Thursday, March 7, 2013
Many thanks to Shaun Gisbourne, Atheen Spencer, Rupert Williams and Erika Medene, who are the latest people to kindly donate to More Than a Game's Sierra Leone Appeal. We want to raise £1000 so that we can send 40 Sierra Leonean children to school for a year. They will also get the opportunity to play football for one year in the excellent Craig Bellamy Foundation League.
The running total is now £420. Click here to read more about the appeal and/or to donate.
Saturday, February 23, 2013 (Day 45)
Sierra Leone - England - Albania
Like I said, I feel so spaced out by the time our flight leaves Freetown that I have no sense of leaving Africa. But, something changes over the course of the next couple of hours...
... Blurry eyed, I stare ahead of me at the computer-animated flight route map. Within minutes of our departure we have long since left Sierra Leonean airspace and have already crossed much of neighbouring Guinea. As we begin to overfly Senegal I grab my pen and write down the first individual words that come into my tired head:
Humbling; uplifting; inspiring; upsetting; frustrating; rewarding; enlightening; infuriating;
These are some of the words; a few of the emotions that I felt during my seven weeks in Sierra Leone volunteering with the Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation.
Suddenly, I feel like crying when I remember much of the poverty, and the amputees, and some of those little boys working in the streets. I can say I feel proud of myself for having done this. I am definitely ready to go home but I did 'enjoy' my Salone experience, if 'enjoy' is the correct word to use.
We begin to overfly Mauritania. Gambia Bird is a joke. They are offering me a single bread roll for dinner because, despite assurances from my travel agent and at check in, they don't have any vegetarian meals. The seats don't recline and there is also practically no legroom at all making it very difficult to sleep even if you feel exhausted. Yes, I know my moaning sounds a little out of context after the previous paragraph talked of poverty and despair. But I have written this blog to record my thoughts and emotions; my highs and lows. I hope by telling things the way they really were it has given those who are interested a better sense of what it might be like to volunteer in Africa. I hope also that I have provided a balanced picture of life in Sierra Leone: yes, the country is currently one of the least developed countries in the world but it also has a hell of a lot going for it and, at times, you might end up feeling happier when you are living there, in West Africa, than when you are cocooned in your comfortable life back home in Europe or North America.
We are greeted by the sight of a spectacularly bright red sun as we begin our descent to Gatwick Airport. I think I might have managed to get one hour's sleep.
In London it is flaking with snow and so cold after Africa that I wonder what the shock must be like for an African stepping foot on this continent for the first time. It is only minus three but after seven weeks of sweating all day and all night, England has never ever felt so cold when stepping off a plane.
I cannot remember if I mentioned it before but I am straight off on holiday today. Having arrived at 7am, I check in with British Airways an hour later, a full six hours ahead of my flight to Albania, where I will meet my girlfriend this evening. It means that my journey from Charlie's house in Freetown to the Hotel Nobel in Tirana will have lasted approximately 30 hours.
A holiday in Albania? Well, after living in Sierra Leone for the best part of two months I am not quite ready for the glitz and consumerism of Western Europe. In some senses, Albania is Europe's Sierra leone: underdeveloped and largely unloved by the outside world...but full of beauty and potential.
One picture postcard from Albania perhaps....
Friday, February 22, 2013 (Day 44)
Freetown International Airport
Inside the ferry lounge I ask one very English looking gentleman if I can squeeze my bags in near his table and sit on my rucksack. Gordon kindly insists I sit with his group and they all shuffle up so I can have a seat with them. I am dripping with sweat like I just ran a marathon. I feel a great sense of relief that I have made it here with all of my stuff. The hardest part of my journey back to the UK is over.
Gordon is a top man. A former Crawley Town footballer, he is now a pastor and is doing some fantastic work in Sierra Leone with the Sierra Leone Mission. He has visited the country on a number of occasions, this time with a group of young adults, who have all been doing some excellent work on the peninsula for the past couple of weeks. No way would I have had the courage of these young eighteen- and nineteen year olds of coming out to Sierra Leone, or its like, when I was their age. They make excellent company for the ferry ride over from Freetown.
One share taxi ride later and I have reached Freetown International Airport. I have somehow managed to make it all the way here from Charlie's house in not much more than two hours and at the total cost of six quid.
OK, so there is the small matter of arriving at the airport almost nine hours ahead of my scheduled flight departure but, not to worry, I am content to have made it here in plenty of time and can spend the afternoon sitting outside in the shade, chatting to a dozen different African characters as well as three or four of the lovely Sierra Leone Mission people.
Actually, it is quite a scene at the new, very modern-looking airport: there are gun-toting soldiers and smartly dressed body guards all over the place, while helicopters are buzzing in and private jets departing.
"That is one hell of a private jet," I comment to one of my new friends.
"Yes, that was the Nigerian president flying out after the inauguration."
Gordon kindly invites me to join him and the Sierra Leone Mission people for dinner in departures. Very good company, several hands of cards and a last couple of Stars help the hours to pass quickly.
It is so bright, modern and 'un-African' inside the airport terminal that I am already feeling a disconnect with Africa as I board the Gambia Bird flight to London. It is almost as if I have already left the continent behind before the plane has even taken off.
We depart at midnight. I am so fatigued that I feel no sense of goodbye; no sadness that a brief but significant chapter in my life is just finishing. If anything, I feel rather numb.
Friday, February 22, 2013 (Day 44)
Murray Town - Freetown - Kissy
This morning I had (with good intentions) planned to visit the chimpanzee reserve, buy some gifts for my relatives and girlfriend and take the sea cat fast boat to the airport in the afternoon but last night's tomfoolery spelled the end of all that. Now, if I get the passenger ferry this afternoon instead, I can just about get by without changing another 50 euro and I won't end up getting stuck with a load of leones I cannot use or change once I leave the country.
Charlie and Dorset Alex are doing up the new volunteers' house; a task not without problems with a generator needing fixing and a complication with the water system in danger of flooding the basement of the building. They have put in four back-to-back fifteen hour days this week for the Collective Sierra Leone. Consequently, I only manage to see the lads shortly before my departure to say my goodbyes and to wish them well with all their hard work here in Sierra Leone. I really respect the two of them for wanting to improve the lives of others in this country. It is a tough gig to live and work here for two or three years.
It is the inauguration of the Sierra Leonean president, Ernest Koroma, today. My taxi driver isn't sure if this means the Freetown roads will be gridlocked, in lock down or empty. Fortune seems to have favoured me as we make it to the government wharf a full thirty minutes ahead of the scheduled ferry departure time. I doubt if Freetown's roads have been that deserted in years.
"I am sorry sir but the government has commissioned the government ferry. It is not running today. There is a forty five dollar fast boat later."
As I have commented many times: the seemingly impossible here is often achievable, while the straight forward often isn't doable.
"You could try to catch the ferry from Kissy at two."
"Oh, we will never make that sir, it is already one thirty seven," I tell the ferry official.
"I think you should try." My taxi driver nods in the affirmative...
...how on earth my taxi driver has managed to pull this off, I will never know. Thanks to all manner of short cuts and crafty bits of overtaking he has somehow got me across the whole city in 20 minutes flat. Sweating profusely he screeches to a halt near Kissy ferry terminal and tells me we should run.
As we reach the terminal, the gates are being locked so that no more vehicles or people can interrupt the departure of the 2pm ferry. I slip my ten thousand leones ticket money through the gate and almost manage to leg it off without remembering to give my driver his cash. I slip the driver a ten thousand leone tip for getting me to the boat on time and he smiles and shakes my hands like I have just given him the keys to a new house. Clearly his main priority was to get me on this boat to the airport rather than worrying about any extra cash he might make. What an absolute star.
As the ropes anchoring the ferry to the port are released, I sprint along the wharf and, running through ankle-high water, manage to jump on the boat as it is preparing to set sail. Talk about cutting it fine.
Thursday, February 21, 2013 (Day 43)
"So you will take diamonds back to the UK for me?"
This conversation is such a cliche that I cannot help but laugh. It is my final evening in Salone, and Charlie and Dorset Alex have taken me to a beach party at a bar on Lumley Beach.
The gentleman in question claims to be the son of a very important paramount chief from somewhere out east.
"You take diamonds to England for me; I make you very rich." This conversation is so reminiscent of a scene from the film 'Blood Diamonds' (a tale about diamonds and the civil war in Sierra Leone) that I look around to see whether Charlie or Alex or Jack have asked this bloke to wind me up for a laugh. Clearly they haven't.
"Listen my friend, unfortunately I fly to England tomorrow so it isn't possible."
"OK, when you come back we will discuss this." and with that my would be brother in crime gives me one of those characteristic triple Sierra Leonean handshakes, which ends with a knuckle-to-knuckle high five.
Without diamonds, it is highly unlikely that Charles Taylor could have plunged both Liberia and Sierra Leone into decades of conflict between 1989 and 2003. Diamonds were a source of wealth, entrapment and military funding which allowed the Western African civil wars to fester on for years, killing tens of thousands.
Many of my expat friends are here partying tonight, giving me the chance to have a final beer with the likes of Danielle and Doctor Jack.
When, in the midst of an alcoholic haze, a lady of the night asks me to go for a stroll on the deserted beach with her at around 1am, I am happy that Alex suddenly suggests we call it a night and go home. I think I will pass on the diamond smuggling and beach sex.
Thursday, February 21, 2013 (Day 43)
Murraytown & Lumley Beach
It is a carefree day on Lumley Beach for me. I walk all the way down from Murray Town, crossing the bridge to Aberdeen and then stroll a further half hour by foot passing a selection of basic bars, restaurants and shops hoping to entice the handful of tourists who travel to Salone as well as the local expats and richer elements of the local population. It is a little reminiscent of the back streets of a Thai resort such as Ko Samui. A Chinese diplomatic car flashes by with an entourage of security vehicles. Its number plate simply reads: CHINA.
Lumley Beach is beautiful and much more upmarket than I had expected. imagine living in a capital city where this is your local beach! I am content to grab a beach-side table under the shade at Family Kingdom Resort and enjoy a 10am cold beer.
Much of the morning is spent chatting to Nads, a British Sierra Leonean, who has returned to the country of his birth to work on agriculture projects that will hopefully help take the country forward. Currently only around 10% of the 30% arable land here is cultivated so you can see the potential the country has in this respect. Nads is very excited about what can be achieved and, having spent a very enjoyable morning chatting to this intelligent and down-to-earth man, I have no doubt he will achieve great things for himself and Salone in the coming years.
I don't budge from my picturesque beach-side spot for the entire day; forever admiring the almost deserted beach, looming mountains, crashing waves and azure sky; huge vultures occasionally swooping down to dine on some treat they have managed to bag.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 (Day 42)
A few miles south of Makeni we pass a burnt out poda poda; another tragic road accident that probably had more to do with poor vehicle maintenance than a case of incompetent driving or bad roads. The road from Makeni to Freetown is actually excellent tarmac for much of the journey. The majority of vehicles on the road in Sierra Leone are old wrecks originating in Belgium and Holland, which would never pass their MOTs in Europe. Most still have their identifying country badge stickers - 'NL' or 'B' - stuck near the vehicle plates; more often than not there is a huge Madonna sticker covering half of the back window. Somebody must have bought a job lot and got rich off of a load of unwanted 20-year-old Madonna car stickers.
Billboards promoting HIV prevention awareness, Laughing Cow cheese and the relative merits of the competing mobile phone companies are omnipresent until we make our last brief stop en route to the capital.
The Masiaka-Lunsar highway crosses the Rokel River via a narrow bridge where a small community of hawkers entice those travelling up-country or down to the capital with their cheap and tasty delights. An unbelievably refreshing coconut makes an excellent late breakfast, helping to wash down a bag of delicious plantain chips I purchase at our beautiful stop off point.
Once we reach Waterloo the chaos and struggle of African urban life is all too apparent. The road from Waterloo to Kissy is traffic, chaos, colour and poverty. The population of Freetown surged with refugees during the civil war and the capital has never been able to cope with the doubling in its population. After the war ended, the majority of Sierra Leoneans stayed in Freetown and did not return home. And, as is the case in most capital cities across the world, Freetown continues to suck in those from the rural countryside dreaming of the riches and excitement of the big city. Many end up living in filthy slums where life is far worse than that they left behind. But they continue living in hope.
I jump out of the government bus at PZ where an elderly Muslim man, whom I was chatting to on the bus, helps me find a taxi to Murraytown. I get the taxi to myself for 10,000 leones and even get the added bonus of seeing the sights and sounds of Congo Town as we take the quieter route to Murraytown. I love the incredible energy of downtown Freetown but I am happy to observe the colourful and chaotic scenes of street trading from the window of my taxi.
It is extremely kind of Steph, Charlie and Dorset Alex to let me stay with them again for the second time. It has taken five hours to get to their house from Makeni. I have a lie down and fall into a deep peaceful afternoon sleep; later enjoying a couple of beers, pasta and good company with Dorset Alex and Charlie until it is time to crash out for the night.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 (Day 42)
Text message from Bob:
"On behalf of all the CBF Makeni team I wish you a safe journey as we appreciate all your effort and that God will crown your efforts and grant you more prosperity. I am proud of you. This is a sad moment."
Alex meets me at the bus stop for a drink and to see me off to Freetown. I have loved the company of Alex and Bob. We have had such a good laugh and they have been bloody good company throughout my time in Makeni. It certainly wouldn't have been the same without them and I will miss them in the months and years to come.
I was up at 7, packing the last of my stuff and saying my goodbyes to Alsand, Famarta, Kate and Esthere. I think Charlotte and Kate will be breathing a big sigh of relief now that I have gone. I am pretty sure that Charlotte sneaked out the door this morning so she didn't need to go through the pretence of wishing me goodbye. I will certainly miss Alsand; a lovely young man who I hope gets the chance to achieve the things he wants to in life. I give him my Euro '96 England shirt to remember me by when I am gone.
The government bus to Freetown is full but, not one to give up easily, I ask the driver if I can pay and sit on a bag of rice on the floor. And just like that with Alex waving farewell and Makeni flashing by the window this chapter of my life is closed. Goodbye Makeni. I hope you prosper and are kind to all your people.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 (Day 41)
I knock out some match reports and an interview for CBF headquarters, post half a dozen blogs and smile as I see that my mum and sister as well as my good friend Neil Mathieson have all donated to my Sierra Leone fund.
They have only gone and double booked the pitch again and so there is to be no send off match for me tonight. I am gutted. I fancied a hat trick tonight and all joking aside it was my chance to say goodbye to two dozen friends most of whom I won't get the chance to see now before I leave tomorrow.
Bob can see I am itching for a game of football on my last night in Makeni and suggests I ask African Minerals if I can join their training session. This is the richest club in the region with big ambitions for the Premier League in coming seasons. I have never had the nerve to ask them if I can join them but as this is my last evening I pluck up the courage.
Five minutes later I am labouring through ten back-to-back shuttle runs from the goal line to the edge of the penalty box. That is basically 360 metres of sprinting. I feel relieved to complete the sprints without having a heart attack or being left two shuttles behind.
"Now sprint as fast as you can between the six yard box and the goal line"
These shuttles seems to go on forever and I feel like my lungs are going to explode.
Only half of the squad is here tonight as the other lads have been excused and are en route to some of the several dozen football cinemas in town for Arsenal v Bayern Munich.
We end up playing an 8-a-side match at the 'stadium of light'. The standard is high and the fitness levels even higher. Football is like an art form with these lads and when I find myself as the last defender against two oncoming forwards I blast the ball up pitch to clear the danger. "Have it!"
"Why you do that?" one lad asks me gesticulating that I could have instead controlled the ball, flicked it over one of the lads, shimmied the other and chipped the ball to him twenty yards away.
The session is hugely enjoyable. "See you tomorrow; the same time" the coach tells me, patting me on the back.
"I'd love to but I'm leaving tomorrow. I fly to England on Friday."
"Well as soon as you get back from your trip home come down here and join us again."
Oh, no. I am gutted. If only I'd asked to train with these lads six weeks ago; I could have played every evening under the lights with this classy outfit.
I grab a team photo with the African Minerals lads and leave Wusum field for the final time, strolling some of the way with John, a young talented footballer who plays in the Craig Bellamy Foundation league. John is one of the best young talents in Makeni but sadly missed out on a place at the academy at Tombo despite being invited to the trials. John is naturally two-footed and has the class and composure of a seasoned veteran. He is also a leader off the pitch: I remember a stirring performance by him in one of the anti-violence community projects in January.
"Just keep playing the way you do with both feet and make sure you continue enjoying your football. I think you are a very talented player John. Just keep believing in yourself.
"Thank you Justin. I hope you return to Makeni one day."
At Yeane's it seems like half of the male population of Makeni is watching Arsenal (the best supported team in the city) stutter and fall apart against Bayern. It is impossible to get inside the bar so I sit on the gravel outside in my football kit, with a cold Star, taking in the scene. It is one of those goose bump moments: witnessing the pleasure that the game of football gives to Africans. There must be fifty of us sat in the street peering in at the TV; many of them little boys who sadly spend their lives hawking groundnuts, cigarettes and packet water instead of going to school; boys who are united and equal with the rest of us for a few minutes in their love of the game of football. Twenty yards further on the scene is the same at Suburban bar. I am going to miss this. Watching Sky Sports down the pub in England is never going to feel quite the same again.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 (day 41)
Kabala - Makeni
5.30am alarm; 5.30am call to prayer. This town feels much closer to Mecca than Makeni.
I emerge into the cool darkness with no sign of the cook for my promised 6.15 breakfast. There's nothing for it but to start making my way into town in the dark with a tiny bit of dawn creeping in to show me the way. I should perhaps feel threatened but I don't. With it already 6.30 it is clear to me that the only way I am guaranteed to make the bus is if I break my rule and jump on the back of a motorbike. I stop the first rider I see near the cotton tree on the Guinea road and ask him to 'very very slow slow' to the government bus stop.
To be fair he isn't riding much faster than you would a bicycle and we only actually pass three more bikes on the road into town.
The bus is completely full and some of the lads are trying to put me in a poda poda. Travelling up on the government bus felt as safe as I have done on the roads here so I am going to stick to my guns and the lads from yesterday, remembering me, allow me to pay to sit on my stool again. The bus departs 15 minutes ahead of its scheduled departure. Lucky I got here 20 minutes early. Breakfast would have spelled disaster. I am sure Sajid factored that in.
My mini road trip out here has felt like real backpacking. I have seen some amazing sights especially now in the early morning light. One scene that I am sure will stay with me is of a dozen or more kids all huddled around a fire, reading hand-written Islamic teachings on long wooden tablets.
They are a friendly bunch on these government buses. One of the lads I have been chatting to for most of the early part of the journey from Kabala is an army lad who knows Coach Moses in Makeni. He jumps out at the battalion base; Salone's forward defence should there ever be - God forbid - an incursion from Guinea.
After an hour there is a stop for breakfast where I buy seven ripened bananas for a total of fifteen pence. Many of my travel companions eat some white slop that looks like a cross between porridge and old rice.
Every second person on the bus wants to chat and is keen to know what I have been doing in this country and what my take is on Salone. One recurring theme of conversations I have been party to during my time in this country is a a truly passionate desire for Sierra Leone to develop in the coming years. It seems like everybody wants this to happen and they also love discussing how it can be achieved.
About an hour away from Makeni we pass close by some amazing otherworldly mountains that look like the kinds of shapes a four year old would cut with scissors if you asked them to represent this scene. The contours and shapes of these mountains really are quite incredible and bizarre and prompt a bus debate about life on Mars. One bloke is convinced that intelligent life resides there and says it is only a matter of time before the truth outs.
I love the Salone people in this environment. They are friendly without being over bearing and always want to debate some subject or other.I suddenly feel taken by the desire to get on one of the buses going in the other direction and extend this road trip over the border to Guinea, before travelling beyond there to the conflict-free parts of Mali.
We are back in Makeni for 10am, allowing me to work all day. My final day here.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.