The road to Kenema was beautiful, less well travelled than that between Makeni and Koidu and all the prettier for it. Travelling a road that took us deep into the forest we expected at every turn to be confronted by leopards, monkeys or crocodiles. None appeared.
In the front Adam and John argued about superstitions. John was unhappy with Adam’s position.
“You shouldn’t say that, Adam,” John warned, “The Griffi will get you.”
“The Griffi can’t get me, I’ll go back to America. They won’t let the Griffi on the plane.”
They argued back and forth as to how the Griffi (a Sierra Leonean demon whose name I might be totally mis-spelling) might travel and the extent of its influence on non-Sierra Leoneans before Adam closed the discussion:
“I’m sorry, John, I just don’t believe in the Griffi.”
“Oh well, yeah, I don’t believe in the Griffi, either,” John blustered, “But it is real.”
We all liked Kenema immediately, it seemed more open and inviting than Koidu and with greenery and fresh breezes absent from Makeni. We were staying at the Catholic pastoral center which boasted sprawling grounds within an old plantation. It was surrounded by shady avenues of towering palms, green areas where kids played football and a cluster of pretty one-storey buildings within landscaped gardens. It even had a tennis court.
Georgie and I strolled through the grounds before one of Adam’s students, a boy named Alfa, met us to take us to dinner. In contrast to the previous evening Alfa clearly intended to impress and down a dusty sideroad in a nondescript part of town we were shown to a smart hotel compound with its own swimming pool – complete with a thick layer of green slime. We took dinner on an elevated rampart
overlooking the enclosure and with stunning views of the sunset fading over the hills. For an encore he took us to visit his grandfather who drank beer with us under a corrugated lean-to in the shadow of an ancient, enormous TV set. Alfa’s grandfather sat comfortably like an extra from the Sopranos in a navy blue tracksuit and we listened as he and Adam discussed the politics of the country and the state of the universities. Periodically he would push a wad of Leones into the hand of a family member and send them for more beer. Meanwhile, Georgie and I fought to stay awake. There is something about the country that seems to leave us both exhausted at the end of each day. It might be the heat, or the food, or perhaps some previously unrecognised tropical disease. As someone used to the late nights and long days of the pub trade I suddenly find my eyes drooping at 9pm each evening and Georgie, an inveterate early riser, has become an almost religious convert to the charms of the ‘snooze’ button.
Very early the next morning the Catholic campus was roused by the Muezzin. It’s one of my favourite things so far: the important role religion plays in the lives of Sierra Leoneans – and how little it seems to matter which particular religion you follow. The previous evening Alfa’s grandfather had shrugged that Islam and Christianity were basically the same God and when Alfa pointed out, as a Muslim, that there were some differences in the religion his grandfather said, with only the mildest surprise, “You’re Muslim, Alfa? I didn’t realise”. Of course, that doesn’t mean Sierra Leoneans are free from prejudices of their own – they identify much more closely with their tribal heritage and have very clear and firm ideas about the differing natures of Temne and Mende people.
As someone taking their very first steps in Africa and trying to make this country my home it’s fascinating how often your assumptions and your cultural norms are challenged. You have to constantly adjust the prism through which you try to understand what is happening around you. A dozen times something that has seemed unfathomable to me at first glance suddenly makes sense in the context of everything surrounding it. It’s hard to give you a good example at the moment because the landscape shifts around me all the time and I’m constantly reminded how new I am here.
By way of attempt, here’s just one simple way in which I’ve had to turn my own experience on its head: When we first travelled from Freetown to Makeni I was entertained by how often everyone used the horn on their vehicle, honking constantly. As a car approaches you to overtake the horn will blare incessantly as they pull out to pass. Newly arrived from England where we use the horn sparingly and for the most part only to express our irritation at someone driving
inconsiderately this use of the horn seemed excessive and perhaps even indicative of a rude and impatient culture. But as we spent more time on the road I soon realised that on the contrary – on rough roads where cavernous potholes can loom in a moment and where drivers must keep their eyes fixed on the road ahead – it makes total sense for a car overtaking to warn, as a courtesy, and in the interest of safety, that they are passing. It’s a small thing, I know, but I’m finding more and more that at every level you can’t make any assumptions about anything here.
The following morning in Kenema Alfa met with us and took us to the sprawling market that spreads through the town centre. It’s a confusing rabbit warren of market stalls, shipping containers, tin shacks, partially covered walkways made of overlapping strips of mismatched corrugated panels, winding tarpaulin covered alleyways where chickens scatter and scratch, thrumming generators and knots of loosely fixed electrical cables hanging like bunting across narrow passages. Alfa flashed like a fish through the crowds and we battled to keep up as he dodged this way and that to satisfy our requests and curiosities. Georgie bought Lapa – swathes of brightly screen-printed waxed cloth to make sarongs and Adam bought coconut oil by the litre, measured out in a beer bottle from one of a dozen or more stalls in a humid covered area all selling what appeared to be variations on the same kind of heavily smoked fish.
From Kenema we began the long trip back home, pausing briefly in Bo (not to be confused with nearby Gbo…) for an excellent lunch before making the final long leg on good roads back to Makeni.
We have barely spent a quiet moment in Makeni since our arrival three weeks ago. With sketchy internet and unreliable power it has been all I can do to keep up with the goings on in this blog. Our trip to Kenema was almost two weeks ago now, as I write this last paragraph, and in my next post I’ll tell you all about last weekend’s trip to Banana Island before finally getting up to date with our movements here in Freetown. Things should settle down a little from here on – tomorrow we are going to meet the Ngbotima kids and next week Georgie supervises more training here in Freetown before we head back up to Makeni next Friday. Hopefully by then our electricity will be restored and with any luck I will be starting work proper.
And as for the man who lit the fire outside our apartment –
Well, we’re still figuring that one out.