Thursday, February 21, 2013 (Day 43)
"So you will take diamonds back to the UK for me?"
This conversation is such a cliche that I cannot help but laugh. It is my final evening in Salone, and Charlie and Dorset Alex have taken me to a beach party at a bar on Lumley Beach.
The gentleman in question claims to be the son of a very important paramount chief from somewhere out east.
"You take diamonds to England for me; I make you very rich." This conversation is so reminiscent of a scene from the film 'Blood Diamonds' (a tale about diamonds and the civil war in Sierra Leone) that I look around to see whether Charlie or Alex or Jack have asked this bloke to wind me up for a laugh. Clearly they haven't.
"Listen my friend, unfortunately I fly to England tomorrow so it isn't possible."
"OK, when you come back we will discuss this." and with that my would be brother in crime gives me one of those characteristic triple Sierra Leonean handshakes, which ends with a knuckle-to-knuckle high five.
Without diamonds, it is highly unlikely that Charles Taylor could have plunged both Liberia and Sierra Leone into decades of conflict between 1989 and 2003. Diamonds were a source of wealth, entrapment and military funding which allowed the Western African civil wars to fester on for years, killing tens of thousands.
Many of my expat friends are here partying tonight, giving me the chance to have a final beer with the likes of Danielle and Doctor Jack.
When, in the midst of an alcoholic haze, a lady of the night asks me to go for a stroll on the deserted beach with her at around 1am, I am happy that Alex suddenly suggests we call it a night and go home. I think I will pass on the diamond smuggling and beach sex.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 (Day 42)
A few miles south of Makeni we pass a burnt out poda poda; another tragic road accident that probably had more to do with poor vehicle maintenance than a case of incompetent driving or bad roads. The road from Makeni to Freetown is actually excellent tarmac for much of the journey. The majority of vehicles on the road in Sierra Leone are old wrecks originating in Belgium and Holland, which would never pass their MOTs in Europe. Most still have their identifying country badge stickers - 'NL' or 'B' - stuck near the vehicle plates; more often than not there is a huge Madonna sticker covering half of the back window. Somebody must have bought a job lot and got rich off of a load of unwanted 20-year-old Madonna car stickers.
Billboards promoting HIV prevention awareness, Laughing Cow cheese and the relative merits of the competing mobile phone companies are omnipresent until we make our last brief stop en route to the capital.
The Masiaka-Lunsar highway crosses the Rokel River via a narrow bridge where a small community of hawkers entice those travelling up-country or down to the capital with their cheap and tasty delights. An unbelievably refreshing coconut makes an excellent late breakfast, helping to wash down a bag of delicious plantain chips I purchase at our beautiful stop off point.
Once we reach Waterloo the chaos and struggle of African urban life is all too apparent. The road from Waterloo to Kissy is traffic, chaos, colour and poverty. The population of Freetown surged with refugees during the civil war and the capital has never been able to cope with the doubling in its population. After the war ended, the majority of Sierra Leoneans stayed in Freetown and did not return home. And, as is the case in most capital cities across the world, Freetown continues to suck in those from the rural countryside dreaming of the riches and excitement of the big city. Many end up living in filthy slums where life is far worse than that they left behind. But they continue living in hope.
I jump out of the government bus at PZ where an elderly Muslim man, whom I was chatting to on the bus, helps me find a taxi to Murraytown. I get the taxi to myself for 10,000 leones and even get the added bonus of seeing the sights and sounds of Congo Town as we take the quieter route to Murraytown. I love the incredible energy of downtown Freetown but I am happy to observe the colourful and chaotic scenes of street trading from the window of my taxi.
It is extremely kind of Steph, Charlie and Dorset Alex to let me stay with them again for the second time. It has taken five hours to get to their house from Makeni. I have a lie down and fall into a deep peaceful afternoon sleep; later enjoying a couple of beers, pasta and good company with Dorset Alex and Charlie until it is time to crash out for the night.
Monday, February 4, 2013 (Day 26)
One of my greatest joys in Sierra Leone is walking to work passing by hundreds of kids on their way to school each morning. Quite how their parents keep them all looking so immaculately clean is beyond me in this heat and dust and with the lack of resources at their disposal. Girls wear pleated skirts and boys, some of them as old as 18, smart shorts. Because of the civil war, some school kids are as old as 21. The old-school school uniforms put me in mind of when I went to school as a young kid in the 70s.
Mercifully, primary education is now free in Sierra Leone with an estimated 70% of kids attending. For secondary education this drops to around 30% with this figure as low as 10% in rural areas. For this reason the CBF league deserves to be proud of its secondary school attendance rates of well above 90%. It is all a far cry from the mid-nineteenth century when the good people of this country were better educated than almost anywhere else in the world. In 1860 it is said that 22% of Sierra Leoneans were educated. In England, at that time, the figure was a pathetic 13%. In the pre-civil war days, Sierra Leonean university graduates were in demand all over Africa and beyond. It just shows how much the fortunes of a country can change. The beginning of the civil war in 1991 really was a ‘year zero’ for this nation. Participation in education can lead this country on the road to redevelopment.
Bob, Alex and I meet to prepare a letter asking a number of schools to allow us to run the homework club for the two coming weekends. I plan to host these homework clubs during the coming Fridays and Sundays and hope my participation will encourage other link teachers to join me, thus kick-starting the clubs.
Friday, February 1, 2013 (Day 23)
It is already February. Three weeks today I will be homeward bound. Strange question perhaps but have you ever considered how much water you use when you flush a toilet? I have: a lot. This is because every time I need to flush the toilet I must find a large bucket of water, carry it into the toilet, remove the top of the cistern, lift the bucket and pour it into the toilet unit until it is almost full. One flush and all of that water is gone. This process involves a truly stupid amount of water: litres and litres of the stuff every single time you flush the loo. It is another of those daily details we rarely need to concern ourselves with; to ever think about in the West.
Famarta sorts us out with a delicious omelette. She was up early lighting the charcoal fire and had it on the table for 7.15. With no running water washing the dishes and keeping the food bug-free is a full-time job. After applying a couple of squeezes of hand sanitizer to my fingers I fish the omelette into a baguette with a knife and spread in some peanut butter for good measure. Then I pour out a mug full of water from our thermos flask and sit out on the veranda watching Makeni wake up. It is pleasantly cool from around 5 or 6 until about 8.30. It is a real pleasure observing everybody in the streets and houses around us collecting water from wells; preparing breakfast; burning washing fires; getting ready for school, as smoke arches up into the pale sky and that strange, pleasantly sweet Sierra Leonean smell pervades the air. Kate and Charlotte are off to Freetown today for a break, leaving me home alone for the weekend. This causes me to suddenly be taken by the idea of taking today off and doing absolutely nothing else aside from lazing around all day. No, best get myself to the office. I could use today to get a load more of my blogs posted.
I watched the film ‘Contraband’ last night on my computer, much of it set in Panama. Strolling to work the high-five count from local kids reaches double figures and I reckon I am up to about twenty ‘Oporto, Oporto!’ by the time I reach Restless. I mention Panama because one thing that occurred to me last night was just how ‘soft’ most of Sierra Leone is in comparison to Central America. There aren’t the guns and knives on the streets here; towns are not controlled by drug cartels; no-go-zones are few and far between in comparison and, where they do exist, are completely different in nature and not actually ‘no-go-areas’ at all. Of course this is 2013, not 1991-2002 when unthinkable atrocities took place on a daily basis across this land. It just shows though how far Sierra Leone has travelled in certain senses. Yes, the country remains near the bottom of the UN Human Development index but just the fact that you can genuinely say ‘I feel really safe in Sierra Leone’ is a massive plus. I feel considerably safer walking the streets here than I could ever do in many parts of Central America.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013 (Day 21)
David Beckham stayed in Makeni once. Seems hard to believe but it is true. The former England football captain visited this town when he was working for UNICEF and is said to have ordered his driver to stop the car at one point so that he could indulge in a kick around with some local boys he spotted playing in the street. He did some very good work here and raised a lot of awareness for the people of Sierra Leone. Beckham stayed at MJ's motel across the street from Flamingo's night club. I thought about that today as I strolled past in the scorching sun and saw the club advertising its upcoming reggae night. The hotel was looted and vandalised during the civil war, in the days when Makeni became a stronghold of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The hotel reopened three years after the end of the civil war; Beckham visited three years later and now I am here, five years after Beckham, thinking about dropping in and asking whether I can take a photo of the room he stayed in for More Than a Game.
"Justin! How are you? Where have you been? The coach was asking why you haven't been back to training." Moses asks me, spotting me outside MJ's. I had intended to join the lads for training this morning but when I woke up feeling like I'd spent a night in the Gobi, I knew I just wasn't up to it. The lads have their playoff match tomorrow evening and Moses has invited me to join up with his team to watch it.
It has been a funny old day for me. Touch wood, I haven't been sick once during my time in Sierra Leone; not as much as a stomach ache or an emergency dash to the toilets. But somehow today I find myself quite blatantly dehydrated. My three-day-old habit of drinking a small bottle of fizzy drink (ginger beer/lemon Fanta/orange parrot) every morning and evening doesn't help; it quenches your thirst but in truth all of that sugar is doing you no favours. I never ever touch fizzy drinks back home. And so I find myself drinking and sweating like a Saharan lorry driver. Fortunately, I thought to pack some rehydration salts but, after a solid morning in the office, it is clear I need to get myself home at lunchtime for a kip and an afternoon session of trying to get my head back together after Monday's events.
Saturday, January 26, 2013 (Day 17)
River Number Two
The lads drop me at River Number Two - Sierra Leone's premier beach. They are off to Black Johnson to continue their spear fishing exploits while I laze around on the beach for the day.
I honestly cannot remember ever seeing such a white beach. We are talking china white; talcum powder white; whiter than white. The 'resort' is run by the local community. All visitors must pay 5,000 to the eco-tourism project people for using the beach. If you want a table and sun-visor on the five-star beachfront then you must also contribute 15,000 to the local community.
This place is off the scale in terms of the beach and the scenery around us. If you want a swim in the warm sea it also appears bereft of rocks and giant crabs that might otherwise spoil your afternoon in paradise.
After plenty plenty sunbathing and swimming I walk down the coast to the estuary where I wade through waist-high water to get to Cockle Point. I had hoped to sleep here tonight in one of their comfortable $30 chalets but they are fully booked out by an NGO. A man dressed in torn cottons, who looks a little like a Robinson Crusoe type character from the pages of a classic novel, tells me I can camp here for the night if I wish. The lad in question hails from Eastbourne and now lives here full time, fishing and selling his catch to the local villagers. The sun has bleached his skin and his unkempt beard gives him the appearance of a tenth generation mixed race Caribbean man. He tells me tales about the dark underbelly of Sierra Leone; of the kidnappings and murders of diamond dealers that are hushed up in the press. He's the kind of lad you could spend all day chatting to if you didn't want to make it back across the estuary without having to swim it with your computer bag.
Back at River Number Two I spot a lad with a missing limb. I hadn't seen any of Sierra Leone's 1500 surviving civil war amputees until yesterday in Freetown. I kind of put it out of my mind when I saw three of them begging for money yesterday. But now, when I look at this good looking man in his late twenties, who reminds me a little of Emmanuel Adubayor, my mind delves for the first time into the atrocities of the decade long Sierra Leone civil war: 50,000 died; one in three girls were raped; 4000 had limbs hacked off by child soldiers; other much more terrifying atrocities took place that I cannot even bring myself to write here. It took the efforts of the world's largest peacekeeping force of 17,500 troops to finally end the conflict in 2002. And I look at this young man and realise that one day between 1991 and 2002 some young kid, high on drugs and wielding a machete, held him down and chopped off his left arm as punishment or for fun or for God know's what reason.
It is too pricey for me to stay in one of the basic chalets by the beachfront but I have managed to strike up a deal with a local lad called William who will allow me to camp near his guesthouse on the far side of the beach. For 100,000 I get a tent complete with mattress, bed sheets and pillows plus breakfast. Overnight accommodation problem solved I settle down to watch the Togo v Algeria African Nations match at the local cinema. One of the Algerian players has managed to break one of the goalposts and, for some reason, quarter of an hour has been added on for injury time despite the incident happening a couple of minutes before the final whistle.
The 60 LED fishing light provided by William for the night certainly makes camping a bit easier. I reckon I could simply temporarily blind any would be intruder with its brightness. Once the paranoia and thoughts about the civil war leave my mind, I slip into the best sleep I have had since my first night in this country at the beginning of the month. I never thought I'd camp on a beach in Sierra Leone one day.
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.