Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Why we need an Indian compass

In January this year, my friend Chetna Mahadik came to me with a business idea, a travel website that catered to the new age Indian traveller. The site would offer not information, but infotainment specifically our experiences living in and travelling around Europe.

This website is about things guidebooks don’t tell you, like where to go for Yash Chopra’s Switzerland or a word of caution not to forget an adapter when travelling across continents. These are not reviews, but our three years living in Europe condensed into hilarious anecdotes and a series of unfortunate events like getting stuck on borders and bad mushroom trips in Amsterdam.

Already Indian Compass has 121 Facebook likes and it’s less than a month old. Our friend Sakshi Ojha is helping Chetna manage the site and I occasionally contribute when my work schedule allows it.

I would definitely recommend a look. Even if you’re not looking to travel, it’s a collection of short well written pieces that hold your hand through the continent, in a friendly sort of way.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Would you be my girlfriend?

When I first arrived in Sierra Leone almost two years ago, I couldn’t get into a cab without being asked for my phone number or having a note slipped into my hand by an eager Sierra Leonean man. I even had a motorcycle taxi driver suggest to me that he was a good lover. I started giving out my housemate Stephen’s phone number and felt incredibly guilty every time he got an unwanted call.

As my Krio got better, the male attention stopped and I began getting offers from women wanting to be my girlfriend. I was flattered. I attributed it to the fact that they no longer found me threatening. For the men, I was no longer new and interesting.

Then last year everything stopped altogether. No more ‘I love you’ or ‘I want you’ or even a ‘Good friend good friend.’ No one hassles me in taxis anymore or offers to carry my bags (which I miss to be honest!). The money changers on the kerbs even stopped offering me change. Worst off all, instead of ‘white girl, they started calling me Ma and Mommy.’ Even the women stopped asking to be my friend. Maybe I’d blended in to the point of becoming invisible.

Then yesterday, as I was walking to my favourite cafĂ© Bliss from home, a young girl of about 16 came up to me and said she wanted me for her girlfriend. “I’ll keep a look out for you,” she said. Yeah, I still got it baby!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Who bears the greatest responsibility?

Living in Sierra Leone has made me think carefully about the chain of responsibility for war crimes and acts of terrorism. The Special Court for Sierra Leone decided to concentrate its energies on only those who bore the greatest responsibility for the crimes against humanity that were committed during the decade long civil war. So only the leaders of the rebel groups and Liberian head of state Charles Taylor were indicted, 13 people in total, not every single person that fought on the streets or amputated their own people. Except Taylor, whose trial is still underway, eight people have received life sentences.

The decision by a special court in India last week on the Godhra issue, made me think about responsibility once again. In this verdict 11 people have been sentenced to death and 25 life sentences have been given out. Going back a bit, the Godhra incident refers to the burning of a train in 2002 carrying Hindu pilgrims by Muslim protestors. This led to bloody riots in the state of Gujarat where about 1,000 Muslims citizens were massacred.

Are the right people taking the fall? As this Hindustan Times article points out, who takes the blame for the bloodbath against Muslims that followed the burning? Who bears the greatest responsibility in this case? 11 people might die as a result of this sentencing but we need to think about whose orders they were following and whether the right people were indicted.

In Sierra Leone and in many international criminal tribunals such as Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the doctrine of Joint Criminal Enterprise has been employed. While it is quite complex, if simplified it means that a number of individuals had a common plan to commit a crime. Last year Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi was given a clean chit in the riots case. Last week a cleric named Maulvi Umarji was among those acquitted last week. The Special Investigative Team (SIT) found that he had ordered his lieutenants to carry out the attacks. It is widely acknowledged that these were politically motivated decisions. Both the burning and the targeted genocide that took place against Muslims were well planned, not spontaneous acts of violence. How is it possible that no incriminating evidence was found against either of them? The same goes for the 1992 bomb blasts and riots in Mumbai. Everyone knows the Shiv Sena were involved, but will anyone ever invoke the joint criminal enterprise against the Thackerey family?

In Sierra Leone, people murmur that many army leaders were not indicted or convicted because of political reasons. While bodies like the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the special court in India should not be politically slanted, unfortunately it is often people with influence that escape punishment.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

All aboard Gaddafi?

You can catch the 6 am bus from Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown to the southern capital city Bo. You would spend about 5 hours on a bright green luxury bus, probably the most comfortable way of travelling between cities in the country. These days, with developing world events you would pay closer attention when people call it the Gaddafi buse. This is because some of the best vehicles owned by the public in Sierra Leone were donated by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the popular name has stuck.

'Gaddafi mosque' in central Freetown-photograph by Allison Cross

Gaddafi has always supported Sierra Leone, although some times in less admirable ways. He was one of the main supporters of the 11 year civil war in Sierra Leone pumping money and arms into the hands of RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh and Liberian president Charles Taylor. In 1985, Taylor went to Libya and received military training as a guest of Gaddafi, this is where he met Sankoh and the rest is bloody history. Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission even recommended that Libya pay reparations for its role in the conflict.

In recent years his support has come in the form of food aid, transport and money to build a beautiful mosque in the eastern part of Freetown. This is now popularly known as the Gaddafi mosque and is indeed quite striking. Apart from this there are partnerships to build hotels, mine rutile, bauxite and iron and also introduce the Libyan mobile network GreenNet into Sierra Leone which launched earlier this month. This is why the government has been completely silent on the issue of the February 17 revolution. While the Arab League has condemned Libyan actions, there hasn’t been a peep out of the African Union. While many receive aid from Libya, others are terrified of him because of his keenness to prop up rebel leaders and dictators.

In the past, Freetowners have been in awe of Gaddafi and his maverick presence. Freetown resident Vickie Remoe in her blog Sweet Sierra Leone recounted the excitement on the streets when he came to visit in 2007. Today, people I speak to denounce him as a lunatic. For many it brings back memories of the civil war and of citizens turning on their own. Our office driver Amidu Kuyateh who like me has been glued to the BBC World Service for news updates is horrified. “I don’t care how much he’s done for Sierra Leone, he also helped start our war and now he will kill his own people to hold on to power,” he says.

Yes, his symbolic presence in Freetown is hard to miss. But if he is exiled I’m sure Sierra Leone, cash strapped as they are, would not welcome him with open arms.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Goodbye Mr Peacekeeper

Starting this week in Freetown, Sierra Leoneans will miss a familiar sight they’ve grown used to. The resident battalion of Mongolian peace keepers in their khaki uniforms and blue berets are finally leaving the country. UN peacekeepers formally left the country in 2008 but the Mongolian Guard Force have protected the Special Court for Sierra Leone since January 2006 and managed the movements of high profile detainees like former RUF rebel leader Issa Sesay and former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Last week in a colourful ceremony, they handed over the Court’s security to the Sierra Leone Police.

Here’s a few pictures from the handover ceremony. Photographs courtesy Peter Andersen, Special Court for Sierra Leone

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Red Valentine

Over the past week Freetown’s been painted red. Not by yours truly but by store owners and street hawkers trying to make a quick buck on the back of Valentine’s Day. The worst affected are the sidewalks outside schools and colleges where white teddy bears, plastic red roses and mushy cards have taken root. The tuck shop outside my office on the central Wellington Street has a temporary sign out ‘We also sell Valentine’s Day gifts’. The clothes boutique down the road has hung out all its red dresses and accessories. All in all it’s a bit nauseating.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Valentine Grinch. I still remember my first big Valentine’s Day at age 16 when I bought my boyfriend at the time a giant stuffed heart that squeaked ‘I love you’ when squeezed. Unfortunately my mother discovered it along with the love poem I’d written and it was the end of that teenage romance. My most recent Valentine’s Day was the day I broke up with my boyfriend. Not a very successful Valentine’s track record.

I remember watching an episode of the OC where it was suggested that Valentine’s Day be declared a national holiday. Now that’s something the fundamentalist Hindu political groups in India would definitely object to. As I was growing up, every year the moral police of the Shiv Sena party in Mumbai would vandalise the city’s Hallmark stores and harass young couples holding hands. Valentine’s Day it seemed was eroding moral fibre, not fundamentalism.

A popular Valentine’s Day event in Freetown is the outing. This is basically a bunch of hormone high youngsters let loose on a beach outside Freetown for an all-night party. On the main road downtown, there’s a banner advertising one by a group called Desperate Chicks.

What would be my perfect Valentine’s Day gift? If the power stayed on all night. National Power Authority, will you be my Valentine?

Monday, 3 January 2011

In with the new

I just realised the other day that it’s been quite a year for Sierra Leone. I documented the year’s biggest news events in my post for The New Internationalist and am now wondering what the big stories in the New Year will be.

Undoubtedly, the most anticipated is the Independence Day celebrations. Sierra Leone turns 50 and is surely drawing inspiration from neighbouring Nigeria that celebrated their own 50th in style. It’s reported that Sierra Leone will spend about $ 25 million on infrastructure and development projects. One can only hope that they manage their funds better than my people did. Read, disastrous Commonwealth Games.

Actually my life has already been touched by one such development initiative. The main road running through the western part of Freetown, Wilkinson Road, is getting a facelift. The cosmetics began in October last year and are expected to continue for at least another six months. For me this has meant that life proceeds intermittently. Every time a bulldozer pokes its nose around the block, I lose water and electricity for a week. This is quite a blow to all the progress made over the last year to regularise water and electricity. But that’s the price of progress I guess.

Just realised that it’s a big year for me too, the big 30. Hopefully it’ll be a good one for both of us.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The season to be JC

I bet it’s going to be a quiet Christmas in Freetown this year. The travel chaos caused by the enthusiastic snowfall across Europe has inevitably obstructed travel plans.

Usually this time of year a unique species of Sierra Leonean is spotted on the streets of Freetown, the JCs or Just Comes are members of the diaspora. They flood in from the US and western Europe to spend their hard earned foreign currencies in Sierra Leone and thrill friends and relatives with stories of a better life. They used to be really easy to spot, the women with their oversized shades, stilettos and Louis Vuitton knock offs. The men in their oversized shades, suits and croc skin shoes. And most importantly, the distinct Krio/American or Krio/Brit accent. But with so many Sierra Leoneans moving back to live here, it’s becoming harder to tell them apart, almost everyone I meet at a party has an accent these days. But my friends still swear they can spot one a mile away.

I have to say I dislike the JC season for three reasons: first, they drive up petty crime rates in Freetown. Everyone jokes that you’re twice as likely to have your purse nicked during the holiday season. Second they choke the roads with their shiny rented 4x4s. Third, they express recurring shock at the heat , dust and street side filth. Disclaimer: this is all based on my experience with JCs, I’m sure there are perfectly decent ones out there.

Sparkled by their JC relatives’ success stories, almost all Sierra Leoneans want to live abroad. In fact, it was in Sierra Leone that I first found out about the Diversity Visa (DV) lottery which is a bit of a national gambling obsession. It offers a randomised chance at winning a US green card and inevitably most internet cafes have someone who can help you with your application. Success of course is a bit of an urban legend, everyone claims they know someone who’s made it. And it’s also spurred an industry of scams.

Last year, a young Sierra Leonean film maker Karim Bah who had studied in the UK busted the myth by making a film called Babylon Illusion. Bah followed the lives of Sierra Leoneans who had immigrated to the UK. He highlighted their loneliness, poverty and desire to return home. The film wasn’t technically brilliant, but showed that life in Europe wasn’t all that.

Still, this has not dampened people’s spirits. They wait every year to be regaled by the fresh tales the JCs bring and hope that one day they’ll get to live that illusive life. My money changer on Siaka Stevens street constantly suggests that the next time I leave I take him with me (even though I have explained to him many times that I’m Indian).

Yes, a friend emailed saying it’s a quiet Christmas in Freetown. For average Sierra Leoneans of course, the legend of the JC lives on all year round.

Happy holidays everyone!