Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shorts: December Rain

“The traditional idea is that December rain comes to wash the city clean of all the bad things in time for the new year.”

...we’re going to need a lot of rain...


Standing at the side of the road amidst a crowd of fellow Freetown transport seekers, a cry went up as the rain came down and we all retreated under the shelter of Lumley’s petrol station. I stood and watched the rain pound the fast flowing stream which seconds before had been a street. A man filled a wheelbarrow with a lady’s shopping and their clothes, soaked to transparency, clung to them as they wheeled away. A raucous roar went up from the crowd huddled behind me, making me turn quickly. I felt a shot of adrenaline as I was greeted with the sight of three men surrounding one, all four having stepped out from under the forecourt’s covering. Fight! I couldn’t really be sure what had happened, the best I could gather being that the one had tried to steal from one of the three but I could be wrong. The crowd bayed like school boys and the driving rain added to the kinetic energy of the moment. One of the three swung a wild kick at who we’ll call the “thief” who countered with a kick of his own, sending his assailant sprawling to the ground. The other two men lunged forward and grappled with the thief, the third assailant making use of his puddle position to grab a leg and haul everyone down to his level.

One man stepped forward from the crowd and tried to pull the fight apart, appealing to others to help as he did so. A moment later the fracas had been reduced to a stand off between the thief and one of his accusers, each being held apart but trying to force his way forward. A taxi pulled up and my friend and I ran out in the rain and jumped in, along with a couple of women. While we waited for the car to fill up we watched the brawlers through its wet windows and, talking in krio, one of the women lamented, “Everyone is telling them to stop. Why won’t they stop!?” Another responded, “You don’t understand Fullah (a tribal group in Sierra Leone) man, sister. Unless he kills this man his heart won’t cool down.” Then, for just a moment, that kind of extreme conclusion seemed possible as one of the two men pulled a long cutlass (that’s what machetes are called here) from somewhere. The clamour of the crowd peaked but so did its action, one young man immediately jumping forward, wrestling the weapon clear and disappearing with it.

Another passenger squeezed in to our taxi and we pulled away, the two men still trying to claw towards each other.


Coming back from my friend Gee’s graduation my taxi stopped at a junction where a police officer stood directing traffic. As cars passed in front of us there was a screech of tires. A large land cruiser, bedecked in ribbon as if coming from a wedding, had narrowly avoided a fender bender with the vehicle in front. The driver, a man of Lebanese descent, had not been paying attention, distracted by the conversation he was having on his mobile phone. The police officer had seen the whole incident and smiled at the driver, giving a little laugh. A grunt of disgust came from the man in the passenger seat of my taxi. He leaned out of his window and shouted at the police officer, “If that had been a black man you would have held him!” Nods of agreement came from the other passengers as the man shouted his commentary. The police officer rounded on him, pointing his finger and spitting out three words. “You shut up!”
The passenger shouted back, “I’ll speak whatever I have a mind to. If that had been a black man using his mobile phone you would have held him!”
“You shut up!”
“No, I’ll say what I want!”
The police officer marched over to the car, his body tight with rage, and shouted again, “Shut up!” He opened the door and jabbed his finger in to the passengers face. The passenger, unsurprisingly, did not take kindly to having his cheekbone poked by an irate police officer and there was a scuffle between the two.
“You are not allowed to strike a civilian!”
“You shut up!”

The man in the back seat beside me stood up inside the car, leaned out the window and joined in the argy bargy, shouting in his friend’s defense.
“What he says is right. Take your hands off him. I will seize your crown.” And with that he grabbed the police officers cap and pulled it in to the taxi. The officer, his bewilderment at this assault on his authority only making him even more angry, wrestled with this second man, eventually pulling his cap free. By this time passers by had gotten involved, one of them holding back the man in the passenger seat and pushing him back in to the car. The taxi driver was calling for calm as was the lady on my other side. I sat, somewhat stunned by what was unfolding, offering somewhat muted appeals for peace. Once the passenger had taken his seat and the police officer had pulled his head back out of the window the taxi driver seized his opportunity to pull away from the situation. My last glimpse of the police officer saw him surrounded by people, dusting off his cap and looking utterly humbled.

Once we were clear the taxi erupted in conversation and, as so often happens in Sierra Leone, anger quickly gave way to laughter.
“I wanted to take his cap and go and report him so no-one could deny the incident,” the backseat passenger explained.
“You were right, if it had of been a black man that police officer would have held him. But since he was white (Everyone is white here unless you are black, little distinction being made between Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners and Asians) the police officer just laughed back,” the taxi driver summed up.
When we arrived at our destination and we got out of the taxi, the front seat passenger put his arm around me. “Were you worried?” he asked.
“No” I lied. “And you certainly weren’t”.
“I’m not scared of them. Not at all.”
His colleague nodded. “Once you seize their crown you seize all their authority.”
Within a matter of thirty seconds two separate people had come over to slap the backseat passenger on the back.
“Are you the man who pulled the policeman’s cap?” they laughed. The backseat passenger smiled and an extra swagger made its presence felt in his already confident strut.

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