Days and Nights of Freetown – Dealing with the challenges

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.

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Days and Nights of Freetown- Africa’s infrastructure nightmare.

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.

Into the Jungle – The last village in Sierra Leone

We had parked by a different style of construction.  It was made up of open wooden frames in a square and a huge roof made of grass coming to an open point.  It was used as a meeting room by the community and we squeezed in to the space.  We waited a while for the chief and his elders to congregate then had a brief meeting looking at the issues in Sanya.  We were not to go on a tour of the town, but we were to be given lunch here and from a nearby house huge plates and bowls of rice, chicken curry, fish stew, okra, came into this meeting room.  We ate with the elders and then made our farewells as we still had to cross the border.

Sanya is the last village in Sierra Leone, and now I looked more carefully, had some of the trappings, albeit on a small scale, of a border settlement.  There was steady traffic in both directions but not just the usual bikes and motorbikes, but more heavily laden taxis and trucks.  One of our vehicles did not have the permit to cross into Guinea, and Hugo had to return to Freetown to catch a plane home.  So there was a lot of reorganisation of the luggage.  Haba’s STEWARD car roof rack was piled even higher and the tarpaulin carefully tied over the top as the rain appeared to be returning.  While this was going on I was once more observing the village life around me. During the meeting and lunch, the sides of the meeting room were filled with dozens of pairs of eyes as the children of Sanya came to look at the visitors – I felt even more in a cage than in Sumata.  When the feast was over, there was a lot of spare rice and sauce.  The main cook stood on the step of her veranda and ladled out spoon after spoon to the children who mobbed around her.  They were not especially under or malnourished, but the opportunity to get some extra calories and different tastes was not to be missed, and if you saw your friend getting some, why not you?

But for some of the kids they were torn; do they continue to watch these weird outsiders in their funny clothes taking pictures on little machines and talking in strange languages, or do you go for the ladle.  Some tried to do both, looking at us in one direction while their hands were stretched out in the other, i.e. towards the rice dish.

Walking the Beaches – The other side of Le Morne

We broke off for the day when we hit the main road – there was not much left to do but we were not going to get it done in one session.  We waited quite a while for Keith to arrive (he had apparently taken a leisurely lunch at an Indian restaurant along the coast), and he drove us back to Calodyne.  It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me in Mauritius.  Keith talked and talked normally, but I had never experienced him driving  – we had tried to avoid him taking the wheel.  We now knew why – he continued to talk  (and look at us while he was talking)  and we had several near misses on the road back to Port Louis.  The worst was when he tried to slip into the traffic on the M2 heading into the city centre, right in front of a petrol tanker.  The screech of brakes and rubber on tarmac as the tanker swerved past us on the other lane, only just managing to find a gap between two cars, was too much.  We were glad to get to the office in one piece and we never let him drive us again.

Jeremy and I headed back to the Morne the next day to complete the survey.  We knew it would not take too long, but it was still an hour’s drive down there and we wanted to avoid the Port Louis traffic.  But once in le Morne area we decided we could take it a little easier.  We had worked bloody hard over the last couple of weeks, the sheer physical exertion of conducting both the sea and land surveys was sapping, so we started with a coffee in a little cafe in Black River before heading to pick up the survey route.

This section started with us traversing a hard pan of volcanic pebbles revealed by the low tide – like tamped hard core, and was remarkably easy to walk across.  A few drains and the occasional mangrove stand was all we saw.  Eventually we reached the village of Gaullette.  I’d driven down the main road next to Gaullette many times and seen the usual mix of half constructed villas, family homes, little shops and a couple of bars and restaurants, as well as the odd institution – the school , the police post.  It looked the typical Mauritian village.  But I had noticed  as you sped past on the tarmac that there were pathways into the trees and you go a glimpse of washing hanging out by tin shacks and children playing outside.

Now we were walking the coastline slowly we had time to see more detail.  While not the impoverishment of some African villages or city suburbs, this was at the bottom of the scale for Mauritius.  In most cases people were living in concrete buildings, but there were some that were roughly made and packed with people.  They were also built below the main village, right on the fringes of the coast.  Indeed because they were often spilled out onto this hard pebbly core, the tide would relentlessly come in and flood their compounds.  Some had attempted to build their own rudimentary defences.  Even the best ones, made of concrete walls, had gaps in that the water would just flood over.   The worst defences were made of brushwood and palm leaves and did little more than mark out the space.

People used the coastline as a refuse dump, not just for household waste but also fly tipping larger items, and, worst of all, their sewage flowed out of pipes at the edge of their plots onto the pan of the lagoon.  We had to pick our way carefully through several hundred metres of this, and once or twice we slipped in our steps and our trainers sank deep into the mud, the slime oozing over our uppers.

Despite this, there was some industry down here, fishing boats every so often, a boatyard or two (unfortunately their waste products also spilled into the lagoon).  I could not help but glance across the wide open stretch of the lagoon to the exclusive peninsula we were on the day before, and its sumptuous excess.  So many tourists would never see even a hint of the world we were exploring around the coastline of Mauritius.  Their experience of the Creole way of life was a highly sanitised one of people in highly coloured clean costumes dancing Sega, the local custom, of curious little artefacts that they can purchase in the foyers of their hotels without once stepping out on to the road or leaving the company of talkative tourist guides who will keep cheerful and informative but never be controversial.