When the Sun refuses to Shine
By Mariama Kandeh, UK
It was 6 am on 29th April 1992. I’ve just been woken up by the normal cock-a-doodle-doo of one of our cocks that slept in our pantry but I’ve refused to wake up. I just lay still pretending I’m sleeping. The pantry is a very small square storeroom that is positioned at one of the four edges of our squared parlour. It housed some old household and building materials. Mama was ambitious enough to have been buying building materials even though there was no plan yet to build a family house of our own. We lived in a one-bedroom flat at the Kingtom Police Barracks. It was in the pantry that a home was created for our fowls. We had over 10 of them, all of which squeezed in the small available space in the pantry. I and three sisters shared a bed in the parlour just opposite the pantry. So whenever one of our cocks crow, we are the first recipients of its ‘Coco-rio-ko’.
The sound of the cock will be followed by Papa’s screaming at us to wake up and perform the Fajr prayer. It was normal for us to be woken up by him in that way. ‘Get up’ he would shout..... ‘It’s time for prayers’, he would add, sprinkling cold water over us. Papa has developed this habit over time and there was not a morning he did not perform such ritual. Each one of us would get up very briskly, collect water pots, do the ablution and came back to stand behind him for prayers. The prayer is normally followed by my morning chores, sweeping of the veranda, and packing the parlour after everyone has gotten up.
In Sierra Leone, the sun rises in the east and set in the west; this pattern never changes, not even when we experience the so-called Johnson Spring or when it rains continuously for seven days and nights usually in August. The sun always found its way into our kitchen made of zinc and mud. That morning, as Mama was preparing our breakfast of boiled rice, palm oil, pepper, Jumbo Maggie and onion stew, our neighbour aunty Hawa came over to greet her as usual.
‘Good morning Neneh (Neneh means Mama in the Fullah language of Sierra Leone). ‘Hawa morning,’ Mama replied. ‘How the morning Ma? Aunty Hawa asked. ‘The morning is not going bad, just that the sun has refused to shine this morning and only God knows how many people they will kill today,’ Mama remarked.
In Sierra Leone, cloudy weather signifies bad omen and during the war it was believed that whenever the sun refused to shine in the morning it signified massive killings of civilians by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front; most times a village or town is attacked and hundreds if not thousands of innocent lives lost.
I hurriedly finished my chores, bathed, ate breakfast and dressed up in my blue and green uniform. Off I went running behind Papa as we walked from Kingtom to State House, the office of the President where Papa worked as a police officer. Along dusty paths enveloped by trees which formed a serene canopy; across Battery Street on to the police guard room with its gigantic cotton tree adjacent to the Kingtom police station. We walked through police field with its damaged pavilions that formed the perfect rendezvous for pupils from Saint Edwards and Prince of Wales secondary schools who escaped classes, some to smoke Indian hemp or Marijuana, others to play football or cricket, some just to relax and enjoy the sweet breeze that flew in from the river Rokel and the Atlantic Ocean.
Walking along side Papa, I asked him questions from why birds fly to why the roads drowned us with dry red dust whenever a vehicle passed us. Papa has got answers for everything; in fact he should; he has worked at State House for over thirty years. He prided himself to have worked with almost all the Presidents Sierra Leone had had then.
We passed through Hennessy Street and Kroobay, Sierra Leone’s most famous slum; I always wondered how humans and pigs not only dwelled in the same place but defecated, peed and drank water from the same river; for people of Kroobay it is nothing to write home about; it is what many Sierra Leoneans would describe as ‘life goes on’. Papa and I always found a short-cut so that we got to our destination on time.
As we passed through Lightfoot Boston Street, I realized it was still too early and quiet; only a few vehicles passed us. The streets were filthy with rubbish filling the gutters and feces could be noticed in polyethylene bags. The mortuary at Connaught hospital smelled of stale dead bodies as a result of a long and sustained blackout. There was a high pile of rubbish just in front of the mortuary gate and flies were singing all around it. The city is normally without electricity supply and this did not only disturb the living but gravely affected the state of the mortuary. Amidst all this, the morning breeze was fantastic. The town was still quiet with the exception of few early risers rushing to work.
One thing missing on that Wednesday morning was the usual life in the city of Freetown. Like many cities in Africa, Freetown is very busy in the mornings as traders go helter-skelter getting goods and packing them on their stalls and workers heading for work; school children going to schools as house wives rushed to get food items to cook for their families. But on that day, the picture was bizarre. Was it because it was too early or was it just a sign of something totally strange looming? An incident that was going to change the history of my beloved Sierra Leone forever was about to happen.
Renegade soldiers who were at the war front fighting the rebels on behalf of the country but felt aggrieved over the government’s lack of good governance, better leadership and poor conditions of service for the military had plotted a coup which was to oust then President Joseph Saidu Momoh (late) and his All People’s Congress party that had ruled the country for 24 years; 14 years under one party rule.
Through Walpole Street we got to the giant Cotton Tree. A huge Ceiba Pentandra and one of Freetown’s most historic symbols. It is as old as the city itself. It stood just adjacent the American Embassy where every morning I saw a long queue of people waiting to be interviewed for American visas. Most of them were tired of the heat of the kitchen and could not bear it anymore and were leaving Sierra Leone for a greener pasture. The visa that will ensure they enter the United States of America; the land of milk and honey as we knew it to be. Under the cotton tree, I was now sweating profusely and for any time I heard the ‘kiki kiki’ sound of the bats. It seemed continuous and I ran under Papa’s caftan to escape their poo from messing my uniform even though bats poo is believed to give good luck.
At the police post at State House, Papa stopped by, dropped his bag and told one of the guards that he was dropping me off to school. At school, I was always proud to tell my friends that I’ve seen the Inspector General of Police Bambay Kamara (late) and even President Momoh. I once passed the IG on the circular stairs of State House and President Momoh was sighted several times with his many guards around the building; especially when he was leaving the lift to go to his office at the top of the building. I was especially proud to describe State House to my friends; it’s like an American describing the White House or the Pentagon or a Briton describing Number 10 Downing Street. I especially loved to talk about the top veranda, located just at the top of the president’s oval office. There, the bats are said to come every morning as a sign of honour to the seat of power. However, it is also believed that whenever a coup is being plotted the bats will not do the morning ritual. They would rather go away. I also used to play ‘gegeh’ (a game we play with granite) at the top veranda with other children whose parents also worked at State House. One can also have a great look of the centre of town and especially the river and the ocean at the edge of Freetown.
At around 8 o’clock, the sun has still refused to shine. It was around then I heard the first set of gun shots. My friends and I were playing in the school grounds. Our school was on Tower Hill, overlooked by parliament building and adjacent to the National Electoral Commission’s head quarters. It is on a red dusty and stony ground; the buildings were painted in dark brown and beige which looked like it was meant to match the red dusty school yard. In the mornings before school assembly, my friends and I would chat little girly chats; we would discuss about new clothes or shoes our mothers bought and did spelling test of boys versus girls or multiplication tests amongst ourselves, just to prepare us for the day’s hot mental.
When the shots became continuous, we ran to class 7 Blue; Mr David was its class teacher. He was a very strict, with medium height, very articulate teacher. His class was always the best among the class 7 classes and parents always urged their children to work hard to be in Mr. David’s class when they got to class 7. We rushed in, pupils, some parents, passersby and traders. Our school is a route for many female traders who always carried baskets we called blaye. These women sold fruits and gravy of salt, kanya pepper and lime; we called the combination ‘Gron Soup’ in Krio.
Before that day I did not know who rebels really were. I thought they were animals. On many occasions I had asked Papa if they were human beings. When the war started which was just about a year, Papa always told me the rebels were very far off and the war would end before it reached Freetown.
When I heard the continuous shots of different kinds of weapons especially Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) and AK 47, I thought the war Papa said would not reach the city had eventually reached us. In the midst of the commotion in my mind, I thought of what was going to be my future if I lost my family like the Liberian orphans that passed through our yard to sell fruits on trays; little girls and boys as young as six years old. I also thought a lot about my family. I’ve heard of children losing their families in the Liberian conflict. Some children were left as orphans while others lived with foster parents. I didn’t want such to be my fate.
My heart beat heavily for Papa. The shots were coming from State House and I know Papa was in the building. What was I going to do to get him out? I thought of going there to look for him. All of us children in the classroom were crying; ‘Me mama o’; ‘Me papa o’. Whenever somebody ran towards the school ground, the adults would ask what was going on. Most times we were not lucky. All they would say was that they saw men dressed in military fatigues with heavy weapons and shooting in the air. As the sound of gun shots lessened some people started leaving the classroom. Parents came to pick their children from school. I did not see Papa or any family member I knew. My heart was pounding fast. It is said a timid person is frightened before danger arrives; I was even more frightened because of my ignorance of the dangers that lay ahead because I had no idea of what was going on.
By mid day, the classroom was becoming emptied and as if the unknown shooters were having their lunch break, the sound of the shots lessened and the teachers around encouraged children who knew their way home to go home as fast as they could. I started crying seriously. I headed towards State Avenue but a group of young men who sat beside one of our school buildings asked where I was going. I told them that I wanted to go and see my father who worked at State House and I was encouraged to go home instead.
Kingtom was miles away from my school but I did remember very well our route home when one of my sisters usually picked me up from school. I took my route westward, On my way home, I saw soldiers on trucks and other vehicles such as Nissan Pajeros and Land Rovers, driving very fast as if they were being chased by a wounded lion. Their faces wore danger and they looked fierce with red eyes. Maybe it’s because of the too much cannabis they live on like our soldiers and State Security Division (SSD) neighbours at the flat next to ours.
Our next door neighbours had cannabis for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They had red eyes and never wanted to look one in the eyes. They always greet Papa with head bowed down as if they were looking for a missing coin. But they were very mean; once they reported their girlfriends whom had spent weeks at their flat to the Sergeant Major of the barracks. They reported that the girls were prostitutes squatting illegally at the flat. The Sergeant Major got some police officers who evicted the girls from the flat. They love reggae music by Lucky Dube and Joseph Hills. Sometimes the sound of the music is so loud that Papa would go over to their flat and ask them to turn the volume down.
The streets were emptied except for the group of people who gathered at every round about, clinging to their radios, holding on to white pieces of cloth and every time the soldiers drove through a street in high speed, the group of people would raise their thumbs or sometimes their hands and wave in support of the soldiers. These people looked happy but scared. Happy maybe because of the momentum these young soldiers kept; they chanted words like ‘We are here to help you’; ‘We are your children’; ‘We will not harm you’; One Love’. Scared maybe because they were not sure of the truthfulness of the soldiers or because they held weapons. Some women on Siaka Stevens Street gave the young soldiers ice water in plastic bags. These soldiers had helmets with a feather-like military cloth on it. Their eyes were red.
That was a time when military coups were a fashion in Africa. Revolutions were gaining momentum in every nook and cranny of the continent, and in fact it was becoming a popular demand by the populace. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress of South Africa had just celebrated two years of his release. The war in Liberia was becoming devastating. There were lots of refugees in Sierra Leone. The armies in Africa were becoming unnecessarily powerful. Multiparty democracy in the eyes and ears of Africans was still a novelty, only popular in the west.
I was finding my way home; maybe by the time I got there I would have known what was actually going on or why were soldiers all over the city and why were they shooting. Maybe our neighbour Mr. Alimamy who was not educated but would listen to the 15:05 BBC focus on Africa programme would explain to Mama what was going on. Sometimes I wondered how uneducated people in my neighbourhood understood Robin White, the white man at the BBC’s office in London who sounded like Pinocchio the talking cricket. Sometimes Mr White sounded like Mama’s red radio but when the radio’s battery was dying.
Along Kroo Town road, I could still hear gun shots but anytime I heard the shots people would bend down the way footballers drop down after heading a ball in slow motion. There were rumours of stray bullets killing people in the war. Thus everyone was in a state of fear. Just around the market area, a green land Rover was hurtling its way out of one of the streets at high speed and rushed into a set of people who stood by discussing. This group was instantly dispersed.
A dog ran after the vehicle barking furiously. One of the soldiers who sat at the back of the vehicle lowered his gun, pointed it at the dog and shot it. The dog jumped twice like a leaf and finally fell down, motionless. When I saw that, I held the tape of my uniform firm under my chin as if scolding myself for witnessing the horrific scene. What did the dog do?, I asked myself. I wanted to see if the owner of the dog would come and cry for the loss but with the thousands of street dogs without owners roaming the streets of Freetown, the dead dog could just have been one of them. Even if the dog is owned, who would dare to face those appalling soldiers? Some boys came and took the dead dog away.
I finally got home to the joy of my mother. In the evening Papa came home and explained how he witnessed one family friend killed at State House on that fateful day. Mr Musa was an SSD officer who worked as a security guard at State House. He was in his 30s and always sought advice from Papa. In the afternoon he had suggested to Papa that they leave the State House building where they had been stuck since the morning. The shooting had ceased and he thought it was the right time for them to escape from the unknown shooters. He told Papa that they should leave the building. Papa warned him to wait for a while. Indeed they waited for a while and later Mr Musa suggested again that they leave. He was brave to have asked Papa to stay behind while he took the lead as he was much younger and stronger. What he should not have done was to have gone out in uniform and with his gun. Immediately he went out he was shot by a sniper. He died immediately. Papa left the building four hours later.
A new day was born and a new military government, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), had taken over the country.
About the author
Mariama Seray Kandeh was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She worked as a journalist for Concord Times Newspaper in Freetown where she attained the position of News Editor until 2008 when she emigrated to the United Kingdom. She has reported for Business in Africa Magazine in South Africa and was a freelance contributor for Gender Link Opinion and Commentary service in South Africa. She is also a women’s rights activist and has over the years used her work as a journalist to convey her messages. She has written dozens of articles that could be found on several search engines online. Her articles have also been published by City Press and the Mail and Guardian of South Africa.