It was intended to be a rest day, but then the production schedule for one of the group’s (leader Philip Adams) films about the history of the city fell behind so we moved it to Saturday, thinking we could combine it with some sight-seeing.
So the plan was to met at 12.
In the morning our gingery friend Chris showed up with two guys who are big stars in Freetown – musicians and performers who have their own TV show and also work with the UN. I’d got writing to do so I left them with Murray and Jon.
The 12 o’clock start failed to materialise. Franklin turned up to get things going but then went to the centre and came back telling us that not everyone was ready. There then followed a long period (hours) where no-one seemed to know what was happening, so eventually we decided to go to a nearby cinema and watch the FA Cup Final.
Wild place. Wooden benches in pitch darkness. The Salonians were generally supporting West Ham (I think Reo-Coker has Sierra Leone connections) – much whooping and shouting, just like home.
After the match there was more too-ing and fro-ing before a plan seemed to be emerging. With Philip and two of the girls, Memunatu and Elenya (I’ll have to check my spellings) we’d go to Wilberforce village where the musician/performer guys live, make a film with them, then make another with Philip looking at the history of Wilberforce.
So we pile into a fleet of taxis and off we go, winding our way up into the hills of Freetown, with fantastic views of the city below.
After dropping off and meeting the performers’ family, all sitting around outside shacks below a big old cotton tree, the filming starts. We move around the village as Jon captures the performer fellas doing a kind of funky Bill and Ben routine. Various takes, crowds gather. I take a back seat and chat with Philip and Memunatu.
Palm wine and courting
To Murray’s complete delight (like he’d finally found the Holy Grail, I’ve never seen him move so fast in all the time we’ve been here) we spotted a roadside stall selling palm wine. Memunatu tells us how people tap the trees and the palm wine comes out naturally fermented. There’s no brewing or additives. Alcohol from heaven, says Philip. It tastes like sweet, rubbery potatoes and vodka.
Memunatu explains that traditionally in Sierra Leone, if a boy likes a girl then he takes her a bottle of palm wine, some kola nuts and maybe a live chicken. Philip says that this practise is slowly dying out in the city, it’s still common in the provinces.
I tell them that in England a boy might give flowers to a girl, though it’s probably more likely that they’d just go halves on a pizza.
Memunatu wants to know if it’s really true that in the UK a girl can ask a boy out on a date and feel no shame. I explain that yes, it’s true and it’s common. It’s clearly an eye-opening idea. In Sierra Leone if a girl were to ask a boy out she’d be marked down as a loose woman with no morals
It’s pleasant at Wilberforce, high on a hill over Freetown, and there are barracks nearby. It’s tidy, a little slower than other places and the air is less polluted. A village atmosphere, people sit around or walk about in the streets, lots of friendly chat, lots of handshaking going on.
After filming we hang around outside an internet café, chatting while Jon uploads the blog. Again, we’ve had to postpone our commitment to Philip – daylight has run out – but he’s a great kid, patient and kind, and Murray promises him the whole day on Monday – which is more than he would have got otherwise.
In many ways Philip, Elenya and Memunatu are just like any well brought-up, bright, young people from anywhere in the world. They watch the OC and Friends and 24 on Sierra Leone satellite TV (placing them in a fairly privileged and small minority), they’re polite and proud, well-dressed, respectful, fun and funny. But they also have incredible physical poise and leadership ability (the kind that is perhaps taught from an early age).
Memunatu tells me that she is now at business school and one days she hopes to run her own business – perhaps some kind of manufacturing business. She hopes to travel and to learn more about marketing opportunities, but to bring her skills back to Sierra Leone.
So often when you speak to the kids here you hear this. Whilst it’s clear from things that other people have told us, and from what we read and hear on the radio, that the ruling classes in Sierra Leone are broadly and deeply corrupt, these kids want to play a role in making their country a better place. They don’t want to escape, they want to make their skills work for their country. It’s a view you’d rarely hear in the classrooms of Hull.
In this country where people have to beg, steal or prostitute themselves to pay for their children’s education, where a source of electricity is a rare privilege, where a real, fair democracy is still a dream, I explain to them that in the UK education is free, prescriptions are free, the old, the sick and the incapacitated are supported by the state. They’re astonished. They can’t believe we have it so good.
When I tell them that in Hull only 38% of the people vote in elections they think I’m kidding them.
Time’s always running out for Jack Bauer, Chandler’s always a goofball, there’s always Coca-Cola.
There are points where worlds come close, so close that you can reach out and touch. But sometimes it’s like being on another planet. As we stand outside the internet café in the darkness, and the stallholders huddle around their kerosene lamps, Philip remembers how he stood almost in this same spot just a few year ago and watched as a young mother ran don the street with her toddler while a Nigerian jet plane bombed them from above. As the bomb exploded, shrapnel hit the child in the neck and she was killed.
We have to move on, explain Philip and Memunatu. We have to put it behind us.
Back at the hotel
Oh, here we go. Back at the hotel. Our nice, safe, friendly hotel.
Once again the streetlife has infiltrated. It’s too complicated to explain, but some dodgy geezer who showed up last Sunday at the beach bar where Chris took us just before we nearly got robbed or arrested, has found us and wants to talk to us.
We beat hasty retreat to our room and try to sift the way through paranoia, scams and general security issues.
We’re three white guys in a black city. We’ve got money and equipment. There are too many links between too many people that we seem to have met in completely random circumstances. It’s like the bush telegraph is working a full pace.
Add in the fact that we’re exhausted, that there’s no air-conditioning, that Murray in particular has been sleeping badly and that the hotel only has electricity for 12 hours of the day (and none at all on Sundays!) we decide that for our own safety, we’re going to move on again.
We were hoping to visit Number Two River tomorrow for a boat ride (relaxation, crocodiles, a waterfall). Instead we’ll be looking for a new hotel.