We’re so glad we rested up before tackling the road across the border. It required some persistence. The first day we tried to leave, we got 10km outside Robertsport and found Big Reg had just enough airpressure to move but not enough to brake. Luckily it was a flat road, and we crawled back carefully. The next morning, trusty mechanic Aman swiftly discovered the culprit: this tiny hole in an airpipe under my seat.
Zola was also vomiting and had a fever, so I wasn’t unhappy to return in case we needed to take him to a clinic. But for the second time in a fortnight, it proved to be just a 24 hour bug and he was right as rain by evening, scoffing his supper. The next morning, while Aman was working, I spent three hours trying to send an important email. In vain. Five times the activity window crept up (over about 20 minutes) to 97% sent, and then failed. Grrr. In the end I was forced to give up.
The first day we left, I remembered to close all the windows at the back, not just the mosquito screens, to prevent dust churned up from the dirt road coming in. The second day, distracted by internet challenges, I didn’t. Half an hour out of Robertsport I jumped up: but it was too late. Aaarrgh! Everything – my sheets and pillows, the fan, the toilet, all the towels, the fridge – was already covered in a layer of fine red dust. What an idiot.
Back in the bush it was wonderful to be among cheap bananas and friendly people. We spent the night on the gravel football pitch of the hospitable village of Bangos in Garwular District. Sampson spent the next morning transferring extra cooking oil on the roof into less sun-damaged containers as we’d already sprung a leak. The gifts of a shirt and a cap he gave to Alfred, who’d helped him with lifting, were immediately relinquished to the young Chief, who’d offered to take Ruby off my hands when she reached 19.
Meanwhile the kids, still in holiday mode, were playing cards obsessively again. My 14 year old daughter continues to astonish me by engaging in anguished discussions about her future career choices one minute, and happily escaping into Lego play with her brother the next. I do feel this journey is recusing her from having to grow up before she is quite ready. She might look like a confident woman already on the outside, but inside there’s a little girl who still enjoys daydreaming and cuddles before bed.
We arrived at the border just after lunch on 29th December. There was quite a contrast in the style of proceedings: the Liberian side was very relaxed; through six checkpoints, only one official asked if we might give her “something for Christmas”. When Sampson produced a trick, the magic proved too much for her and she had to run out of the hut, much to the amusement of her colleagues. The lovely lady checking our yellow fever certificates told us Guinea had just been declared Ebola-free. (We hadn’t heard the news because we’d been 99% offline and unable to get the BBC World Service since we left Monrovia. An unexpected Christmas gift of peace.) So we were in a celebratory mood as we crossed the bridge over the river Mano.
On the Sierra Leonean side, there was an immediate change in temperature, but not the sort monitored at the Ebola checkpoint. There were no longer reassuring uniforms but three young guys at the first gate acting like a gang to mildly intimidate new arrivals. Doorkeeper Mr Yellow T-shirt reprimanded anyone attempting to enter the post from a direction not approved by him; Heavy Guy with a silver chain as thick as his neck was the enforcer, palming cash from passers-by. Chief Whippet took Zola off to a separate room to interrogate him as to whether he really was adopted (rather than being delighted by the fact and shaking our hands about it as they did on the Liberian side). After two minutes, I went in to get my son with copies of his adoption papers in my hand.
By then they’d sussed out I was the organised one and they played us beautifully – hustled us on to the next station and split us up. They sent Zola and me in to show our yellow fever certificates and escorted the other Sampsons down to the Little Big Man in immigration. I didn’t realise it was so far away until Ruby came running back, panting, “This guy says our visas aren’t in order”.
By the time I got there, it was too late to impress him with our ‘Official Letter of Recommendation’ and the Minister’s endorsement – Little Big Man had already made his play and had gone too far to back down. He had stated to Sampson that our three month visas entitled us to enter anytime over the three months, but that was all: we had to pay him $5 each per week if we wanted to stay. I knew I was on a sticky wicket and with my eyes warned Sampson to Say Nothing More. Let him talk.
Each time I attempted to gently remonstrate that such a visa regulation was unlike any of the previous 12 countries we’d travelled through, Little Big Man jumped down my throat saying Sierra Leone didn’t follow South African rules. When I suggested it was surprising the visa official at the Sierra Leonean embassy in Monrovia hadn’t mentioned this exigency, so we could be prepared with enough cash, he snapped that I should call him. In the end I called his bluff, said I would go and phone the South African Embassy to check, and walked out, leaving our passports and the vehicle clearance certificate (it was vital after all) with him.
Sampson was stressing but I was just grimly furious with myself for being so out of practice as to let it get to this. But time was on our side: it was 4.30pm and the truck was blocking the road in front of the main checkpoint. Even if we had to sleep there overnight, I wasn’t going to pay a penny more than the $500 we’d coughed up already for the privilege of coming to Sierra Leone. When Chief Whippet came to ask us why we weren’t moving, I said I’m afraid we couldn’t because Immigration were holding our passports, smiled sweetly, wound the window up and started making supper…
The dahl was simmering on the stove and the rice tucked up in the hotbox when someone came to call me back to Immigration about 5.30. I went alone: I knew I needed to give Little Big Man an opportunity to save face and that would be easier without a protective husband.
He was sat outside his office, legs spread, playing benevolent Mr Nice Guy with a scrimmage of small children. But when he got me inside he let rip, on his feet ranting at me at the top of his voice for a good ten minutes. Why had I kept him waiting? I said I hadn’t yet been able to get hold of the SA Embassy. Why did I think that anything that some guy from South Africa could say would make a difference? He threatened to send us back to Liberia tonight. I sat meekly with my hands in my Mandela-skirted lap and said gosh, yes, it looked like that might be the only option. The offices were due to shut at 6pm. He sighed, dropped his anger, swept our passports off the table and handed them to me with a magnanimous air: they were already stamped and approved – for three weeks. I expressed my sincere gratitude and invited him to come and see the truck. He said he would, but he didn’t. I’d won the battle of the blag, and he knew it.
Not everyone on the Sierra Leone side was such a chancer. An Ecowas Brown Card official we encountered earlier, Mr Abu Baimba Maussallay, was thrilled to hear the details of our adventure and had invited us to visit his house. We moved off as soon as our passports were released (after a respectful pause for the lowering of the flag) and he was so disappointed we hadn’t taken him up on his invitation, first thing in the morning he rode out to where we’d camped in grounds of the local primary school and brought us a huge bag of gari and delicious roasted peanuts from his wife. Bless you Mr Abu for transforming our first impressions of Sierra Leone into positive ones.
Unbelievably, there was quite a strong internet connection just over the border at Jendema and I was able to use up our Liberian airtime in the early morning loading two missing blogs, though without photos. Venerable Principal Bockari Alpha of the UMC International School visited us wearing holey socks and flipflops. Sierra Leone schools are opening early in 2016 to try and make up time lost to Ebola.
By lunchtime on December 30th we realised we weren’t going to make it to Freetown for New Year’s Eve – the road got so bad, we were averaging 5kmph. It was like being on a slow motion rollercoaster. At times, people were walking faster than we were driving! However challenging the road got, we were always chastened by the sight of tiny Nissans or Renaults coming the other way, loaded with twice the car’s capacity strapped to the roof plus a couple of people hanging on, literally, by the tips of their toes.
But to me, it felt like a classic day of truckulence, offering a privileged glimpse into a rarely witnessed way of life. Every few kilometres we would bump through a village at a pace sedate enough to exchange waves with women spreading grain out to dry on flat places next to the road, or exchange words with men sat together in the shade waiting for the heat of the day to pass. I felt so very blessed and content to watch this world go by.
The villages were painfully picturesque, square wattle and daub mud huts roofed with plaited palm fronds, draped with mauve convolvulus. Tin and concrete were reserved for schools and the very occasional clinic. Despite there being hardly any organised agriculture beyond subsistence crops of cassava, food prices were substantially cheaper – once we got the hang of the new currency (5500Leones to the $1) we found bread rolls and papayas were half the price of Liberia.
It was just so rewarding to be out in a remote rural area again. There is nothing to match the unfeigned smiles of people along the road, showing the spontaneous delight of children. This is far from ‘backwards’ behaviour: on the contrary, they demonstrate how humans used to immediately light up with happiness on seeing each other in a surprising context, before consumer society taught us to be ‘cool’ and filter our responses according to fashion. The genuine warmth of strangers towards us is something that never ceases to humble me.
The most noticeable shift from Liberia to Sierra Leone is the fact that the population is two thirds Muslim – subtly transforming the atmosphere to something simultaneously slightly more conservative and slightly more colourful. I don’t know why, but it’s reminding me of Angola – everyone’s a little shyer and little girls have beaded fringes. People tend to have finer cheekbones and brighter clothes, with more gold sparkle. Ruby and I love the intricate batik prints of hot pink and blue, often, amongst young women, featured in matching tailored leggings and fitted top.
I was surprised to see three women along the way washing clothes or sweeping completely topless. It is rather wonderful to imagine living in a place where there is no shame in working outdoors with your boobs free if it’s hot. Who’s backwards now?
I didn’t take many pictures. I would have liked to capture beautiful scenes of women and girls gathered washing clothes at rivers, or grouped on their stoeps plaiting each other’s hair but, quite apart from the physical challenge of taking snaps while on a rollercoaster, I don’t feel comfortable taking pictures of people without first asking their permission.
It nearly all went horribly wrong when two motorbike taxi drivers came flying round a blind corner and panicked when they saw they were about to hit Big Reg head on. The first one shot around us to the right, so Sampson pulled left, just as the second one veered that way. The bike promptly drove into the verge and fell over. Thankfully only into long grass, so the woman passenger, her small child and the chicken the daughter was holding were unhurt. Her false eyelashes were merely caked with red dust. Phew. I passed them cups of water out of the window until they recovered their composure, jumped back on and sped off.
At lunchtime Sampson invented Truck Custard Slices: half a bread roll topped with condensed milk and vanilla essence. It felt like the holidays.
On 31st December the road was a teeny bit better – we averaged about 10kmph. Big Reg crawled on like a snail with its too heavy house on its back. I lost count of the small children working as a matter of course, as brick-makers or plank-carriers, walking for miles with huge buckets of water on their heads.
I tried lying on the bed in the back and doing some blog typing (I remember managing to wedge myself in and writing on a similarly bouncy road to the border in Cameroon) but I got travel sick and had to give up after 10 minutes. I returned to my favourite position in the passenger seat – with my feet up on the dashboard braced ready for the next plunge – and continued tightening Zola’s dreadlocks. Not an easy task with a 0.6mm crochet hook while bouncing along. Zola has been sneezing so dramatically since we returned to the bush that he was drugged up on Allergex, which made it easier, as he dozed off on my lap. I started slowly, averaging 2.5 per hour, or 5 per movie, but have improved. I hope Masi’s Rasta Brian would be proud.
We spent the night in the barracks at Zimmi having been escorted there by a customs official called Ibrahim Sanoh. That evening we were entertained by Colonel Sila and tales of his two years’ service in Somalia, and the barracks’ women were entertained by Sampson’s stretching routine.
Just out of Zimmi, we had an amazing police roadblock experience with a super intelligent officer in a blue uniform and white peaked hat. As we climbed down from the cab with our folder of documents, his companion asked us, not aggressively but certainly in an aggrieved tone, why South Africans show such xenophobia towards their African brothers? After he heard my sympathetic account of an uncaring government happy to exploit the situation of economic migrants from Somalia, DRC and Zimbabwe using divide and rule tactics, Mohamed Salo then asked us what we thought of the Malema versus Zuma situation and showed impressive insight into Julius’s previous history as 100% Zulu Boy. When he revealed knowledge of Thabo being recalled by an all-powerful ANC, I told him he was better informed than Sampson!
Over 15 mins, these policeman had transformed into friends and brothers. After showing them a trick or two, we got back in the truck without fielding even a request to see our papers. It is amazing how touched we all were by this genuine human interaction – I wish we could have filmed it, but of course if we had, things wouldn’t have unfolded like that.
We stopped early and pulled off the road in the middle of nowhere just past Joru, ate a supper of rice with potato greens and sweet potato sauce, made popcorn and watched a fairly silly movie about magicians pulling off a heist. We were asleep by 9pm. Not exactly a New Year’s Eve party to write home about. Away from the coast, we were so cold in the night I unwrapped a blanket to put over my sheet sleeping bag. The children were shocked by how our morning washing water had chilled in the tanks.
The next morning, while waiting for fresh coconuts to be cut down in village of Gobor Dana, Sampson did a full show for the gathered crowd much to their delight. Everyone seemed to be dressed up in new clothes for the holiday and in good spirits.
At lunchtime on 1st January we finally arrived in Kenema and hit the tar. A huge cheer went up: Happy New Year indeed! We covered more kilometres in the next hour than we had done the whole of the previous day. When we stopped at a market to stock up, Sampson took a moment to check his nuts… and found all 8 on one of the back wheels had worked loose, and half on the other. Three keen mechanics were quickly found to tighten them.
Outside Bo, customs official Mr James Tamba at the police checkpoint insisted on buying the kids some cool drinks, bless him.
When Sampson stopped driving that night, he was still seeing the road moving in front of him. So the next day, on the last stretch to Freetown, I drove the truck for the first time in about 20 months. It was a great road, so it was a gentle reintroduction. Bizarrely, the first two police checkpoints I got pulled over at were ‘manned’ by women – and they were as chuffed to see me in charge as I them!
Since we left Liberia, we’d been listening to hours and hours of vintage panel games I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Just a Minute. Today, we got so bored, we decided to have a go at the latter. Zola, being Zola, wasn’t keen to do the speaking bit, so it became Mom versus Dad with the kids taking it in turns to run the stopwatch and buzz our mistakes. We flatter ourselves we’re at least as good as the worst players on this legendary radio show.
Notable messages written above the cabs or on the back of lorries and taxis approaching Freetown: BeLive in God, Wan Time, Fighting for Surveval, Fear Judgement Day, Real Men Love Jesus and, to top them all: A Man Is Not Condemned by One Bad Deed, He Can Still Enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
There was no point entering Freetown until after the weekend, so we took a left about 30km before the centre hoping to find our way to Bureh Beach, which came highly recommended by Gary the Californian surfer-on-a-motorbike we met in Ghana. It was a wonderful road winding through the forest – Sampson said it reminded him of driving to Cape Point through the Reserve – and by complete fluke took us straight to Bureh by about 4pm. He was welcomed by local surfers Ali and Francis who remembered Gary and Sampson negotiated a free stay in return for volunteering Parafina for a fire show. It transpired we had managed to arrive the day before Bureh’s biggest party of the year, Bass Outing on Sunday 3rd January. It didn’t happen last year because of Ebola, so this year’s celebration was expected to be humungous. We were going to a New Year’s party after all!
With relief we scampered down to the shallow sea to wash the dust of the journey off. The snug crunch of the pale gold sand reminded Zola immediately of Fish Hoek. We looked back at the stunning vista of Bureh, just a few wooden bungalows clustered at one end of the beach against the backdrop of the wooded hills of Freetown. The only thing missing to make it perfect was any swell whatsoever!
On my morning walk I discovered an even more beautiful beach around the point and chatted with the inspirational Mr Lansana Kamanda Bongay, a.k.a. Bongi, the gentle rasta proprietor of the guest house ‘Robinson’s Hut’ who hosts intercultural students from Hungary and France. I’m sorry events haven’t allowed us to go back to Bureh as planned to take pics of his place.
The kids helped me with washing clothes at the well so I wouldn’t overdo it, and Sampson discovered that cassava greens are like kale, delicious when chopped small and fried to a crisp with onions in an omelette. Meanwhile a huge sound system had been delivered and was being set up by the Africell crew. The first DJ warmed up with a bizarre 80’s compilation, from Kool and the Gang to Rick Astley. For real! Roadie Christian was so bowled over by our “openness” and inspired by our tales of travel, he bought a box of biscuits and malt drinks for the kids and became our personal bodyguard for the rest of the day. A long line of vendors across the beach were busy piling their wares – packs of chips, cool drinks and pyramids of giant glistening red apples. Sampson discovered our new favourite snack: frozen sour yogurt – it’s addictive.
Insomnia the night before allowed me to nap for a vital hour in the afternoon despite the thumping rig. When I took a quick dip at 5.30pm stylish partypeople were arriving from Freetown in their droves. There was a rainbow array of colourful weaves and bold dye jobs, big glasses and hats, wide-brimmed straw for girls, trilbies for guys. Lots of gold and glitter and neon. The only 80’s accessory missing was legwarmers.
We liaised with ‘MC Hammer’ (honestly) about the set list but Parafina would have been lost without Christian who got his colleagues to act as security and push the milling crowd back to a safe distance around the performance area, which was 20m away from the DJ stage. There were between 2-3000 people on the beach by now. It turns out that Bass Outing is not just the biggest party of the year in Bureh, but the biggest in Sierra Leone.
The stoned DJs managed to play our opening track at double speed and then the wrong version of another but luckily Sampson was up there to sort it out and our glamorous assistant Zola was invaluable as regards re-dipping. Ruby was disappointed that we weren’t able to follow our choreography exactly, but I pointed out that nobody got hurt, so overall it was a success! The crowd neither knew nor cared about the deficiencies and many people came up to congratulate us afterwards.
We wandered about enjoying the vibe, which was markedly mellow compared to an SA gathering of equal size, although, to be sure, I put Ruby on her Dad’s arm for safekeeping. There were less drunken louts and more gambling than expected: ‘Find the Lady’ Victorian-fair-style sleight of hand conmen do well in Sierra Leone. We treated the kids to a fizzy lemon drink ‘Fresh Up’ and, after wandering through all the stalls avoiding anything that resembled bush meat, Zola finally got his carnivorous fix: 5000Le for a screwed up newspaper page-full of freshly fried tender goat and onions. It was so delicious Sampson and Ruby went back for two more.
There was an almost euphoric feeling of Sierra Leonean youth luxuriating in being able to get up close and personal with their dance partners in the post-Ebola era. We sat happily on a huge fallen tree trunk watching them gyrate all around us. Ruby pointed out with glee a guy in all-pink gear – shirt, waistcoat, bow tie, braces, belt, capri pants, socks, shoes, Michael Jackson hat and sunnies – and a nimble young boy on a side stage outdoing everyone with his slick moves. But I was most amazed by a bevy of babes in raunchy hot pink or black and scarlet scooped out bikini-and-shorts combos grooving alongside a Muslim girl in a clingy sparkly floaty top and leggings with a black hijab under a trendy diamante-studded black Fedora. Everyone was way cool.