk to the head of the meeting as they rushed in to grab my coke can I had left at the seat. I walked up to them afterwards and asked if I could “snap photo.” Some smiled, some posed, and one posed with my coke can, pretending to drink it. They loved looking at themselves, and no matter what pose they were in, they would laugh and point at their photos when I showed them. When I went to leave, and hoped on Moses’ okado, they gathered round and kept trying to use the few English phrases they knew.
I returned to Freetown that night, full of pinched nerves and swollen legs from tight cars and long okado rides. I fell asleep promptly at 10 only to awake before sunrise to head down to the southern tip of the peninsula for a hike with Grant, Katie, and Jessica. We stopped at a small village called “Big Water” and asked for a man that had led a previous group of ex-pats on a hike six months back. The man called another villager forth, an older man with a ripped shirt exposing his bellybutton and a large, rusted machete. He led us through the village, past the goats, one brick house, and thatched huts to the trail. We asked him to lead us to the top of Picket Mountain, the largest mountain on the peninsula. Usman, our guide, took us on a flat a walking path for about a half an hour, where we passed a few groups of men climbing the trees to harvest palm oil. The trail then became thick with brush and trees, mangroves, and ferns covering the path and clawing at our clothes. The brush became so thick that Usman had to cut down branches and vines just so we could progress. We saw tiny monkeys flying through the air. We heard giant thumps, to which Grant explain ed how baboons thump the base of trees to make the bananas and other fruits fall. “Just like Donkey Kong!” I exclaimed to puzzlement of everybody. Apparently video game references are not universal.
We passed by the remnants of an old village. The Portugese had used the village as a embarkation point, and had even built a prison on the spot, which still stood, albeit with a tree growing on the top of the now absent roof. “Apato actually comes from ‘of portugal’” Katie told us, as we posed in the empty window frames of the old prison. A faint remnant of a market stood next to the old building, although it was much more recent. “See the rails sticking there?” asked Grant, pointing to some oddly placed railway tracks sticking up next to trees or along the path. “The British left a train to upcountry in the 1960s. The train was dismantled, and people used the tracks to build houses, and this here market.” I stared at amazement as we continued on. “Freetown was actually easier to get around in the 1960s then it is now” Grant said as Usman hacked a path for us through the crumbling rocks and jungle vines. “This, below us, used to a be a road. The bridges we came over driving here- they were built in the 1960s.” Grant went on to explain that Sierra Leone used to export the most educated Africans to other parts of Africa, as well as various countries around the world. Sierra Leone used to be known for its doctors, teachers, and engineers. I kept thinking of the railway tracks in the middle of the jungle. History, corruption, and war, it seemed, had done to the Sierra Leoneon public what those in the 1960s had done to the tracks. They taken their path to economic success, their population, and repurposed them in the jungle, misallocated them to steal from them, to fight each other. Now they stood, still proud and mighty, in the jungle, waiting for the next task.
Our guide had gotten lost, and we never reached the summit of the mountain but we returned to our car six hours later and headed to Bure beach. I have never been to a beach as beautiful as Bure. The mountains, the impossibly lush, green, fertile mountains, as green as pine trees but with leaves and an almost velvety feel, plunged into the bright white sand which flattened out before meeting the sparkling ocean. Scattered about were large rocks, about the size of small dolphins, and the color of the horizon after a winter storm. A large river emptied out into the beach, and the current of the river was quick as it brought warm water to the ocean. We sat in the rushing river like children, pretending to be super heroes as we laid on our stomachs and the current pushed as back into the ocean, before burying our butts into the sand and enjoying the jet stream massage. We then let the waters take us into the ocean, which was decidedly colder, but still warmed than the Atlantic in August. I was told there were two camps: those who preferred beach NO. 2, and those who preferred Bure. I think Bure might be one of the most beautiful places in the world, I told Katie while bobbing in the waves. I am definitely a Bure person.
On the way back to Freetown, we dropped Grant off at Waterloo. Grant has opened a business with his SL friends to make beautiful belts out of lapas and SL fabric. The buckles are made by iron workers in a polio clinic out of old cars, and Grant was stopping to interview some of the workers for the belt’s website. We proceeded along a mountain path on a notoriously bad SL road. We saw a little girl who waved us down, and as we were between villages, we stopped, offering her a ride. She hopped in he car with her two sisters, and quickly started talking to us an asking questions. She put her arm around Jessica, who was in the backseat, and stroked and petted her. We asked them where they were headed, and they explained they were off to their father’s as their mother, who was in a few villages over, had just died. The girls did not seem upset though, I think excited to be in a car, let alone with three foreigners. She asked us for our numbers (most precocious ten year old ever). At one point there was a faint lull in the conversation, so she said “you two in the front, you are sexy babes,” to which we could not help by collapse in laughter. We dropped the children off at their house, and heard many krio “thankees” as we drove back into the bustling madness of Freetown.
This email has gotten very long, and it is time for me to fall asleep. I hope all is well with everyone, and I miss everyone like crazy. The beaches help me through the pain, though.
MPP Candidate, 2013
Goldman School of Public Policy