Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 1

This is a blog about my third trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to visit the charity project WayOut Arts there. I’ve written up my two previous trips, the first one here and the second one here. It’s probably an idea to have a read of those first, to get the general background. I’m going to do my best not to repeat myself here, and to focus on the new experiences, events and ideas from this third trip, in January 2020. Thanks for reading.

There was a two year gap between my first two visits to Sierra Leone, thanks, in part, to the vagaries of airline scheduling. This time around, the return visit was planned just a year after my previous trip, which felt much better – like I was able to build some kind of rhythm with the project. With every successive journey, I feel more involved with WayOut, and more connected with the friends I’ve made in Freetown.

Unfortunately, this time around, Ben Lloyd was not able to make the trip, due to personal commitments, so I decided to invite my wife, Jess, to join me, Dave Danger and Jamie Webb (of the Joe Strummer Foundation) for the voyage to West Africa. Jess is, among other things, a trained actress, and, in discussions with Hazel, who runs WayOut, we decided that she might be able to lend some of her skills to the project and run some acting workshops. The plan for me was, as ever, to make some return trips to places already visited, to break some new ground, and to make some music with the WayOut artists in their studio on Rasmussen Street.

One extra idea that we threw into the mix was for me to do a proper show – by which I mean a gig in a venue, listed publicly, in the evening, and open to all comers, including the ex-pat community. On previous jaunts, I’ve played a lot of shows, but always in slum areas or refugee camps. I was asked on a TV show last time around where I was playing, and when I answered saying I was off to play at King Jimmy’s – a notoriously rough gang spot in the slums – both the presenters and, I presume, the audience, were slightly taken aback. I wanted to play an evening show, more in line with my usual outings, to give us something to promote in the country, to showcase some WayOut artists as support acts, and to try and go some way to breaking down the social barriers between the people I work with there and other, better-off members of Sierra Leonean society. So a show was booked for a bar called Carlington, in Lumley Beach, one of the more salubrious districts of the city.

Before heading off, as ever, I did a bunch of fund-raising back home, and Jamie and Hazel drew up a budget of ideas to spend the funds on. By adding a £1 donation to the ticket price of the upcoming UK tour in March, and selling some new T-shirts, we smashed our targets pretty easily, so there was cash to spare. Dave and Jamie sorted out a large shipment of new equipment to send over and got it sent off before we left, so we could meet it in Freetown. That sorted, the four of us saddled up and headed to Heathrow airport, malaria drugs, sunscreen and bug spray at the ready.

Throughout the gruelling flight, from London to Freetown via Casablanca, three of us felt like veterans shipping out again. We were ready for the delayed first flight, for the manic changeover in Morocco and more. Jess was new to all of this, of course, but I’d done my best to prepare her for the awfulness of the flight schedule (engendered by the poverty of our destination and the lack of tourists heading that way). What was unexpected for all of us was running into Cooper, our American-gone-native journalist friend, as we boarded our second flight. He’d been laying over in Casablanca for 14 hours, and had thoroughly exhausted their free internet allowance long ago. He’s a lovely and fascinating guy, and it was great (if a little surreal) to see a friendly face at that moment. We settled in for the overnight ride, our paltry attempts at sleep interrupted by a loud and clearly wealthy Sierra Leonean guy (his coat clearly cost more than my entire wardrobe combined) who insisted on having his own little party the whole way to Freetown, from 1am to 4am. It reminded me that even in a country as poor as Sierra Leone, there are sharp economic divides, and money seldom buys manners.

Arriving at Lungi Airport

Gritty and drained, we landed in the muggy warmth of the African night. Immigration was slightly held up by the officers being confused at the number of visas in my passport, but we got through just fine. As usual, John from WayOut met us at arrivals, all smiles, energy and insistence on speaking to me in Krio, which, I must confess, I had neglected to practice in the intervening twelve months. We trundled down to the ferry in the bus and crossed the water to the city proper. En route Cooper and I discussed British and American politics while the TV showed images of Trump, the Iranian bombing of American bases in Iraq, and some shenanigans with the royal family (about which I care not a jot, even when I’m not sleep-deprived). Our fellow passengers were a mixed bunch, but we made friends with a British couple from Warwickshire, a midwife and a town planner, over to do charity work. Helen, the midwife, had become aware of who I was because I’d accidentally snapper her in the background of a group selfie on the plane which I’d posted to Instagram. Her son is a fan and had alerted his mother to my presence (and existence in general, I think), so she came over to say hello. Lovely people.

Hazel and Gibo met us at the ferry port, and we loaded up in some cars to head to the hotel. On the ferry, John had told me I had a 7.30am start the next day (it was now approaching 5am), and I’d assumed he was messing with me. Alas Hazel rather hesitantly informed me that this was not a joke – I was due on a TV show at 8. The nature of these trips is that they’re hectic, we’re there to work, but even so this felt pretty brutal to me. Nonetheless I sucked it up, took a deep breath, and settled in for a grand total of 90 minute’s sleep once we arrived at our home away from home, Jam Lodge.

Morning had already been creeping around the corner of the blinds when I went to bed, but even so, the sound of my phone alarm going off was an unwelcome awakening. Jess elected to sleep some more, as my morning schedule was mainly promotional, for the charity in general and the Carlington show specifically. Jamie also proved beyond the point of being able to be roused, so Dave and I congregated on the upstairs balcony for our traditional breakfast of pancakes, coffee and homemade ginger juice. The sun was valiantly trying to break through the early morning haze, a pal over the city and the bay that I still haven’t quite decided whether it’s caused by pollution or just local weather patterns – likely a bit of both. Fuelled up as much as we could be, we went downstairs to the gate when we heard the beep of the car horn.

John was there to pick us up, driving a big, sleek, grey SUV. The vehicle was second hand, but in great shape. It’s something that the charity was able to buy with funds raised for previous visits of mine, and it was great to see it in the flesh, with a Joe Strummer Foundation flag draped over the bonnet (and, slightly precariously, the ventilation vents for the radiator). We loaded up to head for AY TV, John at the wheel. He told me that he’d passed his test, but that licenses can take anywhere up to three months to be issued after that, so he was technically driving with his learner’s permit. For a moment I was slightly alarmed, as the journey through the morning traffic felt manic and dangerous, but I soon remembered that that’s just the nature of driving over there, and in fact John was perfectly competent.

I’d visited AY TV the last time I was through Freetown, so the setting was familiar. I was ushered on set for the morning discussion show, which turned out to be a pretty big deal – over the next few days many people would stop me in the street and say they’d seen me on there. I was sat at a small table on one side of the room, while the two female hosts occupied a sofa across from me. Next to them were the other guests – two Americans, one of them a Rotarian no less, representing a charity group called Mediation Without Borders. They were up first, and one of the hosts hit them straight away with a fascinating, feisty question.

“You are a group that works on conflict resolution, yes? But there is no war in Sierra Leone, that ended a long time ago. Why are you here?” I was struck by the forthrightness of this approach, impressed even. Sierra Leone as a country is so often defined, in foreign eyes, by the Civil War, but, as she noted, it ended in 2002. Of course, her interviewees had good answers, talked about election violence and general strife and so on, and they had an intelligent chat. But I enjoyed the way the local presenters had asserted themselves so early on.

My slot came around, I chatted, ran through my spiel, played a couple of songs. It all went fine, and soon it was time to move on. On the way out of the studio, I had a lovely moment – we ran into three guys, all WayOut graduates, who were now employed by the TV station as editors. AY TV is one of the biggest stations in the country, and for these guys, getting a job there would have been unimaginable before their training with WayOut. It was wonderful to see such a tangible result from our efforts. Having a job means an income, an address, the cycle of homeless and poverty broken. It cheered me up immensely, in my exhausted haze.

After the TV, it was time for radio. We drove down the hill and stopped at a place new to me, Freetown Radio. Apparently they’re one of the more genuine stations in the city, in that they don’t demand cash from artists for plays, and they’re interested in promoting local talent, like the sounds coming out of Rasmussen Street. Located on a small side street at the top of a rickety cinder block building painted garish orange, it was a ramshackle affair, but infused with the enthusiasm of the people who worked there. The DJ – DJ Rockstar, no less – welcomed me and Gibo into the studio, and told me how he’d become a fan of my work from my previous visits. “Get Better” was playing on the air as we sat down and got ready to go live. We chatted for ten minutes or so, the rusting, battered microphones occasionally feeding back through the blown speakers. Once again I promoted the show and played a few songs, and then it was time to go. As I was leaving, Rockstar played “Get Better” again. One of his favourites, apparently.

We headed back to the hotel, already feeling like we’d had a pretty full day, even though it was now barely 10am. A second breakfast did much to raise my spirits, and Jamie and Jess were now ready to go as well. It was finally time to head down to the HQ and see all of our friends.

In a now-familiar setting, we pulled up at the courtyard and got out of the car to be greeted by the assembled gang singing me a traditional welcome song. Even though I’ve been in that situation twice before, it’s still hard to express how wonderful it feels to be accepted like that by people like this. There was much hugging and high-fiving, and a brief selection of welcome speeches, some prepared, some off the cuff. In particular a woman called Frances, who I recognised but didn’t really know too well, read out a short poem she’d written for the occasion. It was beautifully touching, and I learned that she has come into her own as a writer in the last year, a good example of the way that the women at the project have been finding their voice more over time, fighting against culture and stereotypes. An encouraging sign.

It was great to see everyone, to catch up with people I can comfortably call old friends now. In particular, it was great to see Mash P. On my first visit, he’d been at the forefront, a prominent character. Last time around he’d been much colder and more standoffish. After his harrowing childhood, it’s entirely understandable that he has social and mental issues to deal with. Apparently he’d been joshed a little by the others for being so friendly with me the first time, so he’d taken a big step back. This time around, it felt like he’d found his measure, and we had a warm reunion.

I took a moment to do some guitar maintenance on some of the instruments we’d brought over on previous visits (something Ben usually does, and does a much better job than me). The climate out there is unforgiving for acoustic instruments, and sometimes they’re not treated with the care and attention that they might need. I restrung a few, cannibalised one that was beyond repair to fix a couple of others, and generally got them as shipshape as I could. After that, Hazel took us into her office-cum-bedroom and presented us with some liability forms to sign. Worryingly enough, this isn’t something any of us had done on previous visits, but apparently that was an oversight. They were a salutary reminder of where we were and what issues we and the country face. We were reminded not to eat in front of people, as many of the artists there only get to eat once a day and are perpetually hungry. We also spent time discussing a new issue – Jess’ presence. For the most part it would be fine, but having a young, blonde, Western woman in our party potentially threw up some new problems, as far as male attention goes. Signals and protocols were agreed, and in the event they weren’t really ever much necessary, thankfully.

With that little piece of admin out of the way, it was time to saddle up for our first visit of the trip, and it was to be one in which we were breaking new ground. Over the last few months, WayOut has been successful in getting access to the prisons in Freetown. The legal system and the police there can be, shall we say, a little arbitrary (a week or so before our visit they’d had an amnesty and released about a quarter of their inmates, for no clear reason and with little discernment, as far as anyone could tell), and of course even people who have committed crimes remain human and worthy of care and attention. The sessions had been going well, so Hazel had booked us in for a couple of visits, starting with the Freetown Female Correctional Centre.

Arriving at the Women’s Prison

The four of us were a little nervous about the visit. We’d been briefed beforehand on a few essentials – not to ask what anyone had done, not to take any photos of the prisoners’ faces, and so on. The prison was situated on a side road in the centre of the city, a large shabby concrete building, walls topped with razor wire, with a wide green gate. We pulled up, emptied our pockets, and walked up to the smaller, nested door and knocked. The suspicious eyes of a guard checked us out through a crack in the door briefly, and then, on Gibo’s introduction, opened to let us in. We were searched thoroughly by the guards. The guy who searched me was called Francis, and enjoyed the fact that we share that first name (on my documentation, anyway). He also kept asking me if I had any “sterling” in my pockets which he could keep. He was jovial, joshing, but there was an undercurrent of seriousness to it which was a touch uncomfortable. Eventually we were cleared and walked through a second gate into the prison courtyard.

The atmosphere past that second gate, away from the street, was bizarrely tranquil. Suddenly it was quiet, the noise of the traffic was a distant hum. The prison buildings were spaciously laid out, with pretty flowerbeds lining the wide paths under a morning sun that suddenly felt generous rather than harsh. It was disconcerting. We were ushered into a small building on the right to sign in. In the entrance there was a large chalkboard, printed with categories of prisoners, with the day’s numbers chalked in. Apparently there were 58 inmates at present. The line below said “Babies In: 51”. We later discussed what this might mean – are the “babies” prisoners, or does this actually refer to children born? – and we did ask, but never got a satisfactory answer. Officially there were two people serving life sentences, and currently no foreign nationals.

The guards seemed divided between the higher-ups, who viewed us with suspicion, and the regulars, who seemed more relaxed about our presence. We were led through a block of cells, I think deliberately, for us to see them. Each large metal door had a handwritten list of inhabitants – between two and five people per cell – and a small grille through which you could see inside. The rooms were small but not tiny, maybe 6 metres by 4, with bunk beds, festooned with washing lines, radio aerials and personal affects. We didn’t actually go inside, but I was forcibly struck by the feeling that this accommodation was actually a lot more comfortable than some of the places I’ve seen people live in this country, in the slums and camps.

Out of the cell block, we walked through a meeting room of some kind, the walls daubed with garish educational cartoons of different situations that the prisoners might find themselves in. One of them depicted a weeping woman being ushered into a cell, but being told by the stern guard “Don’t worry, you will be reunited with your families”. There were a lot of cartoons about HIV – diagnosis, treatment, and the rights of sufferers.

As we walked through the different rooms, we were following the sound of singing, which got louder and louder, until we emerged into a distant courtyard and found the inmates choir we’d come to visit. The sun felt more intense here, the bare sandy earth peppered with wilting weeds, as about 20 prisoners and 5 guards gathered under intimidatingly high walls. Apparently there would have been more people, but numbers had been cut by the amnesty. The inmates were variously dressed in colour-coded plain smocks, which denoted their sentence, we were told – black for the lifers (and I’m pretty sure there were more than two of them). As we arrived, they were already singing and dancing, accompanied by a drum and a selection of homemade percussion. Some of the prisoners were young and seemed fired up; some were older and had a pallor of hopelessness about them; all of them were lost in the rhythm.

We were acknowledged as we filed in, but the music didn’t stop. They were shuffling in a circle, a relaxed African dance, to a shifting but insistent rhythm. People were singing out words in Krio, which felt improvised, but served as the first half of a call-and-response. Even the guards were dancing, and the divide between the condemned and the custodians seemed blurred. The melody and the rhythm seemed circular to me, it was hard to ascertain where anything started or stopped, but that was part of the appeal, once I surrendered my Western insistence on finding structure in the chaos. I got my guitar out of its case and started trying to join in, with some small degree of success. After a while, they motioned to me to lead a piece, and I slipped into versions of some of my songs – “Don’t Worry”, “Little Changes” – that could work with the rhythmic palette already established. As with all such shows that I’ve played, all roads lead to a version of the old classic, “We Lek We Salone”, which went down predictably well. I felt less like a performer than an accompaniment, and that felt right.

We stayed with the choir for maybe half an hour. After a while, the inmates said they wanted to perform their own songs for me, if I could strike up some chords for them to sing over. I picked something obvious and Reggae, and they passionately sang and rapped their words, using a small piece of plastic pipe as a prop microphone. Everyone wanted a go, and after a while we had to insist that our time was up, as the “mic” started a second trip around the group. We thanked them, they thanked us, and we retreated from the circle, not much missed, as the music continued without us, ringing in our ears as we walked back through the prison to the gate. I felt like I’d stopped in and witnessed something eternal, cyclical. I was also struck again by how peaceful and non-violent the general vibe had been, and also how pointless everything seemed. Of course the material comforts might have been a cut above some of the poorer places we visited out on the street, but these people were still in prison, not free. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but the WayOut team seemed satisfied with our visit. As we left, Francis insisted on giving me his email address, perhaps so I could send him some sterling.

We crawled through the Freetown traffic en route to our afternoon engagements, with a brief stop for lunch – fried chicken and chips. Today was shaping up to be one of the longer days in my life, but this was as planned. Over lunch I asked Josta about politics, as I usually do. Julius Maada Bio, the president who had been new on my previous visit, was a mixed bag, I was told. He’d promised much, especially to the youth, but changes were slow, and for the demographic that attend a place like WayOut, things were tough, not least because the price of staples like rice and cooking oil had gone up significantly. His wife does seem to be engaged with women’s issues, or at least, as Josta put it, she was “good at showing up to events”. There was some visible development, but mostly in the line of new hotels for visiting Westerners. As ever, there was a weary caution to his tone.

The plan for the afternoon was to revisit some of the slum spots that I’d been to before. The “shows” there were planned to be briefer affairs than usual – partly because our schedule was so jammed, but also because our purpose was to let people know we were still there, still interested, rather than to advertise the existence of WayOut, as it had been on previous trips. Our first stop was Fisher Street Market, the old tea warehouse where people live crammed into wooden chests that I’d seen in 2019. On our walk down into the slum, I spotted a herd of goats milling next to a freshly painted mural advertising the showing of a football game that evening (Barcelona v Madrid). Busy locals pushed through the melee with piles of wood balanced on their heads, while gaggles of teenage girls flirted with us as we passed – Jess most of all. As ever the area felt like a bizarre pile-up of the ancient and the modern, the sorrowful and the humdrum.

Our friend and local leader Bullet welcomed us to Fisher Street as we arrived, and he enthusiastically gave Jess the tour of their sleeping places that I’d been treated to before. The guys had made a short documentary about my previous visit, five minutes of interviews with locals, which they showed me on a laptop. The subtitled footage was both moving and funny – elders being slightly bemused about the whole thing, younger kids saying they’d felt validated and human. It was both moving and awkward for me to watch. Once everyone was ready, the performance began. This started with the shooting of some footage for a music video; last year I’d sung a chorus on a song for the local group, Victory Zone, so the track was blasted out of a boombox while we all mimed along (me desperately trying to remember the words), mugging for the camera. After that I played a few songs of my own, then fell back on the now-familiar routine of working through some standard chords while other guys rapped and sang over the top. We felt welcome and energised.

In no time at all we were wrapping up and heading to our second stop, Susan’s Bay, another place we’d been before. We actually walked through the slums to get there, making a geographical connection that was new to me. I realised as we walked that, three journeys in, I had become somewhat accustomed to my surroundings. The crooked cinderblock shacks, the pervasive filth, the mad buzz of humanity no longer assaulted my senses the way they did back in 2017. That was a mixed feeling for me. These places remain some of the poorest in the world, the people some of the most remarkably resilient. On some levels it felt good not to be shocked, but at the same time I don’t want to be blasé about it.

Local buskers in Susan’s Bay

Our regular spot in Susan’s Bay was a tiny square just next to the sea shore, lapped as ever with black waves clogged with trash. Jess was not as inured to the whole thing as the rest of us were, and spent time gazing with sadness and horror at the water. As we arrived and unpacked my guitar, we were welcomed by a warm-up act. A local guy was doing a Krio comedy routine, improvised I think, into a microphone plugged into a speaker. After a while it became clear that he was basically roasting me and Jess, and the crowd thought it was hilarious. I have no idea what he was saying, but we played along. At the edge of the crowd, a local imam was busy being disapproving. I went to go and introduce myself to try and break the ice, but he stormed off into the warrens.

After the stand-up routine was done, two local guys, also WayOut attendees, brought out their guitars to play a little. I recognised them as guys I’d taught some basic chords to on my first visit, one of them called Surprise. In the intervening time they’d clearly been practicing, and they ran through some instrumental pieces of their own composition, their advancing skills on proud display. Hazel told me that the two of them were now making a (small) living busking in the bars in the slums, which was great to hear. Once they were done it was my turn, and I hammered out my familiar short set, adding a cover of a Mash P song that I knew, his killer hit, “Mr President”. I played and he sang, me joining in on the choruses (pictured at the top). He was visibly happy to be recognised, and many of the locals knew his words and joined in. Once again the show was brief. I finished off with some fist-bumps for the horde of kids around me, many selfies (“snap snap!”) and hugs. We wearily circled back through the endless maze, at one point edging along a narrow stone ledge ten feet above the vile sea, and made it back to the jeep.

The Longest Day Ever™ had one more stop on the schedule – Ferry Junction, home of the Iron Team, a place I felt I knew well. The journey over took an age, oozing sluggishly through the mounting Friday afternoon traffic. As we arrived, their was a brief, weird altercation. On the final approach to the entrance to the area, John drove perilously close to a small crowd of pedestrians, including some children. No one was hit, but the adult of the group took enormous umbrage at this. We were familiar with the (male) Sierra Leonean predilection for a shouting match, but this guy was really incensed. “Don’t bang me!”, he kept yelling at us, as we got out of the car. The presence of white people was fuel to his fire, and his aggression kept mounting. John squared up to him, and for a moment I was concerned. But then his rhetoric took a turn to the surreal, and I realised he might not be all there. He shouted that he was the new Obama, then turned to me and, volume still at full whack, told me he was “the black pope, Benedict!” After a while he started telling us we were welcome there, but he was still screaming, temple veins pulsing and spittle on his lips. John started laughing and in the end we just walked off, leaving him to his tirade. We walked down the hill into Ferry Junction, and a minute later he comically popped out of a side street to accost us again with more of the same. Eventually our studied indifference lost his interest.

The centre of Ferry Junction is a large open area by the side of a dirty river, and I’d been here before. This time, however, as we approached the square, we were met by two impressive guys in full tribal African regalia, complete with painted markings daubed on their skin. Their physiques were impressive, their gazes distant and imperious. It became clear that our friends in the Iron Team had decided to put on an impressive traditional welcome for us. We walked through this initial honour guard and on into the clearing, where a larger guy in the same garb was sitting on a large chair, almost a throne. We were told he was the local chief. It was slightly incongruous, seeing this beautiful display of something ancient and rural in the midst of the jetsam of broken, modern industrialism. But there was a pride to it that was profoundly moving. Of course, I then screwed up by trying to shake the chief by the hand as we were introduced – not the done thing, I was swiftly informed. I embarrassedly bowed my respects instead.

A tribal welcome in Ferry Junction

Exhaustion creeping into my very being, I ran through my standard set, then backed up some local singers as before. Some people knew my songs from previous visits – always gratifying. The local kids gathered en masse for high-fives and fist-bumps and selfies. The sun was starting to slip below the horizon. Our duties discharged, I was looking forward to calling it a day. But we had one more thing to do.

Once the music was done, the Iron Team crew, led by our old friend Rasta and the chief, walked us over to their “office” – a tiny, crippled room, corrugated iron raised over a concrete base with gnarled wooden supports. There, they made something of a presentation. They told me that, while the area always floods in rainy season, the last two years had been devastating for what little they could call their infrastructure. Even more so than usual, Ferry Junction was hurting. Hazel and I listened attentively, and then Hazel responded, in what I later realised was a choreographed moment. She told the Iron Team that they had worked hard, both for their own community and at WayOut, and that in return we wanted to help. Using some of the funds raised from my March tour, we pledged to pay for them to build them a new main building down by the riverside. It’d be of a similar construction – concrete, wood and iron – but it’d be built more sturdily, to better withstand the rain. And on top of that we’d help them wire in a permanent electricity supply.

As with most things in this part of the world, the gesture felt simultaneously overwhelming and pathetic. The faces in the room lit up at the news, which seemed genuinely unexpected to most of them, and there was real gratitude. But at the same time, we’d just agreed to spend maybe £1,500 on a ramshackle building. As ever, I felt alien and helpless on some levels. But on another, it felt wonderful to be able to contribute in such a tangible way. And it also added to a feeling that had been gathering pace in me through the day. On this third visit to Freetown, it felt like the work I’d been throwing my weight behind with WayOut was starting to accumulate in a meaningful way. Our first visit was characterised by the shock of the new, for me and the locals both. The second was all about showing that I was committed, that we were in this for the long haul. Finally, now, we were here putting the resources to practical use, making small but meaningful improvements. I spend my time in the country on furious guard against any kind of White Saviour complex on my own part, but for a brief moment I allowed myself to feel good about being there.

Finally, finally, we loaded up to head back to the hotel. It had been a thoroughly draining day, dawn til dusk, probably my busiest in the country to date, and the four of us were ready for the soft embrace of the beds of the Jam Lodge. I went to sleep thinking about development. In Sierra Leone, things change like fingernails grow – ever so slowly, but inexorably, to a sharp point.

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