I saw the sign off for the EROS data centre for the next turning up ahead, and even in the gloom I could tell I was in the right place. I could see the huge water tower of the complex that had the letters E.R.O.S written across it. I turned up this road for about a mile and then turned into the complex itself. Gray had warned me that I was going to get the third degree of security. I had my passport ready. I was asked to open the bonnet and trunk and step outside the vehicle, so I hurriedly put on my fleece and stood out in the biting wind. I tried to stand behind the booth out of this gale but it swirled round me nevertheless. I was handed a pass to get in the car park and kindly directed down to the reception. I parked up and hurried over to the entrance and found myself in a huge space that looked like an underused airport. I was given a pass and asked to wait for Gray to arrive. I was a bit surprised it was my other colleague Matt who came up the corridor to find me.
The building was huge and mainly on two levels above ground. The central corridor contained an amazing array of spacecraft, all shiny metal and foil just like in the movies, and the walls were adorned with the most colourful and patterned satellite imagery of every sort from around the world. We passed by the canteen at the far end of this gallery and Matt led me off to one side to his office. He did have his own office, it was not particularly open plan in this part, but it was in the central part of the building so he had no window. He just sat there with huge computer resources, a window on to the rest of the world, as it were. It was useful to start my work with him as he was running searches for all the imagery I might need for the job in Sierra Leone. Whereas I had some access to free imagery from outside, he could access the whole archive and because I was working for the US government, hand it over for free.
Gray walked in and we greeted each other like old friends. The previous times I had met the both of them had been out in Freetown, and it was so nice to find them in their own habitat. We chatted about the times we had had, started to work out my schedule for the week and what Gray had to show me to get me up to speed. Gray also said he didn’t want to tax me too much on my first day, especially with the jetlag, but was arranging a tour of the EROS centre.
We passed through about a dozen checkpoints on the way through. Of these I remember only two being official with a police sentry. Fortunately we all had STEWARD badges pasted to our vehicles and on passes on the front dashboard. STEWARD cars were passing up and down this road so regularly we had no questions asked. I’m not sure what they were checking up on – whether it be contraband, or illegal logging. I cannot believe it was any internal security as the police were not armed. I suspect it was the same as several other of the checkpoints, set up by villagers. They wanted to know what your business was coming into their area, and encourage these big vehicles to slow down and treat their main street with respect. Given that little babies, chickens, goats and old people were often moving into the middle of the road as we approached, we could understand why. The checkpoints were simple and effective affairs, sometimes chain but more often string, they were fixed at one end to a tree or post, the other end slung over a barrel or through the eyehole of a piece of specially shaped rebar, the barrier would be dropped with a simple slacking off of the string by the holder, and raised by pulling it back.
The third type of roadblock, the most common, was designed by children. In some ways they could be seen as enterprising, in other ways just chancing their luck. They would be appearing to repair the road, digging up lumps of mud from one area and filling in holes in other. As you approached one boy would rush for the string and pull it taut with one hand, while extending the other cupped hand out for a donation. Our drivers refused to give them anything. The smaller children would immediately drop the string and allow you to pass, the teenagers would often look at you belligerently, pleadingly, sadly, any which emotion which they thought would make you part with the money. On one occasion our driver said something to one of these kids; when we asked what it was – he said he had no change now he would give them something when he came back from town. Of course we were on a one way route back to Freetown that day. Cruel but maybe a valuable lesson there to the children.
There was no point in paying for shoddy work – their road repairs were often hopelessly futile. They were packing wet slimy mud on hardened mud. The next rainstorm would soften the whole area and the next vehicle, particularly some of the larger trucks which plied up and down this hopeless road, would dig huge new ruts in the road. Even in Freetown where there were some efforts by locals to fill in some of the potholes, the repairs were rudimentary at best – they might pack stones in to the holes with tampers, but the tarmac around was still flaky and eroding and the next chip in the surface would explode everything that had been packed in the hole.