by Connor Wroe Southard
In October 2012, I went to Sierra Leone to cover the elections, the first without a peacekeeping presence since the end of the civil war. I didn’t have to wait long before I ran into Reagan Bush, a man gifted in the art of mocking earnest American writers. I met him in a bar that was just a concrete hutch decorated with warm cans of Fanta and baggies of plantain chips. When Andy and I walked in, looking for a quick lunch on our way into the jungle, we saw two drunk police officers. Before long, the bald, skinny one staggered over to our table.
“Ah, you are American! I love America. My name is Reagan Bush!”
“America kills its enemies,” he said, swaying drunkenly, waving his arms. “China, Russia, France, England, they are all — ” here Reagan Bush kicked the air. “Qaddafi killed Americans. Now where is Qaddaffi?” Reagan Bush slid a finger across his throat. “Osama bin Laden killed Americans! Now where is bin Laden? Where is he?!”
“He’s dead,” I said.
“I support Nick Romney,” he said, “because he says he will kill the enemies of America. Jimmy Carter was a very weak president.” He then named all the US presidents since Nixon, recited their years in office, and considered whether they were strong or weak. “If anyone gives you any trouble, call me. I will kill him,” he added. He wrote down his phone number with handwriting that was admirably neat for a drunk man. After a final round of congratulations, Reagan Bush lurched out into the street.
I had come to Sierra Leone expecting to talk about the country’s civil war, which ended in 2002 and left fifty thousand Sierra Leoneans dead, two-and-a-half million as refugees, and tens of thousands more tortured, mutilated, raped, or forced into battle as child soldiers. Ten years later, this was all old news. Reagan Bush was the rare Sierra Leonean who wanted to talk about war, but not the one that had raged in the forest right behind us.
With elections just a few weeks away, a rally for the All People’s Congress — Sierra Leone’s ruling party — had just begun in the street outside the bar. The APC’s red-clad masses were out in force, a platoon of motorcycle riders at their head. A man with a large belly stood next to us and filmed the parade with an iPad. Andy and I had hoped to meet President Ernest Bai Koroma here in Pujehun Town, since he was friends with one of Andy’s business partners, but he didn’t show up for his campaign stop.
It was the second time that Bai Koroma had stood me up; my first miss was in the National Stadium in Freetown a week earlier, where he was supposed to cap off his parade through the APC-red-suffused city with a speech to thousands of his supporters. I waited for five hours in the half-full stands. One of the richest heads of state in Africa, Bai Koroma was going to explain to us how he would deliver the two major things Sierra Leoneans were asking from politicians during that election cycle: more development and less corruption. Julius Maada Bio, the other credible candidate for president, was a former leader of the military junta that had ruled Sierra Leone during the worst days of the civil war. He was the favorite of the two mead brewers I was staying with, but the word “junta” was enough to tilt my sympathies as an outside observer toward Bai Koroma.
Back in the stadium, a man strung out on something vicious had explained, “Red is the only color we need in Sierra Leone. If we are not having red, we are using this!” He mimed firing an assault rifle. He came back later with a trio of men who danced and sang; I shared some boiled peanuts with them. While we munched, an angry crowd chased a boy who had stolen something along the lower mezzanine. They caught him after he leaped onto the track encircling the weed-grown field. He was shirtless, and his pants were falling off as he ran. The man sitting next to me laughed and said, “They will eventually take him to the police. But first they will have some payment.” He tapped his forearm to indicate a beating.
That was the only violence I saw in Sierra Leone. While the man fled, most of the stadium was patiently jubilant. Stray dogs played on the soccer pitch — five or six tawny speaks rolling in the grass, chasing each other around goalposts.
We were on the way to visit Andy’s farm when we met Reagan Bush. Andy and his business partner Ben were part of a wave of “social entrepreneurs” who believe that businesses can solve problems NGO’s can’t, like harnessing the potential of thousands of acres of uncultivated arable land in a country where the average person is undernourished. They had broad ambitions, offering commercial loans to ex-guerilla-commanders who wanted to start farms or sell flash drives. But warlords and animist magicians (one of them famously convinced his men that his electric fan could breeze away bullets) don’t make great debtors, so Andy and Ben switched to farming full time just before I arrived in Sierra Leone. They leased two thousand acres of estuarial wetland on the Liberian border, deep in the bush; two miles away, former South African mercenaries were dredging a river for diamonds.
One of Andy and Ben’s partners in the farm, Exeter, is yet another former bush commando, but he had proven more reliable than the magic fan guy. As he said, “I do not just like doing bad things anymore.” He laughed when he said this. His self-appraisals were always one step ahead of my attempts to get him to talk about the war. Still, he was conscientious about helping me understand the country. Exeter ran the local operations of the APC. After I had been at the farm for a week — mostly reading Thomas Hardy in the shade — he agreed to show me how campaigning works. We shared a motorcycle en route to a “family meeting” — a label used to dodge rules that limit political rallies to certain days — in nearby Sulima. As always, kids we passed on the road ran toward us shouting “Pumwe! Pumwe!” — white man. From the rear seat, I waved a red poster decorated with President Bai Koroma.
The meeting involved a series of men holding forth in impassioned Mende, the regional language, with a lot of gesturing and pacing. I don’t speak Mende, but Exeter told me that the promises were typical — more development, less corruption. Skull-capped old men leaned back and snacked on coconut flesh. Young kids formed a watchful perimeter around the concrete shelter into which the rest of us had crammed. The place was packed, and every time I bumped into someone, I got a smile and an admonition to take his seat, as if I were an honored guest. At the end, a man in a Washington Redskins jersey and a trucker-style APC hat passed out handfuls of five thousand Leone bills (about $1.25) to all of the older men; Exeter said that such “tokens” were a part of any major village meeting, and I shouldn’t glamorize it as buying votes. As we rode back to the farm, I asked Exeter what he thought about the United States.
“I would like to visit there, but I do not want to immigrate.”
I asked Exeter why he felt the way he did.
“Because there you can have a lot of money and not have much power.”
I laughed and said that most rich Americans had enough power.
“Yes, but here you can have only maybe twenty thousand dollars and be plenty rich. In America, if you have only twenty thousand dollars, people will not respect you.”
His numbers were right, so I didn’t have a rebuttal.
Election Day was a few weeks later, on November 17th. Elections are the crux of a week-long shutdown of the entire country, so with little else to do, Andy and I went to Sulima, a small fishing town, to see what voting looked like in Sierra Leone. In a country still reckoning with a war that had gutted all pretense of civility, civil rights are revered, so turnout wasn’t an issue. This was only the third national election since the war, and it was the first that didn’t have a foreign security presence.
Andy and I decided we wanted a Coke. Exeter, who owned the building that held Sulima’s main shop, had two thirteen-year-old girls open it up for us. They got two cans of Coke out of the cooler, opened them, and took our money. Exeter smiled nervously when he saw us. He wore a studded red shirt over a flowing sleeveless undershirt, his look whenever he wanted to announce that he was a crack APC operative. I struggled to understand what his goals were within the party. Like most Mende areas of Sierra Leone, Pujehun was Sierra Leone People’s Party (and thus Maada Bio) country. APC was the preferred party of the ethnic Temne regions to the North. Ben had explained that Exeter’s gambit was to try to disrupt the SLPP power structure by gaining clout in his own corner of Pujehun. If he could build up his venture with Andy and Ben, he could subvert the SLPP old guard, who didn’t have the backing of American capital. He had designs on one day being the first APC parliamentarian from Pujehun in over a decade.
But on Election Day, flaunting commercial clout mattered less than neutral optics. When we met outside the schoolhouse, Exeter, and I performed the elaborate Sierra Leonean greeting that starts with a handshake, followed by matching palms, then another shake, ending with each man touching his right hand to his heart. Exeter wasted no time warning us off. If anyone from Sulima thought white farmers were interfering on Election Day, there would have been trouble. Exeter perfectly described how even standing around as white guys was a potentially transactional act: “Because we are having voting here, you are with me. These people see you are with me. I do not want anyone to think you are doing anything, having some influence. Sorry.”
One evening at twilight, after I had been in Sierra Leone about a month, Andy and Ben’s employee Bashiru waved the Land Cruiser to a halt. He had caught a monkey in a trap set by the river. The monkey was a baby, too little to eat. Very powerfully built by reedy Mende standards, Bashiru was giddy — he had big plans for his new pet. He wanted to train her to do tricks, maybe even make his living as an entertainer. Maybe this monkey could take him out of the fields. The monkey was tied to a bamboo log by a rope around her waist. She tried to run away whenever Bashiru got near, the rope always surprising her. Bashiru was quick-handed enough to grab her from behind without getting bitten. He laughed and cuffed the monkey’s head when she finally got her teeth into him.
Bashiru brought his prize to the compound the next day. He led her around by the rope, still using the bamboo as an anchor. His style of monkey walking involved a lot of dragging and lifting and swinging in the air. This made an unnerving marionette of the monkey. After showing her off to the workers, he left her anchored in the “carpentry shop,” which was a tarp spread over a frame of two-by-fours. The monkey sat with hunched shoulders, paws curled up on her fuzzy ribcage. The rope was starting to rub her belly raw. You don’t want me to go into detail about her eyes; a monkey’s downcast gaze can be more flattening than a human’s. I knew that all I had to do was cut the monkey’s rope. She would run off into the forest, and probably die there, away from her troop. But I wouldn’t have to sit still and watch her die; when she disappeared into the elephant grass, I could tell myself that I may have been her salvation.
Ben asked Bashiru to take the monkey home, but he didn’t. After a day of smuggling water, fruit, and burned rice out to the carpentry shop, I told Ben and Andy we needed to cut her loose. If Bashiru wasn’t even going to feed his monkey, then we didn’t have to abuse her for him. In the muggy climate, the wounds from the rope wouldn’t take long to become infected and deadly.
Ben and Andy agreed. “I’ll do it,” Ben said, picking up a machete.
But the scene quickly went off-script. Ben swung at the rope while Soni, the farm’s all-purpose domestic, kept the line taut by holding the bamboo anchor in the air. The monkey skittered desperately. She had started to trust me, but now she was back to assuming all humans wanted to whack her with a machete. I convinced Soni to hold the monkey to the ground so I could cut the rope away from her body.
“It’s going to bite the shit out of you,” Ben said to me as I went in for the cut. We found ourselves crouched in the barren middle of the compound — two white kids in a standoff, Soni holding a fistful of monkey. She had scrunched into a stoic ball in Soni’s hand.
“Let it go,” I said.
“Bashiru told me to care for the monkey,” Soni said. “He said to give it salt. If you give it salt, it does not want to go back into the bush.” He clenched his face in disgust at the idea of release.
“Take it back to Bashiru,” Ben ordered.
“We said we were going to release it,” I said.
“Will you pay Bashiru for it?”
We managed to agree again. Soni let the monkey go. Dropped, the monkey paused. The shock of liberty beat out instinct. Then Soni rushed at her, waving his arms and shouting curses. She shot up and over the fence. Soni wasn’t happy that we had freed an animal that could have been eaten, even if it wasn’t much bigger than a guinea pig. The average person in Massaquoi II was always hungry. Not starving, but almost never sated. And we had taken something away from Bashiru that he believed would bring him a new livelihood.
Bashiru later quietly asked me for money: “I have heard you have freed my monkey.” He didn’t seem upset. He just wanted a fair rate for the monkey; he set the price at fifteen thousand Leones, or about four dollars. This seemed like a suspiciously low price, even though Soni independently signed off it. I later learned that both were letting me off the hook for less than half the monkey’s proper value.
By the time I was getting ready to leave Pujehun, everyone else on the farm was also preparing for a possible denouement. If the peanut harvest went badly, Andy and Ben were considering selling to Exeter or folding up shop altogether. There were many reasons for this — lack of skilled labor, infrastructure that just wasn’t there, tropical crop diseases. Farming here was more complicated than they expected, in all ways but one: It was simply hard to turn a profit.
One morning as we walked through the village of Follu, rain started to fall. Morning prayers began in the huts. Vandi Hassan, the chief of Massaquoi II, knelt in front of his house. His skullcap stayed still while his hands floated apart and back together again. He bent and touched his head to the ground, chanting steadily.
“Come on,” I said to Andy, “Let’s get going before he sees us.” Most of the times we saw Chief Vandi, we gave him a few thousand Leones or a bottle of eye drops. Gifts. Andy and Ben had to be on Vandi’s good side if they wanted to do business in his territory. Rumor had it that the South African diamond hunters gave an envelope of cash to a different nearby chief every month. Multinational mining companies did whatever it took to secure the favor of the Sierra Leonean elite. If you gave enough to the right people, there was little you couldn’t get away with, a fact that makes Pujehun much like anywhere else.
Ebola’s sabotaging of any current discussion about Sierra Leone probably hasn’t done much to disrupt Chief Vandi’s morning routine. What the virus’s celebrity status means is that there’s a new poignancy to the ongoing need to parse this dynamic — transaction leading to extraction, all the leftover gears of imperialism grinding away. The problem is that we don’t seem to have the first clue what it would mean to act benevolently outside of distinctive moments of crisis — a dynamic often pointed out in critiques of Western relations with African nations. We don’t even know how to care until the bodies have already piled up. At least we then sometimes send money, doctors, soldiers. African countries otherwise remain places we go almost exclusively to get something, whether rare earth minerals or a sense of integrity. Conscience-laundering and mining resources are both lopsided transactions. After winning the deal, we can leave, and wait for the next crisis (which is often the same as the next opportunity).
Even if I acknowledge this failure and try to work it out in writing, the best framework of meaning that I can cobble together still teeters under the weight of the same transactional logic that warps US foreign policy. So maybe I shouldn’t have run from Chief Vandi that morning. Maybe I should have spent more time with him, sincerely trying to do justice to whatever anchors his faith. Maybe then I would have some better insights about how the United States and its citizens could become a more positive force in the lives of Sierra Leoneans. But it’s just as likely that I would have found myself short a few more dollars, the price of creating scenes I could use in another piece.
Some names have been changed.