‘Tis the season… Most folks send out Christmas cards. I appreciate the thought. I consider it more personal so I go through all my old email letters and find the highlights of the past year…it’s my Christmas tradition.
When I last left my snail mail readers, it was Christmas and I was getting ready for a trip to London for ten days of civilization. Having spent two previous vacations in London, there wasn’t much I wanted to do except be human…fun to be able to pick and choose rather than take what was given. I saw a few movies and musicals. I ate in restaurants and just caught up on modern civilization. Like many vacations I’ve had, getting out and seeing things or doing things isn’t important. I’d often stay in my room and sleep, read, or watch tv. It was expensive though it didn’t matter…like calories, money doesn’t count when on vacation. Besides, for the most part, this one was on my employer…civilization leave.
One Sunday, I was returning from the early morning routine in Freetown...Mass and grocery shopping...when I spotted some of the senior management at the front gate. I stopped to inquire. One of our crew had been killed, three injured (one seriously) in a gorilla attack. My first thoughts were guerilla attack and I started getting concerned. I didn't deviate from my normal Sunday routine however I did make sure I was home before sundown. Off to the gym followed by the swim pool. Among the normal people who hang out at the pool are folks from IMATT...a United Nations like organization who is supposed to keep the peace and train the government military forces of Sierra Leone in keeping the peace. They were hanging out at the pool. If the country had some security concerns, why were these folks still at the pool? Gorilla...not guerilla. Oh!
There's an orphanage for chimpanzees, apes, gorillas, etc. near Freetown. Any abandoned chimp anywhere in the world is brought here. The locals know it as the Monkey Farm. I've never been there nor have I had the desire to go.
As the facts surfaced, I learned that a subcontractor's crew took a company rented bus on an adventure to the Monkey Farm. The driver mysteriously disappeared and was found dead about a mile from the site of the incident at the camp of the gorillas. About a mile from the venue, the biggest gorilla the locals call Bruno, broke into the bus. Three others were injured in hand to hand combat apparently with Bruno. One was snatched from the seats while sitting between two Americans. His hand was literally bit off... the index finger and the thumb. The other two were injured fighting off this beast that ran after five minutes of combat. The trigger incident in the retreat was the ape getting poked in the throat by a stick.
As a result, we sent the two who were involved in the combat and one other witness home. Some of it was personal trauma while others were going home to worried spouses.
Click Here for articles I'd found on the web pertaining to the incident. None of the articles are totally correct with the latter two pages being the least accurate. The last two pages are from the same wire service that I found the following day of the incident and the first page was from the second day. The last couple of pages are worded slightly differently but basically the same story.
The Monkey Farm caretaker was reportedly away on R&R and the residents somehow managed to escape. I haven't heard of any animals destroyed. Apparently, the world's environmentalists have a great deal of stroke around Sierra Leone and not even the local police can enter this refuge.
An interesting note is that the ones that were attacked were black...I'll leave you to formulate your own hypothesis.
I didn't know the driver. I've seen the other combatants but I don't know them personally. The driver was popular with our people as he took good care of them. On both Sunday and Monday after the incident, we cut our workday to half days. Several inquiries were made about funeral arrangements but due to security reasons, our guys were forbidden from attending. The embassy has since banned travel to the Monkey Farm.
The driver who died was just another reminder of the mortality of this project. We had two workers die from malaria while I was in Freetown. Others caught it including a subordinate engineer of mine.
While I was in China, I frequently passed a Turkish restaurant after I’d just finished eating lunch at a favorite eatery. I kept thinking I should eat at the Turk restaurant. In Freetown, we lived in a man camp on site. The food was Turkish. It got to the point where you could determine the day by what was served at dinner…not much variety. It’ll be a while before I’m hungry for rice. With the recent bird flu scare, chicken was banned from the cafeteria so all we had was beef…we’re not talking high grade steak either. They killed the steer on site…here today...hamburger tomorrow. Be careful for what you wish for…you just might get it.
Driving in the city of Freetown presents many hazards. Besides the volume of traffic and pedestrians, you also have to avoid the concrete ditch that doesn’t have any room between the edge of the road and the ditch...wishful thinking. I'd taken the crew out for grocery shopping and dinner at a local restaurant. On the return, I was preparing for a right turn when I drove and lodged my right front tire into one of these ditches. If I was in the right frame of mind, I probably could have shifted into four-wheel drive and got out with a bit of pushing from my companions but there was a throng of eager candidates waiting to help me right my vehicle. It turned to a mob scene as they lifted and pushed my Jeep safely back onto the pavement and then a maze of hands gathered at my window grabbing and tugging at my hand with an unknown amount of cash as a token payment for their efforts. I was lost in the moment but had the presence of mind just to let go, put it in gear and hit the gas. Without saying or mouthing a word, the person in front of my bumper realized I wasn't going to stop for him to get out of my way so he moved quickly. Turning the corner, I realized I had a flat...keep driving was all my companions said. We drove for a short distance to get out of visual distance of the mob hoping they wouldn't chase us down wanting more money...we were kind of vulnerable at the moment.
We attracted another crowd who wanted to help us with the tire change. We struggled to find the jack and lug wrench...it's always different from vehicle to vehicle. We could barely see in the night sky and then I remembered my cell phone doubles a flashlight. It wasn't easy as the jack was a bit short for the tires we had but it worked...more cash outlay. I whispered to my companions to load the tire, jack, and lug wrench into the car...we were going to make a fast getaway...we weren't exactly comfortable in these settings. Another few yards, we discovered the newly installed tire didn't have enough air for us to drive anywhere...another short drive and then we pulled over. I called a couple of folks and eventually found an associate who was home and answered his phone at 2200 hours. We left the jeep at the house of a friend.
My parting comments to those who received the cash were to share it with his companions. Such was not the case as I got queries from participating non-recipients the following week. I didn’t know if their requests were legit…I can’t afford to create enemies so I caved in and gave them a bit of cash…a softie.
Freetown had a funky gas rationing scheme going on for a couple of weeks. Prices were anticipated to go up so the stations rationed gas to five gallons per customer per purchase until the price did change. Gas line waiting time was a couple of hours. Our drivers often chose not to wait so there are a lot of our gasoline powered vehicles running on fumes. The jeep I drove was an issue. Long lines in front of gas stations were a common sight. This lasted about two weeks. Diesel…we had it delivered to site so it wasn’t an issue.
The strange concept about weather in Freetown was it was either raining in buckets or bone dry. The transition from rainy to dry season provided some interesting lightning pictures in the night sky. During the dry season, the dust got so thick that our once white stucco paint turned an earth tone brown. You could wash your face and the dirt would wipe off on the towel. Our close proximity to the ocean only compounded the fickleness of the weather…walk fifty feet and the weather may change.
I’d planned on going home for a few weeks in June but the medical folks liked me so much they made it an extended stay. Send me an email for the boring details. For years, I’d been considering retiring from work…or at least, a considerably reduced schedule but I’m not used to idle time. Three months at home was enough to convince me that work is an important part of who I am and idle can wait.
While on my extended hiatus, I didn’t wander too far from home with only one night away from home. I did buy many toys and attend many family functions. I got lots of saddle time on my bicycle. My bicycle was my main form of transport even with triple-digit temperatures.
Ever since they came into fruition, I've been lusting after the new dual processor laptops...sold my laptop on my departure day in May. I ordered the replacement just minutes after the sale. I decided the carrying case (the kind that straps over the shoulder and is carried at the side) wouldn't work for me so I sent it back. The vendor credited my MasterCard account in full for the cost of the computer. Best I can figure, the laptop cost me about $10 in shipping the case-plus the cost of the new backpack ($60). Phone calls and emails didn't help...comedian Ron White said it best...you can't fix stupid! I’m not going to force anyone to take my money.
2006…the year of my twenty-fifth high school class reunion. As part of the invitation, we had to write a brief narrative about what we've been doing since graduation. If you're a glutton for punishment or are truly desperate for entertainment, I've posted this narrative on my web site. (Click Here).
The reunion...a blast! I'd guess that about a third of my graduating class attended. Most were impressed with my international lifestyle. My mantra was that my life seems a lot more glamorous than it really is. It's hard to conceive that I've been out of high school for 25 years! It blows my mind how little my home town has changed in that 25 years...names on the marquees change but not much else. In contrast, Omaha, only 20 miles away, has been insatiably engulfing communities that once were considered distinctively separate.
My return to Sierra Leone in August came at the same time as the terrorists had planned on mixing explosive bathroom cocktails. Uncle Sammy decided to up the security ante…hasn’t made travel fun for any of us. Since I was carrying liquid medicines, that made travel a bit more challenging but I made it without incident.
I was just a toddler when the Vietnam War was going on. Returning to Sierra Leone made me feel as I was there and no, I haven’t been to Vietnam. The smell, terrain, and vegetation only enhance the effect especially when you take an old Russian military chopper from a corrugated metal hangar at the airport.
When I was returning to the US in May, I was seated next to a Lebanese man whom I recognized from the gym. Like so many Lebanese, he'd left his homeland to start a business in Freetown. We'd spoken briefly before but never at length. On the plane we finally got to know each other a bit. He was traveling to Lebanon telling me how peaceful his homeland was. He was returning to visit his wife and children he'd left behind. The irony of the conversation lingers in my brain. The bombing of Lebanon really became a personal concern as I saw southern Lebanon while I was visiting Israel years ago. I was in the area where the bombing started. The bombing really hit me.
It took many months but we finally hooked up since my return. He said he'd sent his family to Dubai while the Hezbollah and the Israelis had it out. His family just returned to Lebanon. He said they didn't want to leave even during the bombing. He took the bombing matter of factly. It happened before, it'll happen again. Guess people like my friend will never make a CNN interview unless they're doing a group hug segment.
Freetown has a large Lebanese population. I'm told that my Lebanese owned grocery store closed down in a one day protest over the bombing.
Uncle Sammy has an embassy up for bid in Lebanon. Before the Hezbollah and the Israelis started sharing unannounced FedEx packages without customs clearance, it wouldn’t have been a problem but now the bonding companies are warning their contractor clients that they’ll be sitting out this job.
For those of you that watch CNN, a former Sierra Leonean rebel leader and Liberian president, Charles Taylor was arrested trying to escape Nigeria on his way to Cameroon. Taylor made a mint smuggling diamonds. Reportedly, his attempt to overthrow the Sierra Leonean government was due to his desire to rule the nations’ diamond mines and the cause of the recent civil war in Sierra Leone. His asylum in Nigeria was reportedly coming to an end. By sure happenstance, a border guard recognized his face from a photo and arrested him. He was extradited to Freetown where he was supposed to be on trial in front of the wartime trial court held by the United Nations in Freetown. This was a hotly discussed topic even on this job. Although not widely publicized or discussed, Taylor had escaped from the US prison system in the mid eighties. According to CNN, he ranks up there with Bin Laden associated shenanigans. It didn't take too long for Sierra Leone to opt out of trying Taylor. They announced they were sending him off to The Hague the day after his return to Freetown. I spoke to someone who works for the court. She told me that the UN was using The Hague as a trump card in dealing with Taylor...didn't take long for them to play the card.
I can't figure it out. In the limited conversations I do have, the locals seem anxious, almost jubilant, that Taylor is in jail. From their demeanor, you get the impression that these people are tired of the bloodshed and steadfast about keeping the peace. There is calm about these people. When the personal fisticuffs break out or the sporadic instantaneous acts of violence arise you quickly learn that your belief that this non violent aura is simply naive.
While in Freetown, I saw much evidence of Taylor’s efforts…lots of young male amputees. The wars in impoverished areas are accomplished in graphic methods with machetes, raping, and bludgeoning. Bullets, explosives, and other projectiles along with mechanized transportation are luxuries for those who can afford anonymous mass killing at a distance. These war casualties generally resorted to begging in the streets…the next war casualty. For ten years, these folks invested in war. It’ll take another twenty or more years before they dig themselves out of this situation.
Interesting story in rotation on CNN on breaking the poverty cycle. It evolves around my hero, Slick Willie and his quest to end poverty. In all honesty, he's done more good after his presidency than during his presidency. Anyway, they were filming a segment from Sudan. They were showing the farming discrepancy between the lower elevations who had water and subsequently healthy produce and those in the upper elevations who had no water and subsequently little or no produce. A long standing drought didn't help crop growing matters.
As much that was said about the Sudan in this documentary could be said about life in Sierra Leone. Nearly every commuter vehicle has jugs strapped to the roof meant for toting water. Sometimes, it's even carried by motorcycle. Many carry it on foot. The wealthier classes have tanks for water storage and water is delivered by hired truck. As American society modernized, less time is spent procuring food and basic necessities such as water and cooking materials. Since most homes here are without water, electricity, and basic transportation, the bulk of time we'd consider to be quality time is spent obtaining life's basic necessities with little time for leisure.
The city of Freetown provides water to the nearby military base. It flows via pipeline from a distant reservoir to a tank. The American Embassy is connected to the same water supply via the same pipeline. Once the military base is finished filling their tank, the Embassy fills their storage tank, and the water is cut off until either place needs it again. People who live between the reservoir and the Embassy will not have access to this pipeline. I'd guess though I don't know that the government couldn't control the quality of the pressure along this pipeline if it allows others to use the water line.
The bottom line of the CNN report was that the person who could control water had a large amount of power in many of the poorer nations.
On my first late shift back after a long absence from work, all seemed well until the next day. The boss asked what time I left...about fifteen minutes early but he wasn't concerned. I checked with the entrance guards and all employees had vacated the project. The reason the boss was asking was that someone had broken into our payroll office and two strong boxes and left with about $30,000, half in US and half in local currency.
Typically, on international projects, the locals are paid in local currency and vendors are paid in American cash. Travel, especially international, is generally done in American dollars. On large projects, a huge amount of cash is needed to sustain the work. Checking accounts, wire transfers, and other electronic payments are usually reserved for the home office. Whoever robbed us knew who, what, when, where, and why to do it. Nothing else was taken and everyone had left.
Since I was the last one in the office before the money was missing, the local police interviewed me. While we both spoke English, communication was difficult. My interviewer spoke and transcribed longhand the answers to his questions. He didn't remember much of what I said after he started writing. We didn't communicate very well. One question that still baffles me was 'are you a Christian'. Others were asked the same question. I was clueless about the relevance but one of the readers of the BLT offered an idea behind the police questioning my religion. Perhaps, there is a large amount of credibility behind being a Christian. It sounds plausible though my culture seems to question all ideas of credibility.
To convert a hundred dollars into Leones, at a normal rate of 3000L to $1US leaves me with a MINIMUM of 30-10,000 notes. Normally, you get 60-5,000 notes. It's a huge stack of cash. It's uncomfortable to sit on my wallet with 300,000 Leones. You have to plan logistics when dealing with large sums of Leones. Even I can't envision the Leones equivalent of $15,000US.
During a late lunch, I checked my room for the missing cash just in case I have an alter ego that stole the money and didn't tell me ...nope! Maybe that personality is smarter than my dominant one We were right in thinking it was an inside job. How we found out is interesting. To avenge a physically abusive boyfriend, a neighbor turned in her boyfriend to the local police as a party to the robbery. As evidence, she presented a home full of newly procured electronics. Her boyfriend went on the lamb and remains at large. Apparently, her turning in her boyfriend created a bit of animosity between her family and her former boyfriend’s family as the suspect’s family promised the other family a bit of the bounty. Realizing she may have created a bit of a stir, she recanted her testimony but the police had already confiscated the supposedly ill-gotten electronics. Since most of the homes here don't have electricity, it's hard to fathom how these toys will be used. What’s even crazier is why these fools bought anything with the cash even if they were going to sell it or give it away…it’s totally liquid.
Fast-forward a month…again its payroll time. Again, I’m supervising the night shift. The following morning, one of our visiting management asks if anyone has seen his laptop computer…bastards got three of them. We’d beefed up the safe to the point where they took the quickest, most liquid alternative. Seems epidemic that whenever I work the night shift, there’s a break-in…I wasn't relieved of my night duties...rats! On my next night shift, I left with nothing that would arouse any suspicion. We did a quick inventory of the office the next day...nothing missing.
Someone who is lyrically talented could change the words to Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant and fill up twenty minutes of obtuse verbose. Like the song, the policemen had lots of cop equipment they had laying around their office. To investigate the initial crime, the folks from CSI Freetown donned their protective outfits, got out their high-intensity lighting, and took lots of digital photographs and dusted for finger prints though they never took mine to see if I was involved or to eliminate me as a suspect. No doubt, their efforts were to demonstrate to the US government that they were doing all they could to solve this crime. This whole scenario was a big laugh to us on the project.
Local worker strikes were common phenomena in our project. The slightest agitation seemed to set our workers off. Before anyone got the full story, a strike would ensue. It almost seemed as if it happened monthly.
Being a fan of American rules football, while overseas, has its’ challenges. Many of the games are played in the wee, wee hours of the morning African time…staying awake was an effort in its’ own right. We used to watch football in our lounge on Armed Forces Network. Someone took our satellite controller so it was confined to whatever we could find on foreign broadcasting or listening to the games over the internet. This changed when we bought our Slingboxes…a cable tv box that broadcasts the signal over the internet…start up the band for WWIII with the IT guy. We took up too much band width. For us diehards, these were minor challenges.
I returned home in October for medical exams and a change of project. I’m assisting with the legal work in our home office in Montgomery Alabama and floating to San Antonio. Currently, the work is on hiatus and life in the home office is like fingernails on a chalk board…excruciating…but it’s boredom that’s excruciating. I like doing legal work. Maybe some day, I’ll get into it full time. It’s kind of like a court of law, examining the evidence and see if it supports the theories.
The project in Freetown was given substantial completion a couple of weeks after I left though it’s not totally done yet. I get sporadic email from the job still. I was informed that arsonists burnt down one of our warehouses. Inside the warehouse was materials needed for completion.
I’ve made many trips back to Omaha for visits and one to KC to watch my Huskers crash and burn in the Big 12 championship while we diehard fans froze ourselves in sub-freezing temperatures stomping on that fine line that separates dedication from stupidity. I made one trip to Lincoln to see the last Husker home game. I even drove into Atlanta to watch the Falcons. I’m getting burnt out on travel.
I live in a big apartment and drive a car…both furnished by the company. I have two bedrooms, both furnished, but I still sleep on the couch in front of the tube…need the noise to sleep. There are plenty of good restaurants and stores to patronize near my apartment. I can’t complain about the way the company has taken care of me. I don’t know how long I’ll be here or my next destination but I can only handle so much of civilization. If these legal proceedings go the distance, I’ll probably need an apartment in San Antonio.
Since my situation is so tentative here in Alabama, I’ve been eating in restaurants. If I’d establish a kitchen, I’d probably get moved quickly. Problem is, eating out regularly, makes maintaining a constant weight nearly impossible…working on this.
My uncertainty is compounded by the fact that Uncle Sammy is finding that the cost of building an embassy is escalating where the only folks who are getting this work are rookies in this game and have no clue as to what they’re getting themselves into. Veteran embassy builders are getting left out in the cold. Know this…the only work I hope to be doing in the near future will be in some other country.
Prior to coming to the home office in late October, I’d only been to the home office twice over three years ago and those trips were to interview and drop off my stuff. I really didn’t know many of the folks whose names were on company generated email.
I’ve made a couple of trips to Birmingham, Alabama…my former home and home of my former company. I still have friends that were extended family that live there.
I’m trying to avoid major procurements but that seems futile. I loaded up toys for the iPod but a 52 inch big screen tv looms in the back of my mind for the bedroom in Omaha.
Anyone who asks me what I miss about Freetown…the lobster and no noticeable winters. Guess in a warped way, I miss the job site work environment.
Christmas and New Years will be at home with the family. Though it was low-key, I spent Thanksgiving at home.
As a Husker living in the south and many of my past and present colleagues being Auburn graduates, life should get interesting as the Cotton Bowl approaches.
If you ask me my thoughts on Montgomery…haven’t been here long enough to make a complete judgment. I’ve been doing too much floating between San Antonio, Omaha, and Montgomery to really get my feet on the ground. Mapquest.com has been my seeing eye dog though I’m just getting the hang of my GPS I bought to use in conjunction with my PDA. Having a GPS that speaks to me in a female voice, yet doesn’t nag, eliminates one big reason to be married. I call her "Martha". There are many restaurants and stores but not much entertainment. The locals call it convenient. An associate didn’t consider it to be a real weekend unless she was three hours away. Atlanta and the gulf shores are nearly that distance with Birmingham being an hour. The locals simply describe it as ‘convenient’ adding that you can get anywhere in ten to fifteen minutes.
I would encourage you to visit my web site. I have project photos of the Sierra Leone embassy (Click Here) along with Mr. and Mrs. Jack…two mutt dogs that could be considered Sierra Leonean treasures not for export. There are lots of photos from Sierra Leone along with many of the places I’ve visited. Just click on the flags at the top of the page.
The family...Gigi and Jason and crew have moved into a larger home...huge when compared to their last home. It's a fixer-upper that shouldn't take too much work. Barb and her husband Bob alternate weekends as to who gets to travel between their house in the DC burbs and Connecticut University where she's one of the upper echelon in the library. Alan, Theresa's husband is finishing up his Doctorate hoping to land a job teaching at the university level. It's a coin toss whether they'll find something local and not have to move. While Alan studies, Theresa works and / or plays mom. Lisa and Eddie have completed their rural home in Murray, NE and enjoying other things in life. Michele and Pat have sold their house in Houston and will be entering the Omaha housing market in the next few months. Mom and Dad are just being themselves...my rock.
If you have email and would like to be included on the more regular email updates, send me your email address. If you’d like to be removed from the list…let me know that too. I appreciate hearing from everyone…even if the message is short.
2007...I haven't been projecting past the next day...we'll see. Perhaps, you'll have to read the next update.
Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year!