Friday, September 02, 2011

Shorts: The Seaside

Two Chinese men went to the beach. They paid a man so they could park their car. Then they paid a man so that they could sit on the sand at a nice table with a nice beach umbrella. They paid another man so that they could enjoy a drink and watch the waves. Then one of the Chinese men paid yet another man and he brought over two young women in swimming costumes. One of the Chinese men disappeared with his girl while the other sat at the table he had paid for with the drink he had paid for and the woman he had paid for. And so they had a nice day at the beach.

(Though the men in this story were Chinese they could as easily have been from anywhere else in the world. The girls are always African though.)

“Dooong!” The bell sounded and I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it must have sounded like to the slaves it was originally used to call to attention. I was in the village of Dublin (!) on Banana Island, once used as a kind of holding site for slaves before they made their long journey to the Americas or Britain. I looked at the canons that were used to “protect” the slaves from pirates in the way a supermarket security guard protects the potatoes and tried to imagine how the slaves would have felt about them. I walked the trails of the small island, trails that probably haven't changed since slaves were marched up and down them before they were shipped across the Atlantic and tried to imagine how they must have seen this place – to you and me a tropical paradise, to them perhaps the very gateway to hell.

I tried to imagine. But I couldn't.

Far out enough that they would be difficult to see from the shore, the local fishermen paddle their small, one-man dug-out canoes despite the swell of the ocean waves. They have a line in the water and hopes of a decent catch, repeating a scene that hasn't changed for hundreds of years. You just have to watch and wonder.

We had fought the usual Freetown traffic down one of the busiest streets in the city, Kissy, a hive of people, market stalls, all kinds of vehicles and some more people, but had to walk the last part because a container truck had blocked the road. It was an unremarkable Freetown day as the city sweated, shouted, honked its horns and tried to sell things to itself. Then the next thing we knew we were in what looked like an airport lounge in an American city with people offering to buy us Starbucks coffee.

We were visiting the Mercy Ships floating hospital, Africa Mercy, where one of our kids had surgery earlier this year and where we had a few contacts and wanted to make a few more. I spent a lot of the time just gazing around. Everywhere you looked Americans and Europeans were tapping on Macs or draining coffee cups. These people all contribute to some really amazing work but spend the bulk of their time in this weird western microcosm. I wondered if any of them ever really get to begin to understand where they are. Then our visiting hours were over and we headed back to Sierra Leone and walked up the bustling Kissy Road trying to work out what had just happened.

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