The country looked festive for 2 weeks or so. Visitors must have been impressed with the atmosphere in the main streets and a line-up of events attended by all the important Sierra Leoneans. Many of us lesser folk did not get invited to anything. Funnily, I had the same experience 50 years ago when everyone who was anyone got invitations to 5 or 6 events e.g. all senior Civil Servants. A mere senior teacher in a secondary school did not get a single one, and there were only about 10 secondary schools in the country at the time.
This time, now a retired citizen, I did think of going to the main event at the Stadium but the thought of getting there and sitting in the open stands on a hot day dampened my enthusiasm. It was good to see people around the town in high spirits for a change.
Those who attended events such as the banquet however, had a story to tell about the service and fare at a state occasion.
One guest told of how food obviously ran out. She had arrived at the scheduled 7.30 pm, and, at her table of 8, only 3 people had been served tiny portions of whatever, while the rest went hungry. She left in utter disgust at 10.30pm!
Now the celebrations are over, flags and bunting have come down and we are back to the reality of our country’s current state. Many were asking beforehand what real achievements we were celebrating after 50 years of independence. Well, if you look at a publication given to all Brussels Airlines passengers this season, entitled European Times and featuring Sierra Leone, your heart swells with pride at the vigour and optimism expressed in all the articles exalting our success in every sphere of activity, and portraying a wide range of images of the new Sierra Leone as perceived by heads of Ministries etc.
All the visionary ministers and entrepreneurs have an air of prosperity and confidence, and their tone of hopefulness about the country’s future, designed to entice prospective investors, seems encouraging. Two or three items caught my attention: first the Arul Trading claim that vast quantities of rice of different varieties are being produced. My question is: where can I buy the rice? Then there is the purpose expressed by the Minister of Energy and Water Resources:
‘As for water,’ he says, ‘we want to move beyond wells to focus on
piped water that is free from contaminants’.
What a noble thought! We need to examine it in the light of today’s reality in our capital city, Freetown. The ‘move beyond wells’ bristles with irony. Having just completed the digging and construction of a well in my backyard, as have several of my neighbours in this second decade of the 21st century, I find the Minister’s pronouncement enigmatic. Hollow and illusory, it sounds like an expensive joke. We do not appear to be living on the same planet.
While he is moving towards ‘piped water’, we are moving towards wells. Opposite directions! He does not appear to know that large swathes of Freetown virtually have no pipe-borne water. The pipes are there, all right, but water is not ‘borne’ through them to householders who receive bills for outstanding rates. So what exactly does he mean?
I do not wish to end my days as my late husband did, in a house where I cannot turn on taps, showering with a bucket and bowl as I did when I was a child growing up in Freetown. Even then, as a young boarder at the Annie Walsh Memorial School in the late 1930s, I had a shower from overhead every day, and round the clock electricity. One may ask: ‘Why have our successive administrations not just tried to improve on this? They could have made the facilities more widespread rather than obliging town dwellers to sink back to the level of poor rural conditions, resorting to wells and lamps, wood and charcoal stoves. Mr. Minister, whatever your dreams are for the future, we in today’s Freetown are going back to what you say you are moving away from.
Again, does improvement in our electricity situation mean simply the absence of total black out? What we have suffered since the great Bumbuna became fully operative, are two days of fitful electricity now and then, followed by five days without. We thrive on myths and stories rather than visible and tangible evidence of improved conditions. The only exception here is the work on the roads for which we can actually see results.
If things were really getting better in Sierra Leone, as those in power would have us believe, who would be more proud of realized progress than the Sierra Leoneans themselves?
The water dilemma really stings! I was born in a house in the centre of Freetown with a structure in the yard which we were told was a disused well. It was sealed and we played around it, jumping from the platform etc. It was a thing of the past, suitable only for mention in the history books of a modern society. So many decades later, I am now the relieved and grateful user of a functioning well for sheer survival in one of Africa’s oldest and most enlightened cities. How’s that for progress? All AWMS alumnae are familiar with ‘the well’ a school icon, a traditional spot where only privileged seniors tread. No one ever saw it in operation in our time or in our mothers’ time!
A 3-year old Freetown boy whose mother was giving him a shower from a bucket as he stood in the bath, looked towards the far end and pointing at something, asked ‘Mummy, what’s that?’ The mother replied ‘A tap’! It’s called a tap. The boy repeated ‘Tap! Tap!’ ‘What’s a tap?’ he asked.
By Lulu Wright