Goodbye Ethiopia, hello Makeni and Segbwema
I am writing this piece onboard Ethiopian Airlines, the flag carrier of Ethiopia, which has become one of the continent’s leading carriers, unrivalled in Africa for efficiency and operational success. It is a Boeing aircraft and we are cruising at several hundreds of miles above sea level.
My destination? Sierra Leone via the Ivorian capital Abidjan, where the love of learning French took me and my family a few years ago with a deliberate idea to have at least two international languages spoken at home.
The very helpful air hostesses are doing all they could to make passengers comfortable and to make the flight a pleasant one. I have just received some snacks and a cold can of ginger ale as breakfast as I look forward to lunchtime and to the routine question of – chicken, beef or fish?
About a year ago, I was elated to end my reporting assignment in Geneva and return to Africa. Working for the UN in Switzerland was a pleasant experience and brought memories of Segbwema and Makeni, two towns in Sierra Leone that have played significant roles in my life’s journey and are priority places I would definitely love to revisit and explore a bit more.
I have been privileged to work in Ethiopia on two occasions in recent times. The first time, it was in the region near South Sudan during which I witnessed firsthand the sad but familiar scenes of people fleeing carnage. The battle to restore peace and sanity to Africa’s newest independent nation continues.
Starting my primary education in Kailahun District, Segbwema probably commenced shaping my thoughts and views about life itself and about the political struggles in the country, and by extension in Africa.
As a pupil of the Roman Catholic Primary School, I have vivid recollections of the hardships that people were contending with at the time, how cockroaches would starve to death in some homes, how salaries were few and far between, and when paid, the wages of some people could not even feed a grasshopper.
Amid political intrigues, I was one day caned by a teacher for merely singing. In class? Of course not! It was lunchtime and yours truly was sitting under a tree with a friend waiting for the bell to return to class when suddenly a certain song came to our lips and we were enjoying the fresh air – singing happily – when trouble struck. “Why are you singing that song?” a teacher thundered at us as we wondered what our offence was. I still remember the lyrics of that song even today. But did we deserve some strokes of the cane for singing a song that we ignorantly had no clue whether it was politically correct or not?
Growing up in Segbwema was a combination of fear and excitement. I had friends with whom I played and it was always a good feeling to have corn meal served to pupils in school. Fond memories of Segbwema include going to look for guava fruits in Holy Ghost compound, searching for mangoes, especially after a heavy wind or storm, and searching for coins that may have dropped from revellers at disco shows on unpaved floors.
Amid the childhood excitement, there was also an atmosphere of fear – fear of Lassa fever, which is endemic in the area, and dad would repeatedly remind us never to touch a rat with bare hands, whether dead or alive, always cover food and drinks, amongst other precautionary measures.
Growing up when the All People’s Congress was in power, from time to time we had to stand in the scorching sun to wait, sometimes for hours on empty stomachs, for politicians whose modus operandi was to dupe the people. “Is the sun very hot?” President Siaka Stevens, now late, would usually ask, a question that was apparently pregnant with meanings as the APC party symbol is the blazing sun. Even at a young age, it was somewhat depressing that we had a great shortage of honesty and accountability in the country. Frustrated at what was happening, some people predicted the outbreak of a civil war.
One name I found fascinating in Segbwema was how residents referred to smoked fish. The name “Hotaboleygbeguwea” (please forgive my poor Mende writing skills) literally means the stranger with the bent or crooked neck.
After a few years in Kailahun, our “nomadic” life continued and my family relocated to nearby Kenema. My life’s journey, with some years spent in Bo, later took me to Makeni, the northern provincial capital as Foday Sankoh, a bearded, semi-literate and almost insane photographer started a civil war just as some people had prophesied. Some people knew Foday Sankoh, including my dad who knew him in Segbwema as a photographer.
Sankoh and his group of lunatics said they came to liberate the people. They demonstrated this by killing, looting and burning down their houses. It was indeed a double tragedy for the largely destitute people in Sierra Leone. With no formal training in journalism at the time, but really sick and tired of the propaganda that was going on during the war, the truth-telling career called and I answered.
Life in Makeni was memorable. Like Segbwema, I had all eyes on particularly the politics. In a short space of time, I would easily know the local authorities, including the paramount chief, and would sometimes visit “Ataya” tea shops to get hold of the latest gossips and diverse views on topical issues.
In Makeni, I had a passion for three things. One? Exposing lies. Two? Exposing lies. Three? Exposing lies. Wait a minute! There is an aroma of appetizing food hanging in the air and someone has just walked up to me. It is lunchtime onboard Ethiopian Airlines. Remember the question? “Chicken, beef or fish?” I have been asked. What have I chosen? To be continued.
By Sulaiman Momodu
About the author: Sulaiman Momodu is a former editor of the Concord Times newspaper. He also reported for the BBC during the civil war in Sierra Leone and has worked for the United Nations.
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