Sunday, January 28, 2013 (Day 18)
Tribe Wanted, John Obey
The Saharan winds have been blowing like crazy today. This morning one of the big palm trees at Tribe Wanted was ripped out of the ground and blown down, and now all of us staying here tonight are being lashed with sand from the nearby beach. This is the velocity of wind you might expect in the Scottish Hebrides; not in coastal Sierra Leone.
It turns out that there is no space for me to stay at the academy and so, for the second time today, I find myself back at Tribe Wanted at John Obey - my home from home in Sierra Leone after Makeni.
"Do you realise that you have got an absolutely enormous spider on your shoulder?" two people ask me in unison, shortly after arriving. Without looking I flick off the unwanted Tarantula-sized spider to the ground, where it becomes the unwitting murder victim of two chickens.
It has not rained for even a second since I first arrived in Sierra Leone and so when I suggest that there is moisture in the air and it might rain, a couple of people chuckle to themselves. Moments later, the skies open and we are lashed with torrential rain as well as sand for a couple of minutes. It feels incredibly refreshing and wild. There is no electricity and every candle is blown out no matter how protected it is from the wind. This storm is tempestuous and menacing. Some of the locals tell me they haven't seen Harmattan winds as severe as this, at this time of the year, since they can remember; some of the crops have even been blighted by locusts blown in from God knows where. You could convince yourself that a nasty hurricane is coming in off the sea. Time for bed, me thinks.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Back at Tribe Wanted it is time for our final training session on the subjects of cross-cultural awareness and health & safety. Various potential work and social scenarios are imagined. After that Doctor Jack gives us the all-important lowdown on various health matters including malaria prevention and water-borne diseases.
I like that none of this has been superficial. Charlie and Dorset Alex, the bosses of the Collective, are not hippies or pretentious good doers or - worse still - charlatans. That was a potential fear I had about all this before I came out here; of wasting good time and money with a bunch of people who are not who you would wish them to be. But, after spending four days together, it is totally apparent that everybody - including the new batch of volunteers - is here for the right reasons and with good hearts.
Charlie, Doctor Jack (who puts me in mind of Russel Brand to such a degree that I think I might be tripping on palm wine), German Daniela and the crew depart for Freetown leaving only Ben, Dorset Alex, Jane, Kate and I. I take advantage of the low key vibe for the remainder of the day and watch the sun set from a horizontal position in a well-positioned hammock. As the moon begins its new cycle and the evening air cools, I find myself lifted by John O’Calaghan and Armin van Buuren tunes; a chilled bottle of Guinness special export in the palm of my hand. Beginning and ending my time in Sierra Leone with a holiday seems like the perfect way to first assimilate and then say 'adieu'.
The remainder of the evening is spent under the stars discussing why we are doing what we are doing; what we want to achieve; and our individual belief systems. I retire for bed with a few of the girls and boys who have come down for the weekend still sat around the crackling beach fire. Normally I'd be all over this and be the last man standing but I feel the need to be sensible and to remember why I am here.
Sunday, January 13, 2013 (Day 4)
Sierra Leone only gets about 8,000 tourists per year. And only another 28,000 visit Sierra Leone annually as part of its diaspora and/or to visit friends and relatives. I think it is fair to say that this country is a little off the radar of mainstream tourism, which makes it feel even more 'real' as we relax for a couple of days by the most stunning piece of coast in all of West Africa.
Today we are hanging out at an eco-surf resort at a village down the coast called Bureh. This place surpasses John Obey for 'stunning-ness' although it lacks the wonderfully peaceful intimacy of Tribe Wanted.
Many expats come down here at the weekends for the cool breeze, left-hand breaks and mountain-backed coastal landscape. On this occasion a big mob of Welsh engineers descend on the beach bar not long after we arrive, the younger lads, dressed in replica shirts, playing football on the beach with local boys, while the majority forty and fifty-something Welsh lads are all drinking beer, bantering with one another and roaring aloud with laughter. Most of these fellas aren't the kind of people you'd probably want to run into in a bar back home after they have had a few beverages - each bloke must have fifty tattoos on average - but they remain perfectly well behaved during our time at Bureh.
Local villagers flock down the beach giving perspective to the world-class backdrop. On the second Sunday of the year, Sierra Leonians in the south of the country make a pilgrimage to the cemeteries where they remember their departed relatives. I guess Libation Sunday is their equivalent of the November 1 'Day of the Dead' that is celebrated in many countries around the world.
The river feeding the sea is like one of those fast flowing slides you see at expensive water parks across Europe. Locals and the odd westerner jump in and are instantly swept downstream towards the open sea. The ferocity of the current is astounding and I am content to watch everybody having fun rather than risk having a near-death drowning experience. Sure enough, both Ben and Kate end up getting ankles and toes slashed by rocks as they are transported out to the shoreline. Fortunately though it is nothing serious.
Saturday, January 12, 2013 (Day 3)
It is a weary-eyed breakfast at seven filling up on carbs before we pile into the back of a truck - five of us inside and seven clinging on in the back outside - and drive out to the base of the mountain, picking up baguettes, Laughing Cow cheese, ground nut, boiled eggs and a couple dozen packets of water at a village we pass on the way. The petrol station there is still out of fuel.
We play with a bunch of local kids by the hiking entrance, who provide a fantastic photo opportunity and the chance to try out a bit of Krio for the first time?
"Aw di bodi?"
"Di bodi fine."
The hike is relatively comfortable with the track easily passable and only strenuous in the later stages where the terrain is steep and rocky. Fortunately, we have set off early enough to avoid the worst of the heat and, with altitude, the temperature drops a further degree or two. Birds are the main form of wildlife we spot; a dozen or more different species. We reach the peak in two hours twenty going up, smashing the previous record for new volunteer groups. To be fair though, this is arguably the easiest time of the year to make the hike with no rain or scorching temperatures. We all pose for a team photo at the peak, which boasts a 360-degree panoramic view of the peninsula, including John Obey down by the coast. Then we each perch ourselves on Picket Hill's black volcanic rocks and stuff boiled eggs and Laughing Cow cheese triangles inside big white baguettes, guzzle water from pocket-sized bags and soak in a few of the sun's rays, which helps dry the sweat on everybody's T-shirts. Hundreds of swifts swoop and soar above us from their vantage point above the peninsula's highest point.
As is usually the case, the hike back is far more difficult and far less enjoyable. The old knees are in agony and from time to time I find myself tripping on a vine or stumbling over a hidden tree stump or rock. Di bodi doesn't feel quite so fine now. We take a different route for the final part of the hike, which necessitates us crossing a river before we can finally make it to the road for our lift home. It has taken nearly three and a half hours for the return leg.
Back at Tribe Wanted it is Saturday night which means beer and palm wine by the beach fire. It is the dark of the moon tonight and the sky seems to overspill with stars. Di bodi now feel fine once again.
Friday, January 11, 2013 (Day 2)
One plane journey can change your life. It can be that simple. This thought consumes me, sand spraying up from my dirty toes, as I jog along a deserted Sierra Leone beach at 7.30 in the morning; dozens of giant crabs lined up where the waves break on the shoreline; black and white birds, which look like huge magpies, squawking noisily overhead. I had the most delicious night’s sleep I have had in months, camped out under the stars in a two-man tent to the accompaniment of a rainforest orchestra and the crashing waves. I spent much of yesterday feeling noticeably spaced out but, this morning, with much of my travel fatigue gone, I am able to truly appreciate this big slice of paradise before my eyes.
Half a dozen of us enjoy breakfast together on a long wooden table thirty metres from the sea. Tribe Wanted’s cooks serve up a plate full of tasty omelettes (prepared on a stove set atop a small fire), which are washed down with cups of Nescafe and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Groundnut is spread thickly over freshly baked white baguettes; a trickle of wild honey added to awaken the taste buds and to set the new volunteers up for a day of training for our time here in Sierra Leone with the Collective.
A huge gangly green spider with ballet dancer’s legs makes my acquaintance in the Solar House where I take my phone and laptop to charge for the day so that I can write this blog in the evening just before I crash down for the night in my tent. Kate, Daniela, Ben and I meet Alex and Charlie for our first training session soon after everybody has finished off the last of the breakfast bananas and have had a quick dip in the ocean. We get cracking with some getting-to-know-you team-building games, one of which involves Kate and I competing against Ben and Daniela to see which of us is the fastest to get photos of the items written on the blackboard by the edge of the lagoon. The items are: spider-fish-flower-coconut-football shirt-chicken-fishing net-packet of Gold Red cigarettes-boat.
We find a clucking chicken sat in a wooden boat so that is a good start. Two ladies in the local village are cooking fish on an open stove. There are flowers blooming everywhere. Easy one. Kate and I are each camping underneath coconut trees. An empty packet of Gold Red cigarettes just happens to have been discarded close to one of the village’s fishing nets, where some friendly kids are playing. And, oh yes, I have a claret and white Northampton Town shirt to hand, meaning there is no need to go off in search of one of the football-mad locals. Ben and Daniela have beaten us back only to discover that they failed to spot the word ‘fish’ on the blackboard. Kate and I do a bad job of trying to contain our joy at beating them and claiming the victors’ prize of a bottle of red wine at dinner, only for me to realise that I also managed to miss the word ‘spider’ off the quickly scribbled down list I took with us. I think it was spotting the green spider around breakfast time that made me subconsciously leave it off the list. I am doing my conscious best to avoid spiders and suddenly Kate and I are running around trying to track one down. We ask the kitchen staff, who point us up to an intricate spider’s web in the ceiling of the community area.
Relationship-building exercises involving us revealing some of our personal highs and lows to our partners help to break any ice that wasn’t already broken, before we spend another hour addressing and debating any concerns or anxieties we might have about our time in Sierra Leone (mine are mainly to do with transport and basic health and security matters) as part of our in-country orientation. We talk through transport issues, social etiquette, health concerns and at least another dozen topics before discussing in more detail why we are here:
- To develop our organisations (in my case the Craig Bellamy Foundation) by providing skills and help
- To help individuals to grow (this will hopefully end up being a two-way process)
- To create positive stories coming out of Sierra Leone, which will hopefully encourage international investment and incoming tourism (I hope my blogs will achieve this for those of you that read some of them)
The name of the game is high expectations and positivity.
Daniel, who is from the Sherbro tribe (there are 17 tribes in total in SL), has come down to give us a talk about the history of his country and also an hour-long Krio language lesson.
I learn that Portuguese sailors, spotting the mountain close to where we are now staying, named this land 'Lion Mountain'. That was in 1462, a time when tribes lived on the coast and in the mountains of northern Sierra Leone. Freetown was founded by free-slaves, known locally as 'the captives', the British agreeing to land acquisition with tribes for free slaves. Eventually, much of the south became Christian due to the work of missionaries, while the north remained Muslim, greatly influenced by the Guinea Islamic state.
The demarcation of Sierra Leone from Guinea led to the colony being founded in 1901 and the birth of an independent nation in 1905. It wasn't until 1961 that Sierra Leone became independent of the British and, like so many newly independent post-colonial countries, the corruption and greed of a handful destroyed the collective needs of the many. The most significant event in the country's history was of course the Civil War that started here in 1991 and went on to claim more than 50,000 lives. I will reflect in more detail about the civil war in the coming weeks.
Daniel tells us that after the civil war people are more 'conscious' in their thinking and are more accepting of one another. They believe in founding organisations - for example, women's groups - that can improve the well being of their population.
We discuss lots more besides but I will also save some of that for another time before this particular daily report gets far too long and you lose interest.
Our Krio lesson is quite amusing. It is a bit like trying to learn a cross between archaic English and street rap:
How dee bodi? means 'How are you?'. Oh mos? is 'How much?'; Waka means 'walking'; beaucoup translates as 'plenty'.
Me name Justin. Ar dea look for football field (I am looking for the football field).
And, just like that, it is 2pm and time for lunch.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.