Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sending For Visas

After just under a month at home, I will be traveling to Cape Town, South Africa, to be a fellow in the main office for Mothers 2 Mothers, a program that, in brief, strives to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child. I’m in a whirlwind of paperwork and logistics—insurance, financial concerns, and of course, the dreaded visa.

I lived in France when I was 13 because my parents took a sabbatical from Thacher, the boarding school where I grew up and that I attended for high school. We didn’t get visas because the French application process required extensive paperwork, including handwritten forms in triplicate (as I remember it). This meant that we entered the country as tourists and had to leave the country every few months so that we could remain legal. Now, with the Schengen Agreement, which dissolved internal borders between some European countries, it would be more difficult to dodge the visa. But it meant that every so often my sister and I were pulled out of school (or not—the French get a ridiculous, though very nice, number of holidays) for trips. We would traipse off to Switzerland, or across the Chunnel to London (which was a letdown—I had imagined it to be really cool inside, like the mine in The Temple of Doom—it was actually just dark), or to the Isle of Jersey. This was my mother’s favorite because, despite the rough ferry ride, she could stock up on cranberry juice. We would go for day trips, always careful to have our passports stamped going into Jersey, with large rolling suitcases so that we could buy enough Ocean Spray cranberry juice to keep her happy. We’d go to this great Thai restaurant that had a contest in the men’s bathroom that challenged the viewer to pick the woman who was once a man out of the pictures of scantily clad fancy ladies on the wall. On one occasion, my mother got my dad to check the bathroom so that she could sneak in and make her guess—and of course, she got it right. This was my first experience with temporary residence in a foreign country.

When I was in college, I studied abroad in Senegal for just under five months. I expected a seriously confusing visa process—Senegal is an ex-French colony, after all. The application was one page long and only required a trip to a New York Post Office. I got my visa in less than five days. Granted, I was going as a student and had a sponsoring letter from my program, but I was shocked, especially once Senegalese friends began to outline the process for obtaining a visa to the US. I did overstay my visa by a few weeks, but there were no raised eyebrows or questions as I passed through the airport—I was leaving.

The visa process for Sierra Leone was equally easy, and I completed it between New Orleans and Atlanta during a road trip to return my sister to college. I also got my visa in under a week. Once I got to Sierra Leone, things got a bit more complicated. It turns out the multiple reentry visa, good for one year, is actually useless. All visitors receive a one-month stamp upon entry to Sierra Leone, and that is the golden ticket, not the visa. Outstaying your stamp date can result in “fines” paid without a receipt to the customs agents that shake you down at the airport. I tried several times in Freetown to get my stamp extended (on one occasion the entire immigration office was closed for a funeral), only to find out that it required exorbitant fees, paperwork, “honorariums” to various officials, and trips to multiple government bureaus that had decided upon different regulations that would increase their individual piece of the pie. It turns out that an expatriate, especially one coming to volunteer for an international NGO, is seen by the government as much as by the average Sierra Leonean as a vast and untapped source of unimaginable and fabulous wealth. Unfortunately, this will ultimately result in deterring NGO work and volunteers—who wants to pay several hundred dollars after shelling out airfare and visa fees (not cheap), and committing to work for free for a humanitarian purpose? It’s especially hard to say yes when you know that the money will be eaten. So, I did what many NGOs in Sierra Leone have done in the past: I went upline to deal with my paperwork in the more relaxed and friendly atmosphere of Bo.

In Sierra Leone, it’s relatively easy to get away with things. As long as those activities don’t involve smuggling kilos of cocaine from South America and involving high ranking government officials, which caused a huge scandal in September (though I can imagine that a lot of the planes transporting coke from South America to Western Europe don’t get stopped). Actually, the men arrested for this and tried were recently convicted. The day of their conviction, American forces of one kind or another (allegedly) entered their cells and whisked them to a helicopter and then to a plane that had been waiting several days for the conviction to fly them to the US for drug-related crimes committed on American soil. The US Embassy had no comment. I haven’t found a report online for this yet, but I heard it on the BBC here. Apparently President Ernest Bai Koroma issued a deportation order, which made the American action legal, but all I can imagine is a bunch of spooks in riot gear and balaclavas throwing tear gas into the prison, tearing down the doors, and pulling terrified men out of their cells, putting bags over their heads, and throwing them into the trunk of a car. Though I’d wager that US prison might be a bit more comfortable than the Salonean variety.

Anyway, it’s easy to get away with things—thieves are so brazen precisely because the police don’t respond (unless given a “gift” by the victim, I am told, or unless the victim has good connections), and there is no version of 911 outside of Freetown, and even then, you have to have a certain cell phone carrier to call it. We have the personal phone numbers of friendly policemen in Bo should there be a problem. Almost anything can be bought or swept under the rug as long as you can “remember” or “send for” the responding officer. This means that there is a lot of vigilantism—thieves might be able to get away without being arrested, but they could be severely beaten or even killed by a mob of people should they get caught.

Now, I’m looking at a visa form for South Africa that requires things I’ve never had to do before: chest x-rays to ensure that I am TB-free, proof of financial means, and a background check from the FBI. It all feels a bit excessive. But then again, I’ve been in Sierra Leone for almost eight months now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Ordinary Oddities

As it’s beginning to sink in that I will be leaving Bo in under two weeks and Sierra Leone in less than a month (after a brief detour to Morocco), the ordinary parts of life for me here start to surface as strange, as things that I will not encounter when I return to California. No traffic lights or stop signs, no strict attention to staying on a particular side of the road, children and mothers clutching newborns helmetless on motorbikes, for example.

What hit me last night, as I was shuffling out to turn on the generator for its daily four and half hour run from 6:30 to 11pm, was the strangeness of having 24-hour light. I have not had a day of 24-hour power since December, when my family came to visit and we stayed in a nice Freetown hotel. I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on anyone reading this or trying to prove that I’m tough (I’m not—the generator broke about 2 weeks ago and I had a mini-meltdown). The hospital (and all of Bo) was without municipal power from Thursday evening until this morning, so we had over 5 days without light. The city is powered by a hydroelectric dam that relies on a high water level to function. Now, at the very last gasp of the dry season, there have been longer periods of blackouts. Although the government is supposed to supply the hospital with fuel or with money to purchase fuel, it has all been “eaten” on its long journey from Freetown to Bo, through so many bureaucratic hands. It costs just over $100 to power the hospital for five hours—a considerable expense in a hospital that requires patients to provide their own food, linens, dressings, syringes, and blood, even in emergency situations. In a hospital, lack of power is a serious problem, as one can imagine.

Our house is one of a handful of structures that have generators in our neighborhood—the others include a motel, a private hospital, and a district councilman’s house. It becomes immediately apparent at night who has a generator and who doesn’t—if the flares of light don’t give it away, the chugging of the engines certainly does. Lack of power is a fact of life in Sierra Leone. Most people don’t have it or have it intermittently. Some people have visited me at night just to be able to plug in their cell phones (which became apparent when there was no conversation beyond “How are you? Can I charge my phone?”). Cell phone charging stations are a thriving business. When I returned early from work last Friday, a neighbor, Hawa, asked me a standard greeting: “How de work?” I ended up complaining, with an exasperated gesture “Light no deh na hospitu,” only to realize how ridiculous a gripe this was, since Hawa does not have a generator or even wiring in her house to support a generator. I didn’t feel bad about it—we do need power to function as an organization, and it’s incredibly frustrating to come to work and know that nothing is going to get done until the power comes back—but I did realize how absurd it was.

To have power, I have to request for fuel, get the money, get the jerry cans, take them to the gas station, fill them, bring them back, and then get the tank filled (our caretaker, Amara, siphons the fuel into the tank. I am way too much of a wuss to attempt anything that will most likely end in a mouth full of diesel fuel). Then I have to turn it on and sometimes turn it off, making sure that we aren’t keeping it on too long so there’s enough fuel for the whole week.

It’s the same with water—we have a well, we have to turn on the generator to pump up the water to the tank, and then we have running water. When I first got here in September, we had no power and therefore no running water. When Helen first arrived, Amara was hauling water up to the tank by hand so that she could have running water. Once she figured out what was going on, she asked Amara to stop and enacted bucket showers. We recently had to stop allowing our neighbors to use our well (many do not have one of their own) because of concerns that our well will dry up. As it is, I can see the bottom when I lean over and stare down into the water for a while. And two of our neighbors just dug wells, one of which is under 20 feet away from ours. At the hospital, the pump that WAFF donated broke due to some power surges that destroyed the circuits. The patients usually have to fetch their own water for drinking and then we pay a truck to come in twice a week to fill our ward tanks so that the patients can bathe (in a fistula ward, this is pretty vital).

What’s strange about utilities here is that their sources are so near and so apparent. It’s not turning on a light switch or a faucet and what you need is right there—it’s having to see where the power and water come from everyday and knowing everyday that something could go wrong to stop them coming. The house pump or the generator could break. The gas stations could begin hoarding fuel to create an artificial shortage, as they did when the government forced them all to lower to a standard price (Le 12,500, or $4.15). Fortunately, this did not work, and the brief shortages were more annoying than anything else. I’ve never been so aware of water and power, even though I’ve lived in California during “rolling blackouts” and severe droughts, including the one we’re currently experiencing. Here, every minute the generator is on, I am aware of it and aware of the fuel that it is consuming. Every second I’m in the shower, I feel the water draining out of the tank and being pumped out of the ground.

I’m not optimistic, however, that once I go home I’ll be taking cold army showers and keeping the lights off during the day. These amenities are so convenient and beyond that, so important to functioning as a person, family, or society. Yes, you can get along without them. And yes, the vast majority of Americans and other Global Northerners/people in developed nations/Westerners should conserve a lot more power and water than they currently do. But when I go to the hospital and sit in the dark, listening to the patients pass the office to and from the hand pump, I’d take wasted water any second or lights left on when no one is in the room, if it meant that there was, at the very least, running water and power for the hospitals here. And I can only hope that once I go home, I’ll shave a few minutes off my showers and I’ll remember to turn my computer off at night and unplug it. But first I’ll have to get used to turning on the light switch outside the hours of 6:30-11pm.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Grasping at America

Recently, I had a conversation with a man named Commandah. He detailed his various attempts to get to Europe illegally. Once, he tried to cross the Sahara through Mali to Morocco and from there, a boat to Spain. Like coyotes leading illegal immigrants from Mexico to the US, the “boys” guiding across the Sahara often cheat or rob their desperate clients, forcing them to march until exhaustion or taking away their water and then removing them of all valuables. Commandah marched all night, fearful of desert snakes or being cheated, before he turned around and headed back to Mali. He also tried to stowaway on several boats with the help of bribed accomplices on board. Once, he had to stay strapped into a tiny cot, unable to move except briefly at night when the crew was asleep. He abandoned that venture. I asked him if he would try again to enter Europe. “Not the bad way. Not through the back door. It is the main gate for me,” he said. He now has a wife and child.
Almost everyone I have talked with in Sierra Leone has expressed a desire to go to the US or Europe (except for the 5-year-old daughter of a patient, who shook her head when a woman asked if she wanted to leave with me—clever girl). With the patients, I’ve gotten into a long joking routine where they ask to come with me to America and I tell them they’ll have to stop eating to get “small body” as I open up my purse and point inside, saying “No fine. You body BIG.” This never gets old for them. They’ll ask whether there is palm oil, cassava leaf, and crain-crain (another leafy green) in America. I say no, and I warned them, when they bundled up on mornings that were no cooler than 68 F, that they would be miserable. The usual response is that they’ll pack a five-gallon jug of palm oil with them and they’ll dry cassava leaf. Winter cold, as one may experience in New York or Boston (we won’t get into Chicago, Maine, or the Dakotas) is not a concept for them. One man I spoke to told me that his friend had gone to America legally—a long, intensive, and extremely costly process that often results in a rejection with no monetary refund—only to wish that he could come home. Family pressure kept him from returning to Sierra Leone, after all the money and stress spent on getting him there, and he’s gotten used to it.
It’s sort of strange that the image of the US to people living in such dire circumstances has never changed. Replace a Sierra Leonean wishing to immigrate with a Russian, Italian, or Irish person in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and it’s the same. Everyone is rich and free. The streets are paved with gold (though I prefer “Fievel: An American Tail”—“Where the streets are paved with cheese”). Etc. As I’ve written before, I once had to explain in Senegal that America was still struggling with racism and that Martin Luther King, Jr. had not solved racism in our country. I feel like I’m constantly explaining—the cost of living is so expensive, work is hard to find when you don’t have a lot of experience or education, it will be so different, the food will not be the same, etc, etc, etc. I guess, however, that for most people in the US, things are almost infinitely better—medical care (though expensive) is generally safe and effective, water is almost always clean, malaria, polio and other tropical illnesses are rare to non-existent, and there are job opportunities that will pay incredibly higher salaries than Sierra Leone as long as you can work hard under poor conditions (which is, of course, the standard here anyway). People will work for 60,000 Leones ($20) a month and even lower. Some stay in volunteer jobs for years hoping for full employment. And seeing an expat working for an NGO here reinforces this idea—we have enough money to get over here, at least (one patient was shocked to hear that it costs six million Leones to fly here, then admitted that she wasn’t sure how much six million Leones is), and we drive around in shiny NGO cars and eat out in restaurants or buy expensive groceries from the Lebanese supermarket. But we’re the lucky ones that can afford to come here. And the idea of a world economic crisis is widespread and discussed among Sierra Leoneans, but the image of the rich American is unshakeable, and the dream of becoming that rich American endures.