Tragedy on the KabaDry season is a good time to see hippos in Outamba-Kilimi National Park. They are, in fact, some of the few reliable wildlife attractions (along with the vervet monkies, which are so plentiful and curious… you almost want to chase them off after a week). Traveling down the Kaba River to Pool #3 (the naming of places is shockingly creative here) is pretty easy, though there are a few rapids along the way. Coming up on the hippo pool, one can usually spot the creatures from a distance… as they are massive, and the water is pretty low. They are rarely found completely submerged, so one can navigate around them appropriately. Rainy season is another story. The river swells 15-20 feet, expanding to twice the width from bank to bank… and the water moves fast.
Morlei Kagbo, one of OKNP’s guides, died giving a hippo tour during our second full day in the park. This event is not the only significant thing that occurred during our nine day visit, but it certainly colored the entirety of the time.
A group of IMATT (International Military Assistance Training Team) showed up on our second day in the park. Two were British, one Canadian, one Sierra Leonian and one Nigerian. It became apparent that two British had read a good deal about Sierra Leone prior to and during their stay (including ‘In the Land of the Magic Soldiers’ – a book that references the Kortenhoven family). The group was also clearly an adventuring sort: they’d taken every opportunity to explore different corners of the country – including having taken a trip up Mt. Bintamani of Aaron’s beloved Loma Mountains several weeks earlier. On visiting the park, three of the five were set on the mission of making a trip down the river to see the hippos.
I believe that they were aware that the water level was high, and that the paddling would be a challenge, but it’s likely that their language abilities did not enable them to pick up on the side conversations that were occurring regarding who should go with them. We only later learned that the other guides had tried to talk Morlei out of going on the grounds that he couldn’t swim, but the promise of 10,000 Leones (about $3) was just too compelling, and he’d insisted on it.
So, a group of three IMATT soldiers and two guides took the park’s two canoes down the river. Several rapids were passed through without event, but as they approached Pool #3, a hippo suddenly surfaced about 20 yards away, startling Morlei, who panicked and flipped the canoe. One of the strong swimmers from the other canoe jumped out to help the SL soldier, who couldn’t swim well, and Rick, the Canadian IMATT soldier, immediately went after Morlei, but the water was just too turbid and deep. He didn’t get to him on time.
The red canoe was lost down the river, and the other canoe was only rated a ‘two person’ so Stewart returned with the other guide and the Sierra Leonian soldier for a two hour paddle up the river, leaving Rick to look for the body and the lost canoe.
Different cultures and personalities emerge become more pronounced in response to a death. The park personnel went ahead and presented a bill for the overnight stay and the excursion to the IMATT group, which (under the circumstances) shocked them. Chris responded by quietly approaching Aaron with all of their small remaining funds, pretty much an emptying of their pockets, and asked if he could try to get the money directly to the family. Aaron agreed. Then, for better or worse, IMATT made a decision to split the scene and head back to Makeny before nightfall. Aaron encouraged them to make a stop at the local police in Kamakwi to make a ‘report’ and essentially clarify that the incident was an ‘accident’ (more on this later).
Aaron then had to talk another group of (non-swimming) guides out of the idea of immediately going to retrieve the canoe. They were obviously shaken, and also sure that they would be in trouble with the authorities in Freetown if they let the canoe be lost. Even with my limited Krio, it was clear that Aaron was communicating, ‘Don’t make a rash decision when you aren’t able to think straight! A life is more important than a canoe. If you can’t swim, have some ‘sense’.” This seemed to work for the time being, and they agreed that they weren’t thinking clearly. Note: several guides who were purportedly better swimmers came the next morning to try to retrieve the boat. The literal translation of their response to the question regarding their ability to swim was… “If God agrees, I can swim. If God doesn’t agree, it doesn’t matter if I can swim.” Statements like this abound in SL. The fine line between: a) recognition that one is in the ‘hands of God’ and b) a sense of fatalism, that it doesn’t matter which choices you make, because what will happen, will happen… is not always clear to me.
Trouble with Police: Strip aside all notions of police being available to ‘help’ the populace. As Marah says (with a small bit of my interpretation) if you have a brother who joins the police, you have lost him to the ‘dark side.’ Ferenki says that the policeman’s prayer here is, ‘God, give us big trouble today!” It may help to understand that a policeman’s monthly salary is about 140,000L, or less than $50.00. This is not enough, even here, to do more than quite literally ‘live’ on… and if you have a family, not even that. So, police are constantly out looking for any opportunity to collect fines, bribes & favors. This doesn’t make them the best advocates of justice. A death on the river poses a great occasion for them to feign all kinds of outrage and concern that there has been ‘foul play’ (in hopes of collecting a big bribe). After all, why should they not believe that someone ‘tied a rock to the man’ or ‘pushed him out of the canoe to feed to the hippos?’
Therefore, it was of great consequence to the park that IMATT left an ‘accident report’ to clear all of their names. However, when they made a follow-up visit to the station, the police first claimed that ‘no report had been left’ and started in with all kinds of accusations. The first rule in dealing with any kind of problematic situation here seems to be, ‘show NO weakness.’ Secondly, ‘show NO uncertainty.’ So, even though he was not completely clear on what IMATT had or had not done in terms of leaving a report, Diao, the park supervisor, made adamant & angry claims that a report had been made. The police finally acknowledged that this might have happened, but that the person who took the report was not ‘available’. When Diao asked to see the report, the police claimed that it had been ‘removed’ from the log and made him make a second one. Then, they made a big deal out of the fact that it would be improper to make a report in red ink (the only pen available in the police station) so they had to use Diao’s pen – which they refused to return to him. All in all, not a disastrous encounter, but it’s the reports like this that tie my stomache in knots and make my blood hot.
Trouble with Money: Evidently someone from the park saw the exchange in which money (approx. $35.00) was given to Aaron for Morlei’s family. As Daio had been absent on the day of the event, he had no way of knowing that we had spent hours talking with the British IMATT soldier who had not gone on the trip, nor that his park staff was a little soused with palm wine, nor any of the other details that led to this action on the part of IMATT. He only learned that money had been given to us instead of the park, and this stuck in his craw. First, he came by to present us with an inflated bill (for IMATT) that would have eaten up almost all of the money. Aaron explained that, after a tragedy like this, people think differently and that the guests had been deeply shaken up by the drowning. He explained that IMATT planned to go back to Freetown and purchase life jackets for the park (the cost of which would far exceed the bill) and that it would be improper to take money designated for the family and use it for a different purpose. Diao appeared to agree to this, but a day later it became clear that he was still angry, as he felt that he should have been entrusted with the money to give to the family (never mind that he hadn’t been there). Aaron did sort of have a melt-down at one point, feeling as though all of the negative emotions surrounding the accident and the death somehow had gotten pointed at him – which probably wasn’t quite true, but emotions do, somehow, have a tendency to find a ‘target’ and that target is not always (or even usually) rational. We finally did end up giving Diao the money, and providing transportation for the thirty-five mile (4 hour) round-trip to Kamakwi, for the family to come out to the park – so things were (personally, at least) straightened out in the end.
You can probably imagine that all of this had an impact both on our groups work and attitude about the park, but, I think I’ll take a break and send our impressions of OKNP in a separate email. We are currently in Kabala, and I am feeling MUCH better as the 67 sandfly (think: ‘no-seeum’) bites on my right foot and 63 on my left foot have begun to fade away. Alpha, a small 12-year-old boy left mute from some trauma during the war, has been peering over my shoulder for almost the entirety of writing this letter. He’s an extremely curious kid and (we think) quite bright, it’s just too bad that there aren’t many resources here to diagnose learning disabilities. He’s much more patient than any 12 year old I’ve met in the USA, but it’s clear that he would prefer that I shift from typing to showing him more pictures that we have taken and put on the computer.
Greetings to you all (from Aaron, Marah, Yegbeh, and Ferenki too)!