A number of Saturdays ago Sierra Leone held a ‘cleaning exercise’. The first I heard of it was on the Friday afternoon, when a member of my office staff came around to inform us that we should not leave our houses between 7am and 12pm the next day unless our purpose in doing so was to clean our neighbourhood. Somewhat confused, my fellow ex-pat staff and I asked for further elucidation. It turns out that a couple of times a year (in theory – this was the first I’d witnessed in my year here) the government decides that the streets are simply TOO dirty, and therefore mandates the whole Freetown populous to spend a morning digging dirt out of ditches, cleaning up litter, etc.
I could not help but applaud this resolution; anyone who has spent any time in West Africa will be familiar with the feet deep piles of plastic, composting waste and old clothes that decorate most street corners. Also, the city had suffered from a cholera epidemic in recent months and any initiative that would help to do away pools of stagnant ‘water’ was therefore an entirely good idea. However, I also had things to do on that fair morning. Most importantly, I needed to go the Bank. ATMs are rare and temperamental beasts in this part of the world, and Sierra Leone has an entirely cash economy – it’s not possible to pay for ANYTHING using a card and therefore we are forced to part with wads of cash for everything from groceries to flights to 4X4s. Most people therefore spend an inordinately long time in the inordinately long queues of Freetown’s banks. Saturday morning is normally a good time to go, as a substantial portion of those lucky to have bank accounts are nursing their hangovers, and I was therefore reluctant to delay my trip. Consequently, I set off for town at about 10am. I was mildly surprised that there were no bikes or cars on the road, and that everyone outside did indeed seem to be cleaning, but with the entirely reprehensible arrogance of the white man in Africa I decided that no-one would mind if I just ‘popped into town’.
Rather unfortunately, ‘popping into town’ involved going past one of the city’s biggest police stations. And as I was sauntering past I was accosted by a rather affronted looking policeman. He asked to see my ‘international observer’ pass. I thought briefly about (a) claiming I’d left it at home or (b) flashing a Blockbuster video rental card that I’ve been pointlessly carrying around for the last year, but he had this sort of glint in my eye that suggested to me that he would fall for neither. I therefore admitted that I did not own such a thing, and that I was simply on my way to the Bank. He puffed himself up into a picture of righteous indignation (rather comically tempered with delight – a misbehaving white girl was almost certain to have financial pay-offs for him in one way or another) and said that in that case he would be obliged to take me into the police station.
I had not been into this fine establishment before, and two things immediately occurred to me. First of all, Sierra Leone had an absolutely amazing amount of policemen. There were genuinely about 100 bored looking ‘law enforcers’ lounging around in this 3 room building. Secondly, the cell into which I was deposited was rather comfier than most of the $100/night hotels that are Freetown’s only accommodation option. Budding travellers take note! Four policemen of varying seniority (but identical status-indicating paunches) soon joined me, all of whom had dollar signs for eyes. One of them commenced by writing out my ‘charge sheet’, which started as follows:
“The criminal, Katherine (sic) Parry, was arrested on Lightfoot Boston street at 11:21am for the crime of Cleaning Exercise violation…”
They informed me that either I would have to go to court, or I would have to pay a Le500,000 ($120) fine. Neither seemed like tempting options, so I politely asked if I could see the statute book in which my misdemeanour was declared illegal/my punishment was detailed. After some discussion, they admitted that they did not have such a thing, but that I could probably buy it in the nearby publications office. Which was shut. After a twenty minute hiatus in which I sat patiently waiting for someone to prove to me that I’d committed a crime the most senior of the police officers said that we could probably forget about the whole thing if I ‘helped to cover the administrative costs of my arrest’. I said that seemed fair (I’m really against bribes in general, but just couldn’t be bothered spend much more of my Saturday making a point of principle), they closed the door so that none of the 96 policeman outside could see what was happening, and 20 seconds late I had bought my freedom for an embarrassingly low price. I was even allowed to keep my charge sheet as a souvenir – it’s now one of my most treasured possessions; everyone needs a ‘that time I was arrested…’ after-dinner story, and I reckon I got mine pretty cheap.
I emerged from the police station at 12:01pm to find a city that had somehow immediately returned to previous levels of chaos and filth. Miraculous.
And the Bank was closed, just in case you were wondering.