Monday, December 7, 2009

The Story of Mohamed

I went running on the beach after work yesterday. Traffic was terrible getting from the Embassy to the beach and my usual 25 minute commute took almost 40 minutes. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but that put me at the beach later than I prefer. What the delay meant was that I could choose to cut my run short because it would get dark sooner than I planned, or I could stick to my original schedule and run the last bit in the near dark. On this particular day, I had a challenge from my coach so I decided to keep my training schedule and risk the last part of the run in whatever darkness would hit at the end of my session. What, you may ask, has any of this to do with someone named Mohamed? Well, I’m trying to set the scene so you can understand my particular frame of mind when I met Mohamed.

Now back to the run. I have been running consistently 3-4 days a week and trying to improve my stamina and run times. Lately for each session, I have been running 20 for minutes, walking for a minute and then running another 20 minutes. I felt good about that. My coach thought I could do better. He challenged me to do 20 minutes running, reduce the walking to 30 seconds and then run the remaining 20 minutes. I thought this was ridiculously difficult, but decided I might give it a try. I didn’t make my mind up to try it until I was all the way through the first 20 minute run and about 25 seconds into the walk when I thought, oh heck, if I’m going to try this, I only have 5 more seconds to walk! So I took a deep breath and started running, hoping for the best. I felt great and kept going. About 8 minutes from the end of the run (and the place where my car was parked) it started to get pretty dark. My feet were having trouble finding the road and hoped I wouldn’t step in any large holes or trip over a speed bump. The lights from the approaching cars helped some. Remember, in Sierra Leone, there is virtually no power and hence, no street lights. Then, I actually started to run faster—that was definitely not part of my program--but I still felt good and really wanted to get back to the car in one piece. At last, there was the car and I scrambled in. I don’t know what felt better; the fact that I had run nearly 40 minutes non-stop (that measly 30 second rest hardly counted) or the fact that I had survived the darkness without injury, or the fact that I was safe in the car. All in all, I was excited and tired and just wanted to get home after a long day.

As I left the beach road, I could see a line of card stopped ahead of me. The same traffic that had delayed me earlier had obviously moved to my current location and I was dead stopped a long way from home. I was cursing my bad luck and feeling even more anxious to get back to my cozy apartment where there would be a hot shower and dinner on the table made by my wonderful housekeeper Mariama. So I was sweating hot in the car that was not moving an inch, when a large black man walked by my open driver’s window and said, “Hi Madam Becky.” Now, contrary to popular belief, I am not personally known to everyone in Freetown. Obviously this man knew me from somewhere. It was dark and I could not see his face very well but he greeted me again and said, “Madam Becky, it’s me, Mohamed.” Of course that meant that I should also know him but I could not recall from where. Finally I asked him, how we knew each other and he told me he used to be a security guard at my apartment. That explained some of my memory lapse—on this night he was not in uniform but in street clothes. He told me he was on his way to his new job and a few other details about his life. I learned he didn’t have enough money for a taxi (they call it ‘transport’ here) so I offered to pay for his taxi. It’s not very expensive (about $1) and I can afford it so I gave him the money. He remained standing next to my car talking to me as I sat in traffic. I decided to be helpful and offered to drive him to the closest taxi junction so it would be more convenient and cheaper for him to get to work. He was very grateful and climbed in the passenger side. The traffic was still not moving at this point, so Mohamed began to talk again. I should mention here that almost everyone in Sierra Leone is poor--desperately poor. The things you and I take for granted, they cannot even begin to afford, such as a $1 taxi ride. I asked Mohamed an innocent question: Why was he not working at my building any more? His answer turned out to be a long story which broke my heart. Mohamed said that one night when he was on duty at our security gate (a run-down shed, really) he fell asleep sitting in a chair, and the head of Embassy security reassigned him. This happens all the time, I am sorry to say. The guards work 12 hour shifts, 5 or 6 days a week and they are always tired and hungry. Sometimes the only food they get all day is from one of us at the apartment complex. For the privilege of working 240 or more hours a month, they earn 200,000 Leones. Presently, $1 is worth about 3800 Leones. That comes to about $52 per month. Mohamed said he has a wife and 5 children to support. Imagine how far that money has to go. Mohamed said when he lost his job at our apartment building, the security firm relocated him to a complex much further from his house. Because of the distance from his house to the new location, he cannot afford ‘transport’ to get to work so he has to walk—probably about 4 miles each way. His story got worse from there. I began to feel a little guilty about my nice apartment and my hot food waiting on the table. Mohamed said the house he was renting is owned by two sisters who are fighting over who gets to manage the building. The sisters somehow decide they don’t want to rent to Mohamed anymore (because one of the sisters wants to live there) so they threw Mohamed’s possessions out of the house and told him to find another place to live. His family had to be split up between various friends and family until they can find a new place. He recently found a place, but it’s 2,400,000 Leones –up front-- for the year’s rent. That is also typical here. Sierra Leoneans pay all their rent a year in advance. I cannot fathom how someone who makes $52 per month can possibly afford $631 for annual rent all in one lump sum…so he explained how he planned to accomplish this. He told me he sold all of his possessions that are worth anything: tv, dvd player, etc. He was still 400,000 short so he told me the only thing left to sell was his bed. I was in disbelief. He will have to give up a good night’s sleep just to keep a roof over his head. Logical me wondered how he will manage to stay awake at his new job if he can never get proper sleep at home. I thought of how ironic it was that this whole saga started because Mohamed fell asleep in a chair at the Embassy compound. Now it looks as though that chair might be the only place he can sleep again.

All during the story, Mohamed moaned and told me how worried was about his finances and how much he missed his family. Because they are all split up around town, he does not get to see them very often. He also explained that he cannot afford ‘transport’ to go and visit them. I felt terrible; all this because I went running on the beach in the near dark and got stuck in traffic. I felt like I should do something to help Mohamed but all I really did was listen. I knew that his story was typical of almost everyone working at the Embassy in a low-paying job. I hate the fact that the Embassy contractor does not pay them a decent wage, but that is the prevailing wage all over town. The security guards are very lucky to even have a job; most of the people in Freetown are unemployed. I have no earthly idea how they provide for their families.

Mohamed never really came out and asked me for money. I gave him ‘transport’ money of 10,000 Leones, which is about 5 times extra what it will cost him to get to work. I hope he appreciated my gesture and can use the money for some good.

I desperately want Sierra Leone to advance so the people can enjoy a better standard of living. But I cannot do that all by myself. I have given money to people who have sick children, money for school fees, and money for people to visit their families far away in another province. But I cannot help everyone. I wish I could. I wish people in developed countries could witness what I see every day: children as young as 5 with younger siblings tied to their backs as they help their mom sell things by the side of the road; children as young as 2 or 3 who sit alone playing in the dirt as cars fly past right next to them; children who don’t have the privilege of going to school --carrying water jugs on their heads wearing very tattered and dirty clothes; handicapped people who do not have anything more than old wooden crutches to rely on for transportation—they use these for their whole lives; children who are sick with malaria who die because their parents don’t have enough money for medicine. This is life in a third-world, poverty stricken, war- recovering country. I read some of these facts before I came, but nothing prepares you for the abject poverty you see every day. You never get used to it. If I see Mohamed again, I will give him a little more money and tell him I will pray for him.