Monday, October 6, 2008

Up-Line in Bo Town

There are people everywhere: on motorbikes, crammed into vans, in cars, walking, many carrying things on their heads—small children with loads of firewood that I could barely lift off the ground. There are no stoplights, and the rules of engagement are simple: fend for yourself. No one slows down or moves, meaning that there are close shaves at every turn, people walking so close to your big white SUV with its conspicuous snorkel exhaust pipe, NGO plates, organization name on the door, and white people in the back seat. I’ve never felt so conspicuous. The Land Rover/Land Cruiser hints (or screams) of colonialism and neocolonialism—not quite as bad as the old pictures I’ve seen of French colonial administrators getting carried through the jungle in hammocks, with their stacks of luggage on a stream of black porters behind them, but still, an uneasy symbol for me. Though I have to admit that it’s entirely necessary on pitted roads made even worse by the rainy season, which has left giant potholes that throw you back and forth violently. At first it’s kind of like a ride, maybe the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, but it gets old fast. It makes it even more unbelievable to imagine traveling in a crammed car from Bo to Freetown, riding low due to the weight, ramshackle enough to maybe fall apart on the way or to tip into the waterlogged ditches that run along both sides. We saw two vehicles, an abandoned truck and a passenger van, tipped nosefirst into ditches on my first trip up from Freetown to Bo, and many of the people we coming to the hospital are from wrecks. People risk this everyday. There’s a short stretch of road in town here that’s abysmal—apparently the asphalt was taken out during the war as a blockade or something like that, but I haven’t gotten a straight story out of anyone, and I’m nervous about asking questions about the war yet. Many people have pain in their faces and seem to carry heavy psychological burdens from the conflict, which ended in 2002.
Bo is a rambling conglomeration of people who flocked to the nearest semi-urban center, setting up simple shanty shops at the market without any forethought to logical placement or planning. The city could have anywhere from 200,000 to half a million—I’ve heard both numbers but incline towards the higher, just based on how many people I’ve seen out and about everyday. Every possible space is filled with stalls selling everything from used clothes (I saw a guy in a Carmine’s Restaurant shirt yesterday!) to lettuce, soap to shoes. You can do all your shopping without leaving your car, either. The markets are neverending, a part of streetlife on every corner and lining every road. Even in the rural areas, there are roadside stands with businesslike girls hawking bright red sweet potatoes to fry, boil, mash, or turn into a vivid pink juice that kind of reminds me of lemonade. 2,000 Leone, or under a dollar, will get you about three pounds of sweet potato. Rice, cassava, potato, corn, pawpaw, mango, and palms are everywhere, as well as the more mysterious foods—garden eggs, bitter balls, crain crain, something called a “plum” that is nothing like any stone fruit I’ve ever seen.
The roundabouts are terrifying, the motorbikes filled with women coming back from the market after buying dinner, finding no way to get home but helmetless on the back of a stranger’s bike. Plus I hear most of the motorbike taxi drivers are ex-rebels, and just as nihilistic now as they were then. All drivers honk incessantly to warn of their approach to cars that have swerved to the other side of the road to avoid potholes, to the negligent motorbikers, or to pedestrians that might sway out into the street without looking. There are countless churches and mosques, peeling but eerily beautiful, post-apocalyptic, almost, especially near dark when the gas lamps come out in both Bo and Freetown at the market stalls, replacing the unreliable to nonexistent electricity.
The houses are either small and crammed, some of them traditional huts with thatched roofs and mud bricks, or large and half finished, concrete monsters that ran out of capital before the cement blocks could all be stacked, painted, and fitted with doors. The houses with high walls topped with razor wire identify their occupants as local dignitaries, or possibly white (like our house), Lebanese, or just wealthy. Laundry hangs on the razor wire, or spread on the ground, bright sheets and clothes, and in our case, the patient’s pink, purple, and magenta uniforms and the sheets that our skills trainer, Auntie K, taught them to tie dye themselves as part of their education, which covers simple ABCs, math, and English, as well as skills training for possible use in micro credit enterprises, which we’re planning on setting up as the program is more established.
It’s so hard to be in a rush here. Greetings are very important, even though they seem less elaborate in Salone (the Krio shortening of Sierra Leone) than in Senegal, where you could be shaking someone’s hand for a good two minutes or more while asking the same questions over and over and repeating each other’s names back and forth. But a barrage of “How de mornin’?”, “How you sleep?”, “How de body?” is incredibly important, as is the recognition of everyone in the room. Furthermore, few people pay attention to the time, and even if they do, traffic, stray dogs, pedestrians, and cars swerving all over the road slow down everything, not to mention the occasional torrential downpour and gutted-out road.
There is constant noise. No car is muffled (or smogged—they all release clouds of reeking diesel), radios blast at full volume, people talk loudly over one another. Goats bleat, frogs proclaim their eligibility, dogs roll into the street and fight all night. Mosques call the faithful to prayer at different times, the dawn prayer sung several times by separate muezzins. Luckily I learned how to sleep well in New York City, so it’s not so bad—the sounds here are mostly soothing and aren’t nearly as noxious as a street cleaning truck at 8am after a few too many dollar drafts at Lion’s Head.
So, that’s a bit of a portrait of Bo—it’s one of those fantastically dear, dirty towns that you can’t help loving, even though I haven’t done much exploring, just because it’s so dear and dirty, if that makes any sense. I’ll try in the next few posts to go over what I’ve been up to and what I’m doing here and all that good stuff. As a good historian I wanted to lay down some background information first, so sorry for leaving you in the dark.

And sorry, still no pictures! I tried for an hour today and got too frustrated. Any computer whizzes out there got suggestions on how to make pictures smaller/make the internet work here...crikey...

No comments:

Post a Comment