My profound apologies for not reading from me on Monday. I arrived in London on Saturday morning thinking I would have time to put some ideas together for your reading. But that was not to be.
If I left Freetown thinking I was running away from the unbearable scorching heat, then the cold in London has proved far worse. When I ventured out of Heathrow airport to board an underground train to Holborn to report at Bush House before proceeding to Forest Hill, the cold wind almost blew me off my feet. With hellishly cold – and even numb – fingers I could barely bring out my £ 10 note to pay for my £ 7 all-day travel card.
Transportation in London has never ceased to amaze me. Trains and buses, taxis … and cabs all over the place. The train services are such that you would ask yourself why the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund advised us to scarp the railway. And because of the reliable public transport system, despite its 12 million inhabitants, traffic jams are not commensurately pervasive in especially central London. This is not only because of the organised traffic light system. Additionally, because of the dependable transport system, they can afford to impose the Congestion Fee charge which has a penalty on those who drive their private cars into the city centre.
London is a friendly place to be in…perhaps the friendliest in the world. With 300 languages are spoken in this city, its cultural diversity – wide range of peoples and religions – is the envy of many a country. But the weather makes it one of the most unfriendly places on earth, not least at this time of year.
Even though winter is sometime and somewhere away, the weather is oozing out its venom. The place is dark by 5 PM. And even the warmest clothes I can lay hands on here have not helped out. Snot and tears compete from my nose and my eyes as the dry wind invades my privacy and my tongue benefits sucking them in and tasting so much salt. This has incensed cigarette smokers who feel their nicotine could be of tremendous help in warding off the minus degree weather. Tough new anti-smoking laws are being promulgated year-in year-out, restricting their smoking and constricting their smoking space… if only to save the lives of non-smokers who are more appropriately called passive smokers.
On Wednesday, Metro had on one of its inside pages, the headline, “Moscow loses the Cold War (again…)”. If you think the free newspaper was talking about the military wars fought by proxy between the former USSR and the West, you are mistaking. Russia, which is reputed to have some of the coldest places anywhere in the world, was warmer than parts of Britain on Tuesday through to Wednesday. Here, an Arctic blast plunged the temperatures to below -7 Celsius (19 Fahrenheit) – twice as cold at this time of year, according to an official at the meteorological department.
And in this freezing cold, you see people puffing out. Among them mostly Africans and Asians who are busy justifying their paycheques. They work in the rain and the early snow. They empty dustbins and clean the streets. All in the battle to stay alive. All to send badly-needed cash back home. All to make sure when they come back home on vacation, we revere them.
I have seen quite a few Sierra Leoneans here, some working their life out if only to be able to make ends meet. Some walk to work to save as much from the little as possible. Discouraging as that may be, the spirit of hard work is impressive. And if a bit of that could be inculcated into us all back home, in the next 20 years the Brits would come join us for greener and taller pastures.
And our sisters are very serious here. The usual handbag-hanging to visit offices, or card-playing on computers in offices are a taboo here. They are some of the fastest ways to lose a job, just as sleeping on duty, and the quickest way to be sent back home clapping hand.
Amazingly, the skin-bleaching which some of them so treasure back home they don’t engage themselves in here. Two ladies I knew back in Freetown that would do anything and everything to get the necessary funds to change their skin colour in an ungodly fashion, now preach against bleaching. They have lost their foolish skin colour and now look beautifully brown. I had a chat with them at a party and they confessed that it was all idleness.
“When you are as busy as to be braving the weather, nothing money-wasting or time-consuming comes to mind” Fudia, not her real name, told me. And they need that money here. Accommodation is hugely expensive, and with the economic crunch munching, they are cringing.
Many Sierra Leoneans sleep in dilapidated council buildings whose stench is as poignant as the Wallace-Johnson Street bus park toilet. Some of the rundown buildings hardly have a functional lavatory; so some of them help themselves very close to where they put down their soul at night – depending on when they are needed for labour. A friend of mine, a journalist and youth rights activist, Abdul Karim Bah, is doing a documentary film on them. The Master’s degree holder from SWANSEA told me “the conditions of many of our compatriots here are appalling and unfit for anyone to live in no matter what!”
Because a good number of them are living here illegally, some unscrupulous “employers” are caching in on their irregular status. They have nowhere to complain for they stand the risk of being bundled back home. Home, where some of them will tell you, jobs are few and far between. I challenged one of them, a former college mate of mine, that he should return home. The second class upper graduate in economics is doing a job I am embarrassed to mention here. There are few others with a Master’s degree that are doing jobs that have no relation whatsoever to their training. This is ruining down our brains.
But there are also some Sierra Leoneans here that are among the finest doctors, university professors, etc. A return home will mean a lot for the development of the country. Maybe the newly created Department for Diaspora Affairs should be a bit more serious and not just basking in expenditure and politicking. Those brains must return home!
Those brains that should help in their own ways to help rebuild our country are wasting here. Wasting…well not quite…They are helping develop this country called Great Britain which is doing great. Britain’s Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport is the most modern I have seen. And I have seen quite a few – from Dubai’s to Mumbai’s and New York’s. You check in yourself on a machine and print out your boarding pass before you approach the drop-bag attendant. The escalators and the lifts are phenomenal. When it was first opened a few months or so ago, there was chaos. Today it is as smooth as the unbroken shell of an egg. I have just gone through that and I am waiting to board my British Airways flight to the United States. First stop, Pennsylvania a big battleground for next week’s US presidential election where Republican John McCain and Democratic Barack Obama fighting hard with all the ammo they can get from their arsenals.
Keep your eyes on this space for my perspective on the election of the most powerful person in the world who will have an impact on your life, wherever you are, whatever you do. See you on Monday.
By Umaru Fofana