Franklin

Right now it’s 9am and we’re sitting up in my hotel room. Jon’s just got back from the internet café, where he went with Franklin. He describes the experience of Freetown at night as “Like a cross between Beirut and Walton Street during Hull Fair.”

He went there to post the last blog and pics, while Murray and I sat here drinking homemade ginger beer (nectar, I love it, I love ginger, I love this gorgeous ginger beer completely) with vodka (mmm).

Franklin, Jon and Murray are sitting on my bed, Murray’s showing Franklin pictures of England, you can hear the busy street sounds outside the window, the hooters pipping, people calling out to each other in Krio.

Franklin’s a great guy. He’s 25, thin, really loose-limbed, incredibly intelligent and full of infectious enthusiasm. The kids at iEARN clearly have great respect for him and he seems to be able to put across a particular type of almost evangelical Sierra Leonean morality and work ethic without preaching.

You hear quite a bit of that kind of thing when you speak to people. I don’t know whether it’s part of the culture generally or a reaction to the civil war: “If I work hard and pray to God then I know that things will get better for me and life will improve for my country.”

And you’d need to have faith living in a place like this. How else could you get through the real hell-like horrors of the war, then cope with the lack of electricity, food and sanitation, and yet still – like Franklin – study at university, volunteer at iEARN, and look after yourself? I reckon you’d need a God to get you through all that.

Anyway, Franklin’s close by most of the time and he’s just what we needed. He’s not on the make, he speaks English almost perfectly, and he can tell us what’s safe and what isn’t… which is handy on Tuesday when our Guinness Extra-drinking friend Chris turns up again.

The return of Chris

The problem with Chris is that everything went a bit mad when we met him. As Lloyd
Grossman used to say on Through the Keyhole “Let’s look at the evidence”:

First night after meeting him he brings a diamond mine geezer round to visit
Second night he introduces us to the charismatic sergeant
Then, looking after us, he takes us to the beach where we nearly get arrested and robbed (hey, great looking-after)

Then he’s constantly trying to get us to pay for his daughter’s typhoid medication – first time he tells us it’s $150, the he tries us for $20

So we’re not exactly delighted when he strolls into the compound of our nice, friendly, clean, Catholic hotel telling us that he managed to track us down. And then we’re doubly suspicious when the girl who helped us to escape from Binta’s bar turns up five minutes later, clearly wishing to offer her unwanted services to Jon. And yet the girl and Chris claim to have no knowledge of each other.

After hanging around a while we manage to put the girl in a taxi and send her away and then escape from Chris to our rooms.

He knows too many people and there are too many scams. He’s more trouble and stress than we need. We decide to give him a wide berth, scam him back if necessary, tell a few lies about our movements. Murray’s geared up to give him some short shrift, Murray-style.

Appearance and reality

There’s such a thin line here between what you think the truth is and what it actually is. Like I said in an earlier posting, you can be walking along thinking everything is fine and relaxed, then you turn the corner and suddenly everything is crazy.

A few times now when Murray and Jon have been filming in the street with the iEARN kids, things have being going fine and then someone interferes and suddenly the situation is threatening and dangerous.

Yesterday I was with Jon filming Sidibay telling his story in a quiet corner round the back of the national stadium when a very puffed-up character in shirt, tie and sports jacket strolled up with his chest stuck out: “What are you people doing filming here?” he demanded.

I told him we were educators making a film about how the young people of Sierra Leone were working hard to improve their lives.
“Do you know about this boy?” he demands.
Yes, he’s our friend, a student from the centre where we’re working.
“Do you know his history? Do you know about him? Do you know what he has done in his life?”
He’s clearly thinking Sidibay might have been a child soldier.
Yes, we know him. He’s a good boy, he’s working hard.

“I am an intelligence officer and I am concerned that you should present our country in a positive way. We don’t want people to see problems and bad things, we want them to see a beautiful country and good people, that is the way for us to get investment.”

I tell him we are making a film about how this boy is working hard to improve his life.
Sidibay steps forward, gives his name and the name of his school and then tells the guy that we have the personal permission of the minister of education!
“Okay, continue your work.” says Mr Intelligence Officer and he struts away.

Just an example of the kind of paranoia and suspicion that’s still very much a part of life.
Murray and I were chatting about this over a vodka and ginger beer. The way it feels is like when you walk into a pub and the atmosphere is somehow wrong. It all feels like it might kick off. It wouldn’t take much. It’s not hard to imagine the carnage.

Working

We are. Hard. Yesterday the kids all wrote personal introductions, with information about likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, then some performed them to camera – we’ll do a little more of that today.

Murray went out to Aberdeen with Barmmy Boy, the street prince of Freetown, to make a film about his life – tiny, tin roofed shack, fishing for breakfast, making his brilliant music – Murray was swept away by Barmmy’s talent. He’d got the whole thing planned – different shots, how they’ll be edited – Murray just had to film, Barmmy directed himself.

Jon and I did some work filming Sidibay, which was very moving. Jon handled him fantastically, kept it simple, explained that he didn’t have to do anything or say anything he didn’t want to say. Hopefully there’ll be a Google video link to the finished film pretty soon.

Sidibay was excellent. Again, a really intelligent kid who has found a way to get through the worst experiences you can imagine. After the filming he stuck with us all afternoon and got involved in the rest of the filming as Jon’s boom man. And he didn’t ask us for a thing (though we helped him out nonetheless).
He’s coming back next week to take us to watch the Champion’s League final. Like most people here, he’s an Arsenal fan. He loves English football and knows everything about it: “They say Manchester United could never be sold, what do people think of Malcolm Glaser? What do they think of the Russian Abramovich?” and so on.

You just want to help these people. Not give them charity, just give them what they deserve.

William Wilberforce, Hull lad

Freetown home of the freed slaves, yet the people here are enslaved by their poverty

There’s been so much talk at home in Hull about the Wilberforce 2007 events commemorating the abolition of the slave trade, so many people getting paid so much money to come up with things like brands and marketing strategies. The best thing that anyone could do if they want to release these people from their slavery (and don’t be in any doubt, people like Sidibay are enslaved by their poverty and enslaved by their past) is to give them a step up.
They need direct help paying for their education.
£500 a year would make a massive difference to the life of one kid. Adopt a friend Freetown? A Willliam Wilberforce education trust?