Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sierra Leone

We have finally made it to Ghana. I am really far behind on the blog so I'll try to catch up quickly over the next little bit.

Sierra Leone. Every time I mention it to westerners they almost always say "Blood Diamond" and mention the movie. I actually haven't seen it yet from what I've heard it is a pretty accurate and horrifying portrayal of SL in 1999. 1999, that's not that long ago. That was the worst of the most recent fighting and full peace didn't come about until 2002. The problems in the area have been going on for decades though and there have been very few tourists in recent years. People think we're crazy to be over here but I talked to a few people that had been here recently and said it was great. I'm glad I listened to them.
The first thing I noticed (after English) was the friendly and welcoming people in Kabala (the kids were waving and saying hi without begging), followed by the uncrowded bus on paved roads to Freetown. You have no idea what paved roads mean to us right now. We were hosted in Freetown by a guy from CS who had a small place in the Lumley area. His mother and younger brother (his grandparents, father and sister had been killed) were very kind in opening their simple place to us but the sudden change to the coastal humidity just about killed us. Freetown itself didn't appeal to us at all, being way too crowded, with horrible traffic and lots of beggars, often with missing limbs. During the wars, many people fled there in search of protection and have stayed on after so it grew too fast and there are a lot of poor, sprawling shanty towns everywhere. We had to stay longer than we wanted because we needed to pick up more visas (Ghana and Liberia). It's funny but in a lot of ways the sketchiest countries have the easiest visas to collect. Liberia did it on the spot with no questions asked, while Ghana (arguably the most visited country in West Africa) was the rudest we've dealt with since Macedonia refused us the first time. So we had to sit around a few days and get a feel for things. To me it felt different. Maybe war has a way of bringing people together but I think they're trying a little harder to put things back together or else they had a better system in the first place. What were the clues? That little extra effort. Tableclothes and garbage cans at the cheap places we always go to, people actually forming lines to buy tickets, a little less litter everywhere (that's a relative thing). And that goes beyone the help they are getting from outside. Freetown is stacked with landcruisers and jeeps with every NGO name you can think of and there are huge billboards everywhere talking about AIDS awareness and disease prevention. I still have my doubts about how much practical work is actually being done and a few locals have expressed similar thoughts to me.
But perhaps the strangest difference was coming out of the Muslim world into a mostly Christian city. It's so Christian that it feels like the missionary olympics. There are churches everywhere, each of a different denomination and full of recent converts. When we took the bus out of Freetown we had two different preachers get on and give us their performances. It was actually pretty funny and straight out of the hallelujah book. I was happy as it finally proved my point that it is not only the Muslims with their call to prayer that will "interupt" and "annoy" the public with their religion. We were surprised to find the LDS church here and went to church on Sunday for the first time in a year or so. I want to say it was like home but it wasn't. I was wearing shorts and sandals while they were in their best suits :) They were using a small room in a building and had no music with the singing but that didn't stop them from being very enthusiastic and liberal with the rhythm.
Another highlight was going to the nearby chimpanzee sanctuary for a quick tour. It is up in the hills above Freetown (the whole peninsula is the only mountainous stretch close to the coast in all west Africa) and we learned that a few months ago the chimps successfully staged a breakout, with a few of the leaders still at large. They are 98% related to us and the story includes lots of plotting and figuring out the system because they recognized the exact opportunity to do it. Being in captivity has also taught them that they are 5 times stronger than humans (they are normally afraid of people because we are taller) and they killed some local in the process too. Maybe people can't help it, it runs too deep in the genes. It's now been accepted that they use tools and some have even been shown to use plants as a medicine. Wow.
As an odd side note we also watched the final matches of the African cup football. The final game was won by Egypt (we weren't cheering for them) and it was on an Egyptian channel. Dad saw himself in one of his big commercials that he did over there. It was him in a pink Cadillac driving "Marilyn Monroe". What are the odds?
Next we visited Kenema and from there went to Tongo Fields to see the diamonds. Because a lot of the civil war was actually about controlling the diamond trade, Tongo was one of the last strongholds of the rebels and our guide pointed out a number of buildings that were once used by rebel leaders. There was a lot of war damage in the area but in countries as poor and run down as this it is hard to distinguish between war mess and the normal mess as opposed to a place like Bosnia or Beirut where it is pretty obvious. In Tongo it was a little easier to tell and the rebels made a pretty good mess of things. They even dug up the little airstrip looking for diamonds! Kenema and Tongo's streets are lined with diamond buyers so we were introduced to one. Most buyer's (actually most shop owners and businessmen) in SL are Lebanese (a common theme in the whole region as the French used them as their middle men) and are generally resented for being so much better off than the locals. The diamond guy was nice enough and let us hang out in his office looking at his rough diamonds while he bought and sold with people coming in. They do still look like diamonds, just not very shiny and still pretty small. Most are industrial quality now because they are the leftovers. His biggest on hand was 2 carats. The largest ever pulled out of SL was 968 carats. Damn. The rules are that the diggers sell to buyers, buyers to exporter and exporters to foreigners that take them out to be cut and polished and the prices go through the roof with all the middle men. Of course we were offered to buy some if we wanted in which case we'd have to smuggle it out and effectively making it a blood diamond in that that's what was happening during the civil war. No we don't have any but it would've been easy enough. What about the authorities? Can you say corruption? Or is it plausible deniability? Our trip out of SL will highlight that but I'll save it for the next blog.


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