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Anecdotes: Sierra Leone marks 49th Independence anniversary on April 27, 2010

By  | 19 April 2010 at 01:07 | 1900 views

April means different things, brings different memories to various Sierra Leoneans but April 27, 1961 is no doubt the common denominator. It was the day Britain granted Sierra Leone independence and ushered her into the Commonwealth as its 100th member.

For good measure April 19, 1971 was the day she became a republic, with Siaka Stevens(pictured) becoming executive president. Before then Stevens, as prime minister, was only head of government while the Queen of England remained sovereign head of state, represented by a Governor-General.

Whatever the symbolic difference, Siaka Stevens made it remarkable on the ground, literally and figuratively. One beacon was getting the country’s motorists to switch from left to right-lane traffic, about six weeks earlier on March 1. The office of Governor-General ceased to exist henceforth. Several years earlier, in 1964, a new currency system had been introduced: Leones and Cents. However, it was still fiscally linked to the British pound sterling.

We mark the country’s 49th birthday this year, 2010, and as a tribute here are some personal reflections as anecdotes. This is to tickle memories and help improve archives. The aim is to give readers a light-hearted peek into recent times gone by. One objective is to take advantage of the ready access to this Internet news portal called The Patriotic Vanguard, for the benefit of younger compatriots and/or Diasporans. Most of the entries are from personal experience and media reports; and jokes/rumours will be clearly stated as such. Any errors are mine. Now here we go, folks:

1980 OAU Brand and Party:

Siaka Stevens, as founder and leader of the All People’s Congress (APC) party, ruled until 1985 when he handed over to then Military Chief, Joseph Momoh. He retired and lived at his King Harman Road residence in Freetown until he passed on in May 1988. Stevens was instrumental in forming the tripartite Mano River Union (MRU)in 1973, initially between Sierra Leone and Liberia. Guinea (Conakry) joined in 1980. In 1975, Stevens and his Liberian counterpart William Tolbert personally opened the MRU Bridge linking their two nations.

The biggest international event to have taken place in Sierra Leone in the past generation is arguably the OAU conference of 1980. From July 1 to 4, Sierra Leone hosted the Heads of State/Government summit of the African Union (AU) that was then called The Organization of African Unity (OAU). It was founded in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963 - African Liberation Day.

The fanfare that came with the meeting was so widespread that it became a brand name of sorts. Apart from landmarks like the villas at Hill Station’s OAU Village there was also a fleet of Mercedes (OAU) Benz cars; then the more informal OAU ‘ress’ (rice) and similar items. With Edem Kodjo as Secretary-General, Siaka Stevens became chairman for the next twelve months.

I doubt if there was a list of invitees, as such; since coups were more common Incumbent OAU Chairman Tolbert for instance could not make it to Freetown from Monrovia, Liberia, having died in a coup earlier that same year. Senegal’s Leopold Senghor had to act as chairman until Stevens took over. The format was to have the host president serve as chairperson until the next summit. Liberia was the host nation in 1979.

In any case it was the era of Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure; Dawda Jawara of The Gambia; JJ Rawlings of Ghana; Sudan’s Jaffar Numeiry; Julius Nyerere and Daniel Arap Moi of Tanzania and Kenya respectively; Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Samora Machel of Mozambique. Robert Mugabe had just become Zimbabwe’s first post-independence prime minister. It was formerly Rhodesia and became independent from Britain around this time, on April 18, 1980. She was renamed Zimbabwe.

The roster also included the likes of: Ahmadou Ahijo (Cameroun), Seretse Khama (Botswana) Sangoule Lamizana (Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso), Mohamed ould Haidallah (Mauritania), Leopold Sengor (Senegal), Mengistu Haile Mariam (Ethiopia), Kamuzu Banda (Malawi), Shehu Shagari (Nigeria), Omar Bongo (Gabon), Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire) and Mali’s Moussa Traore.

Others were Libya’s Muamarr Ghadaffi, Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, David Dacko of the Central African Republic, Mathieu Kerekou (Benin), Habib Bourguiba (Tunisia), Chadli Benjedid (Algeria), Godfrey Binaisa (Uganda, Goukouni Oueddei (Chad), and Gnassingbe Eyadema (Togo). Siad Barre was president of Somalia; and Sao Tome and Principe had Manuel Pinto da Costa. Dennis Sassou Nguesso was head of state of Congo-Brazzaville.

Felix Houphuet Boigny was Ivory Coast president. The royalties were King Hassan II of Morocco, King Moeshoeshoe of Lesotho, and King Sobhuza of Swaziland. The heads of state in Burundi and Rwanda were Jean Baptiste Bagaza and Juvenal Habyarimana, respectively; while Guinea Bissau had Luis Cabral. There were Hassan Gouled and Obiang Nguema , repectively, as presidents in Djibouti and Equatorial Guinea. The president of Cape Verde was Aristides Pereira.

Non-Independent countries and territories included South Africa, Spanish Sahara, Namibia (then called South West Africa), British Crown colony Saint Helena & Dependencies, and France’s collectivity of Mayotte.

Leone De-Link, demise of Bay-Lay:

If hosting the OAU depleted national funds, a major decision two years later sank the boat. One of the most profound of obscure but mutedly unpopular moves by Stevens was to de-link the national currency from the British pound in 1982. It is believed to be the trigger of Sierra Leone’s current foreign trade mess as the value of the Leone nose-dived and prices skyrocketed. This was the culprit in the disappearance of coins in the One Cent (‘Penny’), Five Cents, 10 Cents (‘Bob’), and 20 Cents (‘Two Shilling’) denomination. There was even a ‘2-sheelin’ brand of football; the rubber ball slightly bigger than a lawn tennis ball.

Along with craps (‘Dice’), there was a gambler’s game among errant youth and urchins. It is called ‘Tongor Bay-Lay’ and it phased out around this time because it was played exclusively with coins.

China-Sierra Leone Ties:

Ever heard of the brew Sassman? It was the locally distilled liquor that was so initially so potent that consumers were left worse than high-spirited. Sassman was the bi-product of the crop harvested at a sugar plantation at Magbass in Tonkolili. The farm was one of several agricultural/infrastructural projects in Sierra Leone; out of co-operation with China. Other Sino/Sierra Leonean schemes included the Agricultural Technical Training Centre (Agro Tech) at Mange Bureh; the Mange Bureh Bridge; Youyi Building office complex at Brookfields; and the National Stadium nearby.

Tom Terry’s Bombali Bomber:

Mention of the National Stadium reminds me of the memorable football match to mark its grand opening in April 1979. Siaka Stevens, who had the arena complex named after him, graced the occasion. There were a lot of activities leading to the climax of the day, the grand finale between the two best teams at the time: Bo District and Bombali District. The Chinese construction team, which had even equipped entrances to each terraced stand with turnstiles (counters and all) put the maximum capacity at about 35,000.

The hype was huge even though the biggest crowd pullers in the country had missed out. East End Lions and Mighty Blackpool had both faltered in the qualifying series. Bo District was probably slightly favoured to win, with midfield duo and Sierra Leone internationals later, Ali Ngayenga and diminutive Max McCauley in the line-up. Bombali had Raka ‘Raksin’ Koroma, Abdul Mukni and Alusine Tom Terry in its squad.

A capacity crowd watched from the stands while tens of thousands more, countrywide, settled for radio commentaries. Yes, SLBS radio reached the length and breadth of the nation, back then. For the Bo/Bombali clash SLBS aces like Gipu Felix-George, William Roberts, Ronald Mallamah Thomas and Coulson Thomas Basir ruled the airwaves with exciting English Language coverage, weaved with translations in Mende, Temne, Limba and Krio.

In the end Bombali District (nicknamed Wusum Stars) took the trophy as national champions and winners of the first ever First Division soccer match at the stadium. The final score was 1-0. The Bo District goalkeeper was somewhat carried away in the heat of the occasion, so much so that he did not carry the ball safely enough in one defensive play. The goalie had grasped and clasped the ball, off hotshot lefty Tom Terry. To the dismay of his mates and Bo supporters, he chose to make some sort of obstacle race maneuver. The ball slipped and rolled across the goal line, all in a split second. Goal!

Tom Terry, who later distinguished himself for his high success rate at penalty kicks at both club and international levels, went home a super star and a historic bombshell hero. Real Republicans (aka The Soccer Ambassadors) snatched similar bragging rights some 16 months later. Nicknamed ‘The Soccer Ambassadors,’ they beat East End Lions 2-1 to win the OAU Cup at the same Stadium in July 1980. It was the era of professional/expatriate Ghanaian footballers like Atto Mensah, Ishmael Lamptey, Francis Arhin (Bongo Man), Andrew Hooper, Mike Nsowa, Derek Boison, Philip Buckman, EE Lions goalie Jacobs and the Injury-Time-Goal specialist Simon/Simeon Awuah.

The Siaka Stevens Stadium was renovated by the Chinese government in 1993, under NPRC government,, and the name changed to The National Stadium.

Zone-Two Accounting:

There is a joke about Sheki and his crude or shrewd approach to money and power. Sierra Leone hosted the eight-nation Zone 2 soccer tournament for the first time, in January/February 1984. Sierra Leone did very well and reached the final, against Senegal. Brima ‘Attouga’ Kamara was just beginning to shine as Remete Suma’s days between the goalposts faded. Those were the times of Joseph Toby, Amadu Rappel Kamara and Little John Johnson.

On every Leone Stars game day the stadium would be jam-packed, even overflowing. On each day a helicopter would hover overhead and fly away. While some speculated that it was a security sortie, others joked that Sheki was checking the potential takings. Tickets were priced at Le10 for Presidential seats, Le5 for Covered Stands and Two Leones for Open Stand spaces.

Leone Stars lost the final match on penalty kicks, after a goalless draw in extra time. The minister of sports was sacked a few weeks later but it was not because of the loss. It was due to his accounting for tickets sold. When the final figures were announced it was so-and-so hundred thousand leones, hundreds, tens and…some cents. How can there be cents when all the tickets were to the nearest leone? Sheki is rumoured to have queried?

Door, Guard Rail and Sheki Power:

Sheki guarded his power fiercely, tightening his grip with jest and witty remarks and quotes. An example is: “What you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.” Another which was roumoured to his credit: “Nar sense make book; nor to book make sense,” (Wisdom is the source of knowledge/formal education; not the reverse).

One joke, which may have not been so funny, was Sheki’s rumoured reaction to the overthrow of his neighbour President William Tolbert of Liberia. He is even said to have seen Samuel Doe - the coupist who replaced Tolbert a few months earlier on April 12, 1980 - to be gate crashing his OAU party that same year. Doe was a bad omen, especially when his rude entrance was at the heels of Flight Lieutenant John Jerry Rawlings, only a few months earlier in 1979.

Rumoured Quote by Sheki:

“ Foss wi get railing, now wi get doh (door)…wae di winda (window)….”

A literal translation is: “First we had a (guard) rail, now we have a door…. soon we might have a window”.

This retort was in reply to the two new – uninvited - military rulers in the ‘OAU heads of state’ party. Samuel Doe (the door) and Jerry Rawlings (the guard rail) were both too close to home for Sheki’s comfort.

Salone stereotypes and Ayiti Abanda:

Stereotypes may be inevitable in any community but one case was so funny when the prejudice, albeit positive, missed by a mile. There was a time indeed when Ghanaians carved a neat reputation as expert bakers, fishermen, and teachers. They were informal expatriates as many migrated to escape the hard times in Ghana in the 1970s and early 80s.

However the most dramatic effects of their coming to Sierra Leone was in club football. Almost every first division club had Ghanaians. Pundits are known to have credited Sierra Leone’s later exploits in international contests - like qualification for the Nations Cup in Tunisia in 1994 - to the improved game ushered by Ghanaian players years earlier. One of them, Atto Mensah, did so well with EE Lions he was naturalized and drafted into Leone Stars.

The trend had its hiccups, of course One was when an aspiring immigrant found himself in a police cell soon after he arrived in the country. It was an immigration matter and somehow he managed to get word out from detention that he was Ghanaian and well, he plays very good football. East Lions, with its enormous fan base soon got scouts poaching the soccer prospect. Lions’ big bosses were quick to pull strings and bail him out; in haste to beat archrivals Blackpool to the new gold mine. He gave his name as Ayiti Abanda.

The Lions tradition at daily training/practice, then held at the Government Trade Centre at Kissy Dockyard, was to pass the hat around to raise funds for players’ transport fares and incidentals. That day the hat went round especially for Ayiti, being new to the country, to help him settle down and taste Sierra Leonean hospitality. The grounds, was abuzz with excitement and exaggerated rumours. Some armchair coaches and physiotherapists even commented on Ayiti’s athletic build; others argued about the club he played for – Ashanti Kotoko, Dumas, or Hearts of Oak. “Look at those thighs; he must be a dribbler….” Some would suggest.

Then came the big moment: Ayiti’s first warm-up. It did not take long for doubters and skeptics to grow in number as Ayiti began to show some ‘slight’ sloppiness. “Could be the journey (jet lag),” diehard optimists countered. Probably what saved Ayiti was the fierce Blackpool/Lions rivalry. Nobody would like to make a fuss because Blackpool surely had spies around. Lions would be a laughing stock. So Ayiti was grudgingly excused, ostensibly “to allow him to go home and rest,” after his incarceration by Immigration. Thus it was with the expatriate soccer prospect Ayiti Abanda.

Happy Birthday Sierra Leone!

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