Tag Archives: Sierra Leone

Baby Nasha, back in Sierra Leone.

Shenannigans in Freetown

sierra leone africa mapI 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.


The women of Mabella, FreetownEmily 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

freetown buildings 1Emily’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

freetown peninsula 1I 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.


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