Freetown, Sierra Leone
Safely inside the terminal of Freetown International Airport it is still Christmas here with multi-coloured decorations hanging everywhere and fairy lights flashing green and red. It appears that our arrival was a complete surprise as none of the passport posts are manned by immigration officers. A few minutes later the doors burst open and in come the missing uniformed men (most of whom are smiling), rushing to their respective kiosks. I feared it might be chaos inside the arrivals terminal but, actually, it isn’t even remotely intimidating. In fact, I would say the UK, with its gun-toting uniformed officers patrolling its airports and wall to wall signs saying WARNING! ('Warning! You cannot bring 'blah blah' into the country'; 'Warning slippy floors!'; 'Warning! Warning signs ahead'), is far more intimidating and de-humanising. I find my rucksack without too many problems (I've only brought 12 of my allotted 34 kilos) and sidestep an array of men who want to help me carry it to the car park outside in return for a few Leone.
Ben Bomford - 'a friend' I have never actually physcially met before - is waiting for me outside the terminal doors. Him and Alex from the Collective shared a double-mattress in a flea-bitten hotel somewhere close by last night so that they could pick us up early this morning. The lads are waiting for the three of us who have arrived today to begin volunteering for the Collective. My two new companions are Daniela from Dresden and Kate from Northumberland. The five of us squash our over-sized baggage into the back of the lads’ jeep and, after refusing to back down over not paying some imaginery parking charges, we set off to try and grab a place on the car ferry that leaves at 11.
Freetown International Airport is located on an island, cut off from the capital on the opposite shore. There are, I believe, four options available if you want to get into Freetown from here: you can make the five-hour nightmare of a drive, take the expensive fast boat, jump on the slow ferry, or buy a seven-minute ride on the Ukrainian-built former military helicopter, which transports the rich and connected (and will evenutally no doubt send some of them to early graves). And so, just one hour after arriving in Sierra Leone, I find myself with four new friends inside the top deck of a dilapidated-looking ferry sailing from the airport to the Sierra Leone capital. Reggae music booms out; Africel and Airtel mobile telephone reps sell us sim cards and I drink my first Star Beer, which tastes like it is six months past its sell-by-date. Alex helps me to change twenty pounds sterling with a money changer, which gets me 134,000 Leones. I feel like a rich man. Freetown and the forested mountains that surround it loom large on the horizon as I snap a couple of photos and our ferry completes its journey.
There is currently a fuel crisis in Sierra Leone. Most fuel stations appear to be out of petrol and the one station we spot that is open has a queue of cars, motorbikes and dust-caked lorries stretching back a kilometre, with dozens more men queing with jerry cans. Apparently it took Charlie three hours of patient queueing up from 6am yesterday morning to fill up the jeep so that Alex and Ben could come and pick us up today.