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, January 29, 2013 (Day 19)
Waterloo - Lunsar - Makeni
Waterloo poda poda station is rammed with people arriving, departing, selling stuff, going nowhere. I don't know how hot it is but it feels closer to forty than thirty.
I find that I am being doubly careful as I walk through the crowded streets looking for the taxis to Makeni. Careful of not tripping over and falling into the busy main road and under an oil tanker or an oncoming poda poda. As a European I have a tendency to walk with purpose from place to place. Increasingly, I am going to make like an African and walk more slowly everywhere; stroll more considerately and carefully.
After ten minutes I make it to the main junction where I track down the shared taxis. The first lad to offer me a ride has already got two people rammed in the front passenger seat. He barely looks old enough to drive and has the body language and eyes of a person who is stoned or pissed or God knows what. I am offered the front seat to myself but no way am I getting in that car with him.
It is time to play a hand of patience. Better late than never.
Half an hour later I depart Waterloo in a 'nice' 'newish' 'people carrier'. The driver puts on his seat belt which is either a very good or a very bad sign.
Another half an hour later and the journey is running smoothly. The driving is not erratic, the driver does not take risks and, you can see, he cares for his vehicle, which is right up there by local non-NGO standards. The radio is on and I am beginning to relax. 'Cruel summer' Bananaramma. I love this song. I sing along to the words and, reflecting on earlier and the environment I am in, conclude that the title of the song is rather apt.
But suddenly I am filled with a strange melancholy and loss for my youth. I remember playing this at my nan and gramp's in the early 80s. I can remember a small moment from that precise day as if it was now. I swear I can even remember how it was to feel fourteen again, for a second or two. And I cannot properly explain this but I find that I am consumed by a panic that I will not see out this day; that this remembrance of youth is a bad sign and the words of the song have meaning. As naff as this might sound, I whisper inside my head: 'You are going to make it back to Makeni', three or four times like a mantra.
As we reach Lunsar the good driver tells me this is as far as he is travelling today and I need to transfer to another vehicle. He will settle the cash from our original deal but it isn't the cash I am concerned about: the replacement driver appears to be a nice-but-simple-fool.
The remainder of the journey to Makeni is pure terror for me. I am like a rally driver's co-pilot; trying to spot every twist and turn in the road; every sudden movement by road-side goats, school children and oncoming overtaking vehicles. One lady in the back has lost her voice and for full comedy affect sounds like she is a Haitian voodoo witch or somebody speaking in tongues.
And then, just like that, it happens. The white van, which we have been catching up in the distance for the last minute or so, has a blow out in one of its tyres. It may as well have hit a landmine or one of those roadside bombs you hear about all the time in Afghanistan. The effect is to launch the van violently up into the air and into a death spiral; a triple turn in slow motion, rolling and smashing its way across the other carriage, ending with the vehicle on its roof in the deep ditch on the opposite side of the road. Don't ask me how but neither our driver nor the passengers in the back spotted the accident. In a tone of shock at what I have just witnessed, I tell him we need to stop. It is only when the driver spots a crowd of dozens running to the scene from the nearby village that he puts two and two together and gets four.
By the time our driver has jumped out, removed his keys from the ignition and sprinted over to the scene of the accident there must already be a couple hundred men, women and children running down the road towards us. There is absolutely nothing I can do to help and I cannot face seeing the carnage. I just knew something like this was going to happen. I could feel it coming. I just thank God it isn't me in that ditch...dead.
It is strange how human beings react to adversity. Some of the crowd of onlookers look concerned and upset; others are laughing hysterically and pointing to the scene. The food and drink hawkers are doing a roaring trade. I am tempted to get out of our vehicle and sit by the edge of the road and not budge an inch. The word is everybody in the vehicle is dead. No bodies have been pulled out and...as for an ambulance...this is Sierra Leone.
"Pleez small small remainder journey back to Makeni," I whisper to the driver.
"Aporto wise wear seat belt in front. He see accident," one of the passengers remarks. For the first ten minutes Nice-but-simple does 30kmh and doesn't take a single silly risk. With Makeni in sight he suddenly starts driving at speed and with an almost total disregard for safety. Didn't that fatal crash teach him anything?
I step out of the car at St. Mary's and feel like kissing the soil. Predictably, I am straight in the bar by the supermarket where I neck two full-strength Cody's in the space of 45 minutes. They go to my head but have the desired effect of relaxing me.
I leave the Africa Nations Cup behind at the bar with the Ivory Coast 'coasting' at 2-0. My walk home is almost dreamlike; as if I am well and truly stoned. The smells, sights, 'hellos and setting sun combine and feel very special. Very special.
Today has been awful. I am just happy to be alive. I would like to go home this very minute.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a two-month voluntary placement in January 2013.