Lehman alumnus Joe Diomede (B.A., ’83) has traveled from his home in France to Sierra Leone on the West African coast, a nation still recovering from a brutal decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. An avid cyclist, Diomede is working for the next three months with an organization called the Village Bicycle Project (villagebicycleproject.org) to repair and refurbish bicyles, a means of transportation that can dramatically improve both the lives and economic futures of those residing in villages far from the city center. He is sharing his experiences in a blog with the Lehman community.
October 4, 2012
Yes, Africa … always a challenge around the corner. Now that I have somewhat settled into my own groove here, all the other challenges come to the fore. Corruption is an ongoing theme in Sierra Leone, and with elections coming up in November you see some billboards boasting “Transparency is fine if you have nothing to hide.” That may be great for a political campaign full of false promises, but the corruption has a direct affect on life here. Bikes that arrive from Freetown need to travel along the road with various checkpoints along the way during the day. All the checkpoints need bribes for the bikes to get through. There is nothing illegal about transporting bikes, indeed nothing much looks legal on the roads here, but it’s a chance to make a buck. So bikes tend to get sent later in the night when checkpoints are closed, which means deliveries here at the clinic later than 10 p.m. Not the best when there is no electricity,which means lots of working with headlamps and other various lighting, and making sure you keep clear of walking through big puddles as it is the rainy season and the ground is constantly wet.
A local election took place last week, and much to our chagrin, Karim, our “fitter” (local parlance for “mechanic”) was caught up in some riot because his small “bikeshop” was in the line of fire. He was arrested and then robbed by a local policeman, so we had to cancel our workshop. He spent three nights in prison and received a black eye for his non-involvement. Fortunately a local politician with some pull vouched for him, along with a few others who were wrongly arrested, and they were set free, but now remains the problem of the stolen money. Who knows what the outcome will be?
We had to cancel another workshop because there was a small strike in a village, and some violence ensued. The mining companies take much out of the earth here but don’t give too much back, so there is some animosity between locals and the big companies, but locals also work for the companies and that is where the lines get blurry. Some tension seems to come and go between the two sets of locals. We are known as “the bike people” and can pretty much stay away from major problems, but we obviously aren’t immune to the effects of everything from crooked policemen to a rise in fuel prices and a road system in great disrepair so it takes hours to travel what should normally be a 30-minute drive. The other day, I was in a small car. (Americans reading this think compact, Europeans think midsize). A typical five-seater car here crams in four people across the front so both the driver and the passenger share a seat with someone, and the second person in the passenger seat must shift up his bum every time the driver needs to change gear. Across the backseat five or six might be crammed in.
We were traveling along when a thought flashed across my mind. I am taking some risks here, I know, but with all of us in the car driving along the potholed road, I was thinking what if we had a blow out? How much am I really willing to risk? Minutes later, we stopped as the driver needed to sort out a funny noise in the front wheel well (!) We then proceeded more slowly after he cut a piece of tread off the tire, but the inevitable boom happened, blowing the tire to shreds. We were all fine because we were going so slowly. It’s a chaos that seems to work here. Mini vans are crammed to bursting with the height of the vehicle nearly doubled with luggage, wood, bicycles, or whatever else can be strapped to the roof. Three on the ubiquitous Okara (motorcycle transport) is the unspoken norm. Helmets? Hmmmm … I remember those from somewhere. Yes, in Europe or America you wouldn’t go very far without being stopped, but that would grind this country’s commerce to a halt, and Sierra Leone needs all the help it can get.
Petrol is an interesting affair here, too. There are small stands with 1.5 liter water bottles filled to the liter mark with petrol
(gasoline). These top-ups are what people put in their tanks a little at a time. Oil is sold the same way. Again, it works, but in that same desperate way everything else does, on a wing and a prayer. The fact that we are able to get out into the bush and do workshops for twenty people is a direct result of the same chaotic system. Twenty bikes strapped onto a small truck that can hold ten bikes is normal, and we bounce along the rutted roads with half-naked children calling out “Opoto” (“White man”), as we deliver a few more two-wheeled, petrol-free salvation to those who will be using their bicycles for many years to come. David, the man who started VBP, is here with me at the mo. He loves bikes, and we both enjoy the subtlety of the political and social comment his little program is making. In Ghana, thousands of people are on bikes because of those overloaded vehicles hauling bikes through the bush. Now here that model is slowly being copied.
So we drive through the backroads, wave at the small children, and smile at the topless women who are a common scene in the hot stickiness of the rainy season. There are no sexual connotations to the nakedness here—like everything else, it just seems to be a matter of survival, but survival with a smile as they pump water from the pumps on the outskirts of every village, kindly put there no doubt by another local or international NGO. Another common saying here is, “Topia?” (“How’s the body?”) And the bizarrely non-congruous answer is “Tanto Koru” (“Thanks to God”). I think the word “Fine” is to be understood to proceed the ‘Thanks to God’ answer, but like many things here, something seems to be missing. Be it the control for the electric windows, so you must touch the wires to lower them, or the treads on the tires carrying you to the destination, or maybe that one liter of petrol barely getting you — crammed in closely with other sweaty, smiling people — to your destination. Something seems to be missing, but maybe it’s just my Western mentality not catching on.
The jungle is green this time of year, there are smiling people selling fruits, drinks, and cooked foods whenever the car you are in stops for that one more passenger or swerves to miss a pothole that would easily wreck a rim. I will draw on another mouthful from the plastic water bags sold everywhere as I catch my breath. “How’s the body?” A bit twisted, crammed in, sweaty, constipated, dehydrated, deftly trying to avoid typhoid, cholera, and malaria. The short answer, though, “Thanks to God!”