I’m woken by a loud “thud”. It’s 3:30am. The power is out and the air is still, stifling hot under the mosquito net. Without the comforting susurration of the fan, it’s eerily quiet.
I sit bolt upright. Georgie stirs next to me. “What the hell was that?”
Silence for a long moment.
This time she hears it too.
Through the frosted glass of the window a strange orange light flickers. I slide out of bed and creep over to the window. Fluorescent lights still glow in the buildings across the sports field and a movie cliche lodges in my mind. They’ve cut the power to the building….
At the edge of the sports field nearest us a small fire burns. A shadowy figure moves around it, adding fuel, stoking the flame. He stops, turns his back to us and warms himself. All is indistinct and blurry, if I look away for a moment the afterimage of the fire is reflected in my eyes, and if the figure moves more than two paces from the blaze he fades into the shadows. I watch quietly, squinting to see, and in the silence he bends, picking something up from the ground, before turning slowly to face exactly where I stand. In an easy motion he pulls his arm back and with a smooth fluid arm hurls the object into space.
A moment passes.
It strikes hard against the outside wall of our apartment. A moment passes, and the figure turns silently back to his fire.
It has been a busy week. I write now on Thursday, Georgie’s birthday, whilst she is up on the university campus charging her laptop. Two days on we are still without power, though it now transpires this is related more closely to an issue with topping up our meter than the actions of a master criminal. Georgie’s work is now in full swing and she is busily arranging meetings and delegates ahead of training and a conference that takes place in Freetown next week. There are a number of things to be organised ahead of time and she is battling with a lack of electricity and patchy internet connections to co-ordinate all the players. I have been interviewed by the university for a job and await the outcome. During the week we have dined with Laurence and travelled out to Yoni on the back of motorbikes to drink Poyo straight from the tree. Using only a strap made from the palm, which they wrap around their waist and then around the tree trunk, men climb barefoot up the tree to the very top where they attach plastic bottles. These collect the palm wine which drips from cuts made where the coconuts would usually grow. During the day the Poyo ferments and by the time they harvest the bottles at the end of the day is lightly alcoholic. It is a cloudy white liquid, delicate in flavour and slightly effervescent. The poyo bar is a bench behind a hut where we sit, watching the sun set while men climb trees for poyo which is then glugged out into our mugs. It’s a pleasant way to pass the time.
Last Friday we headed out with Adam, his aunt and their driver, John, on a weekend tour of the country. Barely an hour out of Makeni, at Magburaka, the journey was already in jeopardy at the first of a number of police checkpoints. Checkpoints seem to be everywhere and their legitimate purpose is, so far, fairly unclear to me. A tasselled rope is strung across the street and cars are stopped supposedly at random and checked. Often the police will chat idly for a moment before waving you forward, but this weekend our luck was out: an immigration official demanded to our papers, which he then declared to be deficient. Adam retired with the official to discuss the situation whilst we sat it out in the car. Immediately we were set upon by local children and beggars. Georgie hopped out on one side of the car and within moments had skilfully deflected the children’s requests for money and was chatting merrily about rappers, pop music and schools. On the other side of the car, Adam’s aunt Deb was having less luck arguing with two especially persistent and insistent beggars. It was hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable in the car and the wall of clamouring voices and reaching hands left me feeling a little trapped, but it was fun to watch how easily Georgie built a rapport with the people around her. We must have sat for some thirty minutes before Adam returned, leaving the chastened looking official in his wake. We got back on the road with little sense of victory and a small sense of foreboding at the checkpoints ahead.
We travelled east through countryside greener and more varied than that immediately around Makeni, passing dense forests, open plains and undulating hillsides. Tall palm trees, burnt-out plains and abandoned carcasses of cars lined the way. The temperature fell a little, and a breeze rose up. We passed from Bombali district into Kono and all was well until, approaching our destination at Koidu, another checkpoint loomed. The official here was even more disappointed in us. Kono is diamond country, he explained, and they had to be sure who was coming in and out. We were asked to leave our vehicle and accompany him to his post, which was a desk within a shabby grass hut where he inspected our papers and tutted elaborately. There were hushed conversations with his lieutenants, stern questions asked of us and voices raised in debate.
Whilst my four companions waded in to these discussions and raised their own voices in protest I squirmed in discomfort and remained quiet. A languid man sat slovenly on the bench across from us smirked mockingly. And through it all a large unidentified man, poured thickly in to the passenger seat of his Land Cruiser, watched on with amusement. Finally he spoke. He was waiting at the post for the imminent arrival of the vice president’s motorcade and was clearly keen for us to be gone before their arrival. “For the sake of the ladies’ comfort,” he rumbled, as everyone stopped to listen, “let us not detain these people any longer.” We hopped back into the car with relief and the police finally waved us on.
We arrived at Uncle Ben’s guesthouse in Koidu without further ado and checked in to comfortable rooms as dusk fell, just in time to see the 20-30 cars of the vice president’s cavalcade flicker through the tree-lined street below. An elegant compound with newly built rooms, air conditioning and stunning views from its hilltop vantage point gave Uncle Bens a real feel of luxury – and a trickle of tepid water from the taps sealed the deal.
Faces thick with a layer of orange road-dust that would have impressed an Essex girl we repaired to our rooms to shower before dinner. There was some confusion about what food, if any, was available at the hotel before an employee volunteered to show us somewhere nice for dinner. He hopped into the car with us and we bumped into town for food.
We found ourselves outside the garishly painted steel gates and broken-glass topped walls of an unlit compound. This was the place. After a while a single unshaded bulb flicked on and the gates creaked open. We were paraded into the centre of a featureless concrete yard, surrounded on all sides by high cement block walls, with rectangular cut outs at regular intervals that looked as though they were designed to facilitate gunfire out of – or into – the yard. It looked like a good place for a dictator to make a final stand. Only a week into our time here, and still some way out of my comfort zone – and with the checkpoint experience still fresh in my mind – the setting made me just a tiny bit nervous. We stood awkwardly in the centre of the yard whilst three or four youths brought over plastic chairs and a table. There was only one dish on the menu. Three of the five of us ordered it and in due course heaping portions were served up to us whilst the youths and our guide lurked in the shadows watching us.
The food was good, as promised.
With full stomachs we returned to our hotel and fell asleep beneath the benevolent hum of the air conditioner.
In the morning a good breakfast of coffee and eggs was served before we set off into the town with the hotel manager as our guide. He took us first to view one of the huge diamond mines operated in the town. The mine dominated the horizon, a huge flat-topped artificial mountain of slag lurking menacingly behind barb-wire topped walls. We were taken to a rise above the city for a better view but at the sight of our cameras the local people grew uncharacteristically wary and a young man ran out to stop us taking pictures.
We saw, also, evidence of the illegal surface mining which is apparently commonplace. Diamonds, until quite recently, were over-abundant in the area – you could practically trip over them in the dirt – and they still exist just a little below the surface. Our guide explained that the mine dominating the skyline was still going down through the vein of Kimberlite where the diamonds are found, and only when it reached the bottom of the vein would they explore how far it spread laterally. There are clearly still plenty of diamonds to be found here. Kono fared badly during the war. Its diamond mines were the rebels’ first target and the produce funded their activities. Much of the population of the town were enslaved to work the mines. The central boulevard of the town still shows signs of former grandeur – two cinemas once operated here, and still stand abandoned, and as we drove along the wide street our guide pointed at every other building saying, “that used to be…” Away from the centre we drove through a former Lebanese neighbourhood where the remains of their grand homes crumble into the overgrowth as the bush claims them back. We drove on in silence.
Our journey took us to the training ground of the country’s top football team, the Diamond Stars. Deb had wanted to obtain football shirts for her nephews back home and supposedly the best option was to ask the players themselves. After our initial search proved fruitless a child of about five hopped into the car to direct us to the home of one of the team. On arrival we were once again surrounded by children who were, in turns, terrified by Adam, befriended by Georgie and engaged in dance-offs with Deb. The t-shirt deal done Adam bought sweets for the children to distract them long enough that we could beat a retreat into the car. Koidu was a strange and broken town – a tragic history, and the sense of a complicated future, but the kids were fun, and happy.
We returned our guide to the hotel and set off for Kenema.