Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sierra Leone – Rich, But Oh So Poor!

Map picture

The rainy season is supposed to be over, but this year that has not yet happened. On the evening before our arrival into Freetown, the Capital of Sierra Leone, our ship ran most of the night through one awful storm after another. The lighting outside sounded like canons being fired, and the rain was so intense it was as if someone were pelting our room windows with a fire hose.

We awakened the following morning to find the ship encased in a dense fog. The waters around us were moving swiftly from the strong tidal outflow and were carrying tons of garbage. The garbage kept flowing and flowing in a never ending stream of filth. That was our introduction to Freetown.

Slowly the fog lifted into an overcast sky and by the time we boarded the Zodiacs, the moisture had subsided to a light drizzle. After a short boat ride, we were able to make a dry landing onto a small floating dock, and from there, it was a short walk in the mud to reach our waiting busses. As we headed out in a caravan, it became quickly obvious that there really were no roads to speak of. Well, yes they had roads, but they were so badly maintained as to be simply pot holed mud paths, and at this point, we were still in the city. Little did we know what was to come!

The Capital of Sierra Leone is home to over 1.5 million people. Yet, they do not even have basic sanitation services. For this reason, the residents simply throw trash everywhere, or pile it along the streets and throw it into the streams to be carried elsewhere. In fact, all of the garbage that we encountered while at anchor was simply this accumulated filth being washed into the ocean by the previous night’s heavy rainfall. They do have electricity and some water, but it is clear that this is a Third World Country that has a very low standard of living as evidenced by the fact that the average per capita income is only $1 per day. Perhaps even more appalling is that the average life expectancy for men is only 45 and for women 50.

The irony is that the country is in fact very rich in basic resources. They are among the top 10 diamond producing nations in the world. The country is also among the largest producers of titanium and bauxite along with having a large output of gold. Recently oil has been discovered in large quantity, and yet in spite of this enormous wealth, the people live in poverty. Why the disconnect? Simply put, the corrupt politicians and their cronies keep the money for themselves and do not use it for the good of the country. The country suffers from endemic corruption and suppression of the press, and is one of the lowest ranked countries on the Human Poverty Index.

A horrific civil war was started in 1991, which was nothing more than two competing political parties fighting over who would control the resources of the country. Many, many people had arms and legs chopped off with a machete, and as we drove around the city, we saw a very large number of such disabled people. The civil war was resolved in 2002, and a democratic Republic created. However, the leaders of the newly created Republic are the same old elite that controlled the country before the civil war. While we were there we saw a large amount of campaigning taking place in preparation for their second national election to be held in a few weeks. Sadly, people vote based on two things – tribal membership, and by which candidate is paying the most for their votes – in other words while the mechanism for change is present, the people simply do not understand how to use it.

Our first stop was to pay a visit to a clinic established by a nurse from Seattle, WA who had come to this country initially to assist the many disabled victims from the civil war. Affectionately known as Mama Lyn, she along with her physician husband has broadened their goal to include establishing a medical clinic. As incredible as it may sound, the country has only 25 physicians, and from what we heard, many of them are marginal at best. Medicine is almost non-existent, as are any lab facilities. It was a moving and inspirational visit.

From the clinic, we proceeded to drive outside the city in order to visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Because of the limited time that our ship had to spend in port because of the huge tidal flows, our six bus caravan was given a “police escort.” The escort was composed of two young policemen hanging onto a motorbike and driving in front of the bus in order to move drivers out of the way. Drivers in Freetown seem to have had no training. They would stop at any time right in the middle of the road. It was common to see an oncoming driver coming at us right in the middle of the road, and stop lights and signs were at best a curiosity. Our escort was an entertainment in its own right. The one officer drove the bike while the “rider” would waive his hat at oncoming traffic in an attempt to move them over all the while attempting to hang onto the precarious little machine on the awful roads. The driver kept swinging back and forth in order to avoid the really deep mud filled holes at times almost losing his rider. If they came upon cars that would not move out of the way, they would start yelling and kicking the offending car. We saw them hit cars with their fists and helmets, and on several occasions, they drove alongside the car and started punching the driver to get them to move over – it was simply surreal.

As we climbed higher into the surrounding hills, the roads worsened as if that were even possible. We were now driving on muddy narrow lanes full of water filled potholes of unknown depth. The bus would slip and slide as it climbed the steep hills, and finally the caravan pulled to a stop and we were told we could get off and take a break while they sent someone ahead to see if the road was passable and to clear any oncoming traffic. When we left our bus, the people nearby were all excited by our sudden arrival and they were very friendly. Smiles were exchanged along with “good mornings” and “welcome to our country.” Eventually it was back on the bus only to see that the road ahead was indeed simply a muddy path. It was explained to us that this road was being built by the Chinese in order to reach a site uphill where they were constructing a dam. Because of the rainy season, it was in very bad shape and no further work could be done until the rain stopped, which they hoped would happen at any time. So we slipped and slid along in our climb until we had to once again stop while a scout was sent ahead to stop any oncoming traffic since the road we were about to enter was very narrow and steep with no guard rails and a steep drop off on one side. Our bus finally took a running start to get onto the steep road, and in spite of hugging the mountainside as much as possible, there were time in which it seemed almost a certainty that we might indeed slip off down the embankment. But, the drive does not end yet; we finally arrive at the entrance to the Sanctuary, and before us is an extremely steep road up to the facility. From here those who wished to risk it could walk, or we could opt to take turns being driven up in a 4 wheel drive Land Rover. Obviously Lisa and I picked the 4 wheel ride, and just to show you how steep it was, our driver had to get back down the road and take a running start up the hill in order to make the climb – in fact, it took him four tries before he could build up enough momentum to make the trek.

After all the effort that was put into this visit, the Sanctuary itself was a bit of a disappointment. It was more on the order of a zoo as opposed to any close up encounter with a chimp. The Chimpanzee is endangered because it is hunted for its meat and is captured for household pets. This facility attempts to rescue orphaned animals and to provide them with a safe home. After a short walk around and an opportunity to see the chimps, we began our long haul back down to the port. Before returning to the ship however, we made one more visit. We were able to attend a championship soccer match in which all of the players were disabled; most of them were amputees while some suffered from polio. Let me tell you that these guys took this game seriously and it was incredible to watch as it was heartwarming.

Our long and interesting day ended with a short Zodiac ride back to the ship just in time for it to make the tide and to move overnight to the nearby Banana Islands, also located in Sierra Leone. Overnight we once again encountered monsoonal storms with massive lighting displays and heavy rains. When we awoke the following morning the downpour had dropped to a drizzle, sometimes light and at other times it was a heavy rain.

The ship planned to offer three different options for the day, one of which was to enjoy the pristine isolated beaches. However, after our scouting party explored the island, it reported back that the water was filthy and full of trash from the night’s storms so the beaches were not suitable for use. The next option was to join in a 4.5 hour hike from one end of the island to the other – not exactly my cup of tea. So what was left was billed as a visit to the nearby village of Dublin, which was an “easy 10 minute walk where we could meet some of the local islanders.” Lisa thought I was nuts when I planned on going to the village after all it was at times a pouring down rain, or a steady drizzle at best. I assured her I would be OK because it was a short visit and I would be back within an hour. In fact, I was so unconcerned about the walk that I only took my sandals for the wet landing and walk. How wrong I was!

The Zodiac ride to our landing site was a 20 minute ride in a driving rain. Once our group had gathered, we set off on our walk to the village. It started with a good climb over muddy rocks with loose gravel until we reached the village school, where we paused to catch our breath. Everyone we met was so friendly but sadly it was another very basic existence community. The island had no electricity or running water. The quality of the houses was much better than we had seen before and they had two churches, both of which had been built with local lumber that had been sawed by hand. And so we walked in the rain turning one way and then another. We saw where they were building a boat by hand, and we saw massive trees. We walked and slipped and the rain/drizzle was unrelenting. At times the guides had to use machetes to clear our trail, and at other times we helped each other down the steep rocky paths. I kept thinking to myself “what ever happened to the easy 10 minute walk,” but everyone just kept walking. Soon we started to backtrack over trails we had walked before and some of the people started to question where we were going. I think our local guide wanted to insure that we saw every part of the community, but after 2.5 hours when I spotted the path down to our landing site, I headed off in a heartbeat. As it turns out our group walked as much as the “extreme” hikers, and I returned to the ship one wet and whipped camper.

For today and tomorrow we are at sea heading southwest towards Ghana, our next destination.


As I was in the process of writing this we had an announcement that a pod of Pilot Whales was directly in front of the ship, and that among the whales were a large number of Dolphins. I grabbed my camera and ran for the deck, and there in front of me were perhaps 50 animals cavorting right underneath our side and bow. The Captain immediately stopped the vessel and then maneuvered to stay with the pod, while they put on quite a show. However my camera had just come from our nice cool room into the muggy humid air of the outside, and my lens and camera frosted over. Grrr!!!!! I waited and waited, while the animals were just carrying on right in front of me. I tried to clean the lens, which just made it worse. I took off my lens cover and the lens itself frosted over. I tried cleaning that with my shirt (a definite no,no) but still no success. Frustrated beyond belief, I ran to our cabin and grabbed the hair dryer and warmed the camera and lens until the frost disappeared and then ran back on deck. I think I may have gotten a few shots, but nothing great as they pulled away from our ship, and just at that point, they announced that we would be returning to course. Grrrrrr!!!!!! Alas, it is the sad, old story of the one that got away!

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