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.