Freetown, Baby!

Moon Dust by jc2010sl
January 29, 2011, 2:59 pm
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The Harmattan winds must be blowing. There aren’t many visible sign of the sandy dust, but in common with others, my eyes are sore from the fine particles. I was sat at my desk the other day when a colleague noticed my eyes and asked if I was OK. “Nothing serious,” I replied, “just the dust.” “As long as it’s not Apollo.” Apollo, it turns out, is conjunctivitis. How so? I wondered.

Apparently, there was a particularly bad outbreak of conjunctivitis in the early 70s. This co-incided with a rather bizarre gift to the people of Sierra Leone from Richard Milhous Nixon – a small moon rock brought back from a recent mission. So people concluded that moon dust was causing the problems with their eyes. And the name of the mission became synonymous with the condition – Apollo.



Green ink brigade by jc2010sl
January 15, 2011, 11:54 am
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I’ve been marking tests over the last week. When asked by a colleague if I could help out I said “Sure, can you give me a red pen to mark them?” “No,” came the abrupt response. “Only the President uses red ink in this building.” To make his point, my colleague brandished a document on his desk; “you see, the President wrote this,” he said, jabbing at some red annotations on the paper. “OK,” I said, “can I have a green pen?” An exasperated look came across his face. Only Ministers can use green ink it transpires. I asked him if he was winding me up. No, he assured me, and I believed him. The wind-up isn’t really part of Krio humour. “Are there any other restrictions I asked?” “No,” he said “you can write in brown, pink, yellow, whatever you want as long as it’s not green or red!”

As I walked out of his office, he called after me “and that’s why teachers say they are as important as the President!”


Bintumani by jc2010sl
January 7, 2011, 6:25 pm
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No trip in Sierra Leone is without some kind of minor crisis. Scaling the country’s highest peak – Mount Bintumani at 1947m – should have thrown up more crises than most. My only slight surprise was that we were inconvenienced so early in our trip. Driving to the base of the mountain, or at least as far as the road allows, we slipped off the narrow “surface” and into the rudimentary gutters dug by the road side.

After an hour and half’s of strategising (done mainly by our driver), and road re-construction (which we had a hand in) we were back on our way. Having given ourselves a tight 2 ½ days for the climb we traipsed through the dark to Sinekoro, the village at the foot of the mountain, ready for the assault on the peak. The morning brought negotiations with the village chief for access to the mountain and provision of porters to carry food for the climb. Despite their unorthodox interpretation of “backpacking” our guides totally put us to shame; racing up the steep jungle hills while we stopped for air and water in the oppressive heat.

Our camp for the night provided a short relief, but as soon as we’d re-filled our bottles with water from the stream and deposited our bags, we headed for the top. As we passed the cloud line rainforest coverage gave way to a Savanah landscape and tall, nodding elephant grass.

Several hours, and several false summits later, we reached the peak proper. Cartoon-like it may have been with its steep sides, rocky crags, and near symmetry, but it was nevertheless a stern test after climbing 1000 meters and walking for 7 hours.

As we started cooking up our dinner for the evening it became apparent that our guides had brought nothing with them except a sack of rice. I’m not sure what they made of the tinned tomatoes and beans we shared with them – being unaccustomed to anything not drenched in palm oil – but they ate without complaint. As we discovered on the way down, they hadn’t brought anything to carry water in either, so they borrowed some plastic bottles to fill between streams. On seeing us drop our purification tablets into our water bottles they got quite insistent on having some as well, despite having no idea what they were. Saying we were nearly out cut no ice, so I resorted to telling them they were white man tablets, made to keep you white. Nobody really wanted any tables after that.

Being so much quicker than us meant our guides were able to race ahead and stop when they pleased. As we discovered later, this sometimes meant relieving some of the bags of their weight permanently (!), but it was mostly for innocent purposes like taking a dip in the stream.

Suitably inspired, I had my first wash for 3 days in the icy water and felt vaguely human again. The sensation lasted barely 30 minutes before I was as sticky as before, but at least with a clearer memory of what it meant to be clean.

We spent our final night camping in the school field in Momoria village. Two of our party wandered off in search of water in the direction pointed out by the villagers, taking one of our drivers with them to help. As they stood in the fetid water filling bottles with brown sludge, one of them turned to our driver. “Musa?” “Yes boss”, came the inevitable reply. “Would you drink this water?” a slight pause, as he continued to fill the bottle, followed by “No boss.” It turned out from the school teacher they had been sent into a malarial swamp… Water procured from a nearby stream, we cooked up our final dinner on our “Three firestones”; an essential configuration everywhere in Salone.

Writing in his diary of his six week walk across Sierra Leone and Liberia, Graham Greene wrote “I wanted to go straight from the African hut with the rats running down the wall at night to some luxury hotel in Europe and enjoy the contrast. In fact, civilisation was always broken to one slowly.” The improvement in Sierra Leonean roads since Greene’s time mean that now one can wake up in a tent in the remotest corner of the country and be in a warm bath and an air-conditioned bedroom by evening. Never have my aching limbs been in sorer need of it.


Remembrance by jc2010sl
January 6, 2011, 7:54 pm
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Looking up from the papers this morning a colleague said “The sixth of January. Twelve years ago today was the worst day in the whole war”. He was referring to the brutal “Operation No Living Thing” launched on Freetown by the rebels. “We should be commemorating this day.” There then followed a discussion with another guy in the office as to whether the sixth was indeed the worst day of the war. To pick the sixth is to take a Freetown-centric view of the conflict; “what about all the violence in the provinces in the years leading up to the invasion of Freetown?” as Abou Bakarr asked. And should a conflict be remembered for the brutality it wrought, or by it’s ending?

The Sierra Leone civil war had so many coups, offensive and failed treaties, it’s hard to pick a day to mark the conflict, even if they agreed on a starting or an ending. The closest Sierra Leone comes to remembering the conflict is I suppose “Armed Forces Day”, which falls on a day of no particular military significance. Maybe the nub of it is that remembering is the last thing they want.