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....
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 (day 41)
Kabala - Makeni
5.30am alarm; 5.30am call to prayer. This town feels much closer to Mecca than Makeni.
I emerge into the cool darkness with no sign of the cook for my promised 6.15 breakfast. There's nothing for it but to start making my way into town in the dark with a tiny bit of dawn creeping in to show me the way. I should perhaps feel threatened but I don't. With it already 6.30 it is clear to me that the only way I am guaranteed to make the bus is if I break my rule and jump on the back of a motorbike. I stop the first rider I see near the cotton tree on the Guinea road and ask him to 'very very slow slow' to the government bus stop.
To be fair he isn't riding much faster than you would a bicycle and we only actually pass three more bikes on the road into town.
The bus is completely full and some of the lads are trying to put me in a poda poda. Travelling up on the government bus felt as safe as I have done on the roads here so I am going to stick to my guns and the lads from yesterday, remembering me, allow me to pay to sit on my stool again. The bus departs 15 minutes ahead of its scheduled departure. Lucky I got here 20 minutes early. Breakfast would have spelled disaster. I am sure Sajid factored that in.
My mini road trip out here has felt like real backpacking. I have seen some amazing sights especially now in the early morning light. One scene that I am sure will stay with me is of a dozen or more kids all huddled around a fire, reading hand-written Islamic teachings on long wooden tablets.
They are a friendly bunch on these government buses. One of the lads I have been chatting to for most of the early part of the journey from Kabala is an army lad who knows Coach Moses in Makeni. He jumps out at the battalion base; Salone's forward defence should there ever be - God forbid - an incursion from Guinea.
After an hour there is a stop for breakfast where I buy seven ripened bananas for a total of fifteen pence. Many of my travel companions eat some white slop that looks like a cross between porridge and old rice.
Every second person on the bus wants to chat and is keen to know what I have been doing in this country and what my take is on Salone. One recurring theme of conversations I have been party to during my time in this country is a a truly passionate desire for Sierra Leone to develop in the coming years. It seems like everybody wants this to happen and they also love discussing how it can be achieved.
About an hour away from Makeni we pass close by some amazing otherworldly mountains that look like the kinds of shapes a four year old would cut with scissors if you asked them to represent this scene. The contours and shapes of these mountains really are quite incredible and bizarre and prompt a bus debate about life on Mars. One bloke is convinced that intelligent life resides there and says it is only a matter of time before the truth outs.
I love the Salone people in this environment. They are friendly without being over bearing and always want to debate some subject or other.I suddenly feel taken by the desire to get on one of the buses going in the other direction and extend this road trip over the border to Guinea, before travelling beyond there to the conflict-free parts of Mali.
We are back in Makeni for 10am, allowing me to work all day. My final day here.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.