The End of our VSO Experience in Sierra Leone

Trip Start Oct 13, 2007
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Trip End Nov 29, 2007


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Flag of Sierra Leone  ,
Sunday, November 23, 2008

I will not bore you with lengthy details but despite spending a couple of weeks back in Freetown trying to sort things out, things actually got worse, not better and despite Carolyn and I putting forward a number of different solutions, VSO, whilst recognising that they had made many mistakes,  were not able to improve our security situation. Our problems were compounded by the unacceptable behaviour of one of our housemates.   As a fair proportion of my time was to have been spent travelling the country, I was simply not prepared to leave Carolyn in such a situation. For obvious reasons I do not want to go into further detail except to say that we may have been prepared to live with the external security issues, but not the problems in the house. 

We are bitterly disappointed to have to have come to this decision particularly as Sierra Leone really needs help in so many areas.

On our final day in Bo I experienced at first hand the crime in SL as some guy tried to steal my camera just outside the main mosque.  I was walking back from the FOWED office taking some photos along the way to the hotel and had noticed someone following me for sometime.  Eventually the temptation proved too much and he tried to grab the camera off of my shoulder.  Fortunately, I was expecting this and after receiving an elbow in the ribs he realised the error of his ways. Fortunately for him, everyone else in the street found this highly amusing!  Often when a thief is caught he can expect a severe beating from those around him. SL is the one place in the world where I have actually seen a thief being led away in handcuffs by police, smiling with relief, probably because of the realisation on the alternative!

Staying back in Freetown for a couple of weeks after living in Bo for a few weeks was quite nice in some ways. It was the first time since September that we had been able to cook for ourselves.  We stayed at the VSO offices as they have a few bedrooms upstairs.  It was also nice to have running water and electricity though a generator that was on quite often to service the offices downstairs.  In comparison, living at VSO was the height of luxury  (especially as the generator meant that we could use a fridge which was amazing).  The Lebanese supermarket was also  just a few minutes walk away, and after Bo, seemed to offer an amazing array of choice   (in Bo, the protein of choice was  Laughing Cow cheese triangles or corned beef, with the occasional baboon in the market). In Freetown there were several choices  -  the only strange thing there were the cats and kittens living under the shelves in the supermarket(and the goats which lived out the back - until Monday, when they were butchered!).     Goat Bolognaise is lovely!   

Although Bo is where the land is most fertile, the produce is all sent back to Freetown to sell, so fresh anything was quite hard to come by there.  Since we have been back in Hertfordshire, we have bought pineapple in Tesco for less than a pineapple in SL costs.  Potatoes and tomatoes are the same  (they are priced at about 35p each in Freetown).  There was little else fresh that could be found in Freetown and nothing in Bo.   We overheard a woman in one of the two food shops in Bo excitedly tell her companion that there was a boy outside with some bananas and they immediately abandoned their shopping and ran out after him.  At the time I did not realise the significance of this.  We never saw or heard of bananas for sale again.

In Bo, while hidden in our room at the guesthouse, we were able to see a couple of secret society processions along the main street  (you are warned that you must stay out of sight when these happen).  There were also a large number of aggressive political rallying from the backs of trucks and the political atmosphere was quite charged with unrest in Bo.   Freetown was quite different.  While we were back in Freetown the President announced a public holiday to celebrate his inauguration, which, by marked contrast,  was an incredibly happy celebration with street processions and dancing, and singing and waving  and literally everyone wearing the colour red.

The only real problem we had in Freetown was on one Saturday morning when I left VSO to walk to the street market, to buy some eggs for breakfast. Lots of people started shouting at me in Krio.   Not understanding what was being said, I carried on walking until a couple of men stopped me and told me, in English, That I was breaking the "street cleaning curfew".and that they were calling the police to have me arrested.  Not wishing to spend the weekend in gaol, we did without eggs fro breakfast.  We later found out that, once a month everyone (apart from foreigners), has to spend the morning cleaning the streets. Apparently this was announced on the radio the previous day.

Leaving Sierra Leone was a very difficult decision, but undoubtedly the right thing for us to do. I am still doing some work for FOWED remotely and will hopefully keep in touch with Sophie, the Director of the organisation.

The trip back was a little different as we had come to expect in SL.  The hovercraft that had transferred us from the airport to Freetown upon arrival had caught fire mid-way between the airport and Freetown  stranding a bunch of passengers at sea for a few hours until they were rescued by the army.  As a result we had to transfer to the airport via helicopter. The helicopter was ex-Russian army, with no glass in some of the windows and we all sat on a bench down the sides of the chopper with the baggage in a pile in the middle  (the headphones were slung over a rope at the back, along with the webbing that presumably was there to hold down baggage on the of chance that it was used). This was the third helicopter used for this purpose in the last 6 months.  The previous two had crashed on the way to the airport, killed most on board including the Liberian football team and sports minister.    Still, it was a fast (albeit, noisy) trip back.  Most people just shrug their shoulders and say "this is Sierra Leone" and I have to say, we did the same.    

Lunghi airport was probably the most chaotic I have ever been to. I am amazed any planes actually make it to take-off.  In total our bags and persons were searched about 5 times before we made it on to the bus to the plane, thankfully, with the aid of our VSO passes, we made it through without incident or without resorting to bribery, which is the norm when dealing with officialdom in SL.  For some reason there was additional security at the airport in the form of  British police who were carrying out additional security checks and photographing everyone's passports (why I am not sure).

When we finally made it on to the bus, a scuffle broke out between the security guards and an old man who objected to being frisked before getting on to the bus (can't say I blame him!). A few other people joined in and just as it appeared that a full scale riot was about to break out the security people decided to let him on without a search.  Despite all of this the plane actually took off an hour early - a first in my experience.

The excitement didn't stop on the plane either as an extremely drunk  woman (who had been drinking heavily at the airport), in the row behind us took exception to being told by the stewardess to fasten her seat belt and proceeded, intermittently, to shout and scream at her for a couple of hours.  After, trying to reason with her and calm her down, the threat of diverting to the nearest airport and having her arrested seemed to do the trick.
We have been back to VSO for a debriefing this week and to discuss the options for us.  Our first thought was to apply for another placement in a different location immediately but it seems as though this will not be possible until around May, when the next batch of volunteers is sent out, which, as we have sold our house and are effectively of no fixed abode, presents a bit of a problem as to where we live in the meantime.

 We aim to apply for of jobs with NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children in various places in Asia and we will see where that takes us.  However, as we are without home or gainful employment, we are planning a round the world trip, leaving we think on New Years Eve. Travelling through Asia, Australasia and back via the Pacific and South America, we are planning to be away for a year and the intention is to spend some of our time working on a number of volunteer projects in different places along the way.  If one of the NGO jobs works out then we may well terminate the RTW trip prematurely.

Whatever we decide to do, we will set up a blog so anyone who wants can follow our progress rather than have receive emails.  In the meantime, here are a few photos of Sierra Leone....
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