Shenannigans in Freetown
I got back from work one Saturday to find the Zim Bridies (Zimbabwean women) on the couch with the bottles of nail polish out and Fatmata standing on the balcony with a baby in her arms. The baby had been taken in by Aunty Marie (the down stairs cleaning lady). According to Aunty Marie, the child’s mother Anna, had threatened to throw the baby into the Atlantic because she didn’t want it. Abduli Nasha is the most beautiful baby imaginable.
We contributed donations for food and nappies and Fatmata was sent out to make the purchases. When he began screeching for food I took out the formula only to discover it was porridge suitable for children from two years. Rather than chance killing the child with solids, we bundled him up and he was brought off to Maria’s (another Zim Bridie) who was mother to a one-year-old boy. Fatmata went along as the chief child minder and was in her element, sitting up in the UN vehicle with the babe in her arms willing her friends to see her in such a flash car.
Maria shared a rather large apartment in a modern building and has been working in Salone for some time. Her home is sumptuous by Sierra Leonean standards. Fatmata’s eyes, by all accounts were hanging out of her head trying to take in the luxury in Maria’s home in order to relate to her friends later that evening. The Mission to Stop the Baby Crying arrived back an hour or so later with the baby washed, changed, fed and sleeping.
We lived in the upstairs part of the house that was accessed by an outside stairs. After a few days Aunty Marie would appear up the stairs to our quarters with the baby and when we would all gather to cooo and aaah around him, she would be spotted trying to sneak out the door, leaving child and responsibility behind.
No one day was the same as the previous and we muddled along, trying to do what we felt was best for the baby. There was a sense of responsibility to Nasha and I worried that he wasn’t getting his nourishment. About a week had passed after he became part of our lives, when unannounced, Anna returned and brought Nasha off with her. We suspect that somebody told her that the foreigners would give her money for his keep and he would be a good source of income. While we were prepared to buy formula and other necessities for Nasha, we weren’t parting with cash for Anna, who we suspect had no intentions on spending it on her baby.
At the time Nasha was removed from the house, I was up country but I heard Aunty Marie was very upset and there were rivers of tears and dramatics galore. According to Fatmata she had been feeding him gin when he was crying, which somehow failed to surprise me. Anna, obviously having difficulty coping with Nasha returned a couple of nights later and we convinced her to leave the baby with Aunty Marie. It was the best option at the time despite the fact that Aunty Marie smoked and drank way too much but attempted to redeemed herself by visiting the mosque every evening.
All the Bridies said they’d take Nasha if he was a girl, but they had no interest in taking on a boy – they had too many boys between them. Anna had appeared back a few times to visit but could hardly hold him properly and the last time we saw her she looked very under the weather. Nasha was at the time thriving, but hygiene wasn’t a priority in the household, so if we weren’t around to keep an eye on things standards slipped dramatically and I didn’t hold out much on his chances.
Emily was my closest friend in the residence, full of fun and personality with a generous nature, we got on well. She was terribly homesick though and constantly worried about her mother and the availability of diabetic medicine for her in Harare and of course the welfare of her children. Six weeks after I moved in, Emily decided to return to Zimbabwe and her family.
A country that was once the food basket of Africa, Zimbabwe was divided up and shared out among the supporters of its president Robert Mugabe. The previous distribution of land and wealth among the white population certainly wasn’t equitable, but neither was the last distribution to people who knew little of farming but plenty about corruption. Many ordinary Zimbabweans go hungry; educations standards, once the best in Africa have gone down the tubes and what was once held up as an example of how progress is possible, sadly transmuted with Mugabe’s meglomania. Unless you had a job in an international organisation, then life for the majority of Zimbabweans is just a daily struggle for survival. Luckily for Emily, she went back to a promotion in the UN in Harare so at least she had something to return to.
Prior to Emily’s stint in Sierra Leone, shopping in Zimbabwe would entail travel by car to South Africa but there is little fuel for sale to the public in Zimbabwe and trying to fill a petrol tank can take four to five hour queuing. Having a decent job guaranteed that she could afford to fly to Johannesburg every few months to stock up on essentials.
As Emily’s departure became more imminent the shopping and packing began in earnest. I have yet to meet anybody to have so many suitcases after such a relatively short space of time. Several of the staff who arrived as election observers were cajoled into bringing some of her suitcases back but she still had four cases at the airport and the wanted to charge her $1,600. She produced a few tears and bargained them down to $500, the allowance given to the UN volunteers for repatriation. African clothes and the wonderful West African material from Nigeria and Ghana is cheap in comparison to Zimbabwe and in her usual entrepreneurial manner Emily intended to sell off most of what she was bringing back and make a decent profit for herself.
During our evenings together, I began to notice how Emily would casually talk about “the other day.” It didn’t take me long to realise that there was something amiss about this statement. When I speak about “the other day,” it usually refers to a day during the past week. When Emily began saying things like “the other day when I went to work in Harare,” I realised it’s been more than a year since she had worked in Harare. So when she would come up with a statement that would start “the other day,” I would have to ask would that be a week, month, six months or a year ago? She’d just grin and announce it was probably a couple of months ago.
Fatmata continued to hold a dual role of cleaning lady and entertainer, mimicing everybody who came through the door. Prior to Emily’s departure she sat on a chair in the hall sobbing, saying that her landlord had brought some prostitutes into the house and when she refused to share a room with them he took her foam (mattress). Now she was sleeping on the floor and it was so cold she couldn’t sleep (it never drops below 24 degrees Centigrade)! When it gets ‘cold’, Fatmata wears lots of layers and yellow woollen knitted hat that looks like a tea cosy sitting on top of her head.
At 29-years and already a grandmother – Fatmata had her first born when she was 11/12 years old. Many girls in Sierra Leone have finished reproducing by the time they reach 18, when most young women in the developed world still feel they have too much to lose if they had children at such a young age. Fatmata’s eldest son would come to visit from the fire station around the corner where he worked. Dressed in his fireman’s outfit with enormous Wellington boots he was brought up the stairs, to be shown off to us.
Fatmata’s mother would come to visit now and again and appeared one day, feeling poorly. She (Fatmata) looked for an advance on her wages so she could send the mother home, otherwise she’d have to feed her for the week if she stayed – it was cheaper to get her home. She greeted me one morning with a huge hug as I walked out the door of my room, telling me I was her mother and father because Emily and I went halves and bought her a new foam. She said she had a wonderful sleep and was delighted to have sweated throughout the night.
Enemies in Big Brother
Emily’s departure changed the dynamics in Big Brother and relations between myself and the others in the house deteriorated rapidly on Emily’s departure. Not long after the departure we came to a position of no return.
There were a number of heated debates with the Bridies over the whole housekeeper thing. I had to fight to ensure Fatmata had a day off on Sunday, pointing out that we were working for a human rights organisation and weren’t doing much in terms of implementing them. The Bridies argued that she liked being in the house on Sundays. However, since she had a new found day off, she found somewhere else to hang out on Sundays. In all fairness, there were days when you ended up doing Fatmata’s job for her because she was skiving off somewhere and totally out of ear-shot. I didn’t mind doing things for myself but I wasn’t going to clean up in the common areas of kitchen and living room.
The Bridies eventually showed their true colours and dispensed with Fatmata’s services because they felt that a contribution of $15 per month, per person was too much to pay as a salary. This happened at a time when I was advotating a salary increase. Not only did Fatmata clean for us, she fetched things from the market, handwashed our clothes and did the ironing.
At around that time I had also decided it was about time to be proactive about doing something for the baby. As time passed Fatmata reported Nasha wasn’t doing too good.
SOS and Sargeant Betty
I discussed the issue with my supervisor in UNIFEM and she advised that I try to get Nasha in to the SOS home for children. The first step was to report the situation to the family support unit at the police station and then to social welfare (whose credentials were dubious with substantive rumours of child trafficing for the babies who came into their care). In countries recovering from a post-conflict trauma, the UN work with the elected government to push forward child protection measures and have been known to put good policies in place.
Our working hours were 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Sierra Leone has a large Muslim population so the official working day on Friday ended at 1 p.m. in order to give the Muslim colleagues an opportunity to visit the mosque for weekly prayers. I managed to leave work early one Friday to head down to the family support unit and Sergeant Betty. I was ushered in to a room and was happy that Segeant Betty knew her stuff and more importantly what was best for Nasha. She wanted to meet the mother and baby, so we drove Sergeant Betty back up to the house and I phoned ahead for Aunty Marie to pick up the child and bring him along.
The difference in the baby was shocking – in a matter of a couple of weeks he had lost so much weight, he just lay there limp in Aunty Marie’s arms. I discovered they were feeding him Magi Cubes (something equivalent to Oxo or Bovril) in his bottle. Magi Cubes are used in cooking in West Africa and are high in monosodium glutamate (the awful flavour enhancer). Anna seemed to have drug and alcohol issues. Far be it from me to cast judgement on some of these women who spent their childhood living through a brutal war and who didn’t know the basics of cooking, let alone coping with children of their own. It’s no wonder that Sierra Leone had one of the highest child mortality rates in the world, where one in four children don’t live past the the age of five.
I believed Nasha had problems – not following light or focusing as he should for his age, but he still smiled and laughed when he was fed, watered and dry. Aunty Marie and I had frequent discussions about this and she insisted that his sight was fine as she poked the child in the eye.
I have to say Sgt. Betty was extremely impressive, although she was trying her best for me to take on the responsibility of the child. She explained everything to the mother; she could have access to Nasha in the SOS home, where he would be well looked after and educated but she wouldn’t have guardianship. We aimed to have the whole affair sorted out in the coming week and the people in SOS to sort out the paperwork necessary for guardianship.
There was always some drama going on in the house. Everyone had gathered to discuss Nasha’s future… Aunty Marie, Sgt. Betty, Nasha and his mother along with Fatmata, myself and a friend who was visiting for the weekend. Out of nowhere, in the middle of the discussions Fatmata burst into tears, howling at the fact that Emily’s replacement, a Ghanaian woman had screeched at her demanding to know what rate she charged to clean the house. Fatmata mimicked her so accurately I had to look twice to see she wasn’t in the room.
Sgt. Betty’s head was in a spin, between trying to come to grips with the story of the baby and the fact that the mother is claiming the father is dead (although Aunty Marie and Fatmata say he’s not dead, just married) and Fatmata’s indignation at being a victim to such bad treatment, it was almost a relief to be taking a plane to Lagos and Abuja the next day just to get a bit of peace and quiet.
I had set everything up for Nasha’s care and it seemed as if everybody concerned was in agreement, so I departed for Nigeria with an easy mind.
Until next time.
Post Script: Emily returned to her beloved family and went back to work in the UN. We hooked up now and again with infrequent phone calls and emails. At one stage she told me she was going to Johannesburg to have her womb removed, they had found cervical cancer. Emily was just 42 when she passed in July 2010. The following year I had an email telling me that her son who was studying in Australia was knocked down by a drunk driver and died. They brought him home to be buried with his Mum. In a way, I was glad Emily wasn’t around to bear witness to such tragedy, it would have broken her heart.