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.