Sierra Leone – Ruth Budge (issue 31)

We paused at the muddy intersection. To our left, obscured by tangled undergrowth, was a tiny unmarked track which would take us deep into Sierra Leone’s jungle.

“How’s the road?”
It was a question we had grown accustomed to asking despite the inevitability of the response; regardless of whether the road was buried under 2 feet of mud or had potholes you could sink a small car in, it would always be met with a cheerful, ‘Yah, the road is OK!’ Today however, the boy in front of us paused, tugging on one earlobe as if deep in thought.

“The road?” he said, furrowing his brow as he searched for the right words. He pulled his green woolly hat lower over his head, impervious to the intense humidity and 40-degree heat that was causing sweat to run in rivulets down our sodden backs. Suddenly his face broke into a broad smile, as the perfect adjective came to him:
“Aaah…the road is catastrophic!”

It would be fair to say the last 24 hours hadn’t exactly gone according to plan. Five months into a year-long trip down the West coast of Africa and we had done our fair share of adventurous border crossings. To reach Mauritania we had crossed a live (and poorly signposted) minefield, we got lost in the jungle between Gambia and Senegal, a known hideout for Cassamance rebels, and then there was the time we accidentally smuggled ourselves into Guinea Bissau. Suffice to say, when the time came for us to leave Guinea and head to Sierra Leone, we were looking forward to 300km of good tarmac and what promised, for once, to be a nice, straightforward border crossing.

In Guinea, we had been staying with Bintou, a friend of a friend, of a friend, who (despite the somewhat tenuous link) had welcomed us into her home as if we were long lost family. Indeed it was her unassuageable hospitality that was the cause of our current predicament. The day before, she had insisted we pay a visit to her grandmother who lived in small village right next to the border. Unfortunately none of us thought to check which border, and it was not until we were several hours outside of the capital, (by which time phonecalls had been made, goats killed and it was far too late to back out) that we realised we were in fact heading towards the remote north east of the country. When we mentioned this Bintou was once again very reassuring; there was definitely a border this way, though admittedly the last time she visited it had been closed because of bandits…

My partner Leon and I had been joined on the road by Jim, a Dutch guy who’d set off on a jaunt around Europe and somehow found himself in West Africa, and by Blanco, a 3-week-old kitten we had rescued. The following morning as we were packing, Bintou’s grandmother thanked us for our visit and solemnly presented us with a live chicken. It was a kind gesture, though none of us relished the idea of killing it. Unsure what else to do, we cleared a space for it in Jim’s car and with that, our increasingly absurd band of merry travellers set off.

The border turned out to be a thin piece of rope with carrier bags tied at regular intervals along it, guarded by a few bored looking officials who, judging from their reaction to our sudden appearance, didn’t see too many tourists. Before departing we had, as always, enquired about the condition of the road ahead, ‘don’t worry’, Bintou’s cousin had said, ‘the road over there is all machined.’ Quite why we entertained the idea that the sandy potholed track on the Guinea side would be replaced by tarmac as soon as we entered Sierra Leone, I don’t know, but we were quickly disabused of this notion. It became apparent that the only machine which could have gone near these roads, judging by the enormous rain-filled craters, was a missile launcher. In fact, as Jim later observed, if you closed your eyes and stuck a pin in a map, it would be impossible to pick a spot in Sierra Leone further away from a main road.

Things were about to go from bad to worse. At the first military checkpoint of the day we were informed the main ferry crossing the Little Scarcies river had broken down over a month before. Our only option was to go back the way we came (impossible as we had no visa) or take a lengthy detour through the heart of the jungle to Samaia, where there was ‘hopefully’ another boat that could take us. We could not find tiny Samaia on our GPS, nor on the paper map one of the officers helpfully unpinned from his wall, but, we were cheerfully informed that if we took a left after ‘Kill Me Hill’ we couldn’t miss it…

We rode on, passing a series of small villages; round huts sprung seamlessly out of the rust coloured earth. Topless women stood in the shade of their thatched roofs, pounding palm nuts and tending to fires, over which sat simmering pots of pepper soup. Children dressed in clothes which somehow managed to be made more of holes than cloth, stared at us slack mouthed, too shocked to return our friendly waves. We stopped and within moments a large crowd had formed. People pressed in on us from all sides, jostling as they fought to get a glimpse of the bike, excitedly debating its top speed and number of gears.

There is something wonderfully levelling about travelling by motorbike. In a country like Sierra Leone where 60% of people live on less than $1.25 a day and public transport is slow, over-crowded, or non-existent, it is motorbikes that move the masses. People don’t dream of owning a 4×4, the idea is unimaginable unless they happen to be a diamond dealer, or work for the UN. Instead they dream of owning a bike. So cherished are their $800 Chinese 125s, many ride them around for years, still encased in their protective bubble wrap.

Playing to the crowd, Leon revved the engine. The ensuing roar caused everyone to scatter, shrieking in fear. For a moment we thought we’d overdone it, but then the laughter started and people began cheering, reaching through the crowd to shake our hands.

After crossing a narrow and rickety wooden bridge, which mercifully held our weight, we found ourselves at the bottom of Kill Me Hill. It was not hard to see how it got its name; an incredibly steep rocky track, strewn with boulders and large craters, culminating in a series of sharp hairpin bends. We knew it was bad when the usually dauntless moto-taxis demanded their passengers get off and walk. It was a close call, but we made it to the top, relieved that the worst was behind us… we thought.

We pressed on and the road grew gradually muddier. At first the long, deep ruts were baked solid by the sun, but as the jungle closed in around us and the sun’s rays could no longer penetrate, it turned into a gloopy, sludgy, mire. This was, officially at least, still a road. What on earth would the conditions be like on the unmarked track to Samaia?

At the intersection, we spotted our friend in the green woolly hat and stopped to ask. It’s true that ‘catastrophic’ was not the answer we were hoping for, but I couldn’t help admiring his linguistic flair. There was no turning back so we rode on, slipping and sliding in the mud, wending our unsteady way deeper into the jungle. We soon understood what our friend had meant; the earth had been thoroughly churned up by passing trucks (back when the road was still accessible to trucks) leaving two deep, muddy and waterlogged trenches. At first we tried to go around, but the steep banks were treacherously slippy. The only option left was to pick a trench (whichever looked shallowest) and ride down the middle of it. In these conditions, riding 2 up, with all our luggage, we had about as much stability as a drunken geriatric. More than once we felt the bike slide out from under us, as we were deposited unceremoniously in the cold, wet, mud.

We had been riding for most of the day, were soaking wet, covered in mud and had only covered 35km. Exhausted and aware that night was closing in, we found a small clearing set back from the road. After some handy machete work from Jim, we had enough space to pitch our tents. As dusk fell and the sky became tinged with pink, the jungle came alive with sounds.

“I am going to have to arrest you.” I checked the time, although we had been riding for hours, having packed up and set off at first light, it was not yet 10am and was definitely too early to be dealing with this. I cast an appraising eye over the officer. Official uniforms are hard to come by in Sierra Leone, so the military wears a rag tag assortment of khaki coloured garb, salvaged from the tons of secondhand clothing that’s shipped out to Africa from the West. This guy’s gravitas was slightly undermined by the words ‘rock and roll’ loudly emblazoned across his camo print tee. I quickly decided that the best option was to humour him.

“Why’s that?” I asked in my friendliest tone.
“Because you have broken the law” he informed us solemnly, “The law says that you must not travel before 12pm on the first Saturday of every month. You must stay home and clean.”
Trying my best not to laugh, I considered my response. The guys manning checkpoints are two things; badly paid and bored. This gives you a choice, pay in money, or in entertainment. As usual, I went for the latter.

“Well you see Sir, I am a lawyer and if there is one thing I know, it is that there is an exception to every law. In fact, it just so happens that we are on a very special mission.” I paused for effect, looking around. Jim and Leon nodded enthusiastically, despite not having the slightest clue what I was talking about. I took a deep breath, knowing our very liberty could depend on what I said next.

“You see my husband here is a Liverpool fan and we are on a mission to get him to Makeni in time to watch the Champions League Final.” There was a long, drawn out pause, then all of a sudden the officer let out a deep belly laugh, slapping us on the back and shaking Leon’s hand. My gamble had paid off. It was not long before we were sent on our way, with an appeal for God to bless our journey and a cheery salute, our previous crimes forgotten.
We rode on, through humidity as thick as the jungle vegetation. Around lunchtime we finally made it to Samaia, where we were relieved to discover there was a ferry, of sorts. A rusting metal platform floated unconvincingly before us, the steel cables that once pulled it having disintegrated long ago. The military had warned us the ferry was ‘manpowered’, but we hadn’t realised this meant two guys would strip down to their underpants, jump in the river and push it across.

On the other side, a dry, compacted, dirt road unfurled like a long red ribbon, fringed on either side by palm trees and green and gently rolling hills. We had made it through the jungle, the sun was shining and the sky a vibrant shade of blue. It felt like no time at all before we reached the main road, a perfect tarmac conveyer belt, which would speed us effortlessly the final 100 kms to Makeni.

Sierra Leone (Salome, in the Krio vernacular) is a country often seen as synonymous with the worst chapters of its history; child soldiers, blood diamonds, Ebola. But the legacy of this amongst its people is not, as one might think, anger or despondency, but rather a hunger for life, a fierce determination not to return to the horrors of the past and instead to live each day to the fullest. It is a vibrant and colourful country, with a culture that mirrors the beautiful simplicity and rhythmic cadence of its main language.

As we rode towards Makeni, we were met with friendly waves and the ubiquitous Krio greeting, ‘aw di bodi?’ (How are you?) The appropriate response? “Di bodi fayn.” Scattered along the roadside were teetering piles of pineapples and giant, fleshy mangos. Women hailed us with plastic tubs of homemade honey and yoghurt, as wisened old men sat stewing in the shade of palm trees, sipping shots of ‘strong soldier gin.’ We enthusiastically stocked up on supplies as the single boiled egg we had shared for breakfast had done little to sate our hunger.

Finally we reached Makeni. The centre was a dusty, ghost town, but on the outskirts we found Sierra Leone’s biggest university. The friendly, if somewhat bemused, registrar, happily allowed us to pitch our tents in the middle of campus. Most importantly for our purposes, there was a student bar, selling cold, cheap beer and screening the match. It was a night full of drinking and dancing, the warmth of our welcome, matched only by that of the dance floor. Liverpool of course won the game, but that night as we reminisced about our journey so far, we celebrated more than just a victory in football.