Thursday, 16 February 2012

Rhythm 18 - The World’s Biggest Toilet

(Disclaimer – this one talks about bodily functions.)

It should come as no surprise to hear that hygiene and sanitation is a challenge in Sierra Leone, and more specifically Freetown. 

Whether it’s a lack of basic toilet facilities, or waste management in general, this place is decades behind the UK. For example, Freetown has just 10 rubbish trucks for 800 tonnes of waste produced per day, whereas Hull has 30 trucks for 200 tonnes.

As such, there simply isn’t the infrastructure to support the sheer number of human beings doing their daily business on a daily basis.

This means that many men and children routinely relieve themselves in the street. But unlike Wayne Rooney and thousands of university students, they aren’t boozed up and minutes away from a working toilet. They often don’t have a choice – there isn’t a quality toilet for them to use in their vicinity.

After 14 months of Freetown living here and 10 in our gaffe in Congo Town (or Banana Water, or even White Man’s Bay – there is conjecture), I’m still not quite used to it. Very regularly I can’t help saying “come on, mate” under my breath when passing someone decorating a wall or gutter. 

Where we live we have what you might call an interesting view – at just ten feet from the sea this can vary from (a) a glorious vista out to the Atlantic Ocean, (b) rubbish wading around in the sea, (c) random dogs fighting and...yes, everyone’s favourite – (d) men wazzing into the sea at all times of day. Lovely.

As you might expect, it isn’t exactly joyful watching chap after chap (of all ages) go over to the waterfront and do what they’ve got to do. It’s frequently met with a similar sigh and rueful chuckle, such as when you see someone pissing next to a ‘nor piss naya’ (or ‘don’t piss here’) sign on a main road.

This might be being a tad uncouth here, but I count myself amongst the army of people who see little bother in going for a number one in the sea when swimming. It’s simply not taboo.

Which makes me wonder whether it’s simply being a bit wet (see what I did there) to tut at people weeing into the sea from the mainland. It’s all the same sea and everything ends up there eventually – so why does it matter if it’s done in eye shot of the offender’s community?

Then I come to my senses. And go back to my tried and trusted tutting and slightly condescending rendition of "come on, mate."

Monday, 30 January 2012

Rhythm 17 - Craig Bellamy

As footballer’s reputations go, there are few worse than that of Craig Bellamy. Numerous teams and signing bonuses, fights in night clubs, fallings out with teammates including golf club name it, Craig has allegedly done it.

You would think of potentially hundreds of current players who are overtly ‘nicer’ than Bellamy on the pitch, and would consider a similar amount more likely to give away hundreds of thousands of pounds to start a football academy in a developing country like Sierra Leone – the seventh poorest in the entire world.

You know where I’m going with this by now. And as it goes, we happened to visit the Craig Bellamy Football Academy at the tail end of last year. It was quite the experience.

The basic premise of the academy is to recruit the best young players in Sierra Leone, put them through a rigorous training scheme and high quality schooling, with the end goal being that some of them are able to gain scholarships to overseas universities in which the next generation of ‘leaders’ – read into that what you will – that will drive the development of the country on their return.

On the day we visited, the academy team were playing another local team on the best pitch in the entire country. That isn’t hard, of course – the national stadium pitch is effectively weeds – but the surface was good enough for the football to be a high standard.

One player stood out, in more ways than one. Taller than the rest by about a foot, the young striker bagged a hat trick like it was routine. It turns he was one of three players to train with Cardiff City over the summer, in which he more than impressed. Watch this space.

What is truly great about the initiative is the national youth league that Bellamy has set up with the hard work of the organisation that supports the academy. There was simply no such thing in existence when the academy started, but now it is really taking shape.

The wonderfully quirky and forward thinking aspect of the league is that academic achievement and endeavour are taken into account. As such, if a player hasn’t been to school, or has misbehaved in some way, he simply can’t play in the game at the weekend.

As ludicrous coincidence would have it, a documentary entitled ‘Craig Bellamy’s African Dream’ is on ITV4 this week. I would heartily encourage you to watch it. See below for a preview clip:


So there you have it, Craig Bellamy is a nice guy after all. And given the way he’s playing right now, his win bonuses will keep the academy and foundation going for a good while yet. Long may it continue.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Rhythm 16 - Lubebay Disco

On my visit to Kenema a few weeks back (see Rhythm 14), after a few near misses I was finally able to indulge in one of the more intriguing social hotspots in the town, known only as ‘Total’.

To clarify, that isn’t a name of a jazzy club or bar – it’s merely a set of tables and chairs surrounding the forecourt of the Total petrol station, where you can drink to your heart’s content from the fridges inside the adjoining shop.

In addition, music is predictably blared through creaking speakers. It’s the usual combination of Salone classics and the latest favourites – including the omnipotent hit of the day, P-Square’s ‘Chop My Money’...which everyone is singing and dancing to right now. We’ve heard it up to ten times in one day, which is actually no bad thing.

Drinking and dancing in a petrol station took an interesting twist when we looked up at the signage on show at the Total. On one side, there is the predictable word ‘Shop’. On the other, however, we noticed that the word ‘Lubebay’ was directly about what is ordinarily known as ‘the pit’ in modern parlance. To those not quite with me, it’s the hole that mechanics work on the underside of the car from.

My only real memory of a pit is from Eastenders, when Grant pushed Phil down the one in The Arches after he found out that his brother had ‘screwed’ his wife Sharon. Poor Grant.

We made our own memories on this occasion, when we decided that the only option was to dance in the Lubebay. As you would, when nobody gives two hoots if you get in there or not. You can do allsorts in a Lubebay – six people can dance snugly, three less snugly, and you can even do a modified but equally titillating lap dance above someone in the Lubebay below.

Like anywhere in the world, Sierra Leone throws up random opportunities for fun. However, if you’d told me before we arrived that I’d dance in a Lubebay with a beer in my hand, just metres away from a petrol pump, I’d have laughed at you.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Rhythm 15 - Hypocatical

Most readers of this will know that I confidently present myself as ‘anti-pet’. It makes me quite unpopular at parties, as I generally decide not to shirk the discussion should someone ever ask me whether I have them or not. Some might say I even happily provoke the debate that often ensues.

Around six weeks ago, we had something of a fraught week of mouse sightings. Nobody sane actually likes mice that invade their house, despite what they might say. At best they are a nuisance; at worst, they have been described by yours truly as “furry little b*****d things” that are dirty and cause havoc.

This set us thinking, and we ascertained that the most effective way of alleviating our rodent friends acquire a cat. Or ‘puss’, as they are affectionately known in Krio. This was quite the detachment for me, as you might expect.

With pride swallowed, we asked the caretakers of our flat to keep their ears open to any nearby male kittens that needed a home. Less than a week later, we had received the merchandise. We had already decided on the name of ‘Ishmood’ – a clever combination of the two caretakers who helped us find him, Ishmael and Mahmood.

It turns out that our new housemate is actually...(yelp)...quite fun to have around. This is, of course, quite challenging for someone who thinks that pet ownership is the final and patronising victory of man over beast. Discuss.

An interesting footnote to Ishmood’s arrival is the fact that despite assurances that he was a ‘man puss’, he is in fact a girl. That hasn’t stopped me calling him ‘mate’ or referring to him as ‘him’. To me, he’s a boy trapped in a girl’s body and that's that. 

Thankfully, Ishmood has served and is still serving his main purpose, which is to be a merciless killer and eschewer of pests. His first kill was a cockroach, which was stridently placed on my flip flop. And we haven’t seen a single mouse since his arrival.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Rhythm 14 - The Smooth and the Rough

Anyone worth their salt knows that the words Sierra and Leone are synonymous with diamonds – blood diamonds, no less, as immortalised by Leone-ardo himself.

The irony of the phenomenonal volume of natural resources the country has is just how much (or little, as the case may be) people benefit from their discovery, sale and re-sale across the world. But that’s for another time.

On a recent field visit to Kenema and Kono districts, I was able to see the two sides of the diamond business in technicolour. This involved (a) visiting a diamond dealer shop in Kenema Township, and (b) observing the effect of mining on communities in both districts.

The dealer shop we were lucky enough to visit was named ‘Ameriken’ – which was either a clever play on words, a worrying typo (well, painto) by the sign maker or simply a rubbish name. I’m almost certain it was the latter, but you never know.

The Lebanese chap who owned the shop was more than happy to show us a variety of diamonds on his expensive-looking desk (which had Liverpool and Brazil football logo stickers affixed to it, tastefully). These ranged from one particularly attractive one worth $80,000 to a pile of around 100 small ones that would total $200. 

His knowledge was extensive, and mightily impressive, but he did squirm at a few questions that were asked in relation to the origin of his diamonds and expressed his micro-displeasure of the Kimberly process, that entails that all should be certificated in-country and declared on arrival at the country of disembarkation.

On the flipside, any journey to the east of the country isn’t complete without seeing the effects that are wrought by diamond (and any old, for that matter) mining. Along the main roads, you can actually see some of the small mines being mined by men, women and children. As well as that, you can’t escape without seeing at least 100 people carrying a mineral sieve – about dartboard size – slung over their shoulder. 

The absurdity of this situation can’t be lost on many people. If even half of the people mining tended to farms instead, this country could most likely feed itself and then some. Yet it simply doesn’t happen, as people chase their fortune by forlornly searching for something that could make their fortune for a while but not sustain them long-term. 

Seeing all of this firsthand takes some accepting, especially when the resultant (though clearly not the only reason for) poverty slaps you in the face as you traverse between villages and towns. It’s pretty stark, when you think about the end product of many of the diamonds – a sparkling engagement ring on a fianc├ęs finger.