This is part 4 of my Sierra Leone diary. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here. You can donate to Way Out Arts here.
DAY 4: CHILDREN OF AFRICA, WE CAN SUFFER
Sleeping hard was becoming a feature of the trip. We woke up refreshed, went through our standard breakfast procedure with Patricia, and wandered back to Way Out to load up the convoy and get back to work. Hazel had us scheduled for two stops for this day, Saturday, in Ferry Junction and Kissy Town. Cooper, the American journalist, was due to meet us at the first stop.
We made our way through slightly easier traffic back to the east end of the city. Like most cities, the western end is more affluent. En route I noted more billboards, including one that loudly proclaimed “We should not put our children away because they survived EBOLA”. In the back of the pick-up, Josta explained to me that there was a stigma for surviving children, motivated by fears that were partly medical, partly superstitious. The conversation wandered to the name of the only main road in the city – Bai Bureh road. Bai Bureh was an 18th century Sierra Leonean chieftain, who had attacked and destroyed the first British settlement on the Freetown peninsula. Josta and Allusine, our ever-present cameraman, rejoiced in telling me that he had defeated my countrymen through his ability to appear and disappear at will. They were entirely serious. His face adorns the 1000 Leone note. A second billboard said “POPULATION CENSUS: be counted for better planning.”
I had time, as we meandered through the city, to observe the streets around us a little more closely. The merchandise offered by the ubiquitous hawkers was astounding. In the space of 20 minutes I saw shoes, sunglasses, USB cables, suitcases, bags of water, bananas, plantains, toilet brushes, flannels, air-fresheners, shirts, scarves, Tesco value cornflakes and cat food on offer (though I had yet to see any cats). We drove down a street full of second hand domestic goods from the developed world – furniture, appliances, stereo systems (like the ones I used to ogle in the Argos catalogue as a kid). The selection of T-shirts, also presumably shipped from the west, was similarly bizarre. I saw shirts labelled with logos for Tim Hortons, tattoo conventions, a “Clinton 92” shirt and a tour T-shirt for Rush. It feels like Africa is where the detritus of our world ends up.
A Krio comedy skit came on the radio and our driver turned it up. The comedian had a wild, screeching voice that reminded me of Chris Rock. With some translation from Josta, I gathered that the skit involved a village soothsayer who could see the future and thus solve crimes; he’d been asked to investigate a suspected thief, but on entering his house, he found a photo of his own wife on the wall. Cue much hilarity. Josta showed me some music videos he’d made on his phone, and solemnly told me, “most people want money and fame. I just want fame.”
Flyer for the Ferry Junction show
We arrived at Ferry Junction. It’s an area a little further out of town, a little more spaced out and less cramped, but still desperately dirty and poor. There’s a horrendous river running through the camp, again overflowing with black water, turds and garbage. On one of the trees we passed walking in, we saw a flyer for our performance, put up by “The Iron Team”, who we were soon to meet. After a little bit of faffing around where we were going to set up and play, we settled on a large open square. This time we brought the drum kit with us for Dave to play. The sun was beating down with more ferocity than usual, so the locals attempted to rig a blue tarpaulin over us, but it kept falling down and hitting us in the head, so eventually we just decided to suck it up and play.
Dave on drums
We had something of a routine for the shows together now, so we were more confident. We ran through our setlist, let the kids strum the guitars, took photos and did fist-bumping. After a while some of the locals came up and asked if they could sing their own songs. I got them to sing the melody to me, and did my best to work out the implied chords and rhythm. Some attempts went better than others, but it was fun. Meeky, one of the Way Out members, sang a song of his called “I Must Lose With You” that was sweet and catchy. A local guy started singing a song with the refrain “Children of Africa, We Can Suffer”.
After we had finished playing, we were introduced to The Iron Team. This was a local group of men who spent their days digging in the foul river. They dig for scrap and salvage, and in the run-up to the rainy season (which starts in April), they also dug gravel from the riverbed, to help ease the flow and to provide material to raise up the shacks in the area to stop them from flooding. Having explained their trade, they immediately, to my shock, leapt down from the bank into the vile water, grabbed shovels and began filling sacks with gravel. That was one of the single most intense and upsetting sights I’ve ever seen in my life, but the Team members had some pride in the work they did for their community. I was completely at a loss as to what to say to them, but I thanked them for showing me their way of life. They replied that Way Out did a lot for them, and thanked me for trying to help them. It was a strange moment.
Iron Team members digging gravel
During the show and afterwards, I had picked up a small new companion. Amatu was a cute 10-year old local girl who had attached herself to me, trying to hold my hand as I walked and asking me questions about myself. Shortly after she started saying “please don’t go”, and later “if you go, I will come with you”. It was equal parts cute and heart-breaking. There was nothing I could promise or offer, other than that we would come back when we could. Before I left she asked me to take a photo with her, which I did.
Time had soon run short, so we said our goodbyes and headed back to the convoy on the street. I had a bag of water in my hand that I had finished, and was looking around for somewhere to throw away the wrapper. I asked Amatu where the trash was (“dirty box”, in Krio), and she looked at me like I was an idiot, and indicated that I should just throw it on the ground. But the whole place was already so ruined, so forlorn, that the very idea filled me with guilt. I didn’t want to contribute to the destitution around me if I could possibly avoid it. I put it in my pocket.
A short drive took us to a roadside diner for lunch – gigantic portions of fried chicken with chips. As we ate we started discussing with Hazel the possibility of keeping to our promises of returning. Jamie, Ben, Dave and I had already caught the Sierra Leone bug, and were fired up with ideas of other things we could do to help, refined by actual on-the-ground experience of the country and of what Way Out are doing.
Somewhat restored by sustenance, we got back onto the road heading east for Kissy Town; Mash P had gone on ahead of us on a bike to reassure the people there that we were actually coming. Apparently they couldn’t really believe that we would. Kissy Town is at the eastern edge of the peninsula containing the capital, so it serves as a gateway to the rest of the country, on the outskirts of a suburb called Waterloo. It started life as an airstrip during the war, but by the time the fighting finished it had been converted into a massive refugee camp. The NGOs stayed for a few years but by now had long since left. The population was replenished regularly by people leaving the provinces for the city (or fleeing the ebola outbreak in 2014). Today there are 23,000 people living on the asphalt.
The drive out to Kissy Town took us about an hour and a half (though it’s only about 20 kilometres). This main eastbound road is where the RUF arrived in Freetown in 1999, in “Operation No Living Thing”, leading to one of the worst urban massacres of the 20th Century. I couldn’t help but picture the scenes of horror and mayhem that had taken place exactly where we were. The road felt haunted.
We were soon diverted by roadworks off the comparatively decent highway onto rugged, pot-holed roads of red earth that climbed above the plain, giving us panoramic views of the bush jungle, stretching down to the coast in the distance. The driver said “This, this is Africa.” The city sputtered into suburbs of townships interspersed with better-built houses surrounded by automobile graveyards, broken down fossils of trucks and cars dissolving slowly into the ground. After a while we returned, through a dust-storm and the smoke of trash fires, to the tarmac. Here the road was clean, flat and well-surfaced. We passed a large walled compound – a hospital – and road gangs with Chinese foremen. The Chinese are investing a lot of money here, as across Africa, building infrastructure in order to get their hands on the natural resources upcountry – diamonds and iron ore. Sitting next to me, Josta told me that they didn’t trust the oriental newcomers, seeing them as exploiters of the country, even if they are the only people building anything coherent at the moment. He said he thought they’d soon be gone.
As we drove, Josta tapped out a strange rhythm on the seat in front of him and sang a song I didn’t understand. He explained that it was a song from his tribe, the Mende. The two main tribes in Sierra Leone are the Mende, from the south and east, and the Temne, from the north. I was intrigued, as other locals I’d asked had refused to say which tribe they belonged to – John had told me it was an archaic form of identity that he didn’t want to endorse or encourage. The division is tangentially related to the sides of the civil war and the two main political parties, the APC and the SLPP, so that seemed understandable.
The runway at Kissy Town
Finally, after driving through Hastings (which Jamie loved, being a Hastings local, back home) and Waterloo, we turned off the road onto the old airstrip that is Kissy Town. Along the sides of the strip were lines of shacks as far as the eye could see. The open space of the runway was oppressively, mercilessly hot in the mid-afternoon sun. We pulled up next to a kind of bus shelter at one side, surrounded by people, and were told this was where we were to play our show. We disembarked and started topping up our sunscreen, which the locals found hilarious, telling us we were quite white enough already.
Dave with suncream
The show proceeded much like the others, gangs of excited kids strumming the guitar in between songs. Dave sat a procession of slightly older guys down behind the kit to give them a go at playing along with “Wi Lek We Salone”, with varying degrees of success. My tattoos seemed to be a particular source of curiosity and delight, especially as I sweated through my white T-shirt in the heat, showing off more designs. In the end I just lifted my shirt and showed them, and the kids piled in to rub the designs and check they weren’t fake stamps. Even more so than in the other places we visited, there was a real sense that no one ever really visits these people. The camp elder took me aside and said as much, and begged us to come back when we could. I told him we would.
We had to curtail the set a little as the heat was so extreme. After fond farewells, and me spraying some bags of water over myself and the children, we loaded up once more to return to Freetown. On the trip back, the driver put on Capital Radio, one of the main stations on the peninsula. It was noticeably more Westernised. They had Premier League football scores read out in a clipped British accent, and adverts for fancy restaurants and hotels (and, bizarrely, tinned sardines). The music played was from the UK Top 40, and I found it pretty depressing – a slew of bland melodies topped with embarrassingly thin metaphors for sex (“Jawbreaker”, really?). I wondered about the impression the Way Out kids had of New York and London, or at least the culture scene there.
We took a slightly different route into the city, up over the hills. It was beautiful and obviously affluent; at one point we drove past a huge walled mansion surrounded by armed guards, which is apparently where the president lives, literally at the top of Freetown. Over the crest, we finally looked out onto the western end of the city, to Aberdeen and Lumley, the beaches hemming the Atlantic, where ex-pats and the wealthy hang out. We got back to the hotel in good time and the four of us decided to venture out to a restaurant for dinner – Tessa’s – which was west of where we were staying. Our fellow diners were Sierra Leoneans, but they were not like the people we’d been spending our days with. They were well-dressed, comfortable, urbane, clearly middle class. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the drive, the view and our dinner reminded me that we were spending our time with only one section of society, the people at the very bottom.
A few beers had us all in the mood for sleep. It was sad to think this was our last night in the city, and that tomorrow would be our last day. It already felt like we’d been in Sierra Leone for a long time, and that there was still so much more for us to see and do.