blogitto ergo sum

December 13, 2010

#163 – Sierra Leone, one ambassador later

Filed under: Uncategorized — yael [ya-el] wagner @ 06:06
Tags: , , , ,

A couple of days later, in one of my sleepless nights, determined to share this unusual experience, I run a search.  “A veteran journalist described Ambassador Yambasu as a mixer, a successful politician and a man who would hardly hurt a fly” is the first search result I got [from:].  The man I found was an extremely interesting modest and open.  Confused?  Read-on.

When I took my seat on the Zurich-London flight last Monday, I had no idea that I’ll be getting off the plane much better educated about Sierra Leone, more than I’ve ever been.

Exit row, window seat.  One 12-hour flight behind me; a week in freezing, unwelcoming UK ahead.  I set my latte on the middle seat as I arrange headset, MP Player, book and water bottle.  3 seconds later the seat is having its first latte bath.  [no laptops were harmed]

Waiting for the attendant to deliver some napkins, the aisle seat is taken by a pleasant-looking big black guy.  He rests his glasses, glasses case and passport in the latte’s neighborhood.  I say nothing.  Napkins arrive.  As I dry the seat I peek at the passport.  Green?  It says “Sierra Leone Diplomatic Passport”.

Let the interrogation begin.

“I’m sorry sir; I couldn’t help noticing your passport.  Where are you based, if I may ask?”

“Moscow, I’m the ambassador.”

Sierra Leone’s population is just over 5 millions I shortly find out.  I thought it to be much greater.  Maybe if they haven’t been killing each other for 11 years [1991-2002], there would be many more.

There’s something about airborne seatmates that breaks all usual protocols of communication and privacy.  And so I did.  Who is the ambassador?  All you could learn about HH John Yambasu and Sierra Leone in one short-haul flight.

A 60-something year old pleasant person, friendly and kind, has three sons and two daughters, distributed between Finland, Moscow and South Africa.  Why Finland you wonder?  Well, this was only one of the surprising items of our conversation.

When Mr. Yambasu studied in Russia 31 years ago, he met his first wife – a Finish student at the time.  Friendship turned into marriage turning into a family.  Once graduated, Mr. Yambasu wanted to go back home and contribute to his country.  The wife wasn’t the least excited about living in Sierra Leone.  Comfort of living and shades of skin may have played part in her decision.  Off go wife #1 + two sons to Finland.  With a skin color darker than most peers, “the sons didn’t enjoy a welcome committee in their 50% homeland” is the only dry comment John makes.  Today, one of the sons is a chef, hopefully soon to open his own restaurant.  The other son has a small software company.  John Junior and Thomas keep in touch with their father, who visits Finland regularly.  One can only hope that Finland is a bit more heterogeneous nowadays.  Thinking of what I heard from Swedish friends/colleagues, this may be in part still a wishful thinking.

So where is Sierra Leone anyway?  Located on the West Africa shores, south and west of Guinea, bordering with Liberia to the southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.  And a democracy, with no less, a separation between church and state.  My disbelief is rather obvious.  And so I learn of the bloody civil war, the death toll, the devastating destruction of the country’s infrastructure, and the blood diamonds that were used to fund it.  If I was only mildly impressed by the ambassador until now, the fact that he brought it up [I didn’t have the chutzpah to ask] I am now a fan.  Can’t imagine an Israeli ambassador saying matter-of-fact “the Arab-Israeli conflict caused some bad anomalies in our society, anomalies we are not proud of, racism may be one of them.”

My shallow interest in world politics means that I know of the war, but nothing about its causes.

The move from a single-party democracy to multi parties, the desire to get rich… very bad reasons. Well, coming to think of it, other than for survival, can you think of one good reason to have a war?  Oil, diamonds, democracy, to use our destruction weapons to destroy your mass destruction weapons…  none of these can justify the death of a son, brother, father…  or at least shouldn’t be used to justify it.  Life is.

“What’s with the religion” I question John.  “It’s a true secular democracy” he insists, not at all offended by my doubts.  “Population split is about 70% Muslim, 30% Christian.”

“And no conflict?”

“I’m a Christian [catholic], my wife is a Muslim, and we have no problems.”  I don’t know what to say.  So my mouth generates an infantile comment, “So she watches you while you prepare the pig” I blurt with an apologetic smile.

“well yes….and I can live without pork, some things are worth giving up pork for” he says without ridiculing my silly comment.  They have 3 kids, spread between South Africa, Moscow and I don’t remember where.  He is going home to bury his mom who died a week ago, and then will stay for his daughter’s wedding – the one who is studying in South Africa.

I replay bits of the conversation in my head.  “You belong to the minority”, I state.  “How did you get to be the ambassador?” I am still having some difficulties putting the idea of democracy and a bloody violent civil war together.  Very patiently he repeats, “it’s a democracy, I got my position on merit; I have the education, the experience…” later I found that his nomination wasn’t clean of dirty politics and intrigues, including accusing him for staying @ a hotel without paying… hotel that, I love it, he owns.  Naturally, he didn’t share this information.  The web did.

“What challenges does your country have, what are you concentrating on in your work?”

And now, since I didn’t take notes, I am not at all sure that I remember it all.  “I see 4 major challenges for my country. Rebuilding our infrastructure, blood diamonds, improve our relationship with the world and education.” [Not too sure about the “education” item though. sorry, I didn’t take notes]

Infrastructure means that electricity is a rare commodity in Sierra Leone.  24X7 electricity is practically nowhere to be found.  16-20 is the best one can expect, and that’s in Freetown, the capital and the regional canter.  The country power is about 10% of what would be needed to light it up.  The villages, the remotes area all rely on generators, predominantly provided by the government.

Two weeks or so later, I’m still impressed with the man.  Politician or not, he got me to care, raised enough curiosity to get me to seek more knowledge about his country, didn’t he?

The part in which he was asking me questions was less entertaining from my point of view.  “Why aren’t you married?” was at the top.  Seriously?!  No Arab-Israeli conflict questions?

Go figure: in less than three weeks, a driver in Hyderabad, an ambassador up-in-the-air and a local pizza man happen to ask me the very same question.  Are you trying to tell me something?



  1. I guess the world thinks that the question “Why aren’t you married?” is OK in conversation with folks you’ve just met. That says so much about society and culture.

    Comment by Jeff Hoffman — December 13, 2010 @ 11:59 | Reply

    • TBH, I know that in some cultures it is perfectly acceptable to ask such questions. can’t blame or judge a person who doesn’t know better.
      to keep this in perspective, the worst question i was ever asked had nothing to do with my failure to find a match/marry. i literally chocked when years ago, in my second or third visit to china, while visiting yu-yuan in shanghai, a young Chinese student who wanted to practice his English asked me “why does everybody hates you – Jews? why they all want to kill you?”
      i set down speechless. apparently, it doesn’t have to be close and personal to hurt.

      Comment by yael wagner — December 14, 2010 @ 05:14 | Reply

  2. I see “flat world” 🙂 some questions are so universal, huh?!

    Liked learning more about Sierra Leone through your blog. the ambassador is doing exactly what his job demands…raising the profile of and awareness about his country (one listener/blogger) at a time.

    Comment by Madhumita Datta — December 13, 2010 @ 14:10 | Reply

  3. סיירה לאון היתה המדינה אליה נשאו רבים עיניהם לפני 30 שנה, אז למדתי לתואר ראשון בלימודי אפריקה. לאף אחד לא היו המון ציפיות ממדינות אפריקה שיצאו לעצמאותן כמה שנים קודם, אך סיירה לאון היתה מדינה מתקדמת יותר מאחרות, אחת הראשונות לעצמאות כמושבת עבדים משוחררים… יש למדינה הסטוריה אחרת, אך לצערנו, הווה ועתיד כמו למדינות אחרות באיזור שגם אם הן עשירות ובעלות פוטנציאל, תמיד איכשהו נופלות בידי קומץ המוצץ מהן את מה שיש להם להציע ישירות לכיסם הפרטי. בשביל לבכות על עוד מדינה, יש ספר מצויין שכתב עינותאי בריטי, על מדינה אחרת – קונגו – ובעברית קוראים לספר נהר דם. ספר ממש מצויין. יותר טוב מהספר על הודו וסין. קורע לב.

    Comment by Ahuvik — December 14, 2010 @ 03:50 | Reply

    • The India-China book, while it included some useful tips is failing because the writer, it seems, was interested in how to manipulate the people… from my point of view he looks down at both nations, has no love or compassion about their value set, beliefs… as such while he got most of the facts right, he missed the spirit. do you know the name of the Congo book? “river of blood”?
      re Sierra Leone, regardless how hard i tried to dig, it seems that the intent of the government are good, and they really want to do right by their people. true democracy for as long as their can maintain it.

      Comment by yael wagner — December 14, 2010 @ 05:05 | Reply

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