Saturday, 28 February 2009

Night time in Freetown

It took longer to transfer from Lungi airport to Freetown than it did to get from my flat in Dakar to Sierra Leone.

It was a first to be met by someone with an ‘Alexander Woollcombe’ sign. “Welcome to the big league”, I thought. Having been given my boarding stick for the hovercraft – v sustainable, why doesn’t Ryanair have them? You can’t lose sticks and a man wandering round saying “boarding sticks please” and slapping bits of wood together is much better than unintelligible tannoy messages.

Despite my VIP status there was still an hour sitting by the minibus to the hovercraft terminus. As we waited the UN’s helicopter took off noisily overhead. “Chopper only takes 7 minutes”, a grumpy chain-smoking Dutchman remarked to no one in particular. The LSE Professor-cum-human rights lawyer next to me shuddered and said “I took that helicopter too many times during the war: never again”.

The pilots had walked past me in the baggage reclaim resplendent in tight denim jackets, jeans, mullets and big moustaches.

As we waited the atmosphere was cheerful. Not many people come to Sierra Leone and I was as interested as everyone else in why we were here. There were 3 evangelists from North Caroline who had been travelling for 48 hours with all the audio equipment for the “Freetown Miracles and Healing Crusade”. Their leader, Ben Cerullo is coming for 3 days and will, according to the brochure they gave me, make “the blind see, the lame walk and the deaf hear”.

A German man seemed to be regretting having brought 50 pairs of football boots for the amputee sports club he has come to visit. The box was massive and very heavy. “How do you know you've brought the right shoes? Won’t there be a lot left over?” I asked.

He looked me with utter contempt and said, “they’ll find a use for all the shoes”.

Thousands of young men had arms and legs hacked off during the brutal civil war, which ended 7 years ago. They were stuck in a camp and often ostracised by family and friends. Playing football they realise they can do something with their lives, although getting a job remains tough. .

I got cornered by a middle aged Sierra Leonean man from Coventry who spoke like Prince Charles would if he was a management consultant. He’s here “erm, doing an, ahh, scoping exercise for locally appropriate and erm community owned ICT in rural areas. Very interesting. We’re going to see how to move forward on strategic objectives with local groups”.

“How will they use computers? Is there any electricity in these villages?”

“There are a number of erm obstacles and challenges that will need to be teased out in the course of our strategic analysis”, he replied.

After another hour waiting beside the hovercraft looking across the bay at Freetown glimmering a bit like San Francisco might, except with fewer lights stretching up the hills from the waterfront, we set off. “Je ne regretter rien” shuffled on to my Walkman, followed by “Jump Around” as the hovercraft bounced us through choppy waters. Arriving in Aberdeen I was met again. Quite how a tropical paradise of a white sand peninsual got named after the Granite City escapes me. It's just round the corner from Pirate’s Bay where Sir Francis Drake hung out en route to circumnavigating the globe.

I was taken to the Oxfam house where I inadvertently walked into the bedroom of the Country Programme Director and her husband. Good first impression.

She’s got a viral infection from 3 days in the field. I’m meant to be going for a week and have the constitution of an asthmatic Chihuahua.

Went for my first Star beer – remarkable local product which carried on brewing in Freetown through much of the civil war, managed to shake off a Liberian prostitute as I listened to the Rolling Stones “Love’s in vain” which as she walked was followed by “Let’s Get it On” – the first time the God of shuffle got it wrong.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Departure for Sierra Leone - Army Worms and Climate Change

I'm nervous and excited. I've got 75 pages of notes, contacts and ideas for what I'm going to do and hopefully I'll get some stories published somewhere. Freetown's meant to be beautiful, mountainous, surrounded by beaches. I'm sure there are lots of cool things to write about and it's exciting that I've no idea what they might be.

Weird stuff goes on in these parts. Yesterday I was at a UN briefing meeting where they were discussing Army Worms. These unpleasant creatures are wreaking havoc across parts of Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast. They eat everything and move quickly: like an army. Scary stuff.

Also Guinea's had a cold snap. It went down to 1.7 degrees celsius killing lots of crops and causing animals to mis-carry. There was a long discussion about whether this was caused by climate change and how to be sure something's been caused by climate change rather than freak weather which sometimes happens.

Rather than argue about methodologies I wish they'd just get on and help people be better prepared for erratic weather!!

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Why the young men of Medina revolt

One minute I'm debating the relative merits of "anti-voleur" motorbike locks and the next I'm surrounded by tear gas and men boarding up windows and moving scooters in haste.

This is the odd thing about riots: you don't see them coming but suddenly the air changes. The unpredictability breeds a fear which spreads instantly.

No one speaks but we all push our bikes away from the riot and out the back of the garage onto the residential street behind. Here all is peace and luxuriant late afternoon light. Women cook over small wooden stoves. Boys play football and men wander aimlessly. It's like going through a portal to what Medina, Dakar's most vibrant residential-cum-business area, is normally like. All the more bizarre for the scenes of carnage just one block away.

I can still vaguely hear the shouts and rocks thrown by the rioters but not really. I'm intrigued to see what will happen but know it's a bad idea.

Issa the mechanic carries on repairing his bike. "Take the back way", he says. "Don't go back to the main road. It's dangerous".

"Will there be looting?" I ask.

"Maybe" he replies. "Maybe it will be peaceful. It's impossible to predict. That's why it's dangerous. And because people are very angry".

"The Government has sold the only municipal football ground in the area to the Chinese so they can build another big hotel overlooking the ocean. The Chinese buy everything now".

"None of us will ever stay there or benefit from it. There's no plan to provide another place. Now where can we play football? The Government doesn't care about us and people are angry".

On my way to the garage I'd noticed a lot of police around the place but thought this meant the President was going somewhere. Whenever he drives from his palace to the airport (coincidentally along the newest and shiniest dual-carriageway in Dakar which isn't actually a useful route to Dakar residents unless they are travelling from the palace to the airport) there are policemen every 50 feet along the road.

It's a beautiful journey down the corniche - a coastal highway which is empty apart from SUVs and the odd taxi, with a smooth surface, stunning westward views and spectacular sunsets. This is how I imagine southern California looked in the 50s before gridlock and suburbia ruined it. It is my favourite piece of road in the world and you don't even have to go to America.

China's President was driven along it a few weeks ago on his State visit. The road shows how modern and progressive Senegal is even though the motorway out of Dakar isn't finished. No one bothered to take down the Chinese flags that adorned every lamp post (this is the only road with really good lights at night and cat's eyes). The paper flags now hang limply and litter the road.

I hope the Chinese were impressed. Senegal needs investment but it also needs to help its people. A difficult balance but quite how a €25 million, 60 foot statue in honour of the President will help is beyond me.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Marie the Strawberry Seller

Marie's been growing strawberries for 37 years in her garden in Dakar. At £1.30 for a tiny punnet they're expensive. It's possible she spotted me as someone with no idea of the true price of strawberries but others confirm that strawberries are a luxury only worth selling in the smart residential areas of Dakar.

"We have to buy the seeds from Belgium, it costs a huge amount to get all the necessary materials. It's only because I have been doing it for many years that I know how to grow such good strawberries and can afford to buy the seeds each year. Sometimes you don't even get any strawberries, but that's business", she explains.

"Strawberries paid for my daughters to go to school!", laughing as she walks off with a huge, broad basket balanced on her head.

Marie must be at least her mid-fifties but looks older, she moves with stiff elegance.

She's a good businesswoman, enterprising and cheerful but she's still wandering the streets in the hot sun flogging strawberries.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Corrupt politicians!!

Today's seen fresh dirt dished up on corrupt politicians in Brussels.

Having worked as a MEP's assistant it's good to see the British press ripping into sleaze. Other EU countries seem to expect their representatives to be scroungers and rip-off merchants. Their media or public or both doesn't seem to care much.

Corruption is always wheeled out as the source of Africa's problems and while corruption (and bad governance even more so) is a big problem it would be good for people in Europe to recognise that we should get our own houses in order along with slagging off poor countries for having useless politicians.

Vietnam and China both have a lot of corruption but they make things other countries want to buy. Senegal not so much, so blaming African poverty on corruption is stupid.

There are different levels of corruption, from fiddling your expenses like many MEPs do, or paying with a cheque which the restauranteur knows will bounce but cannot refuse because it has been written by a Big Man politician (I saw this in a restaurant near my flat last week) to Mobutu-style nicking everything. Most of Africa isn't like the Congo.

I was always perplexed by David Sumberg's permanently empty office when I was working down the hall from him. I couldn't see how he wouldn't get found out but I guess he knew he wasn't breaking any rules because there aren't any.

It's a crazy system and one that I felt ashamed to be a part of, even though we did some good stuff. No one else cared or asked about Peter Mandelson and his band of merry helpers trying to force poor countries to sign free trade agreements. The European Parliament did and has done good stuff on environmental legislation too.

It helped that my boss Robert Sturdy was a good guy and paid me well but not nearly as well as others paid their wives. One of the ironies of leaving the public sector is that each job I've taken since for Oxfam has involved a pay cut. Progress I guess.

It's good to see Robert's thriving in my absence. His press officer Ellee Seymour has embraced cyberspace with enthusiasm and got Robert on you tube to save the British pint - it's worth watching.

Dambiso Moyo and aid

A well-educated Zambian woman called Dambiso Moyo has got loads of coverage for her book slagging off aid.

Fair enough, it's good to have a bit of argument and also she has bothered to come up with ideas about what she thinks should happen rather than just take pot-shots at the aid industry, which is easily done.

BUT to me the big problem is that many people prefer discussing whether aid works or not to figuring out how to really help the world's poorest countries.

Those thinking that if only their brilliant theory, formulated in Europe or America, were implemented it would "solve" Africa's difficulties perpetuates the belief that outsiders have all the answers.

Dambiso Moyo knows what she's talking about in terms of economics and it's good to have a business perspective to development, but her ideas seem a bit like other people's big ideas: good in theory but difficult to imagine how they'd ever be implemented.

After 6 months in Senegal it seems to me that unless the people here are involved in shaping what sort of aid comes in and what for Africa's not going to do a Vietnam any time soon.

All of the clever ideas from structural adjustment programmes to social protection schemes aren't inherently good or bad but so much aid achieves less than it should because the people in charge of the conditionalities have no idea how Senegal differs from Lesotho or Ethiopia even though these countries are as different as Ireland, Albania and Poland.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Time to get moving

My job here finishes next friday and after that i know not what I will do.

it's a bit scary but i feel this is what i've been building up to for years. i've applied for a few jobs but nothing as yet.

oxfam might commission me to write another case study after the one I'll be doing next week in Sierra Leone on the impact of the credit crunch. This one would be on climate change in mali and senegal.

If what i write about climate change in sierra leone is good enough to convince them to hire me. any thoughts about climate change in SL gratefully received or BYC projects which might be affected by climate. also oxfam has an amazing gender programme in Sierra Leone.

My friend at Channel 4 news is going to talk to his editor about doing some more stuff on west africa like we did together in December.

Potentially something about how the credit crunch is affecting nomads, construction workers, diamond miners and small business people in random parts of west africa because their relatives in europe have less money to send home. Immigrants generally work illegally and are most affected by the downturn in casual work.

Nomads statistically rely on remittances more than any other group and are also particularly screwed by climate change and high food prices. Over-population forces migration as there isn't enough land and their animals need water to graze and the price of cereals has soared but animal prices haven't changed.

Construction workers because lots of West Africans living in Europe send money home to build houses in their villages and that's now stopping.

Diamond miners because diamond prices have halved in the last year, and the rest because people use remittances to pay for school fees, medical bills, haircuts, mopeds and the other small bits and bobs that they generally can't afford.

Oxfam are also going to get Gordon Brown to respond to twittered questions at the G20 so I'm going to try to get random and probably bemused/confused sierra leonians and senegalese people in villages to twitter Gordon and Barack questions through texting from my phone. This is part of Oxfam's growing "Digital Vision".

If brings more traffic to I guess that's good but I really don't get twitter. Any thoughts about why it's interesting to constantly tell people what you are doing much appreciated.

These ideas will probably not lead anywhere but if any of it came off it would be really cool and planning for the great motorbike tour continues to go well. spent 4 hours trying to sort out senegalese license yesterday. got stopped by police (routine check at junction-they stopped everyone on 2 wheels) and my documentation was in order and no bribes or anything which was reassuring. and today I bought a pair of 2nd hand construction worker boots. Massively chunky old Timberlands which go way above the ankle providing protection and made me wonder about how they got here from America. good value at a tenner.

Hopefully there'll be adventurous updates from Sierra Leone from 27 Feb. An internal DFID report said the credit crunch would have "no impact" on the world's poorest country. the "airport transfer" involves either a helicopter ride across the bay (early 70s chopper flown by drunk ukranians. a few years ago it burst into flames and crashed), ferry (which is new after the last one sank) or smaller boats (I'll be getting one of these accompanied by an OXfam staff member whose job is to make sure I don't get lost). I'm staying in Aberdeen, which is weird, but apparently everyone's very pro-British. Tony Blair's dad was a professor at the University of Freetown and he stayed there as a kid which is why he sent in the Parachute Regiment to kick ass during the Civil War. It was so successful as "regime change" Tony got a taste for it, failing to realise that a bunch of 8 year olds on drugs with guns is a different proposition to thousands of angry islamists in the middle east.

The map the Oxfam office in Freetown sent me is 100 years old and drawn in pencil. I don't think there is a more a recent map.I'm not joking

Thursday, 5 February 2009

New Year’s Eve in Cap Skirring started at 8 in a rum bar. A motley collection of Rastafarians staggered about in time with booming basslines. Rum punches were potent and Elinor and I played cards and danced to Max Romeo and Alpha Blondey with drunk Rastas.

Midnight was approaching so we went to gatecrash the Club Med party. We’d snuck in before along the beach but hadn’t considered the importance of tides in this part of the world. What the previous afternoon had been a gentle stroll down a wide expanse of beach was now a seething torrent of eddying waters and sinking sands that grabbed at your ankles if you stopped moving. As the water approached our thighs midnight struck and the beach in front of us exploded into a waterfall of brightly coloured fireworks. We could see hundreds of middle-aged revellers in black tie and ball gowns oohing and aaahing as from the ocean the fireworks burst in the sky and across the streaming tides in front of us. Hoping the water wouldn’t get any deeper we charged on into a scene reminiscent of the beginning of Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks leads his men onto the D-Day beaches with banging all around us

Relieved to arrive on dry land we did our best to unbedraggle ourselves despite being soaked and covered in sand. Affecting nonchalance we strode onto the dancefloor. Extravagantly mulletted men with greasy hair and tight trousers led crusty boogiers in line dances shouting through microphones attached to their heads. We joined in, throwing wild shapes across the brightly lit, sweeping staircases and fluorescent swimming pools and tucked in to the free cocktails being handed round by smart waiters in bowties and shiny shoes. My attempts to secure feather boas from the dance leaders were unsuccessful.

Leaping around a stage, failing to get tubby Frenchmen to follow my moves, we bumped into the guy whose scooter we’d rented. He’d gatecrashed too. Having exhausted our limited appetite for ABBA and brutal cocktails we progressed to the Senegalese nightclub which was full, sweaty and pumping local tunes mixing Ghanaian highlife and Cuban rhythms with Moroccan vocal wailings to good effect and danced till 5am drawing praise (or possibly derision, it was hard to tell) for the enthusiasm, variety and danger to bystanders of our efforts. Suitably knackered we stopped for a nightcap in a bar full of sleazebags before a quick swim with sparkly green and gold phosphorescence.

New Year’s Day was painful but in the late afternoon we took the scooter up the coast to a hotel the guidebook described as “beautiful but isolated, best reached by 4x4”. The previous day’s scootering, to a beach which looked across the bay to Guinea Bissau, had been easy. Unfortunately crossing the border through untouched rainforest is not, the only paths were comprehensively landmined years ago during the war and no one can remember where the mines are.

The road deteriorated rapidly and having pushed the scooter the last kilometre through deep sand with a pounding headache it was disappointing to find the hotel totally abandoned. After a revitalising swim, swig of water, painkillers, sunbathe and game of cards on a wide expanse of empty white sand we decided to attempt to scoot along the beach hoping the tide would stay low and our petrol wouldn’t run out before we reached home. The scooter wasn’t happy. Her engine made pitiful noises as we weaved between sharp rocks and spiky shells. We had no puncture repair kit and this was not an offroad machine, see photo below. Ideally designed for a child unencumbered by luggage with both of us aboard it sank alarmingly into the sand and had to be carried over rocky outcrops between bays. After rounding each one we hoped to see the pirogues of Cap Skirring ahead of us. My claims that the village was “just around the next headland” grew less convincing. Elinor grew restless.

Having no idea how far the village was nor of the feasibility of making it all the way along the coast we carried on and eventually built up sufficient speed to zoom past fishermen and footballers who looked at us with bemusement. Some cheered and waved. We waved back. The sun dropped into the ocean turning everything shades of orange, red and purple. Roaring across the open sands while fearing much, much pushing of sodding scooter through sand in God knew where gave an additional frisson. Reaching the tarmac road, which led from the fish market to Club Med, in the gathering gloom topped off the best New Year ever.