Freetown Golf Club (FTG). Saturday, May 18th, 2:03 p.m. – I was finishing some interviews for a feature article about Sierra Leone’s only golf club, when I saw something remarkable for a golf course; people running.
I had played the course a week before and enjoyed speaking with the friendly caddies and professionals. One young professional is about to head off the Senegal Open; his first competition outside of Sierra Leone, his first time abroad, his first opportunity to play a course other than FTG, and his first opportunity to putt on greens (FTG has “browns” rather than greens. They are flat surfaces made from sand and oil). A caddy also told me about how his father was shot in the back of the head during the war. He said it made him thankful for every day he could walk around a golf course, and be paid for it.
But my second visit to the club was proving to be less heart-warming, or inspirational. Players and caddies were running from the course, towards the clubhouse. A few hundred metres behind them, a group of young men followed with sticks and fire bombs. Caddies later told me that everyone ran after hearing gunshots, and they said the men had threatened to burn down the clubhouse.
A stand-off followed for a few minutes, with the the men and caddies at either side of a ditch. Some caddies told me they were glad that a friend was there to take pictures and make audio recordings. Armed with golf clubs, the caddies organised themselves and charged back, shouting “attack!” As I followed them down the fairway towards the other end of the course, all I could think of was the movie Braveheart. I thought it best not to be the William Wallace.
One caddy told me he could see a man with a gun, but my eyesight wasn’t sharp enough. He told me where I could safely stand to take photos. Moments later there were two sharp pops. We all fled back towards the clubhouse. The caddies ran in zigzag lines, low to the ground. They encouraged me to do as they did.
Back beside the clubhouse another caddy came up to me and said “A-K.” He had served in the army and said that the AK-47 has a distinct sound. He said he knew who was firing it too. Allegedly a member of the OSD – the paramilitary unit of the police force – who lives in the New Life City community, beside the course.
Around 50 police officers soon arrived and headed down to New Life City. We heard a series of gunshots from the community. When it calmed down, I went to New Life City, and saw that police made at least four arrests, including one man dressed in an army uniform. But by some accounts, the OSD officer had escaped.
Some newer houses were being torn down by men who appeared to be caddies. All in full view of the police. One of the arrested men was screaming and in tears. Residents showed me their ransacked houses and said police were to blame. Groups of young men took items from half-destroyed homes and brought them towards the golf course.
The club manager told me the situation arose because New Life City is built on golf club land. The houses had been ordered destroyed by a judge in March. Some were soon rebuilt. A surveyor had visited the site on Friday and had his equipment stolen. A subsequent visit by some police officers on Saturday seemed to have sparked the violence.
With the help of a colleague at Radio Democracy, I produced and co-wrote a radio report that he voiced in Krio. It aired that evening and again on Monday morning. On Monday night a caddy called me and complained about what the report had said about the alleged actions of some caddies. He said he thought we were friends.
One of the biggest problems for journalism in Sierra Leone is media ownership. Many media houses are funded by one of the two main political parties. Friends are not always criticized. I now understood how it felt to have to do so. I didn’t enjoy it. But here’s to more of that in Sierra Leone’s future.
Note: Despite Sierra Leone’s bloody past, gun violence like this is relatively rare in Freetown.