Action Sunday - Mercenaries on the Beach

MaryBeth McKenzie is an information officer for the Canadian office of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), currently visiting the MSF projects in Sierra Leone. These accounts are from her journal reports of her experiences in the field.

Freetown, Sierra Leone West Africa Sundays are truly a day of rest in Freetown. Very little is open for business. If one is Christian (approximately 50% of Freetown), then church is the place to be. At the end of the road, just in front of the MSF office is a large church. At this particular church (no evident denomination), the service lasts for as long as the Holy Spirit wills. One week it might be three hours and the next week all night long. Marie-Helene Pare, who runs the MSF mental health programme in Freetown, informed me that despite the atrocities, there is virtually notably no suicide at all in Freetown. She felt that this was due to the extraordinarily deep faith of the people. Pare said, 'If they are not dead, it is because they feel that is the will of God or Allah. So why dare question if you should end your life? Absolutely not.' As the MSF team had worked exceptionally hard during the past week, it was decided that a trip to the sea was in order. I sat in the boot of the jeep. It would seem by people's reactions to me bouncing around, that such a practice is rare. Even the military waved and laughed as they saw the clouds of red dust flood into the back of the vehicle. Luckily for me, despite everyone having said the roads would be too bumpy, they were not so bad. Toronto's Spadina Avenue prior to repaving was worse. The beach was glorious. Deep blue surf crashing along white sandy beaches with green palm trees and unforgiving (to me) blue sky. We sat under small umbrellas in an effort to avoid the sun. Beside us, was a group of about ten mercenaries, who spoke to no one nor did they swim. Instead, they played Brittany Spears as loud as possible. Five ECOMOG soldiers sat under a tree in full fatigues and guns - protecting the peace. The rumour mill said they were deployed there as only a few weeks ago, there was a small uprising involving the ex-child soldiers (stationed nearby) who, attacked villagers after some small car accident. They did not swim either. In the end, the day was fantastic. The sea water was a warm as a bath. And numerous boys, aged five to 14, swarmed me and we raced and played for much of the afternoon. When I asked about the whereabouts of girls, they said they had to stay at home where it is safe. When I returned from the beach, I had a quick shower, decided that my pajama bottoms could perform double duty as a pair of pants and headed to the MSF office to work. Feeling lonely about an hour and a half later I emerged from the office to chat with the compound guards. I told them I was from Canada and that I even had photos on my computer from the digital camera if they wanted to see a few scenes of Toronto. One man, William did. So we sat for the next three hours and talked about life here in SL: soccer, sports, life, sex, marriage, the NBA, the internet and computers, food, prices of things, rape, whether or not I thought the peace accord would hold, what the west thought of SL, football etc. Moreover, he explained that just because I had spent time speaking to him meant a lot to him. He said, most expats simply wave at him - that he didn't feel like part of the MSF team and inferred that the national staff were treated like second class people. How lousy I felt. We actually were having a good time. There was no other place i would have wanted to be then and there, speaking with him, about his country, listening, sharing and learning. Afterall, I am in SL. Why wouldn't I speak to someone who is actually from there. He told me that he makes 117,000 leons per month. Less than sixty American dollars. A 50kg bag of rice costs 40,000 leons and lasts about a month - he is barely making it on the salary he gets. At the same time he is happy to be working in a full-time capacity at all. It had taken him four years to gain employment with MSF as a guard. His plans are to have a family. Children. A future. But on his current salary, he was doubtful if he could afford one. There are occasionally days where I know I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. Tonight was one of them. My purpose was to speak with this man, 31, and for us to share a little bit about our lives. I will always remember William and this night. It has changed me in its normalness.