Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 3

This is part 3 of my Sierra Leone diary. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here. You can donate to Way Out Arts here.


We all slept hard. I got a solid 10 hours, interlaced with dreams made mad by Malarone, the malaria medication I’d been prescribed before coming. Patricia provided the pancakes on the veranda, and by 8.30am we were in a couple of taxis heading up the hill towards AiRadio.

As in many tropical cities, the drive to higher ground brought cooler, cleaner air and bigger houses. The radio station was at the summit, behind St Paul’s Parish Church – one of the oldest in Freetown, built in solid stone in 1816, and benefitting from stunning view across the coast to the north. The sun was already starting its daily onslaught, but the radio offices were an air-conditioned sanctuary. We were led into the broadcast studio, past a large sign saying “Silence please – brains at work!”. Jamie, Gibo and I spent an easy 45 minutes chatting about the charity and their work, and my impressions so far of the country. I played a song, signed the wall, took some photos, and we were on our way. As I was leaving I met the manager of the station, a heavy-set and serious man. He asked where we were headed next, and when I told him Susan’s Bay, his eyes hardened. “You will see some serious things there,” he muttered.

Hanging at AiRadio

With his slight warning rattling round the back of my brain, we returned to Way Out to pick up more equipment and people. There was some confusion over who and what exactly were coming on the day-trip, but Hazel reminded me of her advice – “Go with the flow”. We eventually set off in a battered taxi and a hefty pick-up truck. Almost immediately we made a stop at the roadside to pay off the ghost drivers. Essentially, the people we were hiring the pick-up from were planning on paying 3 or 4 non-existent extra drivers for the day. It’s a form of corruption, I suppose, but it’s also the way people survive out here, so we paid up and I did my best not to judge. Ben noticed, as we were waiting, some signs on buildings saying “This house is NOT for sale!” Apparently, due to the total lack of any kind of paperwork culture, if someone goes away for a while, chancers will swing by and sell the house to someone else, leading to much chaos when the real owner returns. It made me feel better about being on the electoral roll back home.

We set out at a crawl through the Freetown Friday morning traffic, past colourful taxi’s, plastered with alternating Christian and Muslim slogans – “Allah is great!” next to (rather graphically) “I am covered in the blood of Jesus!”. Sierra Leone is a religiously mixed country but, unlike most places in the world, they’re very easy going about it. On our trip I noticed that the Muslims here tend to build mosques, while the Christians hold mass rallies, with wild names like “The Holy Ghost Invasion Crusade!”. I got the impression that the people had spent so much blood and toil fighting over everything else that they’d collectively agreed to leave religion alone. It was refreshing.
Our drive took us past the Cotton Tree. This massive tree was planted by the original 18th Century settlers, and the centre of the city is still laid out around it. Its cavernous branches were heavy with sleeping bats, and the base of the trunk was ensconced with billboards showing the powerful, glowering face of president Ernest Bai Koroma, sternly demanding “Stop violence against women and girls! Avoid prison!”

A short while later, we stopped the car at a crossroads in the middle of a busy market. We got out and gathered round Hazel, who warned us to stay close and keep an eye on anything in our pockets. She also introduced us to Amara, her adopted son. Hazel met Amara in Kenema, a city in eastern Sierra Leone, when she made a documentary about him. Back then he was a street gang leader, and former child soldier, known as YumYum (which translates as “bad man”). H’e a physically intimidating guy, compact rippling muscles, tied-back dreadlocks and an unsmiling, inscrutable stare. But he was also, as told by Mamma, our security for the day, always making sure we were safe. We set out into the maze of the market on foot.

The market was a hive of activity, cramped passages through endless stalls overflowing with food and household goods laid out on tables under corrugated covers between cinderblock walls. I wasn’t entirely sure where the path was leading us, so I asked Hazel what the plan was. She replied, “Did you just use the ‘P’ word?” The locals were surprised, amused and wary of us in equal measure, but mostly reverted to cheerily trying to sell us fruit, fish heads and clothes pegs. As time went by and our route wound confusingly ever further from the main road, I started to realise quite how off the map we were.

After a while we came to a huge descending flight of concrete steps leading down to a crumbling concrete dock by the water, on the other side of which was a large area of distinctly shabbier shacks. This was Susan’s Bay. As we reached the bottom of the steps – Dave hobbling down with some difficulty on his crutch – we were greeted by an ad hoc committee of locals. Hazel had told me that we had pre-arranged police clearance for our visit, but this information had not filtered through to a broad-chested and furious guy who emerged from his hut to block our way. Amara, Gibo and Mash started arguing with him, and a hostile crowd quickly formed.

Dave and Hazel heading into Susan’s Bay

At this point I started feeling a little worried. We were a long way from any kind of escape route. It got me thinking. Almost all the time on my travels, I have a safety net, that comprises my passport, my credit card and my phone. With these three items I can effectively ejector-seat myself out of anywhere, cab to an airport and fly home, if I really needed to. It’s not something I’ve ever actually done, but the knowledge that I could is a comfort when far away from home. Of course, that safety is born of the fact that I tend to tour the developed world for the most part; that’s where the shows are. Standing on that wharf, I realised that I was completely out on a limb, dependent on Hazel and the Way Out crew.

I realised shortly that we were not actually in any danger. We’d been told about the local predilection for an argument, and I noticed a few casual passers-by enthusiastically joining in with no clear idea what we were talking about. Obviously the root of the issue was the arrival of four white guys with guitars, in a place that no Westerners usually venture. Once we’d managed to at least vaguely explain our motives and intentions, they let us pass.

Jamie on the pitch

We continued further into the warren of alleyways, which got noticeably narrower. We walked along and across various streams – or former streams, I should say, as they were clogged with trash, black filth, human waste and snuffling pigs. It was a level of poverty I’d not experienced before. Sierra Leone is the third poorest country in the world, and Hazel was purposefully taking us to the poorest (urban) areas. It was genuinely shocking, seeing how people, especially the young children, were supposed to live. As we trudged along, an older man approached us, shook our hands and said “Welcome to our community!” Shortly afterwards I overheard a younger man mutter “White man in black man’s home.”

Finally we arrived in a large open square where a game of football – shirts vs skins – was in progress. Down one side, a large ramshackle building was pointed out to us as the mosque. We were immediately surrounded by a gaggle of excited and curious kids, who were excited by our presence, and my smattering of Krio, which they found predictably hilarious. While the pick-up arrived with the equipment and the Way Out guys negotiated a place for us to play, the four of us tried to socialise. Jamie was quickly brought onto the football pitch, and acquitted himself well. Dave met a sweet young boy called Sullie, who had drawn a picture of (presumably) his parents. Dave hobbled over, and tried to get him to decorate his crutch with a sharpie pen. His gestures of explanation, however, simply led Sullie to add a crutch to the picture of his dad.

Sullie with drawing, complete with added crutch

After a round of bags of water – drinking water here comes in palm-sized bags, which you bite open; drinking without spilling it down yourself is an acquired skill – it was decided that we couldn’t play by the mosque, as Friday prayers were due to start soon. So we set off again, yet further into the maze, eventually reaching a second clearing by the sea shore itself. The gentle waves lapped a cornucopia of rubbish onto the black sand, while kids kicked around in the shallow water, next to a massive sow with a litter of piglets. A final round of discussion with the locals followed, and finally Ben and I got two guitars out of their bags and sat down on a little ledge to play.

Ben by the shore

This, of course, was a moment of truth of sorts. I’ve played shows all over the world in myriad different settings, but this was totally new. I instantly felt very bourgeois, privileged, Western. Obviously no one knew who I was, or my songs; was there anything at all in anything I’d sung about over the years that these people could relate to? Would they understand the words, or care, even a little? What the hell were we doing, what value or help were we bringing, in the insignificant act of playing some songs?

These are not questions I have quick or complete answers to, but there we were, so there was nothing for it but to dive in with both feet. We launched into “The Next Storm”, followed by “Wessex Boy”; the latter felt unbearably awkward to me, lyrically, in that setting, but I thought the kids might enjoy the “ba ba ba” singalong section, and they did. A sizeable crowd of young kids had gathered by now, with adults watching cautiously from the back. I cracked out some covers – “No Woman, No Cry”, “Redemption Song”, and a rough version of one of Mash-P’s songs I’d heard in the studio, “After The Jungle”, which he enthusiastically backed me up on. In all we played for about 40 minutes before my tolerance of the heat and the local adults’ tolerance of us had run low. We packed up, spent a good 15 minutes taking photos (“snap snap!”) and fist-bumping the kids, thanked our hosts and headed back to the truck to drive out through the edge of the market. The older folks were a little warmer towards us now, and while we were white men in black people’s homes, I could say we had at least not done any harm.

Ben playing in Susan’s Bay

We had a quick lunch in a roadside cafe. On asking where the toilet was, I found out the Krio term for having a piss was “easing oneself”. I’d also discovered that they use the words “disgruntled” and “vexed” a lot more than we do, and that rehearsing, for musicians, was called “training” – an expression I adore and plan to adopt. Much restored by some food, we paid a quick visit to the Ballanta music school, a fee-paying place that taught music grades, Western-style. The Way Out members traveling with us seemed a little uncomfortable there, and I sensed a class divide of sorts. The Ballanta band played us some of their songs, and also a local song called “Wi Lek Wi Salone” – we love Sierra Leone. It was a simple and catchy tune, so I made a mental note of the chords.

Our second major stop of the day was at Moor Wharf, another slum down by the water (“Gullyside” is the local term). The traffic en route was dreadful – there’s only really one main east-west thoroughfare in Freetown, and it was jammed with the Friday afternoon crush. Finally we pulled up at what seemed like an unremarkable set of roadside stalls. A small passage between two of them led to another steep set of stairs down towards the shore, and another open square, filled with curious kids.

Moor Wharf

Ben and I set up to play again, with a little more confidence this time. We added “Wi Lek Wi Salone” to the set, which went down a storm. The kids were also more confident, rubbing and pinching my legs as I played to see if my tattoos were real – on my white skin, they look unrealistic to Africans. I handed out guitar picks and let them strum the strings while I held chords, and Dave played the cajon. We added “I Still Believe” to the set, the call-and-response section working well with the crowd. My earlier discomfort at playing in such a place remained, but I was also gripped by a feeling of being an entertainer in a very pure sense. People were getting off on the music.

As we were leaving, the local guy who’d invited Way Out to the area asked me if I wanted to “see the community”. I agreed, but Hazel warned him time was short before we had to leave. He charged off into the darkness of the shacks and I followed. I had a brief moment of being slightly spooked, as I quickly found myself separated from everyone else in the group, hemmed in by the plywood and scrap metal walls and a lot of eyes that wavered between welcome and wariness. My paranoia proved to be misplaced, and I quickly felt bad for my discomfort, as my guide happily introduced me to friends and family as we walked through. Eventually we came back to the stairs and we returned to the cars.

Our drive back to the Way Out headquarters was hellish, the traffic having reached a ludicrous density. We traveled under a mile in 90 minutes in the burning afternoon sun. The afrobeats on the radio started to tire my ears, and the crowded streets became claustrophobic. On the radio we head that the president was opening a bank on the main road, blocking the flow. I also heard a radio caller say “My daily prayer is to see my enemies live long, so they can see me prosper.”

We eventually made it back to our home base. Thomas met us as we spilled out of the cramped cars, and told us, firstly, that it was his 30th birthday that day, and secondly that the Black Street Family had invited us round to watch them “train”. Though we were exhausted, we didn’t want to turn them down, so we traipsed down to a large concrete area by the side of the Siaka Stevens stadium, where various intimidating guys were practicing karate moves. In the far corner, the rappers gathered and gave us a small performance with a boom box. Their rhymes and rhythm were impressively tight, intelligent and passionate. The sun dipped to the horizon behind them, casting the singers as silhouettes. The whole thing felt so surreal that I wondered if I was in a movie of some kind.

Black Street Family rapping in the sunset

Eventually we wound up the party and walked back up the main road to the Jam Lodge. The four of us were so tired that at dinner people were in danger of falling asleep in their food. We were all in bed by 9pm.

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