Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 3

Presumably, you came here to read about my travels in West Africa, and the work being done there by WayOut Arts (part 1 here, part 2 here) – not about our collective stomach troubles. So I’ll save you the gory details. Suffice it to say that I had a tentative night, but felt OK by the morning. I was not the only one suffering though – something we ate the day before was working its way through our collective digestive systems. We’d all been paranoid about this kind of thing on previous visits, but never actually had any incidents before now. It’s an occupational hazard in that part of the world I suppose.

We had planned a bit of tourism for the morning of our third day. We’d often driven past the signs for Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the past, and always expressed an interest, so Hazel had scheduled in some time for us there, en route to a visit to Kissy Town. We dragged ourselves out of bed, through breakfast and into a taxi (the jeep was getting fixed), shaky and tired, but excited to see and learn about some primates.

The hour-long drive to Tacugama took us through familiar terrain until the turnoff, whence we drove through a jungle path up an increasingly steep hill. The taxi coughed and spluttered, but our driver seemed supremely zen about the whole thing, so we tried to adopt the same attitude. Eventually the path became so steep that there was a sign warning drivers not to attempt it without four-wheel drive, which we most certainly didn’t have, so we got out to hike. To our surprise, five minutes later the taxi (now unencumbered by passengers) successfully wheezed its way to the top to join us. Our driver looked pleased.

The sanctuary is a wonderful place, though its raison d’etre is a sad one. Chimpanzees are native to West Africa, but are under threat thanks to the predictable combination of expanding agriculture and growing human population. Many farmers just kill them; some people eat them as well (as “bush meat”), which is often a cause of the spread of diseases like ebola. Tacugama was set up to rehabilitate chimps captured, wounded or imprisoned as pets, and is in part funded by the visits of tourists such as us. The chimps go through five stages of rewilding, with an eventual aim of release – one of the putative destinations being an island in the river in the south of Sierra Leone which is uninhabited by humans. Because of the nature of the program, you don’t go anywhere near the wild animals, but in the early stages you get close enough to observe them at play, which was a wonderful humbling thing to witness. They are magnificent creatures.

They also put me in mind of punks – I was tickled by one of the information boards that told us that they “often carry out wild dances… They make their hair stand on end and stamp their feet, then they charge around breaking branches and throwing rocks… They all dance together, hooting and screaming”. This impression was reinforced by the startlingly unexpected sight of a plaque proclaiming that one of the sanctuary areas was funded by “The Sex Pistols’ lead singer, John Lydon”. Not what I was expecting to see that day.

We completed the tour, bought some tat from the gift shop, and got back in the taxi for a hair-raising trip back down the hill. From there we headed for Kissy Town, to meet up with the gang. I’d been there on both my previous trips. It’s essentially a refugee camp built around an abandoned airstrip that was cleared and built by the British army in 2001. It’s a vast community, only 15 miles or so outside the capital, that’s largely forgotten about by wider society and aid agencies. In 2019 we’d raised the funds to build a second headquarters for WayOut Arts there – renting a small building, supplying power, and putting in the equipment needed for a studio. We’d come back to check in on the project.

Jamie in the Kissy Town Studio

The realities of life in a West African refugee camp came flooding back pretty quickly – partly because, despite its size, it’s not signposted anywhere on the road, and our driver had no idea where he was going. Eventually we chanced it down a potholed side street, and suddenly emerged on the wide open runway. He was shocked. And secondly, on arrival we were told that the local dance troupe, who’d wowed us last time around, had a routine planned for us, but a powercut had done for their PA system and backing track for the time being. After a quick visit to the studio (where I play a little guitar on the track they were working on), we decided that we might as well crack on with the show. The crowd gathered and sung us a traditional welcome song, after which I ran through my set of increasingly Africanised songs, which went down a storm. As ever, the younger kids were the most excited, banging the sides of my guitar and scraping the strings with their fingers at the end of each number. The older kids kept their distance at first, but softened over time.

Playing in Kissy Town

Finally the power was back up and running, and we assembled in a clearing behind the studio for the dance performance. Seven incredibly muscular guys lined up and starting running through their routines. I can’t dance to save my life, and have to confess that it’s not an artform that particularly grabs me, but even I was blown away (and Jess, who has trained as a dancer, was enraptured). Each piece of music was a couple of minutes long, and the moves were carefully synchronised, viscerally energetic, and, as time went by, increasingly inventive and funny. At one point, one guy laid on the ground, another lay across his arms and legs, prostrate and with his stomach exposed, and a third guy played him like a piano, along with the backing track. Moments later, the middle guy was flipped over and the musician was playing his buttocks as drums. It was genuinely hilarious.

Kissy Town Dancers

Towards the end of the performance there were some darker moments. In one section, a few of the dancers sat on the ground, back to back, like prisoners, while the others acted as guards, stalking around then and beating them (in time with the music) with their hands and with imaginary rifle butts. It was instantly haunting – the physical movements were clearly authentic. The spectre of the civil war came rushing up through the ground, the chilling realisation that everyone here either lived through that nightmare or knew about it from their parents. The dance moves had real violence to them. But it was over as soon as it started, and I was left slightly shivering in the beating sun.

Shortly after that, as the routine continued, a slightly older guy – 20 maybe – came over and stood by me, and after shuffling uncomfortably for a while, leaned in and whispered “Can you help me?” He told me he was hungry. Hazel has often briefed me on situations like this. It’s morally impossible, of course. Every human instinct told me to say yes, to think of something to do for him (though I didn’t have any Sierra Leonean currency on me). But the problem is that there are thousands like him, all around Kissy Town, and his poverty is something systemic. Handing out to one guy would be dangerous, I was told, and destabilising for the project as a whole. It’s important for WayOut to remain seen as a long-term project, not just a vehicle for handouts. Nevertheless I asked Gibo and Hazel if there was anything that could be done, and I think someone got him an omelette sandwich. I came away from the whole thing feeling useless and small.

Soon it was time to go, not least because Dave was now really suffering with his stomach, and with the exhaustion of not having slept much the night before (for related reasons). We set off back to the city in the newly fixed-up jeep. As we passed through the suburb of Waterloo, we were pulled over at a police checkpoint. John was nervous – while he had passed his test, he still hadn’t received his license proper, and his permit to drive in the meantime was a legally questionable document. A female police officer came to the car window, and it was immediately clear that this was a shakedown. She was very polite – funny even – with the Westerners in the vehicle, but coldly told John to go with her to the police hut off to the side of the highway. We waited in tense silence for about five minutes, until the two of them returned, smiling. The policewoman told us her name was Felicia, and gave us her phone number on a piece of paper, saying that she could show us musicians a good time at night in Freetown. John tolerated all this and then pulled back out onto the road. He said that he’d paid a bribe of 25,000 Leones (about £2) for us to get on our way.

The whole thing was depressingly predictable, but we took it in our stride. As we sucked on wtaer bags, munched on omelette sandwiches, surveyed the chaos of the roadside vendors, and bribed our way back to the city, I was struck by how quickly you get subsumed in the environment out here. I’d only been in the country for two days but already felt normalised, settled.

We had a quiet afternoon scheduled, which was for the best, as by that point both Jess and Dave were under the weather. I got some work done and generally just enjoyed lounging around the Jam Lodge while Jamie went to a football match at the Siaka Stevens stadium and the others slept. By time evening rolled around, it became clear that our two invalids would be staying in while Jamie and I went out.

The plan for that night was something I was both looking forward to and slightly nervous about. After the “official” show at Carlington the night before, I had a different kind of gig lined up. Fal G, the leader of the Black Street Family (a gang now transformed into a rap group, thanks to Hazel and WayOut) was hosting a block party – or “carnival”, as I was politely but firmly instructed to call it. Fal is a lovely guy, we’ve hung out before, and he even named his young son Frankturner Koroma (a common tradition in Sierra Leone, giving a child the name of someone considered to be lucky). But he’s also an imposing character on the Freetown street – the head honcho of a serious group, and respected across the board. The carnival was in an area called Five School. The stage was set up by the side of the road outside a carwash. The theme of the evening was bringing together all the different street gangs of east Freetown for a musical event – not quite a rap battle, but certainly a chance for everyone to show off. The event was titled “Best of the Best”, and I was scheduled as one of the opening acts on the posters that we’d seen around town.

Show Poster in Five School

I’ve played a lot of shows in my time, and some of them in some pretty weird and wonderful places, from the roof of a London squat to a Lithuanian tea house via disused Chinese nuclear bunkers, but this one was definitely up there, in terms of the strangeness of the location and context. But I was honoured to have been included. Jamie and I got picked up at 10.30pm and brought over to the show. Despite the advertised start time of 9pm, things were still pretty quiet when we got there, but that’s standard for Sierra Leone. The stage was a wooden platform on some crates with a single bright light at the back and a blue tarpaulin hanging down the side. To one side of the clearing was the DJ booth, a ramshackle mountain of gear, and there were large blown-out PA speakers dotted around everywhere. There were chairs around the edge of the dance floor, where Jamie and I were sat like visiting dignitaries. Maybe 100 people were milling around the edge, and there was a cautious tension in the air as the different gangs assembled, each keeping to their own social grouping. Amara, Hazel’s adopted son, was keeping a close eye on the two of us, which was comforting, given that he’s built like a tank (and a very sweet guy).

Five School Dancefloor

We got some beers in and settled into our seats. Alusine, the WayOut filmographer, was playing the role of MC under his street name, Easy Man. He was something of a standup comic, and also seemed to be one of the only people who knew everyone and knew what was supposed to be going on. There was a moment of humour when we got up to introduce the first act, a dance performance named “Invincible Dancer”. Jamie and I misheard it as “Invisible Dancer”, which made a weird kind of sense when the backing track started and no one took the stage. We looked at each other, wondering if this was some kind of advanced avant garde art prank, but eventually the Dancer emerged from the crowd (he hadn’t heard his stage introduction) and started his routine. He was supple and bold, and the single light at the back of the stage cast him as a silhouette in the dark, warm evening.

Invincible Dancer

During his set, a slightly older guy – maybe 40 – approached me and started talking to me His speech was incomprehensible – partly because he was speaking in strong Krio, and partly because he was quite clearly off his tits on something. Amara stepped in with a faint air of menace, and the guy backed off. Amara told me he’d been asking who I was because he said he recognised me – apparently I’m a dead ringer for his brother.

And the end of the Invisible Dancer’s set, people came forward and threw money on the front of the stage, like it was a strip club. This surprised Jamie and I initially, but it’s standard practice for performers in this cultural environment, the way they make money from their art. The dancer – his name was Troy – gathered his takings and left the stage. Next up, little old me.

I set up quickly as the DJ played a mixtape of aggressive African music, more like Gabba than anything I’d heard before. In the gathering crowd I could see a lot of faces I knew, the WayOut regulars, making their way to the front, for moral support I suppose as much as anything. There were maybe 200 people there now, still fenced off in their own gang groups, but there was a palpable air of curiosity from the people who didn’t know me, as to who this white guy with a guitar might be and what the hell he was doing on the stage. Easy Man introduced me, I took a deep breath, and threw myself into the show.

Quite often when I play live, I have my eyes shut. It’s a way of focussing, shutting out the world and diving deep into playing and singing as best I can, summoning the emotional depth required to put my art over well. On this occasion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open, just so I could drink in the total insanity of where I was. This show – number 2,441 – was easily one of the craziest I’ve ever done. Despite being able to trace the causality, there was just something so inexplicable about me, a middle class white kid from London, playing by the side of the road in West Africa to a few hundred Sierra Leonean street gangsters. And people were into it. At first it was mainly the WayOut crew singing along and dancing, but others came down to the front in time, and by the end of my five song set we had a real atmosphere going. Even the harder guys at the sides, with their arms folded defensively across their chests, were nodding in silent approval. It was unbelievable.

And it was over in a flash, and I was back to my seat at the side with Jamie. People came over to say hello, congratulate me, and take selfies, both folks I knew and others. Amara was ever-present, but the whole vibe was welcoming. It felt like everyone else acknowledged how mad it was for me to be there at all, and they were taking it, and my chutzpah, with good humour. I was absolutely buzzing. Jamie and I have, in our friendship, been to some pretty wild and weird parties, but this one beat them all. More beers arrived (Jamie’s attempt to go to the bar by himself didn’t go well, so we went back to accepting them from our friends) and we settled in for the rest of the entertainment.

The gangs were still keeping to their corners, but the atmosphere was peaceful, if a little on edge. Fal had told me that his greatest hope for the event was for the whole thing to pass off without violence, and he was successful in that – despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he spent most of his time darting through the crowd, saying hello, diffusing tension and reminding everyone of the peaceful theme. There were no cops or outside authorities, and it was clear that he was using the force of his personality and reputation to keep things on track.

The music was awesome. Mash P played a set, and I promised him I’d dance, which I did, slowly at first, but with increasing confidence (if not skill) as time, beats and beer passed. Meeky got up and surprised us with a rap set – apparently what he used to do all the time before becoming enamoured with the acoustic guitar. I was pleased to see a woman perform – a first for me in Sierra Leone – called Abi Batu, spitting fierce rhymes. A WayOut guy called Speshial sang a strong tune of his called “I Am The Ghetto”. A band with the ridiculously strong name of Sons Of Slaves blew me away. There was even a song in a 6/8 time signature, which was a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Afrobeat rhythms. With each new act, a slightly different group came to the front of the stage, each gang supporting their own people. But peace continued to reign, and I continued to dance.

Hazel mentioned to me that pretty much all the music we were hearing (including the vocals – miming is a universal practice here at live shows, it seems) was recorded at the WayOut Arts studio. It’s the only place in the city, the country, where people like this can record music – one of their rules is that it’s free, but it’s also for people who couldn’t afford to pay anyway. Hazel said that while she knew most of the performers, at least by sight, she didn’t really know who was in which gang. Leaving their colours at the door is another condition of using the studio.

Finally the show was drawing to an end, and the main act was highly anticipated. The show was billed as Fal G rather than Black Street, but the membership of the group is amorphous enough that it was kind of a BSF show by default. There were certainly enough people on the stage, once they got going. Fal made his way through the crowd, mounted the stage, and launched into a massive tune called “Chocolate God”. It was electrifying, intense, heavy, threatening, lyrical, clearly the artistic climax of the night.. He powered through a set, 45 minutes maybe. His crew stood around him on the stage, sharing vocals from time to time, and passing around a bottle of Courvoisier cognac. I felt honoured to witness it. Jamie and I hovered at the edge of the dancefloor, trying out our increasingly confident moves (with Mash on hand as dance tutor).

Fal G in Full Flow

And then it was over. The music reverted to mad mixtapes, the stage cleared, and the two of us decided it was time for bed – it was after 1am now. We congratulated Fal on his performance, finished our beers, and got in the jeep with John to head home. As we left we saw the fucked up older guy still dancing on his own. Apparently the party was likely to run until sunrise, and I’d put money on that guy still being there well into the following morning, jamming to his own beat, like a casualty in the Stone Circle at Glastonbury on the Monday morning.

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