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
The three passengers stayed out of the car to lighten the load. The driver walked over the bridge and located the dodgiest of the planks. They were almost all loose, and some had cracks in them that went from one side to the other. While some planks had been laid along the length of the bridge to act as guides for vehicles wheels, these were missing in one place. It was going to be an interesting test, but it had to happen.
The driver headed back up the north bank and turned the car onto the bridge. He wanted enough momentum to get across (and get out of difficulty if something went wrong) but he needed to go slowly enough to avoid making misjudgements and not to shake the bridge to bits.
He gently manoeuvred the car onto the guiding planks and apart from some wobbling as the cross planks bowed under the weight, he made good progress. But then came the part to the left side where there was no guide and I watched in horror as the front left wheel dipped down below the bridge level. But he kept moving and it reappeared within a second and with much relief he got over the bridge and back on to terra firma. At what expense to the bridge’s infrastructure was up to the next vehicle to determine.
Will it get across?
We got back in the car and headed back to Fintonia. We had a celebration last bottle of wine from Gray’s stash with dinner that night and started to pack up. We were heading back to Freetown the next day. We only had to have a final farewell meeting with the Paramount Chief to thank him and the villagers for their tolerance of our work, and to our trainees and set out the plan for Kofi to return to continue the work soon.
I always have mixed feelings moving on from a location like this. I always like moving around and seeing new places so travelling excites me. And I wanted to go to a location where I could use bathrooms like I am used to. Unfortunately some of the mosquito bites had become infected, swollen up badly and had built up pus and I wanted to get some proper treatment. But I could not help but feel humbled by being allowed to stay in this village, to share some times with such friendly people. They may not have the trappings of comfortable life and they obviously strive for something better, but they are by no means foolish or coveting and appreciate and work with what they have. They know they can live here in the wet and dry season, they have water, they look after the immediate forest, they hedge their bets and farm in different places around the village to get optimal yields and protect their crops from disease and pests. And they are hugely sociable with each other. It was such a privilege to get a brief insight into this life.
Joining up with Kofi and our driver in Moria, we drove back to our guest house in Fintonia. Once we joined the main road we came across some familiar places. The previous year Kofi, Matt Cushing (Gray’s colleague) and I had come back from Guinea this route in torrential rain. There was a dodgy bridge along the way that had been worn away by the many trucks and termites. Although the supports were solid concrete, and two metal railings crossed the gap, they were lined with planks of wood which had seen better days. Uncertain whether the bridge could support the 4WD’s weight, we had used an alternative route with dipped down into the stream then up a steep slope the far side. Going north was no problem; you dropped down the steep side and go back up on a much shallower gradient to rejoin the road, but going south you had to face this steep rock face. In the rain I had been terrified we would not make it and be stuck on the river bed with the water levels rising fast, but with much slipping and sliding we had made it up and continued on our way. of course the upshot of that had been that as we were congratulating ourselves at our good fortune, we came round a bend to discover the tree across the road which made us overnight in school storeroom.
In the dry season again we had had no problem that morning going north, and I thought being dry season the vehicle would grip up the rock face and get back on the road more easily than in the wet. Nope. Maybe the power of the engine was less, maybe the tyres were more worn, or maybe the rock surface was too shiny and smoothed by all the vehicles that had already passed over it, but no way could we get up the bank. The car would hover on the rocks while the engine overheated and whined at us, and the driver had to abort and gently slip us back onto the riverbed. We tried a couple of times but the car was seriously heating up. We looked at the bridge. Maybe we just had to take a chance at crossing it, but the contemplation of what would happen if the planks failed was daunting. I did not want to see our transport fall headlong onto the river bed some 7m below, and I feared for the driver who could get seriously injured in the fall. But there appeared to be no alternative. This was the only road south to north for miles around. I mean miles. The next road west was near the coast, the one east was in Guinea heading into even more impenetrable forest. Any diversion would take hours.
Stuck in the valley
The pathway was a very sensible one, in fact. It worked its way through the lowest point in the Kuru Hills around here and kept in the shade, for humans much more useful than being out in the open and having the burden to climb extra altitude. For us it was nothing short of frustrating. There was not even a good view on the west side through those trees. We stopped just where the trail dropped steeply away again and again all we had in front of us was the canopy of some very large trees. We decided to have some lunch before we headed back. We had carried up some baguettes we had bought from a local shop in Fintonia, and was using up a couple of tins of corned beef and tuna from Freetown; we had also purchased some tomatoes from a woman on the road side. With our drinks it was a humble but enjoyable meal – made wonderful by being immersed in the forest and the feat of the climb.
We stumbled our way back down the pathway; apart from the noise of the chimps, we had seen little wildlife. It is often the way when you walk about in the middle of the day. I’d observed hundreds of different plants, and marvelled at the huge buttress trees that clung to the sides of the escarpment, some with knobbly spines, others with silky smooth bark.
We parked the car under some shady trees in the village of Moria which, although it was probably not known to Tolkien, did have a sort of Middle Earth air about it (acknowledged it was not subterranean). It made Fintonia look like a metropolis. It was a group of a hundred or so huts in amongst the trees; there was no real centre. Where the road stopped was at the edge of the village and to reach our path up in to the hills we had to navigate through a series of people’s backyards. It was already mid morning and many villagers were in their fields or away on errands. A few young mothers were cleaning up their houses, sitting chatting in the shade of their compounds. A couple of very old men were sat in wooden chairs on their porches, mostly oblivious to the world around them and certainly to this foreign party passing through.
We started to climb through some fields behind the village but as the gradient got steeper the cultivation stopped and we were in the usual scrubby woodland of all this area. It was a glorious sunny day and the climb was hard work for all of us. We would get glimpses of the escarpment ahead and I wondered just where this path made the ascent to get us to the top. These mesas are common in this part of the world. The Guinea Highlands are a series of plateaus in the interior of west Africa and form a continuous belt separated from the coastal lands by almost sheer cliffs. In the coastal plain itself there are vestigial pieces of these highlands standing proud above the plain. The Kuru Hills is an example of this. On a map it appears like a pick axe with a swollen head at the northern end and a long shaft heading southwards. We were climbing the handle. Our purpose in exerting so much energy was to see what was on top of these mesas. Being elevated, they had markedly different vegetation from the rest of the region. Just what that vegetation looked like was difficult to determine from the satellite imagery. All we saw was more green colours reflecting back, and much of it uniform. That told us that much of the area had much higher rainfall than the surrounds which may have extended into the dry season, keeping the vegetation in leaf much longer but whether this was forest or grassland was difficult to spot from the imagery we had to hand.
So up we went, and the walk helped to identify layers of vegetation at different altitudes too. From the scrub forest we passed another of the small rubber plantations. Gray had read that the British had experimented with rubber in Sierra Leone. It had never really caught on but these old plantations still existed. It looked like the locals did not tap the sap here, but did use the trees for timber and fuel. Beyond the rubber the undergrowth got very tangled and dense and we could not see far as we plodded up the steep path. The lack of air circulation made us intolerably sweaty and overheated. It was too much for Kofi. I’d always been amazed how this slight, urban man from Ghana had coped with the village work out here in the most remote parts of Sierra Leone, but cope he did. Although never looking like he was enjoying the experiences of mosquitoes and mud and scratching seeds and grasses, sweat and humidity, he never moaned, and usually had this impassive tolerant air about him. But on this slope he was defeated. His reasoning was he saw no reason to kill himself trying to get to the top of the hill. He said he would head back to the village.
Nevertheless, it was with renewed excitement that I woke up the next day. We made an early start for the Kuru Hills. Gray was out here mapping the vegetation for the whole of West Africa. He was trying to teach various agencies in each of the country’s his techniques but still him and his colleagues had to do the bulk of the work. I admired his techniques of interpreting the landscape and mapping the different types of vegetation and land use on the surface, and I wanted to see how he did his field work, keen to pick up some tips.
One of the national park rangers from the Kilimi-Outamba Park joined us in Fintonia and we travelled north from the village , past Sumata where we had been stranded by the fallen tree the previous year. The road was permanently diverted round the remains of our tree and the tree itself was now overgrown. We passed a couple of hamlets and the village of Yana, then Gray and the driver started talking about where the turn off was. He spotted it no problem – Gray is a supreme geographer therefore an obvious navigator. It was only 7km to the foot of the Kuru Hills but the track was narrow and potholed and it wound up and down and round and round to take the easiest route through the knobbly terrain. Gray was already working as we went along. He had spotted a series of strips of vegetation that looked more uniform than most of the forest and they appeared to be along this route we were taking now. We looked around to spot we were traversing along a narrow strip of rubber trees. To our left the natural forest could be seen starting again only about 30m away, and about the same distance to the right we could see scrub and a view out over the plain below these foothills of the Kuru range. It seemed that the track we were on would have been to service these trees and ship the timber back to the coast. The villages we passed through close to the end of our journey had most probably sprung up because of the road, not vice versa.
The sun was now dropping below the horizon and the sky turned a deep red then rich purple. I got as far as a turn in the road on top of a hill and could just see out to the east where the greener and more forested area of the Outamba National Park could be seen a few kilometres away. Gray had been spending most of his time in there and had returned with amazing stories of the beauty of this place. I’d only managed a brief visit the previous year when I had a magical trip down the Scarcies River to watch hippos. But Kofi and I had decided we needed a change. Part of our remit was to look at the geographical aspects of our partners’ work, and this was to give us the excuse to travel with Gray to another of his sites for his mapping, the Kuru Hills to the north.
I turned for home and walked at a faster pace as the darkness was now coming on fast. I dodged a couple of taxis speeding as fast as their decrepit frames could carry them to the ferry before the boatmen knocked off for the night. I met several people along the way, mostly women carrying wood back to the village for the evening meal, a couple of farmers looking weary after a day in their fields, some carrying fodder for their animals back at base. One man was very pleased to see me; he talked in good English asking me where I came from and what I was doing. The conversation was quite detailed but I got a little nervous when he asked whether I was going to church the next day. He told me where it was and he felt that we all need saving so I would be welcomed in. I thanked him but tried to make no commitments; I am not a religious man of any hue, and was looking forward to a humanistic day amongst this amazing landscape. I said I had to get back for dinner and walked faster away from him.
Sunset on my walk
I had noticed that the mosquito bites had got worse each day, and I also saw, because it was difficult to bathe properly here, that some of the wounds were starting to fester. It was a nuisance; although I wore long trousers in the day time while out in the bush, it was nice to relax in shorts before the sun went down, but my open sores attracted flies. Flies during the day, and more mosquitoes at night; it was never a restful time there.
One evening we had finished early enough I decided I needed some exercise. I had been trooping around with the trainees but the walks were short and there was a lot of time just standing round explaining or fixing problems or interviewing the land holders. I felt the effects of too many chicken and rice curries and felt I needed to reduce the bloat. So I told Kofi I would head along the main road and see where it took me.
The sun was just beginning to drop low enough to redden the sky; I estimated I had about 90 minutes before it got too dark to see. I dropped down from the house and within 100m was in amongst the community forest which bounded much of the village. At the bottom of the hill was the women’s bathing pool and a couple of semi naked women were washing and chatting down there, their children playing in and out of the water half covered in soap. The road rose quite steeply into the dry scrubby vegetation; I left what was called the “gallery forest”, the tall thick tropical trees, behind, and entered a low but densely treed area with thick tangles of grasses and creepers now almost completely dried out. To me it was a very pretty landscape, a sort of crowded parkland; one I heard was innately within our blood to connect with as it was the savannah landscape our first ancestors ever looked out on. The road dipped again and there was a wide valley bottom. As opposed to the community forest, this valley had been stripped of all but a few trees, and the floor carved up into different farm plots. A variety of food was being grown here; as well as rice paddies there were vegetables including onions, chilli, okra, gourds. People had devised different ways to control the water flow and water logging here; some of the crops were grown on small round soil mounds about a metre above the valley bottom, others in ridges of soil. In other places bunds had been put up to shelter the crop from the little channels of water than ran between each plot. It was so carefully controlled, meticulously managed.
And the contrast between the green of these bottom areas (bas fond in the French was a common term used for them) and the dry scrubland vegetation around was stark. No wonder you could pick it out from satellite imagery so easily.
I did find the heat at night very difficult to deal with. When you looked at what Fintonia was built on, you saw in the main that it was sitting on bare rock. It was a massive dome shaped hill of stone that had a few areas where soil had built up, but usually you dug down more than a few inches and you were on the bedrock. I realised it was for a good reason; in the wet season you wanted to be in the driest possible place. With all the buckets of rain that would fall daily from May to October, you didn’t need to live in waterlogged soil and you wanted that water to run off into your surrounding valleys, not fill up your living spaces. The downside was that during the dry season in particular, these rocks heated up intensely through the day, and at night radiated back into the houses. This was why I was so hot at night and no amount of aeration of the rooms was going to make a difference. I saw that many people in the houses around us would take rush mats out on to the veranda or onto the ground in front of their houses and lie there at night, idly chatting , trying to rest. It was just that amount cooler to be in the open air and on soil than in a bed in a claustrophobic room with a concrete floor radiating through the heat from the rocks below. Of course these people had to deal with the mosquitoes but maybe it was still more comfortable. I could have really done with a hammock with a mosquito net to form a cocoon strung up on the veranda.
We continued our work with our guys each day, we worked on more types of plot. One day we went into the valley bottom and walked one of Demba’s own fields of rice. A healthy crop of green shoots were wallowing in a thick muddy soil; the sun on our backs and the humidity rising from the sodden soil made it a challenging environment to do work. Added to this was the boundaries of the field – raised bunds built to contain the water during the early growing period were now strewn with tangled weeds. We walked the entire bund together first to look for any challenges and mark out where the key turning points were. Then we left Demba to carefully plot out his field. He had calmed down a lot since his first rash enthusiasm. He was a man who did not like to be shown up, and seeing how Karim and Alusine had patiently become quite expert in how to operate the GIS made him all the more determined not to be left behind. We also walked some family plots with houses, and finally went up into the scrub to look for fields in the dryland areas. These proved hard to find and I often have trouble with these myself. To determine that there is a field here is not a problem, but to both identify the boundary between field and scrub, and determine the status of a field like this is very tricky. People cut the scrub or burn the excess vegetation off in one season, but may not get around to returning to the site for a couple more years to cultivate. By that time the scrub vegetation, the herbaceous bits at least, will have invaded back and parts of fields can look neither cultivated nor natural. Where do you draw the lines here?
It was obvious the number of these fields in the drylands were increasing and the scrubby forest degrading away. We were told later that we should not concentrate on these lands. There were issues not only with who should be giving out this land to farmers, what they were taking for themselves and effectively squatting, and even in defining where the boundary between one village’s lands and another’s was not an easy task. When the populations up here had been low it was not a massive problem but ,even with the losses in the civil war, the pressure of population up here was starting to fill in gaps between the villages – an ever increasing demand for land to graze and cultivate crops. As I had seen, people walk a fair distance from Fintonia to tend their crops; others have stopped this commute all together and set up their own small villages in other places closer to where they are cultivating. I wondered at the availability of all the other amenities a settlement needed – was there enough water in these areas in the dry season for example. Fintonia was in a good site. the hillside we could see against glowing evening skies was a massive rounded rocky outcrop and several permanent springs exuded a fresh supply of water for the village. I had seen the small dams they had put up to tank the water, and it was piped down into the river valley and back up to the small hill on which Fintonia sat and the head of water from the dam was enough to sustain pressure from a number of taps set around the village. The rubber pipes were mainly on the surface. One reached a standpipe about hundred metres from our house, but the pipe, exposed to the elements and all the human activity, had sprung leaks. It did mean while someone was using the tap to fill large buckets or bowls, often you could stand over a leak and collect enough for a pan or kettle of water without having to wait your turn.
The lack of lighting in the evenings was mesmerizing. The pin pricks of light from the phones just about lit up the chests and chins of the people walking by with them. One or two houses might have a Coleman lamp, but most of the domestic light came from the fires and was both a dim orange and constantly fluctuating. Then the odd headlight from a car or a dimmer front light on some of the bikes. That was it. The ground around was dark, the trees only just discernible against the night sky. And of course the night sky itself was intense; whether it be from the myriad stars of the Milky Way when we arrived to the first slivers of the new moon on subsequent nights.
One other light would make an impact on us. Some nights we would look out and the silhouette of the nearby hill was clearer than usual – a red glow behind gave away that a fire was burning up in the distance. The glow would burn quite intensely, pulsating for many minutes. It was difficult to gauge how far away the fire front was, but one night, we had been watching the glow getting stronger and could then hear crackling. The active fire must have been several kilometres across and it was having an effect on the air around us. First we noticed that we were being rained upon by black cinders, then there was a whoosh from the west and a rush of wind blew straight out of the forest, down the road and out to the east, taking with it a huge swirl of cloud and ash. The air around us was being fiercely sucked up into the fire front. We had to hold on to our papers on the table to stop them joining the wind. It blew for a couple of minutes, the trees violently tugging at their own roots in the maelstrom, before something happened which turned off the wind. The fire never reached the village but it was another reminder of how vulnerable these places were. As part of the project, the village had been encouraged to have fire wardens that kept watch for fires in the dry season, and a store of beaters and other equipment was kept in the community centre in case there was a need to protect the properties in the village itself.
Fire became an increasing hazard as the dry season went on. Not only was there little water on or in the ground to dampen any sparks, but the luxurious growth of understory that built up over the wet season dried out to be perfect tinder. The scrunching noise you hear as a fire whips around a forest is all caused by it catching a frond of dry grass and exploding along the parched stems and into the dry undergrowth.