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America in my eyes

June 12, 2015 By Amadu Lamrana Bah

My trip to the United States of America in May 2015 was my second travel out of Sierra Leone as a journalist. I travelled to the Peoples Republic of China in 2011 on the invitation of the Chinese Embassy in Freetown for a three weeks course on new media development, but my trip to the United States for a month was exceptionally wonderful.

I was in the United States as one of the accredited journalists from across the world to cover the 2015 World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings in Washington DC (April 17th-19th 2015). The World Bank/IMF Spring meetings bring together Boards of Governors of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) annually to discuss the work of their respective institutions. The annual meetings, which generally take place in September/October, have customarily been held in Washington for two consecutive years and in another member country in the third year. Each Spring thousands of government officials, journalists, civil society organisations and invited participants from academia and the private sector gather in Washington DC for the Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the IMF.

My journey to the United States actually came as a surprise to me and many of my colleagues because it happened so fast. In early April 2015, Sheriff Ismail – who was the then Communications Officer of the World Bank Office in Freetown, shared the opportunity of applying for accreditation to cover the 2015 World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings in Washington DC and as he is one of my mentors, he ensured that I applied. Fortunately, following daily correspondences, I was accredited to cover the meetings.

I left Freetown on Wednesday 15th April via Brussels Airlines for a transit to Brussels before arriving at the Washington Dulles International Airport on Thursday 16th April. Our flight landed at around 12 midday and those of us coming from the three Ebola-affected countries in West Africa were told to follow one of the immigration officers to a makeshift Ebola screening centre after we were assured not to worry about our luggage. Our temperatures checked, we were told to sit and wait. After waiting for about three hours my name was announced to go pick up my envelope. Enclosed was a mobile phone to be checking me daily for 21 days, a thermometer to be checking my temperature, and a book where I should be filling my temperature in the morning and evening. After being schooled on how to use the thermometer, I was told to go pick my luggage and leave. The Americans and their contact tracing strategy seem to work well for them.

As exhausted as we were from our long flight from Brussels it took us three hours sitting at the airport just because of Ebola, but the excitement of stepping my feet on the shores of the great United States of America gave me some solace.

As early as 6am I woke up on Friday April 17th with a lot of anticipation, reason being the Spring gathering was the biggest international event I was going to cover. I left my hotel for downtown DC and went straight to the World Bank building where I was directed to the registration centre – a short walk away on the other side of the road. Within five minutes I got registered and was handed my press card. I returned to the Press Centre at the World Bank building and caught up with the planned post Ebola recovery round table meeting that was attended by Presidents of the three Ebola affected countries. The meeting focused on raising funds for the three affected countries in their post Ebola recovery strategies following the submission of a Marshall Plan of US$8 billion, which is expected to bring the three countries to full recovery after the outbreak.

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, who also chaired the meeting, announced a new support of US$650 million to the three affected countries, whilst pledges were made by other development partners present at the meeting. A presser followed after the meeting at the press room but unfortunately we were not allowed to ask questions, which I found very strange.

The conference was an eye-opener as it helped me to network with colleagues from across the world at the Press Centres at both the World Bank and IMF buildings. I learnt how busy we can be running against time to do our stories and send them back home. I met with a TV crew from Ethiopia who were so nice that I almost became one of them, helping them with their stuffs. It was a worthwhile experience on covering international events that are very intense.

After the roundtable conference on Ebola which was of more interest to those of us from the Ebola affected countries, I went straight off to the Press Centre at the IMF building where I was to settle down and do my story for the radio and newspapers. But as I settled down after finishing a bottle of water, my laptop computer refused switching on even when I repeatedly pressed the power button. I sat there confused, thinking of what to do next. The computers at the Press Centre did not have adobe editing software and I was to send a packaged report for Star Radio back home. With no sign of my laptop coming on after ten minutes, I settled for a news article for the newspapers which I did from one of the many available laptops at the Press Centre.

Meanwhile, Abdulai Bayraytay from the Office of the Government Spokesman in Sierra Leone was very helpful in moving with me from the Quality Inn Hotel, where we were coincidentally staying together, to DC where I was attending the meetings. He has a US driver’s license and was using a rented car to move around.

On Friday evening after doing my story I decided to go for a walk around and see places till 5pm when Bayraytay would come pick me up. It was past 5pm and I was at the planned meeting point to wait on Bayraytay. But after waiting for about two hours he called to say he couldn’t make it as he was still busy with some meetings. I was left on my own in Washington DC, a total stranger in the cold until a friend rescued me.

My stay around the two magnificent buildings ended on Saturday with a climax of the Earth Summit and I was to leave my hotel on Sunday. I was going to be all on my own to explore the United States of America where I planned to spend a month. A week of work and three weeks of vacation, networking and meeting friends.

After settling down, my vacation started with David Vandi – a seasoned broadcaster who works for the Voice of America as host of the popular African Beat that showcases African music; and also a producer of other programs. I have been a great fan and admirer of Uncle David as I fondly call him. He has been an inspiration and role model whom I have been yearning to meet and fortunately it happened and it was in the USA.

A week after settling down on a Friday afternoon, Uncle David drove from his office in DC to Laurel, Maryland where I was staying to pick me up so that we could move around. I have been a fan since Uncle David was working back home, especially during his time at SKYY 106.6. And I followed him to the Voice of America where I almost always send him messages and contributions. On that fateful Friday I met him and I was so excited. We spent the rest of the day together from Laurel to DC at the Voice of America Headquarters where I could not enter because I was not with my passport. He took me down to Capitol Hill, back to Virginia to his home where I met his beautiful wife; and DC again where we attended the ‘Made In Salone’ event at Club Bliss. Uncle David was so nice and I enjoyed every moment with him. It was a dream come true meeting him.

My night at Bliss Night Club ended with mixed feelings. I linked up with some childhood and cyber friends. Alusine Yansaneh whom I have heard a lot about was around. He is a household name around DMV. I heard he has been very helpful to many young people. We had fun and I ended in the company of two of my area guys – Ishmael Cham and Ahmid Tarawally; it was a Kissy connection.

After a week in Maryland with my superb host Ibrahim Mansaray, formerly of Radio Democracy 98.1 FM (will not forget the usual buffet), I was going to move to Delaware to stay with the Johnsons, which turned out to be my best during my month-long stay. I met with Sia Johnson during her long visit to Sierra Leone in 2013; we became friends and she is now my fiancée. She is one of the most amiable persons I have ever met. Sia had to drive down to Laurel to pick me up on a weekend to her home at Delaware. I was welcomed with a warm hug from Sia’s Mom, Susan Johnson; a surprise one at that especially when some folks were thinking everyone from Sierra Leone has Ebola. She was amazingly kind and motivating. Sia did all she could to make me happy, from taking time off her job, taking me to places on sightseeing to shopping.

I enjoyed the potato and cassava leaves we cooked, and I missed that so much during my stay in Maryland. Kamryn, Sia’s 2 year-old daughter, was a source of happiness. She drilled me every day with lots of fun; how I miss her. I always wanted to go somewhere like a beach scene, so my host planned a weekend take out to Rehoboth Beach – a long drive from home and even though the weather was not consistent, we had fun which extended to Sunday with some family friends who drove from afar as well. The Johnsons were warm and friendly and I appreciated their hospitality so much. I miss Subrina’s Pizza, the ribs and the cookies she kept for me but ended up eating.

I will not for obvious reasons compare the United States of America to my beloved Sierra Leone. The US of A is a well informed country where transparency and accountability is the norm. A country where the rule of law and justice are fundamental. A country with opportunities if you are hard working; a country where the leaders are not seen as demi-gods but servants who respect their people and lead by example.

During my stay I learnt that they enjoy free speech to an extent that people with different views can sit in a studio and argue out their points respectfully in the interest of the nation and good governance. There, America comes first, and that’s the beauty of that great country.

Staying home almost all of the time I enjoyed and learnt a lot from the local media in their coverage of the Baltimore protests. Fox News, MSNBC, CNN America are all doing it their own way with experts analysis and people who are ready to talk and not being afraid. I have learnt that the Baltimore protests or riots were an indication that there is still racism and other issues that have to do with poverty in America, but as well there is a system that can handle such situations promptly.

However, all is not lost. I still have hope that things will change in our beloved country but that will only happen when we choose better leaders and as Umaru Fofana, one of my role models and mentor, would always say – ‘we need to fix our House of Parliament to solve our Leadership problem’.

I am back home to contribute in my own way as a media practitioner.

Yes there is hope – and I still believe in Sierra Leone; the only place I will always call home.

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