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Sierra Leone News:Elections in Lunsar, Part 1

CHETANYASo the elections here will be safe and peaceful, right?” I asked my Awoko newspaper colleague Betty Milton early on Saturday morning. We were walking along a dirt path through a small village community near Lunsar, north of Freetown. As we jumped over puddles, and walked past the mud and brick houses, sheep and goats, and women dressed in bright colors carrying babies on their backs, a man used a loudspeaker to amplify his voice, calling on people in the village to come out and vote today.
Betty and Ophaniel Gooding, my other colleague, found my worries amusing. “Nothing will happen to you  you’re with us!” they reassured me  although they couldn’t help poking fun at my anxiousness. “Our next stop is the Gaza strip,” Ophaniel joked. My colleagues said that even if things did get tense, the authorities would do everything to keep me safe, to present a positive image to the world. “They’ll give you a bulletproof vest,” Ophaniel said, and then unable to help himself, added “And then they’ll shoot you in the head.”
I hadn’t been up all night worrying about it  just part of the night. And to be fair, fear of malaria-carrying mosquitos, plus a skewed sleeping schedule, were responsible for most of my insomnia. I just couldn’t help thinking about recent political tensions surrounding the elections in the city of Kailahun in the interior of the country which Betty had told me about the day before. Military forces showed up, intimidating people into not voting for the Sierra Leone People’s Party, the opposition party. People set fire to houses.
I hadn’t thought much about the incidents in Kailahun until that night, when I was swatting mosquitoes in my room in the lodge we were staying in. I assumed Betty and Ophaniel wouldn’t have taken me on this reporting trip if there was a chance anything dangerous would happen. But I just wanted to make sure.
In my home country of the United States, like most places in the world, talk of elections can easily lead to heated arguments (although most people in Washington state in the American northwest, and especially the city of Seattle where I’m from, have similar political views; they support the American Democratic Party or other left of center political movements).
That morning as we walked toward the road to hitch a motorbike ride to the nearest polling station, Betty told me about the violent elections she had reported on in Freetown in 2007 and 2012, when tear gas and bullets filled the air. Women were raped. I felt incredibly lucky to come from a place where people can take safe elections for granted.
I couldn’t quite believe it when I was invited to go on a trip with my Awoko colleagues to report on a Parliamentary election north of Freetown. I’d only been in the country for two full days and a night, and I was only just getting used to walking around on the Freetown streets. The chance to see democracy in action in a developing country, especially one with a history of political instability like Sierra Leone, isn’t an opportunity you get every day. Plus, I’d get to see a more rural part of the country. I was excited, and more than a little nervous.
My nervousness turned to outright terror on Friday afternoon when we started on our first leg of the journey: the motorbike ride. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration  but only a bit). Betty, Ophaniel and I hitched rides on the back of bikes for hire through east Freetown, to the main highway that would lead us out of the city.
My driver went as fast as he possibly could, it seemed, which I’m sure is normal for Freetown’s bikers for hire. For a minute or two we sped along the paved highway, weaving through screeching bikes, trucks and cars, my nose and mouth hit with the polluted air. Suddenly we were careening up the steep dirt path through east Freetown. We drove over a muddy and rocky road, stagnant pools of water, trash and discarded clothes. At times my driver had me get off while he maneuvered around the boulders and through the mud. At one point, he and another biker came face to face along the middle of a narrow bit of road. One of them would have to back up, and they started an impatient argument. My driver won out.
The road was steep and bouncy, both uphill and down, sometimes with a precipitous drop down the hill. I clung to the bottom of the seat as tightly as I could, worried I could fly off the seat and hit my head on the rocks.
East Freetown was strikingly different from the city center, where my hostel and Awoko newspaper are located. The houses were cheaper and more rundown, and clustered close together. In a flash, we passed by what looked like gang slogans drawn on the sides of buildings, a man and young boy dressed in pure white clothing and the Islamic skullcap, shops, and women hanging up laundry. Then it ended at the bottom of a hill, where workers were digging a deep ditch.
We stopped at a petrol station, I got off the bike, and finally caught my breath. To my relief, I wasn’t the only one who was scared. Betty stepped off her bike swearing that the rest of the journey would be in a comfortable car.
We hired a car, and I took in the sights of the Sierra Leone highway  the small settlements, billboards advertising beauty products and phone credit, a sign warning of the symptoms of Ebola. Songs in Krio protesting injustice and an inept government came through the radio  Betty translated some of the lyrics for me. It started to rain. Before long, the landscape on either side of the road was green grass, vegetation and palms. By the time we stopped for the night, I was already nodding off to sleep. The next day, I would see Sierra Leone’s democracy in action.
*Chetanya Robinson is an intern from the University of Washington. He is the 7th intern to come to Awoko Newspaper.
Tuesday July 12, 2016

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