Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to REALLY Help in Haiti: Ensure that Your Contribution is Helpful instead of Harmful

I've been very frustrated with a lot of the coverage I've seen about Haiti, and I've seen a lot of wonderful, generous people make potentially damaging decisions in how they want to help with the effort in Haiti. I have written a note on how I feel about aid initiatives in Haiti since the international outpouring of generosity has been almost overwhelming - literally. My opinions on this subject are born out of field experience, extensive networking and formal education. I would appreciate it if you read it and spread this knowledge amongst your peers.

It is not uncommon to see an outpouring of grief and compassion from the international community and from individuals across the globe during times of mass casualty. The overwhelming international response to the 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010 is no exception. Just like in the case of the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the Pakistani earthquakes in 2005, individuals across the globe have demonstrated an astonishing desire to contribute to relief efforts through mass fundraising, individual donations, and warm-hearted gestures of generosity towards the Haitian peoples.

Unfortunately, such generosity can often cause stagnation of relief efforts at the emergency site if they are not properly executed by the proper authorities and using the proper means. Since there is such an outpouring of charity and kindness and a strong desire by so many people to help, I have compiled a list of warnings on how altruistic gestures can backfire and how you can prevent this through your own efforts.

Send Money, and Only Money: In the wake of an emergency such as this, there is often a desire to send supplies to the suffering country. Please do not do this unless specifically requested by an NGO (Non-governmental organization) that you trust, and whose credentials you can verify. You will notice that most major international organizations are not appealing for you to donate goods; they are asking for money. This is not an act of corporate greed and should not be presumed as such. The reality is that in the wake of an emergency, the majority of supplies that we in the Western world may think are required in an emergency situation are often not immediately required on the ground, or are not relevant to the climate and culture of the state in trouble. Items such as diapers, baby food, donated clothing, and even canned foods can lead to stagnation of relief efforts. Ports become clogged with materials that NGOs or the State have to eventually pay duties on, vehicles, aircraft and vessels become swamped with materials that cannot be collected by port authorities on arrival, and field workers are removed from their original positions of front-line humanitarian assistance to sort through items that may just be thrown away because they cannot be used or stored.

It is important to recognize that NGOs with staff deployed in the field are conducting needs-assessments and evaluating what goods are required. With your donated money, they can buy the proper equipment and goods they know they need and which will not impede them from doing their work efficiently. If you cannot provide funds and wish to donate materials to your local NGO, there are many that are requesting specific donations, such as satellite phones with minutes, or surgical supplies. Please donate only the field-specific goods that the NGOs ask for, as sifting through donated materials uses manpower that may be used more effectively elsewhere. At a later date, your donations of other material goods may be needed: Please save them until that time when they are more likely to be used liberally and most importantly, effectively.

Do not earmark funds: Organizations that have deployed staff to the disaster site have a stronger understanding of how and where to spend your monetary donation than you do; please let them make this decision for you. While it may be very generous to donate funds towards a specific geographic area within the disaster, the organization will be required to spend all the earmarked funds in that specific area irrespective of whether the site improves. If a neighbouring area is still in crisis, your earmarked funds cannot be donated to help and will continue to fund programs in the original region you specified them for, potentially leading to more crises in neighbouring regions.

The purpose of your monetary donation is to help individuals in the field provide a maximum of life-saving measures to improve the quality of life of those suffering from the crisis. By being in the field they are better equipped to determine who requires the most help, and what kind of help they need. If you do not believe that the organization you are donating to will use the funds properly, please do not donate to them. Find one you trust and then do it: trust them.

Do not go to the disaster site: While for many people this is obvious, many do-gooders feel that they can best contribute to relief efforts by traveling to the disaster site to provide emergency help. Please do not do this. Haiti does not need “extra hands,” and your well-intentioned presence is not required. Front-line humanitarian aid workers are highly skilled professionals who have been trained to deal with emergency situations – physically and psychologically, but also professionally. In a state of crisis, trained logisticians have a strong understanding of supply-chain management, how to direct goods and how to manage needs in the event of an emergency. If you arrive on-site, your presence is likely to disrupt coordinated relief efforts and you risk hindering the relief process, as well as hurting yourself and/or others.

This rule also applies to trained doctors and nurses. While your skills are absolutely desired, if you arrive on site and are not under the responsibility of a coordinated relief effort, you risk disrupting humanitarian aid and will become a burden for the person who ends up being responsible for you. If you are a medical professional with significant surgical or trauma training and experience and would like to volunteer with the relief effort in Haiti, please contact Partners in Health directly for information. They are seeking anesthesiologists, nephrologists, orthopedic and trauma surgeons, trauma nurses, and surgical technicians.

Do NOT adopt a child: In the wake of a disaster such as Haiti’s, stories of homeless, parentless children left alone to fend for themselves in the rubble are rampant on the internet and in the news. You may feel a strong desire to give an orphaned child a home and to protect him or her from any further danger. However, the reality is that many children “orphaned” by disaster are not actually orphans and indeed have family members who may be frantically looking for them. While you may think that you are being charitable, inter-country adoptions during disasters often encourage the growth of child trafficking. In these cases, seemingly-legitimate organizations arrange for inter-country adoptions in contravention of international laws and may ultimately place the child in grave danger. Inter-country adoptions should never take place during emergency situations precisely because of the instability of the adoption process. If you are interested in helping a child during the emergency, please consider giving generously to UNICEF, Save the Children, Plan International , or War Child. You may also find a charity which suits your needs at Charity Navigator.

Do not forget about Haiti:
While the media blitz that has occurred in light of the Haitian earthquake tragedy has raised awareness about poverty and resulted in mass donations from people across the world, it’s important to recognize that the rehabilitation and rebuilding effort will take many years to complete. In time, your material donations may be very valuable and useful to the survivors of the earthquake who will be struggling to obtain more than just basic tools for survival and will need your donated items; please save your goods and give them generously at that time, when they can be used effectively and reach your target audience.


The reality is that nobody needs your old sweaters or your canned beans. Please donate cash to an organization you trust instead, and allow them to make the decision for you on how to help according to their long-standing experience and knowledge of disaster recovery and development initiatives. Please also don't hesitate to cross-post this or to inform other individuals accordingly, as misguided material donations can waste hundreds of millions of dollars in post-disaster recovery and harms the very people who you are trying to help.

Monday, February 11, 2008

New Position!

So I've been accepted on the list of Child Rights Country Experts for the International Bureau of Children's Rights. My position is as a consultant for the International Bureau on any questions regarding children's rights in state of Sierra Leone. Currently the IBCR is not working on any issues regarding children in Sierra Leone, but as soon as they do, I will be consulted for information on any publications they are writing.

I'm so excited.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Hi Everyone,

This blog has not been updated in an extremely long time. I left Sierra Leone at the end of May 2007, and the idea of writing about it made me tremendously sad. I was completely unable to write about the experience of leaving Sierra Leone: not in the days approaching my leave, at the time of the event, or upon my return to Canada. Additionally, I felt that this was my Africanna Blog, that it had been removed from anything pertaining to my regular life, and that it was particularly Africa-based. I have not, unfortunately, been able to return to Africa since my leave.

However, I now have good news regarding my most major project in Sierra Leone. A recap of what I was doing there will help readers, I think:

When I first moved to Sierra Leone in November 2006, Sierra Leone was, according to the United Nations Human Development Index (published yearly) THE poorest country on the planet, and had been for the past ten years. Since then we've moved up one notch. (Now I believe it's Niger that is in the worst place.) This is tremendously unfortunate for Niger, but wonderful for Sierra Leone, in that it is showing at least a minimum of progress. Equally unfortunately, it is only a minimum of progress.

My work in Sierra Leone as a legislative analyst in children's rights and international law has just been published, and I know that several people here have shown an avid interest in human rights, world politics or Africa in particular. For this reason I thought I would use this venue to raise awareness about this publication.

An explanation may help:

Only two States in the world have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) - those being Somalia and the United States. The reason these two countries have refused to ratify the convention is because it states that children (meaning anyone under the age of 18) cannot be executed for a crime.

However, in International Law, a theory exists that if virtually all States (usually 2-thirds) have signed a Convention, then it is applicable to all countries, even if they have not signed it. Because of its massive ratification worldwide, the UNCRC has made waves as the most-ratified international treaty in history. It is important. Many scholars say that both Somalia and the United States are bound by its provisions, despite never having signed it.

When this treaty was written it included two important provisions:

1) That States must regularly submit Reports to the United Nations stating in detail how they had fulfilled their obligations, and:

2) That NGOs could form a "coalition" to provide an Alternative Report explaining what they had experienced in real life, on the ground, regarding their humanitarian work. This provision was considered essential to ensure that the UN was not given erroneous information about children's rights worldwide. It gave a chance for everyone else to say, "Hey wait, the Government says that they are providing assistance to schools, however what we see are: no teachers, no books, no schools. They're wrong. What gives?"

This means that the UN would be faced with two alternating reports - one from those in charge, and one from everyone else. The two, together, would be assessed by the United Nations, who would then publish their Concluding Observations. These Concluding Observations would include a several page-long report telling the State what they needed to do to fix the situation. The United Nations' observations are mandatory.

My job in Sierra Leone was to organize this Coalition and write the Alternative Report. And it has just been published. (!!)

I spent my time there reading submissions from various NGOs in Sierra Leone, assessing the convention, national laws, the education system, the health system, how former child soldiers were treated, what kind of rape/abuse crisis centers existed (if any), and talking with abused children. I visited hospitals, I spoke with former child soldiers, I spoke with victims of war whose entire families were murdered. I analysed the proposed Child Rights Act (2006) and was invited to Parliament (twice) to tell the MPs what was missing, what was needed, what wouldn't work. I was, at the time, one of the leading Child Rights Specialists in Sierra Leone due to the extensive array of subjects addressed in my report.

And it's finally been published!

For any of you who are interested in world politics, human rights, poverty, rape as a weapon of war, child soldiers, juvenile justice, health, nutrition, or law, I would strongly encourage you to read this report. Feel free to skip the complicated beginning that focuses on legislative and administrative reform and jump to the sections that interest you according to the table of contents, such as:

1. General measures of implementation
2. Definition of the child
3. Education, leisure and cultural activities
4. Civil rights and freedoms
5. Family environment and alternative care
6. Basic health and welfare
7. Special protection measures/children in emergency
8. Children in conflict with the law
9. Conclusion

Thank you on behalf of myself and all the people I worked with, all the women and children I met throughout my stay, all the war children, and all the victims of poverty and war in Africa, be they in Sierra Leone or elsewhere in Africa. Because, unfortunately, these issues are widespread and not purely Salone-based, but prevalent in almost all African countries, as well as most post-conflict societies, be they in Europe, Asia, South America, or elsewhere.

Reading this kind of publication allows you to see both sides -- and officially so -- knowing that you are not reading the humanitarian version of The Enquirer; You are not reading dramatized heart-string-pulling, please-donate, wallet-wringers. This is it, the offically-accepted, document truth, as provided by multiple national and international humanitarian workers with nothing to gain but change. Additionally, it only even skirts the major issues. :(

Thanks to anyone who bothered reading this, let alone skimming the report!

You may find it here:

With so much love for Sweet Salone,

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What's New?

I am writing this from Mamba Point, a very Western guesthouse/restaurant/bar. I have mentioned it once before, saying that here you can find a good pizza, watch movies on Tuesdays, and (unfortunately) meet very few Sierra Leoneans. It is one of my favourite places to go, despite its frigid atmosphere, the shameless dismissal of its African home, and despite the abundance of boisterous clients. But it is one of the only places in Freetown where a person can find a caesar salad, a clean draft beer, and a big-screen television with cable. I come here regularly after work to - well, work, since that’s all I do (when I’m not cruising Facebook, anyway) - and to watch The News.

Throughout my years in Paris I became positively obsessed with The News, raising my electric bills by insisting on keeping my television set to Euronews at absolutely all times. (Because what if something happens and I don’t know about it? What if something happens and I am not there?) I will admit that this obsession began in 2001, on, say... oh, September 11th or so. I did not have a television or a radio, and spent the next week compulsively seeking out televisions at all the local sports bars. On September 18th, my 21st birthday, my mother offered me money to buy myself a television. I have been glued to The News ever since.

Over the next several years in Paris, before crawling out of bed in the mornings, my first sleepy, pyjama-clad step would be to turn on the television and watch the news. I would suddenly soar with purpose and reason, devoted to my studies and my desire for change. I, A-Lok, had Things To Do.

When the repetitive programming got to me and I had memorized all the day’s stories, I would set the television on mute and leave it on all day as I did my homework, occasionally looking up to see if perhaps a fresh story had flashed across the screen with blaring red letters underlining that THIS JUST IN THIS JUST IN THIS JUST IN. It was absolutely, positively, my favourite ritual (newsnewsnewsnews), and, according to some, it apparently disrupted my life and threatened my emotional stability.

“Anna, stop watching the news. You’re just depressing yourself.”
“Anna, stop watching the news. It’s not that interesting.”
“Anna, stop watching the news. Nothing is going to happen in the next few hours.”
“Anna, stop watching the news. Blah blah blah blah.”

I never stopped watching the news. That is, until I came to Sierra Leone.

It is probably the thing that affects me the most here. I have never been a very big television-watcher. And here I am, in Africa, dealing with a lack of most Western comforts, feeling happier than I’ve ever been, and I’m still obsessively, tremendously affected by the fact that I don’t have regular, immediate access to the news upon waking.

My ritual has changed: I wake in the morning thrilled at the prospect of thumping along bumpy roads in a white SUV, excited for work despite knowing that I am going to spend an exhausting day perusing international legislation on child soldiers. I quickly bathe in a concrete oubliette with a bucket of cold water and absent-mindedly wonder if I have malaria (again) (Malaria Countdown: Day 7.) On the drive to work I discuss child protection programmes with my Country Director and pout as I poke my fingers in the sad, black hole from which the car radio was stolen. I want my news.

On arrival to work, I rush upstairs to turn on my computer and scan the World’s Top Stories. I grab a coffee, and excitedly await the morning’s Media Briefing given by our Communications Officer. The news focuses exclusively on Western Africa and issues pertaining to Sierra Leone and are followed by Security Updates. It is unquestionably my favourite part of the day. Because after the Media Briefing, I know that if something happens, even if I am not there, I will know about it.

And then I can change it.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Virginia is the program manager I used to work for, a woman who has faith in my work (to the point that she has *strongly* encouraged me to apply for a job as a Child Rights Program Manager in a war-zone, no less, which requires experience that I simply don’t have, but which she insists I would be amazing at, which means more than I could ever express because she’s positively brilliant) and one of my favourite people in Sierra Leone. Virginia, I love you so much more tonight, because you suggested a brilliant idea about my mattress problem.

After commenting about the fact that “Geez, A-Lok, you seem tired - is everything ok?” I answered a resounding, guttural, whiny, lengthy “NOOOO, *I can’t sleep,*” to which she suggested that I do something very simple that I’d never have dared do without her permission: Switch my mattress with that of the other bed in my apartment. Duh, right? But I don’t actually have to pay for my living accommodations and “but that is the guest’s bed! And Temporary Roommate is returning this weekend! I can’t do that to her, she knows how terrible my mattress is...” Instead of agreeing that it would be rude, Virginia insisted that my health is paramount because of the simple fact that I actually have to sleep on the pseudo-concrete mattress every night, whereas Temporary Roommate is only there very rarely. “A-Lok, you need sleep. Badly. Switch the mattress,” she said. So tonight I did. Wish me luck, because I felt supremely guilty doing something so ridiculously simple.

PS. I was bitten by several mosquitos last night. Malaria Watch Countdown starts today: Day 1.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

I'm a whiner.

My feet get very dark here in my sandals. I was staring at them a moment ago and noticing the lovely tan that I am getting. Then I took a shower and my miraculous “tan” washed off in a murky grey mess, the product of smog and copious amounts of red dust in the air. I am not tanned - I am just a dirty shade of orange-ish brown. The rainy season is coming and the air is humid. The result ia a soft coating of reddish-orangish-brown sand decorating my skin. Something about it makes me giggle every time it happens (which is every day.) I suppose I should be disgusted about being perpetually dirty, but each and every day, as my pseudo-tan washes down the drain in a muddy whimper, I let out a little teehee. I’ve been living in Africa on-and-off since November, and every little “inconvenience” about living here still makes me giggle.

Last Wednesday I was at a party and Adam made a comment (crack? -Ermm..) about me being rude (Moi?! N’importe quoi!) and when he said it, Virginia, my boss, piped up (with a smile so bright it even rivals those of the children here) that I was the most enthusiastic and positive person in the office “even on Monday mornings!” When she said it, she practically squealed, and I beamed so brightly.

I am constantly beaming here, and so genuinely. I mention in my profile that I have never been so physically uncomfortable or so happy in my life: The latter is definitely the truth (who would have known that a person could love life so incredibly?) the former, I had been so used to it that I stopped noticing any difficulties.

Until recently.

Until 4 days ago, I was genuinely, completely, unequivocally, the happiest I had been in my life, and possibly the most uncomfortable, but really hadn't noticed the latter anymore. However, for the last four days, one tiny thing has thrown my days off-kilter, and the result is that I spent the entire weekend (let alone Smiley/Happy/Cheerful Mondays) not only being unenthusiastic, but being positively negative. On Monday, Brian, our logistics manager and my personal hero, cheerfully asked if I had had a good weekend: I pouted and shamelessly hurled out a resounding “NO.” ...An answer I had never (ever) voiced before at work. But now, since my work has moved me to a new apartment, and since I spent a miserable weekend, I finally voiced it:
NO. I did NOT have a good weekend. And on this Monday Morning, I was NOT HAPPY.

The "dire" issue? : My new bed:

I moved to a new apartment on Friday. My new bed is so hard that I checked under both the sheets AND the mattress to see if possibly the last tenant had slipped a sheet of wood under there, if not a whole plank of solid concrete. I have lain in bed over the last several days and literally (seriously) contemplated whether sleeping on the floor on a pile of clothes might be more comfortable. For the first three days I suspected that perhaps this might be a case of princess-and-the-pea-syndrome since my last apartment was such a palace (and, let’s face it, I am the quintessential Spoiled Brat: Fortunately so, because I’ve been so incredibly lucky, and Unfortunately so, because I fear it makes me a less-likeable human being), but I have since had the bed verified by two girlfriends of mine and they have both responded in ways that confirm that my whininess has been legitimate. Temporary Roommate pushed on my bed with her fists and said (with genuine shock), “Oh, wow.... That is hard!” Temporary Roommate invited a friend over, and since Friend had no You-are-my-Roommate-so-I-will-be-Polite reasons for lying, her yelps upon touching my mattress caused me to give out a sigh of relief. I am not just a Western princess complaining about her difficult life: my mattress is unbelievably hard. Like, maybe-sleeping-on-the-floor-will-be-more-comfortable-HARD. I sleep for only about 3 to 4 hours a night. I spend the rest twisting and contorting my body against the most solid substance I have ever had to lie upon, kicking against my mosquito net and wishing that I could just fall ASLEEP but OW my SKIN and my MUSCLES HURT OW...

The result is that I spend my nights wanting to cry about the fact that crap, my bed sucks, and crap, crap, crap, I am such an (expletive) spoiled little Western (expletive) brat.

Since Friday, I have woken every morning in cranky tenderness, contorting my muscles and moaning in pain as my bones creak against one another. I groan and mope over to the bathroom in the mornings praying that there will be hot water in the shower to soothe my muscles before I trudge over to work. Except that in this apartment, not only does my shower not work, the feeble trickle of water dribbling from the showerhead feels like it’s pouring from my (ineffective) air conditioning unit. The result is that I can’t use the shower at all, and instead of having hot water pour over my aching muscles, I am back to dunking a bucket in a tub of cold water and pouring it over my head repeatedly, praying that it will be enough water to rinse the suds out of my hair and trying not to cringe from the cold, since that just makes my bones and muscles ache further.

It’s been very difficult for me to deal with this for the last four days because a) I’m obviously finding it painful, but b) I’m fully aware that this is no big deal. I am one of the most privileged people I know. I actually *have* an air-conditioning unit, while most of the country is sweltering in wooden shanties with thin tin roofs. I actually have access to purified water, and I have the opportunity to bathe every day. I live in a country where very few of the nationals actually sleep in a bed at all, let alone on a solid mattress. They sleep on concrete, on wooden planks, on dirt. In the rainy season, the concrete, the wood, the dirt, is wet. I, A-Lok, cannot complain.

But I will admit that my skin and muscles still do.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Small-small update.

I am so incredibly busy with my project right now that I haven't been updating any of my blogs. I write something almost every single night while I lie in bed but I always get too tired or anxious about work or distracted by must-sleep-must-sleep-count-sheep and turn off my computer before I have finished writing the latest entry. My project has to be completed by April 15th (*cough* tomorrow) and it's just not ready yet. I'm glad that the final report will not say "A Report On Children's Rights in Sierra Leone by A-Lok" because I'm going to be mortified by the lousy quality of formatting when it's completed. Oh well. The information contained is priceless, I've learned so much that my line manager mentioned that I'm probably more knowledgable about children's rights than any of the other expats in Sierra Leone (*ahem*She said it, not me), and I've had an incredible rush writing it. I'm just disappointed that I've had to write about 30 pages worth of information that is going directly to the United Nations and I've only had a month to do it. (!?!) It's simply not going to be a perfect document and I'm disappointed by that.

Despite that, it's been very well worth the stress and the anxiety, since I spend my days learning absolutely immeasurable things. My evenings are spent drinking cool white wine on a beautiful porch overlooking bougainvillea bushes, reading books with Kumba and Fatmatah (the children who live on my compound) and eating chicken schwarmas by the pool at the local hotel. I take dirty, crumbling taxi cabs and chat with the locals who tell me stories about Salonean weddings, I hand out candies to the most beautiful, smiliest children you've ever seen, and feel extraordinarily fulfilled.

So, I have a million other things to add and plenty of half-written entries that I promise to complete and post next week when I actually have the time. In the meantime, I will mention this:

- I am currently at the Hotel Cabenda, which is why I have suddenly had internet over the weekends. They have wireless! Who woulda thunk it? We barely have electricity half the time, and here they have free wireless internet. I usually therefore spend my weekends working with my computer by the hotel pool, burning, uh, beautifully.

- The swimming pool is closed today because the hotel is having a wedding here this evening. I am supposed to go to a party tonight (theme: "glamour." I have a kickass red lipstick. It'll be interesting to see how a bunch of expats normally clothed in khakis and a pretty coating of red dust manage to clean up to look "glamorous.") but I am tempted to stick around to watch the wedding take place. I have never seen a Salonean ceremony before.

- My waitress told me that she thinks that I would make a beautiful bride. *Ahem*, mothers, lock up your sons!

- I went to a big musical festival on Easter Monday with my friend Justin. It was a music competition between artists: Western Sierra Leone vs. Eastern Sierra Leone. During this concert I experienced my first rain in 6 months. You can watch the video on Justin's website here. He also included some other videos from that night and has more to come, so feel free to peruse his site.

- I finish work on the 18th and leave on the 20th at night. During those two days off I need to: distribute all the gifts that I brought for the Salonean families I met here on my first trip; buy many, many souvenirs that will not fit into my suitcase and for which I will be royally ripped off at the covered market (so don't expect much, dear friends); I need to lead a workshop with collaborators of my project and my NGO's team; I need to go to several schools to ditribute pencils, pens and books to children; I need to pack and move out; and I need to socialise and take photos of all the things I've seen.

- I will be profoundly busy in my last week and probably arrive in Canada suffering from malaria, typhoid, an inflammed gall bladder and 2nd degree burns from the sun.

- Can't wait to see you all! Please take care of me when I arrived burnt, burnt-out, half dead, and brilliantly happy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Our logistics team is out of town. They've left for a week to stay in Kailahun in the far eastern part the country, near the Liberian border. Freetown is in the far east next to the ocean. This departure on their part is problematic for my NGO because every time they leave everything goes wrong.

The Logisitics Team is in charge of doing all the necessary things that the rest of the staff either can't be bothered to do, or simply can't do no matter how much they are bothered. When a computer breaks it is Brian, our Head (and up until last week only) Logistics Guy who phones all the pseudo-computer-tech stores to get someone to come in to fix it. Brian is the one we call when we have a car accident, when we notice our guards falling asleep on the job, when our tanks run out of fuel, when the front gate to the compound becomes so covered in rust that it breaks at the hinges and falls off. We call Brian when we are in danger, when we are lost, when we have been robbed, when our car breaks down in Kenema 5 hours from home. Brian is the lifeblood of the NGO who ensures that everything that needs to be done is done. He makes sure we have water and electricity, air conditioning and petrol. But now Brian is gone and he's taken his new recruits with him. Since Brian left yesterday, the following has happened:

- The residential compound has run out of water. We are expected to have enough left to last us until tomorrow. Rumours in the newspaper talk of breaks in the water pipe that extends from the ocean through Freetown. It was built in 1965 by the British and is a corrugated mess. We have emailed Brian to tell him that none of us will be showering for the rest of the week. While we wait for Brian to come home next week and solve the problem for our apartments we will pray for rain to fill the well on the compound. We will use rain water for our showering, bathroom and cooking needs until Brian comes back.

- The generator at work has just been turned off. I've mentioned several times that we have two of them - the main generator and an auxiliary. I frequently complain about the lousiness of the main generator that constantly breaks and the weakness of the auxiliary that serves little purpose. Usually something breaks with the main generator so we turn on the auxiliary to at least have basic electricity. The auxiliary generator has enough strength to power our computers, but not the air conditioner, which usually leaves me in a sweaty, unproductive heap at my desk. Today, we have no generators - main or auxiliary. Apparently there was a considerable fuel leak in the shack that houses them and now neither can be used. As I write this I am wasting batteries on my laptop in a black office with no air conditioning and a lot of hot air.

I absolutely hate it when Brian leaves. The last time Brian left Charly and I got in a car accident and had to flee the scene for our safety. We swore to each other in a panic that Brian is not allowed to leave ever again. Brian is our guide, our contigency plan, our mechanic, and our hero. But since Brian is not here, we are going to bathe in residual rain water and work in darkness, and if the President is murdered and we need to be evacuated, the five white expatriate ladies working in my office (myself included) will call Brian in a hysterical panic. Oh Brian, how I wish you'd return, I'm so very sweaty right now.

In other news... Freetown has run out of milk.

In other other news, my project is coming along splendidly and I am so very proud of myself. :)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Des photos.

Today has been an exceptionally long day. I had a complicated presentation to make this morning (which sucked) and spent the morning feeling drained because of it. We ordered pizza for lunch since it seemed like everyone was walking around licking unknown wounds and it made me feel marginally better, but only marginally. So I decided that I needed a break from working my ass off only to have shitty results and spent the day chatting online and uploading photos all over the world. It takes about 45546782 minutes to upload each photo, so there aren't that many new ones for you to see. But I'm getting to it, promise.

When I am done this post I am going to go home, play some jazz music and read in the sunset on my huge porch. My apartment house is huge and gorgeous. I live in tthe white half and plan to throw a huge house party soon:

And this is where we went this weekend, Toke Beach:

And that's all for now, since I'm going home for some cool white wine and a lot of Glenn Miller... Then maybe off to Mamba Point for Tuesday's Movie Night.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rape Statistics/quotes. Might be triggering.

None of this is surprising, but it's an important reminder sometimes:

"(Dispute-resolution in rape cases) can also result in the victim being married to the perpetrator, particularly in remote areas, as families are often concerned that the victim will not be able to marry if she is not a virgin. If the victim has been so brutally raped that she cannot bear children, this may encourage her family to marry her to the perpetrator, as she might be seen as not eligible for marriage to other men because of her inability to bear children."

"The high status given to virginity means that rape of a virgin is considered a serious crime; indeed, it is still widely believed that rape of a virgin is the only form of rape." Also, "Any man who invades the husband's exclusive sexual rights over a wife compensates the husband, and not the wife, for 'woman damage.'"

Also: I read today that the first rape case to be sent to trial and fully prosecuted in Sierra Leone occured in 1999. Nineteen-ninety-nine. Not even ten years ago. The first case. Ever. I want to barf.

But! Also also: Paris Hilton may or may not have had breast implants.

And people wonder why I keep taking breaks.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Photos from the drive to work.

I brought my camera to work today so that I could take some photos on the way of everyday scenes in Sierra Leone. The photos are crap quality because I took them inside a moving vehicle, so the light sucks and I didn't aim at any particular scenery or anything... But these are just some random photos of the drive to work in the mornings and shows what the streets of Freetown look like:

It's really crazy to see the things people carry on their heads sometimes:

I leaned over the driver's arms to take this photo outside her window. I just liked the greenery:

And other random, older, photos of areas near my office:

A little stream I found buried behind an old shack:

Where I work:

Where I buy fruit:

And lastly, photos of the beautiful children who make living here totally worth it:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

When I'm Warm More Likely That You Notice Me.

Good god, I can't believe it's March 27th already. I left on what day, the 16th? Could that be true? Because that actually makes me feel better if it's the case. That would mean that I've only been here eleven days. It felt like much more because I'm so worried about my work deadline and was so pissed at the local NGOs for slowing me down (they are NOT working towards our April 13th deadline with any expediency and it's screwing up my timeline) I felt that time was flying by. Have I seriously only been here for a week and a half? Not bad. I'm doing well, then, making progress professionally despite recent setbacks, and learning and seeing new things. I've been lucky to have had many enlightening conversations during my time here with both the locals and with the people I meet.

This evening I had dinner upstairs (the green part of my house) at Cindy and Grant's place. They've lived in so many countries -SL, Senegal, Kyrgykstan, and Kuwait amongst others - and have a beautifully decorated apartment full of African masks and middle-Eastern statues. It's the kind of place I've always wanted for my future home. We were joined by Jeremy, a recent addition to Save the Children who is helping us with logistics and emergency planning. He lives in Senegal and has lived in Nigeria and Kenya, so the group had all kinds of entertaining stories to tell about African snakes (a Mamba snake is apparently very common here and can stand up on its tail up to 2 meters and is known for attacking cars.) We drank Malibu Rum-and-Cokes. We ate chicken and potatoes with mango chutney and had salad with homemade dressing that was surprisingly incredible. Chocolate cake with icing was a beautiful dessert. You wouldn't believe how incredibly important it is to have a home-cooked meal here and how intensely amazing the women cooks are. Elizabeth cooks for them twice a week and I fully intend to sneak upstairs the next time she supplies them with an African feast.

I'd had an absolutely horrible day - what is it with the fact that I've had SIX ex-boyfriends either come on to me or suddenly write to me with no prodding whatsoever in the last six weeks?! I have been an emotional hemophiliac for 6 weeks now - and this dinner invitation was a wonderful way to end my professionally- and personally-shitty day. One ex-boyfriend is a lot to handle. Six is ridiculous. I guess Cindy felt sympathy when she saw me walking around with slumped shoulders and called me upstairs to join her for dinner. I came upstairs and when she put a rum-and-coke in my hand I almost collapsed with gratitude at her sympathy for an obviously Anguished Anna. A couple of drinks, an amazing dinner, a beautiful sunset, puppies to play with and so much talk of law, politics and stories about Africa totally brought up my spirits.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Liquid diamonds.

Yesterday was my mother's birthday and I missed it because a) I am far away, b) I don't have access to email on weekends and c) the phone I was given appears to be locked so that I can't make international calls. Oops. Sorry mommy. I will write to you today.

I went to the British High Commission's private beach-house at Toké beach on Friday night. There were about 22 other expats there and the night was spent roasting marshmallows and hotdogs, eating fish freshly taken from the ocean and grilled on the stove, swimming under the stars and sleeping next to the fire.

The last time I went to the BHC beach we noticed something beautiful occurring at night in the water, something that Michelle called "phosphorescence." I don't know how the hell I'd ever describe it, but I will try: When you swim at night and swish your arms around under water, where bubbles would normally appear, rise brightly illuminated strange "lights." They are not actually "lights" but appear as such. You get the impression that you have come across a nest of some kind of underwater lightbugs and that they are all scattering in a panic as a result of your movement. It is an absolutely incredible thing to witness and we squealed and jumped about trying to make more of these bugs/reflections/whatevers appear. We spent much time discussing whether these bright lights were a result of the reflection of the fire, a reflection of the moonlight, a result of our drunken eyes imagining something, or whether it was biological in origin. It was decided, however, that the light cast off from the fire was entirely too far away, as was (of course) the moon. This was not a reflection of external light but probably the result of some ocean bacteria, much like the bright colours you see exhibited by corals and tropical fish. Michelle's endless talk of "No, it's phosphorescence, I know it! That's what it's called, I swear!" convinced us that this phenomenon was a) not caused by drunken hallucinations b) particular to certain areas of the world, and c) actually named something specific. I disagreed with Michelle's term for it because to be "phosphorescent" is, to me anyway, a description of something much more general, like glow-in-the-dark stickers and blacklights. They experience phosphorescence also, don't they? So what the hell is this particular phosphorescent thing? I repeatedly swore that I would look it up on Wikipedia and indeed did so, skimming over most of the technical jargon but realising that Michelle was probably right - this thing was not mentioned, but it is still definitely phosphorescent. Whatever this thing is, I never found out what it was.
I will never be able to adequately describe the beauty caused by swishing your hands around underwater in almost-blackness when you have these blue-white sparkly things, these little dots of cold fire, responding to your touch. But most interestingly, I discovered that these things are definitely a biological phenomenon and not simply a strange underwater lightshow. The first time I'd been at the BHC beach I'd gone swimming at night alone, staring at these lights by myself, convinced that it was just something I was imagining or that was caused by the light of the moon/fire. I eventually came out of the water because I'd found myself being bitten by some kind of underwater bug ("bug?") and the constant pricking of my skin annoyed me too much to stay in the ocean. Shortly afterwards the rest of the gang decided to swim and we all dove in and experienced (together this time) this vision of liquid diamonds underwater.

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to experience it again. I went swimming with Justin Hane and American Justin (who does not like to be called that, so I should stop, but how will my readers distinguish the two Justins?)... This time, while swimming, I yanked on some seaweed and viewed the most extraordinary thing: The seaweed, pulled out the water, began to glitter with cool white flashing lights against the skin on my hand. Justin Hane describes them as "little stars that you can hold in your hands, but that slide through your fingers and disappear into the night." That's exactly what it was. Slippery, sparkling, little stars.

The whole phosphorescence thing is *definitely* caused by some kind of bacteria or bug because once again the crowd experienced sudden, strange pinpricks on the skin. It was like being swarmed with mosquitos underwater so we eventually bolted out of the water towards the warmth of the fire. I was personally not assaulted by these underwater bacterial beasts but remembered them from the first trip and found them way too creepy to stay in the water myself. I am positive that the pricking sensation is linked with these wet stars. Beauty and the beast in one entity?

So that's that. Now: Does anyone know what the heck I am talking about?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My work.

Today was a wonderful day. It started out a pretty mediocre - I've been very tired recently, feeling lonely despite constant socialising, and I've been finding my work depressing. It's a project that I think is supremely important and no one but my boss seemed to be very interested in it. I spent the day reading the Convention on Children's Rights, wishing that people would help a little more and wondering why no one seemed too willing to provide much information. Yesterday I finally understood why - apparently the information that was sent out to the various teams of NGOs was rather incomplete and made the project sound like Save the Children was basically asking other people to do our work for us. No wonder everyone has been polite but otherwise too busy to really contribute. Let me tell you what I'm doing (even though I wrote it in another post, but nobody else seems to have read it. Besides, it will help me organise my project.) In point-form so that it's not too boring for you to read:

- SL signed the UNCRC in 1990. Article 44 of this Convention says that each signatory State has to provide a report on how they are protecting children's rights every two-to-ten years.

- SL was supposed to submit a report in 1996. They finally finished writing it in 2005. It was published in December 2006. Ten years late, they finally told the UN in a 93-page report how wonderful they are at protecting children.

- The report is misleading and often makes it sound like the government has completely revolutionised children's rights in SL. They have not. The report is not entirely faulty and the country admits to having many problems, but also implies that children's rights are being adequately protected. They are not.

-Article 45 of the UNCRC says that it is up to NGOs to monitor the implementation of this convention. It says that NGOs may coordinate a coalition to write a counter-report to that of the Government.

- I am fully aware that absolutely nobody is reading this.

- After the Government submitted its report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF asked Save the Children to organise the writing of a complementary report to what the government wrote so that the Committee can hear about both sides of the issues: What the Government says is happening vs. what the relief workers are actually seeing on the ground.

- This report will be submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in April after which it will be presented orally in Geneva in June. It is this report that will be used by the Committee when the UN is making decisions on children's rights policies in the future. The next report will not be created for another ten years or so. This is the ultimate opportunity for each NGO to say: The Convention says X, the Government says Y, and our reality is Z. We want changes.

-Now, when presented this way and the NGOs suddenly realise that their comments and contributions are going in a report straight to the UN, that their words, their experiences, and their statistics will be directly compared to what the Government is saying, suddenly I see results.

- Today I had a meeting with the director of World Vision who started slapping his desk saying "It's going to the UN? Oh, that changes everything! We'll help!" The International Rescue Committee is on board with us. We now have submissions from Mercy Ships, the Forum for African Women Educationalists, Caritas Makeni, and the Red Cross. Tomorrow I have a meeting with the director of Catholic Relief Services, the Justice Sector Development Program, and am going to go see Medicos del Mundo. We finally have a team.

- And I am still writing despite the fact that there is nobody reading this. You are brats for not caring about my work. :P

- Once I have submissions and comments from all the NGOs, I have to take their comments on child abuses, compare them to what the Government says in the report, do a comparative analysis with the UNCRC, the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, and the Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict and the Child Rights Act, and then write it all into the report.

- I have a month. The project is due April 13th or we won't be able to have it ready for the oral submissions in Geneva. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

March 20th.

I have a meeting with Justin Hane tomorrow. Justin works for Mercy Ships and will be helping provide us with statistics for the UNCRC report that we're handing in. Justin is Canadian, thinks he looks decent when showered "but not necessarily when shaven" and wrote a poem about Pamplemousse, a kitten who died after being mauled by a dog. I know all this despite not having ever met Justin Hane because he has a blog on the Internet in which he talks about his time in Sierra Leone. I've been reading it for the past two weeks.

Justin wrote an entry a while ago in which he talked about the meaninglessness of meaningless posts in a Blog and about how he has a tendency to write about writing about nothing. I completely understood. He swore that he would write about something even if it was nothing. Dude, I so understand. I vow to do the same all the time. I noticed, however, that most of his posts are short. They are entertaining to read. I read about 6 months of his life in about an hour. I know that others are interested. I wish that my thoughts were equally as entertaining, but I'm afraid that I'm a rambler with no interest in journalism and no talent for writing. BUT. I force myself to write about it because otherwise I tend to disappear, so this is all we get:

Today I went to Mamba Point after work. It was Movie Night. Mamba Point is the local expat bar. It is riddled with white people and if you hang out there long enough you will almost certainly make a lot of friends. You will learn very little about Sierra Leone and the nationals there, but you will eat a good pizza. Today I had copious amounts of beer (Star Beer, Sierra Leone's local brew) and ate a mediocre hummous. It's mediocre but I crave it and order it all the time.

I went to the bar with Virginia, my boss, and V.J., our new logisitics guy. Virginia is Spanish and extraordinarily kind to me, which I find strange since Charly told me that Virginia does not really like to associate with staff members. Virginia is a Spaniard Taurus (um, aren't all Spaniards Torros?), a dark-haired, hot-blooded, crazy woman who has worked as a project manager in just about every dangerous country you can name. She is minuscule, works out all the time, appears not to eat, and is extremely intelligent. She is 31 years old. We bonded on Saint Patrick's Day and hugged fiercely after both admitting that we'd broken up with men we'd hoped to marry. She has since introduced me to just about every single man in Freetown. Each time she does so, she says, "Hi ____, this is Anna, she is very, very smart, and very beautiful." It is embarrassing and I have no idea how to react: Smile, blush, nod, or just sit and do all the above. I smile awkwardly, blush awkwardly, and awkwardly fidget, shyly playing with my hair.

Tomorrow we are going for Salsa lessons and on Sunday we are going to the private beach owned (run? borrowed?) by the Spanish consular. Apparently there will be tons of booze and caviar. I have signed up for Spanish lessons on Monday Nights, Tuesday Nights are Movie Night at Mamba Point, Wednesdays are Salsa, Thursdays are (so far) free, Friday nights everyone goes to Atlantic (a club), and weekends are for beaches. Life in Sierra Leone is going to be a constant wave of movement for me this time. After my (far-too) wild times in Paris, my attempt to calm down during my first time in SL (and my apparently lackluster personality given all it did for my relationship) we'll see how I do with this current schedule. I think I prefer hanging out with the kids and feeding them candies while they smother me with dirty hands. I'd rather read a book to kids who understand none of my words and pet a lamb than awkwardly look away while men argue over who gets to be my Spanish teacher.

First Day Back in Sierra Leone.

It is my first "real" day back in Sierra Leone. I arrived yesterday evening but the act of just traveling through the airport, over the bay by ferry and then settling in the home at night doesn't really count. You can't feel the heat of the sun at night, you see very little, and the fatigue of traveling makes everything a little blurry anyway. But one thing last night stood out powerfully for me, reminding me that Anna You Are in Africa, Welcome Back: the smell.

Sierra Leone is a very odiferous country. It is not "smelly" like, for example, Gaie Paris, where the smell of sewage frequently rapes the nostrils and dampens the excitement of your "romantic" rendez-vous. But Sierra Leone is nonetheless a country bathed in various odours, some of them objectively pleasant-smelling (like the strong scent of wood baking in the heat of the sun) some of them less-so, like the gangrenous smell of burning garbage. All of it somehow smelled wonderful to me last night. The warm air combining with engine oil from the airplanes smelled like home to me as I stood on the tarmac after exiting the aircraft. The airport smelled like sweat and dirt and African hair. The taxi that took me to the ferry was probably the most well-kept taxi I've seen during my time here and it still bore the scents of spilled engine oil and gasoline. As we drove from the airport, the scent of baked dirt wafted into the vehicle making it impossible for me to conceal my smile. Moses, one of Save the Children's drivers (and incidentally my favourite) glanced at me in the backseat and caught me staring out the window with a dreamy smile. He laughed. "Sierra Leone loves you too, Miss Anna," he said. I hadn't realized that my love for the country was so transparent and Moses' comment made me simultaneously blush and beam with pleasure and gratitude. What an adorable idea.
I woke up this morning long after morning had actually passed – 2pm. The jetlag is obviously taking its toll. As I write this I am sitting in the Save the Children residential compound outside the gigantic guest house where I will be lodged throughout my stay. The apartment house is enormous and since I today found out that my boss lives on a separate compound, I thoroughly intend to throw a house party before I leave.

I have only been outside for the past three hours yet my white t-shirt and new jeans are already sprinkled with a thin coat of red dirt. My sunglasses become regularly fogged, smearing my makeup (looks like I will be switching to waterproof mascara) and I can tell that my skin has received a mild tan through the clouds blocking the sun. Despite the dull cloudiness the air and skies are still bright. A strong, persistent wind blows today, which is odd. It cools the air only slightly as I am sweating regardless of its presence. The only sounds are the twinkling of endless leaves in the wind, occasional cries of children playing in the streets and the staccatoed banging of a hammer far off in the distance. This morning I was awakened by the crows of a rooster. I feel like I am at the centre of a very peaceful place that encourages health (mental and emotional, anyway.) I feel absolutely wonderful.

I'm so happy to be back.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Valentine's dinner with my dad, a glass of deep red wine by my side, some melatonin in my system and a terrible case of jet lag. This country is freezing cold even though it's only -13 C. I went to the gym today for two hours and haven't been smoking since I left Paris yesterday morning. Most importantly, this morning I was offered a tentative contract with Save the Children for a 2-month consultancy project in Freetown. I'd logged on this morning to my computer to do two things: 1) Send an email to Save the Children thanking them for the opportunity they gave me to volounteer for them and 2) Search for a job.

Instead, when I opened my inbox I had an email from one of my line-managers at STC asking if I would be interested in coming back: "Most important: we are seriously considering to offer you another consultancy to support the write up of the alternative report on the UN CRC, we are looking for funding and we got a positive feedback from a Save Sweden, although not confirmed yet. It will be a 2 months consultancy, I cant tell you now the terms and benefits, but for sure you wont be a volunteer!"


I have spent the day alternatively smiling and feeling anxious, shopping in my head ("I need a dentist appointment before I go, a haircut, a mosquito net, a... a... a....") and feeling something that I can't quite place, can't quite articulate. But I think the closest thing to it might be fear.

Fear. After my initial thoughts of holy fuck you're fucking kidding me I love you Save the Children yes yes yes my thoughts immediately returned to the email I received a couple of days ago from my darling boyfriend - informing me that he was seriously thinking about not returning to Sierra Leone after his vacation. I, having seen that he had long since been worn down by the extreme difficulty of living in Sierra Leone, strongly encouraged him to move on. Job opportunities exist all over the world and he couldn't access them when he couldn't be available for interviews. He deserves more responsibility and more credit. He wasn't happy there. And, of course, there was me: I wasn't going to be in Sierra Leone anymore. How was he possibly going to have fun, eh? Four days later, Mike has quit his job in Sierra Leone, is on his way back to Canada, and I am being offered work in Africa. Oops. Nice timing. On this Valentine's Day, Cupid really hates me.

So I'm going to be alone this time and it makes me a little nervous. I don't have a support network there, can't regularly chat with friends, can't log online after work to send cyber kisses to my loved ones, and I'm probably going to live alone in a tin shanty by myself. What will happen when I get typhoid this time and puke all over myself? Who is going to make sure that I am safe? Who will even care? I have never been the type of person to fear loneliness or solitude, feel extremely safe in Sierra Leone, and feel capable of living there again. But I will admit, that anxiety is there and I am nervous.

But - Never for a second would I think about refusing the offer. It's my dream job - a consultancy with an NGO on human rights.

This is what it's all about: Each State who is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is required to regularly send a report to the UN explaining how the Convention has been implemented and if/how the State has responded to its international obligations. In December, Sierra Leone completed its first report in over ten years. I read it over regularly and noted to my co-workers that it is riddled with factual errors, blatant exaggerations and outright lies. So Save the Children has been asked to write a counter-report to the one submitted by the Government. During my work there I regularly gave tips on what to look for in the document - how it mentioned that children were protected from sexual abuse (truth: only those under 14 actually receive protection, and only sometimes); how the age of criminal responsibility was going to be raised to 16 years of age (truth: it will be raised to 14); etc, etc, etc. Factual errors and exaggerations abound. Soooo... they want me to come back and work with STC in collaboration with UNICEF to write a report on how the Government of Sierra Leone has lied erred in its report. I can't refuse this. I have dreamed of doing this. I live for this and want to do this for the rest of my life. And this time I'd actually get paid for it! I'm scared, I hate Cupid and will one day kill Lady Luck for all the shit she's thrown my way, but I am so incredibly elated at the chance to go back and work on this.

Now. Can we have some kind of donation-drive going where I can collect all your left-over antibiotics? I think that I am going to need a lot of them.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Most Boring Entry Ever: To The Airport I Go.

To the airport I went, really. I sit at the airport as I write this. It is 12:30am and my flight is at 3:45am. We will fly to Senegal first before going to London, but thankfully the time in Senegal will be very short (only 45 minutes.) In the meantime, let me tell my faithful readers about my evening.

In order to get to Freetown it is necessary to traverse the great big bay that separates the airport from the rest of the country. Freetown is one of the only cities that actually has, like, roads and even the crudest form of infrastructure. Outside of Freetown (and around the airport) they don't have this infrastructure - you need a landrover to travel over pseudo-roads and bumpy, unlit, hilly pathways. This means that getting into the country from the airport (and vice versa) is very difficult. You have the following options:

a) a bright yellow and blue helicopter (that I call "the submarine," because I think that thing looks way more like it should be underwater than flapping about in the air) that looks like it is falling apart (which, incidentally, it did... but not while I was on it, don't worry)

b) a hovercraft (which does not work)

c) a taxi or shuttle (which take four to five hours to travel around the bay) or

d) a ferry.

Since the helicopters servicing the airport both caught fire two weeks ago they have been grounded and there's really no other way to get to Freetown (or to the airport) except for the ferry. So, in order to catch my early-morning flight, I organised with Save the Children that I would have transportation to this ferry whose dock is an hour away from my home.

Taking a ferry is not a big deal, usually. But I tend to get violently seasick even on short journeys, so, for me, the idea of a ferry brings about a natural feeling of dread and vivid memories of my sweaty head leaning over a toilet in the basement of a ferry in the Canary Islands on my way to the island of Gomera. I digress, but I guess that's because I so badly do not want to write about my ferry ride. I hate ferries.

I must start off by saying that upon arrival in Sierra Leone I had a lot of natural fears about the country, the war, the people, the fact that here I am translucent white even with my orange tan. Within three weeks it went away and though I was proud of my calm demeanour at the time of my fearfulness, I was interiorly quite tense and constantly darting my eyes, just waiting to be robbed or beaten by some thug mistakenly thinking that I might actually have money. After the first three weeks I realised that I'd probably never been safer in my entire life and I waltzed around town with ease, taking 4-6 taxis a day by myself, in the mornings, in the evenings, commanding better fares, bringing out the A-Lach in me and calling bullshit on people who tried to make me pay 2000 leones for an 800-leone trip. I was safe, I was happy, and I was in control. Tonight, for the first time since the beginning of December, I felt those initial fears arise again.

During my trip in a kick-ass landrover larger than my house treehouse, our night-driver Immanuel asked me how I was going to carry my suitcases from the ferry to the taxi and then to the airport. We were driving through the slums at the time and there were people crowding the streets, fights were breaking out, it was far past sundown and I had never been on a ferry crowded with boisterous locals at night. That is enough of a problem, but considering that I had two heavy suitcases, a laptop bag crammed with a digital camera, usb keys, and various other klunky things that were practically falling out, plus a purse full of euros, pounds and leones, was wearing a brightly coloured turquoise dress and am really fucking white... Well, that all meant trouble. Combine those things with the fact that I was going to be taking an overcrowded ferry dating from the 60's at night by myself, hailing a taxi by myself in an area I don't know when 400 locals are also pushing frantically at one another to get into the cars suddenly had me clenching my stomach muscles and swallowing with difficulty.

"What do you mean you are not coming with me?" I demanded, probably very A-Lach-like and therefore rather impolitely. (Hey, I was scared.) Immanuel told me that he was told to take me only to the ferry but that personally he thought that it was dangerous. I called Charly to ask her what my plan should be. She said "Woah, that is totally dangerous." She called our logistics guy to see what could be done, could Immanuel take me over the ferry with the car and drive me to the airport? What about fuel? Who will pay? Because that's like, totally dangerous. Logistics Guy said that if Immanuel was willing to use his time to take care of me (he gets off at 11pm and would definitely be working overtime if he came with me - and not getting paid for it) then Save the Children would front the fuel costs. I asked Immanuel if he was willing and he said yes. I asked him how he would get home afterwards. He shrugged and said that my safety was his primary concern. "You are white girl," he said. "It is not secure. And dose bags..." Ok. So it was ok, Immanuel was going to come with me, it's ok. Except that I would have to front the bill for his return. That's ok, he's keeping me safe. So how are you getting home Immanuel? "... Uh... It is not secure. We do dat first." Ok. I will be secure.

We arrive at the ferry and I pay for us to park the car. The man issuing the parking pass is military. He leans into the driver seat, peering at me. He points at me, turns to Immanuel and says something creepy in Krio. I ask what he said. Immanuel looks at me pointedly and translates: "He said, 'You need to watch out for her.'" My stomach muscles clench tightly with anxiety once again.

We get to the ferry and all is pitch-black except for the lights on the boat. There are people crowded around the boat, around the cars in the parking lot, around each other. They are talking and yelling, bartering and arguing. They all stare at me. The men look at my orange white legs. We stand in the parking lot for a while, me clutching my purse, thinking passport-money-tickets-laptop-shit-shit-shit. Men approach Immanuel, eyeing my bags, and trying to determine if he is my husband. They talk prices. ("What are you talking about?" I ask.) I am glanced-at and ignored. Horns boom loudly from the rusty boat, people scatter, and cars rev up their engines. It is time to board. I drop my suitcase when the police officer asks me for my ticket and it clatters as it rolls down the ramp of the boat. It's embarrassing. I hold up the crowd behind me and feel like a lost, scared idiot. We board.

Immanuel doesn't know what to do with me. We have first-class tickets which means that we can go upstairs, away from the parked cars on the ferry and actually have a seat behind glass, our skin protected from the wind and splashing of the waves. But my suitcases are too heavy for the stairs - He tells me to go anyway and he will watch over my bags. I glow with thanks at the idea and tell him that I will stay with him in the crowd and with the cars on the lower level. I sure as all hell don't want to, but after all, he's not even supposed to be coming with me in the first place. No way is he going to be watching my bags while I drink a Fanta upstairs. So I stand in the crowd of people and cars, with men, women and children staring at me openly as we all squish against one another and against car doors as I think passport-laptop-passport-wallet-ticket-passport-I'm-so-getting-robbed-tonight, shit.

A fight breaks out about 30cm away from me. Some dude is yelling at some other dude about his rusty Mercedes that blahblahblahKrioblahwhoknows. Punches are thrown and a larger crowd forms around them with me in the middle of it. I flinch and probably cower but there's not really anywhere to move. A man comes up to Immanuel and speaks with him animatedly about the white girl and I have no idea what they're saying, but the deal is five thousand leones. I find out that they have decided that it would be safer for me to sit in this man's car than to stand around the deck with all these people. I don't like the idea one bit but it definitely seems safer than being caught in a fight over a Mercedes that I don't own, non? Ya. So we load up my junk in this man's landrover and I sit in the backseat for the rest of the ferry ride. I lock the door, ignore the stares of people walking by, and finally feel a little calmer.

Then the boat starts to move.

Oh, how I hate boats! I love fish and cichlids and whales and dolphins and eels and coral and spent many years in my youth dreaming of being an oceanographer, but it's just not fucking possible. That weaving, rocking movement of the water inevitably fills my throat with dread and vomit. Despite that, I did not throw up on this ferry, which is a miracle that I credit to my desire to remain as unnoticeable as possible, as throwing up over the side of this crowded ferry and having the wind blow vomit into my face and those of the other passengers really wouldn't help my invisibility would it?

Sooooo... I made it to the airport in the same car that I hung out in for an hour on the boat. The guy drove us to the airport (about a 25-minute ride on barely definable roads that would have scared the shite out of me if I'd have been by myself.) I did so without taking the helicopter that caught on fire, without being robbed on the boat, without vomiting, and without being lost on arrival since Immanuel came with me. However, I think that the only reason Immanuel came with me was to get a free night's stay in Lungi because the bastard admitted to me on arrival that uh, no, he didn't have a way home since that was the last ferry. "WHAT?! Why didn't you say something the last three times I asked? How are you going to get home?!" I'm not even going to go into the details, but I ended up having to fork over the emergency money Mike had given me to set Immanuel up in a guest-house for the night so that he could take the ferry back to Freetown in the morning. I felt bad because I really didn't feel that it was Mike's responsibility to pay for my security guards' hotel stay, but it was definitely needed because I would NEVER have made it over the ferry by myself at night with all those bags and my short dress.

End result: I'm feeling safe and sound, profoundly bored, and sore from these plastic airport-lounge seats. Hence this tedious entry about a trip to the airport. It's 2:39am, only about another hour to wait. Thanks for listening. :)

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I Love Sierra Leone.

I leave for Paris on February 1st. Thankfully I won't be staying there long, only about a week. I already dread it knowing that I will spend emotionally healthy evenings catching up with Eva and Jeanne followed by emotionally, mentally, and physically unhealthy nights of wild parties where I drink too much and crawl home on scraped knees.

I so much prefer the dirt and dust of Africa, the perpetually dirty hair, the 20-pound weight gain from food drenched in palm oil and the mentally stimulating work that no one gives a shit about. In Paris I suffered immensely from the desire to Do Something Good, the reality of doing nothing and having nobody care. Here, at least, I am Doing Something Good even if nobody notices. It's enough for me.

I love my life:

I wake up in the mornings and it's warm and sunny. I don't care that my hair is soaked with sweat, that hiking up my (now-too-small) jeans takes effort against the resistant sweat on my legs. I drink a coffee that is too strong, type on my laptop for hours in the sun and cause permanent sun damage to my aging face. I look utterly like shit, have probably never been less attractive in my life, and feel oddly pleased about it.

I leave the house. My street is a long, unpaved dirt road coloured the brightest shade of orange you've ever seen. Immediately outside the house I have about 4 seconds until the local children run down the hill tripping over themselves yelling, "Helloalloallo!" and come careening headfirst into my knees. They wrap their itty-bitty arms around my legs, smothering them with dirty rice and dust and grime. This week I have been lucky enough to leave the home every day around noon - I have time and am not rushing to meet Charly at the end of the street to grab a ride. When I see the kids coming, yelling their Halloalloallo's I can bend at the knees and outstretch my arms so they have warm hugs to land on instead of knotted knees. This week they have smeared their rice on my arms and back instead of my thighs. I'm not sure what they get out of it, but I love starting my morning with the hugs of these children.

I walk down the orange street wishing goodmorning's to the passers-by who always respond cheerily with bright white smiles against such black skin. The contrast from the frigidity of Paris is astounding. The number of enemies I have here is so minimal! My neighbours say hello! They smile at me! One group in particular, the family who offered me the baby I wrote about earlier, greets me particularly enthusiastically. The mother in question starts the conversation saying, "HELLO GOOD FRIEND!" laughs and points at her daughter - "Look, it's your baby!" she says. I laugh, wish them a good day, politely tell them that I don't want any mangos ("We have good mango! Tell Mike!" they say) and I go off on my way. I have never bought a single mango or orange or banana from this group of people, nor have I agreed to take the baby, but they consistently treat me wonderfully. I walk the rest of the way smiling widely, happy that my upper arms are lined with dirty fingerprints and that somebody greets me as "Good Friend" every day.

These are my friends (including baby!):

At the end of the rocky, dusty, road that I inevitably trip on, there are several rusty shacks full of women and children. The men, I suppose, are at work. The women bathe the children, chase chickens and scrub laundry in rusty buckets. Everyone smiles, saying "Goodmorning, WhiteGirl" and waves. The kids at these homes don't offer hugs - they are shy and discreet in their waving and well-wishing but their smiles are so joyously unrestrained that it's still shocking to me, 60 days later.

When a slumbering, dying taxi rumbles along I get in as if it were a bus, joining the other passengers behind the cracked windshield. I sit in the withered seats, metal poking out from the material at every corner. Hello! Hello! Goodmorning! we all say. The taxi inescapably roars as it moves along even though the vehicle always (always) moves at such a slow pace you swear that it's constantly decelerating. It's not a question of traffic - the cars here are simply the ones you threw out twenty years ago to the junkyard which (you didn't know this - at least, I certainly didn't) were eventually sent to Africa. On the rare occasions that Mike and I get in a car with upholstery, a solid windshield, and no exposed metal parts, we inevitably give one another surprised, wide-eyed glances followed by a "Wow! Nice car!!" Every morning I have conversations with the locals in the taxi about how much I love Sierra Leone, no I am not American, I work for Save the Children, yes, you are my friend too. I get out at King Harmon Road with a wave and respond to the "Ya, good day!" with a "See you back, ya?" and think about how fabulous my life is, sweaty hair, 20-pound weight gain and all.

PS. I had 6 views of this post and a comment AND a "kudos" but then I deleted it to upload the photos and never got to see the comments! Write 'em again!

PPS. Save the Children has such a slow internet connection that uploading the photos that belong to this post is impossible. It will have to wait. Come check back next week!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


No, not really - that's not the title I wanted for this blog entry but when I went to type something the auto-fill drop-down menu showed me the history of things that everyone else had typed in a similar field. I just thought that was the funniest.

It's not something that I should make fun of, but being on a public computer you tend to come across some seriously interesting and hilarious things when you read the history of the computer's internet searches. I always have a giggle when I'm at the Special Court and I can see what other people are searching for. You can see my searches in there because they're the ones that always have quotes around them: "Chapter IV" "Sierra Leone" "Child and Young Persons Act"; "Sierra Leone" "Local Courts"; "Safe sleep aids"... Most of the searches done by other people include questions on scholarships to Canada, Australia and Europe. Others are law research, questions about human rights and youth initiative projects, etc etc etc. All kinds of legit things.

And then there are some that make me glad that I ALWAYS remember to erase my tracks on public computers. These are some of the searches done on mine:

-find lover


-looking for love

-please allow me to access my e-mail

-the natural method

-the silent way

-what side of the body is the womb located

-where is the womb in the female

-how to know if pregnant

It sounds to me like somebody got his lady knocked-up and I've just learned way too much about it.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Things about Sierra Leone, Chapter 3

+ I have been extremely lucky safety-wise here. I'm living in a war-torn country where everyone here has either been a victim or a perptrator. Everyone. Children were kidnapped, drugged with cocaine and sent into combat, some at the tender ages of 6 or 7 to act as spies, their tiny bodies slithering unnoticed in the bush. The massive use of child soldiers ripped this country apart and the indescribible inhumanity distinguished this war from others. Children were forced to murder their own parents and cut off the limbs of adults under the premise that a person with no hands could not vote. This did not stop pure decapitations or the regular removal of people's feet. I regularly read the stories of young girls taken captive to act as sex slaves (many, also, in their pre-pubecent years.) The stories you hear and read about in the literature are absolutely horrendous, and disgustingly, the more you read, the more they blend together. It becomes common to hear the story about the 13-year old girl who was raped, tied to a stake, and had her foot cut off before she was burned alive. She does not die - the fire goes out and she lives to watch the maggots eating away at the stump at the bottom of her leg.

You read, in your research, the stories - endless, endless, stories - of 15 year old girls with a knife under her throat giving blowjobs to soldiers, bearing the children of her captor(s), and being stuck with them at the end of the war. Because who is she ("she" being hundreds of individual terrorised young women) going to live with now that she is unmarried, pregnant, and living with only one arm? You watch interviews with children, 14, 15, 16 years old, who talk candidly about how yes, they killed and tortured civilians, but what were they to do? They would have been murdered themselves otherwise. Their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles - everyones lives depended on these children committing with eyes closed torturous acts on their peers. Others, with cocaine-smiles, flailed their machetes wildly.

Almost all the taxis drivers are former combatants. Your waiters. The guy who sees you lost on the street and offers to hail you a cab that you don't even tip him for - he'll still smile huge white teeth and wish you a wonderful day. Or, if it's Christmas, he'll say "Compliments of the season." Jim, the guy who sells bread on the street with his two (unschooled) daughters, Tina and Fatima who run run run to hug you when you come home from work. Jim probably fought too, and probably did so as a child soldier. Jim invites you to Christmas dinner.

Despite these stories, despite living in a country where people have experienced such immeasurable pain and hardship, I am consistently floored by the generosity and warmth of the people. I feel more safe here hailing a taxi at night than I do walking to Summerhay's at night, 15 minutes from my West-Ottawa home in Whitehaven.

Things about Sierra Leone, Chapter 2

+ We have a cleaning lady who is apparently within the top 5% of the richest people in Sierra Leone. To start, a cleaning lady is seen as a necessity for we fragile gringos. All our clothes are handwashed in buckets and dried in the sun on clotheslines. There would be no such thing as having a washing machine or a laundromat here, which also means there are no drying machines. This sounds like no big deal - I certainly didn't have either in Paris - but here the fact that clothes are dried in the sun is a problem. As they dry little bugs crawl into the clothes and can burrow into your skin later when you wear them. They then lay eggs in your skin leaving you with some potentially very dangerous parasitic infections. So every single item of clothing is fully ironed after its day in the sun - which means everything, underwear, socks, bras, the whole lot. No clothes touch your skin after drying in the sun without being ironed. So this is the primary reason for why it is necessary for the expats to have a cleaning lady because we need extra care in preventing illness. Our cleaning lady was first hired by some Americans who lived here before us. They had no idea what to pay her, so they figured that it would be fair if for each bedroom in the apartment they paid $100 USD. We have three rooms, so she makes $300 a month. Considering that the average yearly wage here is around $269 USD and our lady Adema is making more than that each month, she's a very wealthy lady. Adema also gets bonuses for Christmas and whatnot, which adds even more to her salary. She is a very stylish, very beautiful woman and I bet that she uses the best shampoo. I vomited all over my sheets when I had malaria and typhoid, so she definitely earned her Christmas bonus.

+ Since I mentioned that, I should also mention two things about the diseases here. When my father received word about me having had typhoid and malaria he called me in a furor, swearing at me that WHY didn't you get BLOODY VACCINTED? and WHY aren't you taking ANTI-MALARIALS?!

First of all, I have been vaccinated against typhoid. I have all kinds of neat little stamps in my carnet de vaccination that note that I have been vaccinated against typhoid, diptheria, polio, hepatits A and yellow fever. Secondly, I take 100mg of doxycycline every day to combat malaria. The problem is that these drugs and vaccines are not 100% effective. You can still get typhoid even if you've been vaccinated against it, and you can still get malaria even if you are taking anti-malarials. My father told me that the reason I got malaria anyway was because I was taking the wrong type of medication, but this is also not true. There are three strains of malaria, one of them being cerebral (which can be fatal within days,) and three anti-malarial medications, none of them protecting against any of the strains. They are a preventative medication with a lot of hope but they cannot ensure that you will not still contract malaria. They're just the beginning of a defense. The only cure for malaria is treatment, and the only true prevention of malaria is good luck and good genes. You can take all the anti-malarials you want but you still can't guarantee that you won't get it. I sleep under a mosquito net, take 100mg of doxycycline a day (just popped some five minutes ago) and use a nice botanical plant-based mosquito repellant that smells awfully nice and screams REPELES MOSQUITOS THAT MAY CARRY WEST NILE VIRUS. That may be true, but even with all of these protections you can still get bitten, and you can still get malaria.

+ Speaking of mosquitos, the bugs here have been unremarkable. I expected that living in an African jungle I would regularly find massive spiders (and some of them are indeed quite big) and indescribable insects, but they've really all seemed quite normal. Our bathtub is regularly the home (and morning deathbed) of a family of daddy-long-legs. Mosquitos are a rarity. There were probably twenty of them at the hospital in my room and that was more than I'd seen in my entire trip. The beaches are clean and there are no wierd multiple-legged things trapaising around and the most annoying bug here is the ant. There are less bugs buzzing and crawling around than at a cottage on a Canadian lake in the summer.

Things about Sierra Leone, Chapter 1

+ I've written in the past about the lack of electricity here. This is a very complicated problem in Sierra Leone that is infuriating because the possibility for the public to actually receive electricity exists - the government simply won't give it to them. Over the Christmas holidays we have been lucky - the National Power Authority has been providing electricty almost every day for almost 20 hours a day for the past two weeks. When I say that we don't have electricity it's not because the power lines don't exist and it's not because the house is not equipped for it - the power just doesn't come. We have a generator that turns on every day at 7pm and lasts until the morning providing us with air-conditioning, lighting and hours of BBC World. But we pay for the fuel for the generator and we are responsible for turning it on. The public, the poor, the non-expats and the non-whites do not have these luxuries. They light their homes at night with bunsen burners and only the bars and restaurants and stores that have generators have any electricity. The roads have no traffic lights (none - not one single traffic light exists in the country) and the streets are lined at night by flickers of fire coming from the lanterns of tin-roofed, tiny, wooden shacks the size of my bathroom. But the fact remains that during the past two weeks we've been receiving electricity during the day. This is for three reasons:

+ It is Christmas. The President every year offers electricity as a sort of "Christmas present" to the public. It's Christmas, so we'll let the hospitals not-run on fuel-powered generators, we'll let the mothers turn on fans to cool their fevered, dying children, and we'll let the expats use the microwave to make some popcorn.

+ It is an election year. The elections will be taking place in February and it's very likely that this burst of electric activity will continue for a while as the Sierra Leone People's Party waits for the public to come to the polls cheering their thank-yous.

+ Sierra Leone is the second least-developped country on the planet. (Don't ask me who's in last place. That's where we'd been for the past ten years - we just got bumped up in the 2006 UN Report.) What is interesting to note is that during the war - which was a particularly brutal one - there was actually more electricity than there is now. Thirty years ago, there were traffic lights in every city from Freetown to Bo to Kenema. In the middle of Freetown at Congo Cross (a junction downtown) there was a large fountain bursting water and lights every single night, a little wannabe Paris. Ten years ago, the country was dealing with a bloodbath but people could at least go to a hospital run on electricty and not an auxiliary generator when they got their limbs cut off. Today the government is so incredibly corrupt that electricty is used as a very literal power source in every sense of the term. The lack of electricity, the water shortages and the incessant poverty keep Sierra Leone on the lowest rung of the developpment ladder which means that it receives significant funding from NGOs, foreign governments, the EU and private individuals. The UN High Commission for Refugees has plastered half the countryside with tents for the poor and dug wells for them to get water. The plethora of NGOs in Freetown, Bo and Kenema help the rich get richer since we buy so much beer and contract people for things like logistics support in our computer labs. Witholding electricty from the public keeps Sierra Leonians poor, and helps the members of Government, investors, and Lebanese restaurant-owners rich. The rich stay rich and the poor suffer and die off like flies.

As I write this, it is the Christmas season in an election year in the second-poorest country in the world, and my Dell laptop is plugged into the wall.