Curtain Call

Roll credits
Score: Michael Jackson, “Black or White” and Shakira “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)”

Sierra Leone’s most valuable resource is its people. The vast majority of them are strong, creative, resilient, helpful and inherently good. Any Sierra Leonean will tell you, without hesitation, that relationships are worth more than money. And I have learned to agree.

Academic “fieldwork” can mean lots of different things. I spent eleven months in Sierra Leone performing an elaborate exercise in social networking. In western terms, I would say “I’ve incurred a lot of debts on this trip.” In Sierra Leonean terms: I have become a powerful man. I am at the center of a spider web of relationships that stretches across the country and includes parliamentarians, successful entrepreneurs, chiefs and former government ministers.

I have helped, and I have been helped…and I’m pretty sure that is the point.
There are many wonderful people who are not pictured below, but this is the short list of folks who made my time in Sierra Leone as amazingly fulfilling as it was:

Mama Mundai Fortune is a character of literary proportions. She created thousands of bulletproof young men to defend her country during the war. She reminds me of the three witches from the cauldron scene in “Macbeth,” or one of the knitting hags from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Despite her initial antagonism toward me, she is now a good friend and has made her own stylized contribution to my future success.

Mr. Nyamakoro (center in brown) and his armed posse during the war. Mr. Nyamakoro gave me a place to stay and facilitated my research while I was in Kabala. It was thanks to him that I was able to do 50 interviews in seven days. He is a kind man, a shrewd politician and a talker of epic proportions.
(photo courtesy of Mr. Marrah)

The YMCA gang: The YMCA in Freetown is a revolving door of interesting white people and a handful of local fixtures who are dependably fun to hang out with. I am thankful for their camaraderie.

Mr. Sahr Fillie-Faboe, Grand Commander of the Order of Rokel, is a gentleman and a scholar. He has single-handedly preserved the entire documentary history of the eastern civil defense militias in Sierra Leone. He has taken me as his son, and I have taken him as my father. He is far away, but never far from my thoughts.

“Sparrow” (left), his wife and his youngest daughter, Tutu. He fought in two of West Africa’s most apocalyptic conflicts, and is now dedicating his life to preventing future conflicts through promoting agricultural development. He has the most extensive social network of anyone I have ever met, and he selflessly brought me into the center of that network. I am proud to call him a friend and I hope to work for him someday.

When I said goodbye to Mr. Sahr Buffa, he looked like he wanted to cry. He thanked me for leaving my friends and family behind in order to come and record the story of what he and his people did during the war. He played a pivotal role in facilitating my interviewing the Kono area. At one point, a disgruntled local journalist was trying to sabotage my research by encouraging potential interviewees to gouge me for additional money. Mr. Buffa gave him a public scolding that shut him up and preserved the integrity of my recruitment procedures. I could have hugged him.  (Photographer unknown.)

David Yarjah is a stranger in his own country. Born Sierra Leonean, but raised in Germany, he is too European to be comfortably Sierra Leonean and too Sierra Leonean to be truly German. David and I resonate on multiple levels and in three languages (English, German and Krio). He is a great friend and one of my most valuable research assistants.

Etta was my African surrogate mother. She is a phenomenal cook and consummate hostess. Thanks to her, it never occurred to me to be homesick, even after nine months immersed in a deeply foreign culture. She is hospitality personified — the human incarnation of Mama Salone.

I want my son to be just like Toko. What a cool kid.

Mohammed Biankeh was a phenomenal research assistant and travel companion, and he remains a great friend of mine. On many occasions, Moh “stood for me” in the Sierra Leonean sense of vouching for me when I entered communities (including his own hometown) as a stranger. In a country full of people with low senses of self-efficacy, Moh sticks out for his sometimes overwhelming self-confidence — referring to himself as “Moh, the magical.” His sincere ambition to enter politics in order to improve Sierra Leone is only equaled by his lust for women.

Sulay is a man. Orphaned by the war, he works and sleeps in his tailoring shop on Fort Street. He trains diligently as a weightlifter in the early morning, sews beautiful shirts and dresses during the day, and trains with the local football club in the evening. He hasn’t seen his twentieth birthday yet, but he has two strong little kids, a beautiful fiance, and a plan for his future and the future of his family. As long as there are men like Sulay, there will be hope for the future of Sierra Leone.

Etta and Bakarr’s kids helped me to learn Krio and brought great joy into my life in Sierra Leone. I loved them like my own. Sayed (pronounced Sahyeed) is the small one. During his christening, he took my name, and I am proud to have him as my namesake. He is brilliant, creative and a phenomenal dancer. He is also the first child that I have ever had to discipline in the corporal sense (when you are an adult in Sierra Leone, you are a parent to all of the children around you, and Sayed is, after all, my namesake). I’ll never forget the experience of hauling him off of the porch and draping him unceremoniously over my knee for a proper American spanking. It is the angriest I have ever been in my life, to this point. When his loud sobs had subsided to quiet sniffles, and my own outrage had ebbed, I whispered in his ear that I never wanted to have to spank him again. And I never did.

Bakarr and little Senya can fall asleep anywhere and in any position. This is one of their more photogenic naps.
Bakarr is my African brother and one of my best friends in the world, period. I wouldn’t trust him to invest a thousand dollars for me, but I would trust him with my life. More than anyone else, he taught me how to be a man in Sierra Leone. He is a guard at Pademba Road Prison, but he should be an ambassador. He takes great pride and care to introduce foreigners to Sierra Leone — to appreciate its culture and traditions. Bakarr is fond of saying “This is Africa,” and I get choked up just thinking about the way that he says it…
In the movie “Blood Diamond,” the South African mercenaries (including the main character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) are fond of saying “T. I. A.” — an acronym which stands for, “this is Africa.” DiCaprio and his fellow white soldiers say it fatalistically with undertones of despair whenever something goes wrong…
…When Bakarr says “This is Africa,” he does it with the pride of a father introducing his only son, or with the reverence of an artist presenting his magnum opus. “Jon, this is AFRICA.”

This is not the end, but I don’t know what happens next.

Thank you for reading.


I am leaving my village and going back to my town

In the past few months, as my Krio has gotten increasingly fluent and my knowledge of Sierra Leonean culture has deepened, people have given me the complement of telling me that I have become Sierra Leonean.  On my last trip through Bo (on my way to Pujehun), a police officer at a checkpoint asked me for my documents (in the US, we would call such a request “racial profiling”).  I chatted with him in Krio as he inspected my passport.  As the officer handed back my passport smiling, someone behind me in the vehicle said something sarcastic about me being a white stranger.  To my surprise, the officer snapped at him, “this is a black man — a Sierra Leonean.  Don’t let his skin fool you.”  He smiled, gave me a firm Sierra Leonean handshake and walked off.

Contemplating my return to the US, I know that I am still a middle class, white American male, and that I am ready to go back (at least for a time) to that priveleged existence into which I was lucky to be born.  Life in Sierra Leone is not easy, and there are many aspects of that daily struggle that I will not miss.  There are also parts of my Sierra Leonean life and my Sierra Leonean self that I will miss dearly.

When I leave Sierra Leone, I will not miss:

– being harassed by people who want to change money for me, or who use “liking strangers” as an excuse to start awkward conversations that end in begging for money.

– being called “white boy.”

– having people assume that I’m physically weak and infinitely wealthy.

– having people assume that their English is better than my Krio.

– breaking a sweat while sitting still in the shade.

– getting malaria, typhoid, worms and dysentery.

– always being a “stranger.”

– sleeping under a mosquito net.

– having to wear sunscreen every day.

– eating rice every day…often for every meal of the day except breakfast…and sometimes for breakfast too.

– picking bones out of my food (especially fish bones).

– working online with a painfully slow internet connection.

When I am back in the US, I will miss:

– being part of a community in which everyone is responsible for everyone else.

– participating in a culture of sharing and hospitality.

– greeting all of my neighbors on the way to town every morning.

– eating Etta’s cooking.

– sitting on the floor in the house after dinner and telling Krio jokes with Etta and Bakarr.

– having people complement me on my Krio.

– eating fresh, ruby-red, virgin palm oil.

– spending 98% of my waking hours interacting with people.

– getting around by motorbike.

– Sierra Leonean market culture, in which nealry all prices are negotiable, and every transaction is also a social interaction.

– living in a land with very few laws and very little crime.

– being the head of a Sierra Leonean household.

A good friend of mine who has a way with words suggested that, when I go home, I should tell my friends that “I have left my village to come back to my town.”  So, I am going back to my town where I can lose myself in the polite anonymity of Western urban life, but I am committed to returning to my village again in the near future.  For the time being, I will miss my friends in Sierra Leone.

A home in Salone

I made a home in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

It was a modest place, with two bedrooms, a parlor, and a small indoor bathroom.  The principal tenants were myself, Etta and Bakarr, and we lived together like a family of middle-class Sierra Leoneans.  We all ate from the same pot, meals cooked over a charcoal stove.  No running water.  No electricity.  For a time, we had no chairs.  Toward the end of my stay, when we took on some British guests, we invested in a generator and a few chairs to spruce the place up.  We consistently slept five to six adults in our two-bedroom place.  To their credit, the Brits who stayed with us never complained.  The unpaved, steep road that runs in front of our house is only motorable if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle.  It’s a little under a mile walk to reach the main road where you can take transport to get into town.  In many ways, the distance from the main road is beneficial — the place is peaceful, and feels like it’s a long way off from the congested traffic and din of car horns that characterizes central Freetown.

We lived among squatters and millionaires.  We were neighbors with 17 bedroom mansions, the ruins of unfinished houses, and single-room “pan-bodi” zinc shacks.  I never heard anyone comment on the contrasts, and I learned to act like I took them for granted.

In the dry season, everyone had to carry buckets and jugs down to one of the local wells to get water.  The first time I ever went for water, everyone in the neighborhood came out to watch.  With a five gallon jug in each hand, I patiently answered a litany of ignorant questions about the presumed incapacities or incompetences of white folks.  Put in athletic terms, getting water usually involved doing a “farmer’s walk” for about 400m with something like 50lbs in each hand.  Three trips to the well always left me pleasantly exhausted and covered in sweat.  The reward was getting some legitimate exercise, followed by a bucket-shower in the cold water that I had just gotten.  In the rainy season, water was easier to get.  Bakarr, who has a wonderful talent for improvisation, made a rain gutter and funnel system that allowed us to collect water with amazing efficiency every time that it rains.  During a proper downpour, I’m estimating that we collected over one gallon every minute.

I spent around five million Leones (just under $1,200 USD) on the place, including one year’s rent, legal fees and renovations.  That’s less than 50% of what I had budgeted for my lodging when I was originally planning the trip.  My funders will be happy to know that the surplus monies were put to extremely good use in paying for other unanticipated costs (e.g. medical treatments), lodging while traveling upcountry, and hiring two local research assistants to help with the work of transcribing and coding the 200-some interviews that I managed to collect.

Renting the place was “worth it” in both fiscal and experiential terms, but it was by no means easy.  To make a long story short: the man who originally proposed to rent me the place is a second-rate con-man and was not the rightful owner of the place.  That worthless parasite of a human being, who will not be named, is the only person who I have ever met, in my life, who I truly hate.  Thanks to the advice of a very good lawyer, the entire matter was resolved (out of court) in my favor.  The punchline is that the bullsh-t artist  who originally tried to rent me the place is now running for public office in Freetown.  I only hope that he ends up in jail before he ends up in a seat of political power.

Here are some pictures of the home that I will be leaving very soon.

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F-ck science!

“F-ck science!  It doesn’t explain anything here!”

I never thought I would hear myself say those words, especially given the fact that I’m committed to doing social-“science” research in West Africa.

I had recently been diagnosed with typhoid fever (for the second time), and two other people in my household (Ben and Bakarr) had also just been diagnosed with typhoid.  I think that qualifies as a local epidemic.  Obviously, we had a serious problem with the cleanliness of our water…or our food.

Sitting with a few friends in the YMCA in Freetown, I began reviewing our water-usage habits to try to identify possible mechanisms that could have led to our household typhoid epidemic.  At that point, nobody was drinking any water that hadn’t been at least: 1) packaged, 2) chlorinated and boiled (for 3-5 minutes), or 3) chlorinated and then run through a high-quality ceramic water filter.  We weren’t eating any raw vegetables unless they had been washed thoroughly in brine and a hint of chlorine.  Mostly, we were eating soup cooked with minimal water and typically boiled for around half an hour before being served.  I would have told you that we were being overly cautious.  But here we all were, with typhoid (Bakarr had malaria as well…because he’s too cool to sleep under a mosquito net).

I listed off the possible mechanisms in the order in which they occurred to me:

1) our combination of chlorination and boiling was insufficient to kill typhoid,

2) brining and chlorinating our veggies was insufficient to kill typhoid,

3) our ceramic filter was malfunctioning and letting unfiltered water seep through,

4) some of the packaged water that we had been drinking (probably the stuff in the plastic bags) had not been adequately filtered.

5) the chlorinated water that we were using to wash dishes was leaving small amounts of infected water on plates and utensils.

6) someone in the household had been infected/contaminated elsewhere, not been cleaning their hands properly, and had left the bacteria on surfaces around the house.


None of these explanations were particularly obvious or satisfying.  All of the explanations were plausible…none of them were mutually exclusive…and none of them suggested a limited set of easy, effective solutions.  Frustrated and slightly feverish, I threw up my hands (literally) and shouted, “F-ck science, it doesn’t explain anything here!”  I was only half joking.  Katie (a fellow social “scientist”) and I both burst into laughter at the odd blend of irony and truth in the statement that I had just uttered.

Since that time, we have cleaned out and re-sealed our filtration system.  We now only drink water that has been chlorinated, filtered and boiled, or that comes in a bottle made by a reliable company.  I now wash my hands with great frequency or use hand sanitizer.  I disinfect our bathroom with bleach on a regular basis.

I hope that these new precautions will work, but if we end up with another round of typhoid in the house, I won’t really be surprised.  I have come to terms with the fact that I will never know how in the hell I got typhoid twice…despite having been vaccinated against the disease…and taking numerous precautions to avoid drinking water straight from the tap or the well.

I have come to terms with the fact that, in Sierra Leone, I have very little control over my physical environment on a daily basis.  All of the mechanisms of control that I once took for granted – from water sanitation systems to seatbelts – are absent.  The prima facie utility of science is low.  The immediate utility of religion is high.  Helmetless, on a motorbike controlled by an 18 year old ex-combatant…science won’t help you.  All you can do is pray.

Postcards from Kono

It’s been a long time since I got back from Kono…but the internet has been bad.

So, at long last, here’s a visual summary of my experiences in and around Koidu Town.

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We me yone (Where’s my own)?

The other day, I brought candies to distribute to the kids in the neighborhood.  I bought twelve, because there are lots of kids around, and I knew that I would be painted as a villain if I neglected to give one or two children their share.  As I came up the hill, I was greeted by four kids covered in dust from playing in the road all day.  “Uncle Jon, good afternoon!”  I’ve trained them to greet me this way, rather than rudely yelling “Hey, white man!” the way they used to do.  I rewarded them for their politeness by sharing out candies.  “Uncle Jon, don send for wi tiday!  Thank you!”  I thank them for thanking me.

As I come around the corner, Boboshow spots me and comes running and calls out “Hi, padi” (hi, friend).  Boboshow is about three years old, and chubby, but his pants are always a bit too big for his waist.  As he runs over to meet me, his pants slip straight down to his ankles, tripping him and making him fall flat on his face within about a couple of feet of me.  Most kids would have burst into tears, but Boboshow gets up smiling, and without bothering to pull his pants up, he waddles over and gives me a hug.  “Uncle Jon, you send for me tiday?”  I open my bag and give him his chocolate.  He thanks me and gives me another hug.  Before I look up, I hear a voice call, “we me yone?”  I look up to see an old man sitting up on his bench, watching me.  I haven’t got enough sweets to share with this man.  I think quickly.  I tell him jokingly, that he’s an adult, and these are children’s candies.  He replies that he likes children’s candies and that I should send for him because he’s a big man.  I decide to hide behind the truth.  I explain that if I give him candy, there won’t be enough for all of the kids to get one, and then they will fight.  I’ve given him an argument that he can’t refute.  He knows as well as I do that peace and the maintenance of social order require that everyone gets their fair share.  I’ll send for you tomorrow, I promise him.

The old man’s request for candy is a joke – he’s just giving me a hard time.  But the sentiment behind his request is not a joke.  He genuinely feels entitled to the fruits of my labor.  “We me yone.”  Even though it is often said with a joking tone, it is a serious statement about redistributive justice.  The subtext: you have something that I do not have…and that is not fair.  As someone who has something of worth, you have a choice between sharing, or being greedy.  In Krio, “greedy” can be used not only as an adjective, but as a transitive verb – i.e. “Nor greedy me” (i.e. don’t withhold your sharing from me).  There is no middle ground between sharing and greed.  While there are clearly defined notions of “yours” and “mine,” there is no sense that I have a right to hoard or dispose of whatever is mine.  If I have something of worth, it’s partially a result of the fact that I have worked for it, but mostly a result of the fact that I got lucky.  So I should share with you, because tomorrow, you may be the lucky one.

In Sierra Leone, if you have something, you share it.  That is the golden rule.

If you do not share, you are greedy.  If you take more than your share, you are a witch.

The supreme value that Sierra Leoneans place on sharing manifests itself in endearing displays of ritualized generosity.  When you sit down to a meal, if there are others around you who do not have food, it is considered polite to call them to eat, “Lo eat” (Let us eat).  This traditional invitation to share can be politely declined by saying, “Tenkeh.  Ah don belleh full” (thank you, my belly is already full).  Or, you can accept the invitation, sit down, and share whatever food is available.  I have been invited to eat by people who are excruciatingly poor.  Sierra Leoneans will share their last grain of rice with you.

The counterpoint to habitual sharing is deep seated jealousy.  “We me yone?!”  I hear the phrase almost every day.  The (often rhetorical) question is indicative of a strong sense of redistributive justice, but it also represents a sense that those who have a lot – those who Westerners would refer to as the most “successful” members of society – have accumulated wealth because they have refused to share, or because they have acquired big money through means that are either illegal or occult (or both).  There is plenty of corruption in Sierra Leone, and so it is believable that some people’s success is not founded on fair play and honest toil.  However, there are too many of these stories for them to be entirely believable.  I chalk it up to jealousy.  There is a small, hardworking entrepreneurial class in Sierra Leone, dominated by Lebanese and a handful of indigenes who have been lucky and smart enough to go abroad, accumulate foreign capital, and then come back home to invest it in creating businesses in Sierra Leone.  Far from being hailed as economic heroes, these folks (especially the ethnically Lebanese ones) are usually demonized by locals as having acquired their wealth through conspiracies, abusing their employees, and not sharing their profits with Sierra Leoneans.  This obviously isn’t universally true, but the stereotype predominates because, in a country of have-nots, there is a brooding jealousy of those who have.  The consensus is that hard work does not pay off.  There is no Sierra Leonean equivalent of the “American Dream”…except, perhaps, dreaming of going to America.

The tension between constantly sharing and constantly demanding your own share is deeply confusing, especially for an American.  Americans constantly tell each other (implicitly or explicitly) “Get your own!”  Sierra Leoneans constantly demand of each other: “We me yone?!”

It’s a distinctively Sierra Leonean socialism:

To each according to his luck.  From each according to his willingness to share.

We me yone?

Turning 29 in Freetown

By midnight on the eve of my birthday, my internal temperature had reached 100.4 degrees…which isn’t that bad, but it isn’t healthy either.  I had a couple of relatively severe bouts of diarrhea, and wondered if this was a resurgent strain of amoebic dysentery.  Luckily, my next-door neighbor is a nurse, and she came home to find me lying on the ground, nauseous, and shaking from the fever.  She felt my forehead, checked my pulse, and immediately began soaking a towel to make a cold compress.  The fever abated after some ibuprofen and about two hours of cold compressing.  The diarrhea was gone by the middle of the next day.  My stool tests for dysentery came back negative.  Was it food poisoning?  Who knows?  Bakarr explained, in his matter-of-African-fact way, that illness befell me on my birthday as a reminder of the pain that my mother suffered when giving birth to me, and of the pain that she was feeling now due to my absence.  Sometimes African explanations are the best ones.  Simple.  Meaningful.

Because of my illness, the evening of my actual birthday was a quiet, but enjoyable one at home with Bakarr, Etta and Sia (our neighbor/nurse).

Luckily, I had planned my birthday celebration for the Friday night preceding the Sunday of my actual (feverish) birthday.  An eclectic, international crowd of my friends from the YMCA all came out to the club, Atlantic, for a night of drinking and dancing.  A Nigerian friend of mine, who has an awesome new car, volunteered to drive everyone to the club.  Here are the photo-highlights from the club and my actual birthday at home:

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