Stories from Africa – Crazy fieldtrips in war-afflicted Sierra Leone

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During 2003 and 2004 I had an internship at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in war-torn Sierra Leone, West Africa. After a ten-year long civil war and the complete chaos that followed in the beginning of the 21st century, my half-year long stay in the country became somewhat of a Wild West. As a result, the cock-and-bull stories were surely flowing as my stay began to draw to an end. Especially the different field trips into various parts of the beaten little country produced an abundance of comical events that happened to pop up in my memory as I recently looked up the diaries I wrote at the time. So I thought it might be fun to publicize some of these stories!

My first trip went to the Kenema district bordering Liberia in the south, a region devastatingly struck by the war, caused among other things by the location of the infamous diamond mines. The reason for my visit was to attend the UN’s follow-up on the region’s recovery and development since the end of the war some time back. Hosts for the conference were the top UN directors and the country’s government, and the guests comprised of aid sponsors like the EU and US Aid. The top dogs were flown in with white UN helicopters of Soviet military origin while we simple folks had to settle with a diesel-driven Toyota Hilux pickup truck.

To go by car through the world’s most underdeveloped country is not at all like driving from, say, Paris to Berlin. Some of the roads are certainly covered with tarmac but these have holes like a Swiss cheese and craters like elephant footprints, deep as wells. Our chauffeur – we always had a uniformed driver on our trips – seemed to believe he was on the Autobahn since he mostly preferred the “pedal to the metal”. We bounced around like kids in an inflatable castle in the car and it’s remarkable that it held together despite the torture.

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But the view was so exotic that I enjoyed the trip anyway, with village women dressed in the most colorful dresses and baskets with bananas on their heads occupying the side of the road, and school children with uniforms yelling after us as we stormed past.

When it was time for lunch we stopped at the marketplace of a small, typical African village. The restaurant consisted of a wooden shack containing wooden benches and small tables on which a large plastic plate of food was normally placed. As always we were served the standard course of rice, goat meat and some kind of brown stu. But there was nothing wrong with the food and it certainly went down towards our hungry stomacks. That particular time however was extra luxurious since we received one plate each and not the big one for all to share. But since most local people eat with their hands I had to ask for a spoon.

We met up with the UN bosses at a military airport in Kenema Town that was guarded by Pakistani UN troops, and from there the surreal convoy went at high speed towards the villages in the rural areas. We were escorted by heavily armed Sierra Leonean police with their sirens violently screaming through the land. The first target were some destroyed schools that were burned by the RUF rebels during the war.

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Quickly we stormed through the countryside on the dusty dirt roads, through villages where the citizens were standing in hordes to watch the spectacle that came thrashing through their village. The craziness of the whole thing was exacerbated by Dillinger’s “Cocaine in my brain” loud in the speakers of our Hilux. But I certainly didn’t need any narcotics to get high that day. 

The warnings from my Swedish boss that my stay in Sierra Leone would be some kind of “hardship” as he put it, was disqualified as I realized that we would spend three days driving around in police escorted, air-conditioned UN jeeps and stay at hotels.

My first field trip deep inside rural Sierra Leone certainly presented an adventurous start of my UN internship. Several additional exciting events would take place during my stay in the poor little country with the big UN operation, and they created more peculiar stories to be told.   

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Filip Ericsson

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