Sierra Leone 2019 Part 3

This is part 3 of my write-up of my recent trip to Sierra Leone. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here. You can donate to WayOut Arts here.

Our third and final day in Freetown started early. The trip already felt like it was too short, and we had a lot to get done, so sleep could wait for another day. We were up, breakfasted and out of the hotel in good time, and quickly driving through the city for a date with a TV station.

I passed my driving test in July of last year, and have predictably now become mildly obsessed with it. At the risk of sounding like a pub bore, I felt like I had a new appreciation of the chaos of the traffic in the city (though it’s not far off driving in Wood Green at rush hour, to be honest). There aren’t really any main thoroughfares. Like many older Western cities, it was laid out before the internal combustion engine was a consideration; unlike most of those places, not much has been done in the meantime, so there’s a general sense of confusion on the roads. On my two brief visits to the city, I haven’t managed to gather much in the way of a sense of urban geography, so sitting in the passenger seat was endlessly stupefying. We kept rounding corners to arrive at a junction that I knew, or thought I did. On the other hand, the ubiquitous use of the car horn in traffic felt refreshingly free of anger. Everyone beeps all the time, but it almost came across as friendly.

The flow of cars has a dreamlike quality to it, with a ceaseless procession of near misses both with other vehicles and with pedestrians. And yet in all the time I’ve spent in a car in the country, I’ve never actually seen an accident. Somehow the whole thing slides along, like mitochondria in a cell. I’d be interested to see some statistics on this, which I suspect might puncture my pleasant reverie on the subject. I’m not sure I would want to get in a car accident here.

During the drive, we passed an imposingly large building. Built from old cinderblocks painted bright red with white pointing, Mash P pointed it out as the Christ Church School, built in 1849. A small gaggle of kids hung around by the door, watching us as we passed, dressed in the immaculate and slightly old-fashioned uniforms that seem to be everywhere on this continent, somehow spotless in the dust and heat. Mash told us that he’d actually attended for a year when he was 8 years old, his first school. It wasn’t mentioned out loud, but it immediately occurred to me that this would have been before his traumatic experiences in the war, when we was kidnapped and forced to be a child soldier. The realisation was both chilling and saddening. I wondered what the building had witnessed in 1999, when the city was subjected to one of the worst urban massacres in recent history. The war felt like a fever dream, a terrible memory poking through, unwelcome, into everyday life.

Outside the TV station.

We arrived at our destination at the very top of a steep hill, AYV TV – “The Voice Of The Young Generation”, according to its prominent strap-line. Hazel told me that this was the main TV show watched by young or cool people in the country, something of a big deal. Their location certainly gave the impression of wealth – being up high in tropical cities usually means you’re important enough to get access to the cooler air. We hung around in the carpark outside for a while, enjoying the easier early morning temperature, waiting for my slot to come around. We were a little delayed by an unspecified issue – perhaps something to do with the fact that the channel’s live feed in their reception was fuzzy to the point of incomprehensibility – but eventually, I was mic’d up and ushered onto the set.

The presenter was a good-looking young woman called Stella Bangura. Chatting briefly before we went live, I learned that she had spent much of her life in Enfield, North London (close to where I live). She was intelligent, assertive and well-spoken; the class divide between her and the WayOut kids was immediately apparent. That said, a few of the kids from our project have got jobs with AYV TV, first as unpaid interns and now as proper employees. That represents a previously almost unimaginable social leap for these street kids, and is something that WayOut are rightly very proud of.

The interview itself was fine; it actually felt a bit run of the mill, compared to the other things I was up to at that time. We talked about my career, about WayOut and why I was there in Freetown. Stella asked me questions about where viewers could come and see me play while I was there, which was a little difficult, as we were prioritising spending time in slum areas, not places that most viewers of AYV TV would regularly go. Afterwards I chatted with Hazel about how I felt we should try and organise a proper show next time I come, to raise awareness about the charity’s work and artists in Sierra Leone itself, and to raise some money for them. We’re discussing the idea.

Also on the show with me was a guy called John, who was wearing a shirt rather strikingly emblazoned with the logo “Teenage Pregnancy – Not Me, No Way!”. Initially this struck me as a slightly obvious point for him to be making, as an adult man, but it all became clear in time. He’s the leader of a group of medical students running a campaign against teenage pregnancy, called Stress Free Zero Stigma. Their aims seemed a touch disparate, referencing school attendance and drug abuse as well, but his intentions were good and Stella and I applauded his efforts, as he forcefully intoned, “Everyone needs to put their shoulder to the wheel for mama Salone.”

My time on air came to an end, and after saying some goodbyes and taking some photos, we went back to WayOut to regroup for the rest of our busy day. When we arrived, Jamie and Ben started handing out some T-shirts we’d brought with us for the locals – a selection of Joe Strummer Foundation designs, and a big pile of shirts that Ben has collected from various festivals, tours, venues and gear companies over the years. It was to see our friends proudly sporting their new clothes, complete with logos for Hurricane & Southside Festivals, Blink-182 crew and more. Once we’d got through the stock we brought with us there were a few people who’d missed out and were disappointed, so I went into my bag and gave away all the shirts I had with me, even though they weren’t especially clean. I think we managed to satisfy everyone.

The WayOut crew with their new threads

Our next port of call was at Fisher Street Market – an area we’d discussed on our first visit but not made it out to. As ever, we loaded up the vehicles and set off at a crawl through the city. My obsession with the crumbling architecture was burning as strongly as ever. I wondered who built all this stuff in the first place and when, and how long they’d expected it to last. I kept thinking about Ozymandias.

As we drove, we passed the parliament building, which was swarming with police, holding up the already-viscous traffic. Josta told me that the former president, Ernest Bai Koroma, had been brought in to answer questions about corruption under his government. I couldn’t decide whether this was a good or a bad sign. Political leaders being held to account felt positive to me; former leaders being questioned by their successors seemed more worrying. He was attending of his own free will, apparently, so perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic.

As we were talking about police anyway, Josta made a canny and unexpected observation to me about my home city. He said he’d found the relatively benign nature of the police in London to be a pleasant surprise. His experience of police in general at home is a hostile and suspicious one – they’re just the gang who has the uniforms. He’d assumed that he’d be regularly stopped and hassled in the UK, as a black foreigner, but had found the police he encountered to be friendly and helpful. That seemed to genuinely surprise him, as did the overall diversity of both the officers and the population of the city in general. That left me feeling quite good about old London Town.

Fisher Street Market

We arrived at Fisher Street. The area as a whole is a normal, functioning city market, but contained within it is a truly remarkable place. At the centre, there’s an old warehouse room full of massive abandoned wooden tea chests. For the last 14 years, a whole community has been living here, using the chests as places to sleep, with locks on the doors, or curtains pulled across (or indeed nothing at all), depending on circumstance. We were shown around by Bullet, an impressive guy with long dreads, and the commanding feel of a local leader, who regularly visits WayOut to record his rapping. He seemed fuelled by a strange mixture of pride at what they’d built and outrage at the fact that they needed to. Seeing people, even entire families, sleeping in those conditions was genuinely shocking for me. Bullet told me it was a big step up from sleeping on the street. The police raid the area daily, hassling the inhabitants, arresting them on trifling charges and trying to extort money. The locals have a warning system and a sense of solidarity against these incursions, but everyone has suffered from them at some point.

Checking out the tea chests with Bullet

The general vibe in the area was pretty heavy because of all this, and it took a while for people’s suspicions of the white visitors to ease a little. After our guided tour, we set up in a doorway. Bullet rapped a couple of tracks into a mic through a battery-powered boombox, drenched in reverb and delay, alongside a brutal beat. Then it was our turn. Ben and I ran through our now-established set, dripping with sweat in the heat. The crowd loved it, it was one of the best shows of the trip, and at the end Gibo made his speech about the work they were trying to do. Bullet told us afterwards that our visit had been important to show people that he and the other WayOut attendees in the community weren’t lying about WayOut, that it was a real thing that people could get involved with. He was quite the local star, and I felt honoured to have played with him for a short while. As we walked out, he told me about a track he was working on back at the studio and asked me to sing some vocals on the chorus for him. Of course I agreed.

Playing in Fisher Street

We left Fisher Street feeling like we’d done some small good with our time, and set off for our next and final stop – Kissy Town. Kissy is a large community about 30 miles from the centre of Freetown, built on an old air strip that the British army cleared back in 1999. Once they left, refugees moved in, and they’ve been there ever since. It’s basically a huge slum, with the feel of a camp, and visits from any charities or aid agencies are few and far between. The state of the roads in Sierra Leone is not good, so we settled down for a journey of a couple of hours to get there.

On the way we drove past Fourah Bay College, Freetown’s university, the oldest in West Africa, perched on the top of the hill, and providing a large part of the justification for the city’s old nickname, Athens. The roads were good, the buildings impressive (though with their facades still marred by the ever-present tropical rot). The sidewalks were full of neatly turned out, comparatively affluent students, busily making their way to and from classes. Once again I sensed a class divide between these happy souls and our WayOut friends in the car. This was a vision of a life that was completely beyond their reach. Even so, it was good to see this kind of educational institution thriving somewhere in the country.

Further on, past a surprising number of Mormon churches, we reached the highest point of elevation, both physically and architecturally. Perched at the summit of the hill was a bold, imposing and very much finished building, complete with armed, uniformed men stood guard outside. Of course, it was the American Embassy, built around an old colonial hill station, looking down on the city. I wondered what exactly was going on in there.

We drove on, past an endlessly bewildering set of roadside scenes. Shops with enormous wood and leather bed frames for sale (were they made here? How do they get delivered anywhere? Who buys them?), areas still devastated by a huge and lethal mudslide in 2017 (and “mudslide” is a hard word to pick out from a Krio accent!), and finally the Freetown Teachers College, festooned with banners proclaiming “No to Examination Malpractice!”, and, brilliantly, “Like Money, Knowledge Must Circulate To Have Value”.

After a brief pitstop for a lunch consisting of boiled eggs mashed into baguettes with mayonnaise – which our crew absolutely loved – we finally arrived in Waterloo, the actual town next door to the Kissy camp. We had been supposed to play a set here before we returned to Kissy Town, but on arrival, all was chaos. There had been some miscommunication somewhere along the line, and the locals were not aware we were coming – in fact many of them were already waiting for us further down the road. We wandered aimlessly around the cars for a short while, before Hazel decided we were wasting precious time and suggested we simply go on to the main event. I felt pretty bad about packing up and moving on – those locals who had seen us get out were excited for something, anything to happen, and looked crestfallen when we saddled up again. Alas, we had to go with our guide’s best instincts.

Finally, we pulled up in Kissy Town. This was an important part of our trip. Last time we’d been here, we’d seen how the community was crying out for any projects to come and get involved locally. Hazel and Gibo had decided to put some of their resources into opening a second WayOut base here in the camp – the journey into the city centre was simply not practical for young people in the area to make regularly. So cash was pooled, a small building was rented and kitted out with two computers and some guitars, and the whole thing was opened for business over a year ago. Already, they have 300 kids signed up to use the facilities – way too many for the equipment they have, and so time management is a big part of WayOut’s administrative work out here.

The new centre itself was decorated outside with a truly wonderful mural, with computers, instruments, musicians, Joe Strummer, and the WayOut logo. As much as I’m allowed to, I felt proud to have been part of getting this off the ground, in some small way. We posed for pictures, all beaming smiles. Inside, the studio was dimly lit and stuffy, and they have serious problems with their intermittent and unreliable power supply, but the simple fact of its existence is encouraging. Much of the fundraising I have planned for the rest of this year (more on that soon) will be for this place. Gibo told us that they had the blessing of the local council, but that the elders were filled with suspicion that at some point they would be asked to pay for it, or give something in return. We did our best to reassure them on that point when we shook hands with them later.

Inside the new Kissy Town WayOut centre

After our little inaugural visit, we walked back up the scorching airstrip to where a large crowd had already gathered. As we got closer, we could hear that a show of some kind had already begun. A group of local musicians had a guitar and were playing yet another wonderful ‘welcome back’ song, specially composed for us visitors. Meanwhile, four guys were in the middle of a startlingly brilliant display of acrobatics, building human pyramids, back-flipping and more. Their movements were so engrossing that we waited until they were done before even trying to get one of our shows underway. As ever, Ben and I unpacked our guitars and launched straight into “Little Changes”, bringing the crowd of maybe 200 or more in for the singalongs and handclaps. As we played, a guy standing behind me, one of the ones who’d been singing the welcome tune, requested “I Still Believe”, a song he remembered from my previous visit, so that got added to the set. Our performance felt well-oiled by this point, the atmosphere joyous and positive.

Acrobatics in Kissy Town

Much as on my last visit to Kissy Town, the weather proved to be my chief enemy in terms of stamina through my set, and after 25 minutes or so I was in danger of overheating completely, despite regular water top-ups from Josta, so we reluctantly decided to call it a day. Once we’d finished playing, I offered up my guitar to the mass of kids gathered around me, so they could strum the strings and slap the sides. I was totally swamped by a giggling, writhing mass of happy children, which was lovely up to the point where it got a bit worrying, and Mash came to extricate me from the ruckus I’d caused. Meanwhile, Gibo was up on the truck handing out sweets, pens and other small presents to the kids. This caused a mass pile-on of people desperate for something, anything, from the visitors. The scene of chaos around the back of the truck was unlike anything I’d seen before, a real edge of desperation and threat in the clamour.

In the midst of the melee, I saw one woman walking through the crowd who will stay with me for a long time. She looked utterly broken as a human. Perhaps 25, she was visibly being shunned by those around her, and I was told that she was a sex worker of some kind, quite likely someone suffering from HIV. She had a hollow, animal look in her eyes, as she pushed through the people to try and get her hands on a pen or some candy – which wasn’t forthcoming, as she stood out like a sore thumb from the younger kids around her. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person more alienated from her fellow humans, and it was painful to watch. I gave her the pen I was writing my notes with before I got into the car to drive back to Freetown. I saw her in the mirror as we pulled away, and I can’t stop myself wondering what she’s seen, what kind of life she is condemned to lead, what anyone could do to help her.

We drove back to the city slowly, feeling exhausted and filthy, and slightly nervous about the night ahead – the flights to Casablanca leave at 4am, and the business of trying to stay awake until the 1am ferry, then crashing for a few hours in the bare-bones airport before getting on the plane was, we knew from experience, not much fun. In the car I got chatting with Josta again and decided to use this last opportunity to grill him a little more about Sierra Leone and how he felt about the current state of his country.

In the car with Josta and Gibo

Josta told me that the war was firmly confined to history now. If nothing else, the country had suffered many more disasters since then, which had left fresh layers of tragedy in their wake. He told me that he hurt from seeing his father executed in front of him as a child, but at the same time, he knew people who had lost their entire families more recently in the ebola outbreak in 2014. He said he tried to live his life as an act of honour for his father. In the face of all this, the idea of fresh fighting seemed remote, in his opinion. “We know what holding guns feels like,” he said, “and we don’t want to do it again. We want to put our fingers on instruments, not triggers; we want to go to the studio, not the bush.” Despite all the horror and disaster that has befallen this part of the world, that felt like a cautious cause for optimism to me.

As we neared our destination, the traffic got so bad that Jamie, Ben, Dave and I opted to walk the last half mile of the journey, enjoying being out in the cooling evening air, strolling the sidewalks and taking in a last gulp of West Africa. Our last engagement of the trip was a full-blown dance competition back at the studio. This is something that they do regularly, and everyone was excited about it. I was intrigued to see what moves would be on offer, whilst also making sure no one expected me to get up and try to partake.

A selection of about ten people got up at the start, as Gibo played DJ through the battered old sound system. He changed the tunes (and the beats) every couple of minutes or so, and the dancers had to keep up with him. The whole mood was chaotic and joyous, totally improvised but hugely energetic. At the start, the guys took the lead, preening like roosters and showing off highly sexualised moves, all crotch-thrusting and lordosis. After a while, the girls started to gain confidence and hold their own. The pace was relentless. Every five minutes or so, by a mixture of his own judgement and popular acclaim, Gibo would tap someone on the shoulder to indicate that they had fallen by the wayside. The competition thus thinned slowly. John had been having a whale of a time up there – “I want to dance like a fish!” he exclaimed at one point – but in time even he was made to sit down.

Rasta and Vanessa dancing

In the end it came down to two people. Rasta, the leader of the Iron Team, was up against Vanessa. Rasta’s dancing was completely over the top in a wonderful way. He was theatrical and funny, leaping up onto the fence and using his shoe as a prop phone. Vanessa was more focussed and sensual, and seemed more in tune with the music. The tension rose as the two of them went head to head. In the end, despite Rasta’s best efforts to put Vanessa off by writhing around on the floor at her feet, she was declared the winner. The crowd seemed genuinely pleased that the prize had gone to a woman, and Rasta was gracious in defeat. I was asked to present them both with a small cash prize for their efforts. As the party wound down, I was struck by how free and vivacious the whole thing had been, by the sense of collective pride that shone through it all, and by the fact that everyone had been completely sober. I was also relieved that I had escaped any attempts to make me join in.

We started wrapping up our trip, repacking bags and saying farewells. I had a few quick studio engagements to get finished before we left, knocking out a chorus vocal for Bullet, and another for the Black Street Family track I’d started work on the previous day. Finally, I rushed out a chorus for a nascent track called “Hands Off Our Girls”, a message song some artists were working on. I was knackered, desperately in need of a shower, and ready to hit the trail.

The four of us headed across town to the restaurant on the beach in Lumley where we’d had a meal at the end of our previous visit, with Mash, Gibo, John, Josta and Hazel, the core WayOut team. We chowed down on some predictable Western tourist food and talked through the trip, what we had and hadn’t achieved, what we could do better next time, and when that might be. After food and a few beers, we got the ferry to the airport, survived the night on uncomfortable benches, and flew home via Morocco.

I’m happy to say that I felt as fired up, then and now, as I write this, as I had done at the end of my first trip. Supporting WayOut feels like such an obvious thing for me to do, and the effects of their work is so tangible, so immediate. I do my best to lend a shoulder to most charity causes that come my way, of course, but this one feels special. Not just because I now have friends in Sierra Leone, but mainly because so much can be achieved with a little effort. If you’d like to support WayOut, you can make donations here, and, more than in most cases, really every little helps. I have plans for various benefit shows, donations and music releases through the rest of this year, and I hope to be back out there with my WayOut crew as soon as I can be. Thanks for reading.

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