Daniel is the elder brother of our friend Tony, who is currently living in Hull and working as a volunteer with a Catholic programme and in a refugee support centre. Tony’s sent back various presents for his family, and he also wants us to deliver a mobile phone to his mum, who lives in Magaburaka, beyond Makeni, in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone.
In Krio, going into the country is known as going ‘upline’.
It turns out to be an expensive trip. We buy rice and kerosene as gifts, fuel the car and set off, having got through £60 just like that. £60 is a very decent month’s wage in Sierra Leone.
It’s a big estate car with seating for 8, so with the girls in the back, Daniel and I in the middle seats, Jon and the driver in front, we eventually wind our way through the foul pollution and crowds of Kissy in the East Side, heading upline 130 miles toward Makeni on the finest road in Freetown, about as good as any country ‘A’ road in the UK.
The difference between Freetown and the countryside is striking. From tin roof shanty shacks piled against each other, to traditional, circular, palm-roofed mud huts and naked kids.
We stop by the roadside and a group of young locals prepare fresh coconuts for us. In various small towns we’re waved-through numerous police roadblocks (bribery points) as soon as the officials see the powerfully built Daniel in his uniform.
Across plains spotted with strangely-shaped termite nests, and dotted with swaying palms, the heat blazes and the hot wind rushes in through the open car windows, hotter than a hairdryer on full blast.
At a single lane bridge where cars are forced to slow down by a series of speed bumps, a small community of traders has sprung up, offering fresh bananas, mangoes, coconuts and pineapples. The children crowd around the windows shouting the prices, and posing for Jon’s camera shout “Snap mi! Snap mi, sah!” They want to hold our hands. I pull faces and quack and they laugh. Jon shows them their faces on the screen and they’re delighted.
On again across superheated plains, solitary figures till tiny plots of land, people walk by the roadside carrying things on their heads, more huts, bare-chested women sitting in doorways.
Someone told me there were elephants in parts of Sierra Leone, but that they were all eaten during the war.
Finally, we’re in Magaburaka, at the family home where Tony, Daniel and family were born. They’re a Temne family and don’t speak English or Krio. The house is in street of other similar houses, all built perhaps 50-60 years ago when Magaburaka was the regional capital (it’s since been superceded by Makeni).
The house has a colonial bungalow, plantation-style look from the outside – the town is a centre for sugar cane production so presumably the architecture fits the general picture. Inside it’s barn-like. Dusty, dark, no furniture. This is an agricultural existence, probably as basic as it’s been for years, but even more reduced since the war. There’s no power whatsoever, the kids wear scraps of clothing if any, there’s no TV.
But we get a wonderful reception. Uncle Daniel the educated army man brings the white guys to town, with their laptop and their video message from the much-loved Uncle Tony in Hull. It’s another moving moment, especially when you realise that our flying visit will be remembered by some of the kids here for the rest of their lives.
The older relatives watch the Tony message with Jon and then all record their own short filmed messages for him. We can’t understand a word they’re saying but they’re incredibly confident and fluent in front of the camera.
I chat to a local councillor, a lovely, intelligent bloke with a warm smile and a kind way with the kids. He formally welcomes us and chats about life in the community, how everyone is trying to care for each other, regardless of tribe or religion; how people live communally, and everyone takes responsibility for the children; how they have learned over the years not to rely on the government but to rely on each other.
I tell him about how Tescos and television and greed are destroying our traditions and communities back home. He says that we all have a lot to learn from each other.
While we wait for Daniel to finish his family conversations I play funny faces with the kids.
The journey back is fine for two hours during daylight. After dark it’s nearly two more hours of living nightmare on half a fading headlamp. I sit back in my seat and try not look out through the windscreen.