Be Free – This is Freetown !

In my room, Monday night, backtracking the last 36 hours

This really is the most incredible place. It’s only the end of our third full day in Freetown but the assault on every one of your senses is overwhelming. There’s so much to take in, so many things to experience, it’s hard to fit a description of everything in.

Gilrs HIV Song

click to start video.

First, speaking for Jon and Murray too, I want say how much we love our family and friends. That might sound like a strangely earnest thing to say, but this place really makes you appreciate how lucky you are to have such love and support.

There are so many, many families here who can’t afford to look after their children. Kids leave home young, fend for themselves. If they have some hope and spiritual strength or street-sense they manage.

Until coming here I never understood that for millions of children in the ghettos and shanty towns, dreams are the most valuable thing in the world.

Monkey will never leave its black hand
I bought a book of Salonian folk songs and stories from an old man who came to the hotel touting tattered books from a bag. The first story is called ‘Well, things are happening”

A few lines:

Well, things are happening
That you know but cannot understand
Monkey will never leave its black hand
Monkey speaks, monkey understands
Monkeys are by parties, pigeons are by pairs
In the monkey world, each monkey jumps for itself
In the fish world, fish eats fish
In fowl’s country, each fowl snatches what it can and runs away with it
In dog’s game, the slogan is “fall down for me, I’ll fall down for you”
Well, things are happening
That you know but cannot understand

What part have teeth, when lip and tongue unite to spit out chaff?
The teeth and the tongue sometimes come into conflict
But soon they unite again to chew.
If you do not want the monkey’s tail to touch you
Do not join in the monkey’s dance

…there’s much, much more of it – more than I can type here…

The point is, three days in, the monkey’s tail has caught us. This place immerses you, pulls you in, puts you on your guard and then immediately makes your guard crumble.

Nothing is quite the way it seems. One street seems mellow, turn the corner and it’s mad The place is dangerous, there are thieves, swindlers, hustlers with smiling faces everywhere – it’s West African frontier country, diamond land – the hustlers know how to find you and they do find you (we’ve already moved hotels once, but more of that later), but on the other hand there are people who have such incredible warmth and honesty, open, welcoming spirits that your heart melts and you want to give them everything.

You experience these extremes every few minutes. At the end of an 18 hour day, as I am now, it’s disorientating, wonderful and horrific.

Things are happening
That you know, but cannot understand.

Sunday (Day two)
Diamond mines at midnight

Last night some guy came calling for us at the hotel at midnight, wanting to see if we would invest in his diamond mine. Naturally, he was a good guy, well he had to be didn’t he? Cos he told us he was.

He says he doesn’t want my money, he just wants to know who it is that he should approach for help in realising the piotential of his asset. He needs the mining machines to extract the diamonds, you understand?

I explain that diamonds are not my business and that I don’t have the connections or money to help him.
He’s okay. He goes away without a struggle.
Is it scam or is he for real? This question keeps coming up….
During the next 24 hours we’re asked three times if we can help people to make their diamond mines profitable.

Corrupt coppers on the beach

Sunday begins with bread, a boiled egg, a little heap of mayonnaise and two slices of spam for breakfast and ends with us having to make an emergency escape from corrupt policemen who wanted to arrest or rob us in the darkness near Binta’s Bar on Lumley Beach.

Lumley Beach is a dangerous place at night but Chris, our guide (ex-soldier, UN men vouched for him as a safe guide) had had one too many Guinness Extras and had slightly lost the plot. As we sat there in the darkness we were surrounded by dodgy geezers and an argument broke out between them and our over-protective (and rather heavy-handed) friend. The geezers disappeared but then some uniforms (silhouettes of berets and army fatigues) began to walk toward us.

Then it all went very freaky, very fast.
Chris tells us to leave “Go! Go now!” he says that we are in real danger, these are bad men who wanted to hurt us. With some urgency he tells us that we must go so we begin to walk away. Shouting breaks out (it’s almost pitch black), Chris is angry, the police are angry, things get heavy, we walk away quickly, checking for each other, trying to stay calm, no panic (panic!).

We cross the beach to Binta’s Bar and a ruck has broken out between Chris and the police on the beach. Then the coppers are trying to get close to us but people seem to have decided to stand in their way. A girl starts shouting to us “Leave, leave here. Why you come here? This is dangerous. Black people’s place. These policemen are bad men, they want to harm you.” She’s hurrying us: “Get out of here, walk down the road, follow, I get you taxi…quick, quickly, YOU MUST LEAVE!”

We walk down the road. We’ve done well, we’re together, we all know we’ll be okay, but there’s fear. The girl manages to pull a taxi over and we’re in and away. Back to the safety of the hotel.

20 minutes later, Chris arrives. He tells us the men on the beach were robbers, the police are corrupt. He says that tomorrow we’ll go to the courts and tell them what happened and that the courts will listen to him because he is ex-military and the men will be arrested.

We tell him “Chris, it’s over.” and buy him another Guinness Extra. Ten minutes later and we’re planning how we’ll manage to make words pictures with 57 young people at iEARN.

But a whole day happened before that…

After writing the first posting, Chris arrived annd we set off to find an internet café where we could upload the words and pics. Chris took us off the main road into the places where people really live – small tin huts mainly, no bigger than a small garden shed.

There are children playing around water taps, everywhere here there are children with beautiful faces and big smiles – they love Jon and Murray taking their pictures “How are you today, sah? Snap me, snap me! Pleaase sah, you snap me!”
Then they jump about when they see the pic on the display.

As we walk about people look at us with interest. Some of the younger men carry an air of aggression about them, but generally people are friendly, particularly if you greet them with a simple “Hello, how are you today?”.

These streets are narrow, many dead ends, no road surface or path, just thin tracks with shacks piled against each other. Tiny shops, fantastic folk-art advertising, slogans like “It’s the best for cooking!” “Good for skin!” and pictures of happy African faces.

One tiny, tiny dark tin roofed, home-made hut is crammed with kids, above the door the sign says “In God we trust video club.” Inside there’s an old TV, two plank benches no more than 3 feet wide and a foot apart and maybe 12 kids watching or playing on the Playstation while the proprietor of the video club tries to keep order.

Down to Lumley Beach

After the internet café (two shipping containers butted together by the roadside) and after the evitably long wait while Jon immerses himself in technology, Chris gets us a taxi and we head down to a bar on Lumley beach.

Palm trees, sunshine, lots of UN vans and police – it’s safe here by day but another place entirely by night.

Chris bumps into his friend Mohammed, a sergeant in the military police, who joins us for an hour or two. Mohammed is 50 years old but looks 35, he’s lean and fit and has a powerful air of authority. He and Chris served together in the army during the civil war and Mohammed comes across as exactly the sort of person you’d want to be in charge if you were in the bush and surrounded by rebels (which they were).

Mohammed loves to talk and he’s a diamond-mine of knowledge about the turn of recent history, which is hard to follow at the best of times.

He explains that the rebels recruited soldiers by telling them that if they joined the rebel force they’d have food in their bellies, if they didn’t then they’d either be killed or they’d die of hunger. Sounds like a good deal when you put it like that.

Later Mohammed tells us about his wife and kids (who live in Brixton! Jon even speaks to her on the phone) and how he intends to come to live in England…

Then I start to get suspicious… it’s this place, you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t.

There’s a book called The Big Con, written in the 1930’s by an American professor called David W Maurer, which basically explains the mechanics of the various ‘long’ and ‘short’ con games that were being worked by grifters (conmen) on the railroads of America. The way it works is that a roper (Chris?) identifies his mark (some gullible rich looking fool – ie the three of us) who introduces the mark to an inside man (the charismatic sergeant) who wows the marks with amazing stories and wins their trust. The inside man then introduces the concept of an outside man (his wife in Brixton)… and so the elaborate con unfolds with quite cast involved…

Anyway, some of the details of Mohammed’s story stopped adding up and both Murray and I got an odd vibe. When he talked about his children in the UK I asked him their names and he avoided the question three times before coming up with an answer. He also told us that he’d been to the UK – then said that it was a military trip and he didn’t get off the plane.
So the bullshit detectors started twitching. He also started showing us ID cards to prove who he is… hmmm.

But then nothing else happened. The conversation continued, the charisma and charm continued. There were invitations to visit him at the army base. No real reason to doubt his intentions – and he was such a magnetic character…

Then Mohammed left us. He had to go and sort out his uniform and get some sleep. The sun set behind the clouds, the palm trees swayed and nightlife moved in – and with it the inevitable girls, ready to try to work their own style of scam. Two Guinean girls dressed for clubbing, flashing their smiles and trying to strike up conversations. We tell them we’re married and that we’ve come here to work and make friends – not to sleep with women. They’re disappointed, but they leave.

Next stop, Binta’s Bar on Lumley beach. But you’ve read about that already.

Next posting

We’ve done a days work with the kids at iEARN and moved to another hotel because we were worried about our security at the other place. I’ll write about that later. Right now it’s Tuesday morning at 9:15, it’s hot. We’re sitting outside our hotel waiting for a cuppa. In a few minutes we’ll get this posted.