With the children snoozing above us in the cab, we set off from Bureh at 4am in order to find the Guinean Embassy before rush hour paralysed the centre of Freetown. Sampson was quite nervous because everyone had been telling him what a nightmare traffic in the city was.
Somehow he managed to miss the left turn the Bureh boys had told him to take at the junction and then Big Reg was passing dozens and dozens of trucks queued outside the docks so we couldn’t U-turn. We figured the GPS would soon find a way back to the route Sampson had plotted but suddenly, without any deviation or warning, we found ourselves on the narrowest, most pitted and stony dirt road ever in the middle of an enormous market.
It was still pitch dark, but by the light of the odd naked bulb I could see traders tipping baskets of greens out into enormous piles as the voice of the muezzin rang out. Scores of people were scurrying around us like ants on a mission to buy their stock and move off to their patches across the city. There wasn’t enough room to drive a motorbike down there safely, let alone a 10 ton truck.
It felt like a chase scene in a James Bond movie, as people with sacks of stuff on their head and swaying piles and crates careered past us left, right and centre. Sampson was in shock and sweating, but there was no going back – there was absolutely no way to turn around – we could only go on and pray there was a way through.
A couple of guys took pity and guided us round another tall truck which was unloading mattresses – how on earth did we squeeze past with only an inch to spare? – as we edged through the melée back up onto the main road, pausing only to lean out of the window to buy eggs and (miracle upon miracle) lettuce along the way. Big Reg survived without a scratch, but the market dash took a couple of years off both our lives.
To add insult to injury, the Guinean Embassy had moved from the address in our guidebook that we had checked online was still current. Having arrived there at 6am, it took another two hours to find out where the new one was. Vague directions from wanting-to-oblige passers-by took us the scenic route around Freetown’s Signal Hill, which has a similarly spectacular outlook to Cape Town’s spiral drive of the same name.
Big Reg drove up and down a terribly dusty road under construction several times before locating the Embassy hidden in plain sight off a sideroad right in the middle. We were in for another shock when we got there. Due apparently to recent disturbances in Mali, the Guinean government are trying to dissuade all foreigners but the most wealthy businessmen entering their country and had upped visa costs to $200 EACH.
We invited the Consul’s Assistant Mr Yacouba Doumbouya down to the truck so he could see for himself how little we were able to afford $800. (Please won’t someone make visas free to accompanying children under 16 or, even better, dispense with visas within the AU altogether? That’s my dream…) He appealed to his boss and managed to get the cost down to $500 – bless you Mr Doumbouya – but still that means we’ve spent $1000 in the last month on visas alone. That was bad news even before our president sacked the finance minister and destabilised the rand, losing us 20% of our rental income overnight…
Our Durban friend from Liberia, Ryan McSkimming, had given us contact numbers for his company in Freetown so we could park there while we sorted out our admin. Central Freetown is absolutely charming, its narrow streets decked with bunting and lined with tiny open shop fronts and colonial era churches still retain the feel of the old town from over a century ago.
Charming to look at, but stressful to drive the truck through. Finally Ryan’s colleague Aruna Kamara came to the rescue and escorted us up to the Frotcom compound in SS Camp. This suburb of Regent was bizarrely rainy and cold when we arrived. It was like a Cape Town winter day! Aruna said the climate up here on the mountainside is always a few degrees cooler than the city centre. While I hated sleeping in jamas with a blanket, and – gasp – wearing socks the next day, Ruby was thrilled.
She stunned us that night by expressing the opinion over supper that she’s not sure she wants to go back to school now. She feels torn: she doesn’t want to be the only one who does half of Africa Clockwise and miss out on the other side. Wow! We were really touched, even if it was only another teenage whim. She did admit that the shift in climate had contributed significantly to her change of heart.
Meanwhile Sampson had a bee in his bonnet. We have to cross the Sahara before it gets unbearably hot in May but he is very anxious to spend some solid time in Mauritania where the waves are legendary. So, conscious that we had already dawdled too long in Robertsport, he was suggesting we collect our Guinean visas and head directly out of Sierra Leone the next day. This was a wearisome argument; I’d already told him we had some serious washing to do, as well as preparations for the new school year, and the kids needed a substantial bit of R and R by the sea before tackling another border road. Plus, we’d worked out long ago that a week was nowhere near long enough to soak up the sense of a country.
Luckily fate intervened by delivering a delightful Italian to our door: Manuele a.k.a Manu Macario was busy getting Frotcom GPS tracking installed in the fleet of vehicles of the hospital he works for. He installs hospital IT and has worked all over the place, spending three years in Darfur, and a year in Sierra Leone. But his dream is to build a truck and drive it from Italy back through Africa so he was very excited to show his colleagues that he wasn’t the only crazy one!
Manu loves Sierra Leone, says the people are so amazingly friendly and tolerant – he pointed out how often Catholics marry Muslims here. Happily for me, his enthusiastic recommendation of his local beach, Lakka, spurred Sampson to want to stay and see it before we move on.
One night in the Frotcom compound waiting to collect visas somehow turned into four. First we had problems with our cooking gas supply, and it took Sampson and Aruna’s colleague Habib several days to find parts that still didn’t fix it so in the end we had to invest in a whole new bottle. (Why aren’t adapters standard across the world?) I also remembered I needed to renew my British passport and spent a day filling in application forms.
What would we have done without the stove in the company house to cook supper on and the photocopier in the office to colour photocopy every page (even the blank ones) of my SA passport, which is imperative for UK citizens with dual nationality renewing their passports? Shoo. Their wifi also enabled me to load the Christmas blog. THANK YOU Ryan, Aruna and the Frotcom team.
I found myself strangely reluctant to reengage online. After such a long break, it is so easy to see how horribly distracting and distorting Facebook is as a window on the world. I realised the same could be said for BBC World Service radio news. Despite the fascination they hold, both of them tend to drag me down. It’s not Real Life. It’s somebody else’s version of it. Real life is what we’re living right now. And I find that far more uplifting.
Sampson had an inspiring conversation with the brother of our hostess, Captain John Kainessie. He was telling him about his years of service with ECOMOG, and related the story of a superior officer who made a telling comparison: “If Africa was a handgun, South Africa is the magazine and West Africa is the trigger.” “Ah” replied Sampson without hesitation “Does that makes Dakar the barrel and Cape Verde the bullet?” He hopes that made Salsa laugh.
On Saturday we finally set out for Lakka. We were very low on water and stopped outside St Charles church when we saw people collecting from a river surrounded by impressively lush crops. Sampson entertained while we pumped our tanks full.
Stocked up, we drove down Peninsula Highway via Lumley road, which is a bit like the road from Muizenberg to Strand . The turn off was almost hidden, and Big Reg chugged down increasingly narrow lanes until we pulled into the only flat space available opposite a bar. It was a good call: when we walked the 150m down the winding road through the village to the beach we realised we would not have been able to turn around.
There was a barrier set up before a small carpark and charges being made for weekend visitors’ vehicles. As we squeezed between the backs of the wooden structures lining the beach, a couple of touts tried to persuade us to come to their bar which was considered ideal for tourists as it had an exclusive fence spoiling the view that you could sit behind and drink for triple the price of the local bars. They were a bit pushy but we fobbed them off and found peace at the end by the rocks. The kids went to explore the island and Sampson and I lay down with our toes practically in the water. Bliss.
Several friendly passers-by assumed Zola was a local boy bothering us and kept calling him away! Sierra Leone is the first country since Ghana with a significant Rasta population.
That evening after supper, as we settled down for movie night, Sampson said “We’re right under a palm tree, I hope a coconut doesn’t fall on the solar panels”. About 20 mins later, I felt a huge whack on the outside of the truck reverberate beneath me as if something had just bashed into us: “What the hell was that?” Sampson got out with a torch, and a minute later shouted out in shock. A coconut had fallen directly onto the roof rack across the front of the truck a centimetre in front of the solar panels. We know this because it cracked and spilt coconut water all over them, before landing between the bonnet and the bullbar. PHEW. The lame film we were watching didn’t have a denouement as dramatic as that.
I’d just like to take a moment to thank Treetops Renewable Energy Systems once again for their super reliable product. Coconuts notwithstanding, we haven’t had a single problem with the panels or the inverter since we left SA in July 2013 despite all the delays. Even in recent hazy harmattan conditions, our Treetops System has never let us down. Heartfelt thanks to Martin Pollack and his team for providing us with such a precious gift.
It turned out we had parked under several very tall thin palms directly in front of Chief Michael’s residence. He and his grown sons lived in one building on the left, his wives, daughters and small children in two others next door. His sister ran the bar across the road. Everyone called her Obama. We never discovered her real title, as when I asked her full name she said “Barack Hussein Obama”. She was rather intimidating, very much in the style of Barbara Windsor’s landlady in Eastenders. I took care to address her as Ms Obama.
On Sunday we impressed the neighbours by doing a massive amount of handwashing. Ruby did the clothes, then Zola did the pants, then I did the towels and sheets. Back down at sea level, it was hot enough to do drying in shifts. In the late afternoon, we went down to the busy beach to cool off in the sea. Sunday is definitely the biggest day of the weekend in Sierra Leone for partying. Ruby was laughing at a young feller on the end of a fishing boat dancing to the music booming from the beach bars, who kept falling off and getting back up again undeterred.
When I cook, I tend to make a big potful of vegetables and beans, or dahl that will last for two nights, so this evening I had some spare time and went over to chat to Ms Obama while Ruby warmed up the leftovers. Ms. Obama spent 16 years in UK living everywhere from Southampton and Birmingham to Croydon and Elephant and Castle. She told me she once had a boyfriend who was an interior designer at Buckingham Palace!
On Mon 11th January, Sampson and I were woken at 5am: a preacher in the mold of Mr Angry from Purley seemed to be competing for souls with the muezzin. Mr Fire and Brimstone ranted for 45 minutes before I fell asleep again. Today was our back-to-school day as I’d decided to ease the kids in early.
At lunchtime I turned on the news and discovered that David Bowie had died. I cried for my maternal aunts, who both loved him, and for myself at 14 discovering Ziggy Stardust and how horrible cigarettes tasted. It felt appropriately surreal to honour him by playing it in Sierra Leone surrounded by small children who had no idea what music we were blasting out of the truck but dug it anyway.
We’d washed up, locked down, and said goodbye to the Chief when Sampson tried to back out and discovered, with his pedal to the metal, that he had zero brake power. There was fluid leaking from the back wheel: we weren’t going anywhere. This was delay-inducing so officially Breakdown no.11.
Local mechanic Mr Corneille, a Liberian, was called and promptly he and his crew broke our wrench trying to get the wheel off as Bob Thompson and mates in Bo had done too good a job tightening those bolts!
Ms Obama pitied our plight and sent her son Sam over with a supper of rice with spicy potato leaf and cassava leaf sauces, one with catfish and one with meat. The kids loved them, especially Ruby who’s been missing her pepper sauce since Nigeria. Ms Obama had added an MSG-laden condiment so I couldn’t have any, but I was feeling a bit nauseous anyway so was happy to eat plain rice and an egg for supper. This was the first day I felt unwell…
We’d just finished eating when Detective Abubakar Bangura invited himself in to check us out. Very self-assured, in his early thirties but already a Mandela-style orator, he gave us the benefit of his wisdom on an array of subjects. First climate change:
“The uneducated need to work, their only option is hard labour. Sand-mining destroys sea defences. Rock-breaking needs the heat from charcoal to make it easier plus palms have to be cleared from the ground for building – all this leads to subsidence. We were taught the acronym ‘MONA’ at school to help us remember that May to October was the wet season, November to April the dry season. But that doesn’t hold now, it rains through harmattan time till January. It used to rain and then stop so there was time for the ground to dry out. Now too often we have three days persistent rain which leads to floods.”
Detective Abu certainly lived up to Manu’s description of tolerant Sierra Leoneans: he is Muslim, his wife Christian. He lets her take the kids to her all night prayer meetings; she cooks for him during the fast. His 5-year-old daughter goes to church as well as copying him during his evening prayer. He also told us palm wine is “delicious” – though tapping the sap to make it kills the tree – and spoke fluently to passing Rastas about caliweed and said he’d be down to see them just now…
He took a copy of the Minister’s letter for his report and declined to have his picture taken, but said I could mention I’d got this information from “intelligent sources”.
The next day Sampson left early to accompany Corneille to Freetown on a mission to buy parts. They took eight taxis that day – from Lakka to Lumley, from Lumley to the CBD, and then up and down Kissy Road looking for rubber seals for brake cylinders. At one point they jumped on okadas – motorbike taxis. Sampson said he was unlucky and got the guy with no helmet and no fear, who snaked his way between trucks, cars and buses and arrived a full minute before Corneille’s. “I’ve surfed 10-15ft Outerkom and I know what a major adrenaline rush feels like, but this took it to the next level. I was praying to every God available…”
Meanwhile the kids and I took our morning walk down through the village to the beach, along past the fishermen and the bars to do T’ai Chi and back again. This was our third morning in Lakka, and we began to feel a certain level of acceptance; we were no longer visitors – interlopers – but regulars.
The young Rastas hanging out at the carpark greeted Zola by name; beach bar guy called me Ma Yogadancer. I greeted the shop owner on the corner with a “Salaam Alaikum” and enquired about her injured leg before buying bread. She leaned out to summon a passing girl with a bowl on her head selling potcheh, pounded, steamed rice, eaten as a snack in Sierra Leone. She told me to add milk and sugar and leave it a couple of minutes to absorb. It’s delicious and it’s gluten-free! I mash a banana in instead of the sugar and it’s like chewy rice muesli. YUM. Why don’t they make this anywhere else?
While Ruby procrastinated from school by doing yet more washing, to the delight of passers-by, I went over to Obama’s to chat with the rather reserved Chief Michael and their loquacious friend Jacob. Conversation ranged from opinions on the British royal family (Obama loved Princess Di) to how cold and unfriendly English people are and the terrible cost of accommodation and parking. Obama related the tale of how she called the Home Office and insisted they send her back to Sierra Leone because she’d had enough of the crime in UK – the way she told it, she was haranguing David Blunkett himself over the phone.
At last, just as I was getting worried, Sampson arrived back looking wasted. The mechanics piled back down and got the wheel off again, replaced the seals and put it all back together by dusk, most impressive. I was feeling grim but managed to make a tasty meal from one small aubergine, one carrot so nasty I would have thrown it away at home, a potato that escaped death with its fellows last week and less than half a cabbage. Then Sam arrived with another MSG-free meal from Obama especially for me: snapper fish with groundnut sauce. I had to fight the rest of the family off to get a taste!
Ruby had surprised me by volunteering to do a fireshow with the leftover paraffin from Bureh if Corneille’s crew got it all done today. She spent an hour running around with Sam trying to source the right version of Run The World, then we carried lit torches through the village inviting everyone to Ms Obama’s to come watch. There was a crowd of about 70 lining the area including all the Chief’s wives and children.
With Zola re-dipping and Sampson DJ-ing from Obama’s across the way, we managed to do the show around puddles of our washing up water. Ruby kicked off her flip-flops for the finale and had the crowd roaring in appreciation. I was feeling so weedy, I was thrilled to see her step up and shine.
Afterwards the Chief, unrecognisably enthused, lined us up for photos and his children were inspired to show us their dance moves. These extra two days had transformed us from tourists to friends.
We were so sweaty, we treated ourselves to an extra shower each before bed. While waiting for his turn, Zola decided to try the raw chilli Ms Obama had decorated her sauce with, which I’d dissuaded him from eating before the show just in case it distracted him. Another good call as it turned out..!
P.S. For the non-Saffas: lekker is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘nice’ or ‘sweet’, that in SA slang has come to mean ‘all good’, with a grin and a thumbs-up.