Sierra Leone 2019 Part 1

In March 2017, I visited Sierra Leone for the first time, under the aegis of the Joe Strummer Foundation, and in conjunction with a local music charity, Way Out Arts. You can read about that trip in (perhaps overly exhaustive) detail here. It was, at the risk of sounding like someone recently returned from a gap year, a life-altering experience for me.

One of the most obvious outcomes of that first trip was a burning desire to do more for Way Out and the people they help and represent. I sold a guitar, did some benefit shows, and planned a return visit for December of the same year. Unfortunately, the trip didn’t work out. In a stark reminder of the poverty of the country, Royal Air Maroc simply cancelled the only flights going in a few days before the trip due to lack of demand. On my first visit, Hazel, the proprietor of Way Out, had emphatically told me not to tell people I was returning if that wasn’t true. Due to the vagaries of African airline scheduling, I now found myself in the horrible position of having lived down to those initial low expectations by accident. I realised that it was important for me to rebook the trip as soon as possible.

However, in the meantime, there was the minor business of the release of “Be More Kind”, and the accompanying rounds of touring and promotion. In the end, Jamie and Dave Danger (from JSF), Ben Lloyd (of the Sleeping Souls) and I managed to arrange a return visit of three days in January 2019. This is an account of that trip.


On my first visit to the country, I did a lot of reading and research, and included that in those older blog posts, so I’m going to skimp on some of those details here, so as not to repeat myself too much. Jamie, Dave, Ben and I met up at Heathrow once again for the hellish flight schedule to West Africa. Being a touch more experienced, our packing was more judicious, with more pens, sweets and shirts to give away, and less Doctor Martens boots (which I lugged with me last time and never once wore). We caught up, had dinner, and boarded a flight to Casablanca. Last time, we’d had a leisurely Moroccan stopover, but this time we had to run through the airport for our connecting flight to Freetown, hustled along at every step by frantic members of staff who seemed to regard the whole fiasco as being our fault. We were wondering if there was any way our baggage could have made the connection as well, but once we were sat on the plane, we stayed where we were for a short while as the bags caught us up, so our minds were put to rest on that score. The much emptier plane took off, and we nestled down in our seats, hoping to catch a little sleep before arriving.

As before, we landed in Sierra Leone at 1.30 in the morning, feeling ghostly and shattered. We processed dutifully through immigration and customs, and the melee of locals soliciting taxi rides and other favours, until we successfully located the friendly face of John, one of Way Out’s staff members, in the crush. The last time we were there, on leaving, I’d promised John I’d learn some more Krio for the next time we came back. I had actually spent some hours listening to lessons on YouTube in the preceding days, but it’s hard to learn a language in such sterile conditions. I had a couple of sentences ready to go, which he was duly impressed with, but over the coming days I learned much more through osmosis than I did through study.

The airport itself, and particularly the ferry ride from the Lungi peninsula over to the city proper, felt to me like it was somewhat improved since our last time there, nearly two years before. Of course, that’s starting from a pretty low bar, and I was wrestling with my impressions all the time, trying to decide whether I was seeing changes, or whether I was simply less culture-shocked now that I had some experience of my destination. I spent much of the trip mulling this over and discussing it with my friends in the country, and in the end I think there has been some notable development – slightly better roads and facilities and so on. All the same, Sierra Leone was ranked as the 8th poorest country in the world in 2018, so it’s important to keep a sense of perspective.

At the ferry port on the mainland we met up with Hazel and Gibo. I’d actually seen them both, bizarrely, in Camden Town back in November (along with Josta and Mash P). Hazel had managed to secure the boys visas for a trip to the UK and Europe alongside a photo exhibition on the global homeless. On my last trip, the idea of some of the Way Out kids visiting the Global North had been much discussed, but never in especially realistic terms. In the end, though, it had worked out, and we met up briefly in Dave’s pub, The Monarch, on the Chalk Farm Road on a free afternoon for me mid-tour. Seeing them in London was surreal, to say the least. The boys had been freezing cold and unsettled by the food, excited more by McDonald’s than Buckingham Palace (they’d heard of the former but not the latter). They were excited to be experiencing new things, most likely mind-blowing things, on their adventure, and I’d been overjoyed to welcome them to my corner of the city. That said, seeing them back in Freetown made more sense to my tired mind; they seemed more comfortable. We had a joyous reunion, then loaded up in some clapped out taxis for the short journey to the Jam Lodge. Returning to the hotel felt like a homecoming of sorts, not least when we were finally able to lay our heads down and get some sleep.



Dave, Jamie, Ben and me at the airport

We woke a few hours later, savoured the return of our traditional pancake breakfast, and girded our loins for the day. Tired as we were, we only had three full days in the country this time around, so we’d agreed, with Hazel, to pack our schedule to the gills. Our first port of call was a return visit to AiRadio, a national station on one of the Athenian hills that loom over Freetown. On our drive up there, I was glued to the view out of the window as ever, trying to take in as much as I could and organise my fresh round of impressions. My nocturnal suspicions about development were further fuelled. The AfriCell logo, which had been prevalent on our last trip, was now plastered, it seemed, on almost every available surface or hoarding, as the mobile phone company attempts to sponsor every living thing in the country. In addition, they seem to have recently acquired a rival in the shape of Orange, whose rival billboards yelled about their new 4G service. In between there were new adverts for banking services, kitchen and bathroom design and lotteries.

Despite this abundance of new trimmings of wealth, the whole thing was still built on the achingly desolate crumbling infrastructure of the city. The roads felt a little better, but they’re still driven through and over pockmarked heaps of rubble and rubbish. I found myself wondering how and when any of the detritus of old construction would ever be cleared away. It can’t be impossible – London has been there for millennia and somehow the remains of the old has been successfully disposed of. But something in the Freetown heat made that task, here, seem insurmountable.

We got to the radio station (predictably smothered in AfriCell tags) in good time. We visited here before, in 2017, but this time they seemed a bit more prepared for my visit. The station owner, a slightly perplexed Lebanese guy, came down to say hello, and I was ushered into the booth with my guitar and some small degree of ceremony. We chatted through my visit, Way Out and the work they do, and my feelings about the country. Half way through, we were joined by a lovely guy called Sahr Issa. Sahr is a local drum’n’bass DJ, apparently one of the first homegrown talents after the war, a man who has fostered a lot of younger artists over the years. We listened to some of his music (notably a banging dance tune called “Foot!”) and shot the breeze. I played a song – “Don’t Worry” – which Sahr said he enjoyed, telling me he’d liked my “crazy chords”. That I found fascinating, because that song has, to my ears, very basic chords, by design. I was being reminded of the differences between my own musical tradition and those of the locals.


With Sahr Issa at AiRadio

After saying our goodbyes, we drove back down the hill towards Way Out’s headquarters in the middle of the city. En route I started chatting with Mash P. Mash is a former child soldier and singer who I’d befriended on my previous trip. This time around he was slightly different. He had new clothes (which looked great) and a camera, which he was constantly snapping away. He also seemed slightly stand-offish with me, which was a big contrast with his exuberant friendliness from before. Later in the day Hazel told me that he has, unsurprisingly, very serious mental health issues with PTSD after his experiences in the war, and problems forming normal social bonds with people. The last time I was in town, I think he felt he’d been overly friendly with me, so now he was very much keeping his distance, in a way that was jarring for me initially; I think his natural response was to go to the other extreme and withdraw himself. Over the course of this visit, I’m pleased to say, he softened, and I left feeling like we were friends again.

Despite his distance, on the drive we did manage a conversation. Mash was a bit down on Sahr, saying that he charged younger artists to work with him. I was reminded of the huge gulf between the people who come to Way Out – a charity which specifically works with homeless, marginalised and street youth – and some of the other Sierra Leoneans we encounter. Sahr was a great guy, but he definitely inhabits a different universe to Mash and his friends. We also discussed my suspicions about things getting slightly better in the margins in the country. Mash and Josta talked me through the recent elections, when the APC lost out to the SLPP, bringing in the new president, Julius Maada Bio. He came to power on a platform which, among other things, promised much to the young. Both Mash and Josta had voted for him, and were generally optimistic about his prospects (albeit with a heavy dose of general cynicism about politicians in general). They cautiously agreed that there had been some improvement since 2017.

Our arrival at Way Out was a glorious moment of homecoming. As we spilled out of the taxi and through the gates, the assembled crew greeted us in song – much like my first arrival there, but wonderfully more so. The whole group was in the courtyard outside, with a band set up at the front, featuring my old friend Meeky on guitar, as well as a drummer, bass player and two keys players. As we walked in, they played us a newly composed “Welcome!” song. The standard of musicianship on display was mind-blowing for me. Last time we were there, I was teaching people basic guitar chords, Dave had struggled to get people through simple beats on the kit. Now we were met with an accomplished band, holding down reggae and afrobeat grooves with ease and taste. The band held down the songs as different people got up to sing – Meeky, Mash P (with his total hit, “Mr President”, complete with crowd singalong) and others. Afterwards we asked them quite how they’d made this musical evolutionary leap, and the answer, for the most part, was through YouTube instructional videos. We were stunned.


Mash P welcoming us back to WayOut

After the music, the poets. Way Out published a compendium of street poetry, written by their members, and I wrote a short forward for the collection. We were treated to a performative reading of some of the best material, and a brand new welcome poem for us as well, which featured the frankly crushing opening line: “Until now, happiness was too expensive”. It’s difficult to know what to say when faced with such a sincere compliment, so for the most part, effusive praise aside, we stayed silent.

The whole collective felt radically more together than last time we visited. The overall level of confidence was sky-high, the musicianship impressive. There were visibly more women involved, both in terms of simply being there and also being involved in the art and the administration. Susan, who last time had been a quiet bystander, was now firmly established as one of the staff members and prime movers. Sexual politics in Sierra Leone can be pretty unforgiving, especially at street level, so that was an encouraging thing to see.

After the formal (ish) presentation, we happily devolved into more general hanging out and catching up with our friends. It felt great to be somewhere that felt so welcoming, albeit for such a short period of time, and to see it prospering so. On my previous trip, I’d spent a lot of time wondering about the exact worth of our going to a country like Sierra Leone, a bunch of middle class white music people. That moment, I started formulating a better answer than I’d had before.


After our brief lunch, we started loading up for our first field trip on this visit. Heading out into the slum areas was our main activity on our previous journey. By playing in areas filled with homeless and poor people, we were advertising the existence of Way Out, showing some respect for these severely marginalised people, and hopefully entertaining them a little as well. Hazel had warned me not to promise return visits unless we were serious, but serious we were. Thus it was that we had several outings planned for places we’d been before. But we were also planning on breaking some new ground, to spread the charity’s message further still.

Hazel’s plan for our first stop was to go to an area called King Jimmy’s. When I’d mentioned this to some locals at AiRadio in the morning, they’d stared at me with barely disguised disbelief. King Jimmy’s has a fearsome reputation, and Hazel was candid with us about the possible risks. The other slums we’d visited in our time tended to be fully social areas, in the sense that they had whole families living there, women and children and the elderly, comprising coherent (albeit utterly destitute) societies. King Jimmy’s, by contrast, was based around the remains of a once-optimistic youth centre. The people we’d meet there would tend to be young, unemployed men, passing their days in boredom, frustration and a haze of alcohol and weed. The atmosphere was likely to be febrile, and it was a noticeably more dangerous excursion than any we had attempted before. Quite the reintroduction to Freetown, in other words.

Jamie, Ben, Dave and I discussed the merits (and otherwise) of this idea for a little while. We were pretty unsettled by the prospect on a lot of levels. But then I was also sympathetic to Hazel’s argument, that these were exactly the kind of people that Way Out was set up to reach, people that no one else had any interest in, beyond them not rioting, starving or dying of communicable diseases. In the end the matter was settled by the intervention of Susan. She’d visited the area on a scouting trip the day before, and despite being initially afraid of the people down there, she had made some headway explaining the planned visit, and had left feeling like the locals were cautiously but sincerely interested in what we might have to say to them.

So we set off, butterflies stirring nervously in our stomachs. On the drive through the city, I was pleased to be able to renew my obsession with Sierra Leonean roadside advertising. There is a splenetic, joyous abandon to their take on this most public form of expression. There were adverts for TV soaps – season 21 (!) of “Yellow Woman”, a “Christmas Global Movie Production!” – alongside more traditional fare, religious evangelist gatherings with wild slogans like “Victorious Jesus Breaking The Taboo Of Barrenness!” Political groups, such as the wonderfully named “People Of Reasonable Solution To Humanity” (who could argue with that?) vied for space alongside more prosaic metropolitan housekeeping concerns – “Don’t Ignore Your Broken Latrine Or Septic Tank – It’s Illegal”. My two personal favourites were the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority, which appropriately enough turned out to be a half-collapsed shack in the middle of a roundabout, and a hairdressers (or “Barbing Centre”) brandishing the slightly alarming slogan “Improvise Within Positive Agenda!”

Our small convoy – a pickup and a taxi – pulled up at the side of the road unexpectedly on a small bridge over a gully running down to the sea. We got out, grabbed our guitars, and were immediately led off down a tiny alleyway which led down under the bridge and into King Jimmy’s – the kind of place that you would barely have noticed, let alone thought to explore. And yet underneath was a bustling slum, packed to the gills with people buying, selling, eating, sleeping, and carefully observing the outlandish new arrivals. Susan confidently led the way, joined by Fal G of the Black Street Family, a friend we’d made in 2017. Fal doesn’t live in King Jimmy’s but he knows a lot of people who do, and he took us first to a small gathering place, maybe 5 metres square, with an earth floor and corroded corrugated iron walls and roof.

Around the edges were sat a whole crew of young men, aged between 16 and 30 at a guess, in various poses of caution, style and aggression. Fal and Susan introduced us, and space was made for me and Ben to sit down and get out our guitars. They respectfully asked to hear some of our music, but made it clear that they also wanted to sing some of their own material for us. Fine by me, I told them – part of the joy of being there, for me, is being exposed to things way beyond my own cultural experience.

The last time Ben and I had been faced with an audience like this, we’d had to learn on our feet pretty quickly, to figure out which songs made sense to play in this situation. Generally speaking, songs with participatory moments go down well, and they also need to be loud and bold to make themselves heard. Thankfully I have a few of those in my repertoire, and from previous experience, I knew that songs like “Wessex Boy” and “I Still Believe” were a safe bet. Obviously, the lyrical content is so socially removed from the people in King Jimmy’s as to be truly awkward, but they were there for the music in a really pure way, so I don’t think that mattered to them much. I also noticed that a fair few of the songs I’d written and released since my last time in Freetown worked well in this context – songs like “Don’t Worry” (with the stomp-and-clap rhythm and repeated refrain) and “Little Changes” went over easily. I don’t know quite how consciously my West African experience influenced my writing and arrangement on the album “Be More Kind”, but I think it’s safe to say the two are not unrelated. “Little Changes”, with its easy backing-vocal refrain, became a highlight of the sets on this trip.


Playing songs with Fal G in King Jimmy’s

After a handful of my own songs, one of the local guys started singing me a melody. I did my best to pick up the chords that would sit behind it, and in no time we had a song together, me holding down a backing that was rhythmic enough for rapping in the verses, and a big singalong chorus. It worked so well that a few other guys did the same afterwards, and we had a good half hour of collaborative music-making. The whole thing didn’t feel threatening at all, and I felt a bit embarrassed about my earlier concerns.

It soon turned out, however, that I had fallen prey to that most usual of failings in a West African slum – confusion. A few songs later, Fal motioned to us to wrap things up, a short explanatory speech was made, and we packed our guitars and headed further into King Jimmy’s. I couldn’t help but notice that we now had a couple of local police officers in tow, while some of the Way Out regulars were starting to position themselves around us in a subtle but firm protective ring. Susan and Gibo led the way into a new area. Cracked concrete pillars connected the floor and the ceiling, with the sides open to the elements. On one of the pillars was painted a sign that identified this space as the remaining ruins of the original King Jimmy’s youth centre – complete with a set of rules, detailing fines for swearing, stealing and fighting. The space was jammed with despondent young men eyeing us warily, and with the harsh blare of African reggae being pumped out of broken speakers. The mood was tangibly tense, and it was quite difficult for me and the other Westerners to figure out exactly what was going on. There was an angry negotiation between the local leaders and our crew, which seemed to be mainly concerned with getting them to turn the stereo off so we could play. We were introduced to a guy who was clearly the boss, maybe 30 years old and giving off a very heavy vibe. After checking us out, looking us up and down silently for a minute or two, he assented, the music was stopped, and our time to shine had arrived.

In a situation like this, of course, the only strategy open to me is to soldier on with the bravest face I can muster. It was still very noisy with chatter, but Ben and I strapped on our guitars and did our best to make ourselves heard over the din. We ran through our little set again, working on getting the audience involved in the music. People were initially a bit incredulous, but slowly their curiosity, and later some small degree of enthusiasm, broke through, and after a few numbers we had their attention and even some smiles. Hazel indicated quietly that we had probably peaked, in terms of making ourselves noticed, so we wrapped up and let Gibo stand on a stone bench and make his short speech in Krio about Way Out, the services they offered and the reason for our visit. By the end, I wasn’t feeling overly uncomfortable, and we walked out to many fist-bumps, back-slaps and high-fives. Making our way back up to the road, Hazel seemed relieved that everything had gone off OK, and told me that we’d done very well to connect with the people there. It’s difficult for me to say with any certainty how dangerous or not the whole thing had been, but it certainly felt like we’d done what we came here to do.


Playing to a tough crowd in King Jimmy’s, complete with rules on the wall


We loaded back up into our convoy and set out across the city for Ferry Junction. As we pulled away from King Jimmy’s, someone mentioned to me that the dilapidated bridge over King Jimmy’s had actually partially collapsed a few years, killing a lot of the homeless people sheltered underneath. They’d rebuilt the road bridge in comparatively good time, but left the slum where it was. That chilling fact stuck in my mind. It’s hard to draw any kind of line between poverty and development in a city like this, and I was starting to doubt my earlier thoughts about improvement. Certainly growth, such as it is, is not something that spreads its benefits evenly in Freetown.

As we crawled through the traffic, my eye was caught by a half-finished building by the side of the road. At a distance, it looked as though the whole thing was comically crippled. The building seemed completely crooked, and though it clearly wasn’t done yet, it was hard to see how it could ever be anything more than an unstable mess. As we got closer, I realised that I had been mistaken. The building was surrounded by scaffolding made of twisting, organically warped tree branches. The actual concrete structure was sound. It was the irregular lines of the support structure that gave the whole the impression of impending collapse, an optical illusion.


The crooked building

I don’t want to get overly amateur-travel-writer here and dwell too long on an obvious metaphor, but my impressions of that building did seem serendipitous. One of the ubiquitous things I’ve noticed in Sierra Leone is the constant background hum of entrepreneurship. The locals positively fizz with economic activity, every street corner is heaped with stuff for sale, and the inventiveness of these people, given their shocking levels of poverty, is a marvel to behold. There is no dearth of drive among the local population, the structural materials are sound. Maybe it’s the crooked timbers of their tragic history (including the horrors of slavery and colonialism) and broken institutions that make the whole thing look hopeless, from a distance. This whole thing is, perhaps, armchair philosophy of the most facile kind, and it certainly suggests little in the way of a solution. But it was a striking moment of understanding on some level, for me.

We pulled up at Ferry Junction, a place we visited back in 2017. As mentioned, Hazel had told me how important it was for me to stick to my promises to return, and it was important for her and the charity too, to show the people in these deprived areas that their commitment was sincere. In fact, I was, on arrival, greeted with a stark and heart-breaking indicator of this. On one of the walls in the slum as we walked in was a hand-painted advertisement for my return trip that never happened, back in December 2017. It was gutting to see the reminder of our failed attempt to come back, standing stark and prominent in the middle of the area. I was, at least, happy to be back this time.


With the advert for the show that didn’t happen

The warren of half-streets that make up Ferry Junction were familiar to me from last time. The area is run by a group I met before called The Iron Team. They make their living fishing scrap metal out of the utterly filthy river that runs through. On my last visit they’d told me about how, during the rainy season, the whole place is inundated with torrential flooding. As I wound my way down to the performance area, Mash P, walking with me and snapping photos, told me that he’d visited in that time, and the water had been up to chest height everywhere; Mash is a tall guy. It was hard to picture, and harder still to imagine how much damage that must do to an already fragile community every year.

Eventually we arrived into the main part of Ferry Junction, an open space dominated by a small hillock next to the river. The members of the Iron Team were up there setting up the drumkit that we had brought with us from Way Out, and settling in with the guitars. On a tree nearby was a poster for the show (actually a hand-doctored version of one for a December show out in Lumley that I also hadn’t made it to), which ranks as one of my favourite bits of promotional material for my music that I’ve seen over the years. A sizeable crowd had already gathered and were preparing themselves for the music. Flocks of small kids were charging around, as small kids the world over are wont to do. My presence was noted, first as a white guy, and then, with slowly dawning recognition based on a comparison of my hands and their tattoos with the photo on the poster, as the main event. Everyone was welcoming and seemed genuinely happy that I had come back, which was moving beyond mere words.

As the Iron Team geared up to play, I asked someone if I could have a piss – “ease myself”, in Krio – and was told that, as the place was a sanitary disaster, I could go pretty much anywhere I pleased. Something about that felt really wrong to me. I didn’t want to barge into this desperate society and then piss on it. I looked around until I found a nook between two half-collapsed walls and went there.

The local musicians were now ready to play, and opened with a specially-composed welcome song, as was to become customary as our trip went on. Their musical skills were not perhaps quite up to the standards of the regulars at Way Out that we had seen earlier in the day, but the balance between enthusiasm and skill had still noticeably shifted in the right direction. Their leader, Rasta, led proceedings, singing into a distorted megaphone. After a while, Ben and I were ushered onto the stage and began our set (with added drums from Dave). Some of the locals remembered songs from our previous visit, which was amazing, and I got back down into the melee with the youngsters to let them slap and strum my guitar at the end of songs. Once we were done this turned into a mass fist-bump and high-five party, with seemingly no logical endpoint.

At one moment in the crush, I found my hand being held tightly and looked down to discover myself face to face with Amatu. She was a small girl, maybe 6 years old in 2017, who had sort of adopted me on my last time in Ferry Junction. On that occasion she had been adorably clingy, melting my heart with a forlorn plea for me to take me with her. I had made a mental note to keep an eye out for her on this visit, and here she was. Wonderfully, she squeezed my hand tightly, gave me a nostalgic smile, and then flounced off into the distance; now nearly two years older, she was clearly a bit too cool to be seen being overly close to me (and I suspect she might have been teased in the interim). I felt like I’d been dumped. Kids are the same the world over.

We hung around for a short while after the show and caught up with folks we knew, hearing stories of the change in attitude and optimism brought about by the work Way Out had done in the area. I felt like we had consolidated something by coming back, and made sincere promises to make this into a habit in the future. We were also, by this point, completely exhausted, so it wasn’t long before we loaded up and headed back to our base to drop the equipment off and walk the short stretch back to the hotel, grateful for some food and an early night.

As I drifted off in the delicious embrace of my bedsheet, the overwhelming images of my day whirling through my mind, my impressions and interpretations jostling for position, one thought occurred to me. During the whole day, while I had been face to face with appalling deprivation and poverty everywhere I turned, I had not thought about the war once. Perhaps that in itself could be a cause for celebration.


Playing at Ferry Junction

Part 2 coming soon.

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