A Nostalgic Bit
There’s a current article in Foreign Affairs that suggests a new kind of “trusteeship” for failed states might be in order. The most likely candidate was Liberia—where my daughter was born in 1965, and where I lived for a summer, evacuated from Sierra Leone (where I was serving in the Peace Corps) because the maternity hospital in Freetown had Childbed Fever. Sierra Leone was cited as another “failed state” where a calamitous civil war was over, a new government in place, but where many leaders had “murky” pasts and where corruption was yet rampant.
In my day, Sierra Leone was described quite differently. It was seen as a haven of peace (if not really prosperity) among former British colonies that had recently had their independence. In 1965 Albert Margai was prime minister and all over town you saw men and women dressed in those colorful lengths of cloth with photos of popular leaders in the middle of elaborate patterned “frames”. In a trunk somewhere I have a dress with Albert Margay’s mug twice on the front and twice on the back. Albert was the brother of Milton Margai, Sierra Leone’s first PM and leader of the SLPP—the Sierra Leone People’s Party.
It was common to hear in those days—I was in Sierra Leone from 1964 to 1966—that the violence in the Congo and the coups and coup attempts in other African countries were totally alien to Sierra Leone. Milton Margai had been a respected statesman and had served in government comfortably under British rule. Sierra Leone’s transition to independence had been graceful. The currency was pegged to the West African pound and was worth exactly $1.40 per Leone—never changed (until you got out of the country of course where it was nearly worthless).
In those days I knew little of politics, nothing of money policy or political infighting and accepted what I heard at face value: that Milton Margai (a graduate of the school where I taught incidentally) had been a great African statesman and that Sierra Leone was a stable new democracy, even a shining example to the rest of West Africa. My time in Liberia tended to confirm that; I worked in the Peace Corps office waiting for the baby and every morning, with the rest of the staff, read and discussed the morning paper. That summer there was a sensational case of ritual murder. It got so serious that President Tubman (who’d been reelected regularly since before I was born) recalled the Chief Justice from the US to conduct hearings. Then one day, Tubman walked in and put a stop to the proceedings. The newspaper went blank on the subject. The rumor was that a top official, possible the Vice President had been involved.
Sierra Leone, I thought, was not like that. I was particularly offended by the Americo-Liberians (descendents of freed slaves who dressed in antebellum dresses and morning suits for their social events, aping what their ancestors had known on the plantations) describing the tribal people up country as “aboriginals”. In Sierra Leone I saw the Krios (also descendents of freed slaves settled by a Britain that didn’t want to absorb them into their own population) as accepting their numerical inferiority to the larger tribes, ceding leadership, but using their generally superior education and governmental experience in the interests of the new country.
But I also remember the opposition party very clearly—probably because I lived in Brookfields, across the road from Freetown Secondary School for Girls and its large sports grounds. On the opposite side of school and grounds was a dirty white house with a wide front porch—the home of Siaka Stevens, leader of the opposition party, APC. There was always something going on at that house and periodically on weekends there would be rallies on the school grounds where you’d heard drums and speakers far into the wee hours, chains of women dressed in Siaka Stevens cloth, dancing an chanting “APC, APC, APC, APC” over and over again for hours.
Years later—probably 93 or 94—I was on a flight from London to Houston, in my favorite seat on a BA flight which I took often, and there was a woman in the adjacent seat who obviously didn’t want to talk. I’m not much for talking to strangers either so settled to my book while she slept. But it’s a long flight and eventually we did talk. She lived in Houston but had been back to visit her family in Freetown. What a coincidence that I’d even heard of Freetown. Her mother had been ill. It was too dangerous to take a taxi. Her mother paid the electricity bill even though there was no power for fear that if power came back she’d be cut off. Her brothers had been students at Albert Academy (where I had taught) but were not running wild in a situation that scared her. She’d been too depressed to talk.