Sunday 21 December 2014

Freetown Christmas Hamper Delivery 2014

Festive edition. The final post for this year, featuring the 4th food basket delivery. However, with a twist. Christmas hampers this time. Not to Ebola quarantined homes. But to others suffering in Freetown through the impact of Ebola. The already fragile economy has virtually collapsed. Sierra Leone is a poor country with no safety net. Where most of you sit, and me in a few days, Christmas is the highlight of our year. For many in Freetown, it's another grim day of struggle, as well as for millions of others across Sierra Leone, Liberia & Guinea. The inflicted and the affected. Today we visit some of the affected...

There's a saying that every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. Doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle... when the sun comes up, you'd better be running. This feels the case now. Everyone's running... everyone's trying to survive...

What's the latest situation? Ebola has now killed more than 7,300 people this year in West Africa. There have been nearly 2,500 deaths in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone has the highest number of cases at 8,800. Liberia has the highest number of deaths. Over 3,300.

Sierra Leone, Liberia & Guinea currently have 5 million children who've not been schooled for the past 5 months. This week officials in Sierra Leone began house-to-house searches in Freetown to find hidden cases of Ebola. Sunday trading is banned and travel between districts restricted.

Public celebrations of Christmas and New Year have been banned. Christmas has been efficiently cancelled by the government. This is part of a broader package of measures aimed at breaking the chain of transmission. It's called the Western Area Surge. Hopefully, things will begin to turn in the New Year. Some positive underlying indicators are emerging, particularly in Liberia.

Anyway, we have a few calls to make, mostly to old friends. Let's start at the Crown Bakery on Wilberforce Street. Are you ready? Let's go. First, my team. 'The Divas' have enjoyed plenty of name checks throughout the blog. Here they are in all their glory...

Oh, and talking of the Divas, the 3 things you know it's December in Freetown. 

  1. Rainy season is over - a pleasant Harmattan (desert winds), meaning the dry season has arrived.

  2. Christmas kitsch appears in the Lebanese owned supermarkets. 

  3. Divas staying late at the office (annual bonus time).

We begin this morning with a team breakfast at the Crown Bakery in town. Let's go outside and meet the team who 'work' this patch...

Chairman is Joseph Saidu Conteh. He leads an organised group of 55, nearly all of whom are disabled. Established in 2002. Their motto, ‘Disability Is Not Inability’. They use money received, mostly from patrons of the Crown, and other well-wishers to take care of their families. 

We present the Christmas hamper to the Chairman & Deputy Chairman. Are they beggars? No. Do they hustle? Yes, they have to. Do they have jobs? No. Are they a nuisance? No. Well, perhaps sometimes. They have dignity. They can be entertaining. They can be a handful. 

The Deputy Chairman makes me laugh with his demands each time I see him. What does this interaction mean? Well, VIP parking, eased in and out of the traffic, and far more importantly a smile, and good-natured bonhomie.

Today was the big one. A Christmas hamper, together with a 50 kgs bag of rice. They were of course delighted. It was heartwarming to see them happy and cheering. I made a short speech as crowds gathered to watch the entertainment. The Chairman responded on behalf of his group. Then, predictably the Deputy takes me to one side; they needed help with housing. I remind the deputy he's a pain in the arse and be happy for now. Sounds harsh I know; there are groups outside many restaurants, bars, supermarkets - you can't help everyone. I wish I could. If the deputy didn't press for more, I'd be surprised. We set up our Christmas scene, complete with hats, a small Christmas tree, tinsel etc.

Next up is a visit to the Army vets who live at the back of Wilberforce Barracks. The Chairman of the group is retired Corporal, Farma Jalloh. He leads around 900 former soldiers who were either wounded or disabled in the Sierra Leone war. Corporal Jalloh was struck by RPG fragments in 1998 and has been blind since. He retired from the Army, 28th Feb 2006, after serving 16 years. 

Some veterans joined him, as well as his children and other family members. Corporal Jalloh was overwhelmed and responded with a moving speech of gratitude. He was dignified, articulate and passionate in his leadership of the veterans and his fight to obtain a better deal for his men. There was no trace of bitterness but the quiet anger of having to live on a pension of Le13,000 a month (less than $3).

What's Christmas usually like in a West Africa free from Ebola? Christmas is extremely hot. In many of Africa's predominantly Muslim countries, including Sierra Leone, Christmas is still marked for celebration. Secularism has taken to meaning everyone celebrates all holidays. Christmas can be best described as a social event in Sierra Leone. Not this year.

Broadly speaking in Africa the emphasis is more on the religious aspects and singing in church, than on gift giving. The most common purchase is a new set of clothes for church. Not this year.

In Sierra Leone, the diaspora usually returns in large numbers bringing with them gifts and valuable money from overseas. Not this year. 

Extended families are enormous compared to European or North American norms. Family parties and social interaction typically takes place outdoors, and the beaches are packed. Not this year. Christmas has been largely curtailed.

Back to the hampers. 'Roy's Bar' on Lumley Beach. The group 'working' this bar is called the United Beach Organisation. The UBO. The Chairman is Moses Kamara. He leads a group of mostly 20 amputees and disabled. Moses had his leg amputated by rebels in 1999. He was 10 years old at the time. This is a prime spot to hustle. One of the best in Freetown during normal times. The Chairman is happy and has a few of his group in attendance. These guys normally 'work' the evenings. The opposite to the Crown where they 'work' the day shift. 

Last call. We head further along Lumley Beach towards the Aberdeen area. The group is the Aberdeen Beach Development Organisation (ABDO). 150 members and established 1982. Some here today are original members. These fellows take care of the beach. They've planted trees. They provide 'security' to visitors in the area. They make some money with beach barbecues, fishing, excursions, etc. The Chairman is Glen Mends and the Deputy Sheku Kamara. We had a great time with the ABDO and took photos on the beach.

Right. Time to fly back to the UK for Christmas. Family time. I reflect on Father Christmas and the 4 phases of life through this prism. You are a believer, you don't believe, you are Father Christmas, and finally, you look like him. Luckily still in phase 3.  

In closing, may I take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Happy Christmas in Krio? Appi Krismes. 

See you all in 2015...

P.S. I arrived back in the UK last Thurs. Warm hugs from my Mother-in-Law. What happened to her self-imposed Ebola quarantine protocols? I think she's still on a high from Halloween...

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