Sweet Salone and life as a UN Volunteer in Sierra Leone

The women of Mabella, Freetown

All it took was one phone call on a quiet afternoon at home on a very dodgy line, from a woman in Sierra Leone for me to accept a job offer as a United Nations Volunteer with UNIFEM (the women’s agency). I managed to decipher that the job entailed training aspiring women politicians and I reckoned with my years in Toastmasters, it would be a relatively easy affair.  By the time I took up my position, in the usual bureaucratic fashion, the parliamentary elections were all but over, but the local elections were to take place the following year.  I couldn’t catch the woman’s name so I wasn’t quite sure whether  the offer was kosher or not.

Sierra-Leone mao 2It turned out the offer was genuine and I found myself in Freetown again in July 2007.  When I arrived, I had no rows with any drivers at the Freetown end unlike another hair raising experience the previous year and was met by the UN driver at the hovercraft port. I spent the first week in Hotel Mariam, not on any recommended website lists and as my good friend Francesco deducted a long time ago, every crappy hotel you end up in when travelling with the UN has got be owned by a first cousin or brother of the clerk in the travel department. There is no other ungodly reason why you would end up in such dump.  I’m at an age where I like a bit of comfort and even if there is no comfort available, then I look for clean.

freetown peninsula 1This was my first position in the UN and for all its bad reputation I felt at the time it wasn’t the worse place I ever worked.  I suppose it’s like most large bureaucratic organisations and has buried itself under huge mounds of paper.  I never signed so many documents in my life,  but at the end of the day, somebody has to shuffle the piece of paper from one desk to another, so I imagine it creates work. I ended up working with a super bright local woman, whose knowledge was quite impressive.  No crap and loads of good ideas.  We were not allowed use public transport so I was picked up in the mornings by a driver in a four-wheeled drive UN car, although, admittedly it did feel a bit over the top at times.  While a mere volunteer and way down the food chain of the very hierarchical UN, you’re still considered staff and on production of a driver’s licence I was entitled to have access to a UN car at the weekends, giving me great freedom to come and go as I please.


Working in a post-conflict environment is challenging.  The survivors are scarred, both mentally and physically from war and there’s a lot going on under the surface that can take some time to figure out, especially when you come in as an outsider.  Education is one of the first things that suffers because it is not considered life-saving in an emergency situation, so when the teachers leave and it becomes too dangerous to send children to school, the whole infrastructure that supports education breaks down fairly rapidly and sadly can take years to restructure.

In my first week I attended a workshop of ‘would be’ women politicians and discovered their level of knowledge, understanding and education was abysmal.  My task was to help them be elected and understand the machinations’ of the political system. Within the first few weeks, I met just a small handful of women who could hold their own in a parliament.  I was informed there were a few good women candidates but for the most part, most of the women going forward had not finished secondary school and were unaware of the issues facing their country, which was really worrying. 

Peace train

freetown buildings 1I went on the highways and byways with some women’s groups in Sierra Leone, although they were like dirt tracks that roads. Part of my ‘mission’ was to conduct some basic communication training with the women prior to the main elections.  After the August 11 elections, the focus would shift to assisting the women interested in going forward for local elections the following year.

Violence and elections go hand in hand in countries such as Sierra Leone and there were genuine fears among the communities that elections would turn violent, which would result in fewer women turning out to vote. Some of the nastier politicians (and there are plenty across the continent of Africa) set out to use scare tactics, so people would not go out and exercise their vote.  

The women organised a peace train with some of the sisters from Liberia coming over to visit the areas where violence was expected to erupt. The woman who was to look after the logistics went off on a field trip to Guinea and left nobody in charge so there was no bus, no police clearance, no accommodation, no halls books, no speakers booked… diddly, nada, zilch.  She came back from Guinea on the Friday and the women were due from Liberia on Sunday.  Talk about creating stress – it’s all so unnecessary but it left us like headless chickens for the week prior to the ‘big’ event.

President Ellen Sirleaf JohnsoLeymah Gbowee, who subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson (pictured  here in the right) for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work, led the group from Liberia.  

Leymah GboweeLeymah (pictured here on the left)  is certainly a woman who can certainly talk the talk, but her administrative skills were obviously not high on her priorities and as I chased her and the logistics woman for many weeks looking for the receipts of the trip, taking time that could be otherwise used much more productively.  Fair play to Irish Aid, who ultimately paid for the women to travel on the peace train.


sierra leone 3 africaFr Joe, with whom I was working the previous January, came down from Makeni and I had lunch with him during my first weeks in ‘Salone’.   He’s the local priest who is running the radio station and development studies centre and a good man, just a pity he’s so Catholic.  “Good morning Christians” is the morning greeting on the station despite the fact that 60 per cent of the population is Muslim.  The last I heard, Fr Joe was still working in Makeni and turning the development studies centre into Makenis’ first university. I’m not so sure of the standards that would be reached in the university though, but you have to start somewhere.  I also met up with my friend Emmanuel whom I trained in the Gambia in 2002 and who made life a lot easier for me around Freetown.   Having some local knowledge is always good in these situations.

Living Conditions

freetown sierra leoneI moved in to a ‘residence’ and shared with some of the Zimbabwean mafia that transferred with the Senior Representative of the Secretary General (SRGS), otherwise known as the boss of the mission, when he moved from Zimbabwe to Salone.  The accommodation was located across the road from the main UN mission, the converted Mammy Yoko Hotel, that housed the offices and support for the mission.  The offices were formerly bedrooms and frequently the headboards were still on the walls of the office, with each office also having its own bathroom.  Mammy Yoko’s is due to open in late 2013 as a Radisson Blu – I wonder how that will work out although the location is fantastic, across the road from Lumley Beach.

You would swear where I was living was all posh and upmarket, but in fact it was typical of a country where standards had dropped because of the war. The floors were tiled with little or no grouting and hand-made bed frames with wooden slats and lumpy mattresses – otherwise, it was a grand place.  There was a little kitchen off my bedroom which had a kitchen sink, two shelves and nothing else!  The bedroom had a balcony with a view of the Atlantic Ocean and there was a walkway across the road through a gate that leads on to the beach.

freetown sierra beachI shared with another UNV, a Zimbabwean woman Emily who was good fun and likes her glass of wine in the evening after work.  She was also a divorcee volunteer and paying for her 21-year-old son to go to university in Australia, her 14-year-old to go to boarding school, her  diabetic mother in Zimbabwe and her brother’s child who was orphaned when both his parents became victims of HIV/AIDS.  I had great admiration for Emily who was one of the most optimistic people I think I ever had the pleasure to meet.

Emily worked in the Department of Safety and Security (DSS) and knew everything that was going on – she was like the Oracle!  There was never a dull moment around her, she had some great contacts and very much a member of the Zim Mafia that inhabited the UN in Freetown at the time. The Zim Bridies as I nicknamed them, adopted me into their circle. They were a small network of some very lowly workers like myself and some extremely high profile people.  I knew more about hairdressing African style and how far apart the lines should be for the braids and how long it takes for black African hair to turn blonde (a very, very long time to have chemicals on your head).  I learned more about designers and handbags than I would ever find out in Ireland and dear mother of god they spend hours and hours doing hair and nails.  I would sit reading books about post-9/11 terror and female genital mutilation while Emily would sprawl on the couch with her nail polish, glass of wine and girly magazines. 


sierra leone rain bikeI had never quite come across anyone who could throw about orders the way Emily managed it.  Our cleaning lady was Fatimata, a local girl who lived close by. She showed up every morning for work, usually in time to have the washing handed to her before we left the building.  When Emily wanted Fatimata’s attention she could be heard in the next compound screeching her name at the top of her voice. Ibrahim, the Senegalese lived in the apartment below us.  His brother traded between Senegal and Sierra Leone so Ibrahim was a bit of a caretaker for his brother’s place and did odd jobs like switching on and off our generator when the electric went off.  I could never figure out who paid Ibrahim or whether he just came as part of the deal in the rental. A native French speaker, I often thought that his poor English language skills gave the impression he was a small bit slow, but in retrospect I think he just didn’t understand us.  There when days I felt sorry for Fatimata and would plead with Emily to lay off shouting orders.

Emily would have grown up with this and knew just how to put the pressure on to get the work out of Fatimata and Ibrahim.  I got home from work one evening and there was no sign of either of the pair of them.  Reluctant to shout anyone’s name out, I politely stood on the balcony calling for either of them to come, to no avail.  I ended up turning on the laptop for light as it was gone 7.30 p.m. and pitch dark.  Coming up to 8 o’clock and the sound of a car at the gates saw both Fatimata and Ibrahim falling over each other to make it up the stairs before Emily arrived at the door.  Seems like I had no influence on them at all and it only took the thoughts of Emily to make either of them inclined to do anything.

Electricity and repairmen

A child carries an umbrella in pouring rain in the slum of Susan's Bay in Sierra Leone's capital FreetownDuring the elections we had electricity practically 24/7, which was a real treat.  Most of Sierra Leone at the time was not connected to the grid, their system falling apart but we lived in the area with the greatest concentration of important people, so had access to the NPA (National Power Association) when it worked.  There were frequent huge surges in power,  so a body had to go searching to ensure that plugs were anti-surge.  Emily had bought a TV and unfortunately had no anti-surge so the telly blew a fuse one fine evening, not there was much to see except some dreadful Nigerian soap operas, so popular all over the continent.

We had two guys who called to the house and started demanding huge sums of money to open the back of the TV and tell us what was wrong.  Emily was having none of it and told them in no uncertain terms to ‘get lost’.  I threw in my tuppence worth of course, “Aah, they saw my white skin and the price quadrupled,” and I’m certain that it did.  Fatimata then proceeds to take it upon herself to listen in to the negotiation and speak on our behalf, pointing out to the guys that we are in their country to help with the peace and just poor volunteers. We managed to get a 50 per cent reduction, although I should have offered to open the back of the TV myself.   It subsequently went off to the workshop with no sign of return many weeks later.

In the subsequent weeks, Fatimata proceeded to take on the role of the TV and provide us with entertainment!  She began telling stories of previous tenants and their habits – she just didn’t tell stories, she acted them out, prancing up and down the living room wagging her finger and taking on a different persona.  I spent my time trying not to laugh out loud encouraging her further.  Fatimata would have made a great comedienne if life had been a little kinder to her.

Auntie Marie became the butt of Fatimata’s play acting. She was the maid for the Senegalese and we would get a blow by blow of Auntie Marie’s love life and the boyfriend who hangs out on the beach and the constant fighting that went on between them.  I often wondered what stories Fatmata would eventually tell of myself and Emily and to whom she would tell them.


sierra leone freetown rainIt rains for six months of the year in Sierra Leone and when I arrived it was weeks before it stopped raining.  Luckily Freetown is so hilly, otherwise it would suffer severe frequent flooding.  I have no reason to believe it’s any different when the side streets would turn into raging torrents of brown water and I often thought it must be possible to do some brown water rafting (as opposed to white water rafting) in the middle of the downpour, if you had the inclination.  The only shoes to wear are flip flops, that way you don’t get upset to see a good pair of leather sandals destroyed .  People regularly wade knee deep through the streets and whether you have an umbrella or not it doesn’t make any difference when there’s driving rain.  When the sun does shine in Sierra Leone the white strand beaches are stunning and the diaspora flock home during the Christmas season, when the weather there is at its best. 

Until next time.

Yours, Fagan.

Orla Fagan Travel Writer

24 thoughts on “Sweet Salone and life as a UN Volunteer in Sierra Leone

  1. Impressive! I haven’t read it all yet, but the beautiful photos brought back West Africa, and from the peninsular snap came the Mammy Yoko and the Bintimani. That was a quick trip back to 1996, Liberian refugees and Charles Gankey Taylor (now a convicted war criminal!)

    1. Thanks for the comments. There will be part II to the Salone story… Must get cracking on it. In the meantime, there’s a new blog out today. I hope you enjoy.

    2. Good to hear from you Orla.

      I tried to reply to the blog and said I was no longer on my Pat Malone! Sorry I can’t reply more extensively now. I hope you got my comment

      DJ (Jim) Mason AM
      President Bellarine Landcare Group Inc.

      2011 Bellarine Highway
      Marcus Hill
      Victoria 3222

      Landline +61 (0) 3 5258 5007
      Mobile +61 (0) 409581447

      1. Thanks for the support Jim. Hope all is good with you and you’re still fixing up the house. I’m in South African writing up a strategy for the ILO at the moment. My best wishes to Lynn. xx

      2. Hi Jim
        Back in the madness of Manila and trying to must up some energy to write again. Short contract hopefully and no damaging typhoons with a bit of luck I may get out for Xmas! Hope you’re good there Jim.

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