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.
Monday, February 18, 2013 (Day 40)
Makeni - Kabala
The sense of the rural over the urban is almost immediate. It is purely and simply a subsistence existence and once you are just 10 kilometres out of the city the schools no longer seem to exist and the only kids you see are hawking, carrying insanely heavy loads on their heads or helping their parents...to exist.
I am on my way to Kabala for the day. We pass a huge handsome cotton tree, almost as if it has been left as a memorial to the majestic trees that once covered much of this land. Soon afterwards we cross a brand new rail line, built from scratch for African Minerals. The line runs to our left and you can just make out the plush HQ with its brand new living quarters and monstrous air con units. It shows what can be achieved when big money wants things to get done.
Further up-country almost everybody lives in thatched mud huts and the bush is far wilder than in other parts of Sierra Leone I have so far witnessed.
The bus arrives in Kabala, near the Guinea border, where it feels even hotter than in Makeni. I ask a smart-looking man in the street if he knows where the Sengbeh Guesthouse is and we end up chatting for some minutes. Bu recently returned from army service in Iraq. A proud man of 22 years military service, he dreams of setting up his own private security company here in Kabala but is hampered by the large amount of start up capital that is required.
Kabala's compact centre is full of character. There is a colourful market, a beautiful central mosque and its trading streets are home to a number of buildings that evoke the American Wild West of the gold rush days; sheer mountain faces overhanging the city.
Sengbeh Guesthouse is, I guess, a 3-kilometre walk. 60,000 leones (£9) gets me a double en suite with electricity (7pm-midnight), TV and balcony. I even get breakfast although as I need to be at the bus station for 6.30 that doesnt seem very realistic.
Sajid Toure is a man who looks more like a Saharan African with his long torn, dusty tunic. I am not sure whether he is the hotel manager or just the odd job man but either way he is one hell of a character. He tells me the town has had its first tourists in recent years, inquisitive about this relatively unknown and beautiful corner of the world, close to Guinea.
The guesthouse's cook is the complete bipolar opposite of Sajid: a firey babushka of a woman who makes me feel afraid to even ask for a bottle of beer never mind try to order a vegetarian meal. And so, for the second night running, I skip my evening meal and make do with a couple of cold beers instead.
The TV works but only has one channel showing one of those rather culturally disturbing African soap operas which intermingles Christianity, Islam and traditional beliefs into something rather complicated and impossible for the outsider to understand. Secret societies are a hugely significant part of Sierra Leonean life. Outsiders know very little about what goes on as members of these societies often face pain of death if they reveal concrete information about their rituals and initiation ceremonies. It is said that 95% of Sierra Leonean women are initiated. In other words, virtually all the women in this country are witches; be it Christian or Muslim or neither. The secret societies are, on the whole, a taboo subject. It can be very uncomfortable speaking to anybody about the civil war but you tend to completely leave alone the secret society topic.
Enjoying the views of the Wara Wara mountains and the peace and solitude of my temporary residence in Kabala, I do a couple of hours of work for CBF HQ then retire to my double bed with the luxury of a fan. The temperature here drops below 25 at night so I find myself having the best sleep since I was at the coast a few weeks ago.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.