Journey to the West … Africa (2016)

In June 2016, I was sitting in a hotel room in Tokyo when I got the call. As part of work, I was leading a delegation of Singaporean companies to visit high-technology plants to see the latest in operations and automation.

The call itself was short –
“Would you be interested in joining the team on the ground in Sierra Leone?”

This was unlike the typical courtship dance of consulting projects, where consultants asked a ton of questions trying to figure out what they were signing up for, usually involving due-diligence of the project scope (impossible or simply massive), the quality of the leadership team (whether slave-drivers or saints) and client situation (venal, misguided or self-serving) to ensure that life wouldn’t be hell (I had had my fair share of those).

This was readiness to deploy at its finest (what they call an “expeditionary mindset”) – I landed in Singapore on a Tuesday morning, and proceeded to get my vaccinations immediately, before heading for a quick dental and then home to pack. I had dinner with my parents that night, told them the news, and then headed off to the airport that same evening. It was at such short notice that my visa was still being processed as I took off – being able to clear immigration on landing wasn’t a given.

The journey was long and painful involving multiple changes of planes. I arrived in Freetown, clutching my yellow fever card, a little lost. Without that little yellow booklet, entry would be barred. As I crossed customs, I had to pay a facilitation fee to get through, as I only had an electronic visa.

Then there was a further bus ride, boat ride and a car ride. By the time I arrived at my room it was early AM on Thursday! 40 hours, door to door.

Welcome to Sierra Leone!

The Most Challenging Maternal Health Outcomes in the World

Overall, our team was involved in more than 7 ministries and coordinated by a Central team.

This was really like an out-sourced / parallel government:
Economic sector – Trade and Industry, Agriculture,
Social sector – Healthcare (largest ministry), Education, Social protection
Infrastructure sector – Water, Energy

As it turned out, I was slated to lead the health sector workstream. The statistics were grim: Worst rate of maternal health in the world, even lower than that of war-zones. A typical woman had a 1/3 chance of dying due to maternal health reasons, and a girl had a 1/3 chance of ending up as a pregnant teenager. Young children under age of 5 were amongst the worst 5 countries in the world in terms of mortality – this was the situation we were there to rectify. This was also the country with 85% female genital mutilation (FGM), the highest in the world.

The scope of work was large – to address these issues, we had to work with the Ministry to help the implementation of an ambulance system, upgrade hospitals and hundreds of small clinics, recruit, train and deploy thousands of health-workers, not to mention prevent the outbreak of Ebola, which had taken a huge toll on the country and health-care workers in the first place.

<<Written on Aug 9, 2016>>

National Day in Sierra Leone

Happy SG51 Singapore!

Early morning in a tropical thunderstorm, the clock just passed midnight a few hours ago here in Freetown, Sierra Leone. This is another National Day spent away from home; I’ve been in a few months helping to build up the whole healthcare system, post Ebola crisis. The whole setting brings back many memories of my time as a UN peace keeper when I was in East Timor many years ago. There are the common issues of infrastructure, institutions and
misaligned incentives leading to poor outcomes, as well as historical happenstance. This is a world removed from my last work project, where I was trying to improve the functioning of Singapore’s already high-performing economy.

Of course, poor outcomes also happen at home – a friend was just telling me how the water supply in his condo at Potong Pasir was interrupted for a few hours last night; the only difference being that even in the nicer parts of Freetown, the capital city, intermittent water and electricity supply are daily affairs.

However, people are fundamentally adaptable and can adjust to challenging conditions – just think of how little water we use when we are out camping or on a mountaineering expedition, where every drop is precious. We only need 5L for drinking per day, another 10-20 to cook, and the balance actually for washing ourselves and our clothes. Singaporeans are no different – when push comes to shove, I’ve no doubt about our grit and tenacity. However, the catch is whether we tear ourselves apart in the adjustment process. At my friend’s condo – the acrimony and unhappiness flying around before people got adjusted to the new situation was toxic, with lots of unconstructive accusations and recriminations.

A second observation is that there are many well-intentioned people and organisations here. What is lacking is not good intentions, just good outcomes and strong institutions. There are many capable people, but some have worked on benefiting themselves more than the system, and there are no institutions to check this. The challenge is in building up the strength of the institutions, respecting them and nurturing them. And yet, paradoxically, as we place more of our expectations and trust in institutions, when they fail, as they occasionally do (such as when a water compressor breaks down on a public holiday), there isn’t personal trust and forbearance, as our expectations have built up.

The fact that I’m here, or in East Timor (where I once served as a UN peace-keeper), in some sense reflects fundamental challenges in the country. Yet, richer nations are not exempt from their own travails. The main cities I transit through on my 40 hour door-to-door transit between Singapore and Sierra Leone have all been tested recently, whether it be UK (Brexit), France, Germany or Belgium. Regardless of whether challenges are caused by a countries’ own doing, political manoeuvrings, or perpetrated by external groups, we live in times that are no safer or more stable than when I was in active military on stand-by duty.  And yet, the positive light is that people and societies are fundamentally adaptable and resilient. Things will not be perfect, but if we get our institutions right we can succeed against the prevailing winds; If we have personal trust we can, as a society, continue to defy gravity and build upwards.

Happy SG51 Singapore! Looking forward to being home again soon!

My experience as an MTV star

Two cars, a gang of dancer-musicians, a professional camera-crew and plenty of bush meat leavened with palm wine. That’s what it takes to shoot a music video of Sierra Leone’s traditional Bubu music. And of course, you have to add into the mix an American producer/director and a former Singapore Special Forces officer to hold the umbrella and lights for the camera-crew.

I wasn’t quite sure what I had agreed to when my colleague D asked me if I wanted to make a trip to the provinces to shoot a music video. D is one of those passionate Americans who pursues his interests wherever they take him. A keen musician interested in West African culture, he had previously gotten bitten by the Sierra Leone bug and recorded two modern interpretations of traditional Bubu music which was one of his selling points to get onto this project. Now, two years later, he was revisiting the scene of the crime in order to shoot a music video to do justice to the songs (or for the older folk, because the younger folk can’t appreciate a song that they can’t watch).

4am on Saturday, we woke up and piled into the car headed towards Cliff Road to pick up Pa Follah, Africa Man, Hamzah and others. In the early morning the streets were already busy with the signs of daily life and commerce – cars honking, vendors with their push vans and women heading to get water. Bleary eyed, I waited sitting in light well cast by the only building around with electricity. The musicians had already started with the Bubu song, cranking it up loudly on the stereo. I wondered what the neighbours thought of this. Africa Man, a huge man with a personality to match brought along a sack containing a massive African tribal mask. Yup, the name, the mask suited him alright.

Once we were all piled in – we headed on our way out of Freetown. The road-trip had started. The music was on loop – by the end of the weekend, I would know the words to the songs by heart.

We yone culture (Our own culture)
“We go Makeni, we no find the Bubu,
We go Kenema, we no find the Bubu,
They say if you want the Bubu – you go to Port Loko”

The first song was about D’s search for the heart and soul of Bubu and not finding it, till wise men who knew better pointed him to Port Loko. We were now re-tracing the path of D’s musical odyssey – a journey by Livingstone back to the head of the Nile.

The drive was smooth – courtesy of the highway constructed by the Chinese. The weather however, was abysmal the rain was pouring down. Our first stop was XXX, a tiny hut next to the road, where we shot our first reel. In the tiny hut covered by the tarpaulin, Pa Follah, our lead singer, changed into his traditional dress and there began the first of many dance sequences to the song. First, the dancers were lubricated by palm wine, which was a sweet, highly potent concoction. Suitably hydrated, the dancing began. In the rain, I took up my role as an umbrella holder and light-man. No problem, that I could handle. Just follow the camera and make sure it didn’t get wet.

We then shot at multiple locations, before pitching up at Port Loko, Mafoki Chiefdom, Mrngarma village. On arrival, we paid our respects to the local chief. It was a long drive in, passing many small villages en-route.

Our arrival was a big event – the village of 400 turned out en-masse, and greeted us with their own songs and dance, before we completed the rest of the shooting with their own Bubu band. The kids were fascinated, and demonstrating unabashed natural rhythm, they were grooving along to the music with us as well.

We had come bearing gifts of food – a large bag of rice and other provisions, which were cooked up for us. A big bowl of rice and fish in peanut sauce was prepared, and as the honoured guests, we were offered it first. Although we were starving – with food opportunities minimal along the way, I was highly conscious that every spoonful I took would be a spoonful that someone would not get to eat. I could go hungry for a day, the next day I would be getting food again; however, the locals did not have the same choice and options. This was in a small way representative of the reality of development partners in general. We had choices, and could always walk away.

As the sun-set, and we sat around shooting the final scenes and seeing the dance, it was hard not to breathe appreciation for the clean air and simple life this represented. Yet, it was a tough life. It was a life-style much closer to traditional agricultural life in the time of Christ, than the 21st century. We made a supply run to Port Loko after dinner, and coming back in the darkness, we lost our way in the midst of all the winding jungle roads. A journey out on foot was at least 3 hours. So much for accessible medical services. One of the use cases we worried about in the Health Sector was how long it took for pregnant women to find help, and they often walk an hour or two while in labour or heavily pregnant. Unbelievable, compared to the medical care we take for granted back in Singapore.

That night, the partying lasted till late into the night, as people danced, and the traditional mask got its outing. We were offered a room and a bed to sleep on, meaning that someone slept on the floor that night.

The next door, as the sun rose, we were up bright and early. It was amazing, the sun was now peeking up on the other side of the village, and I could understand how the Egyptians believed that the sun was rolled through a secret tunnel at dusk. It was beautiful, and yet reminiscent of ground-hog day. Routine, and grit and hard work, with some excitement provided by the occasional event / fair.

In the morning, we were greeted with the news that there had been three deaths in the night, so no further filming. What had happened? This was normal reality in the villages, where life was incredibly perishable and access to health-care – minimal. As we piled into the vans, it was hard for me not to put on my health-care lens, and think about how remote Mrngarma village was, and there were others that were even further into the jungle. As we drove out, Pa Follah told us passingly that Mrngarma village had been decimated during the civil war. Now it was back to normal, but clearly still poor, and poorer still for its distance from the main road.

The second song we recorded was “Hol Tight”, meaning to work hard in Krio (Creole). There were many scenes that we recorded as back-drop to this, from the manual foot-stomping of the palm seeds to produce palm wine, clearing of crop fields, to harvesting of rice, to the mending and stacking of nets at Tambe (a seaside fishing village), gravid with brightly coloured ships as far as the eye could see. From what I had seen, this was an incredibly hard-working society, but with precious few opportunities – with unemployment standing at 70%.

As we rolled back into town, I had new-found respect for D and his drive to bring Bubu back to Sierra Leoneans and what he did for the band members personally.

Coda to the Song

We got to see the final video a week later, as D was on the last day of his posting in Sierra Leone. He had made it on to national TV to publicise the music videos.

It was an experience for me to be in the villages, seeing the healthcare system, and learning how much effort and footage went into making a music video, and the importance of having a good light-man.

Life – its about our search for the source and the meaning, and hopefully having someone point us in the right direction. In the meanwhile, we have to “hold tight”, because “dem go oppose” (people who would resist and criticise).

A visit to Bonga-town

I visited one of the poorer areas in town (less politely termed a slum) yesterday as a farewell party for my colleague D from the friends that we had shot the music video with. As we were driving along Lumley beach, one of the party places in Freetown, it was the sort of traffic jam one would see during the weekdays, except here were Range Rovers, Porsche Cayennes, and other high-end SUVs, not out of place in London or New York. Mingling side-by-side were the Al Fresco diners and the young men playing football on the sand, incredibly well built and explosively athletic.

The thing about sunset is, as the wind blows and the light dims, the sights are tinged with a romantic filter, and you can’t see the trash and scum that the low-tide has exposed. A short drive later, we were in Bonga town, to celebrate the last evening in-country of one of my colleagues. Beyond the professional impact that he has had in improving performance and outcomes in the government here, he had also impacted lives by investing in a vehicle to allow Michael his driver (who had also accompanied us to Mrngarma) to start his own taxi service.

We took a walk around Bonga town. The layout was reminiscent of other slums – built on the banks of the estuary, beautiful at high-tide, but a trash strewn wasteland at low tide. Life was tough – this was where the refuse, and waste and sewage flowed to during the rains. Literally a case of shit flowing downhill. It was a shanty-town of corrugated zinc sheets, make-shift shelters, and some small brick houses. Very much a kampong feel about it, except that the houses were packed together much more closely, with not a foot to spare on either side. The zinc roofs were at eye-level, dangerously putting out eyes in the middle of the night. I remember as a kid in Singapore walking through the kampong to get to the main road, the site now occupied by the Raffles Town Club in up-market Bukit Timah. Those are all distant memories now.

Bonga Town is a place where there are 6 year olds tending 3 year-old children, while the 3 year old children are already tending stoves. Contrast that with the 30 year old adults in Singapore that still need parental care and supervision. People were polite, but there was no running water, no electricity, and no lights at night. We could hear the children playing games and singing songs at night, and I saw a young man trying to fix an electric fan.

I had just been reading about early childhood training and stimulation in order to enhance later life performance. What a far removed world that is. Here, a broken suitcase was a play pen for a toddler, perhaps an airplane cockpit or a racing car, while an empty field and a ball meant hours of fun. A fire, and songs in the middle in the darkness, the stars, precious little there for entertainment, while we complain about the latest sit-com being unavailable on Netflix.

Next to the water’s edge, Michael, who was our host, had pain-stakingly reclaimed land over the past 5 years, with a wheel-barrow and shovel, in order to build his own piece of land to call home. His sow had just given birth to triplets. His wife passed away during the Ebola crisis. In the shanty-town, I meet Mohammed, a Christian, 24, who articulately railed against the lack of trickle-down economics, the dearth of jobs and employment available for his friends and shared his hope for the progress of Sierra Leone.

I share that hope.

On our way back, we take a short-cut by walking past the high wall of a gated compound and return via the main road. 50 metres and 50 years away, the return journey is quick and less treacherous with the foot-steps. It has never been so easy and so hard to leave a place. We turn back down the dirt-path, and return to the shanty slum that is Bonga town.

A Chinese Odyssey

Walking around Freetown, one would notice 4 kinds of expats:

The first would be those working for international NGOs, walking around or being driven in their clean jeeps with logos emblazoned on the side, providing salvation to the poor and miserable of the world. Given the amount of aid money circulating through the system, this was not surprising. Surprisingly, there had been many that had spent time in Timor. This was clearly an international sub-community of its own.

The second would be Lebanese immigrants – they had been in country about a hundred years, and occupied the mercantile class niche, doing small retail, hardware, liquor, general provisions, supermarkets and also diamonds.

The third were other African expats, usually distinguishable only by their accents, and not so much by dressing or appearance.

Lastly, there were the Chinese –

  • The old towkays who were their own bosses were usually in commodities – agri-commodities (fisheries) or hard commodities (mining).
  • In the interior, as I travelled through the country, there would be Chinese blue-collar workers in the heart of the provinces. With infrastructure over-capacity in China, they were there to expand hydro-electricity, roads and railways. One of the workers I spoke to had been there 4 years, evacuated during Ebola, and then came back after things were clear. The thing he was most concerned about was his health, warning me bitterly about the agony of malaria. Later, with first-hand experience, I could say that his warnings were well-heeded – malaria was indeed something to avoid.
  • In Freetown, one frequently saw young white-collar workers frequenting the usual expat eating establishments. Striking up a conversation with them, they were usually in finance, investment or perhaps TMT infrastructure, but on the corporate side
  • There was also a Chinese health team and a world class Chinese hospital on the outskirts of Freetown. The sad things was that next to it was a local government hospital that was woefully under-resourced but bursting at the seams, while the modern, marble-floor hospital had <10% occupancy due to the high costs of treatment.
  • Given the preponderance of Chinese presence, unsurprisingly, there were also many Chinese restaurants. The best Chinese restaurant in Freetown had really authentic food, with attached, casino and massage parlour. Clearly the concept of building integrated resorts was not new to the Chinese. As one of friends my quipped – the US is a global power that tends to buy local, and bring the best back to America. China, on the other hand, brings its own supply chain to the world.
  • In terms of foreign policy, one had to wonder – what was the Foreign policy of the British? They were the main donors, but had precious little benefits to show for it.

Bunce Island or a place where RACE matters (The Royal African Company of England)

One weekend, we made a trip to Bunce island. An island sitting at the mouth of the river, Bunce island occupied a strategic location on the waterways, and had served time both as a port as well as a trading hub – not dissimilar to a certain nation state in South-East Asia you might say. And the similarities ran deeper, because, other than a favourable geographic location and safety, its key resource was also human capital – Bunce island was the trading hub and launch point for the slave trade to the Americas.

But the situation was more complicated than just external colonial oppression – as our guide informed us, the last mile delivery and acquisition of slaves was often carried out by competing tribes, and was not always the imagined forced labour by whites. And Sierra Leoneans were particularly adept at rice farming, which is why many found their way to Georgia. Apparently, one of the descendants of a slave in the US in the 1960s could still remember a nursery rhyme from her ancestral homeland, in Sierra Leone, although she had no inkling what it meant, and had just learnt it by rote.

We also saw the fire pits where RACE (Royal African Company England) was branded onto the chests of the slaves, as well as the holding pens, confinement cells and the seats where the slave masters negotiated price. All very much in the spirit of modern commodity trade, except for the wretched cargo being transacted upon.

Daily Life

I am frequently asked what life was like in Sierra Leone. Staying in a nice hotel, things weren’t bad. The fact that the Chinese always bring their own infrastructure helps, so there was a large-ish integrated resort that had food, casino and massage near my hotel, with very good Chinese food, meant that I never had issues with getting my green vegetables, soup or tofu.

I would frequently run along the beach, at night, in pouring rain, or at day-break. It was beautiful, though periodically festooned with tons of rotting seaweed or run-off trash from the city.

Yet, I would occasionally wash my running clothes by hand. It was strange – living in a nice hotel, where the great and the good of Freetown mingled, while the rest of the city was frequently without power or water.

A tale of two cities

Thinking about the places I had visited, it was really a tale of two cities. Sierra Leone and Singapore are adjacent in the alphabetical listing of countries.

They are both former British colonies, so much so that my colleagues were amazed how quickly I picked up the organisational structure and power politics within the Ministry – I guess all the episodes of Yes Minister really helped.

Furthermore, both countries lay claim to a leonine heritage. Sierra Leone means the Lion Mountains, for the hills that ring the harbour of Freetown, while Singapore means the Lion City. Population wise, they are both in the 5 to 7 million range. As individuals, people universally have similar aspirations, goals and desires, yet the differences in the aggregate outcome of countries can be vast.

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