Presidential-stories from the Lion Mountains

What story would you like to hear today:
a) how I ended up being followed with a photographer and a journalist for week; or
b) how I spent four hours sitting at a table with the President of Sierra Leone, worrying about my hair; or
c) why I started making chocolate; or
d) how I got stuck for half a day in the jungle close to the Liberian border?
I’ll leave d) for another blog post, as it is a beautiful little story – but that still leaves you with three choices, so choose well! Sierra Leone is in the election fever – presidential and parliamentary elections were on 7th March, the run-off is on the 27th March, and the current president – Ernest Bai Koroma – can’t stand for another term after 10 years or ruling, so there will be a change of leadership. Politics in Sierra Leone have been largely dominated by two parties – a green one and a red one (no connection with what we assign with these colours), the one from the South-East and the one from the North of the country. Party membership is often based on tribes and origin, and not so much on policies. It is always funny asking strong party members about the main difference to the opposition party and guess what – both would say “we are less corrupt than the other”. But that is the only perceived difference, making political discussions here very interesting. However, this time around, a third party emerged, with a very eloquent, charismatic and smart leader (guess where my sympathies lay…), who has forced the conversation into a bit more of “what actually needs to happen to move this country forward, and who has the best ideas for that?”. For the first time in history, there was a presidential debate with the six major candidates, which was streamed live on all radio stations, TVs and internet – and I had a (very emotional) blast listening to the various candidates’ ideas for speeding up development of Sierra Leone. One candidate seriously promised to improve the whole health system within three weeks – that sounds like a task for superman and wonderwoman.
There was also this ‘obama’-moment, when the same eloquent, charismatic and smart candidate gave his closing remarks – giving me goosebumps with “you touch one, you touch all”. For those of you who understand Krio, enjoy it here: (well spent 3 minutes, trust me).

 

Pic: my living room, just before the presidential debates started! The TV belongs to Elias, in case you wondered.
Being the President of Sierra Leone is a multi-million dollar job (a year…) and a way more influential position than we know it from our countries, so it is no wonder that the campaigns are fought hard and with whatever the candidates have. It is common practice to pay people money and give them a t-shirt with the party colours and symbols to go out on the street and rally for a certain candidates. So the strength of the different rallies are a good indicator of how much money each party has. See here for some insights from my balcony:

​Pic: the APC party rallying today.
 
Anyway. I am sure you’d like to hear about b) how I ended up sitting at a table with the President of Salone for 4 hours, worrying about my hair. Well, the very next day after the presidential elections, I went to the same venue where the debates were held, attending the launch of the social health insurance scheme of Sierra Leone. You probably know that I have worked on this extensively in my first two years in Sierra Leone, but then Ebola changed everything and other people took over. However, the President wanted to launch this before the end of his term, to leave it as one of his legacy projects. There were about 500 invited guests in the Bintumani conference center, with a big stage and high table at the front, including a red satin chair for the President.
Pic: the Bintumani conference center with the high table, for the launching of the Social Health Insurance. 
​Now, quick explanation – Sierra Leonean events or programs or workshops or trainings or birthdays or award nights or anything that is significant in life should have a high table, where distinguished dignitaries sit and give speeches, before the beginning of the actual program. This can easily take half of the total assigned time of the program, or even most of it. Without it, a program is not deemed ‘official’ enough and lacking ‘the appropriate weight’. So, high tables it is.

Well, sitting at the very back, I enjoyed watching all the paramount chiefs (there are 144 nationwide, and they are the key leaders on the ground) walking in their fabulous outfits, enjoying the feeling of being where just 12 hours before, the presidential candidates were for their debates. The program starts and Ministers are called up to the high table, leaving the red seat for the president. I suddenly hear my name being called “Naomi” and a finger being pointed at me, with several hundred heads turning to watch the white woman turning red. The lack of alternatives led to me being called up to the high table, supposedly giving a speech on behalf of development partners and observing the etiquette required around a head of state. Needless to say, I was not prepared and worried about what I would say and do and how to not get kicked out of the country by the President because I could tell him I actually don’t think that Social health insurance is a good idea now. Apart from worrying about my hair (I didn’t wash it in the morning, shame on me…) and worrying about my posture (all the TV cameras make nervous), I tried to get the message across the chairman, that I can’t give a statement, due to non-preparedness.

Pic: us standing for the arrival of the President, in the middle of the table. I am the pale woman on the very left. 
 
You won’t believe how many nerves it cost me, to be sitting at that table for four unexpected hours – do you pretend you are taking notes, when they make inappropriate jokes about the opposition party? Do you smile when they all clap for the president, can you clap as well – even though you represent all health development partners? What face are you supposed to make on a high table, when the President says something you completely disagree with? You can see the dilemmas and mind battles I was having, while on a bigger adrenaline rush that any caffeine or similar pill could give you. I did say “Congratulations for a bold initiative” to him afterwards, and left it at that. Time for a glass of wine…
I think I have rambled on enough and we will leave story a) and story c) for another post…
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