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Two Nights in Waterloo without Manna

By Isaac Massaquoi

Ask anybody on the streets of Freetown what comes to their mind whenever the name of the biggest town just outside Freetown to the east called Waterloo is mentioned. This will be their reply: First they will tell you about cassava bread and fried fish and then palm wine. Interesting? Many years ago, the people of Waterloo produced fantastic cassava bread and fried fish which almost every passenger in or out of the city bought for themselves and their neighbours. Palm wine came along a bit later and now all the beehives we call poyo bars
(the local name of palm wine houses) are served on a daily basis from Waterloo. I will return to that later.

Today the usually quiet and sparsely populated town of Waterloo is a sprawling rural settlement, unrecognisable anymore to those who remember the place in the 70s and 80s in terms of its size and population. The residents are hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees who settled in the area while fleeing war in their country and have still not returned home even with relatively peace now; and many Sierra Leoneans who are just fed up living in expensive accommodation and filth in the main city of Freetown. The Liberians who are still around are not properly integrated into the local community. They still maintain that living-in-a-camp mentality because it brings with it a lot of advantages.

Aggressive commercial banking has brought three banks close to the main market, young professional and Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora who’ve been able to raise the necessary money are building modern houses in exclusive portions of the town, giving Waterloo a feeling of sophistication and of being trendy. But any pretence to that status by Waterloo in a true sense and in favour of the majority of its inhabitants, is laid bare once you move a few yards away from the main highway into the narrow, winding, bumpy alley ways that snake their way into communities that are unbelievably depressed – even by the levels of poverty and depression in far flung areas of rural Sierra Leone.

All one sees are small mud houses with half-naked infants running around, pregnant eighteen year-olds, a handful of whom told me they’ve never seen a family planning officer. At 5-5 junction, dozens of young men in the most productive years of their life sit around starting at 08:00 helping to get passengers into commuter vehicles and carrying goods in head loads for which they receive paltry sums of money just enough to purchase a bowl of rice. One of them told me, he’s been doing that for three years now.

As I drove away on that Saturday morning, I reflected on my conversation with those young people and the hopelessness of their life. They live on the edge of Freetown but somehow, the politicians and policy-makers who operate a mere thirty kilometres from Waterloo appear to have no contact with those unfortunate citizens despite all the rhetoric about development coming from the governments, past and present.

There are three radio stations in Waterloo and a fourth in the outlying community called Tombo. They are a real blessing to the people of those areas, even though there is no love-lust between the management and staff of two of them. I was in fact in Waterloo to make presentations at a workshop dealing with how to cover elections in a manner that makes it interesting and beneficial to the people. I thoroughly enjoyed working with about a dozen young journalists who took the program very seriously and they kept asking questions at every stage. Unlike their counterparts in some parts of the country, my friends at Waterloo, like those in Makeni did extremely well.

It was easy to discover that my negative assumptions about the quality of their professionalism and commitment to journalism – a sin many trainers commit, were wrong. They are reasonably trained and much of their programming looks inwards which is great and the community people respect them a lot. I think however that the programmes need to be focussed on specific community issues and that effort must be made to report the world outside Waterloo in a substantial way.

There’s a program on Viascity Radio with the unlikely title: Ow You Sleep? This program is broadcast for one hour in the morning, Monday to Saturday. It basically allows the listening public to get on their soap box and talk for about a minute about anything of interest to them. I have only listened to the Saturday. That is understandable because I go there on weekends only. Last week, at least 80% of the callers talked about issues like armed robbery, corruption in the local council, land grabbing, children out of school, quality of education, inadequate health care delivery service, prostitution, teenage pregnancy and because the nation is building up towards an election, political representation was the main issue.

The Presenter, Lois Cummings, a lively rookie goes about her job with little trouble, taking in many angry callers. They seem to be angry about everything. In the last programme I listened to, the MP for a constituency in the vicinity of Waterloo was under attack. Some of it was very personal and the presenter wasted some vital minutes before asserting herself as the person in charge. As I sat there listening to callers tearing into an MP that appears to have fallen out of favour with some sections of his support base, I thought about the IMC code and the responsibility it places on the presenter of such kinds of programs. I drew the attention of Ms. Cumming at the start of the morning session to the IMC code. We spent about half an hour
discussing the issues before going on with my assignment.
The point is, we can train them everyday but the decisions broadcasters make in the heat of battle are entirely in their own hands.

They may think quickly about how we treated case studies but more often than not they have to respond so fast that they have no time to think about case studies.

All three radio station managers in Waterloo have agreed to do joint productions during the election campaign, focussing on those very pressing issue about which callers into Ow
You Sleep
feel so passionate. The idea is to so hammer them that they will go to the top of the agenda of all politicians and political parties and in fact the election itself, at least in Waterloo will be fought on those questions, not the fact that one’s great grandfather belonged to one of the two old parties in Sierra Leone.

Now back to where we started. Those reading this piece should consider it as my gift to them because I have decided never to eat cassava bread from that junction. I just think that the food has lost its quantity and quality to the extent that people have to be careful they are not cheated because the cassava-based bread that was about two inches thick not too long ago is now as thin as the wafer Catholics receive at mass. Also, the hygiene condition in which the trade is done leaves much to be desired. I am very disappointed that after more than thirty years, the cassava bread and fried fish business remains a marginalised cottage industry even within the economy of Waterloo. Palm wine is thriving but again with water-borne diseases all over
the place, why should anyone risk a product that is widely-known to be adulterated in the name of profits.
A senior journalist who died years ago woke up one morning during the
war to find his area of Waterloo completely overrun by RUF rebels on their bloody march to Freetown in January 1999. Interviewed by the
BBC once he managed to escape into Freetown, my colleague told the interviewer who wanted to know how many rebels took over Waterloo that the rebels were as plenty as “manna from heaven.” Like the Israelites of old, the people of 21st century Waterloo can do with a daily diet of manna, manna and more manna because life is hard. Tolongbo says hardship is not just a Sierra Leonean problem. That may be true.
But we are citizens of Sierra Leone. It makes no sense grumbling about other people’s little inconveniences when we are suffering excruciating pain.

(c) Politico 14/09/12