All this week (and, I suspect, for a long time prior to now), anything in Freetown that doesn’t move has been trussed up in green, white and blue bunting. Turn on the radio, and it doesn’t matter where on the FM dial you plant yourself, you’re never more than two minutes away from another patriotic “happy birthday” song. It’s party time, all right…
The Independence Day celebrations started much earlier for me. Yesterday I went with Mum and the Buckle family to a wedding (weekday weddings are quite commonplace here). The wedding service started at 11.00am, at a church just up the road from where I’m staying. Now according to our invites, the reception and party we’re to start at 7.00pm prompt. In fact, the bride and groom didn’t turn up until just before 10.00pm (we didn’t go until 9.00; I think the Buckle family had been forewarned that the newlyweds were running on ‘BMT’). As a result of everything running so late, the speeches ended just before midnight – and at midnight, the Master of Ceremonies got us all to sing the National Anthem and wish each other a happy Independence Day.
Today’s big event takes place in the National Stadium, where the President will address the nation and a big cultural display will take place. It’s free for anyone to attend – as long as you come wearing the country’s national colours of green, white and blue. After briefly worrying that I didn’t have anything in those colours to wear, I found a pair of blue jeans and a white T-shirt with the slogan “Play hard, move easy” in big green letters on the front. With my attire sufficiently patriotic (and despite Mrs. Buckle’s insistence that I take a taxi), I walked to Brookfields where the National Stadium is – about 100 metres from the venue for the wedding reception we’d been at a few hours earlier.
I last visited this stadium twice in 1993: once to see the Leone Stars beat Senegal to win the Zone 2 final, and then to see the legendary Kanda Bongo Man in concert – a rather interesting gig, during which armed Military Police kept going up to the stage to nudge Kanda to sing facing the dignitaries in the VIP area, only for him to ignore them and continue singing to us plebs in the cheap seats instead. The stadium’s name has been changed a few times since the Chinese built it in 1979. First it was the Sierra Leone National Stadium; then just before it opened, it became the Siaka Stevens Stadium. Now it’s simply the National Stadium. I’m not accusing the now deceased former President Stevens of having ego issues, but he did have a street, a stadium and a town named after him while he was in office…
People had started arriving at the stadium from about 7.00am: schoolkids in their ceremonial uniforms (yep – blazers in the blazing sun!), women traders from Sani Abacha (the street market in the East End) all dressed up in funky blue ashobi; ‘boo boo’ dancers going mental, and several people who’d taken the dress code to extremes and covered themselves in green, white and blue body paint. Although the stadium was already full to capacity when I rolled along just after 10.00am, I managed to find a seat in Stand 8.
The atmosphere in the stand was for the most part jovial and good-natured. Every now and then, the giant LCD scoreboard would zoom in on the visiting foreign dignitaries seated in Green, white and blue boxes in front of the VIP section. Liberia’s president, Mrs Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (west Africa’s first female head of state) got a lot of love from the crowd. A couple of jokers seated behind me had a few theories of their own as to which heads of state had come to Sierra Leone for the celebrations, and why:
“So where’s Obama, then?”
“I don’t know. But I saw George W Bush over there somewhere.”
“I tell you, the only Presidents you’ll get coming here are the ones who are sure of themselves. You know, the ones who know their people like them and won’t try to depose them if they left the country for a few days. That’s why Yahya Jammeh sent his Vice President along. You’ll never catch Mugabe at something like this!”
I left the stadium right after President Ernest Bai Koroma had inspected the troops and given his address to the nation; a rousing speech in which he entrusted all the nation’s citizens with the job title of ‘civil monitor’ (the Sierra Leonean equivalent of the ‘big society’, perhaps?). People were still pouring into the stadium as I left, and I walked past many more headed in that direction on my way home.
Later in the evening, after watching Barcelona beat Real Madrid (and after the first power cut we’ve had since I’ve been here), the SLBC News ran a feature on some villages who weren’t celebrating the anniversary because they felt neglected by the Government and were living in really crappy conditions without the most basic amenities. I can remember a time when that sort of critical reporting would have landed a journalist in deep trouble here. There’s still a lot that needs to be done to improve the average Sierra Leonean’s quality of life. But with the optimism I’ve seen on display today, just about anything is possible.
Apparently, the independence celebrations continue all week. Bring it on…
Thought for the Day: “What does it profit a man if he makes himself completely mosquito-proof and avoids catching malaria, but in the process poisons himself with all the insect repellent fumes?”