I have taken the day off work today and I sit looking over the field watching ephemeral cloud as it weaves mysterious shapes over the hill, sinuously hiding and revealing rocky outcrops like a conjuror’s silk handkerchief.
Rain, warm and fresh, soaked into us as we strolled home from the clubhouse last night. In the dark the ocadas slid by on the dirt road and shadows on sheltered porches called out to us as we picked our way laughing through the puddles, sliding out of our muddy flip flops. At home the power was on and we rushed to plug things in to charge before slumping into armchairs, drifting away under the fan to the sound of the rain thrashing on the tin roof.
We had said goodbye to Jess and Johnny, their six week stint here over too soon. Friendships made fast amongst those of us far from home, we drank Star beer together, ten of us in the shelter of a thatched hut watching rain cascade down, lightning dance and mosquitoes whirl.
Sometime earlier, in the week that we had run away to Freetown, I had arranged to meet kids from Ngbotima whilst Georgie worked. One by one they met me, Fengai first with an almost-shy smile, then Patrick and Foday grinning to meet us as we strolled past the breezeblock of the ministry building.
From the hilltop roads that insinuate themselves into the city Freetown is almost beautiful, like a mythical mountaintop settlement where clusters of low buildings nestle between palms and cling to a dozen sudden peaks and valleys that crowd and tumble toward a wide grey bay where the hulking black tankers sulk in the haze.
Up close the city is more complex, the buzzing hive of the country, an angry seething mass where ocadas swarm through the densely packed streets, a chorus of buzzing horns and two stroke engines that dodge between the blacked-out shiny four-by-fours of the rich and powerful, the filthy off-white landcruisers favoured by the international NGOs and the collapsing blue and yellow bestickered husks of minivans and ancient datsuns that serve as the capital’s busses and taxis.
The city epitomises the dissonance and paradox that is the country and my three young guides pick their way expertly through it, leading me jumping over the overflowing gutters and sidestepping missing paving stones which expose deep plunges into the murky sewer water below. Rough huts and stalls line the streets, selling the tshirts donated to charities back home, rich smells of the delicious street food I am no longer supposed to eat, brightly coloured plastic sandals, swathes of cloth. Filthy street urchins and grinning toothless beggars with hands outstretched.
And a bright red Porsche Cayenne rumbles past, sunlight glinting off its tinted windows.
Fengai leaves us at the corner, an errand to run, promises to meet us later if he can. Patrick and Foday skitter ahead, bickering about the best route to show me the “wonders” of Freetown and still be on time for our 2:30 appointment in Kingtom.
We walk alongside the high barb-wire topped wall of the Siaka Stevens National stadium that dominates this part of the city. It seems a good place to start. We are allowed to duck in through a small hatch in the main gate, a concession that surprises me until I see that the broad avenue inside the stadium enclosure is just an extension of the frantic hubbub occurring outside. Youth football teams are gathering for a national competition and Foday points out the best teams, the most skilled players. It’s important that I know he could have been a contender. We slip down a passage and emerge into the bowl of the stadium, find an unexpected haven of peace.
Patrick seems convinced that I have never before seen the inside of a football stadium, little guessing how close this is to the truth, and patiently points out to me where the players sit, where the VIPs go and what the scoreboard is for. Foday points out the painted advertising hoardings, “In England you have electric ones and they change. Here,” he shrugs, “it’s just paint.” He seems sadly resigned to this.
Patrick invites me to poke my head through a jagged hole in a pane of glass to see the exercise area inside, insists I poke my head right in and doesn’t seem at all concerned by the razor sharp shards grazing my jugular. Back out and around the edge of the stadium, we talk about what they will do now they have finished their exams. Patrick wants to be a reporter but does not know how he will afford the training. I tell him he should start reporting on things and see what happens. We find a promising looking backdrop, Foday takes my camera and Patrick interviews me. I am mostly baffled by his freeform questions and more or less repeat the same thing over and over, but Patrick himself seems to come alive in front of the camera, grows in stature as he speaks. I will post the video. As we wrap it up a guard strides over and berates Foday for filming without a permit. It’s fairly difficult to explain what we’ve actually been doing but Foday apologises and chuckles with relaxed confidence until the guard angrily wafts us away.
Not once in the whole interaction does the guard make eye contact with me.
Who are you supporting for the World Cup I ask them. Foday likes Brazil. Patrick seems surprised at the question – “England, of course,” he says and even though this happens before anyone has realised we had forgotten to actually enter a team for the World Cup this year I am still surprised by how firmly he says it. “Well, you’re our colonial masters,” he explains, straight faced and without irony, “Of course we would support you”.
I wonder if there are any other countries where this sentiment still exists. It’s a phrase we’ve heard often here, and although you can always hear the quotation marks when it’s spoken, it is nevertheless said with a curious note of pride. It’s more common than I would have imagined to find people who reflect on the period of British rule as a halcyon age, a time before everything began to crumble. And indeed, evidence of this time is still abundant – the faded grandeur of the colonial houses that squat with an air of embarrassment amongst the low concrete and tin abodes, the grand frontages of the government buildings and the crumbling tarmacced roads like cracked creme brûlée that sink slowly into the orange mud. For Patrick it’s a simple connection to a distant world. I can’t really imagine what it must be like to be so surrounded – as one often is in Freetown – by such conspicuous wealth, to have such access to imagery of lives and technology which are so far removed from your own.
At the front of the stadium Foday points out the best women’s team in the country with a kind of hushed awe. “Some of them play like men,” he says, giving me an approving nod.
“Do they ever play the men’s teams?” I ask.
Foday seems to think this is a foolish question, but being in earshot is invitation enough in this country to join a conversation and a young man with the team jumps in,
“Yes they do,” he says, “and they win.”
This is a country which is undoubtedly a long way from gender equality, but attitudes to women are far more complex and nuanced than I had imagined before I arrived. I think the best thing that can be said is that, although it’s far from a reality, you get the feeling that somewhere up ahead women do have the chance to be equal here. Nevertheless, it’s still necessary to display an advertising hoarding at the end of our road that reminds, “for beat ouman na crime!” (Beating a woman is a crime!) – but then the very fact of the sign’s existence perhaps hints at a move for change.
At the gate Patrick hangs back. “I don’t know if we should give something to the guard.” He says.
“Ok. How do we know?”
“If he says he wants cold water we should give him something”
In front of the stadium there is some debate on where else they should take me. I think they fear they have peaked too soon by taking me straight to the stadium and we are all conscious of the time and our appointment in Kingtom. “Let’s go to Kroo Bay”, Foday suggests, “I told you we would take you to the beautiful parts of Freetown.”
Patrick is less convinced, checks if I really want to see Kroo Bay.
I really do.
“Shall we get transport?” He asks Foday.
“No, you know white people like to walk in the sun. Remember Georgiana’s father?”
Thoughts of a bottle of cough syrup and a Fell rise unbidden in my memory. “Yeah,” I agree, “he likes to walk.”
“Why is that?” Patrick asks, “In England you don’t really have sun? So you never get to walk in it so you like to do it here?”
“Yup. Pretty much.”
I buy us drinks from a cool box outside the stadium and we are instantly mobbed by other youngsters who want me to buy them a soft drink, too. I am slightly flustered, apologise, edge away. Foday gives his drink to one of them. “Teammate.” He says, by way of explanation, “Belonging to a team is a way of life.”
As we walk Foday talks about mineral extraction, discusses the need for trained Sierra Leonean engineers so they can follow the example of Botswana. He is academically gifted, wants to train as an engineer himself, fitting it between becoming a pop star and an international footballer. He offers me a ride in his Lamborghini. I tell him he better engineer some smoother roads first.
Earlier in the week I had found myself squirming in confused discomfort at the neo-colonial air of a smart Freetown coffee shop (soft neon sofas, smoothies and crepes, art prints hanging above the chromed mezzanine), now Foday leads us down the preciptious stone steps that lead into the estuary basin which forms the foundation of Kroo Bay. It is a shanty town built on barely reclaimed land with a filthy waste-choked river, thick and mucid with the detritus of the city above. It is a filthy swamp that you pick your way through, amongst rough shacks of tin which burst with humanity, down alleys where naked children stop their play to watch the white man pass whilst their parents in rags prepare fly-blighted rice. To say these houses flood when it rains is to give the false impression that they ever exist above the water level, it’s just that when it rains the estuary mud on which they’re built assumes more liquid form. Kroo Bay oozes towards the shore line, a fetid stretch of coast where the beach is formed of the discarded trash of the town. High tide washes it all back towards the shacks where fat pigs feast amongst the filth and kids wade across the putrid river, picking through the scraps for items of value.
For Foday, tall, lean and handsome – well dressed and sharply intelligent, this was home.
Foday has recently moved out of Kroo Bay to a house further up the hill. I take this as another triumph, a moment of success worthy of celebration. But nothing is so straightforward in Sierra Leone. He shrugs.
“There’s more going on here. I miss it”
And strangely, despite everything, I can almost see why – ultimately this is not a tear jerking scene from a black-and-white advert; the scene is pitiful, absolutely, and beyond anything I have ever witnessed, but these are not pitiable people, they are living and working and laughing and playing. This place is home and, for many, the city represents a chance to improve their lives. They deserve better than this, of course, and life is unimaginably hard and brutal, but to portray them as hopeless or tragic is to undermine their humanity and to deny them their strength, resilience and determination. I am struggling so much to make sense of my experience here, my concepts of wealth and happiness, but the more I meet people here the more I see it does no one any favours to see Africa and Sierra Leone as a broken and damaged place of starvation and poverty, to reinforce the idea of a helpless people in need of external help. Too often, as Georgie points out, Sierra Leoneans themselves externalise their problems and the solutions to them, but time and again, you see it in the people of Kroo Bay, the people of the villages and in the young people of Ngbotima – who have overcome incredible obstacles to gain the most basic education – that the solutions to this country’s problems lie within its people. Perhaps the most amazing thing that Ngbotima has achieved through sponsoring these children’s education is to give them a perception of themselves as people who can achieve, people of value with something to offer the world – and people with the power to shape their own futures.
Despite all of that, right now Kroo Bay is in bad shape. I am reluctant to take pictures, it feels exploitative and intrusive to be a tourist in the real life of the families here. Patrick and Foday are surprised by my reticence, suggest the best angles for pictures, point out good photo opportunities. I snap a couple of pictures, feeling very self conscious. We edge down soggy alleyways between these tumbledown homes, pick our way through the maze of passages, Foday leading a cracking pace and Patrick and I leaping over the worst areas as we try to keep up. He leads us across an open area in the middle of the settlement where mud-covered children kick a football around the deep sludge.
“I used to play on this field” Foday says. I want to know how he feels now he is coming to the end of school, about the journey he has undertaken to get here. Once again he seems unabashed by his roots, but he admits, “It makes me proud to have done it. And it inspires me to help other people”
We edge sideways between the back of a shack and the high wall that marks the settlement’s boundary and emerge on a raised path that by rights ought to look back across a stunning bay, were it not for the ugly smear of the town we’ve left behind us. Up ahead a gang of unemployed youths cluster around a game of chance and as they look up, noticing me, there’s the subtlest change in Patrick in Foday and perhaps I am only imagining it but for the first time they seem to be the tiniest bit uncomfortable and aware of the white person they are shepherding around. Still completely casual Foday suggests we take a shortcut, clambering up the steep cliff side. He assures me it’s a quicker route to our rendezvous and he’s off, leaping gazelle like up the face whilst I crane my neck upwards, sling my camera across my back and clamber up in his wake.
Foday is right, though, as the top of the cliff finds us right in the middle of the green tree-lined grounds of the Prince of Wales school. Receiving only a few mild looks of surprise as I haul myself over the top, I dust myself down and we set off across the playing field.
It is precisely 2:30.