Observing elections north of Freetown

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A man voting at a polling station in Lunsar

On my first weekend in Salone, I went on a reporting trip to Lunsar, a small town north of Freetown, with some of my colleagues at Awoko newspaper. The goal was to observe and report on a bye-election, which was held to replace a parliamentary candidate who had died. The same process was playing out, although with stories of violent incidents, in Kailahun in the interior of the country.

I wrote a two-part column on the trip, which covers a lot of what I experienced, and would have written for a blog post. But there was a lot to cover, and I only had two short columns to do so. For the blog — which is a better medium for inflicting my rambling thoughts on the world with no editor to say whether they should see the light of day — I thought I’d post the columns, then go into some more details and thoughts on things that didn’t make it into the published pieces. And I’m posting lots of pictures from the trip here in the blog, since I didn’t get to do that in columns themselves. You should read the columns first (linked below) if you want to get a full account with my best thoughts and observations — think of this blog post as supplementary material.

So to start off, here’s the first column – or at least, an excerpt of the beginning followed by link to the rest of it:

“So the elections here will be safe and peaceful, right?” I asked my Awoko newspaper colleague Betty Milton early on Saturday morning. We were walking along a dirt path through a small village community near Lunsar, north of Freetown. As we jumped over puddles, and walked past the mud and brick houses, sheep and goats, and women dressed in bright colors carrying babies on their backs, a man used a loudspeaker to amplify his voice, calling on people in the village to come out and vote today.

Betty and Ophaniel Gooding, my other colleague, found my worries amusing. “Nothing will happen to you you’re with us!” they reassured me although they couldn’t help poking fun at my anxiousness. “Our next stop is the Gaza strip,” Ophaniel joked. My colleagues said that even if things did get tense, the authorities would do everything to keep me safe, to present a positive image to the world. “They’ll give you a bulletproof vest,” Ophaniel said, and then unable to help himself, added “And then they’ll shoot you in the head.”

I hadn’t been up all night worrying about it just part of the night. And to be fair, fear of malaria-carrying mosquitos, plus a skewed sleeping schedule, were responsible for most of my insomnia. I just couldn’t help thinking about recent political tensions surrounding the elections in the city of Kailahun in the interior of the country which Betty had told me about the day before.

You can read the rest in the link here, or at this URL:
http://awoko.org/2016/07/12/sierra-leone-newselections-in-lunsar-part-1/

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Around Lunsar

The bike ride I described here was absolutely terrifying (and admittedly kind of thrilling), partly because I wasn’t expecting we’d be riding motorbikes. We walked up to a busy highway, and all of a sudden a gang of bikers for hire came upon us.

After some discussion I couldn’t follow too well (Krio is…40 percent understandable? 50, 30, 20? It’s hard to put numbers on it, but it can sometimes be totally clear, and sometimes I catch nothing), I was told to get on a bike driven by a man wearing sunglasses.

“Go with him — we know him very very well,” my colleagues told me, and then we were off swerving through vehicles as fast as possible.

I didn’t know where we were going and how long I’d be on the bike. I was stupid enough to pack a really heavy bag with me, and balancing it in front of me while grabbing onto whatever I could on the bike was awkward.

Our bikes stopped at a petrol station outside Freetown – it seemed to be a popular transport hub. We were instantly approached by bikers and a driver to offer us their services, plus people hawking towels, soft drinks, Nutella and other sweets. We opted for a car, whose driver, to the very end, insisted on charging just a little more than my colleagues wanted.

The drive was fascinating – as the heavy rain gave the world through the windshield a watery filter, I saw was a billboard for some kind of beauty product featuring a very light skinned model, others for SIM cards or credit, and one that I believe was condemning child marriage, or something unfortunate like that (why can’t I remember?)

I fell asleep during the ride, my system still scrambled up from jet lag and adjusting to a new country. We stopped to check out a lodge to stay at, which was a gated compound with paper Santa Claus decorations in the lobby. We ended up at a different lodge, which was another complex of rooms surrounded by a gate topped with barbed wire. We were the only guests. My room was old and dilapidated. My colleague kindly got me some very tasty bananas (a different species than we usually get in the US) and a baguette. I got some sleep, and worried about malaria and elections violence until the sun rose the next day.

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A woman votes at a polling station in Lunsar

Here’s the beginning of part two of my column, followed by some more observations that didn’t make it in the columns:

I got to see the complexities and struggles of democracy in Sierra Leone up close on Saturday, on a trip with Awoko reporters Betty Milton and Ophaniel Gooding to Lunsar in the north of the country. We were there to report on a Parliamentary bye-election held to replace a deceased member of Parliament. The plan was to interview the candidates, then find some polling stations and observe.

That morning, I went along with Ophaniel while he interviewed one of the candidates, Osman Karankay Conteh. Karankay is a tall man with a steady and certain demeanor, and is aligned with the ruling party in the country, the All People’s Congress (APC).

“I know I will win,” he told Ophaniel  but he said he wanted to do even better, and “make history” by beating his opponents in a landslide. We sat in the living room of his house during the interview. It was guarded by a gate topped with barbed wire and furnished with a several couches, a television and Arabic calligraphy on the wall. Karankay accused his rival candidate from the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP), of paying people up to 10,000 Leones (close to $2 US dollars) for votes, an allegation his rival denies.

Read the rest here or at this URL:
http://awoko.org/2016/07/14/sierra-leone-news-chetanyas-view-elections-in-lunsar-part-2/

It was interesting to interview the parliamentary candidate, who ended up winning in a landslide just as he claimed he would. My colleague Ophaniel and I waited in his house for a long time before he met with us. I think it was the living room, with the rest of the house hidden beyond hallways with entrances draped in cloth. There were framed photos on the wall that seemed digitally enhanced to look more stylized, of the man with his wife, and one with a backdrop of the colors of the Sierra Leone flag. There were people sitting and lying on the three couches in the living room, mostly women and children. I wasn’t sure what they were there for. Opahniel wasn’t sure what the candidates day job was outside of being an aspiring politician. It seemed like he was at least somewhat wealthy. During the interview, which Ophaniel said would be in Krio, Karankay spoke in clear English sometimes. I wondered if it was because I was there.

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My colleague Ophaniel (right) interviewing Osman Karankay Conteh of the politically dominant All People’s Congress (APC) party. He ended up winning the parliamentary bye-election in Lunsar

When we followed him to the ballot box, snapping pictures, it seemed like the whole town had come along. At one point the crowd stopped in the middle of the road, and a woman from a TV station with long braided hair dyed in a multitude of colors interviewed Karankay while a man filmed. At one point, a young man took a photo of the candidate with his phone.

When we reached the health clinic, past the yellow mosque, the braided haired woman was interviewing a woman in a wheelchair about who she wanted to vote for.

Most of the time we spent at the polling stations later that day was sitting around, stopping occasionally to get a snack of roasted or boiled corn on the cob from one of several vendors who walked around carrying baskets of it on their heads.

I remember we were getting out of a car, having driven back from one of the polling stations, and I was carrying an empty plastic bottle in my hand. I was thinking of where to throw it away when a woman asked me for it. I handed it over. I’m not sure if she was going to use it for something useful, or sell it for a bit of change, but either way I felt so stupid and privileged.

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As I said in the column, it was really inspiring to see anonymous people just stop by to cast their votes and then leave.

I didn’t write about the ride in a van back to Freetown in the column. It was a bit exhausting and more than I wanted to deal with at the time, but eye opening. It was night, and I was tired. Lunsar, the small town, was hopping with activity — the bars were full, smoke filled the air, as did loud voices and music. The shared van — I think it was the kind called a poda poda — was just about full, and some people practically dragged us over to it to buy the last seats and get the journey started.

I sat in the front at first, next to a guy who asked me if I was British. He then left his seat and walked out of the van momentarily. After a few minutes my colleague said I should move to another seat because the man was drunk. I sat in the back, near a man whose two chickens slept under his seat (and which clucked and noisily complained every so often during the ride, to his shhhs).

Before we left, an argument broke out. The drunk man had said or done something rude, or perhaps upset the child of another passenger. A middle aged policeman in blue garb sitting in the middle of the van was livid, and threatened to put the man in his place, or something. “How dare you!” I made out. The drunk man said “Fuck you.” Eventually, they threw him out, and we were on our way.

Another heated argument came later. The police man was about to get off soon, and one of the people in charge of the van (I think) reminded him to give him the money he owed (I think I heard 5,000 Leones, which is less than a dollar). The police man basically made some excuse, which the man didn’t accept. But he got off anyway, and the man shouted after him. An argument broke out among all the passengers. I guess some agreed with the man, and others thought he should let it slide. I won’t forget the very real sense of anger and grievance I heard in the voices — that what was done was unjust. I don’t know if it was a case of a police officer using his power to get away with ripping someone off, but that’s what it seemed like.

When we got into a taxi for Freetown, the driver found it funny that I was a white man — he had at first thought I was a Sierra Leonean, or something like that. But he was a bit of a jerk, and didn’t say anything to me directly. My colleague had to argue fiercely with him to let me off at my hostel — he raised his voice, insisting on some other route. It was stupid.

The night had been as eye opening as the day, but also a bit much, and I welcomed the chance to sleep.

Check out some more photos from the trip in this slideshow:

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