So it was not much of a surprise to find out when I got back in the dry season that most of the resident project team had made Franco’s a regular spot to hang out. About ten of us travelled down in convoy, there were no problems finding the turn off in the light and when we entered the compound in the full sunlight it was like I was in a different world. It was now bustling with several families, the kids running in amongst the bushes. There were groups of young people, obviously aid workers of one sort or another. Some more affluent Sierra Leonean families were there too and we were lucky to find a couple of free tables.
We set up on the beach around a couple of pulled together plastic tables and we ferreted around the compound for enough plastic chairs. I sat down on mine which promptly sank eighteen inches into the sand, buckled and tipped me onto the ground. Any attempt at cool beach behaviour was now lost. We ordered some food and I took a beer and wandered around. The restaurant and main house of the hotel was sat on a small artificial spit of land built on a lagoon. One the east side the mud flats extended out naturally into a patch of mangroves, on the inside there had been some dredging of the sand which made a slight harbour from which both fishing and pleasure boats with shallow drafts could nestle. In front of the beach was a large estuary that curved back on itself before discharging in the sea a couple of hundred metres away from us. At the moment the lagoon had a fair amount of water in it and only a few more adventurous people were wading out across to the far side where there seemed to be a high bank of sand dunes.
So we ate lunch and chatted and joked, fell asleep , sun bathed and relaxed. It was a good day after all the hardships of living up in Fintonia and the work we had done the previous week. We observed a few people swimming out from the jetty, a couple of locals passed by with dug out fishing boats to inspect their nets up the river. All the time the tide was retreating and more of the sand became exposed. At one point a large group of young guys all in the same style of red t-shirt but dressed in various shorts, boxers or briefs, energetically ran across the largest emergent sand bank. They did acrobatics, tossed a football around and fooled around with each other before heading out over the sand dunes.
Sierra Leone was basking in a perfectly pleasant environment of between 26 and 30 degrees. There were gently refreshing breezes coming in off the Atlantic. The sun was out, and what was more, so were the people. I was heading off to Fintonia within a couple of days of arriving so did not have much time to soak up the atmosphere, but the office team were much more sociable than they had been in the wet season and I was invited to join them at an event on Lumley Beach. We gathered at the car park at the top of the compound and split into two cars, and picked up a couple of others from houses nearby then headed down the hill to the west. The short journey to Lumley would normally take about 20 minutes in the wet season as we picked our way around the potholes, but now we were across the Aberdeen Bridge where I pick up the ferry to the airport in less than ten. True, the Chinese were starting to make progress on a series of dual carriageways which were cutting through the suburbs, but just being able to see where you are going without the windscreen wipers on overdrive sped up the journey no end.
I’d driven along the long strip of Lumley Beach in previous visits but all I had seen was windswept beaches and boarded up bars and restaurants. Now there were twenty or thirty establishments all exposed to the air, their neon lights, lit up menus and tables and chairs on decks made the strip like a holiday resort anywhere. We parked up on the beach side and went through a wooden shack to order some drinks. The air was too stuffy inside the shack so we grouped a bunch of chairs around a table on the beach and settled down to study the menus. The sea was rolling in about twenty metres away and the boom boxes were playing up and down the clubs along the strip. Behind us next to the road an area of the beach had been cordoned off by grass fences. A stage had been put up flanked by walls of speakers. After dinner and a couple of beers we pulled up our chairs into this temporary arena and settled down.
The entertainment was provided by an NGO called “Performers Without Borders”. A few Europeans had teamed up with entertainers from across West Africa and there was a dazzling show of music, dance and skits. Yes the crowd were mainly expats but there was a life and a buzz which I had never before seen in Freetown.
The Show begins
We were attracting a lot of attention from the locals; Gray and I were the only white guys in the vicinity and even Kofi, a Ghanaian, was much more smartly dressed and had a different manner to the local Sierra Leoneans. Children would follow us around the village, or when we waved at them would smile sheepishly and raise a hand. A few, often egged on by their parents or grandparents would shout out “Foute foute foute” the term for foreigner or white man. I tried to talk back to them saying “Alan Alan Alan” in the hope they may say my name when I greeted them. One afternoon Kofi and I were talking about this and we realised this could backfire; the children could start going round and call all the foreigners “Alan Alan Alan”.
We were always greeted in a friendly way by the locals here; a simple hello or good morning, a wave and a smile. It was all so peaceful. I started to get familiar with some of the people – the neighbours opposite would always greet us in the morning and evening. It was an eclectic array of households down there. On the left there was the plot in which we had started our trainees working with the GPS, then a house which was under construction. Clearly there had been some foundation to this house before; on discussion with a few people it emerged that there was potentially some dark history. Sierra Leone was only ten years from a horrific civil war, and the northern regions had been where some of the worst atrocities had occurred. There were stories of whole families being wiped out, others where the young men had gone off to fight and never returned. The population was substantially reduced and old family houses had become abandoned. Now with the population rising new people were taking on the plots and building in established villages, as well as building new hamlets out in the dry scrubby forest around.
The third plot contained a substantial house which had a lot of activity; an extended family of 15-20 people seemed to live here. One of the men there was a carpenter. To the right of the plot, under an old spreading tree, he set up his workbench and spent long hours there chiselling, planing and sawing. Around him the fruits of his labour, shelving (we could have done with some of that in the guest house), doors and frames, as well as fresh wooden planks waiting to be turned into something.
I loved to sit out here on our veranda and work or read or just sit and observe village life. The more I saw, the more I realised there were patterns. The exodus of people in the morning heading down the roadway; heading out to their fields to check on their crops for any overnight damage from pests or disease, do their weeding, planting, pruning or even harvesting. The kids and young women heading off in the bush to return half an hour later with a headful of dead branches for cooking wood. A mother with a lethargic but purposeful gait taking a couple of the smaller kids down to the stream with a large bowl of washing on her head, and returning an hour or two later to lay out the washing on the big poles that all Sierra Leone villagers seemed to prefer over lines. Then there were the various vehicles. During the day they were more varied than the night-time mix of motorbikes and taxis. There were a couple of farmers who owned small tractors in the village and they were put to extensive use to ferry people around or drag equipment to the fields and produce back to the village. I say tractors; a couple of these were barely motors with a couple of wheels, a place to sit and a couple of chopper style handle bars to guide them over the terrain.
We stopped work well before lunch time – mainly as the heat of the day was too much to be out walking the fields with a GPS. Kofi and I would return to our house to find a big hot steaming meal of rice and either goat or chicken sitting there. I’d take some for calorie sake but it really was not my lunchtime habit to eat a big meal at home, let alone in the tropics. Both of us usually had a siesta after this; I would lie on my bed and listen to the background village noises or the expansion of the roof in the afternoon sun.
We reconvened with our guys about 3pm and had a couple more hours, but we soon gave up this practice. Kofi had been dealing with the per diems for these guys and he gave daily handouts of Leone to them, which they immediately would spend on palm wine. I never tasted the palm wine in Sierra Leone; I had heard just how rough and badly made it could be. It was the stock local drink out in Fintonia where getting a cold beer was nigh on impossible, but its potency and the warm afternoon weather meant that our three trainees were not able to concentrate in our second sessions. This was also where the problems arose. We had been very careful that we might cause some problems in the community; the idea of people using high tech yellow machinery going round people’s fields and backyards was bound to cause some gossip and controversy, and we had all our messaging ready to help explain our purpose and how Fintonia was potentially helping us define a new protocol that could help villagers across Guinea and Sierra Leone. For the most part people were very accepting of this. We even were able to explain about the possible disputes between neighbours and say all we were doing was defining where those disputes were and not resolve them ourselves.
No, that was not where our problems lay; it is always the trivialities which are there to upset. What concerned the villagers and became rampant gossip was more how these three were hanging round with us and getting drinking money. It seemed unfair. Of course we had not played any part in the selection process and we had to have quiet words with the guys about not flashing the cash around in the afternoons (hopefully meaning they would not get drunk as well) and to avoid having these arguments.
This was in theory a much smaller affair, but the same ritual had to be gone through. When we arrived the front door was shut. Momoh knocked and talked to a lady who appeared through a crack in the door. She asked him to wait and reappeared a few moments later with an elderly gentleman. This was the current acting paramount chief. Fintonia is a special place in Bombali District. It is the centre for the chiefdom of Tambakha, which covers most of the area north of the Little Scarcies River. Most villages will have a headman who is in charge of the administration there, but then groups of them are looked after by a chief. The whole chiefdom is ruled by a paramount chief. I say ruled; his word is law, but the relationship is often more paternalistic and the individual chiefs have some fair sway in the way things go. But they are still pretty powerful people and have influence with the administrative governments at district, province and national levels.
The method to communicate that a meeting has been called is very simple. No mobile phone networks here, no letters sent round, not even runners to reach out to the village elders. The village secretary beats a drum with a stick. It hangs in the corner of the open room from a rope and it resonated throughout the village. I am sure there must be other drums in Fintonia but the timbre of this one must be so familiar to the villagers that it immediately attracted attention. Some plastic chairs had been placed out in the open room and we sat there for about twenty minutes while we waited for the elders to arrive. They drifted into the room in their ones and twos, each greeted the chief and introduced themselves to us. The drum also attracted many other people. A lot of kids who had skipped school that day hung around the periphery, some women stopped their chores to come and look, and some of the older men, or the lazier ones who were not out in the fields, came drifting into the area. Many, too , greeted us, and then started up side conversations with neighbours as we waited to get things started.
Eventually the secretary did a head count and reported that most of the elders he knew were around had attended. The Paramount Chief, resplendent in a bleach white robe and white cap, motioned for the secretary to approach, and asked for prayers to be said. The local imam was present and gave some words from the Muslim side, and Momoh, as a preacher himself, gave a Christian Prayer, then followed this up with a lengthy introduction to us. It was not quite accurate but was probably the best way to introduce the issues. I had to hand it to Momoh. What we were providing was something that could prove quite controversial and cause a lot of disturbance. We wanted to map the property in the village; marking out the boundaries between different people’s plots and gathering information about the types of relationship. We had some software on which to plot the GPS points. And we wanted to present the final map to the people and in particular the chief for their future planning and arbitration. We were aware of how complicated the relationships in land were but we were to discover that we had not even started to understand. But we stated from the outset that we were not here to resolve any disputes over land. We could find ways of mapping all points of view and present them on the map, but then allow the villagers and the elders themselves to resolve it.
The previous evening, one of our wider team of workers, Momoh, had popped up on our veranda to greet us. Momoh was the primary field coordinator on the Sierra Leone side of the boundary and spent much of his time living in the village. He had already briefed the chief on our intentions and that we had arrived in Fintonia, and had set up a formal meeting for first thing in the morning.
Momoh turned up at the house just as Gray was leaving for the park. He also introduced us to three people who we were going to train. One, Demba, was tall and lanky and very outgoing. The second Alusine, was not quite as tall and relatively relaxed, the third, Karim, was slightly older and much more serious. We shook hands and we exchanged talk of how excited we were to be here, how grateful we were for their time, and they said how much they wanted to learn. The usual pleasantries at the beginning of one of these exercises. Kofi and I collected the maps we wanted to use and our equipment and followed Momoh and the three guys to the other side of the village. We did not take the road; there was no need and since it zigzags through the village, it was much easier to head through the back of our plot, past a large store house and down through the backs of some more houses to where the paramount chief’s house was on a main street corner.
At first sight the house looked little different from many of the others in the village; it was relatively large, but was most noted for having a long open room, less a veranda, where the chief held his most important meetings. There was only room here under the shade for about twenty people, and if more attended they peered in from all the open spaces or listened from the shade of a tree nearby. I knew this from past experience. When we had travelled here the previous July with the whole team, we had a big meeting here and it had been a village wide event.
Occasionally, the peace was broken by a vehicle coming along the road. You heard the roar of an engine as it crossed the stream and the driver accelerated up the incline to the village limits – a headlight revealing their location to us. Mostly they were small motorbikes, the odd taxi. Rarely did we see lorries at night. Once or twice another four wheel drive might bounce through. Everyone would look up from what they were doing and look across, even in the darkness you knew these outside effects were still rare enough to gather villagers’ interests.
Our conversation thinned; we were all tired. Even though it was not yet 9pm, we decided to retire to our own rooms. We brought in all the crockery and pans and left them in a plastic bowl for our cook to take off to clean. We carefully carried the chairs back inside but decided to leave the table out under the veranda, and I struggled to close the two doors and lock up. In the dark I fumbled to use the latrine, then tried to make myself as comfortable in my bedroom. It was horribly stuffy inside. I tried to open the window shutter, but one of the hinges was broken and it wedged hardly an inch out from the frame. I noticed there was no screen on the window. I hoped the mosquito net would provide sufficient barrier. I undressed. I wetted a flannel which is a precaution I take in all hot stuffy houses, and left it on the chair which I positioned near my pillows next to the bed. I took off my clothes and left them on the lid of my suitcase with the hope they would be away from dust and clambered into bed through the gap in the net. I had my torch on my head and surveyed the quality of the net; as I had dreaded there were a lot of holes in it – too many to try and block. I removed an itchy thin blanket and climbed in under a thick polyester sheet. It was uncomfortable from the start and as soon as I lay down I realised I had started sweating. I reached out and grabbed the flannel and tried to wipe water on every part of my body. The cold of the flannel and the few moments of evaporation that followed were an exquisite release, but only for a few seconds. I was hot again in moments. I tried some reading but was dog tired. I turned off the torch and put it to one side of the pillow and lay there in the dark and tried to relax for sleep. For a time I found I was concentrating on the noises in the houses around me. Being at the back of the house my bedroom was adjoining another property and there was still some late night cleaning of pots and pans and general chit chat going on; and the chickens and goats never stopped their clucking and bleating. Gradually this started to mentally disappear into the background. I started to relax and feel slumber coming on.
I was startled out of this state by a noise coming across the room at me. It was the high pitched buzz of a female mosquito. I knew I was not to get to sleep now. Even though it might not find its way through the netting, the constant hum moving around the room was distracting; no that is wrong; it was not distracting, it was completely fixating. I flashed my torch around in the hope of catching it in the beam but no luck. I had to just lie there and take my fate.
I tried all sorts of tricks to get me off to sleep, counting, reciting lists of geographical features both real and imaginary; things like all the railway stations from Victoria to Dover Western Docks or the countries of Middle Earth. I tried to breathe more deeply and slowly. Nothing worked. Or so I thought.
I awoke at first light and realised I must have at last dropped off. Although still glum I could make out the austere contents of my room. I also felt some irritating pain in my calves. I drew my leg up to take a look and saw a constellation of mosquito bites. The other leg was equally affected, and had one or two on my midriff and arms. It always feels that I have been attacked by a whole army of mosquitoes but it was probably just one or two. Why they cannot just suck blood from one hole and reduce the number of itchy places on my skin; maybe the swelling gets too much for their proboscis.