Different visions from the beach

MaryBeth McKenzie is an information officer for the Candian 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.

Saturday in Sierra Leone: Freetown, Sierra Leone West Africa I am typing by candlelight. Although such lighting is often considered romantic, tonight it is due to the city power being off. Noisy, fossil fuel generators of various descriptions are the only way anyone, anywhere has electrical current. For the local Sierra Leonese, that translates into working about in the dark. For the ex-pat community - Engineering, Development, United Nations, Military and Humanitarian Aid organizations - it means we are as ready as ever, with our electricity working. Saturday is typically the 'touch base' and meeting day at the office in a capital city and for MSF volunteers, they work a helf day. Freetown was no exception. The management team started off at 9.00 discussing the status of medical programmes, security, logistics and relations with other International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Sierra Leonese Government. I introduced myself to everyone at the general staff meeting and then checked in with the administration department to arrange evacuation and rendez-vous procedures - should they be necessary. Having just returned from the north or 'up country' in the rebel - controlled area, Jacqui, an exhausted country manager with the MSF mission, decided that the beach was where I should get my over-all briefing on Sierra Leone. On the beach, only moments after briefing, the small group of us were surrounded by young boys, youth and a few men, selling everything from peanuts to clothing. My digital camera caused quite a commotion - everyone organized themselves in an orderly fashion to see the LCD screen. A few even requested me to take the photo. As always, everyone was so very friendly and warm. A young man named Rizo, who was selling cheesies, came back for a chat after the others had left. In thick Freetown creole, he confirmed with hope and doubt that I would remember him, and remember to give him the photo of himself I had previously snapped. We chatted as the waves crashed on the shore. I explained to him that in Canada we do not have white, sandy beaches with palm trees. I asked him 'how di business?' (How is work going?) 'Same, same', he replied with a smile. But the smile was an illusion. A mask. As the two of us sat in a scene of paradise, he began to tell me about his life as a 'business' (working) man, prior to invasion in January 1999. He explained, with no emotion yet looking directly at me, that since that time, life has been very hard. He had been forced from his house. His house was burned to the ground. His family tortured and raped. He lost everything. There is no insurance. So what to do. He said he was lucky. He was able to put together 150,000 leons ($60 US) and start over 'small, small'. On Sundays, his busiest day, he grosses 5000 leons ($2 US). With that, he got up and walked down the empty beach to get back to 'di business'.