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.
Thursday, January 10, 2013 (Day 1)
It is a six-hour flight to Banjul in the Gambia, the plane no bigger than a typically cramped European short-haul aircraft. My window seat doesn’t recline at all and there is about as much legroom on our Gambia Bird aircraft as you would expect on Ryanair (at least everything isn't painted a garish yellow). The flight is operated by Germania and at £600 for a return journey it certainly isn't value-for-money considering the distances involved and the mediocre levels of service on board. However, faced with paying several hundred pounds more to fly with BMI or BA, I will grin and bear it and put up with the lack of in-flight service on this occasion.
A couple of the African women adjacent to me spend twenty minutes putting their hair in bright fluorescent hair curlers so that their hair looks just right when we land. Otherwise, the 11pm flight is only memorable for the fact that they do not have any vegetarian food (and therefore I cannot eat despite me requesting it and being assured I would have it) and the unusual sleeping positions I manage to find before we touch down at 5am in Banjul.
I have my winter jacket with me from London and am expecting to get hit by a wall of heat and an instant sweat as we disembark at Banjul. It is though, surprisingly cool out on the tarmac. I get chatting to Mohammed, a Lebanese man who is returning home to Sierra Leone for the first time since 2005. He lived in Sierra Leone for 29 years after escaping the war in Lebanon in 1976 and has been working as a taxi driver in Manchester for the past couple of years. Now business opportunities take him back to his adopted homeland. You can buy Pringles, Snickers & beer with British coins in low key Banjul Airport terminal, and so Mohammed and I enjoy a 6am £1.50 Gambian-brewed beer (because we can), while he tells me stories about Lebanon and the civil war in Sierra Leone. It is humorous being back on Africa Time. Nobody in Banjul airport seems to know (or care) when our onward flight to Freetown will leave and our boarding passes are eventually printed with the aid of a laptop computer and a special portable printer. When you look around this airport you wonder how most of the last fifty years between 1963 and 2013 got completely lost in a time-warp. And you love them for it and want to visit their country some time in the future because of it.
It is little more than an hour’s flight from Banjul to Freetown and I find myself nodding in and out of sleep, awoken several times by quite heavy turbulence. As we make our final approach from the sea to what looks like a landing strip in the middle of a rain-forest, our pilot averts our landing at the last moment. Instead of descending to the runway we suddenly accelerate and ascend at a steep angle; some kind of emergency alarm sounding moments later from somewhere inside the aircraft. The atmosphere is tense on the plane for a minute or two as the passengers anxiously await news of why we abandoned our attempt to land. Many potential friendships are made with empathizing glances and concerned smiles. The pilot tells us: unfortunately, we could not land because the runway was blocked and we will need to circle and try again after a few minutes.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a two-month voluntary placement in January 2013.