I quit telling people I was going to Sierra Leone because their reactions were getting me depressed.
“You’re going where?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Tell me you’re not serious. Tell me that was a joke.”
“Do you know how dangerous that place is?”
“Why on earth would you go to Sierra Leone?”
These were good questions, actually. Sierra Leone ranks dead last in a United Nations study of per capita income. It’s the world’s poorest country. And that’s the least of its problems. Up until a few months ago, the country had been at war. A brutal, nine-year, civil war in which 50,000 people had been killed, and horrific atrocities committed. The infrastructure is in ruins: roads torn apart and buildings demolished. Yet the biggest problem is disease. Yellow Fever, polio, typhoid, malaria, dengue fever, ebola, dysentery, rabies, and other tropical maladies are so numerous it’s no wonder the country has both the world’s shortest life expectancy and the world’s highest infant mortality rate. Sierra Leone is nestled on the coastline of West Africa, one of a string of small, undeveloped countries, just south of Guinea and just north of Liberia. But it’s anyone’s guess how many of its residents could ever find it on a map. Sierra Leone’s ranking in terms of access to education? Worst in the world.
Yet there is one area in which Sierra Leone is not the worst country in the world, it’s the best. Sierra Leone possesses the greatest concentration of high quality gem diamonds on the planet. The diamonds from Sierra Leone are the best in the world.
So why was the world boycotting them?
“Conflict Diamonds” had become a hot topic in the jewelry industry in the last few years. While few consumers had yet heard about it, human rights groups were working themselves into a frenzy over the fact that warlords in Sierra Leone were taking over the diamond fields. Profits from the diamonds, went the argument, were being used to fund the wars. And the atrocities from these wars were getting pretty bad. Rebels in Sierra Leone were cutting off people’s arms and legs. The activist group “Global Witness” was producing literature with an extreme anti-diamond message: “We hope you like that diamond on your finger. It may have been responsible for a young child losing both their arms.” Stuff like that. Seeking to inoculate itself against a public relations nightmare, diamond and jewelry associations were taking steps to regulate the industry, and keep those “conflict” diamonds from entering the supply chain.
Yet the more such groups tried to figure out how to do that, the more complicated it became. In the beginning the goal was to monitor Sierra Leone diamonds through a system of government certification. Without the proper documents, Sierra Leone diamonds could not be exported. Then everyone realized that people could just smuggle them into nearby Liberia. Duh. There’s nothing easier to smuggle in the world than a diamond. So a group was formed that created something called the “Kimberley Process,” a system whereby all rough diamonds would be properly documented by their exporting governments, and no diamond could enter the major cutting centers (Antwerp, Bombay, Tel Aviv, New York) without proper documentation. Then someone realized that even that wouldn’t work if you couldn’t also control polished diamonds. Another group was formed (World Diamond Council) which proposed a Chain-of-Warranties system that would extend from the mine, through the cutting centers, and all the way down to the retail jeweler. Each seller along the way would provide documentation attesting to the fact that this diamond was purchased from a source which provided similar documentation. And herein lay part of the reason I was going to Sierra Leone. Representatives of this group had actually approached me, the president of the on-line diamond trading network Polygon, asking that Polygon establish rules to this effect to cover our own diamond transactions.
“There is more diamond trading done every day on Polygon then there is on the floor of the New York Diamond Dealer’s club, said one representative from the World Diamond Council, industry leader Martin Rapaport. It won’t do us any good to get the Club to adopt the procedures, if Polygon doesn’t.”
Suddenly, I had become very curious about what was going on in Sierra Leone.
I wanted to go there and find out for myself what this was all about. I had no desire to impose a new set of rules and regulations on Polygon diamond trading if it wasn’t really going to do any good. On the other hand if these kinds of supply-chain controls were feasible, and could make a difference on a humanitarian level, then I was prepared to support them fully. So I was going to Sierra Leone on a fact-finding mission. At least that was the cover story. In truth there was more to it. Looking at the world map above my desk, I realized I’d been to North Africa, South Africa, East Africa, and to some extent even Central Africa, depending on how you count Zambia. But I’d never been to what is reputed to be the continent’s most exotic region: West Africa. This could be my chance.
I came clean with Fred, my Chief Financial Officer. “Look, here are all the reasons I need to go to Sierra Leone. But I’ve given this some thought and I don’t think this can pass the “straight-face” test. There’s not a sufficient compelling corporate interest for me to justify the trip. So I’ve decided to consider this Sierra Leone segment personal vacation.” I had about a zillion weeks of unused vacation stored up.
“No problem,” said Fred. “You can go anywhere you want if it’s your own vacation.”
So I was going as a tourist – at least as far as my company was concerned. Yet I wouldn’t probably wouldn’t have gone at all if not for one additional fact. I had a contact in Sierra Leone. Jo Van Gerpen. She was my high school girlfriend. My college girlfriend too, for that matter, until we’d broken up the summer after our junior year.
I hadn’t stayed in touch with Jo in recent years, but I knew where she was. Always an overachiever, she’d gone on to earn an MBA from Harvard, and then somewhere along the way had joined Unicef. Unicef is the UN agency that caters to the needs of children in poor countries around the world. Now, I’d heard, she was head of Unicef for Sierra Leone. If I could establish contact with Jo she might be able to help me with my trip. A Unicef officer would have numerous contacts, and would probably be quite aware of the problem with atrocities and diamonds and so forth. More than that, if Sierra Leone was a war zone, she could make sure I didn’t go anywhere dangerous. She could advise me, if nothing else. On the other hand I hadn’t seen her in nearly ten years. I didn’t think she’d ever married, but I wasn’t sure. Certainly I knew nothing of her present situation. How would she feel, if I were to make contact out of the blue? I had no idea.
But I did know this: If I went to Sierra Leone I could visit a part of the world I’d never seen. I could conduct some amount of research into an issue that seemed likely to become important for my business. And, if I could make contact with Jo, I’d know someone in authority who could help with my trip and keep me out of trouble as much as possible.
Finding her email address wasn’t difficult. A Yahoo search where I typed ‘Jo Van Gerpen’ produced nothing. But on a hunch I tried her full name, “Joanna Van Gerpen” and was rewarded with a blizzard of hits. She was being quoted in magazines and articles all over the world. In fact, she was even being quoted about the conflict diamond problem.
“Children have been a major source of recruitment for several factions, particularly the RUF,” according to Joanna Van Gerpen, head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) mission in Freetown, Sierra Leone. “As the illegal diamond trade has fueled the ongoing conflict, it has certainly been a major factor contributing to the ongoing use of children as tools of war in Sierra Leone.” – Freedom Magazine, October, 2000
With a little digging, I had the email address. Jo was surprised yet glad to hear from me, happy to help me organize my trip, and the details came together quickly. She was the only person who didn’t think I was crazy to be going to Sierra Leone.
“We have some of the world’s most beautiful beaches,” she wrote in her email. “You can even go scuba diving if you want to.”
Beautiful beaches? Scuba diving? What ever happened to world’s poorest country, third-world atrocities, and war-torn villages? My curiosity increased.
“Sierra Leone is not very easy to get to,” she explained. “The best bet is a new service they’ve just started with Sierra National Airlines. It flies weekly from London to Freetown and back. But there’s only one flight a week. If you use Sierra National, you’ll have to be here seven nights.”
A whole week! As a frequent and constantly-racing traveler, I never stay anywhere a whole week. Typically I’m in a different hotel every night, often a different country every night. For this trip, I’d been guessing two nights would be best. Maybe three. All the warnings had had their effect. The place was a dangerous battle zone, after all, where people’s arms and legs were getting cut off. I was willing to go there and have a meeting or two, but then wanted to get out fast. That had been my plan. On the other hand, Jo had been there for three years. How had she managed to survive?
“If you’d like,” continued Jo, “I could schedule one of my trips up-country, to visit Unicef projects, the same time as you’re here. It would be very primitive conditions. We’d get there by UN helicopter. You could come along if you’d be interested.”
Interested? Being flown by UN helicopter to remote, primitive areas of West Africa? Yeah, I might just possibly find that interesting.
“But if we do that, you’ll definitely need to schedule a full week here. Otherwise you won’t have time for any meetings.”
At this point I wasn’t especially concerned about the meetings. I liked the sound of the beautiful beaches, the scuba diving, and flying around in helicopters.
“If you stay for a week, I don’t think you’ll be bored. We’ll have plenty here to entertain you. By ‘we’ I mean Sierra Leone.”
That was sounding increasingly likely. But a whole week? What would I tell my wife? She didn’t mind me traveling on business, but a week in Sierra Leone seemed excessive. Then I remembered I didn’t have a choice. Once the airplane drops you off, it doesn’t come back for a week. Other ways of getting into the country looked doubtful. A person could fly into Accra, Ghana, and take a third-world puddle-jumper flight from there to Freetown. Or you could somehow get yourself to Conakry, Guinea and do the same thing, coming in from the North. Jo hadn’t sounded real encouraging about either of these possibilities. “Those airlines aren’t known for their reliability,” she’d explained.
Martin Rapaport helped me by suggesting names of people I should see. These were coordinated with Jo, who knew the people he recommended and was able to line up appointments.
The trip was coming together quickly, but two weeks out I realized we hadn’t touched on one important detail. Where would I be staying? Did they even have hotels in Freetown? Hotels not demolished by the war?
Jo wrote back: “You should stay here, at the residence where the Unicef staffers live. There is at least one guest bedroom, with bath, and it’s available. I can’t vouch for how comfortable the bed is, but I’m told it’s OK. But the day you fly out another guest is flying in (my predecessor), and she’ll need that room. Most importantly, the residence is safe. It has a high wall around it, and is guarded at the gates.”
That sounded perfect. One less thing to worry about. A bigger worry was tropical diseases.
“Passport Health” is a new franchise agency that provides a niche service: inoculations for travelers. There was one in Denver. Brigitte, my assistant, had found them only after trying to schedule me for a Yellow Fever vaccination. “There is no Yellow Fever vaccine in Denver,” she’d reported back. “Except at a place called Passport Health.” I had an appointment the next morning at nine.
It was a shared office suite in a modern suburban office building, and bore no resemblance to a doctor’s office or clinic. I was greeted by a young woman dressed in business attire. There was no nurses’ uniform or stethoscope around the neck, but a name tag identified her as Jennifer Freeman, R.N., B.S.N. She gave me her business card, and ushered me into a large corner room that might have passed for an attorney’s office except for a refrigerator against one wall, and miscellaneous items for sale displayed in a bookshelf: Deet insect repellent, sophisticated water filters, first aid kits, bottled water, and such.
She took a seat behind a vast walnut desk, and motioned me into the chair opposite. A loose leaf booklet was on the desk, facing me. “Medical Agenda for Jacques Voorhees, Traveling To Sierra Leone” was the title printed on the cover. Huh? I thought I was just here to get a couple of shots. I hate shots, and wanted it over quickly. Medical Agenda? What was this all about?
She turned the page. “Vaccinations Recommended/Required” read the heading, and below this was a long list: Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Tetanus/Diphtheria, Cholera, and many others.
Apparently I was being asked to choose which diseases I didn’t want to get, and which diseases I was willing to risk contracting. There were lots of diseases here. I wasn’t all that excited about getting any of them. They sounded dreadful.
I knew that the most important inoculation was Yellow Fever. Without a YF certificate, you’re not allowed into the country. Hepatitis A was also an issue, according to Brigitte’s research with the CDC, but my Summit County doctor had checked and said I was OK on that one thanks to an earlier vaccination. The CDC also recommended a typhoid vaccination, and urged that malaria medication be started in advance of arrival. “Needs a tetanus booster” said the notes from my doctor.
Few things in life I hate more than shots. It’s not that they hurt. They don’t really hurt much at all. It’s just a mental thing: the idea of someone sticking a needle into you, and then injecting various diseases into your bloodstream so as to train your body to combat them. Geeez. How creepy… And I was not accustomed to a doctor’s office where you’re offered essentially a menu.
“Excuse me sir, would you care for some tetanus to go with that malaria tablet? Perhaps a little Hepatitis A as an appetizer? Oh and by the way we’re running a special on flu vaccine this week. It’s fresh.”
I realized I just wasn’t up to this. I was being asked to choose how many shots I wanted, when I wanted none! The conflict of interest was extreme.
“So,” I began, “you can’t really take too many of these all at once can you?”
“There’s never been any evidence that multiple inoculations are a problem,” Registered Nurse Jennifer explained.
So much for that line of argument.
“Well, which ones do you have? You don’t actually have all these exotic diseases here in this room do you? You’re not saying I could just choose all of them and the vaccines are sitting over there in the refrigerator are you?”
I was already stressing out about that refrigerator. I didn’t like to think of the horrid things living inside.
“Actually, we have inoculations available for all these diseases. Yes, that’s what the refrigerator is for.”
“All of them? You mean, like, Dengue Fever? In this room? You’ve got Dengue Fever virus sharing the room with us?”
This was ghastly.
“Yes. If you’d like some Dengue Fever vaccine, it’s not a problem. I have it right here.”
I glanced again at the blurb about Dengue Fever: “…a potentially life-threatening viral disease transmitted by urban Aedes mosquito. There is generally greater risk in urban areas and less risk of dengue in rural areas and at altitudes above 4,500 feet.”
Great, the whole time I was I Freetown I was going to be worried about Dengue Fever.
“Well,” I began, with trepidation, “I think I’m inclined to get only the things the CDC specifically recommended. That would be the typhoid, the tetanus booster, the Yellow Fever, and of course the malaria medication.
“I think that makes a lot of sense,” said Jennifer.
“So, I’m not being stupid, not to get all these other things?”
“It’s your choice. But I think that makes sense.”
OK, let’s do it.
Please take a seat on the couch, Mr. Voorhees, and please roll up both your shirtsleeves. I’ll need both arms. And this will take only a few moments to prepare the inoculations…”
I was ready to run from the room, screaming. I was ready to cancel the entire trip. Jennifer walked over to the refrigerator from hell and began removing bottles and vials. Syringes were unwrapped and placed on sterile trays. Long, vicious needles were now visible, ready to inject tropical African viruses into me. I wanted to throw up. I was so glad I hadn’t also gone for the Dengue Fever and the Polio. On an intellectual level I knew it was probably worse to actually contract those diseases than to get inoculated against them. But it didn’t feel that way right now.
Yet it was over soon enough. As they say is true of childbirth, one’s memory of the experience fades mercifully quickly. And I’d had just enough presence of mind to buy a couple of the Deet insect repellants as well.
I left the next day, but I wasn’t heading for Africa. I was heading for Orlando. Sierra Leone was being worked in as a detour on what was already an inefficient trip: Orlando, London, Sierra Leone, London, Vancouver. Orlando was the Polygon conclave. After that I had business meetings in England. Then Sierra Leone. Then more meetings in London. Then the American Gem Society Conclave in Vancouver.
Nearly a week went by before I was standing in line at the Sierra National check-in counter at Gatwick Airport, south of London. It had not been easy to get these tickets, and I clutched them to me protectively as I recalled the effort.
Sierra National is not part of the world’s airline system. They do not appear in the reservations systems of any of the world’s airlines or travel agents. I found them on the Web – as kind of a footnote to some large cargo operation. There was a branch office of this cargo company in Miami, and a phone number.
“Yeah,” greeted the hostile voice at the other end of the line. “What can I do for you?” He sounded like doing something for me was not going to be the high point of his day.
“Um, I’m calling about Sierra National Airlines. I got this phone number off a website.”
“Hold on… OK, here it is. You probably want the passenger office in London, right?”
“I guess.” He gave me a London phone number.
They were considerably friendlier. “McPherson Travel” said the pleasant travel agent voice.
“Yes, I’m calling about Sierra National Airlines. I’m trying to arrange a booking for Freetown.”
“Well, I think we can help with that.”
He discussed flight times and ticket prices before discovering I was calling from America.
“What you want to do is call our office in Baltimore, and they can actually handle the ticketing.”
I was making progress.
“McPherson Travel” said the equally friendly voice in Baltimore. I explained what I wanted.
“Yes, no problem. The round trip fare is $825 from London. You’ll need to send that to us by money order or cashier’s check.”
“Can’t I just give you a credit card?”
“I’m sorry, we don’t take credit cards.”
I was stunned.
“You don’t take credit cards?”
“That’s correct. Money order or cashier’s check I’m afraid.”
“You’re afraid! How do you think I feel? You’re asking me to send a money order to a company I’ve never heard of before. A travel agency that claims they don’t take credit cards? Does anyone ever actually do that? Send you unsecured cash like that?”
“All the time. It’s a decision made in London. No credit cards. We handle all the ticketing this way.”
So I send you $825, and you then send me a ticket.”
“Look, I’m really nervous about this. What do you think the odds are that I’ll ever get that ticket?”
“100%. You really don’t need to be nervous.”
I discussed it the next day with Brigitte.
“Are they crazy? They don’t take credit cards?”
“I’m thinking I should check this place out first. It could be a real scam.”
“Of course you should check it out. I can’t believe anyone would be that gullible.”
But she calmed down a little when she found I’d been referred by SNA itself, through the SNA website. We both agreed that that made a scam less likely. In the end, I sent the money. When the ticket arrived a few days later, we both breathed a sigh of relief.
I examined it closely. It looked like a legitimate airline ticket. On the cover was a photograph of a very beautiful beach, with palm trees hanging over it, and such.
“Wow,” said Brigitte. “I guess I wasn’t thinking of an African country as having beautiful beaches. I’m used to thinking of starvation and AIDS and everything.”
“Yeah, but I suppose putting a picture of a starving baby dying of AIDS on the cover of the ticket probably wouldn’t be good PR.”
Stereotypes and prejudice were much on my mind as I held this ticket now, waiting in line at the SNA ticket counter in Gatwick Airport. A dozen men and women were in the line with me. They all were black. And they all smelled bad. I felt hopelessly racist and prejudiced to be noticing that. But they did smell bad. And it wasn’t prejudice to notice something when presented with the fact. It’s prejudice to expect it before it happens, maybe. And indifference towards bathing is not a racial thing, anyway. It’s cultural. Soap didn’t catch on with white Europeans until about 1850 when suddenly not smelling gross became fashionable. That was why the Japanese and Chinese – most civilized people on earth – considered the white men barbarians for so many hundreds of years. In hindsight, they were probably right. Pakistanis and East Indians are, even today, very difficult people to share an elevator with. I hadn’t recalled this as a problem in my previous African visits. Perhaps it was a West African thing.
The ticket agent reviewed my documents, and then looked up and asked that most bizarre question one encounters when crossing borders these days: “Business or Pleasure?”
And how was I to answer? Was anyone actually engaged in business in Sierra Leone right now? The country was just finishing up a war. And was it possible to find anything in Sierra Leone that would bring pleasure? Does anyone go to the poorest country in the world for pleasure?
“Little of both!” I said, with a smile, which apparently sufficed.
Conflict diamonds? Ex-girlfriends? I really didn’t want to get into it.
Finally we were through customs, airport security, ticket checking and so forth. There must have been about a hundred of us passengers, waiting restlessly in a departure lounge. Everyone was black except the flight crew and the gate agents. I began to envy those gate agents. They weren’t about to get on this scary airplane and fly over strange continents and mysterious bodies of water to the poorest country in the world. They were going to stay right here in civilized England and—if they wished—have a nice meal of fish and chips for lunch tomorrow. Background music had been playing but I hadn’t’ really noticed it. Suddenly a strong note pealed forth, away from the others. It rose an octave, hung there, and then rose another octave. Finding that octave to its liking, it rested there for an amazing amount of time. Obviously it was some African folk thing, some tribal music. But how long could this singer hold that note? World records were being set, right here in the departure lounge at Gatwick. I knew when it finally did come down, it would light off a heavy drum crescendo and all of us would inadvertently start to move with the beat. Then—after an eternity—the note finally did plummet away, and right behind it was another one just as loud. I realized to my horror that this wasn’t the PA system playing music. This was a screeching baby! My God, world’s loudest baby, right here in the departure lounge, heading to Sierra Leone. It did nothing to calm my nerves.
The plane wasn’t full, and my seat mate—black of course—appeared to be some kind of professional. He was dressed in a suit, and carried an expensive briefcase. Body odor was not a problem and, mercifully, we were many rows away from the furious baby still trying to set records for longest duration of a single wail. A truly civilized society would long ago have invented “baby downers” – mild sedatives required by the FAA to be given to all children younger than age five who seek to board an aircraft.
Anyway, it was good to be reminded that it wasn’t black people who smell. It wasn’t Sierra Leoneans who smell. It was simply people who didn’t bathe regularly who smelled.
The Sierra National Airlines 757 lifted off from Gatwick Airport and flew due south from London. Actually, it wasn’t Sierra National at all. There really is no Sierra National anything. It’s just a marketing concept. The modern 757, piloted by a very British crew, was a Monarch Airlines jet. Monarch is a well-known and well-respected charter operation in Europe. Apparently Sierra National just sub-contracted all their flights to Monarch. It was quite clever. Sierra Leone got to pretend they had a national airline. All countries like to have national airlines. The poorer a country is, the more important they have a national airline. It’s a self-esteem thing. That’s why there’s Air Tanzania, Air Ethiopia, Royal Air Maroc, and Air Afghanistan. There’s probably an Air Bangladesh, for that matter. I’d worried that Sierra National Airlines would be some ancient 737, held together with an Islamic prayer, and running on fumes by the time it made it to Freetown. But Sierra National Flight 93 from London to Sierra Leone was anything but third world. They served a good meal, and the drinks were free. The flight attendants were British, and charming. The pilots sounded confident and in control.
Deciding I should do some homework, I opened up the Passport Health briefing paper prepared for me back in Denver, and read information from the Department of State which they’d included in the appendix. It was a travel warning issued August 20, 2001 – eight months ago.
“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to Sierra Leone…”
I paused, wondering if I should have read this before getting on the plane to Sierra Leone….
“Although security in Freetown has improved over the past year and there are encouraging signs that the UN peacekeeping force is making progress in disarming and demobilizing the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel force, the overall security situation remains tenuous and dangerous. Travel outside the capital is especially dangerous due to the presence of rebel military groups and undisciplined pro-government militia that have not yet been disarmed or demobilized. Travelers also may encounter difficulties at unauthorized roadblocks and checkpoints outside Freetown. U.S. citizens should avoid political rallies and street demonstrations and maintain security awareness at all times.
“In January 1999, at least 5,000 persons were killed when rebel forces attacked Freetown. Despite a July 1999 peace agreement, much of the country is still not fully under government control. In May 2000, over 20 protestors and an unknown number of rebel guards were killed in an exchange of gunfire in Freetown near the home of the rebel leader.
“Crime: Requests for payments at military roadblocks are common. Armed robberies and burglaries of residences are frequent occurrences.
“Medical facilities: Medical facilities fall critically short of U.S. standards. Persons with medical conditions are discouraged from traveling to Sierra Leone. Medicines are in short supply, sterility of equipment is questionable, and treatment is unreliable. Many primary health care workers, especially in rural areas, lack professional training.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions: Safety of public transportation—poor. Urban Road conditions—poor. Rural road conditions—poor. Availability of roadside assistance—poor. Most roads outside Freetown are unpaved but passable for a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Public transport is erratic, unsafe, and generally not recommended.
Registration/Embassy location: US citizens visiting Sierra Leone despite the Department’s warning are encouraged to register with the Consular section of the U.S. Embassy in Freetown and to obtain updated information on travel and security in Sierra Leone.”
Well, that was certainly encouraging. My sister Beth had bought me the book “World’s Most Dangerous Places” before I’d left for Colombia a few years ago. I hadn’t read it then, as I worried it would scare me too much. But I was traveling with it now, having noted while packing that it mentioned Sierra Leone. I decided I should read what it had to say. It began with a rating system for “Dangerous Places,” from one to five stars.
One Star: Places that are not really dangerous but have a bad rap for isolated incidences. If you work hard enough, you could get waylaid or interred.
Two stars: Danger lurks in these places, but usually the violence is very contained or easily identifiable.
Three stars: Places with very specific problems, usually avoidable. Danger may also be sporadic, seasonal, or local.
Four stars: Very Nasty Places. Danger here is regional, definable and avoidable, but the odds are that the unwary traveler will be coming home as cargo.
Five stars: Hells on Earth. A place where the longer you stay, the shorter your existence on this planet will be. These places combine warfare, banditry, disease, landmines, and violence in a terminal adventure ride.
There was a whole chapter on Sierra Leone, which rated 5 stars. Some of the paragraphs caught my interest.
Sierra Leone hasn’t had it easy. In 1787, Sierra Leone (Lion Mountain in Portuguese), became an experimental community for freed slaves after British do-gooders bought a swath of 52 square kilometers and called it Province of Freedom. Within three years, 90 percent of the former slaves and white settlers in the territory had died of tropical diseases. Of the 1200 freed slaves who fought for King George during the American Revolution and were brought to Province of Freedom shortly afterward, 800 were dead in two years. Some 50,000 freed slaves were dumped into this sweaty hell hole between 1807 and 1864. Most died soon after arrival. Britain ceded independence to Sierra Leone in 1961 and the country formed a republic in 1971. In 1992 the people overwhelmingly voted to have democratic elections which was a cue to the folks who were draining the diamond coffers that it was time for a coup. In April 1992, Captain Strasser seized control of the government and ruled whichever pieces of the pie he could govern. The problem with the word ‘democratic’ in Africa is that it is an antonym for the word ‘tribal’. In Sierra Leone, where 52 percent of the population are animists, 39 percent are Muslim, and 8 percent are Christian, it doesn’t make for a recipe for democracy. Soon after Strasser’s coup, a rebel group of Muslim blacks were formed by former army photographer Foday Sankoh. Libya trained the motley, human flesh-eating RUF as best it could, and mayhem has served as Sierra Leone’s constitution ever since.
“The rebels took great pleasure in not only killing folks, but taking Westerners hostage. The insurgents snatched seven Italian nuns who were summarily killed, but at least spared from becoming Sunday night meatloaf. Because the drug-crazed rebels often enjoy their victims as meals, most foreigners have now left Sierra Leone.
“…Some hospitals report that up to 100 people a day die from starvation. The eastern areas of the country are especially volatile. The population of 4 million is suffering from food shortages and a general disintegration of society
“…Sierra Leone is the classic West African hell hole. The country can proudly boast the lowest life expectancy of any country in the world (41.5 years), and leads the human race in overall destitution and despair in other key categories as well.
“Malaria occurs throughout the country and is chloroquine-resistant. Many viral diseases, some causing severe hemorrhagic fevers are transmitted by mosquitoes, sand flies, etc. Typhus is common. Sleeping sickness is regularly reported. Food borne and waterborne diseases are highly endemic. Rats pose a special hazard. Ebola is present.”
The section continued in this vein for many paragraphs, detailing dozens of horrible maladies one is likely to contract in Sierra Leone, and finally ended with:
“One atlas even lists childbirth as a communicable disease in Sierra Leone. So be careful—there is only one doctor for every 13,154 people. Witch doctors provide the only “health care” available outside the capital.
“Diamond mines are considered off limits to all outsiders, and if bumbling travelers happen to stumble upon them, they will be extremely lucky if they are merely detained and lectured on their stupidity. If you come across diamond smugglers, you‘ll likely end up in a shallow, hastily dug grave…”
OK, so it was more or less unanimous that I was an idiot to be going to Sierra Leone at all. Yet I was left with one very puzzling question. How had Jo managed to survive there for three years?
Perhaps I’d soon find out. We’d be landing at Lungi Airfield in six hours.
Sleeping pills are a wonderful way to make overnight flights go instantly. They collapse time in a most effective manner. After reading about all the reasons I shouldn’t be going to Sierra Leone I took two of them, and woke up on the approach to Freetown’s airport.
It had been nearly ten years since I’d last seen Jo—at a high school reunion. I would have liked to have had a chance to meet her in circumstances other than coming off an overnight flight, with my clothes and hair in disarray. Worse was the arrival time: 4:30 a.m. Who schedules a plane to arrive anywhere at 4:30 a.m.?
Here were her instructions:
When you arrive at the airport, you’re still not quite here. Lungi Airport is on a peninsula, but not the same one that Freetown is on. After you pick up your luggage, you have to buy a ticket for the helicopter shuttle to the Freetown peninsula. The ticket is $20. There are two helicopter companies. Please buy a ticket for the Paramount line. That way, I will know which heliport to pick you up at. The airport is not too bad. It is a bit of a madhouse after claiming your luggage. There will be lots of people offering to help. It isn’t too complicated, but you might just want to let one of them help you with your luggage and guide you to the helicopter desk where you can buy your ticket and then to the helicopter departure waiting area. The waiting area is outside next to the runways and could be difficult to find on your own. They will do this for $1. The airport is being renovated — and hopefully should be finished by the time you arrive. As a result, everything will be changing and it will be difficult for me to give you accurate directions. Don’t worry. I will be at the heliport to pick you up. By the time you get your luggage and sort everything out with the helicopter, it will be more like 5:30 when you arrive in Freetown. The residence is only 10 minutes from the heliport. And besides, you’re my first non-official visitor to Sierra Leone. This is an occasion worth special attention.
One doesn’t remember much when coming off sleeping pills. The plane landed. We got out. It was dark. People were milling about. A young man came up to me and mentioned something about a helicopter. I nodded, knowing this meant I’d just agreed to pay him a dollar to have him get me to the appropriate helicopter. It seemed a bargain. He led me over stone terraces, down walkways, and past things under construction. The moist tropical air enveloped me as I’d expected it would. In a few minutes we’d come to a waiting area, outdoors, looking out over the tarmac. The helicopters began arriving immediately. There were two of them, and they thumped-thumped their way in, landing perhaps 50 yards apart.
Russian Mi-8’s. I knew these helicopters from the time I’d spent touring emerald mines in Colombia. Mi-8’s are large, noisy, and they rattle. They carry twenty or thirty people plus luggage.
A large wheeled cart had been piled high with baggage, and half a dozen black men were trying to push it out onto the tarmac towards one of the helicopters. It wouldn’t go. There was a lip to the concrete they couldn’t quite ascend. I added my strength to theirs, and the cart began moving. When we reached the helicopter I helped load the luggage into it. I wasn’t sure why I was doing this. Some people can’t sit still when there’s a good beat playing to the music. I can’t sit still when there are helicopters with rotors spinning. It does something to the blood. It even does something to the blood at 4:30 am, when it’s completely dark out, and one’s body is still recovering from sedatives.
Soon I was in the helicopter myself, sitting on one of two long benches placed along the fuselage and facing inwards. Yet it was so dark I could see little except the formless mass of luggage piled in the middle and held down by cargo netting. My fellow passengers were shadows. We lifted off and almost immediately were crossing water—a broad estuary perhaps. The lights of Freetown came into view and I was reminded of San Francisco – steep hills rising above the ocean, lights scattered about them. The helicopter was only a few hundred feet above the waves, and these hills ascended above my line of sight. I had not realized Sierra Leone was a mountainous country, although I should have. “Sierra” means “mountain” in both Spanish and Portuguese.
We landed in a clearing, and it was still nighttime – not a breath of dawn. Low trees were nearby and I could vaguely detect several low buildings scattered about. A group of people were waiting for us and cars were parked randomly on the grass. That was about as much as I could make out. I still had my backpack suitcase with me, and I flung it over my shoulder as I left the helicopter.
I spotted Jo instantly. Fifty black people. Six white people. One blonde woman.
“Hi, Jacques. Welcome to Sierra Leone.” She gave me a hug and smiled; the girl I’d once expected to marry.
Here was another white guy – an acquaintance of Jo’s, obviously, just getting off the helicopter as well.
“Can we give you a ride home?” she asked.
Whoever was supposed to meet him hadn’t made it. He accepted, and bags were tossed into the back of a vehicle. It was some white SUV thing. I jumped into the rear seat. Jo made introductions. The man had just returned from Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, and I had the vague impression he was someone important. A governmental advisor or something.
The sleeping pills weren’t helping. We dropped off Mr. Important, and finally pulled up to a large white gate. It was still nighttime. An impressive structure rose beyond, and the gate suddenly opened. I detected vague forms holding it open for us. We parked and walked up two flights of steps. My room was quite simple, consisting of merely a bed with mosquito netting draped over it, a chair, a ceiling fan, strong air conditioning, and a full bathroom. Jo was down the hall. She had a large suite with kitchen, living room and such, and she gave me a quick tour. My impressions were: clean, modern, spacious, high ceilings, wide hallways. But the sleeping pills were still keeping me groggy.
Jo explained the plan.
“You’ll want to get some sleep. I’m going to go back to bed as well. I have to go to the office for a few hours, but I’ll be back around noon. I hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to go to a wedding at one. Then maybe you can hang out at the residence for an hour or so, there’s a pool, by the way, and then we’re going to a wedding reception party. It’s at a beach resort. We’ll probably stay there tonight…”
I loved having someone so in charge of everything. All I had to do was obey instructions, and if the first order was to go to bed, that sounded perfect. I collapsed under the mosquito netting.
Hours later I awoke to what seemed an empty apartment. Jo had given me a key to her suite, so I could at least raid the refrigerator. Once inside I threw open the blinds and had my first real glimpse of the world’s poorest country. The first image was a tower of vegetables walking by just past the high cement wall encircling the apartment compound. I’d never seen vegetables walking down a street before. These, I realized quickly, must be riding atop someone’s head. Sure enough, that person suddenly became visible as they walked in front of the open gate. It was a young black woman, tall and slender, and wearing an exotic red and black dress. Balanced on her head was a wide basket, and on this basket were a dozen cabbages piled high in pyramid fashion. Directly behind her was a young child, perhaps seven or eight years old, also wearing a red dress, and also carrying a food-laden basket on her head. I hadn’t seen this girl earlier because she was too short for her vegetables to be visible above the wall.
I went to another window, which looked out onto a busier street, and could not believe what I was seeing. Several dozen women were walking about, everyone of them with a bright dress, and every one of them with a basketful of vegetables or fruit on her head. There were only a few men, all dressed in scruffy, uninspired clothing, and carrying nothing. Overhanging the streets was a canopy of vegetation provided by a small forest of tall and graceful coconut palm trees. The apartment compound itself was inside the tall cement wall that surrounded it on all sides. Out the back was an elegant swimming pool: pristine, inviting, and seemingly untouched. After showering I returned to the suite, made coffee and found some fruit in the kitchen: tiny tropical bananas each about three inches long. I ate six and was about to go for seven when Jo came racing in the door.
“Are you ready to go? We need to leave in eight minutes.”
Here I was trying to get into the rhythms of a tropical country – convert to margueritaville time – and Jo was behaving like a commodities trader in lower Manhattan. I hastily gulped down another cup of coffee, hoping to burn off the sleeping pills and catch up with Jo’s energy level. A stern chase is a long chase.
I wasn’t sure how one dressed for a wedding in a country where the divorce rate was probably the worst in the world. They were last in everything else – how well could their marriages do? Guessing it wouldn’t be too fancy, I’d donned a pair of khaki’s and a short-sleeve shirt.
Jo looked me over. “Hmmm,’ she said.
“Look, I’ve got business attire. I was going to meetings in London yesterday. If you want me to wear a full suit and tie, it’s not a problem.”
We settled on a sport coat, slacks, and a tie. Jo wore a cottony dress with a strand of pearls and led me hastily out the door.
Downstairs in the paved, gated, courtyard was a substantial, gleaming-white SUV. Light-blue lettering proclaimed it as an official Unicef vehicle. Unicef and UN logos were all over it. Small blue and white flags were mounted on the front fenders. This was a very official form of transportation. A driver stood attentively, and helped us in. The engine started up, the gate was opened by two attendants, and—with flags flying—we pulled out into the street.
Jo had a small briefcase with her, and was thumbing through some important paperwork, while discussing logistics with the driver. I was mesmerized by the sights and sounds of Sierra Leone. The brightly-clad women with the food on their heads were everywhere. There were a few vehicles, but mostly the narrow, barely-two-lane-wide roads were filled with pedestrians. And animals. Goats and chickens seemed to be in the majority, but dogs were well represented, and occasionally a pig or two showed itself. It was unclear whether these animals just wandered about, or were being carefully shepherded by an owner. Suddenly Jo turned to me, flustered.
“I’m sorry. I just… My head’s still spinning from the office. And you’re here. And I’m forcing you to go to this wedding. And we haven’t even had a chance to breathe, or talk, or anything. This is a terrible way to treat a visitor…”
“Are you kidding? This is great way to treat a visitor! I got a nap. I got a shower. I got fruit. Now I’m flying through the streets of Freetown in a UN vehicle with flags all over it. There are exotic women spread all over the road, and each one has something even more exotic on her head. There are vegetables, and goats, and street urchins, and dirt and crazy traffic, and – my God, how does it get any better than this?”
Those weren’t just words. I meant it.
“Well, you’re being awfully understanding. Thank you.”
“So tell me about this wedding. Who’s marrying who? What kind of place are we going to? Is it a church or what?”
“OK, here’s the deal. The groom is Marc Gordon, he’s our Water and Sanitation Officer. He’s marrying Missy, she’s a local girl.”
The SUV hit a small puddle, spraying water over a flock of chickens which squealed and hissed and flapped their wings in furious indignation and terror.
“Water and Sanitation Officer? For Unicef?”
A pig squealed as a small boy hit it with a stick, trying to point it in the right direction.
“Yes. There are about ten divisions that report to me. He’s head of the Water and Sanitation Division. You’ll meet some of the others as well.
The driver stomped on the brake as three women with melons on their heads chose that moment to cross to the other side of the road.
And the place we’re going?”
A chartreuse VW microbus passed us with the words “Allah is Great!” painted in white on the front hood
“It’s a church. A Christian church. But it’s not air conditioned. It’s going to be hot.”
Certainly it would be so for anyone wearing a heavy-weight sport coat and a tie.
We turned a corner, the broken asphalt surrendered to simple dirt, and suddenly we were in another large, enclosed area similar to the apartment compound. An odd structure rose up roughly in the middle: wooden walls, with large open windows, and a very broad, circus-like tin roof. This must be the church.
A hundred or more people milled about, out in the dirt parking lot, on the wooden steps, under the tin roof. We milled about with them, and Jo tried vainly to introduce me to as many as she could. About one in five people were white, and these seemed to generally be involved with Unicef in some way, or relatives of Unicef workers, or representatives of other aid organizations in Sierra Leone who knew the groom or the bride or both.
It was during these introductions that I began to realize how unusual my status was in this country. Everyone – everyone – who met me asked instantly: “So which organization are you with?”
Among the international community in Sierra Leone, it was the accepted way of beginning a conversation with a stranger. In parks in New York City, one meets people by asking about their dog. In Sierra Leone, one breaks the ice by asking what organization you’re with. And that was the key. Everyone was with some organization. Everyone except me. Jo tried to explain the basic types.
“You’ve got the governmental organizations, and then you’ve got the NGO’s.”
Actually, I knew that term. My sister Beth had once done her doctoral dissertation on something to do with NGO’s. I remembered what it stood for: Non-governmental organizations.
World Health Organization, OxFam, Coalition Against Hunger, these were all NGO’s. By contrast, anyone attached to the Sierra Leone government was with a Governmental Organization, as were people associated with foreign government agencies, such as US AID, the American foreign aid program.
“So what’s Unicef?” I asked. Is Unicef an NGO?
No, it’s part of the UN.
And that’s governmental?
“No, that’s a third thing. The UN is what’s called an inter-governmental agency, like the IMF or the World Bank.
“I would think all these organizations would step on each others toes all the time and create a big mess.”
“They do. And then to add insult to injury, because of all the organizations, the Sierra Leone government assumes it doesn’t need to do anything. They figure the aid organizations have it covered.”
In the crowds outside, one of the liveliest, friendliest people was a woman named Blanca SanGerman. I guessed her age as early forties. Pretty. Vivacious. And from Mexico.
“Blanca’s our Supply Officer,” explained Jo as she introduced us.
Blanca studied me seriously. “So, you are friend of Joanna?”
“A friend from many, many years ago.”
“I have just one question.”
“Are you coming to my salsa dance class on Tuesday night?”
I could only stare at her. Salsa dancing? Didn’t she know she was in a third world country here? World’s poorest country? World’s highest death rate? World’s most pathetic in all categories? Salsa dancing? I could imagine the UN rankings. World’s worst Salsa Dancers: Sierra Leone. Maybe Blanca was trying to change that.
“Actually, what I meant to say,” she clarified, “is that you ARE coming to my salsa dance class on Tuesday night.
“Blanca teaches a great salsa class,” Jo noted for the record. “I don’t know, Blanca, we haven’t exactly figured everything out yet.”
“OK, you figure everything out. That’s fine. Then you come to my salsa class on Tuesday night!”
Here was another person – from Britain, judging by the accent.
“So what organization are you with?” he asked politely.
Actually I’m not with any organization.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m here as a tourist.”
“Tourists don’t come to Sierra Leone.”
“Perhaps I’m the first?”
“Are you serious? You came here…as a tourist? Did you forget to take your medication or something?”
“It seems like a wonderful place. I’m having a great time already.”
“Well, you probably are the first tourist — since the war ended at least. There used to be quite a few tourists from Europe who’d come here. The beaches, you know.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about these beaches. Are they as beautiful as they say?”
“Actually they are, but now they’re nearly deserted. Coming back though. Now that the curfew’s lifted, all of us are able to get around a bit.”
“Oh yes. You had to be home by 6pm, every night. That stopped only a few months ago, in late January.”
“I would think that would have hurt the restaurant business. Hurt a lot of businesses actually.”
“It pretty much wiped out the night life, at least in town. We all had to make do getting together at people’s apartments.”
I remembered seeing a large collection of board games on the shelves in Jo’s apartment. Perhaps that had been at least one response to the war.
“By the way, I’m trying to figure out what language they speak here. I read that English is the official language, but the native people don’t seem to be speaking it.”
“They speak Krio.”
“K-r-i-o. It’s a mixture of English, French, and half a dozen tribal languages.”
No wonder I was having trouble understanding it.
The crowd was moving in to the church now. It had been hot in the open courtyard. It was hot under the tin roof. It was going to be much hotter inside this relatively closed structure.
My coat came off first. Soon my sleeves were rolled up. Finally my tie was loosened and shirt unbuttoned. And that was just in the few moments while we were taking our seats.
It was dreadfully hot in here, but I didn’t mind so much. I fear heat only when I can’t escape it. Jo’s car with the flags was very air conditioned. The Unicef residence was freezing. As long as I had these little oasis to which I knew I’d be returning, I could bear the heat.
I’d earlier asked Jo about the air conditioning. It seemed very strong.
“I love air conditioning,” she said, which I found surprising. I knew she’d been stationed in Somalia, Nepal, Sudan, and Armenia, before her present position in Sierra Leone. I’d assumed Jo must have reverted to almost a bush style of existence. I’d been prepared to find she’d ‘gone native’ and was all but living in a grass hut. But her suite was quite lavish, the air conditioning was strong, and their were little diplomatic flags on her vehicle.
“I keep it even colder at the office,” she explained. “I find it keeps the meetings short. No one else likes it quite as cold as I do. By the way are you going to survive this? I can’t imagine having to wear a coat and tie…”
I reassured her I could handle it, and then noticed how all the natives were handling it. They seemed to be even more oppressed by the heat than I was. All of them were fanning themselves aggressively with the little paper programs that had been circulated. I did the same, finding it effective. I’d read somewhere that it was actually a mistake to think so, that fanning oneself generated more heat than was dissipated by the air movement. But whatever physicist had figured that out was unclear on the concept. As long as one’s face can be kept cool, overall body temperature is less of a concern.
The wedding ceremony was difficult to follow, as it was conducted in Krio. Or it was in English, but with such heavy Krio accents it amounted to the same thing. But it must have been funny, because the laughter was non stop. Everyone was laughing: the bride, the groom, the minister, the audience – everyone. The white people in the audience were smiling gamely, trying to pretend that they understood and found all of it quite amusing as well.
I didn’t care about the heat or the impossible-to-understand minister. I was mesmerized by the Africans in the audience. A church filled with West Africans is visually akin to a kindergarten school room in America: sensory overload. While some of the Africans were in western attire, most wore large, billowy cotton robes in magnificent colors and exotic patterns. Fortunately, whatever they’d been carrying on their heads earlier had been left at the door, for all of them were without cargo as they sat in the pews and waved their fans, and laughed at the oh-so-funny wedding service.
The bride was a beautiful young black woman, with eyes gleaming, a stunning white western-style wedding dress, and a look of euphoria about her. The groom, Marc Gordon, looked very British – in a conservative tuxedo, blond, tussled hair, and bursting with pride.
Jo had been whispering to me a bit about their situation.
“Unicef wants to transfer Marc to a station in Mali, at least for a year or so. It would be a good for his career to do it. But if he does I think he’ll be in for a surprise. The conditions are unbelievably primitive there, and I don’t think his bride will enjoy it all that much.”
“Yes, I would think that most any marriage would be tested by living in Mali.” All I knew of Mali was that it contained that fabled city, Timbuktu, that it was mostly desert and sub-Saharan in culture, and that it was directly northeast of Sierra Leone a few hundred miles. It was interesting that Jo believed the native African he was marrying would be the one with the problem in Mali, not the staid, young British man himself.
After the service we raced back in the Unicef flagmobile to the residence. I was dropped off with an invitation to raid the icebox again, and hang out for a few hours. Jo was heading back to the office. The plan, she said, was that we’d be going to the wedding reception party that evening.
“It’s at the Cotton Club, down at the water. We’ll probably spend the night there, so pack for an overnight.”
And with that advice she rushed off, with guards opening gates, and flags flying.
It was heaven, being able to relax with nothing to do in the liquid-nitrogen frozen temperature of the apartment. I washed some clothes, organized my two packs, and found almost half a gallon of fresh-fruit salad in the fridge. It was mostly mangoes and mangoes and melons. Someone had spent a lot of time chopping up all this fruit and I wondered how Jo found room in her schedule for such domestic chores. I found out later that Jo had had nothing to do with this salad. In any case I consumed half the gallon, wondering if exotic fruit would be my primary diet in Sierra Leone, and hoping the answer would be yes.
I’d not known what my communication options would be once I’d arrived in the country. My cell phone was supposed to work in 127 countries. I’d checked VoiceStream’s website, before I’d left, and was not surprised that Sierra Leone was not among the 127. I could well-imagine where Sierra Leone ranked in UN listings of “worst cell phone coverage.” But I’d expected somewhere in the residence there would be a regular phone. Actually, Jo had one in her suite, but the line was dead. So I couldn’t connect my computer to the Internet, either via cell phone or via land-line. My options were shrinking . And I’d promised to get word to my family, after arrival, that I had arrived, was safe, etc. Jo had suggested I go to Blanca’s suite—two floors up. I did this, and friendly Blanca was happy to let me use her phone. ATT’s marvelous “USA Direct” service was working in Sierra Leone. USA Direct is an amazing system in which—from almost any country in the world—you can make a call to a toll free number in that country and a friendly U.S.-based, American-speaking, AT&T operator will answer and connect you with any number you’re trying to reach. If you have an ATT credit card (I did) you can make calls from the middle of, say, Weird-o-stan directly to anywhere else on earth—without even going through a local operator. With the help of USA Direct, I was soon speaking to my 11 year old son Alex, ten thousand miles away.
Alex has never been one to voice strong emotion on telephone calls, nor prolong them beyond the minimum time necessary. A typical phone call with Alex goes like this.
“Hi, Alex, it’s dad.”
“Uh, is mom there?”
“OK, well just wanted to let you know I’m leaving the office and I’ll be home by six.”
“Well, I can’t think of anything else. Uh, see you soon.”
As I stood holding Blanca’s telephone to my ear, I heard Alex answer.
“Hi, Alex, it’s dad. I’m calling from Sierra Leone!”
“I’m 10,000 miles away. I’m in Africa. Isn’t this cool!”
“Uh, is mom there?”
Mom wasn’t there, so I left a message that I’d arrived safely, but had no phone service. That was OK with Alex. Probably his idea of a perfect country.
It was after 8pm by the time Jo returned from the office, changed, and packed for the evening. We pulled out into nighttime Freetown in her own SUV, not the official Unicef car, and she asked me to drive.
“I really don’t like driving at night,” she explained. The road from her apartment leading out of town was simple asphalt, with an occasional pothole. Soon the city itself was left behind and the potholes were becoming more pronounced. There came a point—so subtle I almost missed it—where there was more pothole than street. The trend continued, as the holes got even bigger and the asphalt shrunk further. Soon we were climbing up out of holes, across narrow ribbons of asphalt, and down into the holes again. The need for an SUV was obvious now. A regular car could not have done this.
“This is nuts!” I said.
“Hey, you used to take me jeeping in Colorado. This is no worse than that!”
“Oh, you remember that, do you? By the way, where are we going exactly?”
“The Cotton Club. It’s a beach resort, or at least it used to be. It’s been closed for years because of the war. It just opened up again two weeks ago. The wedding reception party is there. Hopefully we’ll get there before the food’s gone.”
“Yeah, I’m starved. I think I finished off your bananas.”
“That’s OK. There’s no shortage of fruit around here.”
“Most of it seems to be on people’s heads.”
“I don’t even notice that any more, but you’re right. The women always carry things on their heads.”
“Have you learned that trick?”
“Me? No way. I’d go two feet and spill everything.”
“Before I leave this country, I’m going to give it a try.”
“That I’d like to see!”
We turned right, followed a jeep trail down a steep hill, and came to a dead end amidst a forest of parked SUV’s. Every size and type of SUV in the world was represented here, it seemed. And as my eyes adjusted, I could see that most of them were official vehicles. None had flags, but most had logos and names of organizations on them. I pulled in next to “Medicins Sans Frontiers” and nearby was “World Health Organization”, and beside that was “Overseas Development Institute.” A band was playing—some kind of rhythmic African dancing music, and I could see tiki lights spread about. Jo drifted away to see about our rooms, and I found my way to the tiki lights. It was the same crowd as had been at the wedding, and I was glad to recognize a few faces. Everyone was on the dance floor, and it wasn’t even a dance floor—it was just a big cement area with tables and tiki lamps, rain forest encroaching from all directions, and bright stars overhead. On the far side, not too distant, I could see waves crashing against a beach, the foam being lit by the oil lamps. The band had a couple of electric guitars, some other instruments, and a set of African Santana-like drums. The musicians were going nuts, and it was no wonder everyone was dancing. To not dance would have been impossible. And it wasn’t even a couples thing. It was just – movement. Everyone was moving, getting down, getting crazy, captured by the rhythm. It sucked me in as well, and soon I was in the midst of wildly gesticulating male and female forms, everyone smiling, dreamy eyed—intoxicated by the night air, the waves, the tiki lamps, and the music – as much as by any alcohol.
Jo found me in this state. “I think I need a beer,” she said.
“I’d buy you one if I had any currency, but I haven’t had time to change any.”
“Here, take this,” she said, handing me a wad of bills. I could make nothing of them in the dark, but assumed they’d be sufficient for beer. They were. I got change back from even one of them.
We found a table under a tiki lamp, sipped our beers, and waited for some plates of food to be brought to us – the remains, apparently, of a vast feast long since consumed by the wedding party.
“So, what’s this currency, anyway?” With the help of the tiki lamp, I could just make out the notes.
“They’re called Leones,” said Jo. She pronounced it “Leonis” like Tea Leoni, the actress. “Take off three zeroes, and divide by two, to get the approximate dollar value.”
So these twenty-thousand Leone notes I was holding were like five-dollar bills.
A young couple joined us, ready to take a break from the dancing. They were white, but were dressed in beautiful African gowns—the kind the natives were wearing. Jo introduced us, and I learned this was Donald Shaw and his wife, Americans.
“Donald’s our Child Protection Officer.”
“OK, so Marc is the Water Officer, Blanca’s the supply officer. Donald’s the Child Protection officer. How many officers do you have?”
“Somewhere around ten,” I think.
“What organization are you with?” asked Donald.
I explained about being Sierra Leone’s first tourist, they were suitably impressed — or at least shocked – and we began discussing Sierra Leone’s once thriving tourist trade.
“It’s the beaches,” confirmed Donald. “Tourists used to flock here from France. That’s what this place is here, the Cotton Club. Music, dancing, food, little bungalows to stay in. It was built for the tourists. But it’s been closed for years. They just opened it up about a month ago.
I would have enjoyed learning more, not just about the tourist spots but also what it was like being a Child Protection Officer in Sierra Leone. No shortage of work, I imagined. But the music was too loud for extended dialogue. People were here to dance, not talk.
The food arrived and I devoured it too fast to really notice what it was. This was my first real meal in the country and I should have studied it with curiosity. But I was less interested in what constitutes Sierra Leone cuisine than I was in eliminating my own personal experience with starvation in Africa. Other than some fresh fruit, I’d had nothing since dinner had been served the night before on the plane. In any case, this seemed to be some kind of spiced rice, with a meat dish on the side. It was too dark to see more.
The dance floor was becoming a little less crowded, couples were now actually forming, and the dancing was becoming more traditional. An older gentleman was stealing the show, dancing with multiple partners, and showing off his very polished foxtrot.
“That’s the groom’s father,” explained Jo. “He’s pretty good isn’t he?”
The groom’s father was having the time of his life, dancing with all the young women of the expate community, who were no doubt thrilled to have this latter-day Fred Astaire dropped into their midst to help them make up for years of curfews and no dance clubs. I was pleased to see that the man was also willing to dance with women his own age, and he moved gracefully around the floor with one of these now.
“That’s his ex-wife,” whispered Jo. “They’re divorced.”
Whoa. That must make for a heady stew of emotions. How must they be feeling? Their son getting married? Their son getting married to a beautiful black woman. In Sierra Leone. A wedding at a native church, where you couldn’t understand a word the minister said. A soiree by the ocean. Seeing each other again. Dancing under the stars to the sound of African drums. I would have enjoyed visiting with them as well, but it seemed socially appropriate to actually dance at least once or twice, and I suggested to Jo that we do so.
“Remember I’m a terrible dancer,” she noted. “I know you’re really good.”
“What! I’m the world’s worst dancer. I have to be pretty much drunk to be willing to even get near a dance floor. The beer is helping, by the way.”
“No, no! All those dance lessons you got from Derry. I remember from our last high school reunion!”
“Your memory’s faulty.”
But I guided her into kind of a swing step, and pretty soon we were moving around nicely, doing underarm turns and such.
“See, you’re a great dancer!” she said, smiling.
“This is taking 100% of my concentration, and I’m scared to death.”
This wasn’t false modesty.
“Well it doesn’t show.”
Derry and Jo had actually met, years ago, when I was living in New York. Derry had later described her humorously as “…another of your tall, leggy, blonde, ex-girlfriends. She’d already met two of the others.
Jo knew that Derry had once been my dance teacher, when Derry was the top instructor for Arthur Murray in New York. They had a policy against teachers dating students, and when they found out Derry and I weren’t just dating, but were living together, they’d fired her. Yet it was true that Derry had taught me a lot, or at least had tried to. The world’s greatest dance instructor had met her match with world’s most inept and clumsy guy. But enough of her professional instruction had stuck, twenty years ago, to actually make me sort of OK with things like swing dancing, ballroom, and some of the Latin steps. If no one else knew what they were doing at all, I could look maybe just barely tolerable.
Yet dancing at a wedding reception held at a beach resort in poverty-stricken, war-torn Sierra Leone, seemed very strange. Certainly this wasn’t what I’d expected for my first day in West Africa.
But the heat and the humidity was what I’d expected. And dancing tended to make that worse. Jo noticed I was overheating.
“Want to walk over to the water?” she asked.
We left the gaily-lit structures of the Cotton Club behind and walked the short distance to where the waves were crashing.
We’d walked only a few minutes along the sand beach when Jo stopped us.
“I think this is probably far enough, let’s head back the other way.”
We retraced our steps until we were opposite the Cotton Club again, and then on impulse sat down in the sand, facing the water.
“I haven’t heard any stories of white people getting attacked lately, but there’s no reason to tempt fate,” Jo explained.
Walking along a deserted beach at night in Sierra Leone was perhaps akin to walking through Central Park at night. I had to remind myself that Sierra Leone was still on the State Department’s list of most dangerous countries in the world. It was easy to get complacent, especially at a wedding reception on the water. But this seemed safe enough – barely a hundred yards from the dance floor.
We had a lot to catch up on, and she plied me with questions about Derry and the kids and life in Colorado. At one point she mentioned something about Phil, her boyfriend of ten years. They’d never married, and I knew they’d broken up some time ago, but that’s all I knew.
“So what was the story with you and Phil? Why’d you guys break up?”
“Well, basically he hit 40, had a mid-life crisis, and decided he had to move on.”
She seemed awfully complacent about it. On the other hand Jo was not one to show strong emotion – about anything.
Half a dozen natives were walking down the beach in our direction, walking slowly. They were young men. Possibly they hadn’t seen us yet, but they would soon.
“Ready to head back?” I asked, noticing her concern.
“Yes, I think it’s time.” And soon we were back in the world of tiki lamps and wedding guests.
It was getting late now, close to midnight, and the party had thinned considerably. Those heading back to Freetown were mostly already gone. But the band was not slowing down at all. One of the two drummers was missing, but the other was quite the virtuoso. I watched him with his African drums for a few moments, admiringly, and then decided he needed company. Signaling my intent with hand signals, and receiving a nod and a smile, I moved in beside him, taking the vacant chair and placing the other drum between my legs. No time to warm up – I started beating out the rhythm immediately. It was not difficult. If one can tap their fingers on the table in time to the music, one can beat a rhythm on an African drum. And that’s about all I was doing. But my companion was going all out, beating multiple drums with his hands, making intricate rhythms inside of the main beat, generating all kinds of wonderful percussion effects. There were still a number of dancers on the floor, and I was pleased to see my own drum beating hadn’t yet caused any of them to trip or crash into each other or anything, which was an effect I’d been worried about.
It was well after midnight when we drifted off to our respective rooms. These were very primitive bungalows with walls and floors, rudimentary bathrooms, limited lighting, and a slow-turning ceiling fan.
My cabin had a small double bed, but no mosquito netting. Even the residence back in Freetown, so hermetically sealed a mosquito might spend years trying to break in, had mosquito netting on the beds. Fortunately I did have my Deet insect repellant, purchased from the Passport Health office in Denver. I’d already used it earlier in the evening, and I now coated myself with it thoroughly. Sleeping in a primitive hut, deep in the rain forest, was precisely the kind of environment in which a Malaria-carrying mosquito might sense an opportunity. I didn’t want to be it.
I’d learned to fear Malaria on a trip to Zanzibar several years ago. It wasn’t just that it made you extremely ill, and if you didn’t get the right medications you’d probably die. What really scared me was that apparently once you contract Malaria, you never really completely get over it. It stays in you, on some level.
That constant fear of Malaria, I think, would be the main reason I’d not wish to live in equatorial Africa for very long. In this case I’d done all I could: I was taking Malaria medication, and was liberally coated with Deet. Only an extremely dedicated mosquito would be able to infect me.
I held onto that thought as I drifted off to sleep, or as I tried to at least. The jungle was still very much awake. Exotic birds and large insects hurled insults at each other in high pitched screeches. Wind rustled through the overhanging canopy of tropical vegetation, causing delinquent branches to scrape across the metal roof of the bungalow. Waves pounded against the sand with a solid, deep emphasis and a timeless energy.
And—as if all that weren’t enough—scattered over the country, buried just beneath the surface or sometimes lying above ground, were, I knew, the most valuable diamonds in the world. And there was Jo.
There were too many thoughts here, too many new experiences to digest. Eventually my brain, realizing it was hopeless to be trying to think about any of it, finally shut itself off and allowed me a deep and unbroken sleep.
Breakfast was served outside by the pool the next morning, and the groom’s father and brother joined us. They were heading back to England soon. The wedding couple were off to a honeymoon in Senegal – an oxymoronic concept if ever I’d heard one. A honeymoon in Senegal? That was like a honeymoon in the Bronx. Of course, to someone living in the world’s poorest country, to someone about to be stationed in Mali which was probably the world’s second poorest, perhaps Senegal would seem like St. Moritz. Senegal was probably only the world’s third poorest.
Jo and I were heading for River #2.
“I promised I’d show you beautiful beaches,” she explained. “River #2 has about the most beautiful beach in the whole country.”
“That sounds fine, but I’m a little concerned about this river.”
“River #2? Why are you concerned about that?”
“Well, if there’s a River #2, there must be a River #1.”
“There is. It has a nice beach as well. River #1 is where we’re going to go scuba diving tomorrow.”
“Well, don’t you see the problem?”
“No, what’s the problem?”
“Those are ridiculous names! You can’t just call some place River #1 and some other place River #2. If Sierra Leone has any hope of making a comeback as a tourist destination, you need better names.”
“Hmm. I never thought about it like that.”
“Do you think Hawaii would ever have caught on if they hadn’t named their beach Waikiki? I mean, it’s one of the worst beaches in the world, but with a name like that, everyone has to visit it! What if they’d named Waikiki ‘beach #1’, or maybe beach #6?”
“So I suppose you have a suggestion?”
I gave the matter some thought.
“You need a real African sounding name. Something mysterious. Something exotic. Something sure to draw crowds. Let me think a moment. OK, I’ve got it.”
“You have a new name for River #2?”
“Let’s hear it.”
“The Kokolokowoko River.”
“The Koko… what? I can’t even say it.”
“It’ll be more famous than Timbuktu. No self-respecting world traveler will be able to sit still until they’ve been to the fabled Kokolokowoko. Of course it would be nice if we had a legend to go with it. A myth. A curse. Something like that.”
“The Curse of the Kokolokowoko. Now that would bring in the tourists and the big bucks.”
It was nearly an hour drive south from the Cotton Club to reach River #2. I was still a little unclear on how a beach could be named after a river, but I withheld judgment, assuming I’d understand when I got there.
Although it was an hour drive, the total distance was probably about two miles. The rest of the time was spent descending down into, and then after a fashion climbing back out of, the pot holes in the road. Pot holes is the wrong word. These were more like bomb craters. Even that didn’t do this road justice. One visualizes a paved road with holes in the pavement. No. The road was about 80% hole. As mentioned, the non-hole sections were tall ridges that you would have to ascend, like high mountain passes dividing one hole from the next. Much better if the whole thing could have been one big hole.
“During the war, this whole area was impassable. The road deteriorated to what you see. And you couldn’t drive here anyway. It was too dangerous. The rebels controlled most of the peninsula.”
We were driving through dense, mountainous jungle. Every few minutes we would pass a small village of mud huts and grass roofs. Goats and chickens were endemic to these settlements, as were bare-breasted women, naked children running around, and wrinkled old men looking out curiously from darkened doorways.
We reached a turnoff and soon thereafter a gate. Two native men were guarding it.
“What’s with the guards?” Jo wondered aloud.
I rolled down the window and one of the men came over. They wanted 5,000 Leones to admit us to the beach and let us park. We handed over the money because we had no choice.
“This is ridiculous,” said Jo. “There’s never before been an admittance fee to River #2.”
Once parked, another man approached us. He was offering us the use of the little bamboo lean-tos where you sit on chairs and escape the sun. We decided we needed one of those, and another 10,000 was extracted from us.
“This is highway robbery,” said Jo. “All this used to be free.”
The same man who rented us the bungalow took our order for lunch.
“They’ll bring us fresh, cooked lobster,” explained Jo. “It’s really good, and costs almost nothing.” She ordered two lobsters, two beers, and asked them to bring it in about an hour. Then, on a hunch, she asked how much it cost for the lobster. 10,000 Leones each, was the answer. Jo lost it.
“10,000 Leones! For EACH lobster! They used to be 5,000!!”
The native black man mumbled something about how the price was higher now because it was harder to find lobster. He walked off, to start preparing the lobster, but it was Jo who was steamed.
We sat in the shade, enjoying the moist tropical breezes blowing easily through the structure, and looked out over the white sand and the pounding ocean waves.
“This is ridiculous. They charge us for parking. They charge us for the bamboo hut. And 10,000 apiece for lobster! This is really bad.”
“Jo, it’s really good. Sierra Leone is the world’s poorest country. You’ve got ten trillion aid organizations here to throw money around and rescue people from poverty. Yet what they really need is economic growth, not handouts. They need some entrepreneurs. And we’ve just run a gauntlet of them. They’re charging for parking. They’re charging for the bamboo huts. They’re charging high prices for lobster. And guess what! We’re paying the prices! Maybe we’ll blow what here, ten bucks each, total? For world’s most beautiful beach. For a bamboo hut on that beach. For fresh-cooked lobster delivered to our hut? Plus beer? If all that isn’t worth ten bucks, what is? Demanding market price for their services is precisely what they should be doing. You’re seeing an economy taking the first step on the ladder, that’s what you’re seeing. Get out of the “aid” mindset and see “free market” and “economic growth” instead.”
“You know, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. It’s just… I’m floored. 10,000 Leones for lobster? This is going to take some adjusting…”
Expensive or not, we left our hut and went for a swim. The water was warm, the waves were moderate, and the scenery was… spectacular. This beach had everything: Crystalline white sand. Palm trees. Crashing waves. Jungle-shrouded mountains rising up precipitously right behind it. The only thing this beach needed to make it perfect was… nothing. This was the Platonic ideal of all beaches. You simply couldn’t get better than this. Best of all—it was virtually deserted. There were a few other expates around, but only a few.
After cooling off in the ocean, we were ready for a walk. This was the walk that had been denied us last night, for reasons of security. The beach stretched out for miles in both directions. We choose south. Yet almost immediately we encountered an obstacle. There was a river here, winding its serpentine way out of the mountains, across a brief jungle plain, and then slicing through the white sand to connect with the Atlantic Ocean.
“This is River #2” said Jo, and suddenly everything made sense.
“You mean the Kokolokowoko.”
“Ah, the fabled Kokolokowoko. Do you know what that word means in the native language?”
“River of Unknown Beginning. Do you know why they call it that?”
“Anyone who goes upstream to find the source never comes back. The curse of the Kokolokowoko is that it’s impossible to find its source. At least impossible to find it, and live.”
“I see. Well, I don’t really care about its source. I just want to get to the other side. We’re going to have to cross it if we’re to continue walking along the beach.”
She was right about that. The Kokolokowoko was about fifty yards wide, here at its mouth, where it cut through low sand dunes to reach the sea. But how deep was it? And how many piranhas and crocodiles might be living in it? My only prior experience with African rivers was the Zambezi in central Africa, a river filled with horrid things—all of them hungry. I noticed some young native children a hundred yards upstream having fun running across the sand and jumping as far out into the river as they could. They didn’t seem too worried about crocodiles. Jo and I waded in, realized it was too deep to stand, and suddenly we were adrift in the current. This wasn’t especially dangerous. The current would ultimately just take us into the ocean, but one’s pride kicks in, in such situations. We swam hard and reached the other side just before reaching the ocean waves themselves. I remembered Jo had been a lifeguard back at the municipal pool in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She certainly knew how to swim.
We continued walking on this pristine, uninhabited beach, which seemed likely to stretch all the way to Cape Town. Endless palm trees to our left, endless waves pounding against the sand to our right.
“Jo, I have a problem.”
“It’s a self esteem problem. Everyone I met yesterday started off by asking what organization I was with. I’m not with any organization. It’s going to get embarrassing.”
“Well, you’re a tourist. It’s OK to be a tourist. We need more tourists.”
“No, it’s not OK. It’s too weird, being a tourist here. I won’t fit in. I’ve decided I’m going to found a new organization. Then I’ll have an organization. My only problem is what to call it.”
“Well, what’s it going to do?”
“It’s not going to do anything. It’s just going to be an organization that gives me political cover. I was thinking of International Relief Fund. IRF. You know. Like: ‘I’m from the IRF. We’re here doing relief work. The Fund’s paying for it. That’s why I’m here. On behalf of the Fund.’”
“Hmmm. I think you can do better than International Relief Fund. These days to really make a splash you need the word “women” in it somewhere.”
“OK, ‘International Women’s Relief Fund.’”
“Better. But there’s another buzz-word you absolutely have to include.”
“OK, International Women’s Relief Fund for Peace.”
“International is good. It gives it the cachet you need. If you’re going to get into any serious fundraising though, you should try to tie it in with the amputees. The amputees are all the rage on the fundraising circuit, I’m told.”
“International Women-Amputee Victims for Peace?”
“Perfect! I.W.A … wait. I.W.A….V.P. right? Doesn’t just roll off your tongue. IWAVP. Eye-wave-pee. That’s how we’ll refer to it in the Expate community. Eye-wave-pee.”
“I can buy a black suit and black tie, and go around telling people I’m with IWAVP. I’ll flash an identity card at them and put it back in my pocket before they can read it.”
“Unfortunately, they’ll all say: ‘I’ve never heard of an organization called the ‘International Women-Amputee Victims for Peace.’”
“And I’ll answer: ‘No, you wouldn’t have. We keep a low profile. We’re funded by Microsoft. Money’s not a problem. Spending it fast enough’s the challenge. Bill likes to see results. The last guy who had my job got canned because he was too cautious. By the way, are there any projects that need funding around here? Oh, really? Tell me more…”
“With that story you’ll rule Sierra Leone inside of a week.”
We returned to the bamboo lean-to just in time for the lobster. It was served on delicate bamboo trays, and had obviously been cooked over an open fire–all blackened and smoky. The shells had already been cracked and the lobster was easy to remove. We ate everything with our fingers. It was delicious.
Fifty yards in front of us the waves still crashed against the beach. Palm trees stretched their long elegant necks over our primitive cabana with its floor of sand. And as we ate our lobster and drank our beer, conversation turned inevitably to our own relationship, and why it had ended those many years ago.
“You had your dream,” said Jo. “You were going to build your sailboat and live on it and sail around the world. It was a good dream. It was a good adventure. But it wasn’t my adventure. I didn’t feel right just tagging along on yours. I needed to find my own.
“And you did build your boat, and you did live on it, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I lived on it for about six weeks, until I ran out of money. And my world cruise lasted from Grand Harbor, Michigan, to Lafitte, Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico. Also, I began to realize it wasn’t all that wonderful living on a sailboat—especially when you’re dirt poor.”
“But you pursued your dream and you had your adventure. It played itself out. And now I’ve done the same thing. I’ve pursued my own adventure, but this one was mine and that was important to me.”
“Yes, but look at the irony. I was going to be this exotic world traveler, sailing off to mysterious lands. You were the conformist. You went off to Harvard and got an MBA, for chrissake. You can’t get more establishment than that. And now look at us. You’re living on the coast of West Africa, mingling every day with the natives. And I’m a business executive back in the states.”
“Yeah, but it’s an awfully cool business,” said Jo. “And you started it and made it successful. And you’re living in Summit County, Colorado. That’s the best part of all.”
I was finding all this very therapeutic, having my life validated on some level. Or maybe it was just the effects of the beer.
After lunch Jo stretched out on the sand near the water, happily enjoying a novel, ready to relax seriously. But I was too restless to lie in the sand and read. I walked the other way down the beach, looked back, and then realized that the photo of a palm-fringed beach, on my Sierra Airways ticket cover, was almost certainly this very beach. I took a few pictures, hoping to compare them later to the ticket cover. Retracing my steps, I came once again to the Kokolokowoko, and began following it upstream, along its banks. There was another collection of grass huts here, it was still part of the beach area, and suddenly from around one of these emerged a young blonde woman. This would not have been startling on a beach in Florida, for example. But in Sierra Leone everyone is black. Encountering a white person at all was unusual, but it was especially remarkable here on the banks of the Kokolokowoko. She was just as surprised, and stopped immediately and stared at me.
“Hi,” I said, cautiously.
“Hi,” she said, and smiled. At least she spoke English. In fact, she sounded like an American. Her blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders and was adorned with an exotic purple flower. She wore a white bikini top, and a long, flowing “pareo” – a wraparound skirt of light, colorful cotton. She was quite pretty. I guessed her age as mid twenties.
“So what organization are you with?” I asked, having learned how one starts a conversation in Sierra Leone.
“I’m from the hospital ship anchored in Freetown. I’m just down here with some friends.”
“Hospital ship? You live on it?”
“Yep, I’m a nurse. My name’s Heidi, by the way.”
“I’m Jacques. And you’re an American, it sounds like.”
She smiled. “Not many Americans here, are there? You too, obviously. What organization are you with?”
I had to concentrate, remembering the full name. “I’m with the International Women-Amputee Victims for Peace.”
“International Women-Amputee Victims for Peace. Haven’t you heard of it?”
“I don’t think so. Women Amputee Victims? That’s dreadful.”
“For Peace. They’re for peace.”
“Well, duh. I guess they would be. So what do you do for them, for the organization? It sounds – interesting.”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Fundraising, project management, liaison with the NGO’s. A lot of PR. We’re really trying to get our message out and…”
My face gave it all away.
“Are you making this up? You’re making this up! I can’t believe it!”
Then she started laughing. “The women amputee victims for peace! I fell for it!”
“Hey, I’m sorry. I had to invent the whole thing. Everyone in the country’s with some organization, except me. It’s a cover.”
The Women Amputee Victims for Peace! That’s the funniest thing I ever heard of. Well, not exactly funny, but…”
“Yeah, I know. Sounds good, though, don’t you think? Another few minutes, you’d probably have made a donation.”
“So who are you, really?”
“You won’t be impressed at all. The truth is, I’m just a tourist.”
“Oh, right. I’m not that gullible! There aren’t any tourists in Sierra Leone.”
“There are now! I’m the first.”
“Seriously? You’re here as a tourist? Where are you from?”
We chatted at length, but eventually she went back to the beach to join her friends. I was pleased my International Women’s Amputee group had almost worked. But I was going to have to work harder at maintaining a straight face when I said it.
I continued upstream, and immediately came upon something of interest. There were boats here. Wooden boats, built by the natives, pulled up on to the banks of the river. As a boat builder, my attention was grabbed immediately. Not quite dug-out canoes, but similar in shape, they were made of traditional frames and planks, a long stem, tiny stern, about twenty feet in length, and extremely narrow. Their high, thin bow was clearly designed to meet and cut through ocean waves. Their long waterline length would give them speed, either up the river or in the open water. Yet irrespective of any practical value, they were beautiful. I photographed several, with the white sand, the heavily forested mountains, and the Kokolokowoko as background.
Elegant wooden boats, endless white sand, mysterious rivers, palm tree forests, grass huts, coconuts…lobster. It was almost sensory overload. I took the pictures I needed and then retraced my steps, back to where Jo was still reading on the beach. Two young native children were playing in the waves—running into them, falling over, laughing, and running back out. Well and good, but didn’t they realize the world’s greatest sand was all about us? And there was not a single sand castle on the entire beach! Building sand castles is one of my passions and clearly these kids needed some inspiration. I set to work immediately, knowing they would be drawn in. Soon I’d erected walls, built a central donjon, and the ramparts and bridges were well underway.
The kids were eying me curiously, captivated by the castle, the waves completely forgotten. I sensed they were puzzled, and had no idea what I was doing. Of course a castle is a Western European concept from the middle ages. West Africa has no heritage of castles. The odds were good they’d never been exposed to the concept, never even seen a picture of such a thing.
Well, that was about to change. I used hand signals to motion them into the project and they obeyed eagerly. I set them to work digging trenches, dumping sand in the right places, moving a seawall into position. I concentrated on the artistic shaping of the forms into recognizable castle components. The tide was advancing and I knew the fun was about to begin.
The reason one builds a sand castle is not for the sake of building a castle. It’s to watch the waves come in and destroy it. These Atlantic rollers were happy to oblige, and the boys watched in fascination as first the seawall was demolished, and then the outer ramparts succumbed to a watery death. It was mesmerizing, and my young audience was spellbound. After one especially large wave had washed over the entire beach and reduced even our castle’s main tower to nothing more than a smooth bump, the older of the kids ran up the beach, turned around, and then came flying at the castle. Five feet away, he jumped high into the air, and came down squarely in the middle of what had once been our beautiful fortress. His younger brother followed suit, and soon this had become the new game: running across the sand and dive bombing the castle with their own bodies.
Jo, who’d long since given up hope of getting any more reading done, had been steadily taking pictures—still and video—of the entire episode. I could never have guessed that in three months one of these shots would appear in JCK magazine, and that Sierra Leone’s first sand castle would be immortalized under that publication’s “Diamond Notes” section. Another industry colleague later pointed out that I was probably the first person to ever appear in JCK Magazine–the diamond industry’s most prestigious–in my swimming suit.
By mid-afternoon we were heading back to Freetown, Jo’s SUV climbing up the sides of the bomb craters, crossing the thin asphalt ridges, and descending back down into the valleys. This was one of Sierra Leone’s main highways, yet it was a more brutal jeep trail than anything I’d ever taken Jo on in Summit County. We were a bit pressed for time, as we had yet another party to get to that evening. When Jo had indicated by email that “we’ll keep you busy” in Sierra Leone, she hadn’t been kidding. Again, this was work related, from her perspective. It was a special reception party, given for a visiting dignitary: the president of the United Nations general assembly, who happened to be from South Korea.
As we drove through these “mother of all potholes”, I explained to Jo how we should handle the Palestinian problem. My solution, known to many by now, is that Israel should withdraw entirely from the occupied territories, the territories should be returned to their original owners (Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, respectively), and that Israel should then join NATO so as to guarantee its security for all time.
“You know, I think that might work,” she said, reflectively. “It kind of solves everything.”
“I’m glad you agree. I think I’ll propose it to the President of the UN General Assembly, at the cocktail party tonight.”
Jo blanched, and looked at me with a horrified expression. “Don’t you DARE!”
“Just kidding! Awfully touchy, aren’t we?”
“Well, it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d do. I remember Upper Volta…”
Oooh. Stab from the past. Our senior year in high school. There’d been a state-wide “mock U.N.” weekend. We’d all been assigned specific countries. The Cedar Falls debate team was given Upper Volta, and France. I’d been designated head of the Upper Volta delegation. During the General Assembly I’d grabbed the microphone and declared war on Nigeria.
The entire room had erupted in chaos. The president of the General Assembly had pounded her gavel and ordered the Sergeant at Arms to remove me from the hall. I’d been dragged from the room by two guards, yet I’d managed to scream these parting words into the microphone: “You can crush my lone voice here in this room, but you cannot crush the voice of liberty and justice in Africa!”
Of course, the whole thing had been an attempt on my part to break through the boring proceedings and test how the United Nations could handle something as provocative and unexpected as a declaration of war from one member against another. My debate coach had scolded me appropriately after the event, yet with a gleam in her eye that I’d interpreted as very unofficial approval of my actions. Jo, who’d been in the Upper Volta delegation at the time, was obviously still scarred.
Thirty two years later, here we were actually in West Africa. Upper Volta had recently been renamed Burkina Faso, a country less than two hundred miles northeast of Sierra Leone. And at the party tonight would be the real President of the General Assembly—the real version of the one who’d forcibly ejected me from the hall.
“I promise I won’t embarrass you.”
“Why am I not convinced?”
The formal reception was held at the Mami Yoko Hotel, Sierra Leone’s version of a 5-star resort. It was held outdoors, by the pool, with a few tiki lamps burning in desultory fashion, as if even they weren’t impressed with the VIP being feted. Jo and I had both showered and she’d changed into diplomatic-cocktail-party-in-Sierra-Leone attire. I’d upgraded to sport coat, slacks, and tie. There was a reception line, where everyone was introduced to his Majesty. Jo, as the Unicef “Representative” to Sierra Leone, and thus as someone with formal diplomatic credentials, received appropriate attention from Mr. Chen here or whatever his name was. She tried to introduce me in as benign a way as possible.
“This is Mr. Voorhees. He is a businessman from America. His company operates an online diamond trading network.”
“It is a great honor,” I said. “I am so very pleased to meet you.” And then did my best to bow. Heck, I’d spent enough time in the Orient to know how to behave around a South Korean. Use the word honor constantly, be self deprecating, flatter the person to excess, and you just might, just possibly, be considered something other than a barbarian.
He made the appropriate reply, and we should have, at that point, moved on down the reception line. But there was some kind of interference. No one was directly behind us. Everyone involved realized, to everyone’s mutual horror, that Jo and I were stuck in the position of needing to chat with Mr. Wong here (or whatever his name was) for at least a few more minutes.
No one said a word. The awkward silence descended over us and threatened to get worse. This was not acceptable. Someone had to say something!
“You know,” I said, clearly making an overture at conversation, “there is one thing I wished to discuss with you.”
Jo looked at me with a terrified, panicked expression.
The president of the United Nations General Assembly looked up at me and smiled. “Of course, please, what would you like to discuss?”
“It’s just I haven’t had a chance to properly thank you and your staff for having arranged such perfect weather for the party tonight. It really is ideal, don’t you think?”
He paused a moment, and then got the joke. “Ah, yes! Vedy good weather. Yes, you are welcome. Ha ha!!”
Others were now arriving behind us, and the awkward moment was over. We moved quickly out of earshot.
“You did that just to torment me, didn’t you? I was ready to kill you! I thought you were going to talk about the Palestinians!”
The party progressed along predictable lines. There were some more members of the expate community here, to whom Jo introduced me. Lots of small talk was exchanged. In fact, I was becoming overwhelmed with small talk. The thought flashed in my head that while this was my first ever diplomatic cocktail party, Jo must have had to endure thousands of these. The poor thing. My heart went out to her.
Jo pulled me over to make another introduction.
“This is Mr. Natale. He’s one of our presidential candidates.”
“Ah, very pleased to meet you. You are running for president of Sierra Leone?”
“Yes, one of nine candidates I’m afraid.”
“Are you going to win?”
“Of course I’m going to win.” But he was smiling when he said this, and I suspected it was well-known he was a long-shot at best
“And when you are elected, what will be the most important things you will do for the country?”
“First we must make sure we have peace. The rebels must be completely disarmed.”
“There is great wealth in this country. Diamonds. Rutile. Lumber. We must use the wealth to rebuild Sierra Leone.”
He wandered off after awhile, continuing his campaign, and I found myself opposite a very short, very dark man, in native costume—long flowing robe and Fez hat.
“Bonsoir,” he said, as if everyone here were speaking French. But none of us were speaking French, except him apparently. Yet I was willing to bite.
“Bonsoir,” I responded, shaking his hand. And then I introduced myself. “Je m’appelle Jacques Voorhees, des Etat Unis.” (I’m Jacques Voorhees, from the United States.)
A broad smile broke out on his face, and he replied in French. He was the ambassador to Sierra Leone from Guinea, the country just to the north. He went on to explain that he spoke French only, and not English. Here at last was something interesting. I spoke French extremely poorly, but enough to make small talk at a West African diplomatic cocktail party. And the man seemed so thrilled to talk to me.
“No one else here speaks French!” he explained to me in French. Certainly that would make this a tedious evening. We chatted for ten or fifteen minutes, my brain struggling desperately to make French small-talk. But it was sufficient, apparently, and as he reluctantly turned away to continue mingling, he smiled broadly and shook my hand in sincere friendship.
Later that evening, as Jo and I drove away, she turned to me and smiled enthusiastically:
“I saw you speaking in French to Monsieur Hasam from Guinea. “
“Trying to at least.”
“It’s so sad. He always comes to these events. He speaks not a word of English. No one can ever talk to him. No one around here speaks French. That was so nice, that you could speak to him in his own language.”
“Well, I always speak French really well after two glasses of wine!”
“Ready for Party #2?” she asked.
Party #2 was held at Blanca’s suite, back at the compound. Unlike Party #1, where about half the guests were black, here it was almost lily white. This was one of the expate get togethers, and everyone was with an association. I didn’t try out my Amputee Victims for Peace cover. It wouldn’t have worked. These folks were the heads of all the Sierra Leone associations, including the military head of UNAMSIL itself. They would have spotted a fraud in a second. UNAMSIL was an awkward acronym I was quickly having to learn. United Nations Mission to Sierra Leone. This was the big daddy of all the associations—the one superpower reigning supreme amongst whole forests of lesser acronyms. Put succinctly, this was the group that had the guns. Known to the rest of the world as “UN Peacekeepers”, the UNAMSIL troops looked anything but peaceful. They could be seen all over Freetown and in the countryside: armed to the teeth, manning military checkpoints every few miles, flitting about in the skies over our heads with their thump-thump-thump helicopters, it was these UN troops that had, in fact, brought peace to Sierra Leone. Faced with a serious, internationally-sponsored, adult army, the Revolutionary United Front cannibals had folded like the bad hand of cards they were.
I would have enjoyed some serious one-on-one talk with the Unamsil military leader, now helping himself to some baked fish from the buffet set out on Blanca’s dining room table, but it was only my second day in the country. Best that I listen, rather than opine. And there was a lot to listen to. A dozen conversations were occurring simultaneously. I intercepted only fragments of each.
“So I just got in last night from Harare. Man, I tell you, Zimbabwe’s going down the toilet fast.”
“You know that Russian restaurant finally reopened again in Freetown. They’ve been closed ever since the mortar attack last year—the one that killed all those people.”
“I think the polio vaccine is finally making a difference. Have you seen the latest stats on the infection rate near the Liberian border?”
“Nice fish, Blanca, where did you get it?”
And so forth. I was struck by the contrast between the petty concerns of my world, and the serious life-and-death, world-class issues discussed by this lofty crowd of aid workers, government officials, and military officers.
I was tempted to yell out: “Hey, doesn’t anyone here care about the Women Amputee Victims for Peace?” but I restrained myself. I don’t think they’d have found it all that funny.
The next morning we headed to River #1. I could think of no better name for this river, so I left it alone. I’d exhausted myself with the Kokolokowoko. Several miles past the Cotton Club dance resort, we had to fight our way through the road craters all over again. I was becoming accustomed by now to vegetable-topped females, un-chaperoned goats, ill-disciplined chickens, mud huts with grass roofs, and swarms of naked children. But I was still amazed by all the women who were naked from the waist up. In Freetown they wore colorful dresses. In the countryside they wore colorful skirts. And nothing else.
“It looks like something out of the pages of National Geographic,” I remarked to Jo. “Naked boobs everywhere. Sort of a libertine culture, wouldn’t you say?”
“Actually, not at all. They’re very modest, very conservative. It’s just that they don’t think of breasts as sexual. They think of female breasts as utilitarian. It’s their thighs, and very much their inner-thighs, that are considered erotic. And you won’t see a bare thigh anywhere in Sierra Leone.”
She was right about that. Away from Freetown the women were generally naked from the waist up, but cottony skirts and wraps kept them quite hidden below the waist.
At River #1 was another faded resort similar to the Cotton Club. This one was called “Franco’s” and it was owned by an expate from Italy who everyone called “Franco.” No one seemed clear on whether that was a first or last name, but there was no doubt that English was not the man’s first language. In fact, I finally concluded that he didn’t even know English. He was one of these happy, carefree individuals who communicate primarily by arm movements, and rapid mutterings spoken with such a blur that the words are mere noises, designed to accompany and accentuate the arm movements themselves. Occasionally I would catch something that might have been related to an English word, or perhaps a Krio word, but he managed to end every syllable with a vowel, no doubt out of fondness for his native Italian tongue. Yet running a tourist facility on the coast of Sierra Leone had given him a feral skill at understanding others, and being understood himself.
“Hello, Franco,” Jo greeted him. “How are you?”
“Ego wato illio today”
“Well, we were wondering if we could go scuba diving. Do you still offer that?”
“Mna akagi nore maybe.”
The conversation proceeded like this for some time, but Jo seemed to think it was going in a good direction. Franco’s was apparently the only place that offered scuba diving in the whole country. And it was not exactly a PADI 5-star facility. Franco scuffled about, trying to locate the different pieces of equipment I’d need. Jo was not a certified diver, so she would just be going along for the ride. Only one set of equipment would be necessary. Finally he’d found one of everything and I immediately begin to check it out myself. This is one of the things they teach you in scuba class—how to check out equipment in wierdo third-world countries, to make sure it works properly. This didn’t. One of my tests was to inhale on the regulator while watching the pressure gauge. The needle should stay constant. This one dropped.
“Bad O ring,” I explained to Franco, showing him the pressure drop. He nodded, made some appropriate noises ending in vowels, and worked away at the first stage regulator device for a few minutes. Soon he had it functioning properly. I was still examining the equipment.
“I can’t find a depth gauge” I commented. The three most important instruments in scuba diving are a depth gauge, a watch, and an air pressure gauge. I did not have a watch, and I was a bit concerned about that, but only a bit. I always use up my air way before I need to return to the surface for decompression reasons. I could manage without a watch. But a depth gauge was essential.
“No depth gauge,” Franco explained. “The reef is shallow. Only 40 feet at deepest spot.” At least that’s my translation for what I think he said.
Hmm. If true, it was theoretically possible to dive without a depth gauge. At any depth less than 45 feet, the body does not absorb nitrogen. Hence you can stay at such a depth indefinitely. And perhaps you don’t need to care how deep you are, if you know it can’t be greater than 45 feet. But no watch? No depth gauge? Diving alone? This would violate every scuba diving rule ever invented.
At least I’d have an air pressure gauge. The O ring was repaired, and I took another breath, looking again at the air pressure. No movement this time. Everything worked—at least for now. Even so, there was no doubt where Sierra Leone ranked in terms of access to quality scuba equipment: worst in the world.
Franco called to two small black boys, early teens perhaps. Perhaps younger. They smiled broadly, hefted all the equipment onto their backs, and escorted Jo and me over to a cement embankment abutting the estuary. One of those elegant, long wooden boats was tied here, identical to those I’d photographed with Heidi at the Kokolokowoko yesterday. I felt my blood stirring, knowing this frail craft would be taking us out into the ocean swells, wondering what our chances might be of survival.
We motored down a long tongue of water that joined river #1 near the beach. A large sandbar was on our right, mud banks crammed with thirsty palm trees on our left. Behind us the jungle-shrouded mountains climbed steeply into overhanging clouds.
The first few hundred yards were deceptively calm as River #1 flowed somnolently towards Ocean #1, the Atlantic. As with the Kokolokowoko, we would pass through low sand dunes before reaching the open sea, and we were doing so now. I could see the Atlantic rollers moving towards us. As they encountered shallow water here at the river mouth, they were piling up on themselves, forming waves. And the waves were cresting, and crashing down onto the freshwater working its way through the sand dunes.
The long African boat began to respond to the first of these, raising its bow slightly and then falling back again. The next one was more pronounced yet soon it was behind us as well. Now a serious wave was approaching. The boat reared up precipitously, our bow stem splitting it evenly as we cut through and fell back into the trough on the far side. But now we were in the thick of it. The boat lurched wildly and suddenly the mother of all breakers appeared. The bow plunged headlong into the water, on the verge of burying itself, so steep was this wave. Then its buoyancy took effect and the deck soared up almost to a 30 degree angle. A solid wall of spray soaked everyone on board, as I just had the presence of mine to cover the video camera with my hands. Possibly the little JVC digital camcorder would not survive this experience, but if not it would be going out in style.
As quickly as it had begun, it was over and we were past the turbulent waters at the river mouth. Now we were fully in the Atlantic Ocean, and the wooden craft assumed a much easier movement, rolling and pitching almost in slow motion as it came into harmony with the more relaxed wave-action of the open sea.
I was reminded of something I’d noticed before. While scuba diving is entertaining, often it is the boat trip out to the dive site that is even more so. From several hundred yards offshore I could at last truly “see” Sierra Leone. Jungle lined the shoreline, endlessly in both directions: lush tropical vegetation, a frenzy of growing things, an extravagant display of chlorophyll, a land receiving more than its share of both rainfall and sunshine. This was how Sierra Leone looks from the water. And the jungle itself was merely a velvety green coating to the steep mountains rising out of the sea. Like a carefully-applied eyeliner, the white beach stretched endlessly from one horizon to the other, a perfect dividing line between rain forest and ocean. From this perspective, no sign of human civilization could be seen. So must Africa have looked ten million years ago, I realized, before the advent of man. It was hard to believe that a continent so ravaged by warfare, by AIDS, by malnutrition, overpopulation, disease, atrocities and corruption, could yet look so pristine, idyllic, and innocent from merely a mile offshore.
It was less than a thirty minute ride to the dive site. The boys seemed to know where to go, and after some frenzied and unintelligible chattering they tossed over an anchor. The sound of the motor died and attention was now focused on getting me properly organized. I was already in my wetsuit. Weight belt was next. It’s always a challenge to get a weight belt on while a small boat in the open ocean lurches and tips and does everything in its power to unbalance you. Fins next. Mask and snorkel. Finally one of the boys lifted the heavy buoyancy compensator backpack/airtank/and regulator mechanism onto my back.
Jo was quite amused by it all, and was conscientiously videotaping everything. Finally I was perched on the gunwales, back to the sea, and breathing off the regulator. Rolling backwards off a boat into the ocean is one of the fun parts of scuba diving. Your world turns literally upside down as you crash into the water and your buoyancy compensator brings you quickly to the surface. On one level it’s quite a violent, disorienting experience. On another level it’s really quite calm, because the regulator permits you to breathe normally throughout the event. Training takes over in such situations, and as I re-surfaced I made the “OK” signal to the boat crew—an obligatory procedure when diving from a boat. Yet Jo, not a trained diver, had no idea what I was doing, and the native boys were over on the other side of the boat looking at fish, and could not have been less interested in how I was faring. It was becoming apparent that scuba diving in Sierra Leone is a bit different from scuba diving in the Caribbean or Hawaii. No rigid, disciplined dive-masters here. No checking of certification cards. No elaborate discussion of dive plans (“plan the dive, dive the plan”), no dive computers or bottom time calculations. I had no watch, no depth gauge, and no buddy. I was diving alone in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of a third world country. I was suddenly quite anxious to get it over with.
I pressed the dump valve on my buoyancy compensator and sank quickly beneath the waves. It was a shallow reef, but at least the water was deep enough to get beneath the wave action on the surface. I guessed my depth at 30 to 35 feet. Visibility was moderate. The coral was OK, nothing spectacular. Nothing to rival Cozumel or Belize, certainly. The fish were OK. But nothing to rival Maui or Fiji. I wandered around the reef, remembering that this was my first dive since Shark Alley in Australia, three years ago. I forced myself to practice full mask-removal—something I do on every dive. Mask removal had been so difficult for me in scuba training that I’d determined to become an expert at it. I did it over and over again in the shallow end of the pool until I could do it perfectly. It became second nature. When I began diving in the ocean I continued to force myself to do it: every dive. It was an iron clad rule. No one else on earth performs this emergency exercise on every dive. But for me I had no choice. I hated it so much, I was so scared of it, that if I didn’t do it constantly I would not be able to do it at all.
Eventually I’d seen most of what I’d needed to see, and decided I was ready to get back in the boat. Unfortunately I had no idea where the boat was. Not having a dive master to guide me, not having even a compass to know which way I’d been swimming, it was anyone’s guess where the boat might be. Fortunately I’m blessed with an incredibly accurate sense of direction. Unfortunately, this skill deserts me entirely when I’m under the water.
I decided to take the easy way out, and surfaced. Looking around, I saw the boat only about a hundred yards away. One is tempted in such situations to swim aggressively towards the boat, but this is very much the wrong thing to do. Swimming on the surface with scuba gear is a recipe for exhaustion. Much easier is to drop back underwater five or ten feet, and use the power of the fins to move in the appropriate direction. This technique requires resurfacing every few moments to make sure of your bearing, but it worked and eventually I was alongside the African boat. I removed all my gear, piece by piece, and handed it up to the waiting deckhands. Soon there was only me left, and somehow, inelegantly I’m sure, embarrassing in front of Jo I’m positive, I managed to flop my way over the side and into the bottom of the wooden vessel.
While I’d been scuba diving, our native guides had been fishing. Three fairly large fish now were flopping without conviction in the bilge water near the back of the boat.
“How’d they catch them?” I asked Jo.
“I have no idea. I’ve just been enjoying the sun, mostly with my eyes closed.”
As we once again approached the coast line, it became apparent we weren’t heading back into the estuary of River #1. Instead, the boys steered towards a headland, and ran the boat up onto the rocky shore. Through hand signals, they made us realize we now should walk back to where we’d started.
I immediately guessed why they’d done this. The tide was out. They simply couldn’t get back into that river. This was as close as they could come. I was wearing my Teva Colorado river sandals which can handle most any terrain. But Jo was barefoot, and it was a good half mile hike back to the restaurant/hotel complex at River #1.
Jo picked her way gamely across the rocky soil down what appeared to be a path. Still close to the water, the jungle enveloped us immediately, and then something else enveloped us—a sea of small children. The jungle opened up quickly as we came to a native village. A few adults, mostly bare-breasted young women, eyed us shyly and smiled. I had to remind myself that there was nothing erotic about these female breasts. They were merely – utilitarian. It was their thighs that were erotic. And those were quite properly covered
Being a mature, enlightened, American male, this forest of naked nipples thus had no effect on me, other than to remind me of the value of breast feeding in all cultures, and the importance of mother’s milk in a young child’s diet.
But there was nothing shy about the children. These two white people, arriving from the ocean and now walking through their village, might have been the most exciting thing to happen in months, perhaps years, judging from the reaction of the kids. They hooted and laughed and ran about and tried to touch us. The fact that Jo and I were not only white but also both blond probably added to the “aliens have arrived from outer space” syndrome. In any case we were escorted along the path in style with much fanfare, warmth, and enthusiasm. My third day in Sierra Leone, this was really my first opportunity to observe a native village at close proximity. It was the same kind of village we’d seen at more of a distance from the car as we drove down the coast: chickens, mud huts, and such. The adults peered at us neutrally, seemingly neither excited nor offended by our passage through their neighborhood. But the children continued to shriek with delight as we walked slowly through what seemed a Neolithic village. These people were living as people must have lived ten thousand years ago. I saw no modern materials anywhere: no metal, no glass or plastic, certainly no running water or electricity or screen doors or anything but what could be fashioned of mud and grass and sticks of wood.
Here I was in the world’s poorest country, in what might be one of the world’s poorest villages, and yet—oddly—everyone was smiling, or at least the children were. There was no apparent hunger here. Everyone looked well fed. Everyone seemed…happy. Well, the reason they were all so happy, with such silly grins on their faces, was obvious. This was not a happiness generated by finding themselves in contact with strangers from another land. Nor was it happiness resulting from being close to nature, and untainted by material pleasures. It was not even a sublime inner happiness borne from a Rousseau-like “noble savage” spirit. No, the reason there was so much happiness all over the place could be summed up in one word: mango. Or rather: “mangoes”, plural. And that was the point. Plural. There were more mangoes in this village than I’d ever seen in my entire lifetime. Each child, and there were perhaps two dozen children, held at least one mango. Some held two. They were each of them working away at these mangoes much as small children in America would work away at an ice cream cone. Looking about, one could see mango husks discarded everywhere.
These Sierra Leonean villagers fed off mango like cows in America feed off grass. No wonder there was no hunger. No wonder they were so happy. Mangoes back in Colorado cost $3.00 apiece. My family can only afford them once a month.
A suspicion began growing in me that the United Nations system of measuring poverty was completely confused. They would come into a village like this, find out how much everyone earned, and if the average was less than a dollar a day, they would declare it poverty-stricken. A dollar a day? These villagers had never seen even a single dollar—ever. Probably they’d never even seen a Leoni. But they had an infinity of mangoes available to them, able to be plucked off the trees with abandon. I raised this question softly to Jo as we continued walking.
“Jo, these people aren’t poor, or at least they’re not hungry. Why is everyone so concerned about Sierra Leone being the world’s poorest country. I haven’t seen a hungry person yet!”
“How much do you know about anemia?”
“I know nothing about anemia, what is it?”
“It’s a condition caused primarily by lack of protein in one’s diet. You see a lot of mangoes here. How much protein do you see?”
I looked around. “Not much. Two chickens.”
“Exactly. You can stave off hunger by eating mangoes, rice, corn and so forth. You’re right, they’re not wasting away. They look well fed. But the malnutrition comes from the imbalance in the diet. There is very little protein. They have some animals, but not enough.”
I felt the entrepreneurial juices stirring within me. In Colorado a dozen eggs cost 99 cents. A mango costs three dollars. These people were rich in mangoes, yet were essentially starving because of a lack of protein—protein which could easily be provided by eggs and dairy products. All one had to do was get the eggs from Colorado to Sierra Leone, and the mangoes from Sierra Leone to Colorado. Certainly there would be transportation expenses, but even so the potential profits seemed immense. Oh wait. There were almost certainly tariffs involved. Probably the governments of both countries enacted such stiff tariff barriers that any eggs-for-mango trade would be impossible.
It was one more reminder, as if any were needed, of why politicians who vote for tariffs—on anything—deserve the death penalty.
I forced my mind to return, reluctantly, from this fantasy of capital punishment for tariff-promoting legislators and concentrate on the situation at hand
We emerged out the far side of the village, yet it was still a long way to where we’d parked our car. Jo was in agony, trying to walk barefoot across the rocky path.
“Jo, why don’t you stay here. Let me walk back to the car and bring you your shoes.”
“You know I might just take you up on that.”
I left her behind, with her retinue of still-fascinated, mango-devouring children, and hiked rapidly down the path. Within twenty minutes, I was back with her shoes. Yet when I saw her there, waiting, I stopped and found myself almost overcome with emotion. She was sitting on a large rock, beside the path. Dozens of children were on the ground, spread like courtiers around a queen’s throne. One was on her lap. She was talking to the children. Asking them simple things. Encouraging their replies. They were fascinated with her and I sensed she was equally fascinated with them. The mangoes were all but forgotten.
As we walked together back down the path, the children at last staying behind, near the village, Jo began explaining it to me.
“People ask me if I’ve ever been married, if I have any kids. Well, maybe I haven’t been married. But kids? I have 100,000 kids. I love all of them. Do you understand why I love my job so much?
I nodded, so touched I couldn’t trust myself to speak. The head of Unicef for Sierra Leone. Jo did indeed have 100,000 kids. She considered each of them her personal responsibility.
A pleasant surprise greeted us back at River #1. Blanca was here, and with her were half a dozen other expates from Freetown. They were just sitting down for lunch, under the palm-frond awnings of the resort. They insisted we join them and we did so, placing our own order—this time for crab not lobster. Maybe we didn’t need to import eggs from Colorado. We just needed to teach the Sierra Leoni villagers how to harvest seafood!
The service was slow, we had much to talk about with the other expates, and probably two hours went by, with the help of the beer and the crab. Finally Jo and I were ready to be active again. We bid farewell to the others, and walked off towards the ocean. The serpentine River #1 had generated a true obstacle course of low sand dunes, and waterways to cross. We swam the river again, echoing yesterday’s crossing of the Kokolokowoko, and eventually found ourselves on the true beach, with Atlantic waves crashing against the sand.
“Let’s float down River #1,” I suggested. So we returned to the river, swam into the middle of it, and then let the current drift us lazily towards the sea. As we approached the ocean waves, we climbed back out of the river, walked upstream, and repeated the adventure all over again. We did this several times. It was an amusement park ride. But this time we discovered something different. At the mouth of the river were some oriental people. Like us, they were playing in the water, enjoying the waves, and the river current, and the two mixing and becoming confused.
Other than a little Japanese, I speak no Asian languages, but I pride myself on frequently being able to detect what language is being spoken. Usually, away from Asia, it’s Japanese. The Japanese travel everywhere. This was not Japanese. That meant it was probably Chinese. I’ve trained myself to detect the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, the two primary dialects of Chinese. No. This was neither one. Might it be Thai? Thai’s soft, melodic, Hawaiian-like cadence is easy to detect. This was not Thai. What else was left? I had no idea what Vietnamese or Cambodian sounded like, yet I suspected they would be similar to Thai. This was not similar. I remembered one other time when an Asian language had baffled me, and it had turned out to be Korean. Yet this did not sound like that. I kept listening, getting more and more frustrated. Finally I realized that if I didn’t just go ask them what it was, it would haunt me the rest of my life.
I swam over to where they were, frolicking in the waves.
“Excuse me,” I said, in English.
They were immediately attentive.
“I’m sorry to be rude. (This is always worth saying when dealing with Asian cultures), but I’m very curious. What language are you speaking?”
“Ah, we are speaking Filipino!” said one of them.
The details came out quickly enough . They were with Unamsil in Freetown. I felt like an idiot. How had I managed to forget the Philippines? “And where are you from?” they asked politely.
“Ah, I’m from America. I’m just a tourist.”
“Tourist? You tourist? In Sierra Leone?”
“Yes, just a tourist.” I did not see fit to explain my involvement with the Women’s Amputee Victims for Peace.” At least not here, in the middle of River #1.”
“I think, maybe, you are first tourist in Sierra Leone.”
This was becoming tedious.
Jo and I left the river and were soon bouncing our way back to Freetown for a dinner date with a Ms. Julie Koenen-Grant. I was beginning to realize that my social life in this country was going to be more active than my social life had ever been, even when I lived in New York. Weddings, parties, and dinner dates were happening every night. However tonight wasn’t exactly social. Julie was the single most important person for me to meet in Sierra Leone. I’d asked Martin Rapaport who I should meet with. “Julie Koenen Grant”. I’d asked Matt Runci, and he’d agreed: “Julie Koenen Grant.” I’d asked Jo and she’d said: “Probably Julie Koenen Grant.”
Julie was head of US-AID. (United States Aid for International Development.) When one talks about America’s foreign aid program, what they’re talking about is US AID. That’s how we channel money to third world countries.
“So which of you holds the most prestigious position?” I asked Jo, trying to learn all I could in advance of the meeting. “Is she more important than you, or vice versa?”
“Hmmm. Well, we’re different. We do very different things.”
“How big is her budget?”
“Julie’s operation is about $14,000,000 per year.”
“And what’s yours?”
“About the same”.
“So the head of US Aid, and the head of Unicef” are comparable, in terms of prestige and so forth?”
“I suppose so, if you want to look at it in that way.”
“So how did she get so wrapped up with diamonds?”
“You know who Foday Sankoh, is right?”
“How about the Revolutionary United Front?”
“Look, this trip was kind of last minute. I didn’t exactly do my homework. I’ve heard the name.”
“OK, the RUF was the rebel army. They were fighting the legitimate government.”
“Because the government was corrupt, that was the story.”
“Gee, an African government tainted by corruption? Stop the presses…”
“Yeah, whatever. Anyway, that was the spin.”
“And Foday Sankoh was the rebel leader.”
“Got it. Where’d he come from, by the way?”
“No one’s quite sure. But he hung out for awhile with Omar Kadaffi, in Libya. Kadaffi was kind of his sponsor.”
“OK, so when the UN peacekeepers came in, and tipped the balance of power in favor of the legitimate government, the RUF sued for peace and a peace agreement was brokered.”
“And the terms were…?”
“One of the terms was that Foday Sankoh would be made part of a coalition government.”
“In the position of…?”
“Minister of Raw Materials.’
“Oh, so the guy who’d been ripping off the country by stealing the diamonds and so forth, was suddenly placed in charge of all the diamonds?”
“And the irony didn’t’ bother anyone?”
“It was a way to achieve peace.”
“OK, how did this involve Julie?”
“She ended up working closely with Foday Sankoh, in helping the government design a system of diamond certification so that diamonds could no longer be exported illegally.”
“Jo, this is nuts. The RUF, headed by Sankoh, was the group most responsible for conflict diamonds—most responsible for exporting diamonds illegally for profit.”
“And then he’s installed as minister of raw materials, to design a system for making it impossible to export diamonds illegally.”
“OK, so the fox is guarding the hen house. What happened.”
“He used his authority to divert all the diamond sales into his personal bank account.”
“Gee, what a surprise. Did he get caught?”
“And where is he now?
“In prison, awaiting a possible death penalty.”
“You know, this is just like Al Capone. They could never get him for his crimes. They finally got him on tax evasion, for not paying taxes on all his ill-gotten wealth. The RUF commits unspeakable atrocities and murders 50,000 people, but they finally catch the leader on a white collar crime rap.”
“That pretty much sums it up.”
Jo was driving, and as we came to an intersection a policeman was directing traffic.
“Whenever they place a policeman at an intersection, the situation always gets worse. See how the traffic’s all mucked up here?”
“At this rate we may be late for our dinner.”
“I don’t think so.” Jo pulled left into a vacant lot, bounced across it, turned down another side street, got stuck behind a slow moving van, honked twice, downshifted, and sped around him, passing three cars before pulling back into her own lane.
“You see, on Sierra Leone roads, I’m the Libertarian!”
“Very impressive. OK, so Julie was the one who worked closely with him, to design the system for diamond certification.”
“Right. I can’t say I envy her. Having to work closely with Foday Sankoh…”
“And what did you tell Julie about me?”
“Only that you’re involved with the diamond industry back in the states, and that you’re here doing some investigative work into conflict diamonds.”
The restaurant was one of three, grouped together on the water, looking out over a very peaceful cove. It was very dark, and tiki lamps provided most of the lighting. There were no indoor tables. Except for the bar, everything was outside. Dark waves lapped at the stone embankment. Music drifted over from the restaurant to our left. It was ten minutes past our 8pm meeting time, and Julie had not yet shown. I braced for the likelihood that she wasn’t coming. As one of the most important representatives of the U.S. government in Sierra Leone, she probably had more important things on her agenda, and one of them had pre-empted dinner. I expected Jo’s cell phone to ring at any moment, conveying this bad news. But then a dark haired woman entered the patio, Jo waved, and Julie Koenen Grant was soon sitting at our table. She was maybe late 30’s, well dressed, made-up, and with the no-nonsense professional air of a female stockbroker in Manhattan. I sensed immediately that small talk would not be appreciated, and so moved directly to name dropping. I needed to establish my credentials.
“I’m not a diamond dealer” I explained. “I’ve never bought or sold a diamond in my life—except for the one that sits on my wife’s finger.” I added this to elicit a good-natured smile. It didn’t.
“Then what do you do?”
I explained about Polygon, and the fact that we’d been approached by representatives of the World Diamond Council.
“Yes, I was just at their meeting in Milan.”
“Ah, you mean the one hosted by Gaetano Cavelieri.”
“And you know Martin Rapaport, I understand.”
“I supposed Elie Izakoff was there as well?”
“Yes he was.”
“Conflict diamonds are all the rage back in the U.S. I assume you know Cecilia Gardener and Matt Runci?’
“I know the names. But I’m not quite sure who they are. “
“Matt, runs Jewelers of America the largest jewelry industry trade association. JA is one of my company’s largest customers. Cecilia’s organization is Jewelers Vigilance Committee. We built and operate their website as well, and they handle mediation services for Polygon Network members.
“And how do you know Martin Rapaport?”
“He’s my primary competitor. But we’re also friends.”
“By the way, I was at a several day conference with Elie Izakoff in Munich last month. That was for Gaetano’s organization, CIBJO. They passed some pretty strong resolutions regarding conflict diamonds. The big question I raised was how you establish a paper trail for estate jewelry coming back onto the market. Matt decided the WDC position should be to only follow the diamonds up to the point of first retail sale. After that, it’s a non-issue.”
“Well, the Kimberley Process doesn’t even go that far. We only care about tracking rough diamonds.”
“I know. But the WDC feels they need to go further. I’m not sure they should. But as long as Matt’s cool with stopping at the point of first retail sale, then the whole thing works for me.”
I felt this name-dropping frenzy, this deliberate use of first names, had served its purpose. Julie now realized I operated in fairly important diamond-industry circles, or at least I fancied that she did.
Jo had watched the whole exchange silently, with amusement. She knew what I was doing.
While we played the name game, we were also looking over the menus.
“Please, order whatever you’d like. I really appreciate you taking the time to visit with me about this, and buying dinner’s the least I can do.”
“Actually, I’ll have to decline that,” said Julie. “I have to pay for my own dinner. U.S. government regulations.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yep. Even something as simple as buying dinner could be looked at as a favor. We can’t be tainted.”
“I don’t mind being tainted. You can buy me dinner!”
That, at least, earned a smile. “Sorry. I can’t do that either.”
With payment arrangements deftly settled before hand, we all placed our orders and returned to the discussion.”
“Julie, help me out here. The war’s over. Foday Sankoh and the RUF are no longer a factor. Isn’t this whole conflict diamond issue now moot?”
“No, it’s not moot. Without the Kimberley Process in place, without supply chain controls, diamonds can still be smuggled out of Sierra Leone illegally.”
“But who’s doing that?”
“But what’s the motivation?”
“To avoid paying the export tax on diamonds.”
“Three percent” said Jo, happy to have something to contribute.
“So there are people who are smuggling diamonds out of Sierra Leone to avoid paying a three percent export tax?”
“Yes,” said Julie.
“But I just don’t get the Kimberley Process. If the dealers in rough diamonds in Antwerp are offered a parcel of rough, they wouldn’t know where it came from. If it’s from Sierra Leone, OK, it’s supposed to have all these certifications and so forth. But what if the seller says it’s from Brazil?”
“Well, you can tell if the rough diamonds are from Sierra Leone”
“They look different, among other things. Anyway, there are technologies now that can determine where diamonds are from.”
“There are?” This was the first I’d heard of that.
“Sure. But the whole point of the Kimberley Process is to require certification for all rough diamonds, from any country.”
“OK, fine. But the ‘conflict diamond’ issue, the warlords committing atrocities issue, that’s over, right?”
“Not really. It depends how you define ‘conflict.’”
“How do you define it?”
“The Sierra Leone government needs the revenue from the diamond exports. That’s’ why it charges the 3% export tax. If smugglers are evading the tax, then that’s a conflict.”
“Are you suggesting the whole conflict diamond issue is about the Sierra Leone government collecting a 3 percent export tax?”
“It’s an economic issue?”
“It’s not about violence, about people getting arms and legs cut off?”
‘No, it’s about tax revenue to the Sierra Leone government.”
“And that’s what you mean by conflict diamonds? The conflict about getting the tax collected properly?
“Julie, no one in the U.S knows that. They think the conflict diamond thing is about atrocities, people getting arms cut off and so forth. “
“No, that’s over. The conflict is about tax collections.”
“I don’t think Sierra Leone’s tax collection problem is enough of an issue to mobilize world opinion.”
“Well, getting the taxes paid is a serious problem. If you’re the Sierra Leone government, that’s a very important conflict…”
It was a wonderfully pleasant dinner. The food was good. The weather was ideal. The tiki lamps and moonlight-drenched waves made the setting magical. Julie was filled with wonderful little anecdotes and stories—and eager to share them. But the person who knew more than anyone about conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone had a very unusual perspective on what the conflict was.
It was late when we drove away from the restaurant, but we had a stop to make on the way home: Jo’s office. There was some work she had to pick up there.
I could not see much at night, driving through Freetown. Streetlights don’t exist. Donkeys, goats, and stray chickens don’t wear reflectors. Everything was pretty dark. Especially the people. Twenty minutes later we were pulling into a walled enclosure: Unicef headquarters for Sierra Leone. Guards were at the gates, but Jo’s car was recognized and waved through. This wasn’t the flagmobile, but even her personal SUV was apparently well known to the guards. There were a number of low, cement-block buildings inside the gates. We parked and walked in to the largest of these, through an unassuming entrance. Inside I found an office environment not too dissimilar to what one might find in America. But it was all rather makeshift. The cubicles were painted plywood. There was no expensive office furniture. I guessed perhaps 50 people might work inside this compound, at the height of the day. Despite the drab, workmanlike office cubicles themselves, there was no shortage of decoration. There was so much decoration it was almost sensory overload.
Unicef posters covered every inch of otherwise-bare plywood: the walls, the cabinets, the doors. There were three themes: AIDS, polio, and breastfeeding. The posters were fairly simple artistically, often featuring a large head-and-shoulders shot of a wide-eyed child, a smiling mother, and so forth. Condoms. Inoculations. Proper diet. Health. A thousand life-critical messages screamed out at me, as I looked around these walls, and I was nearly overcome with guilt. I knew I should have taken that polio vaccine back at Passport Health in Denver. Probably the Dengue Fever virus as well. I couldn’t do much about my readiness for breastfeeding—it had never been very high. Condoms? I was probably not the target audience for that message. (Yet as circumstances developed, in a few days I would find myself awash in condoms…)
It was a bit eerie, being in this deserted, primitive, office complex, an infinity of posters clamoring for my attention, hallways darkened. When I glanced into one cubicle to see what messages it might contain, and a young woman darted from around the door and stared up at me, I might have screamed. But Jo had warned me that “Adriana” might be working late.
“Adriana’s a communist, just so you know.” Jo had explained earlier.
“Yes. She doesn’t believe in the capitalist system, globalization, any of that stuff.”
“Wow, I didn’t know communists still existed.”
“One does, at least.”
“Why is she a communist? Does she have a brain deficiency or something?”
“I suppose that depends on your political persuasion.”
“What’s her job at Unicef? I hope she’s not your political officer.”
“Adriana’s our Health Officer.”
“OK, so I’ve met your supply officer, your Water and Sanitation officer, your child protection officer, and now your Health officer.
“Yes, you’re getting the full tour. I’m sure you’ll meet others before we’re through.”
So when this short, dark haired, very slight woman suddenly emerged out of the darkness I didn’t scream. Although if I’d remembered she was a communist I might well have.
“Yes, who are you?”
“I’m a friend of Jo’s.”
“Jo? Ah, you mean Joanna? Is Joanna here?”
“Yes, she’s in her office. I’m exploring Unicef Headquarters. I’m trying to absorb the teachings of all these posters.”
Jo arrived at that moment.
“Adriana it’s 10:30 at night! What in the world are you doing here so late?”
“I had work to do.”
“But it’s 10:30!”
“Well, I’m about finished.”
“Do you have a ride home?”
“We’re driving you home. Give me five minutes, and then we’re leaving.”
I followed Jo back to her office, curious to see what it looked like.
“Don’t even think about coming into my office,” Jo warned. “No way.”
“Wild horses couldn’t keep me out of your office. I’m very curious.” I followed her in, despite the protests.
“Well I’m very embarrassed. This place is chaos.”
It was actually very organized chaos. Piles of folders were everywhere, but they were very neat piles. It was similar in size to my company’s large conference room back in Colorado: about 20’ x 20’. The fact that she’d managed to fill it up with so many stacks of folders was impressive
While Jo muddled through this forest of folders, searching for what she was after, I found myself mesmerized by a map on the wall. It was a large map of Sierra Leone. And it was a political map, not a physical map. Yet what it showed were “tribal territories”. Sierra Leone, according to this map, was divided into about fifty tribal regions. The name of each tribe was shown, as was the name of the “tribal leader”. I couldn’t believe it. Was Sierra Leone really that primitive? Well, if this was the primary map, the large map, on the wall of the head of Unicef in Sierra Leone, then apparently the whole country was ruled by tribes and tribal chieftains. Weird.
As we drove through the streets of Freetown, returning Adriana to her apartment, she leaned forward to the front seat where Jo and I were sitting and asked this probing question: “So, are you using a prophylaxis?”
I wasn’t sure what that long, horrid word meant. Let’s see. Didn’t it refer to artificial arms and legs? No, that was prosthetics. Wait. Prophylaxis was something to do with birth control. Condoms and such, right? What was she suggesting?
“Adriana!” I could think of nothing else to say. She was being incredibly indiscreet, even for a communist. And, anyway, Jo and I weren’t having an affair!
Jo intervened swiftly. “I think she’s referring to malaria medication.”
“Yes, this is my job. I’m the Unicef Health Officer. I want to know if you’re using a prophylaxis for malaria. It’s very important you know.”
Whew. The conversation wasn’t getting as personal as I’d feared. Apparently there was another meaning for the word.
I was happy to share with Adriana that I was taking malaria medication.
“And how about insect repellent?”
“I’ve got industrial strength insect repellent. It’s 30% Deet,” I explained proudly, naming the most powerful active ingredient against mosquitoes mankind has ever invented.
“Thirty percent is OK. There are some that are stronger. Joanna, what do you use?”
“I have some back at the apartment that is actually 100%”
“Now that’s good!” noted Adriana enthusiastically. “That should protect you against anything.”
“It does. It creates an impenetrable wall around me. You know, maybe that’s why I’ve had trouble attracting men lately…”
Adriana turned to me. “You want to stay very well protected in Sierra Leone,” she emphasized, soberly.
I knew she spoke the truth. I was just not quite sure what I needed to protect myself from. As it turned out, tomorrow, it would be the chimpanzees.
The next morning, Monday, I had breakfast with Jo in her suite. Not only did Jo live in a very comfortable, spacious apartment. She also had a servant. He was a Sierra Leone native, quite short, late thirties perhaps. His name was Mohammed.
Apparently he arrived about 8 each weekday morning, did household chores, and left by mid afternoon.
Jo had introduced us last Friday. Mohammed prepared our breakfast and served it to us in the dining room. I was reminded of the fact that a Westerner living in a third world country is not necessarily enduring hardship. Quite the opposite, in some cases.
The rest of the week was beginning to take shape. Jo couldn’t take much time off from work, so I would have the next two days to fill on my own. The next two nights, predictably, were already booked with social engagements. Then on Wednesday we were flying by helicopter into the back country. This wasn’t vacation. It was one of Jo’s periodic inspection visits. We’d get back late Thursday. And then on Friday afternoon I was returning to London.
Since Jo was being picked up this morning by the flagmobile and driver, she ceded her own car to me for the day. And she also ceded her servant. After reviewing several options, we’d decided the best choice was for me to drive outside Freetown to something called the Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Jo had never been there, but knew it was one of the area’s attractions. Then I should drive into the center of Freetown—I hadn’t been anywhere near the center yet, and visit the Victoria Park Market. Very colorful, this market, apparently.
Jo knew I could drive the SUV easily enough. She was worried about my ability to navigate—especially to and from the Chimpanzee place.
“If you get lost, and it’s easy to get lost, you won’t be able to ask directions. You don’t speak Krio.”
“So the fact that English is the official language…”
“I think Mohammed should go with you.”
Hmmm. Mohammed wasn’t exactly Mr. Personality. He almost never made eye contact. His head was continually bowed. He mumbled softly, in deprecating phrases. I worried that after a day with Mohammed I might feel inclined to kill myself.
But Jo was an intelligent person, and knew a lot about Sierra Leone. If she didn’t think I could handle this on my own I should take that seriously. There was nothing for it. I was just going to have to make friends with Mohammed. Draw him out. Get him talking. Make him laugh. By the end of the day, we were going to be best of buddies.
Jo called him over.
“Mohammed, Jacques is going out to the Chimpanzee sanctuary today. And then into Freetown to visit the market.”
“I think it would be a good idea if you would go with him.”
“Would you be willing to do that? Help him find his way and so forth? I’d really appreciate it.”
“Well, that would be great. I’ll feel much more relaxed if you can guide him around.”
The man’s vocabulary could rival Shakespeare. He knew the word ‘yes’. I wondered if he knew the word ‘no’. Might he have survived this long only knowing ‘yes’? It occurred to me that a servant who goes through life only saying “yes”, to everything, might well prosper, and never need to learn another word. I mean, if you could only learn one word, certainly ‘yes’ would be more useful than ‘no’, especially for a servant.
Hopefully, he wouldn’t decide to learn ‘no’ on my watch.
Jo’s flagmobile pulled into the courtyard, and the Unicef representative to Sierra Leone rushed out the door, leaving me alone with Doctor Yes.
Doctor Yes was scandalized when I tried to take my own dishes to the kitchen, and even more so when I tried to wash them. Yet every cell in my body rebelled against being waited on hand and foot. It made me feel that my hands and feet weren’t functioning properly.
It’s well known that what brings happiness is not an absence of work. What brings happiness is accomplishment—even something as simple as carrying dishes to the kitchen and washing them. Doctor Yes was determined to deprive me of this source of happiness. He wanted to claim all of it for himself. But I refused to let him be so selfish.
Soon we were in Jo’s SUV, driving out of the gates of the apartment compound – the gates themselves opened for us by two uniformed guards. Not military guards, but workers attired in official “gate opening” uniforms. Hiring two people to hang out at a large gate and open it for the very rare car going in or out is the kind of thing you can get away with in a country with no minimum wage laws. In the U.S., paying those gate openers what they were probably getting paid here would be illegal. That’s why you don’t have gate openers in the United States. And of course those with no skills beyond gate opening are thus unable to find work in the United States, and are unemployed. Or they are forced to work in the underground economy, are paid cash, don’t pay taxes, but at least they can earn something.
Dr. Yes and I had a large and detailed road map of Freetown and the surrounding area. The names of all the roads were meticulously shown on the map. Unfortunately, that’s the only place the names were shown: on the map. They were certainly not shown on the roads themselves. Sierra Leone’s ranking in terms of road signage? Worst in the world, according to a Unicef report. Or at least I assume that’s where it would rank, if Unicef produced such reports.
Dr. Yes would point and grunt at each intersection. He had a rough idea of where we should be going and I let him navigate.
OK, it was time to get him talking.
“So, Mohammed, ever been to this Chimpanzee Sanctuary?”
Aha! We were making progress. He was up to two words.
“Have you ever wanted to go?”
“Well then, I think we’re going to have a great time.”
(Hope springs eternal.)
The landscape around Freetown is mountainous, I’d noticed this as we’d flown in on the helicopter. We were climbing up from the sea now, and were at a point where the terrain dropped sharply to our right—affording a spectacular view of Freetown and the blue ocean beyond.
I pulled the SUV onto the shoulder.
“We have to take a picture!” I said.
This would require getting out, which I proceeded to do. Yet here was something interesting. Walking slowly up towards us, along the road, was a young native woman. She was perfectly attired in Sierra Leonean costume: long skirt, loose blouse, and wonderfully-colorful fabrics. Most impressive, she was carrying a dozen large melons on her head.
“Mohammed, quick, get out of the car!”
He began climbing out.
“You see this view? You see this woman? We have to get the woman in the picture. Would you please ask her if she would mind.”
“Yes”. He engaged the woman in conversation, and she smiled and was quite enthusiastic. We positioned her just so, and I took both still and video shots of her. These were going to be wonderful pictures, and I would not have minded paying her a few thousand Leonis for her trouble, but offering to do so seemed rude.
“Mohammed, I think we need to buy some of her melons.”
“I think we need four of them.”
I gave him money and he handled the transaction. The woman was thrilled. Probably she’d quoted a high price. I hoped she had. Paying her money for the picture would be tacky and insensitive. Paying a high price for her melons was right and proper. Now we had four melons. They looked delicious. And the weight she’d been forced to carry on her head had been reduced by a third—another advantage for her. She walked off down the road, smiling at us and waving. I was poorer by about fifteen cents. Richer by four large melons.
“Nice melons!” I exclaimed to Mohammed.
“So, how long have you worked for Joanna?” (Let’s see him try to answer that question with a yes or a no.)
“About two years.”
“I am a friend of Joanna’s from many, many years ago. I met her when I was fifteen years old.”
That elicited an actual smile. “Ah, very long ago, I see!”
Wait a minute. That was almost an insult…
“But I have not seen her for almost ten years.”
“Joanna is wonderful person.”
“I think so, yes.”
“I have children, do you know that?”
I couldn’t believe all the words flying about. The dam had collapsed. Water was gushing everywhere.
“How many children do you have?”
“I have two children now. A boy and a girl. I used to have three children. One died.”
I paused, suddenly out of my depth as a witty conversationalist.
I looked at him seriously. “I am so sorry. How did your child die?”
“He became sick. He died from sickness.”
I didn’t need to ask which sickness it was. There were so many in Sierra Leone, it didn’t really matter.
“And how are your other two children?”
“They are well. They are going to school. They are going to school because of Joanna.”
“Because of Joanna?”
“Yes, she is paying for them to go school. It costs money.”
Somehow, it didn’t surprise me that Jo, with a Harvard MBA, a good income, no children of her own, and a compassionate nature, would sponsor her servant’s children, and arrange for them to go to school. I also knew I’d never have learned of this if Mohammed himself had not told me.
Yet the pathos of it almost brought tears to my eyes. One son dead. Steeped in poverty. Unable to send his other two children to school. Jo stepping in and paying for it. The man worshipped the ground she walked on. The fact that he’d been so determined to work it into the conversation immediately, so determined to impress upon me what a good person she was, made all this obvious.
Jo had asked him to guide me around the area today. I’d worried that it would seem an imposition. Yet all of his yes’s had been heartfelt. I realized that Mohammed was probably desperate to do any favors he could for Jo. Guiding me around was the very, very least he could do, since she had asked it of him.
I was ready to move the conversation onto less personal grounds.
“It costs money to go to school?”
“Not for the school itself. It costs money for the uniforms, and for the food at school, and for the books, and so forth.”
“Yes, children that go to school must wear uniforms.”
As if on cue, we were passing some school children now, walking alongside the road.
“You see, they wear uniforms.”
Yes, they were doing so.
It seemed odd that the country would create an unnecessary obstacle like this, given the general level of poverty, and the importance of education in rising above poverty. Maybe it was a pride thing. They had a national airline. And their school children wore uniforms.
We’d reached the far outskirts of Freetown now. The mud brick huts and the concrete block buildings with metal roofs, had given way to agricultural land and forests. Every few miles we would pass military checkpoints. These were roadblocks, with sandbags piled up, and vicious-looking 50mm machine guns planted squarely in the middle. We slowed down at these, but were always waved through. Sierra Leonean flags were not flying from these checkpoints. UN flags were flying. These were UN peacekeeping forces. But it was clear that despite their “peacekeeping” name, they knew full well that peace was all about having enough war-like weapons to deter any violence. I remembered that the night before, at Blanca’s, I’d met the military commander of UNAMSIL. All these troops ultimately reported to him, I supposed.
Yet if we ran into trouble I doubted that clever name dropping would make as much impression here in the field as it had with Julie Koenen Grant back at the sea-side restaurant. Sierra Leone was no longer a country actively at war. But it was still a long way from being at peace. Perhaps I really was the first tourist. And it seemed the second might not arrive for some time.
A fork in the road was coming up. Here, at last, was an indicator we were not yet lost. “Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center” said the sign, and it pointed towards the right.
Rehabilitation Center? I’d thought it was a sanctuary. They were rehabilitating chimpanzees? How bad can a chimpanzee get, I wondered. And what can anyone do to make them better, once they go bad?
We were passing a small farm, and the sign at the entrance caught my attention: “Be aware of bad dog.”
Be aware of bad dog? How bad was it? Maybe it could be rehabilitated, along with the chimpanzees.
I could imagine the headmistress at the dog academy.
“Rover, you were baaaad, today.”
“You were a baaaad dog.”
“I’ve seen amoral chimpanzees who were better than you…”
“I’m afraid it’s rehabilitation time, rover. It’s off to the sanctuary for you.”
(long drawn-out howl…)
Well, at least I was aware of this dog, now that I’d seen the sign. I gripped the wheel tighter.
We hadn’t been lost before but soon we were. The asphalt had given way to gravel—still not as difficult as the bombed out craters I’d had to navigate along the coast. Yet there were many intersections, most of them not marked. Thus began a half hour period of frequently stopping, and Mohammed asking directions of the pedestrians on the road.
There were always pedestrians on the road. In America we have cars. In China they have bicycles. In Morocco they have donkeys. In Sierra Leone they have their own feet. Jo had been prescient, to foresee this situation. English is the official language, but the natives speak it only poorly, if at all. Krio has its roots in English, and if you see it written out you can almost understand it. This isn’t exact, but the English phrase: “Excuse me, sir, can you tell me where the Chimpanzee sanctuary is?” …would be rendered in Krio something like “Mon, ware apes be?” It was almost an extreme form of Ebonics, mixed with French, and all of it pronounced with a West African accent. The spoken phrases are gibberish to an American ear.
The language problem continued when we finally reached the sanctuary. It was high up on the sides of a forested mountain. To reach it, at one point I’d had to put the SUV in super-low gear, 4 wheel drive, finding my Colorado jeeping experience useful. We were the only vehicle in the small parking lot—a squared off, open area at the end of the road. Following signs pointing to “Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center” we walked along a narrow, climbing path through the jungle. I wasn’t sure how I felt about walking through this jungle, so unprotected. My previous experiences in African game parks in Botswana and South Africa had conditioned me to never, ever get out of my car in such areas. Tourists had been killed by simply getting out of their car, and having a lion pounce out of the jungle and rip their head off. Or paddling a canoe on a river and letting one’s hand trail into the water. One tourist had done this and a crocodile had lunged upwards, grabbed him by the arm, pulled him into the river, and they’d never even recovered a body. Cape Buffalo, rogue elephants, poisonous snakes, and—most terrifying of all—hippopotamuses. I’d developed a healthy fear of all of them. Now we were walking all alone, in the jungle, surrounded—no doubt—by bad chimpanzees.
Where was that bad dog when I needed it? Perhaps one form of delinquent mammal could be used to fight off others.
I was relieved when the forest opened up and we came to a small, one-room cement block structure. Palm fronds provided its roof. Two native men were inside. One of these came out to meet us, and engaged Mohammed in conversation.
“It is 20,000 Leonis each to visit the sanctuary,” explained Mohammed.
In other words, twenty bucks for the two of us. It seemed expensive, but I remembered that I had virtually no costs the whole time I was in Sierra Leone. Even the car was free. I handed over the money. Mohammed explained that the other man would be our guide, and that he spoke English.
The guide came out, smiled broadly, shook our hands, and began explaining things immediately.
“Ewonga ma chimpanzees desronmka food supply wmeaakalofir forest sanctuary makawino escondo pa.”
“I see,” I responded.
The guide loved to talk, and was clearly enthusiastic about his subject matter. As he led us further down the path, his pronunciation became even harder to understand, as he was speaking forward, and we were behind him. Nonetheless, the narrative continued nonstop.
“Ah seeono the chimpanzees wikoko matsuing every molitsephish chinseng oro in these protected areas wakamuffletok escorian protection vawooosong erusing before returning them to the wild.”
Lively hand signals accompanied this narrative, helping underscore the important points he was trying to convey. He wasn’t talking in Krio. He was talking in English. But his accent was so extreme that I could understand only about every fifth word. That wasn’t a good enough ratio to really catch the drift of the conversation, even with those helpful hand signals as backup. I was glad Mohammed was with me, as he could translate a bit as soon as it could be done discretely.
The path opened up again and we’d come to a larger complex of multiple buildings, chain link fence enclosures, and dozens of chimpanzees racing around and climbing on the walls and looking at us with incredulity.
Our guide explained in great detail what was going on in these enclosed areas, but all I caught was that it was something to do with chimpanzees. Nonetheless I nodded eagerly, and feigned rapt attention, as if his explanations were profoundly revealing to me, and everything about this place utterly fascinating.
In truth, it was just a chimpanzee zoo. So far I wasn’t impressed, having seen better zoos back in the states.
Mounted on one wall of one of the buildings was a large bulletin board, and on this many things had been posted. Much of it was brochures and other material, explaining about the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Area—in real English. I studied this intently, reading as fast as I could. OK, it was starting to make sense now. The problem with chimpanzees in Sierra Leone was similar to the problem with bears in Colorado. As civilization expanded into their territories, the chimpanzees would begin finding their food by foraging around the outskirts of humanity—trash, gardens, dumpsters and such. They would lose their ability to truly live in the wild. This Rehabilitation Center served to transition them from human-dependency to true wilderness living. Apparently these apes weren’t so much bad, as just—well, lazy. The animals running around in the fenced enclosures were new arrivals. They’d been sent here from various places in Sierra Leone where the problem was occurring. Other areas of the sanctuary contained chimpanzees living once again in the wild—as they were supposed to.
No doubt our guide had already explained all this as we walked up here. Perhaps I was insulting him, by needing to learn it all over again from these brochures. Fortunately, beside the brochures was something else which I could pretend I was actually studying: a large poster of about 20 chimpanzees with different funny expressions. Along side each of these was a similar picture of George W. Bush, with amazingly-identical expressions. The political statement being made by the poster was that Bush wasn’t very smart – somewhere around chimpanzee-level, IQ wise. As an American and someone who’d voted for Bush, I found this poster mildly offensive. But it was funny. I took a picture of it, as I doubted I’d ever see it again. (In this I was wrong. I found the poster later on the website: www.bushorchimp.com)
After absorbing this information we walked further up the trail and found ourselves back in the jungle, all signs of civilization vanished. Our guide, still babbling non-stop in words that meant nothing to me, would stoop down occasionally and move a large rock from the middle of the path, over to the side. These rocks formed a kind of border for the path, and had been placed there with a great deal of work. The third time he did this, he turned around and explained why these rocks were getting dislocated. With extreme effort I was able to understand about two of every five words, and that was just enough to catch a whiff of the meaning. Suddenly the whole concept fell into place. Here’s the translation:
“Chimpanzees roam wild all over this area, and they are finding their own food in the jungle—which is a good thing. They come to this path, and they look under the stones to find insects. Often insects are living under the stones. But the chimpanzees don’t bother to put the stones back where they are supposed to be, at the side of the path. So that’s why there are so many stones that I need to put back.”
Ten minutes farther we came to a bamboo ladder, permanently secured to a tall jungle tree. My eye followed this ladder up into the foliage, and saw that it came to a platform, also made of bamboo, and with railings. It was a bamboo tree house—like something Swiss Family Robinson would build. Our guide climbed the ladder swiftly. Mohammed followed. Hmmm. I wasn’t so sure about this rickety bamboo ladder, or the tree house itself. My fear of heights kicked in about twenty feet up but I ignored it and kept going. Finally I reached the platform, grabbed the railings securely and looked out to see what their was to see.
We were looking over a broad valley, heavily forested, between two mountain ridges. The tree house was high up on one of these ridges. Very tall trees, similar to our own, were growing in this valley. They were classic rain-forest trees, with a broad canopy of vegetation near the top, yet not densely packed together. They were spread evenly across the landscape.
“Look,” said our guide, “chimpanzees…”
I didn’t see any. Oh, wait a minute. High up in the trees, on the branches, tucked away in the vegetation, were black lumps. I used the powerful zoom lens on my video camera like a telescope and examined the lumps closely. Yep. They were chimpanzees. No doubt about it. Suddenly one of them jumped up on the branch, and morphed from black lump to rapidly-moving mammal. It swayed down to a different branch, and became a lump again. Then another did the same thing. As I widened my vision, I realized that there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of chimpanzees moving around or sitting still in these tall jungle trees. Occasionally one would scurry down to the ground, race across to another tree, and climb it rapidly—reverting to a silent black lump as quickly as possible.
An especially large chimpanzee, in a tree not so far from ours, suddenly stood up on his branch, looked in our direction, pounded his chest, and screeched.
“Alpha male” said our guide.
Yes, I’d seen similar behavior among baboons in South Africa. Apes were always so touchy, always so selfish with their territory and their females. Always screeching and pounding their chests. Very retro. Very Taliban-like. Male chauvinism was so thick here you could cut it with a knife. Another million years of evolution, these apes would probably have their women wearing blue burkhas and be hijacking airplanes for the glory of Allah. I was glad they’d been rehabilitated and returned to the wild, but I was hoping they’d learn to evolve better than had man. The mindless fury of the ape screeching at us made me suspect they wouldn’t.
We stayed in the tree house for maybe half an hour watching the apes frolicking in the trees, being screeched at, and enduring the indignity of not being able to screech back. I did pound my chest a few times though, just to let them know I wasn’t a total wimp. Back at the parking lot we bid goodbye to our guide, climbed into the SUV, and headed towards Freetown.
“You know, I didn’t want to be impolite, but I really couldn’t understand anything our guide said,” I confessed to Mohammed. “The whole time, when I was nodding my head and so forth, and commenting on how interesting his remarks were, I was just pretending. Now you have to explain it all to me. What did he say?”
“Oh no,” said Mohammed. “I thought it was just me. I couldn’t understand anything he said either. I was going to ask you what he’d said.”
“Are you kidding? But you’re from Sierra Leone!”
“I could talk to him in Krio and understand him. But when he talked to us in English his words didn’t make any sense. I think he’s from a different tribe, a different area. He had an impossible accent.”
“OK, well, I don’t feel so bad then. It was interesting wasn’t it?”
“Think you’ll come here again?”
Dr. Yes had returned. This was going to be tedious. If the alpha male were with us in the back seat, I bet he’d have had plenty to say.
Driving from the jungle into Freetown, the traffic increased, the pedestrians increased, the goats and chickens increased, the ugly cement-block buildings increased, and finally we were in an urban area. An urban area in Sierra Leone is different from one in, say, California. I tried to be analytical about it and identify what those differences were. The first seemed to be the quantity of people walking alongside the road. Of course, there were certainly this many people walking alongside the road in New York during lunch hour, on 5th Avenue. But the difference was that 5th avenue is six lanes wide, and broad sidewalks line both sides. This major highway into Freetown was two lanes wide, and there were no sidewalks. And the cement block buildings came right to the edges of the road. There were not even any shoulders. So the people were essentially competing with the vehicles for space.
The second difference was the people themselves. Even if one were to ignore the fact that they were all black—real black, not the mulatto black one is accustomed to in America—they would still look different because the women were all carrying things on their heads. One rarely sees anyone carrying anything on their heads in New York. Yet every female, every one, even small female children, carried at least something on their head. Also, every female was attired in beautiful, colorful robes and scarves. The men were dressed in drab, non-descript, western-style second-hand, Wal-Mart level clothing. The women were showcases of art.
The third difference was that the buildings were all uniformly ugly. Take the most uninspired, decrepit, dirty, neglected, mold-growing-on-it, falling apart building you’ve ever seen in America, and try to imagine an entire city made of such buildings.
The fourth difference was the cars. Take the most beat up, falling apart, rusted out, pollution spewing vehicle you’ve ever seen in America, and try to imagine an entire city of such vehicles. There are no buildings higher than two stories until one reaches the very center of Freetown, where a few skyscrapers soar five or six floors into the air.
Mohammed knew his way around Freetown, and the map was not necessary. We found a parking place near the town center, got out and walked a block or so to an open area. This was a park-like setting, devoid of buildings or roads. An infinity of little bamboo shacks, or stands, occupied this site. No doubt this was the area known as Victoria Park Market.
My guide dutifully led me through, and past, and around all these little stands, attentive to which ones might draw me in. But I wasn’t going to be drawn into any of them. There was going to be nothing here I wanted, I could see that immediately. Most of it was yucky tourist stuff, like wooden giraffes, cheap hand-made jewelry, and various Sierra Leonean trinkets. The rest was the kind of thing you’d see down in the bargain basement section of a Walgreen’s store: plastic hairdryers, ugly sandals, knock-off brand-name sweatshirts, bootlegged electronics, and the like. I pitied those selling tourist items. Didn’t they realize that with the war, there were no tourists here any more? I was the last of the tourists. Or the first, depending on how you counted.
Ugly American rap music was being played at absurd volume from one of the stands. Trash was blowing across the entire market. That’s another facet of urban Africa that is depressing: the trash. Imagine a garbage truck in America tipped over and spewing its contents onto the highway. Now imagine a hurricane-like wind coming along to disperse the unsavory contents of this truck across several acres of nearby land. Much of urban Africa looks like this, and it’s very depressing. I’d seen the same effect all over central Africa (Botswana and Zimbabwe), and even more so in South Africa. Oddly, I didn’t recall seeing any of it in East Africa or North Africa. But I’d definitely seen it in certain islands in the western Pacific, specifically in Micronesia. But not in Fiji. And I’d seen it in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It had to do with a culture somehow not caring about littering. Or at least not summoning the will to do anything about it. It was not racial, it was cultural. Some cultures develop an innate appreciation for order and cleanliness. For example one can travel all over Japan, or all over Switzerland, and never see a single item of trash. In Japan, especially, you could drop food on a city street, and pick it up again, knowing it was probably now cleaner than it was before being dropped.
“I’m afraid I’m not really interested in buying anything in this market,” I confessed to Mohammed.
“OK, I’ll take you to another market.”
It was nearby, only a short walk away, and seemed likely to be the real market, the market where the natives shopped. There were food stands here, selling vegetables and fish and other things I couldn’t identify, nor did I wish to try. There was more congestion, more activity. Native Sierra Leoneans were milling about, haggling, examining the merchandise, buying and selling things. We worked our way into the labyrinthine-like environment. The passageways became even smaller, and eventually we reached an area where palm frond ceilings covered the walkways between the little shops—or “souks” as they’d be called in Morocco. These palm ceilings provided shelter from the sun, but they also stifled air movement. It was a bit claustrophobic in here, and ones eyes needed time to adjust.
One of the souks was selling cheap silver jewelry, an item caught my attention, and I bought it. I haggled only a little, just to conform to etiquette, but the price was only about three dollars. There wasn’t much further it could drop.
Everywhere I went, dark, gloomy, scary people were desperately wanting me to buy their merchandise. And they were going about it so completely wrong. All they could talk about was price. “Low price! Low price!” they shouted. They weren’t understanding that sometimes there is no elasticity to the demand curve. These large wooden giraffes—they’d appeared yet again—I simply didn’t want. The sellers could have given them to me for free and I wouldn’t have wanted them. They could have paid me to take them and I would have refused. Yet that was their whole sales pitch: “low price, low price!”
Someone needed to teach them salesmanship skills. In my case, explanations of how one could ship a three-foot-tall wooden giraffe back to the states would have been much more compelling than whether something was $3 or $2. A sign saying: “Free shipping to anywhere in the world” would have made me pause and consider. Another sign saying: “Yes, it’s tacky stuff, but what a great Christmas gift for those hard-to-shop-for people back home. Next December, your wife will love you for having solved a big shopping problem for her.” A sign like that would have stopped me in my tracks. Or a sign explaining that: “Everyone else has cheap tourist garbage. Stop here for real African artifacts you’ll be proud to own – if you can afford them, which you probably can’t because the good stuff’s expensive.” That sign would have made me cancel my plans for the day and perhaps generated several hundred dollars in sales. Any of those themes would have been effective. But instead all the merchants could say was “Low price! Low price!”
It was another reminder of how absent from most every society’s curriculum are the rudiments of business and entrepreneurship. Not just in Africa, but everywhere. In America, high schools teach our kids subjects like calculus and trigonometry, which must be two of the all time most worthless things to know for anyone but a scientist or mathematician. Yet zero time is spent teaching hugely valuable skills such as how to start a business, how to determine what goods or services a market might need, how to innovate, simple techniques of selling products, how wealth is created, and so forth. Then they turn our kids loose ingrained with the idea that they are supposed to now go “find a job” much as one might “find an egg” in an Easter egg hunt. It rarely occurs to any of them, not surprisingly, that instead of “finding a job” perhaps they should “create a job”. By contrast, in more primitive societies such as West Africa, people do look to themselves first for gainful employment. The men and women in these little shops were all eager, would-be entrepreneurs. Each shop was its own small business. Yet what they lacked were the most simple skills for making their businesses successful.
Even in America, one has to go all the way to college and take business courses before being exposed to how business works. Yet even at that level, the business courses tend to focus on accounting 101, finance 101, macro-economics, and other dry stuff that prepares you to occupy a cubicle in a large corporation, perhaps, but doesn’t prepare you at all for just going out there and starting a business and generating new wealth for society and yourself.
Everything Jo was doing in Sierra Leone was worthwhile: helping provide health care to poor children, funding clean-water projects, fighting child abuse. But what the country really needed was the knowledge of how to create wealth. Government and NGO handouts ultimately would breed nothing more than a dependency on handouts. Profitable economic activity, on the other hand, would raise up everyone’s living standards, create a thriving middle class, and create self-sufficiency for this country. Jo was handing out health care to sick children. That was important. But who was handing out business advice to budding young entrepreneurs? No one. And which, in the long run, would do the most good for Sierra Leone?
An idea began growing in my mind that if I ever were able to become rich and retire, a good use of my time would be to try to create Entrepreneur Learning Centers in places like Freetown. I suspected it would take so little, to make a huge difference. Then I realized that perhaps the U.S. needed such Centers even more than West Africa did.
Even the economists studying Sierra Leone didn’t get it. A book on the Sierra Leone economy, back at Jo’s apartment, had stated “Diamonds are the only source of wealth in Sierra Leone.” What utter nonsense. The population of Sierra Leone was potentially an infinitely greater source of wealth. Looking around me at this beehive of activity and eager workers, it was clear one needed to merely harness this energy to achieve rapid economic growth.
The book had also explained how Lebanese businessmen had migrated into the country in droves, and were now largely controlling the diamond trade as well as many other businesses. Apparently there was quite a bit of resentment among the Sierra Leonean natives that these businessmen were creating profitable activity in their country—stealing some portion of the diamond wealth, as it were. “Yet they have created numerous jobs which benefit the locals,” the book went on to admit.
Gee, ya think? It was that old “zero-sum-game” confusion again, being perpetuated even by the authors of the book. If the Lebanese were getting rich, the authors apparently believed, then that could only mean they were doing so by taking money from someone else. No, they were getting rich by finding ways to organize and harness the productivity of the people. And in so doing they were raising up the living standards of everyone with whom they came in contact. Jo had an MBA from Harvard, but even so I had to remind her about all this myself, when we discussed the Lebanese and their impact on Sierra Leone. Of course, the economists at Harvard were probably an aging collection of tired, socialist, “growth-is-bad”, anti-free-market types who couldn’t have explained the Laffer Curve if their tenure had depended on it. (Which of course it didn’t.)
And Julie Koenen Grant was part of it. All she could think about were the diamonds, and how the government could tax those diamonds. It was driving her nuts that people were smuggling the little things out of the country, before she could tax them properly. And so she was creating paperwork for businesses all over the world, trying to stop this illegal flow of diamonds, when of course there is nothing on earth as easy to smuggle as a diamond. Someone needed to grab all these people by the shoulders and scream at them: “Chill out about the diamonds! If you want this country to prosper, create an attractive economic environment for business. If you do, capital and jobs will flood into Sierra Leone. Low tax rates, and a flourishing economy, would pump millions of dollars into government coffers. Your myopic focus on trying to fund the government by taxing commodity exports is completely misguided. Admit it. You’re not going to keep people from smuggling diamonds. Don’t waste time and energy trying. Instead, create polices that will make the diamond trade flourish. And then tax (at reasonable rates) all the economic activity that will follow the diamond traders. In the mid 19th century, the real wealth was not the gold taken out of California. It was the profits from the supplies and services sold to the miners, and all the new economic activity generated by the gold rush. The same thing could happen here! Wake up!”
I let my mind drift into fantasy. If I could establish myself as dictator of Sierra Leone, what might I not accomplish? We’d cut a deal with the United States to consider Sierra Leone a de facto protectorate. That would reduce military expenses to zero. Import and export tariffs would be immediately dropped to zero, so no one would have to worry about diamond smuggling anymore. Income tax rates would top off at ten percent, and only be levied on incomes above $5,000/year. Zero sales tax. Like, who could tax the street markets? A national lottery would generate whatever income was needed to run the small central bureaucracy and police force. We’d pump the aid organizations for every dime we could get, and spend the money on infrastructure, primarily roads, medical facilities, schools, and communications. I’d put Jo in charge of all that. Maybe we actually would start the International Women-Amputee Victims For Peace, so as to bring in even more aid money. Schools would be free, and would focus on reading, writing, and entrepreneurship.
Rather than shun the Lebanese, we’d fete them, and try to get even more such experienced business people to come into the country—from all over the world if possible—along with incentives to help bring in more teachers, medical staff, engineers, and other highly-skilled workers. Eventually the Sierra Leoneans themselves would be trained to handle these kinds of jobs, but we’d need outside help for the immediate future.
We’d sweep away the whole meaningless system of business licenses and fees and forms to fill out and stamps of government approval. Yet we’d implement serious environmental-protection laws, and basic human rights guarantees. I’d even consider some of the OSHA regulations from the U.S. Throw out 95% of them of course, but keep the good ones. We weren’t going to perform an economic miracle in Sierra Leone by oppressing it’s workers or trashing its environment. We didn’t need to. High licensing fees for vehicles with defective tailpipes would be one place to start, as well as zero licensing fees on vehicles with proper pollution control systems. High gasoline taxes would both fund highway construction, while keeping private car populations at a reasonable level. An efficient system of broad, paved bikeways, for both bikes and motor scooters, would substitute, and Freetown would prosper while not becoming suffocated with traffic jams as had most other third world cities.
Capital punishment would be eliminated, except for corruption—Africa’s perennial nemesis. A few well-publicized executions of corrupt bureaucrats would clean up the rest. We’d replace the hopelessly-inflated “Leoni” with the “Sierra” as the new currency, and tie the Sierra one-to-one to the U.S. dollar. We’d need hard currency reserves to make that work, and we’d get them via loans from the IMF. Oh wait, that wouldn’t happen. The International Monetary Fund doesn’t understand economics either, and believes high tax rates and inflated currencies are the best way to grow GDP. They’d nearly destroyed the economies of SE Asia and South America by implementing those policies. Damn! Where could I get hard currency? Ah! Commercial banks. They would buy into our plan, and would loan us the hard currency to make it happen. Overnight, the Sierra would become as respected and as stable as the Swiss Franc. Hmmm. At that point we could earn even more money by launching the Sierra Sovereign, a national gold coin along the lines of the Canadian Maple Leaf.
Stripping government of all but the most basic services would slash costs. With these free market reforms in place, foreign investors would go nuts. With foreign investment off the charts, we could grow GDP by 25% a year, for at least the next ten years. Diamonds? They’d become as irrelevant to Sierra Leone as coal production was to the U.S. economy. We’d go from a raw materials economy to a trade economy—almost overnight. And eventually to a service economy, offering tourist attractions, educated workers, and a flourishing business infrastructure The Lebanese were already in place trying to make it happen, with almost impossible obstacles to surmount. Given encouragement, they and others would succeed. Freetown would become Africa’s Hong Kong. The city already had the right name for the job. The poorest country in the world would become the richest country in Africa – and establish the blueprint for the rest of the undeveloped world. Damn. I knew in my bones we could do it.
There was only one problem. I was not dictator of Sierra Leone. I was only a tourist. A tourist wandering forlornly through a stifling street market in Freetown.
I approached another stand, where two pretty African girls were offering bolts of cloth, highly decorative, and of a kind I’d seen on women all over the streets of the city. Ready-made skirts and blouses in this style were available also. I paused at this stand, because in fact something exotic of this sort would be fun to take back to my wife. The girls turned to me in an instant, and I braced for declarations of “low price”, but they were smarter than that.
“Where you from?” asked one of them, and feigned interest over my answer “United States.” This was good. They were getting me involved in conversation, establishing a rapport with the customer; not trying to immediately stuff something down my throat. “We have very beautiful fabrics” said another. “May I show you some of the dresses?”
“Oh, no, please don’t go to the trouble, I’m really just wandering around…”
“Trouble? It is no trouble. This is our job, to unfold these fabrics.” As she said this she begin pulling some items off the shelves, opening them up, modeling them. “Please let us do our job, which is to show these pretty things. Otherwise we just sit here and are bored…” She was smiling as she said this.
It was a clever appeal, and one for which I could find no response. Soon they had half a dozen skirts, blouses, dresses, and bolts of fabric out on display.
“Is this for your wife, your girlfriend maybe?”
“I have a wife and a daughter, actually.”
“OK, then you need something for each of them. Let’s see…” (Notice the clever way she’d used this information to up-sell me to a bigger purchase.)
Fifteen minutes later I was walking away with two full outfits, and I’d spent nearly thirty dollars—60,000 Leonis: a fortune in Sierra Leone. When I’d tried to haggle, the girls had been horrified, and had gone to great lengths to explain why their fabrics were so expensive, and so carefully handmade, and embroidered, and…” And of course I was a sucker for all of it, because there are few things I know less about then dresses and fabrics and hand embroidery.
Also, of course I was silently cheering them on. It was so refreshing to hear a salesperson stress the quality of their merchandise, and how happy it was going to make me and my loved ones, rather than scream about how cheap it was.
A good haggler could probably have gotten the price down to $5.00, but I didn’t care. These friendly, eager, skilled salesgirls deserved an extra $25.00 just as a tip, or perhaps as a charitable donation to help them in their business careers. Yes, things would be better if I were dictator. But these perky sales associates implied there was hope for the country even if I didn’t move into the presidential palace.
I dropped Mohammed off at the apartment compound, and set out on an important errand. I had to find a phone. This was my fourth day in Sierra Leone and other than an abortive phone call with Alex, I hadn’t yet called home. I didn’t’ want to keep intruding on Blanca, and also it wouldn’t be very private for me to call my wife from the middle of her living room. Fortunately, I knew how to find a phone. I’d seen enclosed phone booths scattered all around the area. The first one was just outside the small grocery store where Jo had arranged for me to change British pounds into Leonis, coming back from the beach yesterday. Twenty pounds had converted into a wad of notes about six inches thick. I returned to this spot, found the phone booth, opened it, and realized it was broken. Not just broken, there was no phone inside at all. Well, that happens even in America.
I drove farther down the road to where I’d seen another phone booth. Parking was going to be tricky here, but fortunately there was a large building of uncertain purpose with an expansive, dirt courtyard. Several cars had been parked in the courtyard and so I did the same, or at least tried to. But as I was climbing out of the car a man started calling to me angrily, from one of the windows on the 2nd floor of the building. I couldn’t understand him, but he seemed quite distraught—waving his arms and yelling at me and so forth. Darn, I guess I wasn’t supposed to park in here, although it looked like a public place—a government building or something. Or maybe I’d parked in the wrong spot. That was very likely.
“I’m sorry, don’t understand” I called back.
The man yelled and screamed and waved some more. He did everything but beat his chest like the alpha male back at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center.
I’d meant no harm. If I’d parked incorrectly, as obviously I had, I’d move. No problem. I started to get back in the car.
Suddenly I saw another man coming over. He spoke softly and reassuringly.
“It’s OK. You can park car here. Don’t worry about that man.”
“Who is that man?”
“He’s a prisoner. He’s in jail. This is a jail.”
For the first time I looked more closely at the sign by the door. “Freetown District Rehabilitation Center” it said.
Hmmm. I wondered if the man was being trained to live in the wild, and soon they’d turn him loose with the chimpanzees. He certainly seemed to be practicing for it.
In any case I was a bit annoyed that I’d been taken in. I’d thought I’d parked in the wrong spot. The wrong spot? What a Western concept. Here I was in a dirt-covered enclosure in Africa. The several stopped cars were strewn haphazardly. And I was worried about parking regulations? I locked the car and walked towards the phone booth. If someone wanted to tow the vehicle, I’d like to see them make that happen in the several minutes it would take me to make a phone call. The country wasn’t organized enough to do anything about my car for at least a week, possibly six months to a year. And that’s assuming anyone cared. Which no one did. Except for the unrehabilitated man on the second floor.
This phone booth not only had no phone, it had cobwebs growing in it. I was its first visitor in years. I had a strange, eerie sensation that I was a time traveler, exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization. This is how New York City might look a thousand years after the holocaust – deserted buildings, cobweb-covered phone booths, cars rusted to dust. There would be no one still living who even understood what a phone booth was, or how it worked, or what it’s purpose had been.
On the other hand, a 9 year civil war, a war in which the rebels had actually occupied Freetown not that long ago, was a form of holocaust. The highways were a series of bomb craters. The phone booths were all out of commission. I had to remind myself that I really was Sierra Leone’s first tourist. And in truth the place wasn’t quite ready for tourists.
I tried two more phone booths and then gave up. I was out of time.
We had two social events scheduled for the evening. There was something called the “Hash Walk”, and then dinner with a pair of Lebanese businessmen.
“What’s a ‘hash walk?’ I’d asked Jo.
“It’s kind of hard to explain. Look, I think maybe this is just one of these things you don’t ask questions about. You just go to it.”
“Fine, what should I wear?”
“Wear shorts and sneakers and a t-shirt or something.”
As we were driving towards the Hash walk, Jo began having second thoughts.
“I probably shouldn’t’ be dragging you into this. The Hash House people are really weird. But, it’s kind of fun. It’s something we do every Monday night. It’s just, well, there are some rituals…”
“OK, it’s totally dumb and stupid and ridiculous. But they have these rituals.”
“I can handle rituals.”
“We don’t have to do this, you know. We can bail on the whole thing.”
“No way. Now I’m curious. Rituals. I don’t usually do ‘rituals’ on Monday nights…”
She looked at me with exasperation. “Well, you’ve been warned…”
“So tell me about these Hash-people. Who are they? Is it hash like drugs? Is it some secret society? What are we going to do exactly?”
“No, no, it’ not hash, like drugs. They’re called the Hash House Harriers. It’s a running club.”
“Yeah, but most of us don’t run, we walk.”
“Where do they run to? Or walk to?”
“A different route every week, that’s what’s fun. You have one or two of them leading the group. They drop little stick things at the intersections, so you know where to go. You follow the signs. We get to explore all these different sections of the city.”
We drove to a neighborhood about fifteen minutes from the apartment compound. It was on the outskirts of Freetown. Slipping down a narrow alley, and then through a stone gate, we emerged into what seemed the backyard of a house. The yard was covered in grass, and high cement walls surrounded it on three sides. A two-story brick house of uncertain ownership completed the square. The lawn was perhaps a quarter acre in size, and completely filled with people.
There must have been fifty or sixty here: most of them white, most of them young to middle-age adults. Jo seemed to know many of them, and a few I’d already met myself from the earlier parties. Everyone was dressed in shorts and sneakers. We had only a few moments to mingle, when the leader of this group began speaking loudly, explaining about the route, and a few other details. It was largely over my head, and used phrases like “the hares” and “the hounds”. But we started off with much fanfare, all of us streaming back out the gate and through the narrow alleyway. We crossed the paved road where we’d park, and immediately were on a path cutting through a vacant field. About a fourth of us took off in an actual run, and they were soon gone from site. The larger contingent was walking, although at a very aggressive speed. I tend to walk extremely fast, and so even this pace was not difficult for me. Also, we were at sea level and my body was still conditioned for the thin air of the mountains. I knew I could walk at this speed for hours, if need be, and not get winded.
Soon the group was spread over considerable distance, as the fast walkers drew ahead and the slow ones lagged behind. Jo and I made no particular effort to walk together. I found myself alongside a more elderly woman, perhaps in her sixties, and originally from Britain. She was able to tell me much about her particular circumstance and how she came to live in Sierra Leone but I have to confess that I forgot the whole story, almost as I was hearing it. The sights and sounds of suburban Freetown were too distracting. Of course to someone from the developed world, the areas we were walking through could only be described as pitiful slums, and the people living here were eking out a miserable existence in abject poverty. But was it really any worse than the stone-age village back near River #1? Compared to that stone age village, this area was quite up-scale. And even the people in the village hadn’t seemed starving or miserable. It was another reminder that the term “poverty” doesn’t translate well into the situation in Sierra Leone. “Poverty” in U.S. society refers to people at the far bottom of the economic ladder, people who are out of work, possibly having a hard time feeding themselves, and so forth. In the U.S., being poor carries a connotation of failure. Being “poor” is not quite but almost the opposite of being “happy”.
Yet the people of Sierra Leone are quite happy. And they aren’t hungry (mostly). And the people living in these conditions are not the bottom 2% of society. They are the bottom 99%. That makes a huge psychological difference. They don’t look at the rest of society around them and feel left out. They are very much the same as the rest of society. This is the society. The proper phrase to describe the living conditions in Sierra Leone is not “poverty”, as the UN would have it, but “primitive.” I was beginning to realize the enormity of the difference between those two concepts.
Another way to look at it is to think back 500,000 years ago. The Neanderthals living in caves were not living in poverty. They were living a very primitive existence. See the difference?
As we walked at high speed through streets of red-dirt, past crumbling cement structures, past garbage-infested vacant lots, the natives would stare at us. But they were not staring sullenly or with resentment. Perhaps if two or three white people were to walk through their neighborhoods, and peer into their doorways, and look about with prying eyes, it could cause resentment. But when fifty or sixty white people do this—some of them running, some walking at high speed—it’s more like a parade. The natives came out to stare at us! This endless procession of white people in sneakers was one of the most bizarre and fascinating sights ever to befall these neighborhoods, and soon we were walking through rows of spectators. Everyone had come out doors to observe this strange phenomenon. And they cheered us on, laughing, waving, smiling, having no clue in the world what we were doing, or why, and perhaps not really caring. It was an occasion for merriment and those were always welcomed—in any society.
In less than an hour we’d returned to the grass-covered back yard surrounded by cement walls, and now the merriment escalated. Beer was widely consumed. Everyone was talking and laughing. And over in a corner of the yard a whole pig had been spitted and was being slowly rotated over open coals. I found myself quite taken by this pig. It had the requisite apple in its mouth, and the young black man rotating it seemed to be enjoying his work. How could he not? Rotating a pig over open coals looked to be about the most enjoyable task anyone could imagine. Green with envy, I walked over and asked if I could turn the pig. He grinned and stepped aside. I grabbed hold of the spit’s handle and began rotating the pig myself.
It was absolutely as fun as I’d expected it to be. I moved the handle slowly round and round. Round and round went the pig. Then I tried reversing the direction. Round and round went the pig the other way.
I turned the pig fast. I turned the pig slowly. I went one way, then the other. I spent quite a bit of time doing all this. Eventually, after about a minute and a half of playing with the pig, I realized I wasn’t having that much fun anymore. I turned the pig back over to the young native boy, with a nod of thanks, and walked back to join the others.
The leader of these Hash people now walked to the center of the yard and began speaking in a loud, deep voice. He was chanting actually. No doubt this was an event of great solemnity: the beginning of the rituals. A large open area formed automatically around this man, as the rest of us backed off to where we could see from a safe distance.
He was big, and red-faced: a Brit. His voice bellowed and snarled, as if he dared anyone to challenge him. So might a drill sergeant talk to a company of young recruits
“Now, what’s this meeting all about!” he yelled at us, threateningly, rhetorically.
Silence reigned, as no one wanted to be the first to speak.
“Well, what’s it about!” he repeated, insistently.
“Beer?” suggested one man at last, cautiously. Others quickly piled on: “Yeah, that’s right!” “Beer!” “Here’s to beer!” “Three cheers for Beer!” Beer! Beer! Beer!” They started getting themselves worked up over beer, now that they knew what the meeting was about.
“OH SHUT UP!” hollered the red faced man, glowering angrily at each of us in turn. Don’t be so bloody STUPID! Of course it’s about beer! But what ELSE is it about. What is it about TONIGHT!!!
There was silence.
“IT’S ABOUT VIRGINS!!!” he screamed at us, settling the matter by virtue of sheer decibels, in case anyone might have disagreed. No one did.
“Yeah, that’s it!” “It’s about virgins!” “This is virgin night!!” Everyone was jumping in now, getting increasingly excited about the virgins, the beer long forgotten. “Bloody HELL!” someone opined enthusiastically, just to toss that phrase into the ring, not really condemning or praising anything in particular.
It went on in this vein, the red faced man getting the audience all worked up over beer and virgins, and making frequent allusions to inside jokes pertaining to past meetings, or meetings to come, or suspected indecent relationships between members and their respective livestock. Very bawdy. Songs were sung with scandalous lyrics. Obscene hand gestures often accompanied these songs, emulating various sexual practices.
There was a great deal of good and hearty cheer going on, and apparently the songs and the hand gestures were part of the rituals Jo had been reluctant to drag me through, but the only thing really disappointing about the event were the virgins. Given the nature of the song lyrics, the general level of debauchery, and the heavy quantity of beer flowing, I’d not have been surprised if a dozen naked young women had been brought out, specifically to be ravaged in the most decadent and outrageous of ways. A fastidious diplomatic cocktail party on Saturday night, balanced by unrestrained sexual depravity on Monday night? Perhaps the one neatly offset the other, and explained how these aid workers and NGO staffers could maintain their sanity in a war-torn third-world country, especially one with 6pm curfews.
But it was not to be. The virgins, as it turned out, were us. Or at least were some of us. The cockney-accented, beer-slurred, every-word-heavily-screamed-out sentences were difficult to follow. But apparently there were numerous classifications and awards to give out, to Hash members who’d been “first” at something. Possibly first to lead the run. Or first to have attended 25 consecutive hashes in a row. Or first to return and thus win the race. Or—whatever. As these names were called out, the “virgins” would come forward, kneel down and songs would be sung for them, and they’d be handed beer mugs and been required to drain the whole pint at once before tossing it blithely over their head, or on their head, or on someone else’s head, or whatever they felt like doing with it.
Finally, my own category was called up: those who would count this hash their first. There were three of us. Two from England, one from America. We kneeled down, were appropriately feted and sung to, beer was consumed, pints were tossed, and my own personal “virgin” experience was consummated.
The pig, who—had he not been dead—would have been too dizzy to walk, was finally taken off the coals and cut up as the centerpiece of a magnificent buffet. But Jo and I had to make a discrete exit, as we had dinner plans. I managed a thin slice of pig nonetheless, finding it as enjoyable to eat as it had been to rotate. I also bought a Sierra Leone Hash House Harriers T-shirt, of which they had many, and which only cost a few thousand Leonis. The t-shirt was decorated with beer bottles, each possessed of a kind of dreamy expression, running back and forth over mountain trails. As we slipped away there were a number of good-natured, backslapping farewells, and I truly felt I’d bonded with the expate community in Freetown in a way that nothing else could quite have achieved. In any case, according to Jo, I was now an official member of the Hash House Harriers. My name had been duly recorded in the membership and attendance log.
Months later, I was sufficiently curious to see if there was anything about this group on the Web. To my amazement, I discovered that what I’d joined was an extremely large, extremely active, extremely international organization that was represented by hundreds of chapters on at least six continents. Started by some British officers in Singapore during World War II, officers who had a passion for running over open trails, their tagline is now: “A Drinking Club With A Running Problem.” The “harrier” refers to a type of rabbit, and apparently there is always one person designated as the “rabbit” who runs ahead, and leaves behind little stick-clues, and thus marks the route for the “hounds” (the rest of us) who run/walk in pursuit. “Harriers” are apparently a type of hound that hunts this kind of rabbit. And the Hash House was the original name of the officer’s club in Singapore. It all now made sense. Most amazing of all, there were actually three chapters of Hash House Harriers in Colorado: Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs. http://gotothehash.net/
But I doubted if anyone else in Colorado had a Hash t-shirt from Sierra Leone.
Jo had arranged a dinner date for us with two Lebanese businessmen. They knew a lot about the diamond industry, she said, and might have some important insights. Jo was taking very seriously her role as my appointments secretary—trying to find useful people for me to interview. I hadn’t learned that much about conflict diamonds during the Hash walk. Perhaps our dinner plans would bear more fruit. In any case I was glad she’d planned on us returning to the apartment to shower and change before dinner. Smelling as we otherwise would have of beer, sweat, and roast pork, the Muslim Lebanese might well have fled in cultural horror.
We met them in the dirt parking lot of a seaside restaurant. Unlike last night’s candle-lit dinner on a quiet cove, here we were facing the open ocean, and waves could be heard crashing onto the beach. Jo sensed something was wrong immediately.
“There shouldn’t be this many cars in the parking lot. This is Monday night. I thought we’d have this place to ourselves.”
The large, dirt parking lot was filled to capacity with SUV’s and a few lesser automobiles.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” she added.
A black Mercedes limousine pulled in.
“I think these are our friends,” said Jo.
Two middle aged men climbed out. I guessed their age as mid to late fifties, but I have a hard time guessing people’s ages these days. Too many people who I think look a generation older than me turn out to be younger. It’s very scary. There was also something scary about these two Lebanese. A bit on the portly side, arriving in a black Mercedes limousine with a driver, they’d had no trouble making a comfortable living in the world’s poorest country. But unlike socialists, I was willing to believe they’d done it via profitable business activity—which means they were spreading even more wealth around among all their employees and workers. What people don’t understand about capitalism is that the wealth doesn’t “trickle down” to the workers. The wealth goes immediately to the workers. Capitalism starts by a capitalist hiring workers. They get paid first. And if the business enterprise ever generates a profit, then and only then does the capitalist receive anything back. If the business generates a loss, the worker still gets paid for his work, but the business eventually dies. And then the capitalist gets nothing—and in fact loses all the money he invested. Clearly that had not happened in this case.
I can’t remember these gentlemen’s names so I’ll call them Smith and Jones. Jo had explained that they were primarily involved in the construction business, but they had many contacts with the Lebanese diamond dealers and could tell us much about what was going on.
I was more concerned with what was going on here at this restaurant. After introducing ourselves in the parking lot, the four of us walked up to the door. It was night-time, and difficult to see quite what we were entering. It seemed to be a stand-alone cement-brick building, one story, facing the water. Inside was a large bar, dozens of tables and—just inside the doorway—armed military policeman. The place was packed. Most every table was filled. Everyone was white, including the MP’s.
Jo turned to one of the policemen. “What’s going on here tonight?” she asked.
“It’s a large party, for the British troops” he explained. Apparently there was a British contingent of military advisors here.
The restaurant was open air, facing the waves and the beach, yet covered. We weren’t completely outside this time, although it might have been better if we were. After taking our seats and ordering beer—the Lebanese were apparently happy to drink beer—the show began. A master of ceremonies walked into an area that might on different occasions serve as a dance floor. He grabbed a microphone, and started getting everyone worked up with “Are we all having fun, yet?” and “This sure beats war, don’t it!” and other such witticisms. He wasn’t as big and gruff as the Hash House drill sergeant, but he had something more dangerous: a microphone and a ten thousand watt PA system. He immediately put all ten thousand to use, making sure that even the cooks in the kitchen could understand everything he said.
But as often happens when someone is screaming into a microphone, he was completely unintelligible. It was a replay of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary guide from this morning—I was catching only about two out of every five words.
No matter, the British soldiers had a long head-start on us with their drinking, and they were cheering and clapping and guffawing and caring not in the least whether they understood any of it or not. When the six scantily-clad young female dancers suddenly appeared, and began performing provocatively to the music, the house erupted in cheers, and the announcer had to start yelling even louder to make himself heard.
The four of us made eye contact and then, all mutually agreeing simultaneously, got up and walked out, tossing a few thousand Leonis on the table to pay for the beer we’d hardly had time to touch.
It was a much more elegant restaurant that Jo led us to next. High up on a hill, surrounded by lush gardens and gracious overhanging trees, it might well have been a country club, or at least the closest one can get to a country club in Sierra Leone. Soon we were seated at a table on a deck overlooking a manicured and pristine lawn.
It was a pleasant dinner, but in truth Smith and Jones—while very amicable and eager to tell us what they knew—didn’t really know that much. Nonetheless they did add a little to the story.
I explained about Julie’s spin on the “conflict diamonds”, and the conflict being about the Sierra Leone government not receiving its tax revenue on the diamonds.
“Do you know what the tax is on diamond exports?” asked Smith.
“Three percent, is my understanding,” I replied.
“Right. Three percent. How stupid do they think these diamond exporters are? Who’d risk going to prison to save three percent? Three percent is nothing, it’s ridiculous.”
Jones agreed: “The diamond smuggling that has been going on hasn’t’ been from the legitimate exporters. It’s from the RUF, who were illegally seizing the diamonds. They had to smuggle, because they obviously couldn’t go through normal government channels But those days are over. The exporters aren’t smuggling. They’re happy to pay the three percent.”
“So who do the exporters buy from, exactly?” I asked.
Smith explained it. “You’ve got three types of licenses. Mining license. Buying license. Exporting license. The diamond miner has the mining license, obviously.”
“And he’s the one who digs for the diamonds?”
“No, he’s the one who has the license to dig. He then employs natives who are called ‘diggers’ and they’re the ones with the actual shovels and picks and so forth.”
Jones continued the story. “The miner sells to a licensed diamond buyer. They have the buying offices in towns like Kenema, which Joanna says is one of the places you’re going.” Jo nodded. “And the buyer then sells to a diamond exporter. They have the license to export, and they’re the ones who pay the 3%.”
“And where are the exporters?”
“Mostly right her in Freetown.”
“OK, so how much does it cost to get one of these licenses? Is that where the government makes it’s money?”
“The licenses cost very little,” said Smith. “In U.S. dollars maybe, oh, maybe five hundred dollars a year.”
“Why so little?”
“If you want a diamond mining license, I can get you one for $10” said Jones.
“Sure. They’re easy to counterfeit. If you want one, it’s not a problem. You’re buying dinner, I’d be happy to get you a diamond mining license. Don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of connections. That’s why the real ones cost so little. They know if they charged more people would just get fake ones.”
Smith continued: “They used to charge much more for the licenses. And people would just ignore them and dig illegally. And they’d send in the army to stop it. But the soldiers are paid $30 a month. They’d get to the diamond fields and just start digging themselves. That’s why they finally gave up and lowered the price of the licenses.”
It was beginning to get very confusing. I was learning a lot. But I was no where near reaching any grand conclusion. Yet one minor conclusion now seemed inescapable. Sierra Leone was way too preoccupied with diamonds. It was another indication that the solution to the country’s problems lay in growing the economy, by releasing the power of the free market, rather than myopically trying to squeeze money out of the diamond trade. Yet I had nothing to base that on. It was just instinct. I had to learn more. Tomorrow, Tuesday, would be an uneventful day. I’d get caught up on some work, deal with my laundry, maybe drive around a little. Then on Wednesday the adventure would begin. We would head into the backcountry by helicopter, and perhaps see the Sierra Leone diamonds first hand.
I could not have imagined that it would actually be tomorrow—a planned day of inactivity—when Sierra Leone’s illicit diamonds would finally catch up with me.
The next day I was on my own, and in truth I was ready for a day of inactivity. The Polygon Conclave, business meetings in London, and then non-stop rushing around since I’d arrived in West Africa. I needed a break. Today was it—or so I’d thought.
There were really only two things I had to accomplish: contacting my family, and getting some exercise. My exercise regimen of thirty minutes of aerobic activity, no less than 5 times a week, had been going on for nearly ten years and is now almost a religion. Back in Colorado the quota is usually achieved by mountain biking in the summer and a NordicTrak in the winter. When traveling—anything goes. The high-speed Hash Walk yesterday counted, as it was more than thirty minutes. In London I’d rollerbladed aggressively in Hyde Park both days. Once, on a trip to Japan, I’d filled my quota by climbing Mt. Fuji. Paddling a canoe, renting a bicycle, jogging on the beach (if there is one), swimming in a hotel pool – any of these can serve, as long as it’s a continuous thirty minutes.
Today I was going to drive Jo’s SUV to a nearby beach, actually in Freetown, and do the jogging-by-the-waves thing. But first I was going to contact home. I’d figured out how. There were no phones to speak of, so talking was out. But less than a mile from the apartment complex I’d seen a sign saying “Internet”, with an arrow pointing towards a store in a strip mall. It’s difficult for Americans to realize, since the Internet is such a new phenomenon even for us, how quickly it has spread to third world countries. But I’d seen this before in Africa: in Zanzibar, in Nairobi, in Zimbabwe, little “Internet Cafes” were everywhere. Not so unusual perhaps, because in effect it was a response to those nations not having very many telephones.
I pulled into the Freetown version of an Internet Café, and found what I’d expected. It was a small room, with about ten PC’s placed on two long countertops, with chairs in front. At a desk by the door a young black man was typing aggressively into his own PC.
“May I help you?” he inquired politely, as I entered. About half the PC’s were in use.
“Yes, I need to connect to the Internet.”
He quoted some price in Leonis with lots of zeroes after it, but which came to only about $5.00 per hour. I paid, and was led to one of the PC’s. On the computer next to me was a young woman with blonde, curly hair. OK, so apparently there were three blonde women in Sierra Leone: Jo, Heidi, and Ms. Curly here.
Ms. Curly wasn’t exactly Miss Congeniality.
“Damn” she whispered.
A little later: “Sh*t”.
And then: “Goddamn it! F**K!!!!”
I finally turned away from my own attempts to respond to email and offered this sympathetic insight: “Yeah, waiting for Web pages to load really bites, doesn’t it?”
“I’m not even on the Web. I’m trying to type a document, and I just lost the whole f*cking thing!!”
I thought about it a moment. “Don’t touch the keyboard.”
The girl had an American accent—Midwestern, like mine.
“Let me try something.” I reached over and hit Control –Z. Her document reappeared.
“Oh my God, thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. Oh my God.”
I pressed Control S, typed some keys at random, and hit Enter.
“It’s saved now. It won’t vaporize again.”
“Who ARE you?” she asked. No doubt she was as surprised to see me here as I was to see her. Everyone else within ten miles was black.
I introduced myself by name.
“What organization are you with?”
I could have toyed with her for hours, with my Amputee Victims persona, but I’d wearied of the game.
“I’m a tourist. Who are you?”
“You’re a tourist? That’s bullshit and you know it. There aren’t any tourists in this f**ked-up country.”
“OK, I’m not exactly a tourist. I’m tangentially connected to the diamond industry and I’m doing a little research on the conflict issue.”
That got her attention. “OK, that I’ll believe. How are you connected to the diamond industry?”
I explained about Polygon, and my reasons for coming here. “Who are you by the way.”
“I’m a reporter for the New York Times. Liza Griswold,” she announced, shaking my hand. “I’ve got to get this story filed in the next thirty minutes or it’s my ass. Thank you, by the way. I’ve been typing this for an hour.”
“What’s it about?”
“Conflict diamonds. I’ve spent the last week in the Kono district.”
I knew the Kono district was the epicenter of Sierra Leone’s diamond industry. Jo and I weren’t heading for Kono. The Unicef projects she needed to check on were in the towns of Kenema and Bo. That was rich diamond country in its own right, but not quite as rich as Kono. According to the Lebanese at dinner last night, the entire country had now been normalized except for Kono. Kono diamonds were still illegal. Everywhere else, Julie’s system of certification was in effect.
“I’m heading into the backcountry tomorrow,” I explained.
“Kenema and Bo.”
“Bo is a twelve hour car ride from hell. Kenema is another two hours beyond that. I don’t envy you.”
“I’m going by helicopter.”
“Oh, really? I’m impressed. How’d you arrange that? The only people who have helicopters are the Unamsil troops.”
“I’m visiting a friend who is head of Unicef. She’s getting me on the helicopters.”
“Ah, Unicef. Well, that explains why you’re not going to Kono. Unicef can’t get any vehicles into Kono. Their hands are tied with all these automobile insurance regulations about war zones and so forth.”
“OK, so you went to Kono and Unicef can’t get there. What did you find out?”
“I talked to quite a few of the dealers. Here’s what I found out. Al Kaeda was there a year ago, trying to buy diamonds.”
“No sh*t? Al Kaeda is laundering money via diamonds in Sierra Leone?” That totally sucks.” I was trying to make my vocabulary match hers as much as possible – just to be sociable.
Julie had mentioned the Al Kaeda connection with Sierra Leone. “There’s never been any confirmation of that rumor,” was how she’d phrased it. The syntax had seemed curiously weak at the time.
OK, so maybe Liza had just provided confirmation.
Liza jotted down the name of the person she’d stayed with in Kono. “If you can get to Kono, give her a call. Tell her you’re my friend. If you need a place to stay, she’ll take you in. You’ll never get there with Unicef.”
A few more taps on the keyboard, and Liza shot her story off to New York.
“Look, I’m leaving tomorrow for the States, via London. If you find out anything interesting, I’d love to hear about it.” We exchanged email addresses, and then Liza rushed off, leaving me time to think.
A New York Times reporter. A story linking the diamond industry to Al Kaeda. This wasn’t going to help the PR battle at all. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to rescue her document. In fact, if I’d had a few moments alone with it I could have typed Ctrl-H and replaced the words “Sierra Leone” with “Iraq.” Then the story would have appeared conclusively tying the 9/11 terrorists to Sadaam Hussein and the UN would give Bush all the authority he needed to declare war. Oh well. The copy was already on some editor’s desk in New York, thanks to modern technology, and my one small chance to change the course of world history was gone with it.
I was almost finished with my own email, but I had one more to send. This was to Dr. James Shigley, who is head of research for the Gemological Institute of America, in California. On the subject of determining gemstone origin, Jim Shigley would have to be considered the #1 expert in the world. We knew each other professionally. I explained that I was in Sierra Leone, checking into the conflict diamond situation, and had been told that technology existed to identify a diamond’s country of origin. I found this surprising, and asked if it was true. Then I headed for the beach.
Without Mohamed or Jo, I had to navigate around Freetown on my own, but it did not prove difficult. The beach was only about ten minutes away. I parked the car, changed into shorts and running shoes, and was soon jogging on the sand. This wasn’t one of the country’s most beautiful beaches. An important highway ran along one side, and tepid waves crashed without conviction on the other. Nonetheless it was several miles long, gently curving around a bay on the outskirts of Freetown. A few palm trees separated the road from the beach itself, but not many. Low, one-story cement-brick buildings dotted the landscape on the far side of the road, representing commercial activity of one form or another. “Café” said one of the signs. The road was very much not lined with women carrying things on their heads, as is true of most roads around Freetown. This was too far off the beaten path, perhaps. And the beach itself was virtually deserted—not surprising in the middle of a workday in a country with no tourists. I was wearing my Sony headphones and playing disco music (which is perfect for exercising, even if not for much else) on my tiny MiniDisk player. Consumed with the rhythm, and the mind-focusing process of running hard on a beach, I didn’t notice the approach of the young native man until he was quite close. He was walking swiftly, ready to jog if necessary to intercept me.
In the States this might be a little scary: out alone on a deserted beach, a young, muscular black guy approaching, uninvited. It would be a mugging waiting to happen. But in Sierra Leone the natives are friendly and always enjoy striking up a conversation. I had no idea what he wanted, but it wasn’t alarming to be approached, even in such circumstances. He was motioning with his hands for me to slow down, so I dropped to a walk and soon he was walking beside me.
“Hello, how are you?” he said, shaking my hand in friendship. This also was very normal and not in the least alarming. “Where are you from?” The small talk was simple politeness. I suspected he would get to the meat of the conversation in a moment.
“I’m from America. United States.”
“Oh, America. Are you off the ship?
“Ship, what ship?” Maybe he meant the hospital ship where Heidi was a nurse.
“English ship. English Navy ship,” he explained.
“No I’m from America, remember?”
“Oh, yes.” He seemed a little vague on the difference.
“Where are you from?”
“I have just returned from Kono. Do you know Kono?”
“The diamond fields, yes. I’ve never been there.”
“I brought back diamonds. I have one diamond left, I am trying to sell.”
“Yes, show you.”
He pulled from his pocket a small cloth, and unfolded it carefully in his hands. Lying in the middle was something that might have been a diamond. I stopped in my tracks, immediately giving up on the rest of the exercise. By stopping I’d voided what I’d already accomplished. I’d have to make it up in the future. This was only the second time in ten years I’d done that. The rule is: once you start, you never stop. Unless someone’s offering you a diamond in Sierra Leone.
I picked up the stone carefully, and automatically turned away from the sun to achieve north-facing light. It was a rough stone (uncut). And it was quite large, perhaps six carats. I had very little experience with rough diamonds. In fact, I’d only seen rough diamonds in pictures. This one was something of an octahedral shape, as it should be. There were no eye-visible inclusions (flaws). Of course I didn’t have a loupe. I did some quick calculating. A six carat stone might cut down to three carats. The color seemed excellent, but that was hard to judge without comparison stones. But if it were truly flawless, and a D color, it would be worth over $100,000 at wholesale, maybe twice that at retail.
“150 dollars” he said.
OK, so there was some serious profit potential here—if it was really a diamond, and if I was willing to buy it illegally. I was here to research the illegal diamond trade. It was probably a bad idea to become part of it. I looked at the stone again. I was surprised it had no inclusions at all, given it’s size. Wait a minute. Rough diamonds are supposed to be opaque! I’d heard somewhere that when a dealer is examining a rough diamond, he has to polish a tiny “window” into it, so he can check for inclusions. I remembered that all the pictures I’d seen of rough diamonds, they were always opaque. This stone was completely clear, like a piece of glass. Well, duh. It was a piece of glass!
What a scam! Someone had cut this glass in such a way as to make it look like a real diamond. Most foreigners wouldn’t know the difference.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know enough about diamonds. I’m not a diamond expert.” This seemed more polite than calling him a fraud and a thief.
“For you, I sell for $75.”
Here we go again. Any moment he’d start screaming “low price, low price”.
One thing I’d learned on the other side of the continent, in Kenya, is that when you decline to buy something in a situation like this, you don’t want to just say ‘no’. You want to soften it a little, by saying “Maybe tomorrow…”
“Maybe tomorrow…” I explained. Yeah, like I was going to become a diamond expert in 24 hours and be back with a wad of cash. I didn’t even bother to ask if it was conflict free. Any conflict surrounding this stone would involve the police sending the guy to jail for trying to scam foreigners.
I said ‘goodbye’ politely, and continued my jog down the beach, pleased I’d avoided a rip-off. But if I’d known then what I discovered later, I would not have been so complacent.
After the run I decided to investigate the building with the “café” sign. It had some tables outside, looking out over the water. I sat down and ordered a Coke. I drink sodas about once a year, but you can’t deny that in exotic countries, there’s something awfully easy about ordering a Coke. Everyone knows the word. It’s always in stock. And it’s a great way to keep life simple.
The helicopters began arriving the moment the drink arrived. Thump, thump, thump. Thump, thump, thump. The sound was unmistakable. The first one appeared overhead and I realized it was landing nearby. It was the same Russian Mi-8 model that had flown me from the airport, but this wasn’t Paramount Airways. This helicopter was all white. The letters “UN” had been painted in black on the side. It came in low and landed behind a nearby hill. Then another came. And another after that. Half a dozen helicopters landed while I was enjoying my Coke, and two departed. Then a Paramount Airways helicopter departed, and flew directly over the café. It seemed obvious that, by coincidence, I was very close to the heliport where I’d landed last Friday morning, still dreamy-eyed from sleeping pills. And this was no doubt where we would be departing from tomorrow. It seemed incredible that Jo could really get me on one of those very serious-looking UN peacekeeping helicopters. But I was going to be very impressed if she could.
Soon I was back in the SUV and driving down the beach road, heading back to the apartment. I passed a small cement block open-air building, between the road and the beach. It was some kind of public place, a beach house or picnic hut. Something caught my eye and in a few moments my brain registered the image. It was a sign, painted in a couple of places on the picnic hut. It was a drawing of an automatic assault rifle, with a red circle around it and a line through the circle. The meaning was obvious: “Automatic assault rifles are prohibited inside the picnic hut.” I had to get a picture of this. I made a U-turn, and drove back to the hut. Rolling down the window of the car, I leaned out and begin filming with my video camera—zooming in on the sign.
Suddenly I realized that people were shouting. And then I realized they were shouting at me. Several angry young men had come around from behind the hut, and they thought I was taking pictures of them. This made them furious. They were yelling, gesticulating wildly with their arms. One started to throw stones. He didn’t throw with conviction. He could have hit the SUV if he’d really wanted to. It was a token gesture. But even so I’d never had stones thrown at me before, by anyone. It was a new experience. Now I understood how an Israeli soldier must feel when confronting Palestinians. It’s not a very warm and fuzzy feeling—having stones thrown at you. I drove on down the road, a little disappointed with my encounters so far today. One guy trying to rip me off with a fake diamond. And now angry people hurling rocks at me.
A mile further, I came across something that required another stop. On this broad, nearly-deserted section of beach, about fifty natives—all ages—were involved in the process of pulling in a seine, a large fishing net. It was clearly a strenuous and complex activity. They were completely absorbed with it, little kids racing around, screaming and laughing, adults shouting admonishments. It was serious work. Waves were breaking over people’s ankles and even knees. Some of the workers were far out into the water, up to their waists. On the other extreme, out of the water and up on the sand, others were coiling the fishing net as it came in.
I approached cautiously. This was the mother of all photogenic scenes, especially for someone with a video camera. But I didn’t want anyone to throw rocks at me, or even fish, which might be more likely in this case. I cautiously pointed the camera and began taping. Right away one of the young men—possibly the guy in charge—began gesturing angrily and signaling no pictures. I nodded and put the camera down. I already had a few seconds of good footage. But I realized that taking pictures wasn’t really what I wanted to do anyway. What I wanted to do was join them, and help bring in the net. I approached the young man cautiously, trying to think of a way to explain that I wanted to help. But he was already gesturing me with his hands, still trying to make me go away.
Well, this was pretty pathetic. Maybe Sierra Leonis weren’t that friendly after all. Then I noticed that his hand motion was a “come here” gesture. I approached quickly.
“Can I help?” I asked him.
“Yes, you can help,” he said. I ran down close to the water, my camera now in a pocket, and grabbed the line with both hands. There were maybe twenty of us on this line, twenty on a sister line ten feet away. It was like tug of war, but it was both teams against the sea. I dug my feet into the sand, pulling with all my strength. Waves were coming in over my shoes now, but I didn’t care. They were sneakers. Gripping the line as tightly as possible, I hauled it up the beach, and then raced back down, grabbing it again, and repeating the cycle. Everyone was doing the same thing: grabbing the line down by the water, hauling it as far up the beach as they could, and then racing down and doing it again. But now there was a white man helping them, and this was apparently the funniest thing that had ever happened. They were all smiling now, and laughing, and saying kind, friendly things to me in Krio which I couldn’t understand and didn’t need to.
I continued this for ten minutes or so, getting increasingly exhausted, wondering how big this seine could possibly be—and what it might have caught. Finally, I felt I’d earned some camera shots.
“OK to take picture?” I asked the young man.
“Yes, OK,” he said. So I pulled out the camera and turned it on, but kept working all the same, at least with one hand. The camera was getting splashed with salt water, sand was flying all over the place, and I worried again that this might be the last pictures my sensitive video camera was ever going to take. But even so I was simply not going to let down the other members of the fishnet crew by slacking off in my work. Finally the business end of the net appeared.
There were fish in it. The yells and screams and excitement cranked up another notch. I kept the tape running, the camera pointing every which way. Lord knew what this tape was going to look like, but I hoped it would at least portray the frenzy and excitement of the moment. It would certainly portray the frenzy and excitement of the person holding the camera. At first all I could see of the fish themselves was a vast, shimmering, flashing blob—alive with frenzied, panicked movement. Nothing can jump and twist so violently as a caught fish, except perhaps a thousand caught fish. Suddenly I realized that while some large fish were in the net, most of the catch was sardines. As the net was pulled farther out of the water and onto the sand, hundreds, thousands of the tiny sardines were flipping themselves out of the net. These newly-escaped sardines coated the sand in increasing numbers. They twitched and slithered and tried to get back to the water, being clueless what had happened to them. Now it was the children’s turn. Little kids, some as young as one or two years old, were racing in and grabbing at the sardines, tossing them back into the net, collecting them in their hands, going crazy. The children were racing about in as great a frenzy as were the fish themselves. Amid this chaos, one little girl had calmly set herself to a task which she pursued slowly, methodically, and with infinite seriousness. She had a plastic bag, was down on her knees, and was carefully placing sardines into this bag, one at a time, from the thousands on the beach. I helped her, camera in one hand, sardine in another. I probably accounted for fifty sardines into her bag. She was greatly appreciative of this help, but was too absorbed with her own meticulous work to say so directly.
The young man came over and proudly showed me two barracuda. They were among the large fish caught in the net. He wanted me to take pictures now. He wanted me to take pictures of the fish they’d caught. He wanted me to take pictures of all of them, and their work. Everyone was excited with this successful fish harvest, and I was their friend. I’d helped. No one was throwing rocks at all. I looked around at dozens of smiling, friendly faces, and realized I’d perhaps never felt so welcome, anywhere, ever.
When things began calming down, the young man, still grinning ear to ear and excited by the catch, came to talk to me.
“What is your name?”
I gave him my name, and then asked the same. “I am Moses,” he replied
“Are you in charge?”
“Yes, I am in charge of this net. Everyone here, they are my family and my friends.”
He pointed out to me his uncle, two brothers, his mother, and so forth. He gestured towards the ocean. A long, thin “Kokowokoloko” boat was anchored out in the swells, identical to the one that had taken us scuba diving day before yesterday. “That is my boat,” he said, proudly.
Sensing something we had in common, I explained that I was a boat builder.
“I used to build boats. Not anymore, but a long time ago.” He found this fascinating, and suddenly we were in a boat discussion. I was asking about the shape of his boat’s hull, and he drew it for me in the sand, using a stick. We discussed technical aspects of boat design for awhile. I asked him how much water it drew, why it was so narrow, and other questions. I wanted to impress upon him that I knew boats.
“Does it have an engine? A motor?”
“Ah, no engine. Just paddles.” He explained how they paddled it, where the paddlers sat, and so forth. Apparently it was this boat that hauled the seine far out into the bay, which made sense.
‘You are my friend now,” he explained, finally. “You come here, take pictures, any time you want.”
“Thank you” I said. “May I come back and help you pull in the fish net again?”
“Yes, you come help us with the fish net, anytime. You are our friend.”
He escorted me back to the SUV, and shook my hand in that special Sierra Leone handshake that I’d learned earlier. I drove off, my faith in the friendliness of the West African people completely restored. There was a lesson here, though, one that I needed to internalize. Be their friend, join them, have fun with them. Don’t just aim a camera at them from a distance. That was the lesson. Well, that, plus “Don’t buy diamonds from guys on the beach.”
It was late afternoon by the time I arrived back at the residence. The guards opened the doors for me, and I was encouraged to note that they knew me personally, now, not just the vehicle. They nodded in recognition as I drove into the compound.
Jo had predicted she’d arrive late, about 7pm, although her predictions were usually optimistic. She arrived at 7:30. Jo seemed to be working fifty or sixty hour weeks. She changed clothes and we rushed off in the SUV, heading back up the peninsula to attend Blanca’s salsa class. Neither of us wished to face the wrath of Blanca if we missed her class. It seemed wiser to attend.
I was beginning to learn my way around Freetown, and realized we were returning to the same area where we’d had dinner with Julie Koenen Grant.
“There are three restaurants, right next to each other by the bay,” Jo explained. “They’re owned by three Icelandic brothers, who immigrated here in the seventies. Now they each own a restaurant on the bay, and they compete aggressively.”
As we drove towards the Bay of the Three Restaurants, I told Jo about my encounter with the NY Times reporter, and about her comments on Kono, and Unicef not being able to get there because of insurance requirements.
“Do you mind if we talk facts?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Do you know who one of the first civilians was to reach the Kono diamond fields, after the cease fire?”
“So that story about Unicef and the insurance requirements on the vehicles…?”
“I was in what you call the ‘flagmobile’.”
“You know, in my experience, the New York Times doesn’t always get the story straight.”
Jo was silent, still steamed at the NY Times reporter. If Eliza had been so mistaken about Unicef, I wondered about the accuracy of her Al Kaeda reporting. This was a woman who’d never learned the importance of saving Word documents, after all. How responsible could she be in other areas?
We pulled into Restaurant #2, and found Blanca, Annejo (the woman from River #1), and some others I didn’t recognize at a table by the water ordering dinner. We just had time to get our orders in as well. There were about fifteen people here, including us, most of them Unicef staff. All ages, although Jo and I were probably the oldest. One guy was from Finland, but I was a little unclear on his story. Probably he was with some organization.
Suddenly a radio, previously hidden, crackled to life.
“Base to Charlie 1, radio check.”
Jo grabbed for the handheld transceiver. “Charlie 1 here. Read you loud and clear.”
“You’re Charlie 1?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m Charlie 1.”
“I’m Charlie Alpha 1” said Blanca.
“So everyone associated with Unicef has a call sign?”
“Yes,” explained Blanca. “The letter ‘Charlie’ refers to Unicef. The other UN agencies have other letters. The follow-up letter refers to the department you’re in. “1” designates the head of each department. Joanna is head of all Unicef, so she is Charlie 1. I’m head of the supply department, which is Alpha, so I’m Charlie Alpha 1.
“So what was the call about?”
“Just a routine check. They check the radios, but they’re also making sure the people are keeping their radios turned on, and are accessible. They get upset if you don’t answer.”
The radio crackled again: “Base to Charlie Foxtrot 3, radio check.” A guy at the end of the table answered. He was Charlie Foxtrot 3.
“OK, so even everybody at the table has a call sign?”
“Pretty much,” agreed Blanca.
“I want a call sign.”
“You want a call sign?”
“Yeah, I don’t want to be left out. If Joanna is Charlie 1, I want to be, I don’t know, Delta 7, maybe.”
“You can be Delta 7,” said Jo. “I don’t think there even is a Delta agency. You can be Delta 1 if you’d like.”
“No, I don’t want to be uppity. Delta 7 is good enough for me.”
“I’m fine with you being Delta 7,” said Blanca. Others at the table agreed. Delta 7 was no problem for anyone.
Now that we had that resolved, the conversation drifted over many subjects, most of them unfamiliar to me as they involved past or future events pertaining to the expate community. Plus there was a lot of talking shop. The dinner arrived and we all dug in.
Jo had been quiet for some time, lost in thought. Suddenly she blurted out: “You know, I can’t get used to hearing you call me Joanna.”
It was true I was calling her Joanna. Everyone else did. I wanted to fit in.
“What do you mean?” asked Blanca. “What else would he call you?”
“I used to be ‘Jo.’ Everyone called me Jo. I began using the full name later. Jacques’ never called me ‘Joanna’ before in his life. It just sounds funny, coming from him. It’s disorienting.”
“Really?” asked Blanca. “You used to be called just ‘Jo’”?
“It’s a nice name, ‘Joanna,’” I said. “It’s growing on me…”
This was partially true. I felt comfortable saying ‘Joanna’ in third person, talking to Blanca. But saying it to her directly was odd. It was like I was respecting her stage name, when I knew who she really was.
The salsa lesson was fun. Blanca held it just inside the bar, where she could play a video training tape on a large TV. Most of it didn’t involve couples, as Blanca was concentrating on teaching us the actual steps. We were lined up in rows, facing the front, watching the pros on the videotape. Blanca was from Mexico and so was this training tape. It was in Spanish. So Blanca was kept busy both showing us the steps, and trying to translate at high speed what was being said on the tape.
She taught us four variations of salsa steps, two of which I could almost understand. We were supposed to link them together: pattern 1, 2, 3, and 4. I was reminded of what it was like when I used to teach Introduction to Micro-Computers at Colorado Mountain College. There were always some whiz kids—fast learners—in every class. And there were also some real dunces. It was very difficult to know at what speed to teach. Now here was poor Blanca trying to teach world’s most inept dance student (me). Jo appeared almost as awkward and confused as I was, which I found comforting. No wonder the two of us had never danced very much. To Blanca’s credit, she tried. She lined herself up with me, and I had merely to mimic what she was doing with her feet. I could have done this if she’d danced the steps properly. But Blanca was overcome with the music, and kept interjecting little syncopated steps in between the standard ones. All of which made it impossible to figure out what the standard steps were. The exotic lady with the skimpy dress on the TV screen wasn’t helping, as all her explanations were in Spanish.
Finally, Blanca brought the Salsa instruction to a close and decided to teach the meringue. Now the meringue was simple enough that even I could understand it. I figured it out instantly, and was becoming quite the virtuoso—at least if you counted dancing by yourself while watching a video tape after having had several beers. Jo had given up and retired to the bar for a drink, probably the wiser move.
The flagmobile picked us up at 6:00 a.m. This was my first opportunity to ride in the official vehicle since last week’s wedding. Being collected by a chauffer in a flag-draped SUV, in a courtyard guarded by two gatekeepers, is a good way to start the day I decided. It gives a shot of adrenaline to your self esteem right at sunrise.
Earlier, I’d told Jo I thought the flags were cool.
“I don’t like them,” she said.
I wasn’t surprised Jo didn’t like them. She wasn’t a flag kind of person. It would violate her egalitarian instincts.
“But I have to admit, they can be useful in Africa,” she continued.
“How are flags useful in Africa?”
“They help you get past the military checkpoints.”
Yes, I could imagine they would.
“Also, it makes a bigger splash when you arrive places. People pay attention faster, which otherwise can be a problem in Africa. And, there’s another way to look at it. It’s really a compliment to those you’re visiting. They feel more important when someone arrives with flags. Like, they must be special if this special person is visiting them.”
“Kind of like dressing up to go to someone’s house for dinner.”
“Yeah, exactly. Africans are quite taken with ceremonial—things like flags and uniforms and so forth. It has more impact here then it would in Europe, for example.”
“Are there rules about such things? Can anyone put a flag on their car, and claim “important person” status.
“Oh no. You have to have diplomatic license plates.”
“And how do you get those?”
“Well, you have to be a registered diplomat. You have to have diplomatic immunity and so forth.”
“And everyone in Unicef has diplomatic immunity?”
“No. Only me. I’m the Representative.”
Things were falling into place. “So, are you like an Ambassador?”
“The UN has a level below Ambassador, called Representative. The head of any UN agency in a particular country is the Representative.”
“So you’re credentialed by the U.N. itself.”
“Yes. Then I had to be confirmed—formally accepted—by the host country.”
“So now you have diplomatic immunity. You could like, run a red light and no one could do anything to you.”
“That’s true. I could run every red light in Freetown, and no one could do a thing.”
I was silent for a moment, fantasizing on what it must be like to be able to break every law and get away with it. Of course Jo was one of the most law-abiding people I’d ever met, so I doubted her diplomatic immunity had resulted in any recent crime sprees.
“What happens when you travel to, say, Ghana? Does your diplomatic immunity still cover you?”
“Nope. There I’m a normal person. I can’t run any red lights in Ghana. I lose immunity as soon as I set foot outside Sierra Leone.”
At the heliport a special check-in building existed for the UN helicopter flights. This was across the field from the commercial passenger operations run by Paramount and Diamond. It was a low, cement-block structure. Actually, almost all buildings in Sierra Leone that aren’t grass huts are one story cement block structures, usually with tin roofs. We climbed out of the flagmobile and I noticed that UN vehicles of every shape and type were assaulting this building, delivering peacekeeping troops for the morning flights. I felt I was in the middle of a war zone, with dozens of uniformed combat personnel queuing up, milling about, and speaking to each other in low voices. About 90% of them were black.
Large UN helicopters were arriving and departing every few minutes. The air was filled with the characteristic thump-thump-thump noise of these transports flying overhead, their wide rotor blades clawing at the moist early-morning air, and producing a sound so deep it could be felt physically. The smell of kerosene, the fuel used by the turbojet engines, washed over us. Jo led me inside to a desk where a briskly efficient white man, British possibly, studied her identification card, and then checked her name against a list of passengers for today’s flights.
“OK, you’re on standby” he said at last.
“Standby? I thought we were confirmed.”
“No, standby. Next!”
We walked away from the desk.
“So we could get bumped?” I asked
“Yep,” said Jo. “Military takes priority.”
Yeah, especially since they had the guns.
“I’m bending the rules to get you on the helicopter,” she continued. “If anyone asks, say you’re with Unicef.”
“Is that a good enough cover? What if they ask what I do for Unicef?”
“They won’t. Unicef is all you need to say.”
Fine, she wasn’t the one here illegally. Even if she were here illegally it wouldn’t matter. She had diplomatic immunity. I was an imposter, here under false pretenses, and surrounded by about a hundred armed soldiers.
I needed more protection than merely the one word “Unicef.” Even proclaiming myself as “Charlie Delta 7” seemed insufficient. I needed a better cover. If someone asked me what I did for Unicef, I decided I’d say I was a consultant. Or maybe an observer. Either sounded appropriately vague and uninviting of further questions. And if push came to shove, I knew I could stop further inquiry with this theme: “Look, I’m here as an observer with Unicef, but I represent the Women Amputee Victims’ for Peace. These are women who’ve had their arms and legs cut off. Now they want some peace. I’m trying to give it to them. Anyone have a problem with that?”
The best defense is usually a good offense.
Jo went off to her flag vehicle, now waiting nearby, to make some cell phone calls. I hung out with the troops. I wished I could have engaged one of them in conversation, made some small talk, asked about the war—that kind of thing. But it wasn’t worth the risk. Best to keep a low profile at least until I was actually on the helicopter, and it was in the air. I was very curious about these UN peacekeepers, though, and studied them from a distance. On their uniforms they bore special insignia denoting their country of origin: Ghana, Bolivia, Zambia, Tanzania, Bangladesh. Third world countries seemed well-represented in this brigade. I didn’t see any troops from Canada, France, Norway or Poland, for example. I suspected that Western countries contributed money. Poorer countries contributed the actual human beings. Each was contributing what it considered expendable.
Departure time approached, and we returned to the check-in desk. Two boarding passes were given us in the form of colored sticks of plastic, about the size of a ruler. Ours were red. Other people had different colors. I wasn’t sure whether red denoted a specific flight, or if red meant “yank these people off first, if you need to…” I figured the odds of getting on had increased to about 95% even so, merely by being in possession of a stick. We were ushered out the back of the building, onto the field itself. The word “airfield” is a holdover from the days before paved runways existed. Originally, airfields were just that: open fields that aircraft would use for landing.
Yet Freetown’s heliport was hardly even a field. It was merely a several-acre grass clearing, surrounded by palm trees. Two UN helicopters occupied the middle of this clearing. Anything UN is very easy to recognize because of the logo and color scheme. Not very imaginative or inspiring, UN vehicles and aircraft are always painted white, with the large letters “UN” on them. They look just like that, san serif, not stylized in any way. No tag line under them such as “Global Peace Through World Harmony” or anything of the sort. They seem almost embarrassingly un-pretentious. Perhaps that’s by design. UN vehicles are trying to look like referees in sporting events: not biased in favor of one side or the other, conspicuously neutral, deliberately uninspiring, a simple black and white motif on everything.
Unicef wasn’t so modest. Their colors were blue on white, and their vehicles bore a nicely-designed logo, with a silhouette of a child encircled by olive branches—the symbol of peace. Plus, of course, flags on occasion.
Our small overnight bags had already been checked, and loaded onto the helicopter by the time we’d arrived. This was going to be my sixth ride in a Russian Mi-8 transport helicopter: four in Colombia, plus Paramount Airways from Lungi Airport on Friday. I hoped I’d be able to cheat death once again, yet there is nothing about the Mi-8 to inspire confidence.
Most alarming are the rotor blades, which are huge, and utterly unable to support themselves while at rest. As a result they droop down almost half way to the ground, giving the helicopter a very dispirited, Eyore-like appearance. “This thing will never get off the ground,” one thinks. “Its rotor blades are even sagging.”
Up the little boarding steps one enters an uninspiring, hollow aluminum tube. Two long benches flank each side of this tube. Not even seats, just benches. There are seatbelts at least, but no shoulder straps. Between the two long benches, occupying the majority of the floor space, is the cargo. In this case that meant piles of military duffle bags, including my black duffel-style backpack which—nicely scuffed and world-traveled—blended well in this utilitarian setting. Right there on top was Jo’s elegant and chic red suitcase with wheels, adorning the shapeless blob like a ruby in a coal bin. Covering it all was cargo netting that had been tied down securely. We took our seats, or rather found spots to sit on the benches, and I was becoming encouraged that we weren’t going to be bumped after all.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Jo said, reading my thoughts. “They’ve been known to pull passengers off at the last minute, if any new troops arrive. When we actually are in the air, then you can be comfortable.”
When we were in the air was when I was going to be least comfortable. I studied the interior of the Mi-8 in more detail. Near the back of the tube, the sides came together, forming a cone. The bottom of the section, I knew, could be dropped open, providing a boarding ramp for efficient loading of cargo. Black, nylon web netting divided this cone area off from the rest of the tube. No attempt had been made in the passenger area to conceal the utilitarian nature of this aircraft. Wiring conduit flowed across the top and sides like delinquent spaghetti stuck to the walls after a food fight. There was an array of switches, handles, controls, and other such devices of uncertain purpose. Below each was mounted a little aluminum plaque explaining what they were and how to operate them. The writing was in Russian, making the explanations not as useful as they might otherwise have been.
There were about twenty of us, total, seated on the benches. Eighteen black army guys in camouflage fatigues, plus a couple of blond whiteys from Cedar Falls, Iowa. Jo and I were as out of place as that red suitcase on top of the duffel bags. I studied these UN troops more closely. Their uniforms bore military insignia: unit identifiers, various decorations and so forth. Certainly it was a testosterone-rich environment, but other than surface appearance, they didn’t really seem all that threatening. No one was smiling, but it was seven in the morning and it wasn’t like I was cracking jokes or anything. Several of them leaned back and closed their eyes. Maybe they were a peaceful bunch. Well, of course they were. They were UN peacekeepers. Duh. I felt the hostility drain out of me, the more I looked at them. Staring at UN peacekeepers, I reasoned, probably has the same effect as staring at fish in an aquarium: it lowers one’s blood pressure. I leaned back myself, and closed my eyes. I felt very…peaceful.
A high-pitched whine was my first indication that something was happening. The Mi-8 is very generous when it comes to windows. There are half a dozen down each side of the fuselage, opening like portholes on a boat, and they are quite large. A child could crawl through them. Hopefully no child would need to on this trip—in either direction. Yet through these windows I saw the drooping rotor blades begin to turn—at first with infinite slowness, and then quickly gathering speed.
I’d read recently a UN ranking of the world’s noisiest things. Third place: A thousand-car freight train de-railing at a speed of a hundred miles an hour in the middle of a Class 6 hurricane. Second place: A rock concert starring Peter Townsend and The Who. First place: The inside of an Mi-8 helicopter during takeoff.
It is so noisy inside an Mi-8 that all the passengers wear noise-canceling headphones. The rotor had now reached take-off speed, but I knew that this did not mean we were about to take off. An Mi-8 veteran, I was prepared for the nearly ten minute wait while the pilots checked out the various systems to make sure all were functioning properly, while the rotors continued spinning. This was time well spent, and I did not begrudge it. Yet the ear-piercing noises continued, many not reassuring at all. There were strange popping sounds, and screams of twisted metal, and unidentifiable noises that made it seem the whole contraption was about to fly apart. So might a doomed submarine sound just before reaching crush depth. Yet, finally, when it appeared the noise level could get no higher, the aluminum cylinder began to bounce around as if it had to go to the bathroom, and then suddenly we were rising almost magically straight up into the air.
The view expanded quickly as we gained altitude. There was the long beach where I’d gone jogging, and the café where I’d enjoyed a Coca Cola. The pilot maneuvered the Mi-8 into a forward slant and we began flying directly North. We passed over the peninsula and the bay of the three restaurants. Downtown Freetown was coming up now, our helicopter flying at an altitude of about 700 feet, and a mile offshore directly over the Atlantic. From this perspective, the city looked so normal—so much like a small Western city. OK, so maybe the skyscrapers were only 7 stories, not 70. And maybe they weren’t as gleaming and shiny as they’d be in London or Amsterdam. But from this perspective the roads did not look bumpy, we were too far away to see the plethora of gaily attired women carrying heavy loads on their heads, or smell the exhaust from the muffler-free vehicles. Then, in just moments we were past Freetown and over the broad estuary that separates Lungi Airport from the capital city. The Mi-8 banked to the right and began flying East, up this river and into the Interior. Almost instantly all signs of civilization disappeared, replaced with the soft velvety-green carpet of endless rain forest, or “jungle” as it used to be called. This was similar to flying across the landscape of Colombia four years ago, albeit not as mountainous. I knew that eventually I would grow weary of looking at the endless green, and would take a nap, or read a book or something. But I was a long way from weary at the moment, and was studying the landscape intently. At first it seemed uninhabited, at least by man. But once past the hilly region near the coast, the landscape flattened out and here and there a field could be seen—or at least a clearing in the rain forest. And at the edge of each of these clearings was, without fail, a tiny bamboo and grass hut. Scale was difficult, but they might have been only slightly larger than the one Jo and I had rented back at the Kokolokowoko River. I guessed they were not permanent homes as much as informal huts providing temporary shelter to those who worked the field, perhaps in the heat of the day or during rainstorms.
About every ten miles we’d fly over a more substantial collection of these huts, all grouped around kind of an open area in the dirt—more or less facing each other. These, obviously, were tribal villages. In a few places I saw tin roofs, but most of the roofs—all of them in some villages—were made of grass. Small, dirt roads could be seen leading to these villages, or emanating out from them. But I saw no vehicles. As mentioned, in the back country of Morocco burros and donkeys are ubiquitous—seeming to be the primary mode of transportation. And occasionally one will see a prosperous nomadic trader proudly in possession of a camel—that Rolls Royce of Saharan mobility. Yet in Sierra Leone, a country a thousand miles south of Morocco, the natives did not seem to have any animals they used for transport. They had chickens and goats, I’d seen plenty of those, but no animals they could ride, or use as beasts of burden. Maybe that was one of the symptoms of it being a “poor” country, not just primitive.
Finally, I did weary of the endless sea of green, punctuated by the occasional cleared-field, and the even less frequent grass-hut village. I turned back around to the inside of the helicopter. Most all the peacekeepers were asleep by now—an obvious choice in an environment where you could never talk to your neighbor. Even taking off the ear protectors would have been hazardous to one’s health. Jo was conscientiously using her time to catch up on office reading materials. I glanced over at the document she was examining, just out of curiosity. It was a UN report on sexual exploitation of displaced persons by international aid workers. I couldn’t help glancing at a few lines, and realized that this whole subject was a brewing international aid scandal. The UN had responded by throwing commissions, tasks forces, and committees at it. Codes of conduct were being hastily prepared, documents circulated, policies implemented, communications distributed, guidelines formulated. One paragraph caught my attention:
“Any analysis of the issue must start from the understanding that sexual exploitation is ultimately a result of the power imbalance between genders…”
Yawn. The gentle vibration of the helicopter, combined with the mind-numbing effect of bureaucracy-speak, were having an impact. I closed my eyes and rested.
The slight change in the Mi-8’s power settings brought me awake, and a glance out the window made it clear we were landing. Villages were more frequent now, and here and there across the landscape could be seen more sophisticated structures; cement block buildings, tin roofs, roads with actual vehicles on them, and other such signs of civilization. I glanced at my watch. We’d been flying nearly an hour. The Mi-8 roared in over the trees, and settled softly onto another grassy clearing. Presumably we had just arrived in the town of Bo.
Other than Freetown, the capital, there are no large cities in Sierra Leone. There are a dozen or so “towns” of maybe several thousand population. Bo is one of these. Located in the southeastern section of the country, Bo is only about a hundred miles from the border with Liberia—a country ruled by the savage and brutal dictator Charles Taylor, formerly an American from Boston.
If I was going to learn anything about the illicit diamond trade, I suspected, it would be in this area. If I was going to truly understand what it meant to be the World’s Poorest Country, that would happen here as well. Surrounded by rain forest, dropped off in a clearing, the relative luxuries of Freetown now hundreds of miles away, this—I suspected—would be the real Sierra Leone.
Unicef maintains three satellite offices outside its Freetown headquarters. One here in the town of Bo, one in Kenema, and the other in the north of the country, at Kabala The whole area was rich in diamonds. Bo, and the town of Kenema an hour drive further east, were both large diamond buying centers. But the richest fields were in the Kono district, to the north of our present position. The game plan was that Jo would do her thing at Unicef headquarters and in the surrounding area. We’d spend the night here in Bo, and then head to Kenema tomorrow. Another UN helicopter would pick us up in Kenema and return us to Freetown by tomorrow night – just in time, of course, for another social engagement.
As they unloaded the helicopter I looked around with curiosity. We seemed to be in a very wide clearing, a mile or more in diameter. A low cement-block building was fifty yards away—perhaps that was the official “Airport Terminal” for Bo. In another direction, about a quarter mile away, was a field of tents—army tents, perhaps. Sandbags had been erected on at least this side of those tents, giving it a military flavor. Ah, perhaps this was the garrison that guarded the vast Bo International Airport—in other words, the small cement-block building, and the clearing in the jungle.
There was only one vehicle here. It was a Unicef vehicle judging by the blue logo painted on the side, and the large letters “Unicef”. No flags though. The driver, a native, walked over and greeted Jo, who then introduced us.
“Jacques, this is Edmund, head of the Unicef office here in Bo. Edmund, this is Jacques Voorhees, he’s from the United States—an observer. “ We shook hands, and I was glad he accepted my status at face value. I mentally braced for questions like: “And what are you here to observe?”, or “Who sent you to observe?” or “When you are finished observing, what will you do with your observations?” But it was not to be. He seemed much more interested in talking to Jo, and quickly the two of them were deep in conversation about the plans for the day. They were discussing people’s names, places, timetables, and driving distances. It was all over my head, so I walked back and watched them unload the helicopter. It was anyone’s guess where the UN peacekeepers were going. There was no vehicle to meet them, no troop transports or armored personnel carriers. Not even a tank. I wasn’t concerned. Being the peaceful and sleepy sort they were, I knew they’d be quite content to lie on the ground, heads against their packs, and doze calmly for several hours if need be.
I separated our luggage from the pile growing beside the helicopter and hauled it over to the Unicef vehicle. It was a small white pickup truck, with a double cab. I hopped in the back seat, leaving Jo and Edmund to continue their non-stop dialogue.
“We’re hoping to spend the night here,” explained Jo. “Do you think there are any hotels with rooms?”
“Ah, yes I think so, we’ll work on it from the office.”
Jo turned to me. “That’s where we’re going first, the Unicef office.”
As we drove away from the airfield, I asked about the tent-city.
“Ghana battalion,” explained the driver, succinctly.
To get to the Unicef office, we had to drive through town, which was only a mile or so from the airfield. Bo was the bustling, crowded, dusty provincial capital one might expect. As with Freetown, the streets were narrow and crowded with pedestrians. The same rules seemed to be in place here: Women weren’t allowed outdoors unless they were carrying something on their heads, preferably large quantities of vegetables.
I could imagine a conversation that might routinely take place in Sierra Leone. “Hey, Susie, I have to go run an errand but, well, you know the law. Mind if I borrow those dozen cabbages you bought yesterday?”
“No problem, Vickie, would you like some mangoes to go with those cabbages?”
“Oh, mangoes would be lovely. Thank you. The cabbages would have been fine by themselves but, you know, one likes to accessorize…”
There were other vehicles in the town, but not many. Pedestrians ruled in Bo. And those vehicles that were here tended to be the same run down, tailpipe-challenged wrecks seen everywhere in Freetown. Our gleaming-white Unicef pickup didn’t even need flags to stand out.
The most interesting thing about Bo was that about every third building had a large “Diamond Office” or “Diamond Buyer” sign. These were so common they had become almost a local art form, like the doors of Dublin or the pub signs of England. Typically about two feet high and six feet wide, the signs always included a decorative illustration, such as a side view of a polished diamond, a pick and shovel, or a smiling native face (presumably someone happy at the price they’d received for their diamonds.) Some had lavish borders of scintillating gold paint. Others were merely black letters on a white background.
As I was examining all these Diamond Buyer signs our SUV came to a stop in front of a store without one.
“I have to get some water, and something to munch on,” Jo explained, and disappeared inside what must have been a grocery store.
Edmund wandered away from the vehicle, possibly into the store as well.
The world’s oldest and most crippled woman approached in a wheelchair. She’d seen this bright and shiny “Aid Organization” pickup stop at the curb. She’d seen the naive, un-jaded white guy in the back seat—waiting. It beckoned to her like a wounded calf dropped into a pack of wolves. She rolled inexorably towards me, eyes boring into mine as she approached. She arrived, finally, at my window and, with outstretched arms, looked up at me beseechingly. And stared. She didn’t even bother to speak. There were no murmured supplications of “Please, I need money for food,” or the like. She did grunt something, kind of a mooing noise like a cow would make. No doubt this was because she’d lost her tongue to leprosy as a child. Passersby were watching the scene with interest, curious to see if Priscilla-the-Pitiful here was going to score. I was curious too. If I gave her money, I would spark a feeding frenzy and dozens more would converge on the vehicle from all over Bo. Word would spread like wildfire that tourists had returned to Sierra Leone and they weren’t asking questions.
If I didn’t give her money I would roast in hell.
Jo and Edmund appeared at the moment of climax, sparing me from a decision. They climbed in, and off we went.
“So, Jo, there was ‘world’s most crippled woman’ in a wheelchair back there, begging for money.”
“Did you give her any?”
“No, you guys came back before I had to make a decision. What should I have done?”
“Giving out money to beggars on the street doesn’t work. If you give them money, if just creates a culture of beggars. Pretty soon, everywhere you go, there are outstretched arms.”
“Well, yeah, but she had no tongue.”
“There are support services. The money, the care giving, has to be provided by professional organizations or it does more harm than good. I mean, think about it, having old women go up to people and beg for money isn’t a very fair or equitable way of distributing aid, is it?”
She had a good point, and I trusted her completely. I was a stranger in a strange land—completely out of my depth. For Jo, this town was her second office.
The actual Unicef office was on the outskirts of town—another one story cement block building, but this one painted white, with blue trim. Inside was the same kind of functional, modern-but-simple facility I’d seen back in Freetown. Aside from a small reception area, there were half a dozen enclosed offices, and a large conference room. More introductions were made but it was hard to keep the names and titles straight. Everyone was black, which was seeming normal. After a week in Japan, Japanese people had begun looking normal and white people began looking odd. A similar phenomenon was at work here.
Jo needed to meet with her staff, so I parked myself in one of the vacant offices, and set about to catch up on the novel I’d brought with me, and which I’d barely begun. Sometime later I visited the restroom and made an interesting discovery: a large, open, box of condoms. They were just sitting there, for anyone to grab, like mints by the door when you leave a restaurant. The presentation could have been better. They were very industrial looking, wrapped in unadorned silver aluminum foil packaging. “Condom” was printed on the outside. In the states these would have been merchandised in coin-operated dispensers, with various erotic images on the outside. The message conveyed by such dispensers is: “For fifty cents, this can be you, locked in sensual embrace with a sultry female.” The various types of condoms sold in America compete with each other in these dispensers, one type guaranteeing special ribbed sensations which will “cause ecstasy for you and your partner,” while others promise a special “feeling of intense closeness, available only with this micro-thin coating…” So in America the message is not at all “you need one of these for safe sex.” The message is: “Anyone can have plain old boring sex. But exquisite, delirious, mind-exploding sex requires one of these …” Of course, on an intellectual level, even in America we realize that the fifty cents will merely buy the condom, not the female to go with it. Yet the packaging hints strongly to the contrary, and we respect such clever merchandising.
And that’s the point. In Africa there was no such attempt being made to really promote the product. Here, in a continent in which 1 out of 5 people was HIV positive, condoms were being provided as an industrial utility. How sexy is that? Even the display container was nothing more than a cardboard box someone had opened with a knife. Africa could probably cut their AIDS rate in half if they made the condoms more sexually appealing, I decided. In any case I’m typically not one to grab mints when I leave a restaurant, nor did I grab condoms in this case.
The meeting was finishing up and soon we were back in the Unicef pickup, heading to our first appointment. Jo explained to me that it wasn’t exactly an “appointment.”
“I’m making surprise visits. When they know I’m coming everyone runs around and gets ready and makes sure things are the way they should be.”
“So these are ‘unscheduled inspections.’”
“Yeah, it should be interesting. First stop is a pre-natal facility a few miles from here.
I didn’t ask what a pre-natal facility was, thinking I should be able to figure it out on my own. “Natal.” Something to do with delivering babies, right? “Pre-natal” would mean dealing with babies before they’re born—or dealing with the mothers, more likely.
“So, does this facility provide care to pregnant women?” I asked, pleased that I’d fit the pieces together.
“Yes,” said Jo, fiddling with her notes.
“But I thought Unicef was focused on kids, not on adult women. Doesn’t that overstep your mandate a bit?”
She smiled and put her notes down. “Good question. But do you know what the greatest threat to kids is in Sierra Leone?”
“Not being born. Sierra Leone has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. In other words the mothers die while they’re pregnant. So we’re protecting the kids by helping the mothers through their pregnancies.”
The Unicef pickup left the main highway, bounced several hundred yards over a two-wheeled dirt track, and pulled to a stop at a (you can probably fill this part in) one-story cement-block building. This was not a clearing in the jungle. I’m not sure where the jungle had gone. On the far side of Bo, the topography was more arid and dusty, with low shrubs and small trees clustered here and there. The trees seemed almost in a siege mentality, as if they’d already seen their brothers chopped down for firewood and were trying to act inconspicuous lest the same fate befall them. The rain forest was losing here. These trees were on borrowed time, and knew it.
The cement block building was shaped in an L, each arm about fifty feet long, with wooden doors affording access to half a dozen offices. In the area enclosed by the L, a very long bench had been placed, and on this bench were twenty very young, very colorful, and very pregnant native girls. At least I assumed they were very pregnant—none were actually very far along. The oldest looked about fifteen. And they all seemed sad. They were not talking, only sitting despondently in the hot sun. They looked up with only mild interest at this unusual development of a shiny white Unicef pickup arriving, and two white people with blond hair getting out. Martians arriving with antennas sticking from their heads must have been about as common as people with blond hair in Bo, yet it did not suffice to dislodge their lethargy. There was no gleeful chattering with each other, no shy pointing and giggling. Their group listlessness seemed in such contrast to the wild, colorful, gay fabrics they were wearing. Of course, what was there to be happy about? How would I feel, pregnant, almost certainly unmarried, forced to wait hours on a wood bench in the hot sun for a routine checkup at a third-world “pre-natal” facility?
Those in charge, on the other hand, had come outside immediately on seeing the Unicef vehicle. They were sweating big time, I imagined—freaking out at this unannounced inspection. Of course, all of us were sweating big time. It was 100 degrees in the shade. And the pregnant women weren’t even in the shade. Jo, Edmund and I were ushered inside. The staff of this facility consisted of an older man, perhaps a doctor, and three women who were probably nurses. The room we were in was the primary office, perhaps the receiving room for the pregnant women. Other sections were for examinations, deliveries and such. Posters covered the walls, in English and Krio. They spoke to the importance of breastfeeding, polio vaccinations, eating properly during pregnancy, AIDS prevention, and other such concerns.
Jo was not interested in the posters, and began questioning the staff intently.
“I’m curious how we’re doing with the malaria medication program. What can you tell me about the infection-rate statistics versus a year ago? I’m especially interested in…”
I enjoyed watching her in action, and I enjoyed reading the posters in Krio and English, but eventually I drifted outside, needing to find something else to do while I waited. The pregnant women sitting on the bench were still there, waiting, and I realized with horror that our unscheduled visit had condemned them to wait even longer. They were awfully photogenic. What I wanted to do was take pictures of them with my video camera. Yet that would add insult to injury. Certainly if there was any way to increase their misery it would be for a rude tourist to start gawking and pointing a camera at them.
On the other hand, they were so understandably bored that any diversion might be an improvement.
I had an idea. My video camera has a flip-out LCD screen that can be used for playback. The tiny camera also has a “snapshot” button that lets the photographer take a still picture even in the midst of recording video. This snapshot will appear on the video screen for ten seconds, and then will fade as the moving video continues. How many of these pregnant, third-world, bored teenagers had ever seen themselves on an LCD screen?
“Hello, how are you!” I exclaimed, which is a standard greeting in Sierra Leone. I was smiling fit to burst, and tried to put lots of excitement in my voice. A few of them looked up. A couple of them tried to smile.
“I am going to take your picture, and show you the picture,” I said loudly, pointing at my camera. I knew they wouldn’t understand but I didn’t care. I was just trying to get their attention; let them know something was about to happen. The picture would be worth a thousand words, especially since I didn’t know the words.
I held up the camera, clicked a snapshot before anyone could protest, turned the screen around, and showed it to the girl who’s face I’d just captured.
The entire bench of pregnant women erupted in shrieks and screams and laughter. Where once there had been only despondency and depression, now there was wild joy and exclamations and smiling. I took another shot, and showed it to them. Even more bedlam erupted. Everyone was trying to climb over everyone else to get to the camera and have their picture taken. If I wasn’t careful there’d be half a dozen miscarriages. Jo wouldn’t like that. But I did keep the game going for ten minutes or so, making sure I’d taken a picture of every one of them, and being thrilled to have found a way to make their wait not so tedious. Not only that, I was recording the whole scene on video at the same time. These would be great pictures.
Eventually the exercise played itself out, and Jo was still inside interrogating the staff. I walked away from the bench and decided to circumnavigate the little building, just to see what there was to see. Edmund joined me.
“That’s nice, you took the pictures of the girls,” he said. “They were so excited.”
“It’s sad they have to wait in the hot sun, though, isn’t it.”
“Yes, it is not comfortable for them.”
“So, I’m curious. You live in this area, right?”
“Yes, I live in Bo.”
“Did the rebels come into this area? Was there fighting?”
“Oh yes, it was terrible. They came down that road there, the one we were on. They were shooting guns in the air. They took over this whole area for a while. They would just kill people when they wanted to, to make everyone frightened.”
We’d reached the back of the cement building and came upon some unfinished latrines. These were very nicely built cement-block outhouses, with modern fixtures, ventilation, and a look of civilization about them. But they had no doors.
“Is Unicef building these latrines?” I asked Edmund.
“It’s trying to. As you see, it’s not going very well.”
“What do you mean? They look almost finished. All they need are doors.”
“They’ve needed doors for ten months.”
“What’s the problem with the doors?”
“The contractor never finished the job. The contractor got this far, and then just quit. Now we’re trying to find another contractor to provide doors. But we have no budget to pay more. It’s really sad, because these are the only toilets in this whole area. That village over there would have had toilets if we could have finished the project.” He gestured vaguely at a collection of mud and grass huts—a small village, obviously—about 100 yards away.
I thought about this a moment, while looking at the village huts. They all had doors. In fact they were quite sophisticated, with domed roofs, cut out windows, and other complex architectural elements.
“Edmund, I don’t understand why you can’t use local, native materials to create doors. I mean the hard stuff here is already done, the running water, the fixtures themselves, the piping. Probably anyone in that village over there could slap together some bamboo doors in a couple of hours, and you’d have functioning latrines.”
“Ah, they could very easily. It would take them only a few minutes, not a couple of hours.”
“Then why don’t they?”
“Well, that is the problem. They don’t think it is their responsibility. Who would do it?”
Oh for heaven’s sake. Could this village be that devoid of leadership? Where was a village chief when you needed one? An elder. A shaman. Whatever they were called. Someone to kick butt. Someone to stand up and say: “Hey, Mifune and Mfoto! Yeah, you guys. We need doors on those latrines. You can use those palm fronds over their. I want them in place and functional within the hour or the medicine man here will turn you both into frogs.”
And that would be the end of the doorless latrines.
Edmund agreed that it was an outrage, that it was pathetic, that it was ridiculous. He just didn’t know what to do about it either.
OK, so this country had a long way to go to get its act together. A civilization so bereft of leadership and common sense that it couldn’t hang doors on latrines after ten months, was not a civilization likely to stand up to drug-abusing rebel invaders with machetes and automatic weapons.
I was reminded of an anecdote I’d heard near Cape Town, South Africa. To help alleviate the squalor of the slums (“squatter’s villages”), the government had built very simple yet very functional cement block apartments. Each had running water, electricity, windows, floors, roof, etc. Compared to the conditions in the slums, where people were living with wet cardboard pulled over them for shelter, these were palaces. However, to avoid the “something for nothing” syndrome, the government had quite reasonably required a nominal payment by each tenant of approximately $10/month for electricity. The tenants had all refused to pay this, and had returned to the slum next door. And the problem wasn’t that they didn’t have the money. They easily could provide that much money, apparently. The government set it at a point low enough they knew it was affordable. It was that the natives didn’t understand why they should have to pay money at all. They weren’t used to a culture where you paid money for shelter. If they couldn’t have the apartments for free, they didn’t want them. So the apartments were now empty, the slum was flourishing not fifty feet away, and at night the slum dwellers would sneak into the apartments and pull off fixtures, tile, wood from doorways, etc.—so they could have building materials for their shanties back in the slum.
To the Western mind, such things are incomprehensible. To us, such stories make the natives seem almost like children: a people desperately in need of adult supervision. It was easy to understand, perhaps, why the white European powers might have arrived on this continent and immediately decided to enslave the inhabitants for their own good. But this was a very one-dimensional attitude. They seemed like children to us, but only by our standards, by our values. Yet in their own culture, no doubt these people were very accomplished. It had required skill and initiative to build that nearby village. It had architectural elegance—pleasing forms which followed function. The inhabitants seemed well fed, so somehow they were extracting a living from their environment. And except for the poor girls nearing sunstroke on the bench, everyone seemed happy. This civilization was really capable of handling most anything it might face. Except invaders with automatic weapons, perhaps. Or modern latrines needing doors. It was all quite confusing. I resolved to avoid hasty opinions. A trained anthropologist might spend years trying to understand this culture, I reasoned. I was merely a tourist, and was not here to judge. At least I’d wait a day or so before judging. After all, the helicopter had only landed a couple of hours ago. There was no hurry.
We skirted the edge of Bo again as we drove to our next destination. Passing a low cement-block structure, with a large World Health Organization banner painted onto it, Jo freaked.
“Hey, stop the car! What’s going on here?”
Edmund stopped the car.
“Why is that World Health banner on a Unicef building?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Edmund.
“They didn’t fund this facility. Unicef did.”
“Hmm. Maybe they became involved somehow,” suggested Edmund. “Maybe they contributed some supplies or something.”
“Yeah, but they painted the entire side of the building with a World Health logo. That isn’t right.”
“No, that’s not right,” agreed Edmund.
“Look, can you check into that and let me know what’s going on? We don’t have time right now but we need to follow up on that.”
As we drove away, I asked Jo about these logos.
“I see these signs all over the place, from the AID organizations. What’s with that? Why do they need so much advertising?”
“One reason is that each aid organization is trying to take credit for as much as it can.”
“But why? Aren’t you guys all on the same team? All trying to feed the hungry and provide medical care and stuff? You’re not competitors.”
“We are competitors in a sense. We compete for donations.”
“OK, but these locals aren’t donors certainly You shouldn’t have to advertise to the local population.”
“It’s not for them. But sometimes large donors, people representing trusts or charitable organizations or whatever, are taken on tours to see how their money’s being spent. If you’re trying to raise money for the W.H.O., and you’re giving a large potential donor a tour, you want them to see that your organization is making a difference, that it’s accomplishing things, using the money wisely”
This was fascinating. It was so in contrast to my world where businesses compete with each other for customers, and the customers are those who buy our goods and services—who consume them. In this case the consumers were the natives. They were consuming the aid being provided. Yet the advertising wasn’t for them, it was for people upstream who provided the funding, and who were the real “customers”. And the people providing the funding were doing so for charitable reasons. And the “advertising” was to impress upon such customers that their funding was resulting in the “consumers” actually receiving something to consume.
It was a very bizarre severing of the normal links between supply and demand and price. The consumers, in this case, must be incentivized to respond to a culture of handouts, and try to milk the various aid organizations for whatever they could get—play one against another. In a world where the price mechanism was not in play, how were these resources getting distributed, getting rationed? Were there needs-based assessments occurring all the time. Were there identity cards issued to the natives, to make sure that Native A wasn’t double-dipping at the expense of Native B?
I asked Jo about some of this.
“Unicef is different,” she explained, “in that we don’t give handouts per se. We try to actually change the culture, make them more health conscious, teach them to take responsibility for themselves. We’ll help native health-care workers obtain medical supplies, for example. But we won’t necessarily deliver health care, directly. We’re trying to teach the local population to help themselves. If you don’t do it that way, then as soon as the aid organization pulls out, the society collapses—to a point worse than it was before. Unfortunately, many of these organizations do just give handouts. When they leave, it’s chaos.
“But let me get back to the signs. The real reason we have to worry about the signs is not because one organization is trying to claim responsibility for someone else’s work. It’s because of the corruption. Often a group will request funding, and receive funding, from two different organizations for the same job. And someone then pockets the difference. That building back there was paid for by Unicef. Now I have to wonder if the building was also paid for by World Health. See the problem?”
I resolved again that when I became dictator, corruption would become a capital crime. Not just the death penalty. I’d make it some slow, torturous, cruel death. A few of those, I was certain, and corruption would vanish instantly. And of course I wouldn’t really have to torture anyone. I’d just get some special effects guys and some actors to stage the whole thing, and make it look real. I’d hire the best team from Hollywood I could find, and keep them here for six months, going around staging executions in major towns and villages. It would all be fake. But it would look so bloody and horrible that no one would ever again think about lining their own pockets at public expense.
To reach our next stop, the 4-wheel-drive pickup had to earn its living. We left the thin paved highway about ten miles outside of Bo, and began climbing a two-wheeled dirt track up into the forest. We were in wilderness again, similar to the chimpanzee sanctuary. After ten minutes of bouncing and tilting and jerking we pulled to a stop at another native village. No cement-block structures here. This was the real thing, like we’d seen from the helicopter: primitive mud huts with roofs of grass and bamboo.
The only thing missing were people. Of course it was early afternoon and the people were probably out doing whatever they did to support themselves: hunting, gathering, looking for diamonds.
Edmund parked the 4×4 in front of one of the huts, a bit removed from the others. A middle aged woman appeared at the doorway. I assumed she was middle aged She looked about ninety, but I’d learned to discount that in Sierra Leone. People age quickly in the world’s poorest country. Truth be told, she was probably ten years younger than I was. This hut was actually one of the nicer ones in the village. It had walls of wood, not mud, and a small porch provided a pleasant entry experience.
She was a tribal care-giver, someone with rudimentary medical knowledge much like a mid-wife. Her hut wasn’t a clinic, but it was the place where those in the village went if they were sick or hurt. Unicef provided medical supplies and tried—through her—to educate the village on various health-care issues. My impression was that she knew Edmund, but had never met Jo. She was probably very nervous, with the head of Unicef dropping in unannounced. I would have been. There was no smiling here, no gaiety as is seen so often on the faces of Sierra Leonis. And she spoke English poorly.
Jo made some appropriate small talk as we sat down together on wooden benches outside the doorway, and then began asking questions. Jo wanted to know about her access to pharmaceuticals, the number of patients she dealt with, her interaction with other health facilities in the region, the types of conditions she treated, and so forth. All through this, translations had been difficult. Her English was so poor I often couldn’t understand the answers. Occasionally Edmund had to translate from Krio. Jo would try to ask the questions clearly. Or rather she’d ask a question, draw a blank stare, and then try to break it down to a simpler sentence structure.
“One of the things we’re wondering is how well the folic acid distribution program is working in terms of impact on the malaria infection rate. What can you tell us about that?”
“Folic acid supplements. Working? Not working?”
“Um, how do you know it’s working?”
“Do you count the people with malaria? Less people with malaria now?”
“Yes, we count. Less now.”
“Do you keep records?”
“Can you show me the records please, in just a moment?”
“Do you keep pharmaceuticals on-site?”
“Drugs. Do you have drugs?”
“Yes, have drugs.”
“Are they here? Keep drugs here?”
“Where do you keep the drugs? Where do you store them?”
“Inside,” she motioned, with a vague gesture.
“Do you have anything to store them in? A box? A cabinet?”
“You have a cabinet?”
“May I see the cabinet please?”
Jo was a pit bull. She wouldn’t take anything at face value.
We were ushered into the hut, with Edmund and I tagging along. I was not willing to miss out on my first view of a native home.
There were two rooms. The largest was about 10’ x 10’. It had a wooden floor, wooden walls, no shelves, no furniture, no carpets, no lighting, and a small poster of Jesus on the back of the doorway. The care-giver led us into the second room, about half the size of the first one. Here was a mound of blankets on the floor—her bed, obviously. This seemed intrusive, being in this woman’s bedroom. Also in the room was a simple wooden cabinet, with glass doors, and containing things that looked like medical supplies.
This was good enough for me. I wanted to say: “Yep, she’s got a cabinet. It’s filled with medical stuff. We’re outta here.”
Jo opened the cabinet, got down on her knees, and began examining each of the items, reading the ingredients, asking a number of technical questions. I remembered that she used to be Manager of the Pediatrics Division at Boston General Hospital. She was no stranger to medications.
Finally even Jo was satisfied and soon we were back outside on the porch. A young woman appeared, from around the corner of the hut. She was tall, covered in traditional West African fabrics, looked like a black version of Kate Moss the supermodel, and was utterly forlorn. She was sick, obviously. In fact, she was so listless I was worried she was about to keel over and faint.
Edmund took her hand and felt her pulse.
“It’s OK, I think she is getting better,” explained the caregiver, and then ushered the young woman inside the hut—perhaps to give her some of those drugs from the wooden cabinet. There was nothing further we could contribute here and a few minutes later we were driving away.
The caregiver knew what she was doing.
“Let’s go find some diamond mines,” suggested Jo. She asked Edmund if he knew where any diamond mines were, and he did. We drove further into the rain forest and eventually Edmund parked the pickup at the side of the road and motioned us out. A narrow path led into the trees and we followed it. We’d been walking about ten minutes when we came across a wooden frame overhanging the path. It was a single narrow log, about ten feet in the air, held aloft by similar logs placed vertically—like a primitive wood gate. Something was hanging down from the upper log, directly in the middle of the path, and held there by string or thin rope. It seemed to be a piece of cloth, a bird feather, and a shell bound tightly together.
“What’s this?” asked Jo.
“Talisman, against evil,” explained Edmund.
“Oh, you mean like some Voodoo thing?” I asked.
“That’s right. Voodoo thing.”
I’d thought I was kidding. Apparently it really was a Voodoo thing. After all, Haitian Voodoo traced it’s roots directly to West Africa. Creepy.
Fifty yards past the anti-evil talisman the forest ended. We’d come to a broad river and on the banks of this river an amazing spectacle now unfolded. A thousand native black men, naked from the waist up were toiling under the hot sun on a section of shoreline perhaps several acres in size. The area being worked was roughly square, and extended from perhaps a hundred feet inland from the river bank to a full third of the way into the river itself. Some combination of mud embankments and dams had reclaimed these mud fields from the water. The river was being diverted to allow the workers access.
There was so much frenzied human activity here it was difficult to understand what was being accomplished. I let my eye roam over the scene, trying to digest it. A pattern emerged. About half the men seemed to be digging in the mud, with shovels and pickaxes. The other half seemed to be carrying the mud, with white polypropylene-fiber bags on their heads. They were carrying it away from the river, and to several large piles that were growing on the shore.
Suddenly we were spotted, and a dozen of the men raced up to us. They seemed very concerned, and not especially friendly.
“No! Can’t go here! Go back!” they said in broken English.
I remembered the passage from ‘World’s Most Dangerous Places:’
“Diamond mines are considered off limits to all outsiders, and if bumbling travelers happen to stumble upon them, they will be extremely lucky if they are merely detained and lectured on their stupidity. If you come across diamond smugglers, you‘ll likely end up in a shallow, hastily dug grave…”
Edmund spoke in Krio to the man who appeared to be the leader.
“They don’t want you here,” he translated to Jo and me.
“Why, because we’re white?” I asked. “They don’t want white people in here? Is this like some racist thing?”
“No, not white. It’s because Joanna is a woman. No women are allowed in the diamond fields. They consider it bad luck.”
I thought about this for a moment. They’re digging for diamonds and they consider women bad luck? Geez, a little unclear on the concept, weren’t they? Without women, they wouldn’t be digging for anything. I could just imagine what would happen on the other end of the supply chain if they had a similar policy.
“Sorry, ma’am. No females allowed in the jewelry store. We consider it bad luck.”
“Right, buster! And your luck definitely just changed for the worst. I’m calling my lawyer!”
Hmmm. Maybe that’s what the voodoo thing was for. To keep the lawyers out.
Edmund spoke to them at length, and finally the body language turned positive, and there were smiles and all of them were speaking at once.
“It’s OK,” Edmund explained to us. “I told them that Joanna is a very important diplomat from the United Nations and is here on an inspection tour. Now they are happy to cooperate. They don’t want to get in trouble.”
They did seem happy. Now that they considered Jo an “official” rather than a “woman” their whole attitude changed. Probably if we could have driven up in the flag-mobile they’d all be down on their knees bowing to it—perhaps even worshipping it.
Edmund turned to us again. “They ask, ‘what would you like to know?’”
Jo spoke directly to the leader. “Diamond license? Do you have a diamond mining license?”
“Yes! License.” He spoke urgently to one of his assistants who ran off and was back in a flash, holding a wrinkled, mud-stained piece of paper.
“How much did the license cost you?” asked Jo.
The man looked confused. “Price? What price for license?” she tried again.
Comprehension dawned. “Ah! One hundred dollars.”
“That only cost you one hundred dollars?”
“Yes, only one hundred dollars. Will sell you license. Only one hundred dollars.”
“No, I don’t want to buy the license. I just wanted to know how much you paid.”
“Yes, will sell you license. Only one hundred dollars. Very good price for diamond license. You want license? One hundred dollars, you can have license.”
He was trying to put it into her hands, and she was trying to avoid the dirty piece of paper. Being an accomplished diplomat, she abruptly changed subjects.
Jo’s attention had been captured by the several dozen small children who were racing around, playing the mud, screaming and laughing and having the time of their lives. “Why aren’t they in school?” Jo wondered out loud. “They should be in school.”
This was one of the reasons Jo had wanted to come to the diamonds fields for Unicef’s sake: to see if children in this area were being exploited as slaves and forced to dig for diamonds.
Slaves? Hardly. In fact, looking at them from my vantage point on the bank I remembered clearly what it was like to be six years old. I’d spent all my free time in our neighborhood’s large sandbox, building roads and towers and irrigation ditches. These kids had the world’s greatest sandbox, or at least mud pile, and were getting full value from it: rolling around, splashing, shrieking with laughter. Kids couldn’t get any happier.
Nonetheless Edmund translated her concern into Krio and reported back.
“They are with their parents,” he explained. “There is no school today.”
Jo wasn’t convinced. It was the middle of the week. Of course there was school. She shook her head, doubtfully.
“I’m not happy about these kids in the diamond fields,” she murmured.
All this standing around talking was driving me nuts. The children’s energy was infectious. I wanted to be down there playing in the mud as well. Or if I couldn’t play in the mud per se, I at least wanted to be out there digging for diamonds. As if sensing my thoughts one of the young men singled me out, and asked if I wanted to go visit the diamond field.
I left Jo and Edmund to discuss the status of the kids, and followed my guide down the bank and out towards the river. The scene was worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille movie: hundreds of mostly-naked bodies, shoveling mud, sorting through mud, carrying mud on their heads, running back to get more mud… One could easily imagine Charlton Heston’s young “Moses”, a Hebrew slave in Egypt, down here trampling straw into mud to build bricks for the pyramids. We were walking now on a raised path—made of mud, of course, or at least formerly of mud. It was dry dirt now. On either side, giving it form, was sophisticated fencing, making a two-foot high border to the narrow mud path. This fencing seemed to be made of bamboo, each upright stake tightly bound to its neighbor with native materials.
These bamboo-fringed pathways were the arteries and tributaries to access the vast mud pits. Yet around the whole perimeter was a higher fence, of similar construction. More then a fence, this was an actual bamboo and mud dam, and it served the critical function of keeping the river at bay. I wasn’t sure what river this was, but it was a very pleasant one. Perhaps a quarter mile wide, it flowed a serpentine path between the banks of the rain forest, the jungle trees leaning out over the water as if trying to ease their thirst in advance, before the rainy season arrived next month.
At last my guide led me off of the pathway and down in to the mud pit itself, where miners were hacking away at the ground with shovels and pickaxes.
“May I dig?” I asked.
“You want to dig in the mud?” he asked, somewhat astonished. He was accustomed to white men visiting the diamond fields, apparently, but appalled at the idea that they might do any work.
One of the workers stopped what he was doing, not unwillingly, and handed me his shovel, a big smile revealing endless white teeth. Another man hurried over with one of the large white polypropylene-fiber bags, and set it down in front of me. “Put mud in bag,” one of them explained, holding the bag open for me.
Well, heck, I could do that. I dug in immediately and soon was delivering my first scoop of diamond-rich mud into the bag. It was wet and sloppy, and much of it missed the bag I’m ashamed to admit. In fact, I was getting wet and sloppy myself. My sneakers, brand new last month, had now vanished beneath the mud. My versatile REI tropical-weight slacks with the zip off legs were slowly burying themselves as well. I realized I might need to zip off the legs just to escape this quicksand I seemed to be in. Certainly I was sinking deeper with each shovelful of mud delivered into the bag. After a few minutes of this I realized that there is probably no hotter activity on earth than shoveling mud during the heat of the day in the tropics. Sweat was pouring off me in torrents, but it didn’t really matter as everyone in the mud pit was coated with mud and sweat and water dripping down from the mud. There was a certain frivolity to it all. One always likes to fit in, whatever the circumstance. Here I’d have felt awkward had I not been covered in slime.
Suddenly my shovel hit a large rock.
“Diamond, big diamond!” I exclaimed eagerly.
“No, not diamond. Just rock,” said my guide, smiling. “Take this.” He handed me a pickaxe. “Hit rock with this.”
“I think it’s a diamond! Biggest diamond ever found. You want me to hit the diamond with a pickaxe? Are you crazy?”
Everyone was laughing now. Surrounding workers had quit what they were doing as they gathered around to see the white man who thought he’d found the world’s biggest diamond.
“No diamond, just rock. Hit rock,” repeated my guide, tolerantly. He wasn’t sure if I was kidding.
“Look, this diamond is, I don’t know, maybe about twelve thousand carats. That’s got to be a record. It could be a D-Flawless. We could get it certed…”
“Just rock. Not diamond!”
“OK, it’s your diamond. I’ll break it in half if you want me to!” I swung the pickaxe and the object dislodged from the mud. One of the miners picked it up.
Jo and her entourage had now arrived, and were looking down at me from the bamboo-fenced path. Jo was still in sandals and a long dress. If anyone was going to bring bad luck to the diamond fields, it was going to be a female in a dress.
“See, not a diamond,” explained my guide, showing it to me.
“Well of course it’s not a diamond now! Look, there’s a female here. You know, bad luck!”
“Ha ha ha! Female made diamond into rock. Yes, that is what happened. Ha ha!” He translated and soon everyone was laughing. Jo and the others were too far away to have heard any of this, and I wasn’t going to tell them what we were laughing about.
Jo called over to me. “So, I see you’ve become a diamond miner. Hand me the video camera. I’ve got to get a picture of this.” I pried myself out of the mud and gave her the camera, then returned to my shovel and pickaxe. Soon the bag had enough mud in it and two of the miners lifted it onto the head of a third. The muddy war oozed out of the bag and onto his face and shoulders, making him even filthier than ever.
“Is that heavy?” I asked, which was the wrong thing to say. The miners grinned and lifted the bag instead directly onto my head. Muddy water oozed out of the bag and onto my face and shoulders. I was a mess.
“OK, it’s heavy!” I agreed. They returned it to the first man who was soon trotting off down the bamboo path towards shore.
I’d been digging in the mud for maybe fifteen minutes and decided that was all the diamond mining I really needed to do. Handing the shovel back to its owner, I rejoined Jo and company up on the path.
“You’re a mess!” said Jo.
We continued our journey around the periphery. On the upstream side, the damn construction seemed even more sophisticated, obviously to offset the current. Our guide bent down to show me the intricacy of the building technique.
“This man here, he built wall,” explained the guide, gesturing towards a middle-age man in our party. “He is only one who knows how to build dams like this.”
I knelt down and examined the construction with a critical eye, pulling at the weave holding it together and tracing with my hands the important structural pieces. “Very good walls,” I agreed finally, as if I’d spent a great deal of my life inspecting bamboo-and-mud wall construction in Africa. The artisan smiled in appreciation, and nodded humbly.
A dugout canoe was crossing the river just above our position. It was piled high with some kind of vegetation. I recognized it instantly: papyrus. I’d become unfortunately familiar with that weed while canoeing the Zambezi river, a thousand miles southeast of here, several years ago. We’d become stuck in endless papyrus swamps reminiscent of those encountered by Humphrey Bogart and Kathryn Hepburn in “The African Queen.” I’d developed a loathing for papyrus that suddenly came back to me.
“Why do they have papyrus in that boat?” I asked.
“Ah, they are taking papyrus from opposite river bank, over to here. We are building more dams and walls upstream. They use the papyrus in the dams.”
Of course. Now it all made sense. The material they used for binding the bamboo, the rope as it were, was papyrus. I’d never seen papyrus lashings before, but that’s what held the bamboo together.
I watched the canoe cross the river, weighted down with its cargo of papyrus, and realized I was witnessing a scene that must have been repeated over thousands of years. This river could have been the Nile, or the Euphrates. These could be ancient Babylonians or Egyptians ferrying the papyrus to a construction site for pyramids. In the West we were building skyscrapers and jet airplanes. In Africa a dugout canoe was hauling papyrus across the river for a mud-dam. Nothing had changed in 5,000 years.
Further along the periphery, with the river to our right and the mud fields to our left, we came across a dozen men working somewhat off by themselves.
“Those men are Liberians,” said our guide.
Jo stopped in midstride and stared at them, instantly concerned.
“They’re from Liberia?”
“Please ask them if they’re refugees, from the war.”
This was translated and the guide reported back: “Yes, they are refugees.”
“Were they combatants?”
The answer came back ‘yes’ to that as well.
“They say they don’t want to fight. Just want to work now. No more want to fight,” explained the guide, translating from Krio.
We waved to them and they waved back, returning immediately to their shovels and pickaxes. We continued walking.
“So, we now have refugees from the Liberian rebel forces crossing into Sierra Leone and working the diamond fields,” Jo summarized thoughtfully. “That’s interesting.”
I could make nothing of this heady stew of international politics, and left it to her to determine the implications. No doubt Julie Koenen Grant was already hard at work figuring out how to tax them.
We’d completed the circuit and were once again on dry land, on the river bank. The overseer approached us, the one who’d met us originally at the entrance. He had his diamond license with him, in hand.
“One hundred dollars!” he continued, eagerly. “Sell you diamond license for one hundred dollars!” He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and the rest of the time he was on our tail, trying to sell us his stupid diamond license. To his credit, he never once dropped his price. I never heard him say: “OK, fifty dollars!” Not at all. He knew it was worth the full one hundred and he wasn’t willing to discount. Good for him.
I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do with a Sierra Leone diamond mining license, other than frame it and put it on my wall. More of a concern was what he was going to do without one. These thousand-plus diggers were legal only because of this piece of paper.
I remembered the conversation with the Lebanese. One person, the ‘miner,’ had the license. He then could employ as many ‘diggers’ as he wished to work the area covered by the license. The diggers, we discovered from our guide, were paid not in cash but in rice. One bag of rice per day.
“How much rice in the bag?” I’d asked.
“Enough rice to feed them and to feed their families,” was the reply.
Wow. Probably ten hour days out here in the hot sun, all for only a dollar’s worth of rice to show for it. I wondered how this would go over back at Polygon.
“OK folks, I’ve got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that from now on you’re going to be paid in rice. The good news is that each day’s bag of rice will—and this is guaranteed—be enough to feed you and your family.”
The Java programmers, I suspected, wouldn’t stand for it.
Finally, we were taken over to a small grass hut, actually just a circular roof with open-air walls, and under this were half a dozen young men sitting cross legged, and meticulously sorting through a pile of mud in front of them. Jo was absolutely not allowed into this section. The men were sifting through the mud, looking for diamonds. They weren’t doing this with their hands, they had little sieves. They would place a clump of mud—actually this was more dried dirt—onto the sieve and shake it back and forth. The dirt would sift through, leaving small stones on top. I was handed a sieve, and worked away myself for a few minutes. I found many small stones. Some were even shiny. A few were almost diamonds. None were real diamonds. I couldn’t believe it. A thousand men working in the diamond field, hauling mud to the river bank. Others going through these piles meticulously. We’d been here over an hour. Not a single diamond, not the tiniest diamond, had yet been discovered.
I wasn’t seeing a lot of diamonds here in Sierra Leone. I was seeing a lot of mud. A suspicion began growing in my mind that it wasn’t just at the retail end of the supply chain where diamond profitability had been squeezed to abysmal levels. No one was getting rich on diamonds in Sierra Leone, either. At least no one that I could see. What did it matter if Foday Sankoh seized control of the diamond fields? Someone had to pay these diggers every day in rice. I wondered what the rice-to-diamond ratio was on average in Sierra Leone. Probably in the neighborhood of a thousand pounds of rice per carat of diamond. And rice wasn’t free.
It seemed obvious that diamond mining was a hard, labor-intensive business much like farming. You could make money at farming, barely. You could probably make money at diamond mining if you knew what you were doing. The rebels could seize the diamond fields and no doubt steal whatever diamonds had been recovered and not yet sold, but were they really likely to hang around and manage the diamond mining as a profitable business venture? Substance-abusing, flesh-eating, sadistic cannibals operating as competent diamond mining executives? It seemed doubtful.
Yet the world was aghast that rebels were seizing the diamond fields and trading diamonds for weapons. Wasn’t that a bit like saying the rebels had seized farmland and were trading rice for weapons? Somehow that didn’t have the same cachet. No one would suggest we start boycotting rice.
Yet they were trading diamonds for weapons. That was established fact. And the whole idea of the Kimberley Process was to make those diamonds “tainted” by depriving them of necessary documentation. Deprived of their ability to sell the diamonds, the rebels would then be unable to acquire arms, and the war would be over. So went the theory.
Yet while public interest groups and the diamond industry itself were hard at work trying to make such a strategy successful, and trying to find a million bureaucratic ways to keep the diamonds from being smuggled, UN peacekeepers arrived and simply disarmed the rebels and the war was over. The lesson here seemed overwhelmingly obvious. If you want to disarm violent rebels, send in an army and do so. It takes an army to stop an army. You can’t do it with economic boycotts.
African wars seem to occur as regularly as the seasons. Rebels get hold of whatever weapons they can and start slaughtering civilians. No doubt here in Sierra Leone the seizure of diamond stockpiles had contributed to their being able to acquire weapons. But for the world to respond to that fact by creating a Rube Goldbergian scheme to try to make it more difficult for the warlords to sell such diamonds showed a pathetic confusion over what was really important. The problem wasn’t the diamonds. The problem was the warlords and their troops. Shuffling paperwork in Antwerp was not going to stop these horrific wars in Africa. It might have some, slight, marginal impact. It might keep some weapons out of the hands of some combatants. But it was the most inefficient way of achieving a goal as could be imagined. The diamond industry supply chain controls would affect warfare in Africa about as much as a mosquito might slow down a rampaging elephant by depriving that elephant of a few microns of blood.
“Yet,” so went the argument, “if we can do anything at all, we should.”
Of course Julie Koenen Grant, the woman who knew more about this subject than anyone, was the first to admit that the problem of diamonds subsidizing warfare in Africa was over, and that the whole point of the Kimberley process was to make sure that governments received their fair share of tax revenue—a concept that I was certain no one from the diamond industry working on the Kimberley Process or through the World Diamond Council had ever heard of. In the diamond industry, we all thought this was about warfare and atrocities. Not tax receipts.
I came again to the conclusion I had come to so often since arriving in Africa: it was all too complicated to really figure out. Eventually we extricated ourselves from the diamond field, and escaped from the overseer still intent on selling us his diamond mining license. Back in the pickup, we headed off to the next place where Unicef would make an unannounced visit.
I was completely disoriented by now and knew only that we were somewhere in the rain forest, probably not too far outside Bo. From the diamond fields, a ten minute drive on a paved road, followed by five minutes following a two-wheeled dirt track into the jungle, brought us to yet another native village.
This one was much like the others: mud huts, grass roofs, people milling about, half the women naked from the waist up. Yet there was one thing that made this village different from all other villages. A huge, modern, cement water-storage tower, thirty feet high, had been built smack in the middle of this village. Looking like a space ship from the Andromeda galaxy, it stood there in complete disharmony with everything around it. It seemed certain that in a few hundred years, if it hadn’t happened already, the natives would start worshipping this thing as a god, would sacrifice goats in its honor, and would expect it to control the weather, improve their fertility, ward off evil, or perhaps all of the above. It certainly looked capable of doing so.
“What the heck is that?” I asked Jo, as the pickup came to a stop.
“It’s a water tower. We’re trying to bring fresh water to this village.”
“Well that oughta do it!” The thing looked large enough to bring fresh water to this village, plus five neighboring countries.
“Yeah, if they could ever finish it. That’s why we’re here, to find out why it’s not finished.”
As Jo and Edmund approached the water tower from hell, some native workers appeared and came forward, awkwardly, to meet them. They looked similar to what one might see at a construction site in America: scruffy clothing, and yellow hard hats. Jo immediately engaged them in conversation and I was once again left to explore on my own. It was so hot outside the air conditioned truck that the only thing I wished to explore was the shade provided by the water tower itself. Raised up on fifteen-foot cement pillars, it afforded vast space directly underneath and soon I was standing in comfortable shade, quite content to let Jo and Edmund talk to the construction workers. Twenty yards away, milling about in front of the nearest hut, were a dozen women in bright African attire. They looked on shyly from a distance. Unencumbered by the scruples of adulthood, several small children came rushing up to me, smiling, and eager. I pulled out my video camera and took a snapshot of one of them, turning it around so he could see himself on the LCD screen. His eyes opened so wide I thought they might fall out. He stared in wonder at this magic. And then he let out an ear piercing screech of joy and started jumping up and down and clapping his hands. The others gathered around instantly, and soon they were jumping up and down as well. I took a picture of another one, and showed it to him. More screeching and yelling. The youngest was a boy about three years old. He was naked, head to toe. And I swear he was a Gary Coleman look-alike. He also seemed a born actor. He stood rigidly at attention, arms tight to his sides, chin upraised, and his eyes closed—waiting for a picture. I took one, and when I turned over the camera and showed it to them the screaming started anew, from everyone. The Gary Coleman look-alike became the model of choice, by common agreement, and several of the other kids laid him down on the ground, as if he were dead. They wanted me to take a picture of them that way, so I did. Then they tried moving him around in other poses. He was very cooperative, and was clearly loving the attention. But I realized immediately that I’d started something here I couldn’t control. The crowd of children was expanding as word went out to the farther reaches of the village. There were already a dozen here, and the number was growing. The sheer excitement caused by the video camera was converting the whole village into something akin to a European mob after a soccer match. This wouldn’t do.
I put the camera away, used hand signals to make my apologies, and slipped quickly over to the relative safety of Jo and the construction workers. I’d arrived just at the moment when Jo decided to visit the inside of the water tower. They’d given her a yellow hard hat and I found one as well. A rickety ladder, similar to the one at the Chimpanzee sanctuary, led to the top of the tower, and Jo dutifully followed the workers up this ladder. I was amazed she was doing all this in a skirt and sandals. I followed, not enjoying the climb at all. Yet I saw Jo disappear over the top and drop down into the belly of the beast and I wasn’t going to be left behind. Soon all of us were inside and I looked around with interest. I’d never been inside a water tower before. This one was cement, obviously, but it was more than that. There was steel rod and wire mesh and – wait a minute. This was ferro-cement! A ferro-cement water tower. I was charmed. I used to build sailing yachts out of this same material, and I knew it intimately. A year of my life had been spent working with ferro-cement. There’s nothing like the compression strength of cement. There’s nothing like the tensile strength of steel. Put them together, you’ve got something that maybe can’t control the weather and ward off evil, but it’s pretty good stuff nonetheless.
Jo was talking to one the construction foreman.
“OK, so you’ve got two input valves, and one output valve, right?”
“Yes, two input, one output.”
“I see one of the inputs, where’s the other one?”
“It’s over here, on other side.”
“Oh, I see. Yes. Now tell me about the water pressure. What’s going to happen if one of the input valves fails?”
I was amazed Jo was talking so technical. What was she, a civil engineer? There was something very odd about Jo, deep inside an under-construction cement water tower on a hill surrounded by grass huts, talking about water pipes and intake valves with half a dozen black construction workers. No one could look more out of place than Jo in a water tower in Sierra Leone. Yet she seemed to know more about this thing and how it was supposed to work than did those she was talking to.
Once back outside she started discussing timetables.
“So, in two months, there will be water here, right?”
“Yes, that’s right. We finish in two months. Then fill with water.”
“OK, I’m going to put that in my calendar, you understand? I will be back here in two months. Two months. I don’t want to see it empty. I want to see it filled with water. I want the water flowing.”
The Africans mumbled something reassuring. Jo wouldn’t let up.
“Two months. I come back. Water in tower. Understand?”
“Yes, we understand,” they acknowledged.
The group of women nestled under the eave of the nearby hut were still watching the proceedings with interest. They were dressed in brilliant cottony, colorful fabrics. The sun was low in the sky. It was an ideal picture. Even a National Geographic photographer would lust after this scene. I approached cautiously. There were no men here. Only women. That made it a little awkward. Or less awkward. I wasn’t sure which. My problem was I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t know what was permitted and what wasn’t. I remembered in Morocco they had areas called the “women’s quarters” and men could never go there.
Not wishing to offend, I used hand signals to ask if I could approach. They nodded their assent. Apparently men were quite welcome in the women’s quarters in Sierra Leone. I pulled out my ice-breaking magic-wand, the video camera, and soon had these women laughing and smiling, and excited, just as the kids had been. They loved seeing themselves on the LCD screen. Well of course they would. In a stone age culture without mirrors, possibly they’d never seen images of themselves at all. Their squeals of delight underscored my growing popularity in this village. In Japan, I’d found I could endear myself to the adults by photographing their young children—thus honoring them, in a way. In Africa, the adults loved seeing their own pictures.
There was an important discovery here, actually. Anyone would be offended to have some brazen tourist aim a camera at them. It’s amazing anyone, anywhere, allows it. But when you can share the pictures, immediately as you take them, then the whole thing becomes a game, and a way to make friends instantly. I knew I’d never travel to a third world country ever again without bringing along a digital camera.
Jo was now across the road, talking with another group. I approached closely enough to realize it was a technical conversation about water pipes and drainage ditches and such. More interesting were other nearby huts, with other collections of women and kids. I set half a dozen of them ablaze with shrieks and laughter, before I saw that Jo and Edmund were returning to the truck.
As we drove away I complimented Jo on her technical knowledge.
“I can’t believe you know so much about water towers and stuff,” I exclaimed. “Did you get a degree in civil engineering or something when I wasn’t looking?”
“What do you mean? I don’t know anything about water towers.”
“You sure sounded like you did. You were asking about intake valves, and water pressure, and all kinds of stuff.”
“Oh, that. I had no idea what I was talking about. I was just asking questions, making stuff up. They were the ones who brought up the intake valves. So I started asking about the intake valves. Then I made them show me. Then I just kept them talking. You see, it’s sometimes hard to find out what’s really going on at a site like this. There’s no way I’d be able to come in here and really ask the right technical questions. So I just get them talking. As long as they are talking, you never know what might come out. That’s how you learn things. By the way, what is an intake valve? It looked like some kind of pipe thingy…”
“Well, in any case the project seems to be going great.”
“It’s not going great at all.”
“What do you mean? It’s a beautiful water tower. It’s big and shiny and it has two intake valves and one outflow valve.”
“Yeah, but it’s six months behind schedule.”
“Ah, like with the latrines.”
“Well, that was the contractor running off before he was finished. The problem here is different. You know, this is so African. We were trying to decide where the standpipe would go—you know, where the water outlet would be for the village. That’s what we were talking about near the end. Each group in the village wants it close to them, close to their hut. If it’s not, then they’ll not do any work on it. Yet we have to get the village to do the work. That’s Unicef’s policy. We’ll provide the materials, and even the technical expertise if necessary, like the foreman. But they need to dig the ditches, lay the pipe, that kind of stuff. They need to be invested in this thing.”
“Don’t they want the fresh water?”
“Yes, they do. But they don’t want to do much work for it unless they can see how it benefits them directly. That’s why each group wants the pipe to be near their hut.”
“Well, you should place the pipe in the mathematical center of all the huts.”
“Is that possible, mathematically? Is there one place that is equidistant from all of them?
Jo had considered me intelligent, and assumed I would know the answer to a question like that.
“Well, there’s a mathematical center for the whole village, but it would vary in distance with respect to each hut. They probably wouldn’t realize it was the mathematical center.”
Hmmm. I guess I did know the answer to that. My self esteem cranked up a notch.
“So if we do that, then the ones farther away won’t be willing to do any work. And it’s too much work if it’s only a few of them helping out. That’s the problem here. You know I warned you that I was in work mode today. I was being harsh with them, because this is not one of the sites we’re proud of. I was a little hesitant to take you here. There are lots of other sites where things are going well.”
Jo continued explaining the problem. “A big truck arrives bringing cement and steel. We explain about the water tower. The whole village gets excited. Everyone starts working. But after a week, they get bored and give up on the project.”
It seemed obvious what was going on. These villagers couldn’t really grasp the concept of clean, flowing perpetual water. They could grasp it for a moment, maybe, and do some work, but if they didn’t start to see something happen, they would quit. It was an attention span problem. A whole country, perhaps, suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. To make this work they needed to see short term results. A twelve month time span was too abstract.
“OK, here’s the plan. We need to find a way to provide them with short-term reward. They need something tangible. I don’t know. Find something they like. Maybe ice cream cones. Easy to provide, inexpensive. Every Friday after work, you give out free ice cream cones. And that keeps them working another week.
“Hmmm,” said Jo, pensively. She didn’t sound convinced. I was suddenly very glad it was her, not me, who had to figure out how to motivate an entire village to get a water tower finished. Even the novelty of my video camera would probably have worn off in a day or two.
Edmund dropped us at the Hotel Bo, promising to return first thing in the morning. The blue and white Unicef vehicle drove off. I looked up at the hotel. It was typical African construction: cement block, plaster, dirty looking, maybe three stories tall. Tables had been set outside, implying there was a café here where we could get dinner. One measure of hotels, which I’ve found to be reliable, is length of reception desk. First place in the competition goes to the Swissotel in Beijing, a five star glittering palace, with a gold-plated reception desk over a hundred feet long. Last place had just been earned by the Hotel Bo, in Bo. It wasn’t so much a reception desk as a reception closet. A black woman stood inside the closet and handed us two room keys in return for a wad of dirty Leonis. A doubtful stairway led upwards and we followed this with trepidation. Our rooms were on the second floor. The first one looked dreadful. Hot, stuffy, dirty, and with a bed covered hastily with a coarse army blanket. The second room looked worse, as its window faced directly against the neighboring building five feet away. Jo offered me a choice but when I feigned indifference she was happy to take the first one and I was glad she did.
My room got worse the more I investigated. The seedy furniture was expected, as was the general sense of dirt and neglect. The room had no lights, or at least none that worked. This I could handle, as experience has taught me to always bring a tiny flashlight wherever I go. The toilet wouldn’t flush, but I decided that was going to be a bigger problem for the next guest than it was for me. The most serious concern was temperature. It was stifling in here, and it was already early evening. A ceiling fan was turning, it’s blades rotating at a speed that made the Neptunian year look hasty. Certainly the few spare volts of electricity running through this pathetic device were doing more to heat up the room than this fan was doing to cool it own. I thanked God there was a substantial air conditioner in the corner. With the help of the air conditioner it would be only a matter of time before I had the place freezing—assuming it worked. That turned out not to be a problem. The problem was that it wasn’t an air conditioner at all. It was a small chest of drawers. Without lights, it was hard to tell the difference. Great. There was a shower, however, and a sink. The running water worked, although there was no hot water. Like, a person would need anything hot in this room? Cold water sounded refreshing and I took time to wash my face and clean up a bit before meeting Jo downstairs. We set off to explore the town on foot.
Africa is about people. You see people in Africa everywhere—much more than you see people in places like Los Angeles, Bangkok, or Rome. This is because Africans don’t have cars. And, in small towns like Bo, you especially see people out at night, walking the streets. This is because there is nothing to do in their own homes: no television, or radio, or lights, or toilets that flush. The African street, at night, provides it’s own entertainment and most of it is based, predictably, on simply watching the other people. Perhaps this is why African women dress in such exotic, colorful fabrics. They consider it their duty to entertain everyone else, just by walking down the street.
Jo and I walked through Bo in the early twilight, enjoying the cooler temperatures, the things being carried on people’s heads, the milling crowds, the occasional goat or chicken being led about, the dark faces clustered in even darker doorways looking at us curiously, and the markets. We came upon one street that was clearly the central outdoor market for Bo. Here were rough plywood tables erected on cement blocks along the side of the road, with all manner of household items for sale: soap, lettuce, clothing, CD players—anything a person in Bo might want. Jo spotted a pharmacy, a green cross on the door giving it away, and told me to wait as she darted inside. She was back in a few moments.
“So, did you get what you needed?” I asked, politely not inquiring further.
“Oh, I didn’t need anything. I just wanted to check to see if any Unicef medical supplies were showing up in the local pharmacy. That happens sometimes. I didn’t see any here though.”
She was wearing a white Unicef t-shirt with a large blue Unicef logo on the front and back. I supposed it was possible that they’d stashed the goods as soon as she’d walked in, but I doubted anyone in Bo was really that efficient.
The primary commercial focus in Bo seemed to be diamond buying. As mentioned, about every third shop said “Diamond Buyer” on the outside. Sometimes these were stand alone offices. Other times a sign would advertise perhaps Diamond Buying, Dry Cleaning, and Grocery. No matter what the business, it seemed, they were also a Diamond Buyer.
Jo suggested I go into one of them, and ask some questions. She’d wait outside. I chose a combination Diamond Buyer and Hardware Store. At first it seemed to only be a hardware store: very small, about a third the size of a 7-11, with odd bits of hardware scattered about. The “Diamond Office”, I finally discovered, was hidden to the left, behind the entranceway. The door was closed and I turned the handle. It was locked. I was ready to leave but the hardware store person saw me and urged me to knock. “It’s open, it’s open,” he said, encouragingly.
I knocked, now quite uncertain what I was doing here, or what would be behind this door.
It was opened swiftly, by a young man who wasn’t black. He looked middle eastern. He beckoned me in, and closed the door behind me. The door had been so firmly shut because the place was intensely air conditioned. It seemed likely to be the only place in all of Bo that was air conditioned, and it felt delicious. The room was about twenty by thirty, and well lit with overhanging fluorescent lights. A modern green carpet coated the floor wall to wall. Along one side was a lavish, comfortable-looking sofa. Kitty-corner to this was a large oak desk. On this desk were all the tools of the diamond trade: gemscope, diamond scale, tweezers, loupe. The office could be a twin to any of the thousand such offices on 47th street in Manhattan. Behind the desk was a large, more mature man, with short, graying hair and a serious look about him. He, also, looked middle eastern. I remembered that the Lebanese controlled the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, at least in terms of dealing in the rough stones themselves.
“May we help you?” he asked politely. “Please, sit down.” He motioned me over to the couch. I noticed a third man, standing in the corner behind the one at the desk. He also seemed younger. An assistant or relative perhaps.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you,” I began, and they waved aside the comment. “I am from the United States, but I am not here to buy or sell diamonds.”
I handed my business card to the man behind the desk, and he looked at it with interest.
“I am doing research on the diamond industry in Sierra Leone,” I explained.
Well, I was. Sort of.
“You are a reporter?”
“No, not at all,” and I proceeded to explain Polygon as briefly and clearly as possible.
“You have heard of the Kimberley Process?”
“Yes,” said the man. “I think so, yes.”
“My company has been approached by representatives of this group. They want us to impose the same kind of controls on my business. I have some doubts about the situation. That’s why I’m in Sierra Leone, trying to understand more about this whole conflict diamond problem.”
“I see. But we are only diamond dealers. We buy and sell within this town only. You should talk to one of the diamond exporters who actually ship the stones out of the country. They’re the ones involved in the certification system.”
“Are there any diamond exporters in Bo?”
“Yes. Most of the exporters are in Freetown of course, but there are two right here in Bo. They are on the next street over. Here, I will write down their names.” He took a small piece of paper and did so, handing it to me.
“I appreciate this very much, and I will talk to them. But I am curious about one thing.”
“Isn’t the problem with the ‘blood diamonds,’ as they were called, completely over now? The war is over. There are no rebels trading in diamonds. Isn’t that true?”
“It really is true. Well, almost true. The government is now licensing all the mining operations. They’ve issued mining certificates in all the diamond areas except for one. They are still not issuing licenses in Kono.”
The young man in the corner leaned forward. “Even Kono now,” he said. “I was in Kono this morning. Yesterday they started issuing licenses in Kono.”
“Oh really? There you have it then,” said the man behind the desk. “It’s over. As of yesterday it’s completely over. There is no longer any illicit diamond mining activity in Sierra Leone. The government is back in control.”
“You have a dealing license of course,” I ventured. “But because you’re not an exporter you don’t have to pay any tax to the government.”
“That’s correct. The tax is paid by the exporter.”
“Do you think there’s much smuggling? Do you think exporters might be trying to smuggle the diamonds out to Liberia or Guinea, to avoid the tax?”
“That would be crazy. The tax is only three percent. The costs of smuggling would be greater than three percent.”
“So it sounds like there are no longer any conflict diamond problems in Sierra Leone at all.”
“There aren’t, but it will probably take the world a long time to realize it.”
That seemed more than likely. The diamond fields were firmly back in the hands of government-licensed miners. Smuggling made no economic sense in an environment of low export taxes. The diamond issue in Sierra Leone had resolved itself. And Sierra Leone was the only place where conflict diamonds were ever much of a problem at all. Congo and Angola were mentioned occasionally, but only in a marginal way. And according to Julie the war in Angola was over now as well. Meanwhile, the government bureaucrats were a few months away from finally implementing a system of rules and regulations to stop the trade in conflict diamonds—a trade that had already stopped according to everyone who knew anything about it. They were locking the gate after the horse had fled.
I thanked all three of them profusely, apologized again for the interruption, and left the air conditioned room with reluctance. The couch would have been a wonderful place to sleep, at least compared to the steam bath awaiting me at the Hotel Bo.
Back on the street I found that Jo had disappeared. I was a little concerned at this. I walked fast in the direction we’d been heading, peering into doorways, hoping to spot her. Finally I did. She was a block away, walking towards me.
“I was worried about you,” I confessed. “I thought you’d be just outside.”
“Well you were taking quite awhile so I thought I’d meet up with you back at the hotel. I was just now coming to find you because a guy on the street said you were looking for me.”
“What? Someone told you I was looking for you? How could that be? That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Gee, let’s try to figure this out,” she said, teasingly. “A blonde woman at this end of the street. A blond guy at the other end who’s obviously looking for someone. Everyone else in town black. It’s just incredible, someone figured out we’re together!”
“OK, I see your point.”
“Look, I would have come in with you if I hadn’t been wearing my Unicef t-shirt.”
“Why did that make a difference?”
“Well, it wouldn’t look so hot for a Unicef representative to be seen walking into a diamond buying office. It wouldn’t look good at all.”
“Yeah, there might be some question about involvement in the diamond trade. If I weren’t wearing this shirt I might have risked it, but given that I am…”
I was shocked. In 25 years of running Polygon, I’d never before felt ashamed at being involved in the diamond business. Suddenly I was. At least a little bit. Here in Sierra Leone the wounds were too fresh. Diamonds had contributed to the war, or at least that was the perception. Anyone involved with the diamond trade was necessarily suspect. Jo had deliberately distanced herself from me when I’d walked into the Diamond Buying office. She didn’t want to be tainted. Or more accurately, she didn’t want to risk tainting Unicef’s reputation. I couldn’t blame her for that. She’d done the right thing. It just seemed so…bizarre. I came from a world in which diamonds were symbols of elegance, beauty, love, and joy. I’d always been proud to be part of that industry. In Sierra Leone, the values had turned upside down. Diamonds were about violence and death.
We sat at one of the little tables outside on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Bo and enjoyed our dinner. The special was barracuda and cous cous and it was delicious. Cold beer provided a nice compliment, although I was amazed they’d found a way to serve it cold. I’d seen a lot that day and the images were still racing around in my head. There were still pieces I was trying to understand.
“Jo, I’m trying to figure this out. That health care worker we visited in the forest, was she somewhat unique? Was she like the area health-care worker subsidized by Unicef. Or are there hundreds, and we just randomly choose her?”
“The latter. The way the system works, you’ve got several hospitals in the whole country. Below them are the clinics—like the pre-natal clinic we visited. And below them are the healthcare-givers in the villages. We did choose her at random. I think she was shocked at our visit. It was completely unexpected.”
“You know, I was watching you today. You seem to really like the job. You seem very good at it.”
“I love this job. If I had to leave I’d never be able to have so much fun.”
“OK, so when you say ‘fun’ do you mean the fun of being in this country, and the great beaches, and the colorful people, and all that? Or do you mean the fun of the party circuit among the international community?”
“No, No. I mean the fun of being able to climb up inside a water tower and work out the problems and help bring water to a community. How can you top that?”
“It’s gotta beat sitting at a desk.”
Jo answered some more of my questions. She didn’t mind talking about her work. It seemed she enjoyed having a visitor here to whom she could showcase her world. No friends or family had visited her in Sierra Leone. It would have been impossible until recently, so to an extent I was making up for all of them. The conversation drifted into international politics, the Palestinians, the United Nations. It was my first dinner alone with Jo since arriving in the country and there was much to talk about. More than that, it was extraordinarily pleasant being at this table outdoors under the stars, Africans all around, good food, no insects, the heat of the day having passed with the coming of night. It was so pleasant that afterwards we decided to walk around town some more. Again, that’s what one does in Bo.
There were few electric lights, but the darkened streets were illuminated with candles and kerosene lamps. Everyone was outdoors, enjoying the social interaction, luxuriating in the absence of heat, relaxing at the end of the workday.
Behind us, in the distance, we heard music and drum beating and cries of excitement. Turning we saw what was obviously a parade. It was coming in our direction, and we had merely to wait a few moments before it was upon us. It wasn’t a parade with floats or fire trucks or marching bands. It was simply a parade of people. It took me a moment to realize this parade consisted almost entirely of young women, young teenagers perhaps. They were chanting and dancing. Drums were beating out a compelling rhythm. Laughter filled the air. Kerosene torches added to the festive atmosphere.
“Wow, this is really cool,” I exclaimed to Jo. “I can’t believe we lucked out and got to see a parade.”
“Hmm,” she said, non-commitally. No doubt she was jaded, being used to such things all the time. But it was my first African parade and I was quite excited. The video camera was out in a flash. The leading girls were up to us now, and they noticed me taking pictures. They waved eagerly and smiled and were happy to be on camera. I took a snapshot and rushed up to them, showing them what their parade looked like on an LCD digital camera.
I should have known better. They screeched in amazement and began yelling to each other and pointing, unable to contain their excitement and pleasure. I took a few more, walking along with them as I did so. Soon I realized I wasn’t having to walk at all. I was stopped. So was the entire parade. The hundred-plus women were now a mob, besieging me, wanting to get their picture taken. The parade had come to a complete halt, stopped in its tracks by my pocket size video camera with its LCD screen.
Jo leaned close and spoke in my ear. “Do we know how to stop a parade or what!”
Realizing the mistake, I hastily put away the camera and motioned them to go on with their festivities, which they did willingly. Probably I’d never seen so many happy, energetic, excited people in my life.
“I wonder what the occasion is,” I said to Jo.
“Female genital mutilation.”
“Well, I’m not positive, but it’s likely. There are secret female societies and they hold ritual celebrations. This is one of them. Tonight they will actually perform the ceremony on these girls.”
“But… But I thought stuff like that was just done in a few places in Sudan or something, like slavery, and it was dying out fast even there.”
“In this part of Sierra Leone, 93% of the women are subject to it.”
“So all this celebration, this parade, is for an atrocity that’s about to be committed.”
“I’m afraid so, yes.”
I felt sick to my stomach.
“Look, I’m not certain that’s what this is. I’ll find out tomorrow.” (The next day she asked Edmund and he confirmed her fears. She’d been right.)
Back at the hotel we were both tired and ready to retreat to our rooms, stiflingly hot or otherwise. Yet now something had begun that seemed likely to make the rooms even less pleasant. Loud music was playing from inside the next building – the one my room faced. It was very loud. This was some kind of bar or nightclub that was obviously just getting going. I knew in my bones it would go on for hours. Salsa music.
Jo smiled. “Hey, I’m exhausted and I’m going to bed. But it’s OK with me if you want to join them and teach them all those salsa and meringue steps we learned last night.”
Last night? It seemed a million years ago.
I passed on the suggestion, and soon was facing the ultimate challenge of the day: finding a way to fall asleep in a 110 degree hotel room under siege from loud salsa music. Worse, there was a mosquito buzzing around. It wasn’t necessarily a malaria mosquito, but it could be.
I hunted it obsessively with my little flashlight, finally trapped it against the top of the dresser, and squished the hideous thing without remorse. Now here was something interesting. Lying atop the dresser were three of those uninspired, aluminum foil-packaged condoms. They were lying in a little glass bowl, obviously a treat provided by the hotel management, like chocolates on the pillow.
Were they nuts? This hotel had no lights, no working toilet, no air conditioning, no fan to speak of, no air movement at all, dirt everywhere, but – three condoms on the table. Did they really think they’d created such a fabulous love nest that the average guests were going to have sex – three times? In this heat? It wasn’t going to happen. Probably those same three condoms had been here since last year’s rainy season.
On the other hand, in a room with no TV and no reading lights, what else were the guests supposed to do?
It wasn’t my problem. I found a (hopefully) clean towel in the bathroom and spread it over the dirty bedspread. Stripping myself nearly naked, I used tap water to drench a t-shirt which I then slipped on, chilling me instantly. Next I coated all exposed skin liberally with Deet, took a sleeping pill, and lay down on the towel, staring at the ceiling. It’s true that this was probably the worst hotel I’d ever stayed in. But then I remembered those tents back at the airport. How pleasant could they be on a night like this? Compared to the Ghana battalion, I was steeped in luxury. And even the Salsa music wasn’t able to keep me awake for long.
The hotel rate came to about six dollars, I realized, having studied the receipt the next morning and converted the Leonis. And it included breakfast. I was down in the café ready to enjoy that breakfast and the waitress handed me the menu. The standard breakfast was egg, toast, and coffee, said the menu. Fine. But I’m in trouble if I don’t get enough protein for breakfast. One egg wouldn’t do it. I’d need two.
“Standard breakfast please,” I said, “but two eggs, not one.”
“Come with one egg,” said the waitress.
“Yes, I know. I’d like two eggs.”
“Come with one egg.”
“I’d like to buy the second egg.”
“You want two eggs?”
“Yes, two eggs, please.”
“Come with one egg.”
“And I’ll buy the second one.”
“You want buy other egg?”
“Yes, two eggs.”
“Yes, two eggs.”
“OK, two eggs.”
As she was leaving to organize the second egg, Jo arrived. The waitress returned and Jo submitted her own order.
“Standard breakfast, but I’d like two eggs.”
Great minds think alike, obviously.
“Come with one egg.”
“Yes, two eggs please.”
“Come with one egg.”
“I understand it comes with one egg. I’ll buy the second egg.”
“You want two eggs?”
“Come with one egg.”
This went on for awhile but my mind drifted. Geez, you’d think she’d have become familiar with the concept by now.
Eventually we’d consumed all four eggs and discovered Edmund and the truck outside waiting for us.
The drive was uneventful and soon we were pulling into the Unicef office in Kenema, a town quite similar to Bo. This one story cement-block building was part of a cluster. Jo had disappeared inside for some staff meetings. I waited outside on a bench, enjoying the cool early-morning air. A young woman approached carrying five dozen eggs on her head. She seemed a little sad, a little despondent. I knew how to cheer her up. I took her picture with the digital camera and showed it to her. She smiled, but it was a weak smile. She didn’t get all excited and enthusiastic and start jumping up and down. Then I remembered she was carrying five dozen eggs on her head. No one carrying eggs on their head could allow themselves to get excited about anything, I realized. It had been cruel to tempt her.
Soon we were back in the Unicef pickup heading for our first site inspection of the day. Apparently there was a Displaced Persons Camp southeast of Kenema. Jo wanted to check it out.
“Where are they displaced from?” I asked as we drove there.
“From all over. They’re war refugees. Now we call them Displaced Persons. More politically correct.”
“But the war’s over.”
“That why I want to check it out.”
An entire hillside was covered with bamboo huts, and as we approached I realized it was several hillsides. A thousand or more huts had been built here. “World Health Organization” said the large banner, as we entered the compound. Yet I was wary of WHO banners. They tended to graft them on top of the work of others. “Medicins San Frontiers” said another sign. “AfriCare” said a third.
We drove into the forest of refugee huts and one fact became obvious.
“They’re all empty,” I said to Jo.
The place was a ghost town.
“Let’s keep driving,” said Jo.
Deep within the refugee ghost town we discovered actual refugees. Perhaps two dozen people were still living here, inhabiting the huts, and apparently quite uninterested in going anywhere else.
“Do you think they know the war is over?” I asked Jo.
“Oh yeah. They know. But life can be pretty good in the refugee camp. All these aid organizations bringing food and providing shelter? Why leave?”
We parked the truck and got out. A small crowd had gathered and Jo’s questions began immediately. She wanted to know all about the camp, where the people came from, what the facilities where, how the food and health-care situation was being handled, and dozens of other details. I wandered off and found some kids to entertain with my camera. Soon the shrieks and laughter were making it hard for Jo and the adults to even have their conversation, and a modest crowd had gathered around me. Some of these were women who, predictably, were carrying things on their heads. I remembered that one of my goals in Sierra Leone was to learn to carry something on my head. So I put the camera away and asked the nearest woman if I could try carrying what she was carrying. It took a few moments to make myself understood, but once she did the laughter and excitement reached an even higher level.
Her cargo was a basket of vegetables she’d apparently been out gathering. It balanced on her head easily, but—try as I might—I couldn’t get it to balance on mine. I struggled with this basket for some time, the crowd increasingly entertained by this crazy white man trying to balance vegetables on his head. Finally even Jo and her entourage came over to watch.
“Jacques, what in the world are you doing?”
“I’m trying to get these damned vegetables to balance on my head. Every woman in the country can do it easily. I figured it was easy. It’s not!”
“Well I’ve never tried it. It looks hard to me.”
The young girl who owned these vegetables ran up and handed me a dirty towel-like thing. She demonstrated how I needed to wrap this in a circle and place it on my head. Then the basket goes on the towel. Of course. No wonder it wasn’t working. I placed the towel on my head. Then just as I was about to place the basket on the towel, the towel fell off. I tried this several times and each time the towel would fall off before the vegetables could reach their destination.
The entire village was watching now and my pride was on the line. The women, especially, were convulsed with laughter. This simple every day act which they took for granted was apparently not something that white people could do. Apparently not. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the towel to stay on my head. Finally two of the women came up and positioned it correctly while I lowered myself to their height. They held it there while a third placed the basket on the towel. I gingerly grasped the basket and rose back up. Then, certain that everything would work now, I slowly let go of the basket. The basket stayed in place. Cautiously, very cautiously, I took a step. I could feel the basket start to move. I compensated and suddenly the whole applecart tipped over. The basket crashed to the ground. Vegetables spewed out in all directions. And the towel unraveled just enough to hang down in front of my face, completing my humiliation. Then it too fell off and took it’s place in the dirt along with everything else.
I felt terrible. I’d ruined the girl’s vegetables and made a huge mess. But she didn’t seem to mind. She was laughing so hard she had to sit down. Others quickly scooped the contents back up and organized the basket and towel, but they were laughing too. It seemed that the white man trying to balance vegetables on his head, and making a complete hash of the whole business, was the funniest thing ever to happen to this refugee camp. Certainly I’d given all the women a huge boost in self esteem. I’d demonstrated quite visibly that they possessed an important and unique talent—one that no one should take for granted. Or perhaps I’d just made myself look like a total idiot.
One or the other.
Our next stop would be a school, Jo explained. I tried to imagine what a school in Sierra Leone would look like. All I could think of was a bamboo hut, grass roof, and dirt floor.
We drove back towards Kenema, as the school was on the outskirts of town. We pulled off the main road into a large open field and there was the school house. It was made of bamboo, had a grass roof, and nothing but dirt coated the floor.
“Unicef built this school,” said Jo proudly. It wasn’t exactly a hut. It was rectangular in shape, like a long trailer or mobile home, and had been divided into several classrooms. Despite the primitive construction materials, it seemed modern, clean, and well cared-for. Seeing the Unicef truck pull in, the headmaster and several teachers came out to greet us. The children were left inside, sitting patiently on small wooden chairs, in the dirt.
Jo, Edmund, and the teaching staff went into one of the rooms and began chatting. The children were quite young, around seven years old I guessed. The ability of a seven year old to sit still in a classroom once the teacher has left is not great even in America. One might guess it is less so in Sierra Leone, and one would be correct. Soon the kids were racing around between the different bamboo classrooms, running outside, screeching and yelling. And this was before I pulled out my camera. But I didn’t wish to disrupt the sanctity of school discipline and cause another riot with the LCD screen. I mean, I could have. Easily. But I didn’t think the teachers would appreciate it. I glanced into one of the little classrooms and saw, attached to a bamboo wall, a chalkboard. On the chalkboard was written 2 + 1 = 3. They were teaching arithmetic! Or rather they had been teaching arithmetic until the VIP’s from Unicef had showed up and disrupted everything.
An idea began growing in my mind of something I could do to actually restore order. So far my camera had been a force for chaos—disrupting villages, stopping parades, threatening eggs. Yet it’s power could be turned away from the dark side. An empty classroom? A couple dozen kids outdoors? An arithmetic problem on the board? Seized with inspiration, I hurried outside and got the attention of one of the kids. I took his picture and showed it to him. He freaked in amazement and the others began gathering around. Now that I had their attention, I used hand signals to herd them all into one of the classrooms. They knew the drill and took their seats, not quite sure what was going to happen.
I wrote on the board: 2+2 =
And then I looked around, expectantly. A forest of hands were waving. They had accepted me in the teacher role, and were behaving accordingly. I pointed at one of them and she held up four fingers.
“That’s right!” I exclaimed. “You get a picture!” I took the picture and showed it to her. They started to scream and laugh and press forward, but I motioned them urgently back to their seats and insisted on quiet. I wrote: 5 + 3 =
Well, now that they understood the game, and the reward, they were dead serious. Everyone’s hand was up, waving earnestly. I picked one, and he held up eight fingers. He earned a picture, and when he saw himself on the LCD screen it was like someone getting religion, or seeing the face of God. Perhaps it was the most emotional experience of his life.
And it was becoming so for me as well. I’d never taught young children. I’d never experienced the joy of seeing the excitement, the enthusiasm, the thrill of learning that was clear on each of these faces. I tried more complex addition problems. Then I tried subtraction. Occasionally a child would answer incorrectly and then they wouldn’t earn a picture. I’d chose another child and as soon as the correct answer came, I’d snap the shot and show it to them. But in those cases I’d follow up with an easier question, and give it to the one who’d answered incorrectly before. That way they’d earn a picture as well, and wouldn’t feel slighted. Slowly but surely I was making the questions more difficult. The concentration on their faces was intense. They would miss, then someone would figure it out, then there’d be more enthusiasm as they all watched the photo appear, then they’d concentrate with renewed effort on the next problem—determined to get it right.
One of the teachers passed outside the doorway, saw what I was doing, and stared with fascination. Then he went away and in a few moments all the staff were here, along with Jo and Edmund. Everyone was mesmerized with this new teaching technique. For the first time, on this trip into the backcountry, I felt like I was contributing something, actually doing useful work
I think even Jo was touched. “Would you like me to get some pictures of you teaching arithmetic to the kids?” she asked, smiling.
“Naw, I’ve got pictures of them learning, that’s more important,” I replied, nobly.
It’s true that they were learning, and at an amazing speed. I felt it in my bones that, left alone with the kids, I’d have them up to beginning algebra by lunchtime – assuming the batteries held out.
But soon it was time to go. As we walked back to the car, one of the teachers came up to shake my hand. “That was good,” he said, in heavily accented English. “That was very good what you did with the children. They are so excited now. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
I made the appropriate reply and climbed in the truck. I would have liked to have explained that no thanks were needed, that it was the most fun I’d ever had – ever. But I didn’t think he’d have believed me. Yet it really was. How do you top the thrill of watching two dozen seven-year-olds become mesmerized and enthralled by arithmetic – all because of your teaching technique?
“Jo, I’ve decided what I want to do when I retire.”
“Teach arithmetic to kids?”
“Yep, I finally get it. I finally understand why people love teaching.”
“You’re about to have another chance. We’re going to another school.”
The next school was almost identical, except it had no walls. A grass roof, supported by a bamboo frame, was all they had for a classroom. Plus there were chairs, and a chalkboard propped up on its own frame. The kids were slightly older, and there were more of them. Now that I had a job, I set to it immediately. Jo and Edmund went off to talk to the staff. I took over the classroom.
We started with arithmetic. If anything, these kids were even more excited then the others. Being older, they pretty much knew arithmetic. I decided to try geography. I wanted to see if they could find Sierra Leone on a world map. I drew a world map on the chalkboard. Drawing world maps, free hand from memory, has long been one of my hobbies and I was able to create a fairly good one in only a few moments. They stared in fascination.
“Where is Sierra Leone?” I asked.
They were desperate to earn a picture. They puzzled over the question. But even the smartest in the group didn’t know where Sierra Leone was on a world map. I pointed to Africa.
“This is Africa,” I explained. “This is where you live. And this is where I live, over here.” I pointed to North America.
They were mesmerized. Then I pointed to Africa again, and wrote the word in large letters on the continent. Then I erased the map of the world and used the space to create a large map of Africa.
“Where is Sierra Leone?” I asked again. They still didn’t know. But they wanted to know, that was clear. Their eyes were glued to the map, desperate to uncover its secret.
“Here is Sierra Leone,” I explained, drawing the tiny country into its rightful spot on the coast of West Africa. “Here is Guinea. Here is Liberia. And here is “Cote d’Ivoire.” I drew those in as well, and wrote the names. Then I erased all the names.
“Now, where is Sierra Leone?”
All the hands went up. I chose one and the girl walked up to the board and pointed out Sierra Leone. She earned a picture and took her seat again, flushed with pride and excitement.
Pretty soon I had them able to identify their neighboring countries as well. We were making progress.
Sensing they needed a mental break, we returned briefly to arithmetic. This was a mistake. They all knew arithmetic and a near riot broke out, each of them perceiving a new opportunity to earn a picture. No longer content to wave arms, now they were jumping up, screaming, shouting the answer, and leaving their seats to rush up to me and make sure they were noticed.
I tried to calm them down but failed. Realizing I was now creating a disturbance, and interfering with Jo’s ability to talk calmly to the school’s staff, I left the classroom and beckoned them all to follow me out doors. At least I could move the noise farther away. This also was a mistake. Once away from the classroom, all decorum broke down. Now they were surrounding me, besieging me, screaming and yelling and waving their hands in the air. They didn’t care what the question was, they didn’t care what the answer was. They wanted pictures. I was under attack by nearly thirty kids. They were reaching for me, crying-out with unbridled photo lust, surrounding me on all sides, pressing forward, desperate for a few moments of fame on an LCD screen. This was no longer funny. It was about to be dangerous. I tried putting the camera away but that only made them more unsettled and mob-like. I was getting ready to make a run for it. If I could break through I could sprint to the Unicef truck, dive in to the back seat, and lock the doors.
Jo and Edmund arrived just at that moment, saving me the indignity, and the teachers quickly returned the kids to the classroom. School was back in session.
“It looked like your students were getting pretty excited,” Jo commented, as we drove away.
“The problem is discipline. I can use the camera to get them all wound up. I need to find some way to get them wound back down.”
“And that,” said Jo wisely, “might be a lot harder!”
We had one more diamond field to visit, but this one proved small and uninspiring. It was only a short distance from the main road and consisted of two very large holes in the ground. Three people were at work digging. Not three hundred. Three. Supervising this vast beehive of activity was another man, sitting comfortably at the top of the hole, shaded by a large umbrella, and cooling himself with a fan. He held this fan without conviction, barely having the energy to move it, and seeming uncertain of it’s purpose in any case. Truly, this was like no diamond mining I was used to. There wasn’t even a voodoo thing to protect the area, and Jo was allowed to roam at will. We introduced ourselves and chatted with umbrella-man a bit but it was not greatly revealing. He was an “overseer.” It was his job to make sure the ones doing the digging didn’t steal any diamonds they might find. So he sat there under the umbrella all day and — watched them. If any diamonds were found, they were to be given to him. He would then deliver them to one who possessed the diamond mining license, who was in Kenema. An absentee landlord, as it were. That man would then sell the diamonds to a dealer, perhaps one like my Lebanese friends in Bo. They would sell to an exporter who would ship them out of the country, most likely to Antwerp.
“Have you found any diamonds in this hole?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
Well, that was about as far as that conversation could go. This hole may not have been productive, but a nearby hole was clearly generating value. Rainwater had filled it up, and it served now as a small pond in which five small native boys were playing. When they saw us, they stopped playing immediately and climbed out of the hole, suddenly unsure of themselves.
“Edmund,” said Jo, “can you ask them why they aren’t in school?”
He did, and then turned back to translate.
“They say there is no school today.”
“That was the story yesterday, at the other diamond field. I don’t believe it. These kids should be in school.”
It seemed to me Jo was facing an impossible task. The country was coming off a nine-year civil war. Sierra Leone had the highest poverty rate in the world, the shortest life expectancy, and the worst access to health care. And she was worrying about truancy? We left and the five boys went back into the hole. I was tempted to stay and teach them arithmetic, but without a chalkboard it might have been difficult.
The offices of the diamond exporters in Bo had been closed, and Jo knew I was hoping to visit with one in Kenema before I left. If I could meet with just one diamond exporter, then I’d have made a clean sweep of all the different levels in the supply chain: digger, overseer, licensed miner, licensed dealer, and licensed exporter. I knew the rest of the supply chain well, from my tenure at Polygon: diamond importer, manufacturer, wholesaler, retailer, consumer.
Diamond offices were as prevalent in Kenema as they were in Bo, and Jo suggested they drop me off in town and I could just find one. She and Edmund needed to make a final stop at Unicef. And then we all needed to be at the helicopter airfield by two.
The spot where they’d dropped me had been convenient for them, given the geography of the town, but as I walked briskly along the street I realized we’d found the one section of Kenema that had no diamond offices. There were hardware stores and small groceries, and brightly covered fabrics for sale from street vendors, but none of these also had a diamond office in the back. I’d walked for nearly ten minutes, and knew I’d soon need to head back to where they’d be meeting me. I crossed the street, preparing to retrace my steps, when I noticed the building in front of me had an interesting sign: “Sierra Leone Indigenous Miners Movement (SLIMM). National Office.”
Well, I bet they had some opinions about conflict diamonds. I walked inside. There were half a dozen men here, lounging about in an office that had nothing in it other than a desk and two chairs. It was in a cement block building, but there was nothing to soften the cement: no carpet, no wall paper, no decorations, no lights even, from what I could see. The cement water tower had been better-decorated than this office, boasting at least some intake valves. There were large window spaces opening onto the street, but they were completely open and if they’d ever contained windows per se, they’d long since vanished.
I introduced myself and they were quite friendly. One man spoke English, but very poorly. He said he was the president of the Sierra Leone Indigenous Miners Movement. I didn’t have much time, so launched in immediately.
“I’m investigating the diamond situation in Sierra Leone, and I just noticed this office. What is the Sierra Leone Indigenous Miners Movement?”
From what I could gather, it was a trade association interested in the welfare of the diggers themselves.
“How do you feel about conflict diamonds? Blood diamonds?”
“When world boycotts our diamonds, it is miners, diggers, they suffer. Not fair to miners.”
“So the world should accept Sierra Leone diamonds?”
“Yes. Yes. War over, gone. We just want to mine diamonds and sell, so we have food. No sell diamonds, no have food. Children no have food.”
“So the diamonds from Sierra Leone are feeding hungry children, not buying weapons for war?”
“Yes, we need to feed children. No diamonds, no food for children.”
Well, that was a good perspective. Suddenly I didn’t feel so tainted, being part of the diamond industry.
“Just to confirm, in your opinion there is no more a conflict with these diamonds. Conflict over, right?”
“Oh yes, still conflict. Big conflict with diamonds.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Liberians. They come to Sierra Leone. They work in diamond fields. No work for our people. That is conflict for us. Don’t want Liberians in Sierra Leone. Diamonds mined by Liberians, those are conflict diamonds. Should be banned!”
OK, so Julie thought the conflict was finding a way to get the taxes collected. This guy thought the conflict was the Liberians stealing jobs that should go to the Sierra Leonis. Yet out in the real world, unstoppable momentum had developed for keeping diamond profits out of the hands of warlords, so they couldn’t use the profits to buy weapons. But that wasn’t even happening anymore. What a mess.
I thanked the man for the information and walked quickly back to the rendezvous spot.
It was 1:45. I was on time, but just barely. Then I remembered that Jo was often late. I could be here awhile. I stood on the corner, in the hot sun, and watched the traffic. There wasn’t much of it, as there are so few cars in Sierra Leone, and about half the vehicles had various Aid logos on them, World Health and so forth. It reminded me of waiting for rental car shuttle buses at airports: Hertz, National, Avis, Alamo. Whichever company you’re waiting for, Murphy’s law ensures that dozens of the others come by first.
So it was in this case. I wanted Unicef. Medicins sans Frontiers passed by. Another WHO truck was next. Then Food For Africa. Everyone but Unicef.
It was getting increasingly uncomfortable, standing here in the hot sun. Suddenly I heard a voice behind me, and turned. Three young men were sitting on a wooden bench against the wall of the nearest building. They were waving to me.
“Hey, come over here!” one of them called out. I wasn’t threatened. They were simply being friendly, but I was curious what they wanted. I walked over to the bench.
“What are you doing?” one of them asked, bluntly.
“I’m waiting for my friends to pick me up. They are in a white truck. Unicef truck.”
“You look hot,” another one commented.
“Yes, I am hot!”
Two of them stood up. “Here you sit down on bench. We will stand.”
They were up and motioning me to sit faster than I could protest. Yet I couldn’t believe it. The contrast between this culture and my own had just been revealed decisively. In America this could never have happened. Three black guys sitting on a bench, inviting whitey over? And then suggesting they stand and let him sit, because he was hot? It couldn’t happen in America. And what a sad comment that was, when you think about it. In any case there was no doubt where Sierra Leone ranked in terms of friendliness of its people. #1 in the world, as far as I was concerned.
They chatted with me while I waited, intensely curious about where I was from and what I was doing in the country. They wanted to know about Colorado and the mountains. When I talked about snow they thought I was making it up. They’d never heard of snow and didn’t believe that rain could fall out of the sky and be white. When the Unicef truck finally arrived, they each ceremoniously gave me a formal handshake, and wished me a safe trip. I’d been teaching arithmetic in the morning, but felt I’d received my own lesson this afternoon, in civilized behavior. I couldn’t figure the country out. These were people who couldn’t get a door hung on a latrine, yet they could work grueling hours in the diamond fields to earn rice for their families, and build the most sophisticated damns and irrigation ditches to reclaim land from a river. They were so petty they wouldn’t work on a water tower project unless the spigot could be close to their own hut. Yet when they saw a stranger, tired and hot and standing in the sun, they invited him over to the shade, and gave up their own seats so he could rest.
The helicopter lifted us off from the Kenema airfield, and I was surrounded once again by UN troops and miscellaneous support staff. After two days in the back country, the more I experienced of Sierra Leone, the less I seemed to really understand it The helicopter banked to the West, and soon we were once again flying over the rain forest and towards another social engagement in Freetown that evening. It would be my last night in Sierra Leone.
I was checking my email at the Internet café and found this message from Jim Shigley of the Gemological Institute of America.
I know of no gemological or analytical technique that would uniquely identify the country of origin of a rough or polished diamond. Diamonds don’t originate in a country, but in the earth’s mantle. While rough diamonds from a particular mine may have some similarities in appearance, once diamonds from several sources are mixed together it becomes impossible to identify their source with any confidence. Diamonds from secondary (alluvial) deposits may have been derived from primary deposits in one or more neighboring countries, which greatly adds to the problem of their identification. I hope this information is helpful. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.
Dr. Shigley—the world’s number one expert on gemological research—basically was saying that Julie Koenen Grant was wrong. You could not identify the source of rough diamonds based on their appearance or any other factor. This underscored the difficulty of shutting down the conflict diamond trade via the Kimberley Process. But there were so many ways to defeat the Kimberley Process it hardly mattered. The easiest way of course would be to simply cut and polish the diamonds right there at the mine. All it would take would be one diamond cutter and some inexpensive equipment. Once the diamonds were cut, they were invisible to the Kimberley Process which only tracked rough diamonds. Smuggle them into the United States (actually why smuggle; once cut they ceased being illegal), and then sell them on the open market. The best gemologist in the world wouldn’t be able to tell whether they were freshly cut diamonds from a warlord in Africa or something just bought at an estate auction in Peoria.
Diamonds were the topic of conversation again at dinner. We were with Mr. Vartan Somoundjian, a ruggedly-handsome Armenian. Dark hair, maybe late thirties. Jo had been stationed in Armenia a few years ago, but she’d met Vartan at a hotel swimming pool in Accra, Ghana just last year, as she was waiting for her ride to the airport.
“He’s a diamond dealer, that’s all I really know,” Jo had warned me. Since he’s based in Freetown, I figured you two should meet.
We were at the same restaurant we’d been to with the Lebanese, and once again were sitting outdoors for dinner. I’d yet to have dinner with a roof over my head since arriving in Sierra Leone. Fortunately it wasn’t the rainy season, which was still several weeks away.
I explained a little about my business, and what I was doing here.
“Is Polygon like Diamonds.Net?” Vartan asked.
“That’s another name for RapNet, my primary competitor. Polygon is quite similar, except there’s about ten times more trading done on Polygon than on RapNet.”
“That’s interesting. That’s where the whole diamond industry’s going: computers, high tech. Margins are shrinking. It’s becoming a very different business.”
“What is your business actually? Jo just knew it was something involving diamonds.”
“I’m an exporter.”
“Seriously? A real exporter!”
“Yep, I’m a real one!”
“But that’s great. I’ve talked to someone from every level of the supply chain except for an exporter. You’re the missing link!”
“The link is no longer missing. What would you like to know?”
“Well, let me think. OK, can you tell us a little about how your business works? Who do you buy from? Who do you sell to?”
“I am allowed to buy only from licensed dealers.”
“Could you get a dealer license yourself and cut out the middle man?”
“Sure, I used to do that. But it’s too much trouble. And I couldn’t do it from Freetown. I’d have to be based in Kono or Bo or some place. Life’s too short.”
“OK so you buy from the dealers, and then you ship to, where? Antwerp?”
“Mostly Antwerp. I have a partner in New York. He has a large diamond manufacturing company. Sometimes I send goods to them.”
“What company, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Cora Diamond. Have you heard of them?”
“Cora? Isn’t that Ara Arslanian’s company?”
“Yes, Ara Arslanian! Do you know him?”
“I certainly do. He’s a stockholder of Polygon. At least he used to be. He sold his shares many years ago.”
“Are you kidding? I can’t believe it. Ara is my closest friend. He helped me get into this business. You know he is Armenian, right?”
“Yeah, you guys kind of stick together, I think.”
“That’s true. There are Armenians all over the world. We help each other out.”
“Kind of like the Lebanese,” noted Jo.
Our pizza arrived and conversation paused as we attacked it ravenously. Thank God I’d ordered the second egg back in Kenema. I’d had nothing since.
“So I’d really like to understand how the profitability works. What kind of markups are there at each level from the mine to Antwerp?”
“OK, here’s how it works. When a digger finds a diamond, he usually receives half it’s value.”
“So they’re not paid just in rice?”
“Rice plus half of what they find. But they can go years without finding anything.”
“The rice keeps them going.”
“Exactly. So maybe the licensed miner sells it to a dealer for $1,000. The digger would get half that.”
“A huge windfall.”
“Yes, in a country like this.”
“So the licensed miner got $500 in profit from that stone, but in the meantime he’s buying lots of rice, so who knows what that does to his profit.”
“Trust me, no one is getting rich in this business right now.”
“So you buy it from the dealer, and he makes some money. How much do you pay.”
“Maybe I pay $1,200.”
“Then you sell it to someone in Antwerp.”
“Yes, maybe I sell it for $1,300.”
“So you make a hundred bucks?”
“Less than that. I pay the 3% tax to the government.”
“How is the diamond valued for tax purposes?”
“They have independent appraisers that value it. They’re pretty accurate. I’d probably pay $30 in tax, so my profit is $70.”
“That’s not much.”
“No, like I said the margins are shrinking. When I first got in this business I could make several hundred dollars on a stone like that. Now I make $70. You have to do a lot of volume. Tons of volume.”
“And do you think most exporters pay the tax?”
“Of course. It’s only three percent. Who’d risk prison for three percent? And you’d not be saving 3% anyway, since if you tried to smuggle it out that would have its own costs—probably more than 3% if you added it all up.”
Everyone involved in the industry seemed to agree it was foolish not to pay the tax—assuming they were being honest. Julie really didn’t have much to worry about.
“OK, let’s talk about conflict diamonds. Blood diamonds.”
“Ahh. Blood diamonds. Right. Last time I talked about that subject I got burned.”
“It was a reporter with the London Telegraph. They asked my opinion, but when the story came out they’d twisted my words all around. They made it look like I didn’t care about the issue, like I was one of these evil diamond merchants who didn’t mind if people were getting their arms and legs cut off.”
“So what is your feeling?”
“Look, diamonds are all about love. They are beautiful. I love diamonds. I’ve loved them all my life. I’m just sick about what happened in the war.”
“So the RUF really was taking over the diamond fields and selling the diamonds to buy weapons?”
“According to what I heard, yes. At one point Charles Taylor helicopters were flying over from Liberia, landing right in the Kono fields, and trading weapons for diamonds.”
“So is the world correct in trying to stop it? The Kimberley Process and so forth?”
“Do you want my honest opinion?”
“Yes, I do.”
“First, the war’s over so the whole thing is academic. But let’s say the war started up again, or the same thing happened somewhere else in Africa. The Kimberley Process won’t make any difference at all, because any conflict diamonds will just get smuggled, and will enter the supply chain somewhere else.”
“But if every cutting center requires rough diamonds to have certification…”
“Give me a break! It won’t work! Everyone knows it won’t work. Even the people behind the Kimberley Process know it won’t work. The whole thing is a scam, a public relations gimmick. All you have to do is smuggle your illicit diamonds to some other mine, maybe in some other country, and pretend that’s where they came from. All you need to do is find one dishonest person, anywhere in the supply chain, and there’s your loophole.”
“So what should we be doing?”
“Look. Diamonds don’t kill people. Guns kill people.”
“Yeah, but apparently the diamonds can be used to buy the guns. And then the guns kill people.”
“The warlords need to be stopped. But all that certification stuff isn’t going to stop them. That’s the point. And if it won’t stop them, why do it? Like I said, it’s just for PR.”
“With profits shrinking, how much longer do you think you’ll keep exporting diamonds?”
“I wanted to be out of it by now. I’d made enough money to retire. I actually did leave Sierra Leone during the war.”
“So what happened?”
“I lost it all when the market crashed. Everything. Wiped out. I was stupid enough to listen to those dot com investment banking analysts who kept saying ‘buy, buy, buy!’”
“You and a lot of other people.”
“You know who the real conflict should be with? The dot com analysts. They should call them blood analysts. Conflict analysts. They did more damage to the world then diamonds ever did. Blood analysts. That’s what they should be writing stories about.”
We finished dinner and Vartan invited me to come visit his office the next day. I’d confessed that I’d yet to see a real rough diamond – ever.
“Tomorrow I’ll show you plenty of rough diamonds, no problem.”
The rough diamonds, dozens of them, were spread out in front of me on Vartan’s desk. The office was in one of the taller buildings downtown and Muhammad had driven me here the next morning, at Jo’s request. I was struck by the variety. Polished diamonds look almost identical, varying mostly in size and shape. These rough diamonds were completely different. The color varied greatly, from fancy yellows, to browns, to whites. The shapes were all over the place, some properly octahedral, others not, many of them looking just like unformed pieces of gravel. And the surfaces—most were opaque but some…. Wait a minute. My hand darted out to one of the stones and I picked it up and looked at it closely. It was clear. It was identical to the stone the young man had offered me on the beach earlier in the week.
“Is this really a diamond?” I asked Vartan.
“Yes, that is a very good diamond. Very good color and clarity. It’s a Kono diamond. You can tell it’s from Kono because its clear, which is unusual. But it’s typical with Kono diamonds.”
“Dammit! This looks just like the diamond the guy on the beach tried to sell me. He said it was from Kono.”
I’d told Vartan the story of the “fake” diamond last night at dinner.
“If what he offered you looked just like that, then it probably was a Kono diamond. That’s what they look like. How much did you say he wanted?”
“He started at $150 and came down to $75.”
“The stone you’re holding is worth over $10,000 in Antwerp.”
“The one on the beach was bigger.”
“So it was worth much more. Do you wish you’d bought it?”
“Well, gee, I don’t know. If I’d bought it that would be a crime, right? I don’t have a dealer’s license.”
“Even if you did have a license it would be a crime. He wasn’t a licensed miner.”
“Well, I didn’t come to Sierra Leone to trade in conflict diamonds myself. It’s probably best I didn’t buy it.”
I knew that was a weak statement.
“Ha ha! You see, now it’s within you, this conflict about the diamonds.”
“Hey, I just thought of something. The diamond buyers told me in Bo that the government started licensing the miners in Kono on Tuesday. Kono was the last place to come under the control of the government. And it was Tuesday when the guy on the beach stopped me. He’d just come from Kono, he said. So he might have been the last guy to slip out with some diamonds before the licensing system was imposed. He said he only had that one diamond left.”
“So, there you are. You may have been looking at the very last conflict diamond ever to come out of Sierra Leone.”
“With the war in Angola over, it may have been the last conflict diamond anywhere. I should have bought it for historical reasons!”
“Well, let’s hope it was the last. Now the diamonds are all certified by the government. In fact, let me show you…”
Vartan brought out some examples of the little plastic boxes he used for shipping the diamonds, and also showed me a copy of a stamped certification letter that would accompany a shipment, and be checked in Antwerp. It referenced the exact number of stones in a parcel, and also how much the entire parcel weighed, down to a thousandth of a carat. A digital photograph was included of the parcel itself. Given how different all those rough diamonds looked, a simple photograph of them all was as good as a fingerprint. It would be very difficult to replace this parcel, or any part of it, with stones that matched, and weighted the same to a thousandth of a carat. So that’s how it worked right now for shipping diamonds from Sierra Leone. And when the Kimberley Process took effect next year, diamonds shipped from any country would need documentation like this.
Of course the legitimate dealers would follow the rules and use the system. The others—assuming that stone on the beach wasn’t the world’s last conflict diamond—would simply smuggle them into a cutting center and convert them to polished stones at their leisure. It was just like with gun control. The law-abiding people obey the law. The criminals don’t. And so gun control almost by definition tends to produce a world in which the criminals are armed and they can feel confident that their victims are not armed. The laws actually work in the criminals’ favor. And that’s why relaxing concealed-weapons laws has resulted in a drop in crime and violence in 100% of the cases where it’s been tried. It shouldn’t work that way, but it does. The evidence proves it conclusively.
The Kimberley Process would ensure that the law-abiding members of the diamond industry jumped properly through all the little bureaucratic hoops, slightly increasing everyone’s cost for compliance, but not greatly. Meanwhile anyone with illicit diamonds would simply smuggle them to a place where one dishonest cutter – and all it took was one – would cut the rough stones and thus completely bypass Kimberley. Yet that didn’t mean the industry shouldn’t do it. It wasn’t just a PR thing. There was a moral dimension as well. No legitimate diamond dealer should be buying diamonds from someone who was smuggling illegally. Othewise the legitimate dealer essentially became a party to the crime. Didn’t they?
I thanked Vartan sincerely for all his help. With his information added to the mix, I now had a pretty good understanding of how the diamond market worked in Sierra Leone.
I dropped Muhammad back at the apartment, and made a final visit to the Internet café. Then I remembered something I had to do before leaving the country. All over Freetown one sees little jitney minivans, often painted in garish colors, and always sporting some cute phrase on the front hood: “Mother is at Peace”; “We are all children of the one father”; “Love is Everywhere,” or my personal favorite: “God Bless Islam.” I found that one exquisitely circular in its reasoning.
I had to get some pictures of these sayings. The minivans were everywhere so it wouldn’t take long. I walked over to the main road from the Internet café and positioned myself ready to start videotaping as soon as one appeared. Of course now that I was ready for them none appeared at all, just like the diamond exporters in Kenema. I waited and waited. Cars passed me. Trucks passed me. Women with vegetables on their heads passed me. No minivans. While I was waiting a young man in an army or police uniform approached. I wasn’t too worried. Sierra Leone’s only tourist certainly had a right to take pictures if he wanted to. Anyway, everyone was friendly in Sierra Leone. Maybe he wanted to offer me a bench to sit down on or something.
“Hello, how are you?” he said, in ritual greeting. Then he gave me a Sierra Leone handshake. “What you doing?” His English wasn’t that great, but I explained about trying to take pictures of the minivans. There still weren’t any.
“You are nice person, I love you,” he said.
I couldn’t keep from chuckling at his incorrect use of English. “No, you mean ‘you like me’. Saying you love me is too strong. Way too strong.”
“Yes, but I do love you. I really do. Where are you staying, by the way?”
Oh my God. He wasn’t being friendly. He was being gay. This Sierra Leone policeman was trying to pick me up! Yuck!! I mumbled something about being late to a meeting and hurriedly drove back to the residence. Probably he wasn’t even a policeman, he just liked wearing the uniform – a fan of the Village People, maybe.
The flagmobile arrived and Jo came rushing in.
“Ready to go?” she asked, racing around as always.
Back in her own SUV, we drove first to the Amputee Camp, which was directly across the street from the Hash House – and a world apart.
“So how does this work, Jo? Can anyone just go visit the Amputee Camp? Kind of morbid, don’t you think?”
“It used to be anyone could visit. But as you can imagine all the aid workers wanted to come here. This place was Mecca for an aid worker. It was a required pilgrimage. It became Sierra Leone’s #1 attraction. So they changed the rules, and now they only let in official visitors – people with an actual reason for going there.
“What’s our reason?”
“Unicef built the latrines. I need to make sure they’re complete and are operational.”
“And have doors.”
“Yeah, stuff like that.”
“So how many amputee victims are we talking about?”
“OK, here’s the statistics. We can only document 925 amputee cases in the whole country, over the entire course of the war. The amputees were brought to this camp, for care and food and so forth. There are probably about 100 of them in the camp right now.”
“Oh, so it’s not that big a camp.”
“There are about 100 actual amputees. But they were allowed to bring their families, for obvious reasons. So there are maybe 500 or more people here—kids, grandparents, and so forth.
“And most of them are not victims, just related to victims.”
“So how’s it funded? You provided the latrines. What about everything else?”
“Ha! This place has more funding then it needs. The aid organizations scramble all over themselves to see who can provide the most aid money to the amputees. Again, it’s the #1 fashionable charity for everyone. The donors always ask about the amputees. Is our organization helping them? That kind of thing.”
“Sounds like they could live like kings.”
“I wouldn’t’ go that far. But the problem is that life is much, much better in the Amputee camp then it is for them back home. They get food, water, healthcare, everything they need. They don’t want to leave. That’s why there are still so many of them here. Getting them to leave is becoming a problem.”
“So there were only 925 amputees over the course of the whole war? I mean, that’s horrible, but it doesn’t sound like a very large number, by African warfare standards.”
“It’s not. But the point is it’s a high profile deal. Amputee victims get a lot of press. There’s a more important number you should have in your head about the war.”
“50,000. That’s the number of people killed.”
“925 lost a limb. 50,000 got killed.”
“Yeah. Yet which do you hear about in the world press?”
“Exactly. Whenever people talk about conflict diamonds, for example, it’s always spun as an amputee issue. Never a people-dying issue.”
“Well, I guess that makes sense. You have hundreds of people die every day on America’s highways. It doesn’t even make the national news. Yet drop a four year old girl down a well and try to rescue her and the whole country is spellbound for days. I guess it’s a function of what it takes to get the world’s attention. The concept of anyone deliberately cutting off people’s arms and legs strikes an emotional cord. It’s so evil. It’s so horrific. Whereas people dying in a war isn’t exactly a stop-the-presses kind of thing.”
“Yeah, everyone’s become immune to people dying in a war. If the RUF had stuck with simply killing people, the UN probably would never have acted. But cutting off people’s arms and legs was going too far, and that’s why the peacekeepers were sent in to put a stop to the war.”
“So the moral is, it’s OK to kill people in a war. Just don’t wound them in horrible ways.”
“I guess it makes as much sense as anything else.”
We pulled into the gate and parked the SUV on the grass. I was getting a little apprehensive about these amputees. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not used to being surrounded by lots of people with arms and legs cut off. One thing I was certain of: I would leave the camera in the car. This was not the time to gawk, or act like I was visiting a tourist attraction. It wasn’t even time to get people laughing by showing their faces on my LCD screen.
“I’m leaving my camera in the car,” I said out loud.
“Jacques, are you sure?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem right.”
“I think you should bring the still camera at least. I think we should take some pictures of the latrines. I really would like to document that they got finished.”
Well, taking pictures of latrines was probably OK. I tucked the tiny digital still camera in my pocket. It was the size of a pack of cigarettes.
The camp was set on a broad hillside in suburban Freetown. It was a lovely site, with a pleasant breeze coming in from the ocean, and the ocean itself spread out in vast panorama. There was something calming, almost purifying, about this endless sea so visible from the Amputee Camp. The blue depths, so beautiful from here on the hill, seemed in contrast to the horrors that must await us up the road.
We climbed this road, deeper into the camp, and I kept waiting—with a certain morbidness—to see my first amputee. I felt despicable to be looking for amputees as I’d once hunted koalas in the Australian bush. But I was curious, both hoping and fearing I’d really see one. Yet at first there were hardly any people about at all. Low buildings made of (you guessed it) cement blocks and tin roofs bordered this road. An old man walked slowly between them. A child darted through a doorway. A vegetable-shrouded woman peered at us with curiosity from in front of a tree. Yet they all had the right number of arms and legs. I began to fear that there were no amputees left in the amputee camp. Perhaps only their relatives remained.
We came at last to a building that seemed to serve as an office. An older man came outside, sensing our presence. He, also, was in possession of all his limbs. Jo introduced herself, nodded briefly in my direction, and the man was immediately attentive. He was the camp director, apparently. As head of Unicef, one of the camp’s primary benefactors, Jo had official status. Another man appeared on the scene, and here at last was my first amputee. He was missing his left leg, and he walked on crutches. He was a young man, twenty-something I guessed, and he wore round glasses which gave him the air of an intellectual. Jo made introductions all around, and I dutifully shooks hands with both of them. No doubt she’d identified me as someone “with Unicef.”
The four of us walked farther up the hill, and came at last to the latrines. There were more people about now, and more amputees. Over there was a man missing an arm. Here was another missing a leg.
A young woman appeared, late teens perhaps. She was quite pretty. Yet her arms were artificial arms. Somehow she’d lost both her arms. My “women amputee victims for peace” was no longer funny at all. I felt sick. Not physically. Just—it was hard to grasp, that there was such evil in the world that could do such things.
We were at the latrines now, and Jo was in her civil-engineer mode. She and the camp director were discussing the latrine roofs, which were covered with a visqueen material. Yet it had rips and holes in it. According to the camp director this visqueen was inferior, and Jo made notes to check with the supplier about the quality of the visqueen.
I began talking to the young intellectual with the missing left leg.
“I’m from America,” I began. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions.”
“No, of course not.”
He seemed eager to talk, and he spoke English reasonably well. Better than Muhammad, certainly.
“You lost your leg in the war?”
“Yes, in the war.”
“Where are you from?”
“I am from Kono, where they mine the diamonds.”
“Were you a diamond miner? A digger?”
“No, I was a teacher. School teacher.”
“Oh really? I was a teacher too. I was in Kenema, yesterday, teaching arithmetic to children.”
“You were teaching? In Kenema?”
“Only for a few minutes. I was with Jo, from Unicef.” I nodded in her direction. “She was in meetings and I would talk to the children who were waiting. I would teach arithmetic. And geography.”
“Why were you teaching the children?”
“Because I loved it. And so did they.”
He looked at me curiously from behind his round glasses. “Ah, I understand,” he said at last.
“To be a teacher may be the best thing in the world. To see the excitement… To make it exciting!”
“You are right. It is the best thing.”
“How did you lose your leg?”
“We were trying to get out of Kono. I was in a truck. We were escaping. But the R.U.F. caught up with us. They stopped the truck.”
“What happened then?”
“They started shooting.”
“Did you get shot?”
“Yes. Then they attacked. And they cut off my leg.”
This was not an idle question. I really wanted to understand why the RUF was cutting off people’s arms and legs. How was that helping their military objective, exactly?
“I don’t know. I was unconscious, from being shot.”
“But then you woke up, and you had no leg?
“Right. They cut off my leg.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Why would they do that?”
“To spread terror. To make everyone fear them.”
“But, I still don’t understand. You were fleeing Kono, in the truck. You were trying to escape. Why would they stop you and shoot you and cut off your leg?”
“To make everyone afraid.”
“And did they make everyone afraid?”
“OK, what should be done. I am from the diamond industry. What should the diamond industry do?”
“The diamond industry? The diamonds should be used to help the Sierra Leone people. This is our wealth, all these resources. If we had this wealth, if it were not stolen from us, it would help Sierra Leone.”
“All these resources? You mean more than diamonds?”
“Yes of course. They steal all our resources: lumber, bauxite, diamonds, everything.”
And what should the world do?
“Give Sierra Leone resources back to Sierra Leone people. With the wealth from the diamonds and the lumber and the bauxite, we could cure everything. No hunger. No poverty. They are stealing what belongs to Sierra Leone!”
It was obvious this young man had some strong political opinions. Especially with the round glasses, he was as close to an intellectual as anyone I’d met in Sierra Leone.
“In the diamond industry, they are developing a system where only legal diamonds can be imported from Sierra Leone. Do you think that will help?
“What do you mean?”
I tried to explain the Kimberley process as best I could.
“How will that help Sierra Leone?”
“We will only buy diamonds that are properly licensed by the Sierra Leone government.”
As we talked we were following Jo and the camp director on a tour. They’d finished up with the latrines. My friend was doing a good job of navigating along the trails between the cement block buildings, down steps occasionally, and over drainage ditches.
We were in the heavily populated section of the camp now. People of all ages were here, from babies to very old men and women. They seemed to be engaged in a variety of activities: eating, cleaning dishes, washing clothes, nursing babies, that kind of thing. About one out of ten was missing an arm or leg. In the Amputee Camp, actual amputees were a minority.
“But the diamonds that are not licensed will just be smuggled somewhere else,” he said.
“But with the Kimberley system, the diamond cutters around the world will only accept diamonds that have the proper government stamps.”
“Then the illegal diamonds will be cut somewhere else. Look, none of that will help Sierra Leone.”
“What would help Sierra Leone?”
“The money from all the resources should be used for this country, and only for this country. Now it is being stolen, by foreigners. By the Lebanese, mainly.”
Ah, so we were back to ‘blame the capitalists’. I would have enjoyed debating economics with this man, and explaining that there is no money inherent in the diamond itself. It has to be mined, and exported, and cut, and merchandised, and finally sold at retail, and all of that costs a lot of money, and that Sierra Leone is already getting what money it can from the process, by taxing the exports. But I didn’t think we had enough time to go that deeply into it. I tried a different tack.
“Look, the diamond industry around the world is very concerned about how the diamonds are being used to fund the wars. To fund the RUF. They want to stop the atrocities, like what happened to you. That’s why they are trying to organize the Kimberley process.”
“The RUF is already stopped. The RUF is no more.”
“Are you saying we are too late to do any good?”
“Well the war is over in this country. Now we have to use the wealth of the country, the raw materials, to build the country back up. Now the wealth is going to the Lebanese. That isn’t right. If the diamond industry wants to help Sierra Leone, tell them to get rid of the Lebanese and let us keep the diamond wealth for ourselves.”
I began to realize I was talking to a communist. This school teacher with the round glasses (and, boy, those glasses should have been my tip off), would be satisfied with nothing less than nationalizing the Sierra Leone diamond industry, and government control of the mining/harvesting of the lumber and bauxite as well. He was in the Julie Koenen-Grant school of believing economic salvation lay in controlling raw materials. Again, I would have enjoyed a lengthy debate with this man. I would have enjoyed discussing how the Spanish empire had made this same mistake, focusing myopically on raw materials extracted from the New World as their revenue model, while England focused on manufacturing and international trade. Spain declined rapidly, and England became a super-power. It was sad. There was so much economic illiteracy. So little time…
The entire conflict diamond subject, with international conferences, endless press stories, government regulations, and the Kimberley Process, ultimately came down to 925 amputees in Sierra Leone. I was talking to one of them. And he was an educated man, a school teacher. Probably one of the very few who was educated. Yet I was getting nowhere.
“Let me ask you a question. You lost your leg when the RUF attacked your truck. Do you blame the diamond industry, at all, for what happened to you?”
“The diamond industry? No of course not. I blame the RUF.”
“Some say the RUF would not have had their guns or anything if they had not been able to sell the diamonds. So the diamonds are to blame. So the thinking was, if the world doesn’t buy their diamonds, then we stop the RUF that way.”
“That is very naive. You would not stop the RUF that way. They are killers. Vicious, terrible people. They don’t care about the diamonds. They just want to kill and hurt people. They are crazy. Madmen. They had to be stopped with guns. It was the other army, the UN army, that stopped the RUF. But anyway now they are gone. The fighting is over. Now we have to help the Sierra Leone people. We have to use the wealth of Sierra Leone to help the people of Sierra Leone.”
“In my opinion, the wealth of Sierra Leone is the people of Sierra Leone.”
He looked at me quizzically. Then smiled. “Yes, of course,” he said.
But I knew in his heart he still wanted to get rid of the Lebanese.
Following Jo, we entered one of the cement buildings and in here was a factory. A dozen men were at work building and shaping artificial arms and legs, using wood and other materials. Some of the workers, themselves, were wearing the very items they were making. The product being produced was sophisticated, not primitive in any way. Some aid organization had arranged for the machined parts and fittings to be delivered to this factory, and so all they had to do here was assemble the pieces.
It was as Jo said. The Amputee Camp was a pretty nice place. Eating, and cleaning the dishes, seemed to be the main activity. They had running water, shelter, latrines with doors, artificial limbs for those who needed them, probably access to health care and education at a level higher than in the rest of the country. It was no wonder they wanted to stay. As long as the world was eager to heap benefits on the Amputee Victims, they and their relatives were happy to accept. I was reminded of what they say about boat ownership. You don’t want to own a boat. You want to have friends who own a boat. In Sierra Leone you don’t want to be an amputee victim. You want to be related to an amputee victim.
But what all this had to do with the diamond industry was still anything but clear.
For our last meal together, Jo found a nearly-deserted outdoors restaurant up on a hill overlooking the bay, and turned directly to business.
“So, now you have to write up all your conclusions about diamonds and Sierra Leone. I want to know what you’re going to say.”
“Join the club.”
“You haven’t figured it out yet?”
“I’ve had non-stop activities, and new experiences, since I arrived. I feel like I’ve seen everything but I’ve probably not even scratched the surface. What I haven’t had is time to digest any of it.”
“Well, you have two hours before the helicopter arrives. That should be enough time to digest…”
“OK, let’s start with what we know. I’m convinced that diamonds were being traded for weapons. The weapons were what made the RUF so powerful. If they hadn’t had the diamonds to trade for the weapons, they wouldn’t have received as many weapons, and they’d have been a weaker force.
“Also, the diamonds may have been the attraction all along. Foday Sankoh was all about enriching Foday Sankoh. The cover story of the RUF being anti-corruption was obviously just that—a cover.
“So let’s say there were no diamonds in Sierra Leone. How would that have changed the war?”
“Maybe there wouldn’t have been a war,” suggested Jo.
“Possibly. Although wars erupt in Africa even with no plunderable natural resources to blame. Look at Rwanda.”
“Tribal conflict. There could be no tribal conflict in Sierra Leone because you don’t have any strong tribes.”
“OK, let’s say that Foday Sankoh was after the diamonds all along. Let’s say that there would have been no war without the diamonds. Let’s say the ability to trade diamonds for weapons was the main reason the war lasted as long as it did. Let’s also acknowledge that this war involved unspeakable atrocities. Most wars do, but let’s say this one was uniquely horrible in that regard. If we accept all that, then where are we?”
“You tell me.”
“The key question is this. To what extent is the world diamond industry in any way complicit in these acts? You can’t blame the consumer of diamonds for desiring diamonds. It’s certainly not their fault. There exists a world-wide demand for diamonds. That’s what makes diamonds valuable. Because of that, Foday Sankoh kills and maims to control the diamonds. But that’s no different than someone killing and maiming to control gold or silver. Anything valuable will attract those who will commit violence to obtain it. Money is valuable. That’s why people rob banks to steal money. You don’t blame the money!”
“No one’s blaming the diamonds themselves.”
“Well, who is being blamed?”
“I think the point is that the diamond industry shouldn’t be so willing to buy these illicit diamonds.”
“But the extent to which they won’t buy them, is the extent to which they’ll merely be smuggled to someone who will buy them.”
“Yet somehow they’ll have to re-enter the mainstream supply chain.”
“All it will ever take is one dishonest person to launder them, either with a fake certificate, or by cutting them into finished goods, or in any number of other ways.”
“So because of that the whole thing should be ignored?”
“Not necessarily. I’m trying to figure out what makes sense here. I guess it’s really like stolen merchandise being fenced, back in the U.S. Pawnshops operate under a lot of laws that make it very difficult to fence stolen merchandise. Those laws are complied with, because no legitimate company wants to deal in stolen merchandise. These diamonds are really the same thing. They are stolen merchandise. If we think of the Kimberley Process as a mechanism to prevent the legitimate industry from dealing in stolen merchandise, then the fact that merchandise will still get stolen, and no doubt will still ultimately join the mainstream somehow, shouldn’t keep us from trying to make it as hard for the thieves as possible.”
“So then you could support it on that basis.”
“I suppose so. I’m still bothered by a few things.”
“Everyone agrees it’s not just diamonds that the RUF was seizing control of. It was also bauxite, lumber, a variety of raw materials. Why doesn’t anyone talk about ‘conflict’ lumber? Or ‘blood’ bauxite? Isn’t the world bauxite industry just as guilty as the world diamond industry? Why single out diamonds per se? That’s not really fair is it?”
“I think it’s because you can’t smuggle the lumber or the bauxite so readily, it’s not so easy to transport. Charles Taylor couldn’t fly his helicopters into Kono and trade weapons for lumber, I’m guessing.”
“So diamonds are singled out precisely because they are so easy to smuggle. Yet the irony is that the Kimberley Process will have little effect precisely for that same reason: diamonds are so easy to smuggle. The Kimberley Process will simply make diamonds a little more expensive to smuggle. So the question is, is it worth it?”
“Well, how big a hassle is all the paperwork?”
“Once it gets rolling, probably not that big a hassle. Very few diamonds are purchased from evil warlords, so everyone in the legitimate supply chain just prints up their invoices with a statement that their diamonds were purchased from legitimate sources. That’s easy enough. I still think it’s an “emperor has no clothes” thing though. Secondary market goods, used diamonds, are always coming back onto the market. No one knows where those diamonds have been. So you can’t ask for warranties on used diamonds. And a new diamond looks identical to a used diamond. It is identical to a used diamond So, again, as soon as a conflict diamond is cut, it can be sold into the market by someone claiming they bought it at an estate sale.
“And that brings up another concern.”
“I’ve always thought one of the cool things about diamonds is precisely the fact that you don’t know where they’ve been, where they’ve come from. The idea that the diamond you buy in a Zales store may once have adorned the neck of a Russian Grand Duke, or an Ottoman concubine, is part of what makes diamonds so intriguing. If we create a world where the origin of a diamond must be known, where it has to be proven to have come from “legitimate” sources, then much of the mystery and intrigue gets eliminated. Maybe you create a world where new diamonds coming from non-conflict sources are valued more by consumers than used diamonds that might have come from anywhere. That could really hurt the diamond industry long term, by eroding the diamond’s ability to hold its value after purchase. But even that’s not my biggest problem.”
“What’s the biggest problem….?”
“It’s a dumb way to stop the warlords. It’s too indirect, too nebulous. You put the whole system in place, and all you’ve done is marginally increase the warlord’s costs of selling the diamonds. It’s kind of like you’re trying to deal with a bank robber in the old West. Let’s say Jesse James. And people notice that he’s robbing banks to steal money, and he’s killing people in the process, and this is really, really bad. So you find a way to make money less valuable, so he won’t be so inclined to steal it. That’s nuts, isn’t it? That’s what the Kimberley Process is doing. It’s making the diamonds not quite so valuable for the warlords to go after, because their costs of selling them will be higher. It’s no way to stop Jesse James, and it’s no way to stop the warlords.”
“But it’s just like laws that make it hard to fence stolen merchandise. Those make sense, don’t they?”
“Yeah, because anyone who buys stolen merchandise, knowingly, is essentially a party to the crime. So whoever is participating in the smuggling of diamonds from the warlords into the mainstream industry is guilty of the same thing. So when you have evidence that someone is doing that, you can prosecute them. But you don’t ask everyone else who’s selling something to confirm that it’s not stolen. That’s just silly.”
“And anyway, the laws against buying stolen merchandise do nothing to keep merchandise from being stolen. And that’s my frustration. This whole Kimberley thing won’t keep warlords from trying to seize control of diamonds. But I suppose if it reduces the profitability of diamonds, then that’s a reduction in the weapons or whatever that they could buy with the diamonds, and so it’s some slight advantage. Still, it just seems so bizarre. These African diamond wars may well be over for the foreseeable future, and the diamond industry is now going to start jumping through all these hoops, providing warranties that the diamonds they’re selling aren’t conflict diamonds, right at a time when there aren’t any conflict diamonds anymore. A hundred years of little statements on invoices about how the diamonds are conflict free, when in fact all diamonds are now conflict free. It’s just the kind of thing an inept bureaucracy would do, not an enlightened civilization.”
“So what would an enlightened civilization do?”
“Send in UN troops in overwhelming force, to shut down these petty warlords, wherever they surface. The world shouldn’t have to tolerate this kind of stuff any longer. The civilized nations, in aggregate, are a trillion times more powerful than armed thugs like Foday Sankoh. Rather than trying to shut down these conflicts by making the diamonds harder to fence, let’s get to the heart of the problem. I guess that’s my biggest concern here. The publicity is all about diamonds. The publicity should be all about the warlords. And the call to action from the political activists shouldn’t be about the diamonds for heaven’s sake, nor about the lumber or the bauxite. It should be about the need to send in the necessary force and disarm the gangsters. That’s how an enlightened civilization should operate. And I worry that by all of us in the diamond industry racing off this cliff in support of the Kimberley Process, knowing it won’t really do much if anything, we’re feeding this misdirection of effort. I’d rather see the diamond industry start a voluntary fund to help stop the warlords when the warlords surface. That’s something that would make sense, and would really have an effect. The diamond industry, in aggregate, could raise millions for something like that. The funds could be used to generate support for multilateral military action, or even used directly by a U.N. group, or used to hire mercenaries or something.”
“Could you do both?”
“I don’t think the diamond industry would have the will to do both. I think the Kimberley Process is kind of an opiate for the masses in our industry. It will convince everyone, in and out of the industry, that we’re doing the right thing, that we’re doing what we can. As a public relations move, it’s brilliant. I just hate seeing form over substance. I’d rather have substance.”
“OK, having said all that, what will your bottom line be with respect to Polygon.”
“Fortunately I don’t think there’s a decision. I think the Kimberley Process is going to be enshrined in laws and we’ll do whatever we need to, to comply with the laws. But if the Kimberley Process only affects rough diamonds, and polished diamonds are exempt, then we won’t really have to do anything because rough stones aren’t traded on Polygon. Anyway, I’m not too concerned with how this will affect Polygon. I’m more interested in how we stop the warlords from committing atrocities. And I believe that ultimately comes down to the U.N. I’m a big fan of the UN, and what they seem to have accomplished in Sierra Leone.”
“Plus you got to ride in their helicopters.”
“OK, so maybe I’m biased.”
Jo drove me to the grass field and saw me onto the Paramount flight. We said our goodbyes, not nearly as awkward now as I’m certain we were a week ago. We exchanged a goodbye hug and the Mi-8’s rotor blades began to turn. Helicopters and long goodbyes don’t go well together, and soon I was once again lifting vertically up into the air, and Jo had already vanished from sight.
Sierra Leone had one last experience saved up for me. I’d been puzzled why passengers were required to board a helicopter no later than four pm to connect with a flight that left at ten. The helicopter ride itself is only fifteen minutes. The answer, as a more experienced traveler than myself could have guessed, was that the check-in procedures at Lungi are – you guessed it – the worst in the world. I’d had a wonderful week, I had a great book to read, and I was certainly not pressed for time so I approached this gauntlet in the most positive of spirits. A line had formed leading into the building. I did not know how long it was inside the building, but I guessed it would take a good hour to even reach the door.
I was not troubled by this. A porter was offering to assist me with my luggage. He had a luggage cart that would be at my disposal if I accepted, and a solution to the long line instantly appeared.
“You will stay with me through the line?” I asked him.
“Yes, I stay with you.”
“That’s a ridiculous price and you know it. It should be only one dollar. But if I can sit on the cart the whole way through the line, I’ll pay five dollars.”
“OK, you sit on cart, I push cart. Five dollars.”
In this way the first hour passed in luxury—sitting atop my soft sided travel pack, chatting with my guide about life in Freetown, being pushed like royalty while the other poor travelers stood in the hot sun. Maybe I would never be dictator of Sierra Leone, but I was certainly king of this line. It was the best five dollars I’d ever spent.
The second hour was spent working my way through the bizarre check in and security screening process. At Denver International Airport, one endures perhaps three document-checking stations before boarding the plane: at check in, at security, and walking onto the plane itself. At Lungi, and I counted carefully to be sure, my documents were checked a total of nineteen times. And at each station some meaningless bit of bureaucratic nonsense was performed. At station #1 the documents were checked, and a red x was placed on my ticket. At station #2 my documents were checked and a sticker bearing a letter was placed on the ticket. At station #3 my documents were checked and someone waved some weird detecting wand at my suitcases. At station #4 my documents were checked and a white “x” was chalked onto my suitcase. At station #5 my documents were checked and I paid a departure tax. At station #6 my documents were checked and my passport was stamped. At station #7…well, you get the idea. Nineteen checkpoints.
The guy behind me, an American, lost it at station #15.
“Why are you checking my documents AGAIN! You’ve checked my suitcase, ,my documents, my passport, you placed little stamps all over the place. This is ridiculous! This bag was just checked at the station right behind me. Nothing’s been added to it in the last three feet!”
The inspector mumbled something unintelligible in Krio, checked the man’s bag again, verified the documents one more time, and we were waved on to the next bureaucrat. I made a mental note to change the whole system once I became dictator. I was certain I could cut it down to no more than fifteen stations if I really applied myself.
In the end, those whom the Lungi security forces deemed suitably screened found themselves deposited in a very hot, dirty, humid departure lounge. In the corner of this hot, dirty, humid lounge was a small shop that sold mostly alcohol and watches. It was air conditioned. I managed to stand in this air conditioned alcohol and watch shop for my third hour, feigning fascination with all the products—trying to look like I was about to make a significant purchase, fearing I’d otherwise be forced to leave the air conditioning and join the remaining passengers in the departure lounge from hell.
But after staring at watches and vodka bottles for an hour, I decided the heat was preferable to another hour doing the same thing. That resolve lasted only five minutes before I was looking for a third alternative—and found it in the form of a small deck outdoors, overlooking the runways.
I’d been there thirty minutes, enjoying my book, when a very pretty young woman came outside and stood by the railing. Like a bee to honey, a young man was soon standing there as well, anxious to chat her up.
It was a small balcony and the two love birds were making the kind of insipid, getting acquainted, “oh, and what was your major?” kind of conversation that is infinitely cloying to one who is trying to read a book. Predictably, they opened with the ritual greeting of asking what organization each was with. He was with the International Red Cross. She was with World Health. Flirt, flirt, flirt.
“Geez, get a room, you two,” I wanted to say. “Can’t you see I’m trying to read!”
But just before the situation got so unbearable as to force a return to staring at vodka bottles, the flight was called. The passengers were ushered down a staircase and out onto the tarmac where a gleaming white Monarch 757 was parked, still trying to pretend it was Sierra National.
“So which organization are you with?” the voice asked. I turned and realized it was the pretty young woman from the balcony. Now she was being all friendly and flirtatious with me—quite wisely having ditched that loser from the Red Cross. My opinion of her judgment soared. I searched in my mind, wondering which persona to adopt. The Amputee Victims group had been dissolved, not having survived this morning’s encounter with real amputees. I would have enjoyed giving her a hard time about the World Health Organization placing their ostentatious banner on Unicef’s medical facility in Bo—I mean, that was pretty tacky. But it probably wasn’t her fault.
“I’m just a tourist,” I finally confessed. “Sierra Leone needs more tourists, don’t you think?”
“Well, there’s quite a bit to see…”
“Yes,” she said, smiling now. “There is so much to see in Sierra Leone. It’s about time we got a tourist!”
The 757 gathered speed and lifted off the runway into the night sky, heading north to the land of fish and chips, of rollerblading in Hyde Park, and of streets with no goats or chickens. I wondered if they’d ever get doors on those latrines back in Bo. Would they ever get water in the water tower? Would the hundreds of diggers in the voodoo-guarded diamond pit ever find any diamonds? And would the chimpanzees ever truly be rehabilitated?
It was a land facing many challenges. But the war was over. And somewhere back in Freetown were two women who knew everything there was to know about marketing; and three young men in Kenema who shared a wooden bench with a stranger. And on the beach: an extended family who laughed as they caught a million sardines a day. Sierra Leone was not about diamonds. It was about people. A nation filled with the friendliest people on earth could not be considered poor. The true wealth of Sierra Leone would always scintillate more brightly than mere diamonds ever could.
There was no longer any conflict in my thinking at all.