I sleep well, Jon sleeps okay, Murray sleeps badly.
We’re moving on today.
After writing the Saturday blog on the laptop, ready to download whenever we manage to find an internet café, I pop downstairs to check if the hotel restaurant is open yet.
Our lovely housekeeper Good News (what a name) is sitting on a bench outside with her two sons, Mikey and Marcos. As always, she’s dressed in fine Salonian clothing. She comes over and gives me a hug: “Matt, I bring my sons for you to meet.” A shy 15 year-old and an even shyer 7 year-old. I shake their hands and we make the appropriate Salonian small talk. I tell them they have a wonderful mother who has worked very hard to make us feel happy (true). I ask them about school, their favourite subjects, tell them it’s a pleasure to meet them.
Good News tells me the restaurant is closed all day today, and there’s no electicity today either. Bad news.
Back upstairs Murray and Jon are sitting amidst their bags and technical chaos (cables, machines, cameras). We chat again about our decision to move on, check our motives, make sure we’re not being paranoid. We decide we’re not and that we have to move for both our safety and our sanity. You don’t really want to lose both of those things. They’re handy.
I tell them we need to help Good News out if we can, give her a few quid.
Jon (kindly and jokingly, but making a fair point) tells me that I should have toughened up by now and that we can’t help everyone. I know what he means. And I’ve also tried to avoid being the one with cash in my pocket because I can’t figure the currency. 100, 000 Leones (a huge wad of cash) is something like £30. A beer is 2000 Leones. I get confused.
Good News – there has to be good news
The restaurant is closed but Good News tells us she’ll fix us some breakfast. But like most things here, this doesn’t seem to happen very fast. Me and Jon chat with her on a balcony near our rooms. She sits on a chair and leans on the balcony wall, sometimes looking into the distance, speaking slowly, eloquently and clearly, telling us about her life as a mother in Sierra Leone, now and during the way.
She’s clearly in the mood to talk with us. We’ve all become quite close to her during our short stay. She’s so incredibly warm and kind. And people here know that the only ways they can find help are to tell their story and pray to God. They don’t have possessions or currency. Their stories are all they have.
Jon asks if we can film her. We explain that it is so people in the UK can understand what life is like here. She’s happy to let it happen. I’m a little foggy on some of the early details (Jon’s got it on film) but this is what she told us.
Good News was married to a school teacher and they lived with their children in Sierra Leonian second city of Bo.
During the civil war, when the rebels took Bo, the family fled to a village in the provinces. Good News tells us that the rebels were mad – she calls it physical witchcraft – they would sieze a pregnant woman and tell her that they wanted to know whether the child was a boy or a girl; when the woman couldn’t answer they would slit her stomach open to find out.
Sometimes they would round everyone up, lock them in a house, and then set the house on fire.
Sometimes they would pin people down and drip burning plastic their eyes.
These things happened. They are common experiences.
Once the rebels came to the village where Good News was staying with her husband, children and mother. When they came she fled into the bush, gathering her children as she could, running, fleeing from what might happen. She lost one of her kids, but three days later managed to find him. She also lost her husband and mother, but hoped that they’d be safe.
They hid in the bush for two weeks. The rebels sent troops in looking for stragglers, but they managed to evade them.
When the rebels left the village, Good News and her children went back to look for her husband.
They found him. He’d been killed and left in the street. She cries as she tells us that with her kids she tried to drag him into the bush and bury him. But they had no tools to dig with, the place was dangerous.
Her eldest son said that they should drag him under some leaves and leave him.
She doesn’t get to a point where she can tells us what happened to her mother and we don’t ask.
Good News has worked hard since the war ended. A friend in Freetown offered her accommodation and she decided to try to build a life for herself. She’s got four kids to put through school (remember, you pay for that here) and she explains that she’s not an educated woman.
Maybe not educated, but the strength of her character and her obvious eloquence, intelligence and nobility (like that of so many people here) is nothing short of a miracle. It’s humbled me. It’s also made me realise how powerful is the instinct to survive, and that those who survive best are those who care.
Good News hoped and prayed, she sold mangoes, she attended church and worked to help her brothers and sisters. She never stopped working.
Eventually she got her job at the hotel as housekeeper. She is paid 100,000 Leones a month (about £20) plus tips if she’s lucky. That’s 7 days a week. Her rent is 300,000 a month. The school fees she has to pay are around 20,000 a month. Then there’s food, kerosene, transport. Work it out: Income, say 200,000 (40 quid) outgoings 400,000 (80 quid).
I’ve written that and as I re-read it, it just looks like numbers.
After the interview both Jon and I sit on the balcony crying. This place opens your heart in ways it’s never been opened before.
How can we help?
We speak to Murray. He’s right. When we give her the money we need to make it clear that it’s got nothing to do with the film.
I tell Good News that we’re helping her because she’s cared for us and we respect how hard she works and what a friend she’s been.
So much for Jon telling me to toughen up.
We’re all changed men.