Family Kingdom

Our new base

It’s Tuesday morning now, and I’m sitting in the bizarre surroundings of our new hotel, a series of ‘villas’ and small apartments surrounded by a wall

During breakfast, tiny deer roam around the dining area and come sniffing at your table. Rabbits run around. There’s a pond full of terrapins and some huge black and white birds of prey in cages.

We’ve got air-con, 24 hour electricity, lots of security and fast wireless internet. It’s a small taste of what tourism might become one day – though there are no tourist guests at this place, it’s all NGO officers and businessmen.

The place is owned and run by Lebanese brothers and cousins. One of them tells us that there is a 7000-strong Lebanese community in Freetown. The first group came here in the 19th century. They thought they were heading for the US, but money ran out during the journey and the captain of the ship dropped everyone off in Sierra Leone. It was fifty years before they managed to get word of their whereabouts to their relatives back home.

Outside the compound is the beautiful Lumley Beach, fringed with coconut and palm trees. Looks great, but you can’t walk around without being pestered by amputees and beach-boys, or being glared at by gangs of youths. It’s safe but tiring by day, though put a foot outside the compound at night and you’re in the hands of thieves and prostitutes.

Last night Murray was in the car with Andrew from iEARN, driving along the beach road, when a white guy suddenly ran out from the beach and into the road, desperately waving his arms and chased by some shady figures in the darkness. He missed the car by inches.
When the road is empty you don’t stop to help. It could be an ambush.

It’s exhausting.

But the room is clean and cool and inside the compound it feels very safe.

Monday – the last day of filming

Busy day – Murray was out with Philip’s group making a film about the King Gimi area of Freetown which used to be the slave market. The old shackles are still there on the walls, so is the jetty where the first freed slaves landed when they settled in Freetown. But the place is mired in poverty. It’s a mess and it’s falling apart. This historical area should be Freetown’s pride, a real tourist trap, but instead it’s festering and unsafe for any outsider without an escort.

Jon and I spend most of the day with the girls filming the HIV/Education morality story they have written and rehearsed. They’ve put so much work into it and the acting is wonderfully, comically exaggerated. The production planning too has been very good – locations all sorted, costumes and make-up properly planned.

But they haven’t fully understood what’s involved in shooting a drama – all the different angles, takes and retakes, all the movement – so we all learn together. Most of it’s new for Jon and me too.

The great thing is, we get to see yet another side of life here. We film inside a clinic, in the cemetery and in a small compound of perhaps 10 tiny family houses. Crowds gather, it’s incredibly hot (I’m drenched with sweat). Sometimes we have to shout at people, but we all stay friends.

The last scene we have to shoot is intended to take place in a bar in Aberdeen (not the Scottish one, the Freetown one), so everyone involved has to pile into taxis. It’s rush hour and the light is running out, and we’re all very tired and stressed.

It’s not until we’ve set off that I realise what we’re walking into. The scene features a bad girl (Gloria, a bit of a tart) on a date with a bad kid (played by a girl dressed as a boy). The pair of them get friendly and the implication is that they will later sleep together (Gloria subsequently dies of AIDS).

So what we’re talking about is two white guys filming a scene at night with two black girls who are acting as though they will soon be having sex.

There’s no way we’re doing that. We’ll be lynched.

It takes an hour to get to our destination and when we arrive I have to explain what we’ve decided. We’ve wasted everyone’s time, but I think they see our point. We reschedule the shoot for the morning at the hotel. We’ll talk to the management here and make sure they understand what we’re doing.

The day ends with the best meal we’ve had in a bar which backs onto the hotel, just yards from our room.

We fight off the attentions of more prostitutes. The restaurant even has a couple of them who are an unofficial item on the menu. After the main course the waiter tells us the ladies want to buy us drinks. Naturally, we refuse.

After the meal Murray and Jon head out into the hotel compound to surf the net under the stars. I stay in and read through some of the written work the kids have done – two exercises – ‘If I was president’ and ‘My shopping list for Sierra Leone’