“Ok Fadders, dis is not prayin’ time – dis is runnin’ time!”
And so, just when we thought our excitement had peaked after the announcement of the climactic dance contest, the commentator upped the ante, calling for the parish priest 100 metres sprint.
It was sports day at the University of Makeni.
The campus had talked of little else for the preceding fortnight and on Thursday afternoon I had watched with interest the construction of various bamboo and palm grandstands on the sports field so I don’t know why I was so surprised when, at lunchtime on Friday, the PA system crackled to life with an ear splitting squeal that set the neighbourhood dogs howling and made me spill my drink across the desk. By now I am more or less used to the volume of playback favoured by our host country – if the speakers aren’t distorting you’re not playing it loud enough – but the DJ’s choice of recorded gunfire and explosions to test the setup seemed a little odd, even to my jaded ears. The setup needed a lot of testing, too, so I spent the next hour or so feeling as though I was an extra in the early scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Finally satisfied with his work he span up one of his limited selection of records and the pulsing Afro-beat music began. Afro-beat is the ubiquitous music style here, a sort of mix of tribal rhythms, chart pop, pounding synthesised beats and generous application of Autotune. We’ve been here too long already, because I’m really starting to like it.
It turns out this is fortunate as the announcers eschewed the traditional commentary approach, preferring instead to start the race with a holler of “Hey Mr DJ, push it!” upon which the athletes would set off around the track to musical accompaniment. Kind of like a giant kids party. Occasionally the announcer would break into the music to berate the athletes for not trying hard enough or to warn them of potential infringements before signing off either with “Over!” or “Ok selector!” At which point the music would continue. Between races he would digress into details of the various rules governing each event or try with limited success to acknowledge the equality of the female competitors. “Of course, dae are tryin for equality!” He would point out, disappointed at the ladies’ efforts in one event, “But dae are not tryin as hard as di men!”
“And the red team will be enjoyin’ a red card for that violation”
I am really appreciating the precise use of the English language here. Their grammar is extremely correct and the word choice often quite poetic. “Yeah” is not a word used here and Georgie and I have both had to get used to saying “How are you?” Instead of the sort of lazy “h’ryu?” that would pass back home. We both liked very much how teams were not given penalties, but were to “enjoy” red cards for their infringements.
Georgie had arrived back from Bonthe on Friday evening as the sports drew to a close for the day, so despite my descriptions she wasn’t prepared for the resumption of festivities during our late brunch on Saturday. As the sound system burst into life with a fresh riff of machine gun fire we were forced to shout across the table simply to hear each other. Even sat side by side we had to speak directly into each other’s ears to converse as though the entire cacophony was occurring right inside our brains. Strangely, however, Saturday’s events began with a minute’s silence. This is not that unusual but unlike the strict adherence to the 60 second standard observed in the UK, we have often speculated that the Sierra Leonean ‘minute’ seems to be somewhat malleable, so when they announced it this time I decided to measure it. Have a guess how long it was. I’ll put the answer at the bottom.
As the events got underway and we sat watching the smooth long legged run of these natural athletes under the blazing sky I almost felt bad about supping my tepid beer, but my endurance is seemingly without limit and I stuck with it whilst relays were run, penalties were handed out, red cards enjoyed for various infringements and athletes who didn’t seem to be making enough effort were harangued by the announcers. It was almost a relief to discover that the students were somewhat less adept at some of the field events – adopting either the “John Cleese” or the “face first” approaches to high jump that seem unlikely to catch on on the international circuit. The tug of war, on the other hand, was a truly a clash of titans, by which time Georgie and I had rallied firmly behind the blue team who, despite house colours being assigned at ‘random’, have supposedly lost the last nine sports days in a row and were trailing in the standings by some two hundred points. They finished a gallant fourth in the tug of war, beaten only by all of the other teams.
As the sun began to sink towards the horizon and the scene took on a rich golden hue, the assembled clergy, with only moderate encouragement from the announcer, finally took their places on the blocks and began limbering up. Georgie and I had begun sniggering about Father Ted but this is not Craggy Island, and it quickly became quite clear that these fathers wanted to win. Our employers, the Holy Fathers of the Catholic University of Makeni are a competitive bunch, both on and off the track, and the ensuing sprint would have shamed Reverend Bolt himself.
We saw it all from our grandstand vantage, toasted the winners and cheered on the underdogs as the athletes thundered past, all helpfully accompanied by the continuous dance beat soundtrack. Of course, throughout the course of the day, sitting at a distance on our balcony there were some details we inevitably missed – for example during the closing ceremony at some unseen signal the entire crowd of about 300 people inexplicably began stampeding right across the field for reasons that completely eluded us at the time. It was only the next day that we heard that someone had their pocket picked and to the cry of “teef!” the assembled hoards had charged to dispatch efficient if somewhat rough justice to the accused.
Overall the event was kind of brilliant, if generally abusive on the eardrums.
Sports of a different kind this weekend, although after a barbecue at Viviana’s last night neither Georgie nor I were in much of a mood to get up at 5:30 to watch the start of the Makeni marathon, a slightly odd event run by Street Child, a British charity who apparently do something other than operate a restaurant and organise a marathon, though most of the volunteers we met seemed slightly sketchy as to what those other operations might be. First reports suggest they mis-measured the half marathon distance adding around 7km to the run on one of the most sweltering days in recent weeks. Whoops.
Even better than that, though, I found a way to “watch” the Monaco Grand Prix:
Although the internet did conk out 7 laps from the end, and there was a disappointing lack of Afrobeat accompaniment.
Oh, and the minute’s silence? 6 seconds.