Monday, February 9, 2009

Why Poda Podas are Trouble and Other Stories

After leaving Banana Island back in November, we dozen or so pumoi on the trip had a bit of an adventure. The poda-poda (a minibus/large van vehicle that can seat anywhere from 10-20 plus livestock depending on your comfort level) named “Make It Rain” that we had hired out for the weekend did not meet us on the mainland at the scheduled pick up time. A call revealed that the poda-poda had not even left Kissy yet, at least 2 hours away with the evening Freetown traffic. After waiting several hours, as the night grew darker and the block party that spilled off the beach and onto the streets grew rowdier, we got a call. The poda-poda was stuck at a police checkpoint due to some paperwork that was out of order. Numerous pleas over the phone to the officer were unsuccessful, so we decided to walk through the party and meet the vehicle at the checkpoint. We were more than a little conspicuous, and though I felt nervous as we walked by, I made an effort to make eye contact, to walk with squared shoulders. Men grabbed at my arms; I yanked them away. After we’d made it through, a small group of young (and inebriated) men followed us, heckling and asking for money. The road grew less lively, the lights disappeared, the houses looked closed and empty. At the bleakest point on the road, the men suddenly surged forward to grab at stragglers’ packs, back pockets, anything, even targeting the larger men in our group. We tried to chase them, yelling for help, but they kept coming back, and in greater numbers. That was the scariest part—their brazenness. I moved ahead, looking for shelter. Cold Drinks, the sign said. There was light. Thinking it was a bar, I yelled for everyone to get inside, but as we entered the compound, a startled family tried to shoo us out. After begging for help, they ushered us into their living room, an unbearably hot, ramshackle space with dirty lace antimacassars on the shabby chairs and phones plugged into every outlet in the wall—a standard business for any house lucky enough to afford a generator. They asked us to stay inside, locking the door behind us. But the windows were wide open. We could hear yelling and scuffling outside. All of us were unharmed, none of us had been robbed, and everyone was calm.

A check of our cell phones revealed that none of us had service in the house, so a few of the better connected among us (not me) went out to make calls to security buddies at the US Embassy, to bosses at the UN Special Court, to the British High Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, landlords, powerful friends, roommates. Discussions with the household revealed that the men had called professional thieves and that they had set up a roadblock to catch us if we tried to leave. A few rocks thumped against the side of the house and the women and children of the house were rushed inside with us, huddling in the corner as I moved an electric fan, supplied by our gracious hosts, over the room, trying to keep people from passing out (it was that hot). That was when I got scared—what dangers had we brought on this family? Rumors reached us of a woman unconscious outside, possibly injured by a rock thrown by one of the thieves. A trained medic among us offered help, but the family told us to stay inside, explaining that the thieves may have sent her as a decoy to lure us out on the road, since they assumed that we were all doctors (sidenote: once at the hospital in Bo, a sizeable group of angry friends and relatives of a man critically injured in a car accident gathered around the office and vehicles and it was suggested that I leave, since they thought I was a doctor and were beginning to angrily wonder why I hadn’t come out to help yet).

The entire neighborhood heard and began gathering at the house. Eventually, enough people showed up, including the incredibly kind staff at Banana Island, who boated over to help us, to chase the thieves further down the road. The poda poda arrived, and the driver and apprentices tried to nonchalantly high five a few of us, offering zero apologies and even less remorse. After two hours or so, a large truck full of local police arrived, and an hour later, a UN escort of two vehicles. We thanked the family, the neighbors, the well wishers, the children. They seemed ready to see us off but not in any way upset that we had invaded their house. Many of them had turned the situation into a social event, sipping soft drinks, catching up with neighbors, and boasting about their exploits in the “battle” with the thieves. Making do with soda soap, so to speak. This was the lesson learned: despite the poverty that causes criminal behavior in a few in Sierra Leone, the vast majority of the people will protect you, offer you shelter, and go above and beyond as hosts. I tried to imagine what would have happened if I’d been threatened in New York in a similar way, and I can only think that it would have ended a lot worse. Sierra Leoneans don’t stand by idly when someone is in trouble.

The four who were employees of the Special Court rode in UN vehicles; the rest of us crammed back in to the poda poda, which spun out on the gravel in front of the house and almost crashed when we tried to depart. Needless to say, most of us were ready to kill the driver, especially because he acted as if nothing had happened and that none of it was his fault. We pulled out, the UN vehicles in front, then “Make It Rain,” then the truck full of police. We made it back to Freetown safely, having learned that poda poda drivers are always not trustworthy, that block parties should be avoided, but most importantly, that the people of Sierra Leone are good, generous, gracious people, who will offer the best that they have to guests, even ones that force their way in with danger on their heels.

1 comment:

  1. Holy Kuh-Roley, Jules! THAT is one amazing tale. I'm so grateful that you found shelter from the storm and that you took from that adventure the most important lesson offered.
    Worshiping you from afar,