DAY 5: FROM A SLAVE CAMP TO A PALACE
Our last day in Freetown began with overcast skies. We breakfasted quickly, packed up our bags, and were picked up by Mash-P, who took us in a cab down to the beaches at the west end of the city. Aberdeen sits on the other side of the river estuary and has the feel of a place unto itself. We drove down better roads past bigger houses. In the distance we saw the flashy new Lagonda casino, a Radisson Blu hotel and a half-built Hilton. At least here, development was gathering pace.
Jamie and Mash on the beach
The beach itself was crowded but gorgeous on a Sunday morning. In the 1970s, they chose this spot to film the adverts for Bounty chocolates – “A Taste Of Paradise”. The war and the fall of Freetown put a dent in the idyll for a time, but nowadays it’s regained most of its former glory. We paddled in the Atlantic waves. Coastlines usually make me think of arrivals, but here there’s the shadow of forced departures as well – many thousands of people were taken from here to the New World as slaves.
As we wandered, Dave started chatting with a young kid called Abu. He told us he was 12 years old, and that he’d lost most of his family in the recent ebola epidemic. I noticed that he was wearing a Dashboard Confessional shirt, and explained to him that this was a band, and that I knew Chris, the singer. I’m not sure he was entirely convinced I was telling the truth, but nevertheless he asked if I could take a photo of us for Chris. I happily obliged. Then Mash told him about Way Out and the work they do, gave him some contact information, and we wished him well.
Me and Abu
Once we’d finished soaking up the rays, we went back to the hotel to grab our bags. In the brief moment of having some wifi, I posted the picture of Abu and me, as I’d said I would. I don’t really want to spend much time discussing this part, because, compared to everything else I’m trying to write about, it’s vanishingly insignificant. But, for the record… I deal with a constant low level of idiotic online abuse in my chosen career. It comes with the territory and I’ve learned to ignore it. It was with some dismay, however, that I found out that charity work in one of the poorest places in the world still attracts these people, and in fact seemed to inspire a new level of vitriol. I’m not immune to criticism or error, and I don’t want to be, but if you’re someone who spends their waking hours trolling this kind of stuff online, you need to have a long hard look at yourself and your choices in the fucking mirror.
Enough of that. We said goodbye to Jam Lodge and returned, for the last time, to the Way Out building. Over the previous few days I had promised to lend my musical talents, such as they are, to four different tracks, so there was a lot to get done. Jamie, Dave and Ben decided to leave me to it and head to a market to do pick up some souvenirs (which proved instructively difficult to do; even the affluent end of Freetown isn’t really tuned in to the idea of a tourist trade as yet).
My first recording engagement was with the Black Street Family. Seven out of eight of the crew had made it down to the studio, an impressive turnout, according to Hazel, and they were contentedly causing chaos in the control room. They’d asked me to write a chorus, and I’d agreed to work on something over a beat from Thomas, leaving them to rap on the verses. Trying to think what to write, as a middle class white guy from England, for a Sierra Leonean street gang, was creatively challenging, to say the least. But after chatting with them for a while over the last few days, I’d come up with the beginnings of an idea, taking the chorus of “Wi Lek Wi Salone”, shifting it to a minor key with a reggae feel, and adding some more words, on the theme of pride in your home, something the Family seemed to represent to me. I ran the chorus on a guitar with the assembled crew, and was relieved to be given an enthusiastic thumbs up. Thomas set to work on a beat, a fascinating process for me – his working method with Logic was really different to anything I’d seen before, and he was quickly cooking up mad afro-influenced hip-hop beats that took me a while to figure out.
In good time, we had my vocal parts for the chorus down, as well as a bassline and a couple of guitar parts. I handed over to the Black Street Family, who started working on the verses with furious industry straight away. I went outside to find Meeky. After singing one of his songs at Ferry Junction, we had decided to work on it and film a live version at Way Out. We ran through the song a few times on a bench in the sunshine, figuring out chords and the verses, and finally got a great version down (that you can see and listen to here). It’s a beautiful song.
Shortly afterwards, I was sorting out some things in my bag in Hazel’s room when Josta came in and sat down. I hadn’t spent that much time talking to him before this point, but he seemed like a good guy. We started chatting, and pretty soon it became apparent that he had a lot to get off his chest. Before I really knew what I was doing, I was giving him a full-scale interview about his life and Sierra Leone in general. It’s not something I’ve really done before, so I’ll beg forgiveness for the amateur profile that follows.
Josta was born in the east of the country in 1982, making him pretty much the same age as me. As a child, he saw the RUF shoot his father as they kidnapped him on the highway between Bo and Kenema. They used him as a porter behind the lines but thankfully never made him fire a weapon. After 6 months he managed to escape into the bush, and made the perilous journey to Freetown to find a surviving aunt. The fact that he survived through endless makeshift paranoid checkpoints on the highway was, he told me, something of a miracle. He saw a lot of people die. He told me that, with my tattoos, I would have been shot out of hand.
He made it to Freetown after the massacre in 1999, which meant he was there for the second attack in 2000, which was successfully rebuffed by British troops (leading, in time, to the end of the war). After that, Josta found himself homeless; he stayed that way for 13 years, until Way Out helped him to find and rent a flat for himself, his partner Isatu, and their young daughter, Hazel. Conversationally, I mentioned my own partner, and told him she was smarter than me (which she is). Josta was fascinated by the comment, telling me that no man in his country would ever say such a thing about a woman. He seemed to enjoy the idea.
Josta told me that Sierra Leone was “very wicked, very cruel”. He had nothing but disdain for the politicians in power, calling them “prime suspects”. He spoke with sadness of the rich resources and human potential of his country, and wondered sadly at the continuing poverty and corruption, and indeed the deference to the White world. He said “the richest place in Africa is the graveyard”.
In April 2018 there will be an election. In 2007 there was a peaceful transfer of power from the SLPP to the APC, a first in the country’s history. This time around it looked like the SLPP were due to return to power, something Josta was hoping for. It’s not that he was overly optimistic about the easy promises made by the challengers; it’s just that “a drowning man can hold onto anything – even a machete”. He believes that if things do not change for the better soon, there is a real possibility of more fighting in the country.
I asked Josta about the future. I’d noticed, over the last few days, some adverts for a music and technical college called Lincoln Green in Freetown; I’d also seen how awkward some of the Way Out crew were in the Ballanta music school. He told me that, given the fact that it was an organisation for street kids, there was some stigma against Way Out graduates in the city. He said he’d recently been applying for a job but had ended up turning it down as it was a religious group which demanded strict adherence to their social and moral codes. Josta is a Christian himself but found the deal too restrictive. During the Ebola epidemic, he’d had one of his photographs on the cover of the Observer, but he was still finding it hard getting work. If he was the president, he’d focus on education and scholarships – what little opportunity there currently is, is dominated by nepotism and corruption. He repeated his observation to be that he was interested in success and fame more than money. He asked, only semi-casually, if I’d be interested in adopting his daughter, to give her a life in the west. I was unsure how to respond.
As a child, Josta had visited Guinea, but the border was porous in the area. Other than that he’d never left Sierra Leone. He said he’d jump at the chance to go anywhere in the world that would have him. However, he also added that he would always return; a lot of his countrymen don’t. At the last two Olympic games, the majority of the Sierra Leonean athletes absconded. Josta was sympathetic – he told me that visiting the west for him was like “taking someone from a slave camp to a palace – why would they go back?” In the end, he struck a pessimistic note, telling me he knew he was essentially “living in a dream world”.
After our intense chat, I headed back to the studio to lay down some verses for Mash-P on two songs, “Am Running” and “After The Jungle”. Again, it was hard to find meaningful words to sing along with his intense choruses, but it was a privilege to have been asked, and I did my best.
Mash-P tracking vocals
As the sun started to dip below the horizon, Hazel told us that the assembled company wanted to give us a farewell performance. A battered and blown old sound system was set up in the courtyard, and one by one the kids took turns at lip-syncing along with their songs, holding an unplugged microphone and giving it their all, as we sat on a bank of chairs. We felt a little like visiting dignitaries, but they threw themselves into the show with gusto, and we felt honoured.
The show in the courtyard
Once the show was done, the time for leaving finally rolled around. Saying goodbye took a long time and was quite emotional for all of us. Black Street told me they’d “miss me in their hearts”. We loaded up our taxi and waved goodbye to the crew. We drove across the estuary to Aberdeen for a final meal on the beach with Hazel, Gibo and John. Over burgers and beers we chatted through the trip, what we’d achieved, and what more we could do in the future. Then the crew took us to the ferryport, and we set out for the long overnight journey home.
Exhausted at the ferryport
At the airport I noticed that my trainers were completely fucked. The damage done to them wading through Canadian snow in February had been compounded in Gullyside with dirt and red dust. The thought casually crossed my mind that, when I got home, I’d nip into a shop and pick up some new ones – £40 or so, not a big deal for me. Of course, it then immediately hit me that none of the people I’d been spending my time with over the last few days could even dream of doing that, let alone getting on a plane and flying to London, to head back to my comfortable flat and watch Netflix with my girlfriend, eating take-out in front of the TV. Inequality was suddenly starkly manifest once again. There was a lot to think about.
I’ve been back from Sierra Leone for ten days or so now, but the memories are seared into my consciousness. I keep dreaming about the place and the people.
What to say about our trip? I was skeptical, or at least ignorant, about the value of a bunch of western musicians traipsing around the slums of one of the poorest places in the world. The factor I’d not considered was, of course, Hazel and Way Out. Now that the dust has, for me, settled a little, I can see the enormous value in what they do. One of the comments made to me often by the kids at the project was that they were the only aid group who treated them as individuals, who helped them self-realise. I’d seen the hope and the enthusiasm, as well as the fierce protectiveness, of the people we’d met. Since starting, more than 2,700 Sierra Leonean kids have passed through the program. It’s not a panacea, these people weren’t “saved” from the situation they were born into, but the project gives real, vital value to their lives.
On a personal level, the trip taught me a lot of humility. Not just the obvious stuff – seeing so clearly the privileges I enjoy, living in the developed world – but also the fact that my career, my songs, were not particularly relevant to the situation. My value in being there was in a supporting role to the charity, and in spreading the word through my social media and so on back home. Walking through the shantytowns was a heart-breaking and eye-opening experience. The instinctive reaction, on one level, was to immediately go home, sell everything I have and return with fistfuls of cash. I’m not naïve enough to believe that that would constitute a solution of any kind, but I also find it hard to locate completely watertight argument against doing that. I suppose the intermediate solution, for me, is to do as much as I can to continue supporting Way Out Arts.
More practically, since we left, Hazel has been keeping us updated on their progress. Mash-P had one of his new tracks on AiRadio, a first for him, which was also significant as he was breaking new personal ground, discussing his rebel past in public. Some kids from Moor Wharf and Ferry Junction have walked into the project (a long way) and become part of the program. We smashed our fundraising target for a new shipment of equipment, and are now working on more ideas for the kids out there. Dave came up with the idea of sending some school lockers, so that the street kids have somewhere safe to keep their possessions. Mash and Meeky are going to go to Ballanta to have some vocal lessons, and Way Out now have some involvement in the Freetown Festival. I posted up my song with Meeky, and I have plans for us to record and release a studio version at some point. And of course I’m planning to return – after all, I promised a lot of people I would.
A message from BSF
You can donate to Way Out Arts directly here. Thanks for reading.