Fantastic flight – left Gatwick at 2:30 (after Murray had got his knuckles rapped for leaving a bag in the duty free causing them to evacuate the shop), clear skies nearly all the way. Flew over the small Brittany beach near Cancale where I spent days last summer with the family, then a couple of hours later over Malaga and Marbella (memories of teenage holidays) then first sight of Africa, the huge Atlas mountains and as the sun set the landscape changing to the strange sea-like waves and shadowy ripples of the massive western Sahara.
The atmosphere on the plane was brilliant – a taste of what was to come. People shaking hands, talking to each other, laughing. After a handful of Jack Daniels, Jon started making friends around the plane, people telling us about the state of the country, fragile political stability returning after the war.
Easy landing. The climate hits you immediately – 9:30 at night and honestly like a sauna, incredibly hot, sweat pours off you as soon as you move.
The airport is tiny and still feels like the 50s or 60s – hand-painted signs, ramshackle. Our contact Andrew (Andrew Benson-Greene from iEarn) had been delayed meeting us – so we had a few moments of panic, swamped by people either wanting to help us or wanting to relieve us of cash. People offering us taxis, wanting to ‘look after’ our bags, make calls for us.
Thankfully, there were people who knew Andrew – one or two of the airport staff were clearly on our side and helped us to fight off the many helping hands.
Visions of arriving in Freetown with no contacts, no accommodation, no transport, no maps and a huge pile of bags… then Andrew arrived.
After two hours of sitting in a big shed, we got onto the helicopter and fifteen minutes later we’re landing at Mammy Yoko in Freetown and again, fighting off the help from a swarm of porters and a foul-mouthed Marlboro-obsessed prostitute.
It’s midnight, pitch black and we’re in Andrew’s car, bouncing through the potholes. All along the road tiny stalls lit by kerosene lamps, people selling mangoes, snacks, hot peanuts. Tiny bars and shops, people walking along carrying bowls on their heads, hooters pipping. All the time, hooters. Cars talking to people in hooter lingo.
What’s it like? It’s basic and rough at the edges. Parts of it look like there have been moulded from Play-doh and wood. The beds have a patterned mattress-cover on them but no bedding, there are fans, no air-con in our rooms and it’s hot all the time. The electricity is switched off at dawn.
It’s right next door to a UN compound, which adds to the safety. The hotel is actually like a mini compound, with high razor-wire topped walls and a serious gate manned by security. The staff are friendly. It’s not luxury but it’s fine.
For breakfast there is a bread roll, tinned meat or sardines, a boiled egg, tea or coffee.
So far no-one is suffering from any stomach problems, though Jon could do to eat some more.
And at the time of writing, his main laptop looks like it’s broken so he’s not a happy man.
Freaked at Paddy’s
So anyway, Friday night we dump our stuff at the hotel and Andrew decideds he’s taking us to Paddy’s – a huge open air night club in the Aberdeen area of Freetown. It’s teeming, cars and people everywhere. We’re wide-eyed Englishmen and it’s written all over us. The prostitutes start on us as soon as we get out of the car – beautiful women, people here have beautiful smooth shining skin.
The prostitutes are a pest, invasive, trying too meet your eye, touching your face, smiling. It’s a kind-of coy, excess charm approach. Not rude, not obscene, but nevertheless unwanted and intrusive. After two hours of unremitting attention and booming ragga/dancehall we tell Andrew it’s time to leave, still fighting them off as we get into the car, pushing their heads back out of the window.
Back to the hotel at 4am. What an introduction to Sierra Leone.
Tinned chilli sardines with a hangover. Mmmmmm.
We walk down Aberdeen Road. Wow. This is the Sierra Leone/Africa you imagine. Little street kids with massive smiles “How are you today sah?”, “I am fine sah.” Women carrying bowls of greens and baskets of fish on the heads. Shanty housing, timber lean-to shacks with tin roofs or tarpaulins. Piles of rubbish, open sewerage channels.
People everywhere, moving slowly but with purpose, poised and loose with baskets on their heads. Smiling, interested in us. They love to have their photographs taken and Jon and Murray go into snap mode. There’s so much to see, fantastic homemade advertising art, pigs trotters dyed deep pink, streetside medicine sellers, wrecked cars strewn along the road a reminder of the civil war.
Out & About
On the bridge over the river we meet Chris, a ginger coloured Sierra Leonean (Salonean). Looks like Chris has decided he’ll be our guide. He walks with us and tells us what people are doing, where things are, what this world is like, how it works.
We buy him a beer and chat. Men come up to us and shake our hands, introduce themselves. Throughout the day people ask us for our contact details – everyone wants ”to have a discussion”. A fairly senior UN security man who passes the bar tells us we’ll be fine with Chris.
Safety is an issue the whole time so far. People are friendly and open but there’s definitely a sense that we are Englishmen = guilt = money. They have little, we have much, if we can give them something then many people here would be pleased to take it. You have to be firm in your refusals – you can’t pay everyone’s school bill/hospital bill.
There is also a sense that the stability here is fragile. The idea that round any corner there is chaos and juju – and there probably is. It’s not so long ago that some of the people here were disembowelling and raping others. Those memories are still too close and too horrific for people to deal with properly.
On the night we arrived at the hotel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre was playing on the hotel TV – violence contained within the frame of a screen must be reassuring after what people here have seen happening in front of them.
Meeting the young people at iEARN
In the afternoon Chris sorts us out with taxis and takes us to the national stadium where iEarn are based. As we arrive Murray gets caught out trying to photograph a juju street dance and beats a retreat when the kids try to take his camera from him.
The young people at iEarn are fantastic and very excited to meet us, singing us a brilliant acapella welcome song. We introduce ourselves and talk about the work we’re planning on doing with them. Lots of questions – they want to know about our professional credentials, our lives, whether they will really be able to make films, music and writing that will mean something to people in England – and of course, it will.
They’ve got loads of ideas and give us a presentation of work they’ve been doing – the girls club act out a TV style features programme, a young guy called Barmmy Boy raps for us and others sing and talk. The enthusiasm is remarkable and earnest. A real desire to learn and have a voice, make changes and improve their lives.
We talk to them about how we will all be working together as equal partners and that we have huge respect for them and their achievements. We also emphasise the fact that they should see the work as a way of giving something to people in Hull – that we’re not here on some sort of one-way charitable mission to ‘help’ them but that we’re here to learn too.
There are 57 young people at iEarn alone who want to be involved in the work we’re doing over the next fortnight, and we’ve also got some schools to visit. We’re going to be busy.
Freetown really is amazing. 36 hours in and already this place is changing our lives.
I’m getting emotional now so I’d best change the subject.
Day One after iEarn
Andrew and Barmmy Boy take us for drive through Freetown, up into the hills at the top of the city, past the prison and the courts compound where they’re holding the ex-president of Liberia Charles Taylor to try him for war crimes. Taylor funded the RUF rebels who recruited child soldiers and committed the atrocities during the civil war. The road winds past guarded embassy compounds, fancier gated houses cheek-by-cheek with shanty shacks all huddled together in ravines and by the road.
We try to visit iEarn’s music studio facilities at the War Child Canada building but Andrew doesn’t have his key. With rumbling bellies we sit in the sun and wait for something to happen (this seems to be a feature of the trip so far). Naturally, it doesn’t look like whatever was going to happen will happen. We watch a palm bird artfully stripping long stands of palm leaf, aerial acrobatics. Red headed lizards scamper along the wall. We drink a coke. Nothing happen. Stomachs rumble.
Finally we tell Andrew we need to leave to eat.
The restaurant is a fairly western looking terrace. They have none of the things I ask for from the menu so I settle for chicken kebab and fried rice. I wanted African food. Murray gets a huge veggie pizza. Jon manages some mushroom soup and then looks vaguely sick when his own pizza arrives. Barmmy Boy has a burger, Andrew some overcooked chargrill chicken cooked on the terrace.
We intend to make a film about Barrmy Boy. He has a hard life – has to fish for his breakfast each day, lives with a friend because his family can’t afford to support him. His father is blind, older sister was killed in the civil war, younger brother a street kid who picks pockets for a living. His hope is that his musical and poetic talent will lift him out of the poverty he’s caught up in.
Barmmy Boy tells me that away from the main roads people are dying of malnutrition. His baby brother died of malnutrition at five months.
It’s poor, Most people don’t have possessions, they don’t have a cupboard or freezer full of food, they don’t have a PSP or a PC or a digital camera.
People die of illnesses caused by the poverty of their conditions.
But in many other ways they are rich. These people greet others with respect and genuine warmth. The vitality of the street life and communities is like nothing we see in Hull or the UK. Compare Orchard Park or the Avenues with Lumley or Aberdeen – we sit in our houses watching TV, here people scrape a living but live with some sort of celebration of life.
They want more and need more, but hopefully more won’t just mean the horrible homogenised culture that capitalism and investment bring.
So lesson one from Mr Stephenson is don’t think of Africa as a charity case or an investment opportunity. It needs to be about equality not about money.