It took longer to transfer from Lungi airport to Freetown than it did to get from my flat in Dakar to Sierra Leone.
It was a first to be met by someone with an ‘Alexander Woollcombe’ sign. “Welcome to the big league”, I thought. Having been given my boarding stick for the hovercraft – v sustainable, why doesn’t Ryanair have them? You can’t lose sticks and a man wandering round saying “boarding sticks please” and slapping bits of wood together is much better than unintelligible tannoy messages.
Despite my VIP status there was still an hour sitting by the minibus to the hovercraft terminus. As we waited the UN’s helicopter took off noisily overhead. “Chopper only takes 7 minutes”, a grumpy chain-smoking Dutchman remarked to no one in particular. The LSE Professor-cum-human rights lawyer next to me shuddered and said “I took that helicopter too many times during the war: never again”.
The pilots had walked past me in the baggage reclaim resplendent in tight denim jackets, jeans, mullets and big moustaches.
As we waited the atmosphere was cheerful. Not many people come to Sierra Leone and I was as interested as everyone else in why we were here. There were 3 evangelists from North Caroline who had been travelling for 48 hours with all the audio equipment for the “Freetown Miracles and Healing Crusade”. Their leader, Ben Cerullo is coming for 3 days and will, according to the brochure they gave me, make “the blind see, the lame walk and the deaf hear”.
A German man seemed to be regretting having brought 50 pairs of football boots for the amputee sports club he has come to visit. The box was massive and very heavy. “How do you know you've brought the right shoes? Won’t there be a lot left over?” I asked.
He looked me with utter contempt and said, “they’ll find a use for all the shoes”.
Thousands of young men had arms and legs hacked off during the brutal civil war, which ended 7 years ago. They were stuck in a camp and often ostracised by family and friends. Playing football they realise they can do something with their lives, although getting a job remains tough. .
I got cornered by a middle aged Sierra Leonean man from Coventry who spoke like Prince Charles would if he was a management consultant. He’s here “erm, doing an, ahh, scoping exercise for locally appropriate and erm community owned ICT in rural areas. Very interesting. We’re going to see how to move forward on strategic objectives with local groups”.
“How will they use computers? Is there any electricity in these villages?”
“There are a number of erm obstacles and challenges that will need to be teased out in the course of our strategic analysis”, he replied.
After another hour waiting beside the hovercraft looking across the bay at Freetown glimmering a bit like San Francisco might, except with fewer lights stretching up the hills from the waterfront, we set off. “Je ne regretter rien” shuffled on to my Walkman, followed by “Jump Around” as the hovercraft bounced us through choppy waters. Arriving in Aberdeen I was met again. Quite how a tropical paradise of a white sand peninsual got named after the Granite City escapes me. It's just round the corner from Pirate’s Bay where Sir Francis Drake hung out en route to circumnavigating the globe.
I was taken to the Oxfam house where I inadvertently walked into the bedroom of the Country Programme Director and her husband. Good first impression.
She’s got a viral infection from 3 days in the field. I’m meant to be going for a week and have the constitution of an asthmatic Chihuahua.
Went for my first Star beer – remarkable local product which carried on brewing in Freetown through much of the civil war, managed to shake off a Liberian prostitute as I listened to the Rolling Stones “Love’s in vain” which as she walked was followed by “Let’s Get it On” – the first time the God of shuffle got it wrong.