Monday, March 25, 2013
More Than a Game would like to extend our thanks to Gordon Hamilton for his kind donation to our Sierra Leone appeal. We met Gordon on the boat to Freetown airport as we departed Salone. Gordon has been committed to taking Sierra Leone forward for many years. You can read about his good work with the Sierra Leone Mission by clicking on this link.
Saturday, February 23, 2013 (Day 45)
Sierra Leone - England - Albania
Like I said, I feel so spaced out by the time our flight leaves Freetown that I have no sense of leaving Africa. But, something changes over the course of the next couple of hours...
... Blurry eyed, I stare ahead of me at the computer-animated flight route map. Within minutes of our departure we have long since left Sierra Leonean airspace and have already crossed much of neighbouring Guinea. As we begin to overfly Senegal I grab my pen and write down the first individual words that come into my tired head:
Humbling; uplifting; inspiring; upsetting; frustrating; rewarding; enlightening; infuriating;
These are some of the words; a few of the emotions that I felt during my seven weeks in Sierra Leone volunteering with the Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation.
Suddenly, I feel like crying when I remember much of the poverty, and the amputees, and some of those little boys working in the streets. I can say I feel proud of myself for having done this. I am definitely ready to go home but I did 'enjoy' my Salone experience, if 'enjoy' is the correct word to use.
We begin to overfly Mauritania. Gambia Bird is a joke. They are offering me a single bread roll for dinner because, despite assurances from my travel agent and at check in, they don't have any vegetarian meals. The seats don't recline and there is also practically no legroom at all making it very difficult to sleep even if you feel exhausted. Yes, I know my moaning sounds a little out of context after the previous paragraph talked of poverty and despair. But I have written this blog to record my thoughts and emotions; my highs and lows. I hope by telling things the way they really were it has given those who are interested a better sense of what it might be like to volunteer in Africa. I hope also that I have provided a balanced picture of life in Sierra Leone: yes, the country is currently one of the least developed countries in the world but it also has a hell of a lot going for it and, at times, you might end up feeling happier when you are living there, in West Africa, than when you are cocooned in your comfortable life back home in Europe or North America.
We are greeted by the sight of a spectacularly bright red sun as we begin our descent to Gatwick Airport. I think I might have managed to get one hour's sleep.
In London it is flaking with snow and so cold after Africa that I wonder what the shock must be like for an African stepping foot on this continent for the first time. It is only minus three but after seven weeks of sweating all day and all night, England has never ever felt so cold when stepping off a plane.
I cannot remember if I mentioned it before but I am straight off on holiday today. Having arrived at 7am, I check in with British Airways an hour later, a full six hours ahead of my flight to Albania, where I will meet my girlfriend this evening. It means that my journey from Charlie's house in Freetown to the Hotel Nobel in Tirana will have lasted approximately 30 hours.
A holiday in Albania? Well, after living in Sierra Leone for the best part of two months I am not quite ready for the glitz and consumerism of Western Europe. In some senses, Albania is Europe's Sierra leone: underdeveloped and largely unloved by the outside world...but full of beauty and potential.
One picture postcard from Albania perhaps....
Friday, February 22, 2013 (Day 44)
Freetown International Airport
Inside the ferry lounge I ask one very English looking gentleman if I can squeeze my bags in near his table and sit on my rucksack. Gordon kindly insists I sit with his group and they all shuffle up so I can have a seat with them. I am dripping with sweat like I just ran a marathon. I feel a great sense of relief that I have made it here with all of my stuff. The hardest part of my journey back to the UK is over.
Gordon is a top man. A former Crawley Town footballer, he is now a pastor and is doing some fantastic work in Sierra Leone with the Sierra Leone Mission. He has visited the country on a number of occasions, this time with a group of young adults, who have all been doing some excellent work on the peninsula for the past couple of weeks. No way would I have had the courage of these young eighteen- and nineteen year olds of coming out to Sierra Leone, or its like, when I was their age. They make excellent company for the ferry ride over from Freetown.
One share taxi ride later and I have reached Freetown International Airport. I have somehow managed to make it all the way here from Charlie's house in not much more than two hours and at the total cost of six quid.
OK, so there is the small matter of arriving at the airport almost nine hours ahead of my scheduled flight departure but, not to worry, I am content to have made it here in plenty of time and can spend the afternoon sitting outside in the shade, chatting to a dozen different African characters as well as three or four of the lovely Sierra Leone Mission people.
Actually, it is quite a scene at the new, very modern-looking airport: there are gun-toting soldiers and smartly dressed body guards all over the place, while helicopters are buzzing in and private jets departing.
"That is one hell of a private jet," I comment to one of my new friends.
"Yes, that was the Nigerian president flying out after the inauguration."
Gordon kindly invites me to join him and the Sierra Leone Mission people for dinner in departures. Very good company, several hands of cards and a last couple of Stars help the hours to pass quickly.
It is so bright, modern and 'un-African' inside the airport terminal that I am already feeling a disconnect with Africa as I board the Gambia Bird flight to London. It is almost as if I have already left the continent behind before the plane has even taken off.
We depart at midnight. I am so fatigued that I feel no sense of goodbye; no sadness that a brief but significant chapter in my life is just finishing. If anything, I feel rather numb.
Friday, February 22, 2013 (Day 44)
Murray Town - Freetown - Kissy
This morning I had (with good intentions) planned to visit the chimpanzee reserve, buy some gifts for my relatives and girlfriend and take the sea cat fast boat to the airport in the afternoon but last night's tomfoolery spelled the end of all that. Now, if I get the passenger ferry this afternoon instead, I can just about get by without changing another 50 euro and I won't end up getting stuck with a load of leones I cannot use or change once I leave the country.
Charlie and Dorset Alex are doing up the new volunteers' house; a task not without problems with a generator needing fixing and a complication with the water system in danger of flooding the basement of the building. They have put in four back-to-back fifteen hour days this week for the Collective Sierra Leone. Consequently, I only manage to see the lads shortly before my departure to say my goodbyes and to wish them well with all their hard work here in Sierra Leone. I really respect the two of them for wanting to improve the lives of others in this country. It is a tough gig to live and work here for two or three years.
It is the inauguration of the Sierra Leonean president, Ernest Koroma, today. My taxi driver isn't sure if this means the Freetown roads will be gridlocked, in lock down or empty. Fortune seems to have favoured me as we make it to the government wharf a full thirty minutes ahead of the scheduled ferry departure time. I doubt if Freetown's roads have been that deserted in years.
"I am sorry sir but the government has commissioned the government ferry. It is not running today. There is a forty five dollar fast boat later."
As I have commented many times: the seemingly impossible here is often achievable, while the straight forward often isn't doable.
"You could try to catch the ferry from Kissy at two."
"Oh, we will never make that sir, it is already one thirty seven," I tell the ferry official.
"I think you should try." My taxi driver nods in the affirmative...
...how on earth my taxi driver has managed to pull this off, I will never know. Thanks to all manner of short cuts and crafty bits of overtaking he has somehow got me across the whole city in 20 minutes flat. Sweating profusely he screeches to a halt near Kissy ferry terminal and tells me we should run.
As we reach the terminal, the gates are being locked so that no more vehicles or people can interrupt the departure of the 2pm ferry. I slip my ten thousand leones ticket money through the gate and almost manage to leg it off without remembering to give my driver his cash. I slip the driver a ten thousand leone tip for getting me to the boat on time and he smiles and shakes my hands like I have just given him the keys to a new house. Clearly his main priority was to get me on this boat to the airport rather than worrying about any extra cash he might make. What an absolute star.
As the ropes anchoring the ferry to the port are released, I sprint along the wharf and, running through ankle-high water, manage to jump on the boat as it is preparing to set sail. Talk about cutting it fine.
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.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 (Day 42)
Text message from Bob:
"On behalf of all the CBF Makeni team I wish you a safe journey as we appreciate all your effort and that God will crown your efforts and grant you more prosperity. I am proud of you. This is a sad moment."
Alex meets me at the bus stop for a drink and to see me off to Freetown. I have loved the company of Alex and Bob. We have had such a good laugh and they have been bloody good company throughout my time in Makeni. It certainly wouldn't have been the same without them and I will miss them in the months and years to come.
I was up at 7, packing the last of my stuff and saying my goodbyes to Alsand, Famarta, Kate and Esthere. I think Charlotte and Kate will be breathing a big sigh of relief now that I have gone. I am pretty sure that Charlotte sneaked out the door this morning so she didn't need to go through the pretence of wishing me goodbye. I will certainly miss Alsand; a lovely young man who I hope gets the chance to achieve the things he wants to in life. I give him my Euro '96 England shirt to remember me by when I am gone.
The government bus to Freetown is full but, not one to give up easily, I ask the driver if I can pay and sit on a bag of rice on the floor. And just like that with Alex waving farewell and Makeni flashing by the window this chapter of my life is closed. Goodbye Makeni. I hope you prosper and are kind to all your people.
Saturday, February 9, 2013 (Day 31)
Text message (number unknown):
“Plz come my house. We have referee problem.”
It is 8am. Remind me never to get tipsy again in this climate. I felt the need to unwind last night after the tragic news about the murdered ocada rider and invested in a bottle of South African red. That went down an absolute treat and the next thing was I ventured out alone in the darkness and found a hut playing hip hop, reggae and calypso that sold cold bottles of stout and Star; I even remember dancing with a big bunch of kids in the street as I necked my Star.
Well, anyway, it is thirty silly degrees and I am absolutely dripping with sweat and my head is pounding. I also happen to be out of credit as I used all of it up last night when I was tipsy and thought it was a brilliant idea to send some friends in Europe drunken text messages from Sierra Leone. And so I cannot call the unknown caller and ask him why he is sending me text messages about referees first thing on a Saturday morning.
I hear Kate get up to make herself a tea and ask her if she will allow me to ring the mystery caller.
“Hi. It is Bob. The referees are on strike. We needed you to referee some matches.”
“Oh, God. I don’t feel too clever mate. What time is kick off?”
“After five minutes. Don’t worry, it is too late now. Alex and I are going to do it.”
I feel rather guilty that it is too late to help the lads out but I think I would be struggling in this heat with this hangover anyway. The referees’ strike also means that I won’t be observing them all later today as I was supposed to for CBF HQ to assess the quality of the individual referees. The referees’ strike, red wine, visit to the calypso bar and spending all my phone credit last night have combined to give me a day off.
23 languages are currently spoken by the 17 tribes in Sierra Leone; an impressive number. But, back in 1850, it is estimated that some 200 were spoken by the 60,000 freed slaves who made Freetown home. It is incredible to think of all those former slaves, from all over Africa, returning to their continent in the nineteenth century and making a new start: all those hopes and dreams.
I have spent much of my day off reading up about Sierra Leone’s history. Between 1668 and 1807, 50,000 slaves were shipped to the new world from these shores. As well as those who were sent to Europe and America others were sold to other tribes to be used in African witchcraft ceremonies. Freetown might have been established to show that the days of slavery were over but the practice of slavery was effectively only abolished in 1928, 150 years after the creation of Freetown. I still feel a great sense of shame as a white person about what was done to the Africans. I wonder if that is why a lot of us are here volunteering; trying to clean up some of the mess caused by the death of empire.
Sierra Leone became independent of Britain in 1961. But not before 17,000 Sierra Leonean soldiers fought for Britain in world war two. Today this country receives more UK aid per head than any other country in the world. And, God, how it needs that aid! After the 11-year-long civil war and decades of corruption Sierra Leone is now one of the poorest countries on earth.
The average GDP is $347. Many of my mates earn more than that in a day. Even when adjusted to the cost of living, Sierra Leone’s PPP is just $846. If I told you there isn’t a single traffic light in this country of six million; nor a single international ATM; and that one in five kids will never reach the age of five, you might start to build a clearer picture of the scale of work that needs to be done.
Perhaps there is something you can do to help. Maybe volunteering in Sierra Leone might help make a difference: it is a two-way relationship that brings its own personal rewards. And if volunteering isn’t for you then maybe you can help in some other way. Even visiting this country and spending some tourist dollars at the bars and restaurants by its astonishing beaches will help Sierra Leone to develop in the future.
For those of you who might be interested in volunteering in Sierra Leone, check out the collective’s website below. They have plenty of placements available with organisations that could use your help:
Want to volunteer with The Collective Sierra Leone? Find out how here.
Saturday, January 26, 2013 (Day 17)
I am experiencing one of those millionaire moments: pot of tea, hot milk in a silver service, looking out at a wild beach and rainforest. It could so easily be Borneo; unspoilt, logging-free Borneo, what little of it is left.
Doctor Jack, Dorset Alex and I drove down in the Land Rover early doors from Freetown, changing more cash at Lumley roundabout, buying ice at 'Ice Ice Baby' and stocking up with sweet and salty Western snacks from Adnan's. The road down here is shocking. More twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel plus several lung-fulls of sand and dirt thrown in for good measure. I am told the Kuwait emirate paid for the road to be completed but the second instalment of the money has 'disappeared' somewhere in Sierra Leone.
I am enjoying my millionaire moment at Sussex beach, an intimate little upmarket piece of paradise on the peninsula. The half dozen rooms here cost around $60 per night but are clearly good value if you have that kind of cash. Jack thrashes Alex 4-0 at spear fishing, catching three red snappers and a dirty catfish while I put on the tunes on my mp3 and read several chapters of Capital. This is another high point of my time here thus far.
Friday, January 25, 2013 (Day 16)
My mind flashes back to 1998; of waking up in an expat friend's well-aired bedroom on one of Hong Kong's islands. My mate, Kelvin, and I had been on the road for several months. We had stayed in many flea-bitten hovels but we had also slept in decent three-stars. The thing that was different about waking up in that room in that house, I remember, was that it felt like home; as if I was waking up at my mother's cosy home. I mention this because waking up at Alex's this morning takes me back to that January 1998 morning. Instead, it is January 2013 - 15 years later - but once again I feel like I have left the sweat and dust and mosquitos behind and woken up at home...at my mum's.
Out in the streets it is all rather different: raw sewerage leaks out of pipes and pours down the dusty pot-holed streets; collecting discarded plastic and cigarette butts. Dirty chickens pick at everything; children play with old tyres; flea-bitten dogs just try to survive. Sometimes, when you briefly forget about all of the colour and life here, you only see the poverty. And it appals and shames you. One in five kids in this country will never reach the age of five. Think about that next time you complain about how stressful your life is.
Alex takes me into town so that I can buy a Sierra Leone football shirt off of one young market trader he knows. In the crowded, chaotic market, which almost has a touch of a Middle Eastern souk, I buy the home and away strips, which set me back 30,000 leones for a top and shorts - a little over four quid. Alex and I are blatantly the only white men walking around the downtown market. It feels safe here but not safe enough to pull out my camera and record some of the many amazing images. Case in point, two passing lads try to pickpocket Dorset Alex but it is an amateurish, half-hearted effort. I have heard many stories of thieves being lynched or daubed in paint after being caught red-handed thieving in the streets in this country.
Truthfully, the heat and the chaos is all a bit too overwhelming and I am happy when Dorset Alex suggests we get a taxi back across town for lunch near his house. A larger-than-life local lady, who has just returned to Freetown after working in Afghanistan, is one of the many colourful characters we taxi share our way across to the West End with. In one part of the city, corrugated shop fronts are being torn down by the police as the government tries to clean up and clear up some parts of downtown Freetown.
Dinner and beverages are served at Freetown Aqua Sports Club, which is located in a hidden corner of Murray Town adjacent to the narrow bridge which connects Aberdeen to the rest of the city. This place is right up my street. It is old school with a touch of classy decay. Charlie's parents and a good dozen or so volunteers and expats join us for Star and G&Ts. A cool breeze blows in off the ocean. I feel free this evening; free in Freetown.
Thursday, January 24, 2013 (Day 15)
Less than one hour after arriving at Dorset Alex's very European house in Murray Town, the two of us are sat in the front of Doctor Jack's company 4x4 on our way to an out-of-town pool party. Jack was working down at one of the slums today, giving advice to pregnant women and treating kids with early symptoms of malaria. "It is shocking down there. The rubbish is collecting by the waterfront and they are just building straight on top of it."
We drive out past ‘posh’ Aberdeen and Lumley Beach in the West End and hit a section of open road before Goderich. The clue to where we are going for our party is in the second part of the name: i.e. 'rich'. We pull up in a cloud of dust at the guarded entrance to a huge compound. Once inside I realise that I have left Africa behind and been transported all the way to...Malaga. My head is spinning. I am swimming in a pool surrounded by tens of millions of dollar’s worth of property. The pool party is being hosted by some affluent Argentines and Lebanese. I am told that a one-bedroom apartment here will set you back $30,000 per year in rent. It all seems so very out of place; a tiny microcosm of expat Spain transported thousands of miles from southern Europe to West Africa. To be honest though, I am as happy as a pig in muck. After spending two weeks feeling like an oven-baked pasty in Makeni, paddling around in this pool - beer in hand - with a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean, feels like a little slice of paradise.
Not long after it's dark I say farewell to the lovely Edna - a smart middle-class Ugandan girl I’ve been chatting to for an hour - and set off into the darkness with Jack and Alex in search of Leones. Before I came out to Sierra Leone I never would have believed you if you'd told me I would be parked up in the pitch dark, by the side of a busy Freetown roundabout, window wound down, exchanging a twenty quid note for leones with a lad in the street. But that is how things are done here. And yes it is safe and trustworthy otherwise these lads would earn themselves a bad reputation and lose the trade.
We are changing up money because we have decided to treat ourselves to dinner at the brand new Chinese restaurant on the edge of Murray Town. An hour or two of air-con is justification enough for me. What is it though with the Chinese and the concept of Vegetarianism? I specifically request the Chinese manager and ask him to please not cook or put any meat or fish of any creed or colour in my 'noodles and vegetables'. He assures me that it will be so. My vegetarian noodles come served with pork and prawn heads. The manager appears surprised to discover that pork is not a vegetable. I must also mention that the 'Chinese wine' we order with our meal is the hands down winner of the 'world's most awful (no, rancid) alcoholic drink I have ever tasted'. The three of us do have a bloody good laugh though. Fortunately, Alex has a bottle of twelve-year-old Scotch at home that more than compensates for the Chinese debacle. We end up sitting up into the early hours discussing the past and present until far too much good quality whiskey has been consumed and it is clearly time for us both to crash.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.