April 26th2014, was the day many people (or I should say the youth) in Freetown were excitedly looking forward to the evening festivities, which would herald the 53rd anniversary of our independence on April 27th.
There was excitement in the air, and I too was looking forward to seeing the lantern parade. I only had memories of bygone lantern parades which used to be part of the Ramadan festivities. In those days, there were large stately floats, (often depicting the large ships which were in the harbour) ablaze with lights, large controlled crowds dancing towards the law Courts, singing songs which had been composed for the occasion.
In addition to the memories of my youth, I have had the privilege of participating in Trinidad Carnivals several times. So my expectations were a little high, even though I knew that the parade was still essentially in its infancy. At least, I looked forward to the music as I remembered it. I truly understand the goal of the Ministry of Tourism, to produce an annual show, which is representative of our culture and pleasing to watch.
Since my friends had contacts with the Museum, the plan was to watch the parade from there. We arrived at the museum at 9.00pm, in order to position ourselves properly before the crowds arrived. However, since we were early,we chatted for a while, thenwent to get something to eat.
As the crowd thickened, so did the air of expectancy. By the time we left the restaurant, wending our way back to the Museum had become a little more challenging, with security even tighter. Once we got back, I thought we would settle down there, but it was decided that we would have a better view of the proceedings from the law Courts. So away we went, guided by a Scout. We were soon seated at a viewing spot by the side of the road in front of the Law Courts, near the viewing stand. We actually had front row seats!!!
After a long wait, during which policemen, (some plain clothes officers), soldiers,(some looking ominous with their guns), and some photographers, strolled in the middle of the street, all looking important. Across the street from where we sat, the crowd of mostly young viewers, (some seated on the ground others standing), grew thicker. It was truly a pick pocket’s paradise!!! At times the crowd swayed and seemed to move forward, but the police (some of whom had whips), tried to keep the crowd from inching closer to our side, by whipping their legs.
Whilst all this was happening, there were speeches and more speeches, which no one heard, because of the ever increasing noise of the crowds. Eventually, close to midnight, a convoy of about 12 black vans rolled into the middle of the street. Their doors were smartly opened and security jumped out as if they were expecting trouble. From one of the vans in the middle of the convoy, the president emerged, recognizable only by a cap on his gray head. He and his entourage proceeded to the viewing stand, amid cheers. Once they were settled, the national Anthem was played, Muslim and Christian prayers were said, (which no one heard) followed by a few more speeches. At midnight the parade was declared open. Twenty minutes later, the first lantern appeared.
THE LANTERN PARADE
The first lantern was an attempt at recognizing the president’s initiative of providing Free Medical care to pregnant women. The truck which pulled the lantern, had a small generator, from which a small boom box played some music. A few of the young people on the truck had on Tee shirts which identified them. The scene was the effigy of a pregnant woman on a bed, with a doctor hovering above her.
Other lanterns included attempts at erecting The Davidson-Nicol hospital, The Old Fourah Bay college building, (which was a fairly good representation), BaiBureh in a cage, a Fish and a Helicopter, with someone who was supposed to look like the president. The presentations, which were sparsely decorated, had been made crudely, with sticks and paper mache. For a show of lights there were only a few of those. The generators on the few trucks which had them, were so small, the music which played was overpowered by the noise of the crowds which followed. The chanting crowds actually propelled those lanterns which were not pulled by trucks. With the exception of the first group and another which had a small group of women in an Ashwebi, all the lanterns were surrounded by half naked youth, few of them over 30 years old. Many of the boys wore their pants precariously perched in the middle of their buttocks (in today’s fashion). Some removed their shoes and left them in the street. Many of the girls were also scantily dressed. Many of the youth, (which numbered in the thousands) appeared high on drugs, alcohol and possibly other drugs. These were the crowds which follow each lantern. Each group moved to the front of the viewing stand to be viewed by the president, and judged, by a group of judges.One very inebriated spectator who was sitting next to me said, ‘This is our culture!! I love our culture!!!!’ Another one said, ‘Dis na enjoyment’!!!
Really???? I thought, is this our culture??Thiscertainly is not what I remember as a youth, in years gone by.I also asked myself ‘Is the President pleased with watching this debacle?? What happened to the grand lanterns of yester year, and the music that everyone moved to? Are we satisfied with such a production year after year, saying to ourselves ‘I bete pass natin???
By the end of the parade, crowds had filled up the area around the Cotton Tree and the BP petrol station, and it took a police escort to get our group through the crowd to our car.
When do we stop building grand homes and driving luxurious vans and pay attention to the pain of poverty, which is suffocating our youth??? Please!!! Our youth are very angry and if we do not pay attention to their needs, this powder keg will blow up. Remember it took only one FodaySankoh to set it off the last one.
It appears that very little money was available to those who were building the lanterns, for a lavish show, and there was certainly nothing that would keep the crowds of youth in control. One youth told me ‘That is how they like it violent!!’What part of it represented the meaningful ‘Culture’ which was to make us Sierra Leoneans proud on this our independence day?. How can this spectacle be improved?
1. In my humble opinion, for a start, the parade routes in front of the law courts can be cordoned off and manned by the police and soldiers so the crowds know just how far they can go.
2. Each group can choose an outfit (a Tee Shirt, or an ashwebi) which will identify them. Those who want to be a part of the band can pay for their outfit, and only those who are wearing a costume can appear before the judging area. Those groups which do not comply, lose points.
3. Dancing music is always a plus and a group can choose what they want to play. It would be even better if the audience can shake in their seats.
4. It may not be a bad idea to intersperse Lantern/Floats with a variety of other cultural groups, and/or dancers, each representing an area of the country. Since there are so many several different groups available, differentgroups can be presented each year.
We are proud Sierra Leoneans who want to put our best foot forward not only for our Tourists, but also for our own self esteem. If we are to change our attitude, the government must be in with the program. We certainly deserve better than what I witnessed on this April 27th. I do not accept the tenet ‘I bete pass natin.
By Imodale Caulker-Burnett
Thursday May 08, 2014