The island was visible almost as soon as we took off and crossed the old canefields of Antigua. We approached Montserrat from the east and I was able to see out the window the great massive of the volcano, and the flows down each side, including where the flow had caused a new bulge in the coastline on the eastern side, and the remains of the old airport runway. We circled the northern side of the island and I could see the new runway, precariously perched on top of the hill, and the clusters of houses old and new that made up the main settlement. We landed and my colleagues, Matt from Durrell and Geoff from RSPB, were in the small arrivals hall. But my luggage was not. Due to the large number of passengers they had been unable to get all the bags in the plane, but no worries, I was told, they were going to pick up the remaining passengers and it would be on that one. They will be back in under an hour.
So in the mean time I was offered a beer down by the harbour at Little Bay, where the ferry now came in; it being the only point known by Geoff to have adequate wifi. We drove down the hill and pulled up by this old beach hut. We checked email and started to chat about my task. Geoff had been around for a week or so teaching staff to tag birds, and was going to overlap with my visit for a couple of days. Matt was staying for a longer period, over a month. Although he was full time on the project, he was based out of Micoud in St Lucia, and so was in an out of Montserrat from time to time.
We headed back up to the airport to collect my bag and just as we arrived the planed swept in to land. We waited patiently for a few passengers to come off and saw a pile of bags being manhandled off the plane onto a small hand trolley…. but I could not see my distinctive hard red case. I was told it would be on the next plane, which was tomorrow morning. So with the clothes I stood up in, a passport and a laptop, I got back in the car. We stopped off at a small grocers in Brades so I could at least get a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a bar of soap.
Most people were happy to see us. One or two of the ladies would shout at me to not take photos but most wanted to pose and see the results in the viewfinder. One or two people wanted to shake my hands but as soon as they did they withdrew their grip immediately and said “ooooh – smooth hands”. It happened a number of times. Yes, compared to the hard calloused fingers and palms, my pussy little hands were like silk to these people. I admit – apart from a little gardening and the odd piece of restorative DIY, I never do manual work. All I have to show for hard graft is the RSI that I have from years of typing at a computer. They laughed and giggled and guffawed at me. I took it in good heart but it was a good example of the rift between these hard working people collecting raw material and using hand tools at the end of a supply chain and my internet and interconnected life where my skills are passed through my fingertips to machinery. Not even machinery; digital electronic symbols.
Jan had a chat to some of the village elders, apologising for not bringing the photos he promised, and we started to head back to the vehicle. We left them behind collecting new wood and busily making their fuel in the hot steamy sunlight. When the Ebola crisis emerged, it was this isolated village that my thoughts turned to first; how many were affected, how long was it before anyone from outside realised they might be ill or dead. How many survived. I’m sure many did. Despite the uncertainty of this disease, I’d seen in the countryside around Freetown how resourceful and hard working people can be, how they had already survived years of abuse, civil war and poverty, and I am sure they would have found a way to deal with these new challenges.
We had to park the car at the entrance to the village and then negotiate a marshy stream to end up on the drier higher ground on which most of the settlement had been established. They were under a huge canopy of trees but the ground below had been cleared by people, goats and chickens. I noticed how black the soil was and realised it was a combination of a rich swampy soil and years of charcoal burning which was the main source of income for the village.
Jan was greeted as an old friend – he’d only been there once but you don’t get many white guys down this cul de sac. I was introduced to people and we asked if we could go and look at what was going on. We walked as near as we could get to the river. It was flowing past some mangroves in the distance. Obviously the tide still reached all the way up here. To our right, a large tributary served as an area to moor their dugout canoes, from which they were heading out into the mangroves to forage for wood. This was being brought up on to the muddy shoreline and chopped into convenient sizes. Close to the stream they were being neatly piled, but further in they were arranged with their ends pointing towards a central spot and steadily built up into a rondavel ready for lighting. I could see the next stage of the process to my right, where river mud had been packed over the pile and the centre set alight. Smoke was now dribbling out of a few holes in this mudpack but inside the wood was steadily cooking to turn it in to valuable charcoal.
At the charcoal village
Mangroves providing the raw material
Piles ready to smoke
Not all the wood was used as charcoal – huge piles of logs and timber poles were stacked up all round the village. In some ways it was very industrious and they obviously had access to an amazing resource. But I did find it jarring that my project was trying to protect the Guinea biome in the north of the country and here there were similar levels of logging and stripping out of slow growing wood to meet the insatiable demand of Greater Freetown for building material and fuel.
I’ve yet to mention the horror of Ebola that hit Sierra Leone about a year after my last visit. Through all the deaths, the scares, the inhuman but essential ways to isolate, treat and reintroduce people in the community, it did cause a wholesale change in attitudes to hygiene in the country and I hope that so many unsanitary practices, including open air defecation, have at last been eradicated from the culture of Sierra Leone.
Many times over the last few years I have thought of all the people I met in Freetown and the villages around, and those areas in the north where I worked. I wonder how many are still alive since Ebola struck, what stories they have about their families and friends. How many lost their livelihoods, or have been made pariahs in their own communities. Sierra Leone, along with Guinea and Liberia, have been through the most traumatic of epidemics; a silent killer that goes against logic. It shook up traditional practices. Many in Sierra Leone ensure that a dead relative is bathed and given a fond farewell in a ceremony where family and friends kiss the body. But Ebola unlike many diseases remains active in dead tissue and can easily be transferred to a huge number of people at a funeral in this way.
The final village that Jan and I visited that day is another one I feel must have been so vulnerable to Ebola. We ended up by the same river as the collapsed bridge but we had travelled up the old railway several kilometres before finding a track which managed to cross the swamp to the next little peninsula of dry land, and then drive back south to reach this remote community. The road was narrow and full of deep potholes. Jan said it would be completely impassable in the wet season. It was damn near impassable at the height of the dry season. Several times I thought the ruts in the road would swallow up the axle. We passed through several areas of low lying ground saturated in water. The word swamp has so many bad connotations but during a dry season in Africa, the presence of any standing water and all the lush green vegetation that goes with it is a sight beholden. We stopped off at a couple of places and observed waders stalking through the lilies, smaller birds zipping in and out of the undergrowth, and the loud plops as fish broke the surface to entrap the odd fly.
We saw an example of this as we headed back from the defunct bridge. A rusted sign was set in amongst the fields near the road. Put up by the local community it said “Open Defecation is not allowed. Please use the latrine, latrine use is free”. It seems bizarre to most people that a community has to be told not to defecate anywhere, and that the idea of the dirt and spread of disease is not an innate reaction (and I imagine my disgust to know you might walk in human faeces almost anywhere is not just a western learnt reaction). I suppose the habit comes from past years where communities were small and you could head off into the bush and defecate and by the time you next went back to that area natural processes had cleaned away the evidence. Also the connection between faeces and disease may not be clear amongst at least some of the community. But as populations become larger and more tightly packed it is no way to deal with sewage. I found the number of hygiene and sanitation projects around staggering and still surprising that there was a need for reinforcing the messages so often.
As much as there was a serious point to the sign, I must admit what most attracted me was the Krio translation of the English. It was much more onomatopoeic and lyrical “Nor scatter Kaka Fita-Fata”.
I got as close as I dared and worked out what had happened. A lorry had been crossing the bridge and had overloaded what was now apparently a much weakened structure. At a point as far away from the supporting columns as possible the weight of the lorry had made the bridge literally snap and it had plunged into the river, the far part of the bridge had dropped into the river too pulling the south end upwards, and at the same time it had dragged a portion of the north side of the bridge down too. The force of the break had twisted the girders, wrenched out the pins and snapped the weldings. Peering down into the fast flowing river I could just make out the cab of a modern lorry. No-one could tell me whether the driver had survived the traumatic plunge or subsequent immersion.
Not point in dwelling too long on this disaster. The villagers of the settlement on the far side were an industrious lot, had set up a regular ferry service and were doing a brisk trade.
The narrative of this disaster was typical of Sierra Leone. Years of neglect and lack of maintenance meant what minimal infrastructure the country had was deteriorating. Out of the fragments of an emergency, though, there was a spirit of entrepreneurialism, and a solution could be found. If only that spirit could be tapped and more widely fostered the country would become a powerhouse in the region.
How to tap that spirit and who should lead were questions left dangling with me. Any person who had obtained power may give a perception of some benevolence to those who they guarded, but in reality most of the their time was spent finding ways to further themselves and their immediate circle. And so many basic problems in Sierra Leone seemed never to be solved.
The bridge down
no way across for miles
locals resorting to water taxis to ferry back and forth
I was happy to go – it was somewhere new. We headed out along the main road out of Freetown to the rest of Sierra Leone. As I’ve said elsewhere, the Chinese were building another road through the mountains to take pressure off the main road and route traffic from the Western Suburbs to Hastings but it was still not ready, and the illegal use of the course of the road was now being strictly policed. So it was all slow going, but once past the hubbub of a Saturday market in Hastings and Waterloo we were on the open road that I knew well from my forays up to the north. We only traversed a few kilometres though before Jan turned off to the right at the village of Malolo and continued along a wide but untarmacced road to the east. This was in theory the most direct main road from Freetown to the Southern Province and ultimately to the Liberian border, but the underdevelopment of this region in amongst low lying swamps meant that more vehicles would head inland to Bo and Kenema before turning southwards to the coast again.
The road was eerily quiet, we only saw a few taxis and bikes as we passed several villages. The road was unnaturally straight and flat even for the best of the metalled African highways, and I realised that in fact we were following the route of an old railway. It turned gentle corners every so often but was for the most part elevated above the level of the marshy swampland and pockets of agriculture below.
The woodland became more dense as we went on and while agricultural produce was not present on the roadside, many charcoal bundles were for sale. I had no idea what this bridge looked like so was amazed to see it was a big old structure spanning a river of about 300m. There were a bunch of taxis hanging round one end and I could see people were walking down the embankment of the old rail track to the left of me. We got out of Jan’s vehicle and I walked along the old course of the railway. Below me to the left was a muddy harbour where people were transhipping from their land transport into small dugout canoes and being ferried across the river. Them and their livestock, belonging and commodities. In front of me the bridge was a single track iron girder structure with wooden planks placed crossways. The metal looked a bit rusty and some of planks could be replaced but it all looked perfectly respectable. Ahead of me something was wrong – I could see the far end of the bridge was perched up about 10 metres above my level. I took some ginger steps along the way. While the part of the bridge I was on had guard rails made of girders coming up to my chest; over the main part of the river they were more at lorry height. This main part had collapsed.
Jan and I had one further excursion. As well as the cannons and old buildings, he’d also located another piece of colonial anachronism that existed down near the docks on the east side of the city. Someone had established a railway museum and obtained various artefacts from many different sources. The national railway system closed down in 1975 and, apart from the evidence of some tracks in places, Sierra Leone had become a rail free country until the Chinese started to build lines into the interior again in recent years to transport high grade iron ore down to the ocean.
The collection of locos and other railway jumble were hidden away for many years during the civil war, but once peace had been re-established, news of this amazing piece of industrial archaeology came to light to one of the peacekeepers form the UK army. He spearheaded the efforts to raise funds and first preserve the collection then restore and rehouse the amazing set of engines. Using various tourist guidebooks, I steered Jan through the streets of central Freetown on a Saturday morning. Even now the place was heaving as people shopped in the early cool air. Every inch of the main streets seemed to be taken up with hawkers selling clothes, mobile phone covers, vegetables and fruit, newspapers, CDs and videos. The traffic was moving, yes, buy only at a few miles an hour every minute or two. It did eventually thin out a little on the east side of town and just where the main road out into the rest of the country was heading out to the south at a roundabout, we veered off into an industrial area on a small stump of a peninsula called Cline Town. Although there were still some residential blocks, compounds and the odd informal cluster of shelters, the area was more full of workshops and warehouses, and at the far end several large gates heading to wharfs. The instructions from the guides were vague and we had circled a couple of streets several times before we finally spotted a small sign against a warehouse. There is was, but it was shut, despite the guide informing us of the opening hours.
The Cotton Tree in central Freetown – looking a little worse for wear
Big disappointment as crawling over old railway engines is a good distraction for me but we still had a few hours to spare so Jan asked me where else I might like to go. I was happy to explore anywhere so he told me of a couple of places out east that he would like to see. One was the report that a bridge over a river had collapsed and nearby there was a community making charcoal that Jan had visited once before and he had promised to take them some of his pictures.
An impromptu market spring up on the shore as several of the big mammas who were catching the fish in their bowls were passing them on to others on the shore lines. It was not clear but it looked like several of these women were managing the sales of the fishermen and ensuring that they got their cut even though many were still out in their boats. But there was the odd opportunistic guy who dipped a single bucket into the water to get enough food for his week.
The concentration of fish in this little area had caught the attention of much of the bird life in the environs and they were swooping in on the catch, or stealing the odd fish from the periphery of the market place. Some of the fish were being cleaned right on the beach there and the entrails were picked up by birds and by the lucky crabs who lived just where we were standing.
We watched for a while as the final stragglers of the catch were brought up and the remaining net tidied up into one huge pile ready to be loaded on to a cart and taken back to the village to be repaired and prepared for the next haul.
We bade our farewells to this village, privileged to have been included in a huge community ritual and started to walk back to our resort. At this point I realised just how far we had travelled and it took over 30 minutes to get back. We’d been away a couple of hours but it did not seem to bother the rest of the group who had been reading, drinking and doing a bit of pottering of their own.
The tide was completely out now and only a trickle came from the lagoons and the river. Laziness had taken over the whole world, whether it was the sun, the beer or the palm wine. Kids who had been playing now leant on a nearby wall and said a seldom word to each other. Dogs had half buried themselves in the sand to cool down and probably relieve the tics or fleas. The sun was setting over the ocean and turned the bay a distinct purple grey hue. Reluctantly we packed up our belongings and headed back to Freetown and work.
It was tiring work – and my soft hands blistered easily on the rough rope. I got a mixture of encouragement and jibes from my effort, but most of the people there were pleased a white guy had come along to help them get the catch. Most of the hauling was achieved by a few strong heavy set guys, but even a few little children were joining in as were a couple of women who could have easily put me over their shoulder and taken me off to their village if they so thought about it. Someone at the back started to chant a deep slow song which helped to pace the hauling hand over hand.
At this time the beach was dominated by men. I then saw a load of people, mainly women, come through a gap in the dunes, no doubt from the village that was just behind, carrying an assortment of plastic bowls and buckets. They took up positions in the shallow water and waited as the net came closer to the shore. I noticed the boats which had been spread out in the water when we first approached had now come in close to the net and their occupants were reaching down inside the net to scoop up the first of the catch. On went the hauling. Now I could see the water surface was boiling away as the fish became more tightly grouped and began to panic.
Jan and I had given up hauling in and watched the scene, Jan trying to get in with his camera to get some close ups. A couple of people started to introduce themselves to me and ask where I came from. Some were friendly, some inquisitive, others just drunk on palm wine and after money to feed their habit.
The final push to bring the net in commenced – it was barely 100m round the water and the fish took up almost the whole volume. The fishermen had obviously carefully chosen this late part of the afternoon when the sun was beginning to get low in the sky to spread their net, as it is when fish tend to congregate in the shallows, and they could maximize the haul. Buckets and bowls were now being dipped into the melee and up came a full catch of silvery slithering creatures. I was disappointed to see how small most of the catch was; mostly juveniles. Was it a case that overfishing had depleted the bigger sized fish as elsewhere in the world or were these the ones which hung around the shallows at this time. Whatever, two things were clear; in quantity terms this was a huge source of protein to an entire village, but also the practice of taking out such big amounts of small fish did not bode well for the long term sustainability of the fishery.