Wednesday, January 16, 2013 (Day 7)
Makeni's scraggy stray dogs lay lazily by the side of the road; many still sleeping or just about mustering up enough energy to give themselves a half decent morning clean with their smelly tongues. The last of the school children are on their way to class; dressed in immaculate bright blue or red or green school uniforms. This is the best part of the day. I am walking to work not long after eight o'clock. The air is still fresh and low on Saharan sand and there is still a light breeze with a hint of coolness in it which makes everything feel comfortable, optimistic and mellow. Not a hint of the awful sweat I will suffer later in the day. It is a ten-minute walk to the Restless Development office in the New London district of Makeni where I live. Restless Development is a youth-led development agency which has kindly allowed volunteers from the Collective to use some of their office space to charge computers and phones, to write reports, conduct meetings and, if I can find out how, check emails in some internet friendly side room. For me it is all about the electricity. That is the single most problematic issue I have thus far experienced because I have no sooner charged my computer when it is flat again after a couple of hours of computer use at the house. The generator is on at home from around 7 until 8 in the evening so it is a small window of opportunity for working and/or reading in the light or taking advantage and having a decent bucket shower. Last night I wasted some of that blessed 60 minutes with a post-work Guinness on the porch, listening to the locals go about their lives after the sun went down.
Bob meets me at Restless Development at 9.30. One of the CBF co-ordinators is going to take us to see the preparation work for an upcoming community project. Themed community projects are another part of the work of the CBF and participation in these is compulsory for all teams competing in the league.
It is almost 11 when we get to the school and unfortunately turning up late means we cannot meet the head because he is in a teachers' meeting. A lack of transport means a lot of time is wasted walking from school to school.
At the second school we visit, the head is very happy with CBF's contribution and is keen to continue supporting us and for the project to keep improving. Several kids ask how they can join the league while other older children inquire if an Under 16s league might be considered once the kids have graduated from the under 14s level. Currently, once they have finished at under 14s the CBF has no further involvement with the children, which seems like a bit of a shame on first impressions. There is a danger that a rival under 16 league might be set up which would be based purely on winning and 'farming' the best players, rather than with the intention of offering the kids the opportunity to build a better life for themselves through sport and education.
Back at the office I write up blogs and reports for four hours. It is cool in here and blessed with reliable electricity. I can even make a cup of coffee or tea when I feel like it. During the afternoon, I meet young Ahmed Kamara, who wanders into the office and is absolutely delighted to have his first ever type of a computer keyboard, writing his name and then changing it to bigger and different fonts until the name 'Ahmed' seems to take on a brand new, much more significant identity. He also clicks on some travel photos and videos of me in Patagonia and grabs his friend Thomas to show him the unbelievable sight of an Argentine glacier. Thomas hangs around a bit longer and ends up playing Bejewelled, eventually departing after getting the hang of it and smashing his previous record of 750 points with a whopping 12,250. He leaves a happy looking young boy.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 (Day 6)
We stroll past three elegant two-storey mosques that remind me a little of images of Mali or Niger or some other North African state where Islam is prevalent and all the buildings still look like they belong to a bygone past.
Our second school visit of the day is to MCA (Makeni Comprehensive Academy). Our arrival is a little mistimed because the younger kids are about to knock off for the day to be replaced by the senior children. We still manage though to visit some of the classes for a quick on-the-spot school attendance check and I get to introduce myself to a second school head.
On our way back to the co-ordinator's house we get a vitamin C hit from some oranges we buy by the dusty roadside. You pay to have the skin peeled off and the top cut away so that you can simply suck out the juice. Bob and Esther laugh at my amateurish efforts. Esther also buys us some small bags of delicious ground nuts to munch on for lunch.
Back at the house I am waning badly. The heat has completely done me. Bob takes me to the Restless Development office to introduce me to the staff there. This NGO is kindly allowing us to use some of their office space to work in each day. One very important factor is that they also have a constant supply of electricity.
After this I quickly nip home for a lie down in the shade. My head has no sooner hit the pillow than I am into a deep thirty minute sleep which ends with a three thirty alarm call.
Bob takes me to the police barracks football pitch to watch a coaching session, passing the popular Flamingo night club on the way, which rather conveniently has a cheap and cheerful motel located ten yards across the street. There is also a 150-euro per night hotel a few yards further away for anybody wishing to large it.
Moses has been awarded the best coach award for the past three seasons. I am not surprised to hear this. Everything about Moses says football: his physique, appearance, body language. This lad is totally focussed on what he is doing. He is strict with the boys in a not-taking-any-shit kind of way but is also able to be kind and considerate. You also just know by looking at Moses that he is also a very good footballer. Many African players are flare and strut but this boy looks like an old pro who would quickly steal the ball away from anybody trying to do an unnecessary step over or shimmy. It is fitting that this man should be head of the coaches and a member of the steering committee.
There are two dozen boys present either playing as under 12s or under 14s. The main focus of Moses' session is close ball control, dribbling and short passing. I would love to see how European kids would get on trying to play on gravel, pot-holed surfaces like this. Most of them wouldn't be able to keep a ball under control, never mind run with it seemingly glued to their feet.
Moses very kindly allows me to spend twenty minutes coaching the boys. The thing that strikes me is that the boys are extremely focussed. When I talk to them there is none of the giggling or excitement that you usually get from young African boys when a white man turns up to play football with them. On the contrary, the boys listen intently and then redirect their eyes to Moses when he gives a second explanation in Krio of what I have just said.
My coaching exercise involves the boys 'playing through the thirds', an excellent drill I first picked up watching my mate Dav train Hinckley United's under 7s a few months ago. This means dividing the pitch up into three sections with the middle section only for midfield players, who must tackle and pass the ball through to their lone attacker's sector without ever leaving their area of play. I am particularly impressed by the boys' ball control and intelligent passing choices.
After football coaching, Bob and I stroll back to the Restless Development office as I know how to find my way home from here. On this occasion I decide to jog home so that I make it back in time for our pre-arranged 6.30 meal of rice, boiled eggs and a spicy 'special sauce'.
Kate and Jayne have had a frustrating day with many of the people they wanted to meet having been in meetings. It is the first time I have heard Yorkshire Jayne so quiet. She says she is just knackered from the heat and work. Later on she tells me she has received the fantastic news that she will be a grandmother for the second time next summer and we celebrate with a cold beer each. She has also heard that the UK is covered in snow and that one of her relative’s communities in Yorkshire has been cut off. 'SNOW CHAOS BRINGS UK TO A STANDSTILL' the Daily Express will no doubt have as a headline today. Alasand nips out to buy me a Guinness from a street vendor and I finally have a decent cold bucket shower for the first time in three days. Before the generator is switched off I read a couple more chapters of 'Capital' by John Lanchester, a book that is a very easy read and I am really enjoying. It is the kind of novel I wish I could write. I struggle to read novels when I am in my normal day to day life but whenever I am 'travelling' I suddenly love to read.
Just as I am nodding off to sleep Esther sends me an SMS asking how I thought the day went with the observing of the schools. I was very impressed with her attitude to the project today and her determination to improve the positive impact of the CBF league in Makeni. I was equally impressed by a number of her Salone colleagues.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 (Day 6)
Northampton Town have built a massive new stand for their Sixfields stadium, which easily dwarfs the main stand at Old Trafford, but those of us present at their League Two match are incredulous to the fact that you cannot see most of the pitch from up here where the opponent's goal is blocked by scaffolding. The stand is also covered by a foot of snow. It started blizzarding a few minutes ago and it hasn't stopped. I glance around me and find Barack Obama, who has slipped over in the snow and is in danger of being marooned in Northampton's top tier, pull him up and tell him he should move his arse or he will miss the rest of the match. And, just then, I hear the Imam (Alasand's dad as it turns out) make the call to prayer and I realise I am not in a snowbound Northampton with the warmongering US president but inside a mosquito net in northern Sierra Leone where it is 5am and 28 degrees. Some of the dreams I have had since I started taking the antimalarial Larium have been unbelievably vivid and silly.
Last night's panic has subsided. I hear Kate showering, Ben running in and out of the toilet (with a bad case of the runs) and Famarta (who will cook us two meals per day during our time here) bring in the breakfast. There is a brief cool breeze at around six which has me cranking my neck towards the window and trying to suck the air into the room.
Makeni Alex picks me up and walks me to one of the coordinator's houses where I meet Alimamy, Esther, Aminata and Abu. We introduce ourselves and I ask them to ask me a few questions so that they can get to know me better. It is also an interesting tactic for better understanding the psychology of the locals. In some countries nobody would ever ask you a direct question in this situation. Esther goes straight in, all guns blazing, and asks me why I won't use the ocada riders to travel around town. I tell her I don't want to ride around on the back of motorbikes, without a helmet, on dangerous potholed tracks. If I have an accident the insurance wouldn't cover me and, more importantly, I don't want to take the risk. It is going to be a pain in the arse for everybody, but they are going to have to walk everywhere with me for the next six weeks.
The next question is 'Why have you come to Sierra Leone to work?' And 'What are you going to do here?' Clearly the locals have no problem in being straight and upfront. I like that. I tell them I have no wife, kids, mortgage or full-time job and I just felt that this was a good opportunity to break away from my life in Europe and to try to do something that might help a few people. It is important for me that those I am working with understand that I am not here for a holiday and that if I return to Europe without achieving much I will be very disappointed. I also explain to them that I have spent a large sum of money to come here, given up my lovely flat I was renting and lost the best part of three months' income (if you include the upheaval of Christmas). I don't tell them this so that somebody might big me up but because I want them to understand that I am serious about this and want to be treated as such.
Esther, Bob and I leave the others and set off for Every Nation Academy, where we meet the new link teacher i.e. the teacher the CBF will use to communicate directly with between the league and the school. Any footballer who wants to play in the CBF league must regularly attend school. And our unannounced visit is to check up on whether any of the CBF boys at this school are bunking off or not. All of the boys who should be at school are present.
It is also an opportunity for me to introduce myself to the head of the school and to ask him how he feels the school's relationship with the CBF is working. He tells me that he is very happy, particularly as the relationship is allowing him to rebrand his school as an educational establishment that promotes sport.
Monday, January 14, 2013 (Day 5)
They say the road from Freetown is good all the way up-country until you get to within 200 metres of Makeni because it is the President's hometown and the local population would vote for him here regardless of whether they have roads or not. On first impressions Makeni is rather more dusty and chaotic than I had envisaged from the descriptions of others. On one particularly dusty stretch of road our car stalls and cannot be restarted. All of us jump out to push it down the road, helped by a crowd of bystanders. God, it is hot. Shockingly hot.
After rice and omelette at a streetside restaurant, Dorset Alex drives us to the place that will be house and home for the next six weeks or so for me, two weeks for Jayne and three months for Kate. I can't say I have ever resided for more than a handful of days at any one time in a suburb of a city that looks quite like this before but it does feel safe and the house, I must admit, is far better than what I had expected. It is inside an unguarded mini-compound which, although it wouldn't exactly hold back an invading army, is reasonably difficult to get into without alerting many of the people who live close by. Some employees of the Africa Mining company live just up the road and the New London Mosque is also only 200 metres away, suggesting there shouldn't be too many scallywags hanging around this part of town.
Makeni Alex and Bob come to welcome me at the house. They are two local lads who will be my main men during my time here working with the Craig Bellamy Foundation. During our first conversation I only understand about thirty percent of what they are saying to me, that is how strong their dialect is. I don't tell them this, hoping I am going to quickly work it out in the coming days.
The boys take me up to the Wusumi Sports stadium where a super nice artificial pitch was put down about a year ago, financed by FIFA. We have a brief kick about amongst ourselves before one of the local teams comes on to train. I am already fantisizing about training on here with a local team once per week if it is possible. This was always the home pitch of the Wasum Stars but apparently they have fallen on bad times and a London Mining sponsored team is now the top team in town.
Many of the roads in Makeni are a mess in that rural African way, with some of them only just fully recovering from the rainy season. I have to say though that many of the local population live in pretty decent houses; a far cry from the corrugated shanty towns Africa is sometimes notorious for. Quite a few of these homes are actually more decent than the dilapidated terraced houses in some deprived parts of the UK.
Dorset Alex walks Jayne, Ben, Kate and I up to some street bars by the main road, opposite the petrol station, where the arrival of two huge Total tankers is causing quite a stir of excitement. This appears to suggest the fuel crisis is over.
Necking a cold Guinness while the others natter, I suddenly endure a mini panic attack. I am desperately struggling with the heat, dust, noise, darkness and chaos and am fleetingly taken by the feeling that I have absolutely no desire at all to be here. It goes something like: Oh my God, what the hell are you doing here Justin?
I know all this will pass and I bet myself twenty quid I will somehow end up loving the place but, when I hear young, impressionable Kate so amazingly excited by all of it - when for me much of it seems quite testing - I start to question whether I am too old or too something else for all of this. You have to laugh because right on cue a street fight breaks out on the road in front of us. Dorset Alex says it is only the second such fight he has ever seen. I believe him but it doesn't help my spinning head. And then some bloke makes our acquaintance and starts complaining about the sins of the colonial British and how everybody now speaks English instead of Temne. I know he's got a point and if my head wasn't spinning so much or he wasn't so obviously drunk I'd have the little chat he wants.
Instead, we swiftly pile in a taxi home where I cannot sleep for hours and hours. All I can hear inside my ultra-humid mosquito net are lizzards slurping, dogs barking, local kids laughing, my housemates weeing, mosquitos buzzing and mobile phones ringing.
Monday, January 14, 2013 (Day 5)
John Obey - Waterloo - Lunsar
Waterloo is chaotic and frantic. Unfortunately, the fuel crisis still has a grip over the country and all the petrol stations are without fuel and closed. This is rather problematic as we are travelling up-country today to Makeni, where Jayne, Kate and I will be based. The official price of petrol is 4500 a litre (roughly 66 pence). The government subsidizes this and rumours are that this fuel shortage has been artificially manufactured by the state so that when new price increases kick in the locals will just be happy to have any fuel at all and accept the higher rate without too many protests or problems.
The thing is though that you can always buy a litre of fuel, here and there, at the side of the road from business-minded hoarders. Fuel shortages are a way of life and some people make a living by selling on petrol at hugely inflated prices when the shortages kick in. Dorset Alex buys a couple of litres for 6000 apiece in Waterloo so we can continue on our way.
At the armed vehicle checkpoint, on the road east, the police take a look inside the car and point to a can next to the gear stick. "You are drink driving!"
"Yes, but it is Coca Cola"
"Yes, but I don't know what is inside the can"
Alex smiles and shrugs.
"Okay, Okay. Have a nice day," The policeman concedes, dropping the rope to the road so that we can continue on. This is apparently as close as Dorset Alex ever gets to paying a bribe: a vague suggestion that he has broken the law that is made more in doubtful hope than as a genuine threat. "It is one of the policies of the Collective that we never ever pay a bribe to anyone." Alex emphasises as we reach a hill pass that was once a key strategic stronghold of the notorious West Side Boys during the civil war.
Up-country it is immediately noticeably hotter; the lush green vegetation rapidly turning more of a brown as it is zapped day by day by plus thirty degree temperatures. As well as rising temperatures we are also having to contend with rising fuel prices. 'Eight thousand'; 'Twelve thousand' are the latest quotes for single bottles of roadside petrol as the petrol gauge flashes a disturbingly red colour. If you'd told me one day I would be sat in the back of a car in Sierra Leone about to run out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, you would have scared the living daylights out of me. In all honesty though I don't feel much more bothered by it than I would do at home. I am only reflecting on the possible inconvenience rather than any threat to our personal security.
I am just thinking to myself that an awful lot of fields near Lunsar have been slashed and burned when Dorset Alex pipes up:
"Right you lot, I think it is time you all started visualising lots of fuel for seven thousand in the next town or we might be calling it a night there. We are almost out of fuel."
And so it came to pass. Ten litres back-of-the-netted at 7000 per bottle.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Back at Tribe Wanted it is time for our final training session on the subjects of cross-cultural awareness and health & safety. Various potential work and social scenarios are imagined. After that Doctor Jack gives us the all-important lowdown on various health matters including malaria prevention and water-borne diseases.
I like that none of this has been superficial. Charlie and Dorset Alex, the bosses of the Collective, are not hippies or pretentious good doers or - worse still - charlatans. That was a potential fear I had about all this before I came out here; of wasting good time and money with a bunch of people who are not who you would wish them to be. But, after spending four days together, it is totally apparent that everybody - including the new batch of volunteers - is here for the right reasons and with good hearts.
Charlie, Doctor Jack (who puts me in mind of Russel Brand to such a degree that I think I might be tripping on palm wine), German Daniela and the crew depart for Freetown leaving only Ben, Dorset Alex, Jane, Kate and I. I take advantage of the low key vibe for the remainder of the day and watch the sun set from a horizontal position in a well-positioned hammock. As the moon begins its new cycle and the evening air cools, I find myself lifted by John O’Calaghan and Armin van Buuren tunes; a chilled bottle of Guinness special export in the palm of my hand. Beginning and ending my time in Sierra Leone with a holiday seems like the perfect way to first assimilate and then say 'adieu'.
The remainder of the evening is spent under the stars discussing why we are doing what we are doing; what we want to achieve; and our individual belief systems. I retire for bed with a few of the girls and boys who have come down for the weekend still sat around the crackling beach fire. Normally I'd be all over this and be the last man standing but I feel the need to be sensible and to remember why I am here.
Sunday, January 13, 2013 (Day 4)
Sierra Leone only gets about 8,000 tourists per year. And only another 28,000 visit Sierra Leone annually as part of its diaspora and/or to visit friends and relatives. I think it is fair to say that this country is a little off the radar of mainstream tourism, which makes it feel even more 'real' as we relax for a couple of days by the most stunning piece of coast in all of West Africa.
Today we are hanging out at an eco-surf resort at a village down the coast called Bureh. This place surpasses John Obey for 'stunning-ness' although it lacks the wonderfully peaceful intimacy of Tribe Wanted.
Many expats come down here at the weekends for the cool breeze, left-hand breaks and mountain-backed coastal landscape. On this occasion a big mob of Welsh engineers descend on the beach bar not long after we arrive, the younger lads, dressed in replica shirts, playing football on the beach with local boys, while the majority forty and fifty-something Welsh lads are all drinking beer, bantering with one another and roaring aloud with laughter. Most of these fellas aren't the kind of people you'd probably want to run into in a bar back home after they have had a few beverages - each bloke must have fifty tattoos on average - but they remain perfectly well behaved during our time at Bureh.
Local villagers flock down the beach giving perspective to the world-class backdrop. On the second Sunday of the year, Sierra Leonians in the south of the country make a pilgrimage to the cemeteries where they remember their departed relatives. I guess Libation Sunday is their equivalent of the November 1 'Day of the Dead' that is celebrated in many countries around the world.
The river feeding the sea is like one of those fast flowing slides you see at expensive water parks across Europe. Locals and the odd westerner jump in and are instantly swept downstream towards the open sea. The ferocity of the current is astounding and I am content to watch everybody having fun rather than risk having a near-death drowning experience. Sure enough, both Ben and Kate end up getting ankles and toes slashed by rocks as they are transported out to the shoreline. Fortunately though it is nothing serious.
Saturday, January 12, 2013 (Day 3)
It is a weary-eyed breakfast at seven filling up on carbs before we pile into the back of a truck - five of us inside and seven clinging on in the back outside - and drive out to the base of the mountain, picking up baguettes, Laughing Cow cheese, ground nut, boiled eggs and a couple dozen packets of water at a village we pass on the way. The petrol station there is still out of fuel.
We play with a bunch of local kids by the hiking entrance, who provide a fantastic photo opportunity and the chance to try out a bit of Krio for the first time?
"Aw di bodi?"
"Di bodi fine."
The hike is relatively comfortable with the track easily passable and only strenuous in the later stages where the terrain is steep and rocky. Fortunately, we have set off early enough to avoid the worst of the heat and, with altitude, the temperature drops a further degree or two. Birds are the main form of wildlife we spot; a dozen or more different species. We reach the peak in two hours twenty going up, smashing the previous record for new volunteer groups. To be fair though, this is arguably the easiest time of the year to make the hike with no rain or scorching temperatures. We all pose for a team photo at the peak, which boasts a 360-degree panoramic view of the peninsula, including John Obey down by the coast. Then we each perch ourselves on Picket Hill's black volcanic rocks and stuff boiled eggs and Laughing Cow cheese triangles inside big white baguettes, guzzle water from pocket-sized bags and soak in a few of the sun's rays, which helps dry the sweat on everybody's T-shirts. Hundreds of swifts swoop and soar above us from their vantage point above the peninsula's highest point.
As is usually the case, the hike back is far more difficult and far less enjoyable. The old knees are in agony and from time to time I find myself tripping on a vine or stumbling over a hidden tree stump or rock. Di bodi doesn't feel quite so fine now. We take a different route for the final part of the hike, which necessitates us crossing a river before we can finally make it to the road for our lift home. It has taken nearly three and a half hours for the return leg.
Back at Tribe Wanted it is Saturday night which means beer and palm wine by the beach fire. It is the dark of the moon tonight and the sky seems to overspill with stars. Di bodi now feel fine once again.
Friday, January 11, 2013 (Day 2)
Tribe Wanted, John Obey
Afternoon training involves us focusing on our own individual goals. What are our personal reasons for being here and temporarily leaving our old lives behind us? Yes, what did make me wake up one day and decide I was going to move to Sierra Leone to volunteer for a couple of months? It is mental when you think about it.
With training finished by about six there is enough time before the sun goes down for me to take a second (longer) jog along the deserted peninsula. Out of sight of Tribe Wanted I take a break from my run to stop and look around at this beauty before my eyes. It is said that Sierra Leone is home to West Africa’s best beaches. But a world-class beach needs to be so much more than a vast pile of pretty sand and omnipresent crashing waves. Here at John Obey you have a gorgeous stretch of untouched beach with the crashing sea on one side of it and a totally calm lagoon on the other; framed by incredible lush rainforest and soaring mountains. I have to pinch myself (around the area where I put almost three kilos on over Christmas) that I am here. There is not a single place in Europe that I have seen that comes close to the six-star beauty in front of my eyes. I bet some of the world’s richest men have never set foot in a place as beautiful and untouched.
I finish my jog with another dip in the ocean and rinse the sand off in the bucket shower on the beach close to my tent. Dorset Alex and I recite our respective stories about living in Bournemouth, tell some of our more colourful travel stories and enjoy a sundowner Star Beer together watching the dusty sunset caused by the sands of the Sahara - the harmattan - that blow here in the atmosphere at this time of the year. Dinner is an absolute feast, especially for the non-vegetarians who dine on freshly caught fish washed down with white wine. I am the first to retire for the evening sensing that if I join the others by the camp fire I will drink far too much of that wine, talk far too much nonsense, fail to write my day’s blog and struggle to get up at 6.30 tomorrow morning for our six-hour hike to the summit of Picket Hill.
Friday, January 11, 2013 (Day 2)
One plane journey can change your life. It can be that simple. This thought consumes me, sand spraying up from my dirty toes, as I jog along a deserted Sierra Leone beach at 7.30 in the morning; dozens of giant crabs lined up where the waves break on the shoreline; black and white birds, which look like huge magpies, squawking noisily overhead. I had the most delicious night’s sleep I have had in months, camped out under the stars in a two-man tent to the accompaniment of a rainforest orchestra and the crashing waves. I spent much of yesterday feeling noticeably spaced out but, this morning, with much of my travel fatigue gone, I am able to truly appreciate this big slice of paradise before my eyes.
Half a dozen of us enjoy breakfast together on a long wooden table thirty metres from the sea. Tribe Wanted’s cooks serve up a plate full of tasty omelettes (prepared on a stove set atop a small fire), which are washed down with cups of Nescafe and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Groundnut is spread thickly over freshly baked white baguettes; a trickle of wild honey added to awaken the taste buds and to set the new volunteers up for a day of training for our time here in Sierra Leone with the Collective.
A huge gangly green spider with ballet dancer’s legs makes my acquaintance in the Solar House where I take my phone and laptop to charge for the day so that I can write this blog in the evening just before I crash down for the night in my tent. Kate, Daniela, Ben and I meet Alex and Charlie for our first training session soon after everybody has finished off the last of the breakfast bananas and have had a quick dip in the ocean. We get cracking with some getting-to-know-you team-building games, one of which involves Kate and I competing against Ben and Daniela to see which of us is the fastest to get photos of the items written on the blackboard by the edge of the lagoon. The items are: spider-fish-flower-coconut-football shirt-chicken-fishing net-packet of Gold Red cigarettes-boat.
We find a clucking chicken sat in a wooden boat so that is a good start. Two ladies in the local village are cooking fish on an open stove. There are flowers blooming everywhere. Easy one. Kate and I are each camping underneath coconut trees. An empty packet of Gold Red cigarettes just happens to have been discarded close to one of the village’s fishing nets, where some friendly kids are playing. And, oh yes, I have a claret and white Northampton Town shirt to hand, meaning there is no need to go off in search of one of the football-mad locals. Ben and Daniela have beaten us back only to discover that they failed to spot the word ‘fish’ on the blackboard. Kate and I do a bad job of trying to contain our joy at beating them and claiming the victors’ prize of a bottle of red wine at dinner, only for me to realise that I also managed to miss the word ‘spider’ off the quickly scribbled down list I took with us. I think it was spotting the green spider around breakfast time that made me subconsciously leave it off the list. I am doing my conscious best to avoid spiders and suddenly Kate and I are running around trying to track one down. We ask the kitchen staff, who point us up to an intricate spider’s web in the ceiling of the community area.
Relationship-building exercises involving us revealing some of our personal highs and lows to our partners help to break any ice that wasn’t already broken, before we spend another hour addressing and debating any concerns or anxieties we might have about our time in Sierra Leone (mine are mainly to do with transport and basic health and security matters) as part of our in-country orientation. We talk through transport issues, social etiquette, health concerns and at least another dozen topics before discussing in more detail why we are here:
- To develop our organisations (in my case the Craig Bellamy Foundation) by providing skills and help
- To help individuals to grow (this will hopefully end up being a two-way process)
- To create positive stories coming out of Sierra Leone, which will hopefully encourage international investment and incoming tourism (I hope my blogs will achieve this for those of you that read some of them)
The name of the game is high expectations and positivity.
Daniel, who is from the Sherbro tribe (there are 17 tribes in total in SL), has come down to give us a talk about the history of his country and also an hour-long Krio language lesson.
I learn that Portuguese sailors, spotting the mountain close to where we are now staying, named this land 'Lion Mountain'. That was in 1462, a time when tribes lived on the coast and in the mountains of northern Sierra Leone. Freetown was founded by free-slaves, known locally as 'the captives', the British agreeing to land acquisition with tribes for free slaves. Eventually, much of the south became Christian due to the work of missionaries, while the north remained Muslim, greatly influenced by the Guinea Islamic state.
The demarcation of Sierra Leone from Guinea led to the colony being founded in 1901 and the birth of an independent nation in 1905. It wasn't until 1961 that Sierra Leone became independent of the British and, like so many newly independent post-colonial countries, the corruption and greed of a handful destroyed the collective needs of the many. The most significant event in the country's history was of course the Civil War that started here in 1991 and went on to claim more than 50,000 lives. I will reflect in more detail about the civil war in the coming weeks.
Daniel tells us that after the civil war people are more 'conscious' in their thinking and are more accepting of one another. They believe in founding organisations - for example, women's groups - that can improve the well being of their population.
We discuss lots more besides but I will also save some of that for another time before this particular daily report gets far too long and you lose interest.
Our Krio lesson is quite amusing. It is a bit like trying to learn a cross between archaic English and street rap:
How dee bodi? means 'How are you?'. Oh mos? is 'How much?'; Waka means 'walking'; beaucoup translates as 'plenty'.
Me name Justin. Ar dea look for football field (I am looking for the football field).
And, just like that, it is 2pm and time for lunch.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.