Yes, my desire for mouthfuls of the finger-licking, egusi-laden sorrel, commonly referred to as plasas, contributed to my unlawful act.
Before my hour-long drive to the meal in which this traditional Krio sauce would be served, I stopped to buy petrol at a Safecon station in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The year 2018. I had returned to my birth country from the U.S. for a year-long teaching stint at Fourah Bay College. Service to my alma mater had motivated me to make the move, but while I gave back professionally, I also took back—nutritionally, of course. I gobbled up local Sierra Leonean dishes, fruits, and delicacies I had not eaten in many years. As part of that return to back-home food, my cousin, a legendary cook, invited me to a Saturday lunch of sawa sawa cooked in chuckling palm oil.
Yes, I’m talking about that luscious-red oil the western media told us increases cholesterol and causes heart attacks. The bad-mouthing worked. West Africans, especially those living in the diaspora, abandoned their centuries-old organic oil, rich in vitamin E, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, and naturally occurring trans-fats for the non-native olive oil. Stop this cultural backsliding! Let’s return to our culinary roots and support local farmers by designating the eating of African greens cooked in palm oil as contributions to national development.
Kᴐt di sawa. Was am. Stim am: 10 minits
To get to the destination where I would do my national service, I first had to exit the petrol station. This involved merging into a single-lane turntable. Unfortunately, at two o’clock in the anticlockwise flow, a motley group of okadas, motorcycle taxies, had blocked the road—and their drivers ignored me. I boiled at their flagrant disregard for my right of way.
Bwɛll kaw bɛllɛ, kaw fut en bif: 30 minits
Of course, I could have confronted these youths, but having seen them instantly switch from being calm to feral, I opted for national service instead. I turned sharp left, accelerated clockwise into oncoming traffic, and slammed on my breaks at the curb-cut. A police officer, right palm held high and open, signaled me to stop. He motioned that I should park by the pavement and get out of the car. I did. Sun-weary pedestrians watched our face-off:
Ad paymayn, yabas, pɛpɛ, sᴐlt, orgiri, egusi. Mix dɛm: 10 minits
I handed over my American driver’s card. The officer flinched but prosecuted Sierra Leone law.
“Charge one. Driving into oncoming traffic.”
“B-b-but they blocked me!” I pointed to the ragged okada assembly.
“Two. Reckless driving.
The okadas revved their engines, broke clockwise around the turntable, and zipped past the officer and me.
“Charging them, too?”
Affirmative noises gurgled from the onlookers.
Ad paymayn, yabas, pɛpɛ, sᴐlt, orgiri, egusi. Mix dɛm: 10 mints
“Let’s go to the station,” he said and opened the passenger-side door. It occurred to me to say no, but, like me, the officer looked eager to get out of the sun into the cool breeze of the car’s air conditioner. Perhaps in a more hospitable environment, he would be more understanding.
“Drive,” he pointed to the road ahead. I did and wondered at the absurdity of driving myself to jail.
In the hot and airless substation charging room, I simmered, waiting for the officer.
He walked in and slammed a sheet on the table.
“Six charges, including inciting ridicule of a law officer. How do you plead?”
“Come on, I do that in court.”
“Or you can pay a fine now.”
His voice was low, subdued, but the invitation stood out like the last chunk of meat on a communal eating tray.
We eyed each other: individual need or national service?
Ad kᴐt sawa lif, kuta, bonga ᴐr kini. Sima. 10 minutes
Then the officer spoke.
“I have the discretion to charge or let you go. Unlike some of your brothers from overseas, you behaved yourself.” He handed over my license.
Slo faya. Lɛh i tɛh sotay i krimi. 10 minits. Sav!
My release was unexpected, the sawa mouth-watering, the kaw fut bonemarrow delicious, and the after-meal conversation heartwarming. I felt at home. Still, I could not quite rid my mind of the way in which the police officer, the okada drivers, and I had handled our individual needs in the face of the law. Another sign of being home?
Pede Hollist is a Sierra Leonean-born professor of English and fiction writer at The University of Tampa, Fl. USA. This piece narrates one of his experiences in Sierra Leone as a Fulbright scholar. He is an avid sports fan.