“I get by here with a mixture of Buddhism and Catholicism,” Adam explains in his Boston drawl, “All life is suffering,” he pauses, centering himself, “…And I deserve it.”
I think of this as I grip the pillion bar of the motorbike, clouds of dust and thudding over rough tracks in the bush outside of Makeni, down tracks barely the width of the bike’s tyre and rough unsurfaced roads that jump and dip with sudden deep ruts and loose gravel. Laurence, though, navigates the tracks with practised ease. He has been kind enough to invite me out with him for the afternoon, visiting the projects run by his organisation checking on the people they employ to survey the villages’ water and sanitation requirements. Laurence is an old hand in Sierra Leone, makes small talk in Krio comfortably with the locals whilst explaining knowledgeably about his project and the need for behaviour change at root level. After an afternoon in the bush he drops me by his office and I wander the mile or so back home through the frenetic activity that makes up a Makeni afternoon. I meet Georgie downstairs from our flat and we go for a cold beer, talk about weddings.
So much has happened in the few short days since we arrived it seems strange to talk about marriage, back home, as far away as August, but it is comforting, too, to think of home and the people we’ll see.
We had arrived into Lungi airport dusty Friday afternoon, negotiated our way with piano in tow through the customs office (where my layers of cling film deterred detailed exploration) and emerged into hazy sunlight and grasp of hands. Georgie’s experience showed immediately as she dodged the crowds and led us straight to purchase our tickets for the Pelican – the fast boast to Freetown. Far from the cramped ferry of my imagination, the Pelican is an almost-smart fibreglass cabin cruiser that whipped us across the choppy channel in about 30 minutes to Freetown where, with elaborate care, the crew gently deposited the piano on the shore, followed by us.
Carmen was waiting to meet us and before long we were piled into the Hilux and into the chaos of Freetown. I watched it all with mouth agape and sat nervously in the car with my hand on the door locks whilst Georgie and Carmen went to buy supplies. Then to Carmen’s home and the Sierra Leone office of Georgie’s project, a guarded and gated compound with a comfortable flat on the top floor in an unassuming area in the north of the city.
Georgie warned me not to get used to the running water but now, even less than a week in, I can barely remember what such decadence felt like.
On Saturday morning we set out for Makeni. I have some video, if anyone wants to see it, of what that journey was like. For the most part it was fine, on well surfaced roads that would shame many of our own back home but there was a good stretch at the beginning that, even in the dry season, was more akin to a proper off-road challenge. About 4 hours later, having arrived in one piece and got everything moved in we decamped to The Clubhouse, a pleasant bar run by a local charity, Street Child. Laurence had bought champagne to welcome us and Georgie introduced me to my first taste of groundnut soup. Post lunch we return home for a brief nap to recuperate before meeting up again with Laurence and Carmen in the evening who take us to a bar in the town where we meet Adam and his aunt. I look through a dingy be-grimed window to what looks like a bare concrete garage where an old cooker has a sort of disposable barbecue balanced on top of it where they cook the food. “How’s that for a kitchen,” Laurence says. I think about HACCP and the kind of paperwork I would have to complete for a risk assessment on that, in my previous life.
Sunday we wake late and unpack our things. We sit on the balcony and read in the sun. The rear of the property is very peaceful, a view to the hills and the university campus with a sports field in between,. Life on the back balcony moves slowly and calmly, but you never quite escape the frenetic energy of the main road in front of the flat where life moves very fast and quite inefficiently. Mangoes are sold at an astonishing rate and cab drivers holler at fares. A lot of noise seems to be made for relatively little progress. From 6 in the morning there is an endless melee of sound, a chorus of honking and shouting and thumping bass beats that lasts until the early hours.
I just want to be clear about the thumping bass beats.
For a moment.
You know in a film where sometimes, in a scene, the only sound is the music of the soundtrack (there is a great – albeit quite violent – scene in John Woo’s “Face Off” that is a good example of this)
Here they have taken that as an aspirational state. So Georgie and I have a new soundtrack to our lives which, instead of “somewhere over the rainbow”, is a constant throbbing dance beat.
SCENE OPENS: WE SEE A MAN WAKE BLEARILY, WASH IN COLD WATER WITH CUP AND BUCKET, BUY BREAD AND ATTEMPT TO BREW COFFEE ON A CAMPING STOVE. HE BREAKFASTS ON LAUGHING COW CHEESE WHILST HIS FIANCEE CHECKS EMAILS.
SOUND:UN-CHA UN-CHA UN-CHA UN-CHA UN-CHA UN-CHA UN-CHA UN-CHA
In the afternoon we take a stroll through the University grounds and the later we meet up with Laurence and Carmen again who take us to dinner at the Lebanese restaurant, plead with George the owner to put white wine in the fridge (“I have never tried white wine”, he eventually shrugs) and introduce us to a Venezuelan lady who will be our doctor. We fall, unconscious, into bed, minds buzzing.
On Monday Georgie starts work. Carmen arrives early and I drift, write and dream while they busy themselves with work. I clean the galley, note evidence of pest infestation and secure our food products against further occurrence. Nothing prepares me for the size of the cockroach I see downstairs later, but that’s between me and my nightmares.
After lunch I join Carmen and Georgie on campus where Adam, the registrar, offers me work. This hasn’t really happened in England before, where mostly I don’t get offered jobs, but there seem to be at least three on the table at this point. I try to say as little as possible to avoid souring the deal. One of the jobs involves possibly moving out to Joni, just outside of Makeni. Some of you might remember my slightly facetious sketch of my imagined African home, entry before last.
It’s like I drew a picture of Joni.
Although, contrary to Georgie’s promises about the safety of Sierra Leone, Joni comes complete with Mambas, Cobras and “scorpions the size of cats”- but no dance beat soundtrack, so its 50-50.
Carmen drives us out there and we have have a beer in the campus bar. The campus itself is beautiful, the scenery stunning. The buildings are nearly new and there are promises of internet and running water.
Ultimately the decision as to where we live is unlikely to be ours: we live at the pleasure of the university – if they want us in Joni, so be it, if not we will stay here in our spacious, pretty and insanely noisy flat in the town. At night it is quiet, we have space for visitors and Georgie commutes from the bedroom across our hallway. It is nice. Joni is peaceful and beautiful and populated with giant spiders, Sumatran rats and very possibly crocodiles. There is also, definitely, a monkey which Carmen describes as “sexist”.
We want to drink palm wine (“Poyo”) with Adam but as he can’t get the “God-to-man” stuff at short notice it has to wait for another day. We ride back to town with Carmen and meet Laurence at The Clubhouse, where inexplicably Nick from the Apprentice is visiting.
I am astonished by the number of very young western people there who have all arrived in Makeni to save the world – principally by organising the Street Child marathon which sounds like a gladiatorial race of attrition held in the searing heat of May to benefit the charity. I feel utterly at sea amongst them, so young and full of ideals, but the food and the drink is good, and as someone who has arrived here bereft of a plan their enthusiasm is refreshing.
On Tuesday I brew coffee whilst Georgie buys bread. I fret about the curtain above the stove and since my bain marie approach to using the coffee maker has proved woefully ineffective I balance the pot on the flame and keep a suspicious eye on it whilst I search for the ever elusive World Service on the radio. And in the background the soundtrack goes UN-CHA UN-CHA UN-CHA.
Georgie heads up to campus around 9 and I sketch the scene from the balcony whilst I wait for Ebrahim to come and clean the flat. When he arrives we chat for a while on two unrelated topics before he says “after some time we will understand each other”. Lean and fit he brings us buckets of water from the well and I feel deeply guilty and deeply ineffectual with each haul he brings. At 12 Georgie returns from the campus, shaken and worried by the morning’s events – it seems the university are surprised to see her, shocked at her arrival and with limited knowledge of the handover of business to her. Georgie is stunned, concerned and thrown. We go for lunch, talk, take breaths and calm each other. We walk into town and go through the rigmarole of buying SIM cards – one of which future Ian will discover is broken – then find the SierraTel building where a man called Mac seems to be the only man in town who can sell us the internet.
At this point, my experience of the country has been overwhelmingly positive, people go out of their way to greet you and shake your hand and say hello or try to help, without being overbearing or intrusive. The natural, relaxed friendliness of the average person has been lovely. We are warned constantly of the things we must watch for, but no-one questions the sociability and casual openness of the average man on the street. Prices have a habit of increasing for us, but always with a smile and a rueful grin when the ‘error’ is noted. Georgie has endured a morning somewhat more difficult, with faculty members apparently quite upset at the way things have been handled and at our apparent annexing of university property. As we walk and talk, however, things take on perspective and by the time we arrive back on campus Adam reassures us that this is but a hiccup and all is once again well with the world.
By the evening we can sit again in the sun, and this morning Georgie was able to begin work proper – and I was able to don helmet and lurch off into the bush.