They say the road from Freetown is good all the way up-country until you get to within 200 metres of Makeni because it is the President's hometown and the local population would vote for him here regardless of whether they have roads or not. On first impressions Makeni is rather more dusty and chaotic than I had envisaged from the descriptions of others. On one particularly dusty stretch of road our car stalls and cannot be restarted. All of us jump out to push it down the road, helped by a crowd of bystanders. God, it is hot. Shockingly hot.
After rice and omelette at a streetside restaurant, Dorset Alex drives us to the place that will be house and home for the next six weeks or so for me, two weeks for Jayne and three months for Kate. I can't say I have ever resided for more than a handful of days at any one time in a suburb of a city that looks quite like this before but it does feel safe and the house, I must admit, is far better than what I had expected. It is inside an unguarded mini-compound which, although it wouldn't exactly hold back an invading army, is reasonably difficult to get into without alerting many of the people who live close by. Some employees of the Africa Mining company live just up the road and the New London Mosque is also only 200 metres away, suggesting there shouldn't be too many scallywags hanging around this part of town.
Makeni Alex and Bob come to welcome me at the house. They are two local lads who will be my main men during my time here working with the Craig Bellamy Foundation. During our first conversation I only understand about thirty percent of what they are saying to me, that is how strong their dialect is. I don't tell them this, hoping I am going to quickly work it out in the coming days.
The boys take me up to the Wusumi Sports stadium where a super nice artificial pitch was put down about a year ago, financed by FIFA. We have a brief kick about amongst ourselves before one of the local teams comes on to train. I am already fantisizing about training on here with a local team once per week if it is possible. This was always the home pitch of the Wasum Stars but apparently they have fallen on bad times and a London Mining sponsored team is now the top team in town.
Many of the roads in Makeni are a mess in that rural African way, with some of them only just fully recovering from the rainy season. I have to say though that many of the local population live in pretty decent houses; a far cry from the corrugated shanty towns Africa is sometimes notorious for. Quite a few of these homes are actually more decent than the dilapidated terraced houses in some deprived parts of the UK.
Dorset Alex walks Jayne, Ben, Kate and I up to some street bars by the main road, opposite the petrol station, where the arrival of two huge Total tankers is causing quite a stir of excitement. This appears to suggest the fuel crisis is over.
Necking a cold Guinness while the others natter, I suddenly endure a mini panic attack. I am desperately struggling with the heat, dust, noise, darkness and chaos and am fleetingly taken by the feeling that I have absolutely no desire at all to be here. It goes something like: Oh my God, what the hell are you doing here Justin?
I know all this will pass and I bet myself twenty quid I will somehow end up loving the place but, when I hear young, impressionable Kate so amazingly excited by all of it - when for me much of it seems quite testing - I start to question whether I am too old or too something else for all of this. You have to laugh because right on cue a street fight breaks out on the road in front of us. Dorset Alex says it is only the second such fight he has ever seen. I believe him but it doesn't help my spinning head. And then some bloke makes our acquaintance and starts complaining about the sins of the colonial British and how everybody now speaks English instead of Temne. I know he's got a point and if my head wasn't spinning so much or he wasn't so obviously drunk I'd have the little chat he wants.
Instead, we swiftly pile in a taxi home where I cannot sleep for hours and hours. All I can hear inside my ultra-humid mosquito net are lizzards slurping, dogs barking, local kids laughing, my housemates weeing, mosquitos buzzing and mobile phones ringing.