by jim weller
Another strange adventure in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Playing Chicken With The Green Tank
One of the first Sierra Leoneans employed by TAAKOR Tropical Hardwood was Mr. Mohamed Baryon. Mohamed was a former bank auditor in Freetown. Like most people in Sierra Leone, especially the somewhat educated or skilled workers, Mohamed was looking for something better than a low paying position at a bank.
Working for TAAKOR gave him a chance at a good long term salary and hope for the future, so he jumped at the opportunity. With his bank experience, Mohamed was able to set up and take care of most initial banking matters for the Company until a CFO or Accountant could be hired.
Mohamed was also vital to Human Resources and some political aspects of the company. Most important to TAAKOR, Mohamed was honest, trustworthy, and got things done fairly quickly.
The icing on the cake, Mohamed had a car, no small issue in Sierra Leone. It was a green Mercedes Benz, 1973 if I recall correctly.
One important side note to this, Sierra Leone is a graveyard for all vehicles that find their way to that country. Cars, trucks, motorbikes, it matters not because it is only a matter of time before they break down, are abandoned, stripped of all usable parts, and then finally sold for scrap metal.
The Mohamed Mercedes had not met this fate and at its rate of survival to date, it may take a while before it has to be buried. Not only was this a fine luxury automobile in its day, it was without a doubt as well constructed as any auto of its time or thereafter. The Mohamed Mercedes was no longer bright and shiny; and it had a few dents, dings, and rust spots. But, it ran and ran; we called it, "The Green Tank"!
There were several occasions after I arrived in Freetown that I was forced to surrender my own designated vehicle, a white Toyota Hilux, to some of our self-proclaimed logistics experts to run for parts or supplies. We referred to them as drivers, but titles are everything in Sierra Leone.
These errands would usually take all day and often extend into the evening. Tasks in Sierra Leone are easily planned but not easily predicted, so it is always necessary to have a Plan B, and a Plan C. I always knew that when I let someone use my vehicle, no matter if the trip should only take fifteen minutes, it would turn into an extended expedition.
The coachman, and whoever was riding shotgun, always made a point to be "noticed" while driving around town, and usually would pick up a few fares for pocket money, even though it was against policy. Traffic was usually so bad that when questioned, unless you had them followed, they always had that built in excuse, even though we knew, that they knew their way around most of the congestion.
This meant that towards the end of the day I may not have a ride home, and I was not about to sit at the office and wait for a return that might have me stranded for hours. The green tank was always my Plan B, or C. and whoever was using the Hilux would bring it to the house later, after I made several angry phone calls of course.
On one particular Friday afternoon I called Mohamed and told him that I was ready to go home and needed a ride. We would be leaving our office at 164 Circular Road; an address that will be repeated throughout this collection of stories, and would began making our way up the winding hill toward the junction at Hill Station Road and Spur Road.
Once there, if not halted by the always on the lookout for some money police, we would take a left and continue traveling upwards on Hill Station Road. Our home was among several being built right behind the new American Embassy. The road past the Embassy entrance to the house was bad and the owner was behind on several finishing details on the house, but it was a livable abode.
Mohamed picked me up outside the office and our trip went as described to the junction, the police didn't bother us. Mohamed took the left on to Hill Station Road and we moved about 1000 feet when, out of the blue, one of the many pedestrians along the road decided to partake in their favorite pastime with the green tank. Most people call it "Chicken."
These games almost always are won by the pedestrian because, well, who wants to run over somebody and go to the police station in Freetown. So, the driver has to stop, if possible.
In Freetown, all of Sierra Leone, and West Africa for that matter, people walking along the road are everywhere, outnumbering cars in the city. Some are waiting for a taxi, or a puta puta bus, or hoping for a random ride. Usually they are just walking to where they want to be.
Most walk just off the road, no sidewalks of course, while many make their path on the road where cars have to dodge them from behind. It is no fun driving, especially at night.
Among these walking pedestrians, there are hundreds that will take on the daily challenge of that age old game of chicken with their fiercest rival, the motor vehicle. Since the first car came to Africa there has been a battle for control of the streets, which the every bigger and faster motor vehicle has taken control.
Its sheer size, speed and ability to just trample the pedestrian give it an intimidating edge.
Only the moral ambiguity of the motor vehicle's operator; selecting good over the evil of maiming or killing a fellow human, is what the pedestrian can count on to maintain his ever shrinking position on the roadways.
In other words, when you see someone walking down the middle of the street that person is daring you, the operator, to slow down and drive past him safely, or even stops if needed, before just running him over.
The average pedestrian plays the game of chicken by standing on one side of the road in a ready position, just like a stand up start in a sprint race. His aim is to gauge the speed of the cars and when the opportunity presents itself, bolt across the street to the other side. Sometimes this is achieved without the cars having to slam on the breaks, sometimes not.
The pedestrian gains a one point win if he or she makes it across unharmed and the driver of the car is forced to pump the brake at least once. A major victory is achieved when the driver comes to a screeching halt while almost going into cardiac arrest.
Someone might think that this is not really a game but merely people trying to get across busy streets on their way home or to work. The reason I know this is not so, because I can't count the times when someone has done this when there is no vehicle coming from behind.
The pedestrian could have waited for the car to pass then safely moseyed across at their usual leisurely pace. Instead, they shoot across right in front of the only oncoming car on the road, then act oblivious to the fact that the operator has to slam on his breaks while thanking god he is not flying through the front windshield.
Oblivious turns to incredulous when the driver lays on the horn while cussing and screaming at the pedestrian who just notched another victory on his belt. Sometimes the victor even rubs it in a little by dismissing the driver's complaint with a wave of the hand. He knows the lazy driver is not coming after him.
Once Mohamed and I made the turn onto Hill Station Road we encountered several people who seemed cocked and in the ready position for their daily game. The traffic was heavy so it seemed no one had the guts. But, all of a sudden a seasoned veteran emerged. A young girl on the driver side of the road made a faint at crossing the road right in front of the Mercedes. It was a good one; Mohamed quickly applied the break bringing the car to almost stop. She notched a win without even endangering herself.
The girl, maybe nine or ten, looked right at us and didn't move. Mohamed hesitated until he assumed the girl would not cross and then pushed on the accelerator slightly. As soon as the car moved the girl shot across the street, like a young deer at night. Mohamed reacted again as quickly as possible, this time slamming on the breaks.
The girl was right in front of the Mercedes' hood ornament, her facial expression revealing her predicament. She made a final leap. Thud! The cars passenger side front bumper hit her about the right thigh area. She flew about ten feet onto the side of the road, partially due to the impact and partially because of her attempted leap to safety.
Almost as soon as she hit the ground she sprang to her feet, turned, and looked right at us. Her eyes were wide open; her facial expression could only be described as completely stunned. I don't know if she was scared or could not believe that she had been bested. Mohamed has scored a victory, without apparently killing anybody in the process.
It took about three seconds until the girl realized what had happened and probably felt some pain on the side of her leg. She sat down and began wailing loudly, more out of fright than anything else I'm sure. She had to at least have a good bruise and I was hoping nothing else. As expected, a crowd formed immediately; and began getting riled up, immediately. Why not, most of them had nothing else to do so a little excitement and a chance to stick their nose in somebody's business was a welcome stroke of luck.
I sat on the passenger side looking straight ahead for reasons that I would think are obvious to anyone. The first person to be mobbed if I involved myself would of course be me. Mohamed began to get out of the car but I grabbed him. "Do not say anything about TAAKOR Mohamed, understand."
Mohamed acknowledged with a grunt and got out to check on the girl who was still crying but seemed to be okay. His first task was to argue with about fifty people that had no business being included, but is always customary when something like this happens. I remained in my seat looking straight forward, moving only my eyes to see what was happening. Again, the girl was okay, just shook up.
The police showed, two female officers, and someone took the girl to the hospital just in case. This of course would cost money that would come from me (TAAKOR), but nobody needed to know that. That knowledge would have at least tripled the price to take care of all this. Once things got settled Mohamed got back in the car, accompanied by the two female police officers who got in the back seat.
"They are taking me to the police station," Mohamed proclaimed in a little deeper version of his already husky voice. I turned and looked at the police officers in the back seat.
"Yeah, ah, I'm not going to the police station; I'll get out and walk if I have to."
"No wait, this man was giving me a ride home and I want him to take me there before he goes anywhere."
The officers just looked at me and said nothing. Mohamed turned and asked them if it was okay to drop me off up the street near the Embassy before going to the station. The said something to him in Krio that I didn't pick up, Mohamed shifted into gear and we were off.
About half a mile up the street a young man bolted across the street in front of us. I turned and looked at the two female officers, pointed at Mohamed and said, "So, you're taking him, to the police station?
The girl was fine and we helped Mohamed with the hospital bill. Let the games continue!