Ladysmith Black Mambazo: In their own words

Sometime in the late 90s (maybe ’96 or ’97), I was privileged to spend an afternoon in a pub in west London with the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. We had lunch together, and then Joseph Shabalala, the group’s leader, sat with me and my big ole Pro Walkman (sorry about the Americanism, but I am in the South right now) and talked at length about the group’s history.

The interview’s only been heard in public a couple of times – the most recent being in 2010 when I made package out of it for the in-flight radio show I produce. I’ve just stumbled upon that package once again and decided to make it public once more, this time via Mixcloud.

For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing some kind of World Music radio thing online. I still haven’t quite made up my mind as to what form it will take (a series of podcasts is one option; a full-blown internet radio station is another), but one has to start somewhere, so here goes…

 

 

Africa Oyé!

Africa Oyé 2011
Sefton Park, Liverpool, 18-19 June

Liverpool’s African music festival has become a key event in my calendar. It’s a chance for me not only to hear great music and gather material for the Sounds of Africa show I produce, but also an opportunity to socialise and hang out with a few other World Music media types who’ve become friends of mine over the years we’ve all been attending the festival: people such as Geli Berg (a radio broadcaster and organiser of the Cultural Collage World Music festival in Manchester), and Maya Mitter of One Latin Culture. Sure enough, there were hugs all round when we caught up with each other.

Mariem Hassan

On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Sefton Park just as the first act of the day was being introduced. Mariem Hassan is incredible singer from the Western Sahara, accompanied by a pair of guitarists who played the blues with an unbelievable passion. Mariem was my first interviewee of the day, and set the pattern for how most of the rest of the day’s interviews would go; after agonising between her manager/interpreter (who’s German) and myself, I discovered that she spoke fluent Spanish and so I ended up interviewing her en Español. As Saturday progressed, language barriers proved to be more a source of amusement than a hindrance – especially when Maya, Geli and I did an interview en masse with the Ganbgé Brass Band.

the Ganbgé Brass Band in action

The band had a couple of members who spoke English, and at least one of us doing the interviewing spoke French. The ensuing interview was hilarious – but definitely gave you a sense of how the guys had become brothers purely by having played together for years and years. Questions and answers in English and French flew back and forth. The band talked to us about playing in the Shrine in Nigeria (they’re all big Fela fans, and covered his song ‘Shakara’ during their set). When Maya suggested to one band member that the easiest way for him to learn English would be for him to get an English girlfriend, the tent erupted with laughter.

Bonga

The legendary Angolan singer Bonga was also good fun. Again, we agonised over how to do the interview – and suddenly we discovered that one of the women on the Africa Oyé team was Brazilian and spoke perfect Portuguese! Problem solved! Maya and I were able to have a good chat with Bonga about what happens when the worlds of Angolan culture and politics clash – as they often do.

Amkoullel teaches some kids (and a few adults) how to rap at one of his workshops

Amkoullel (aka “the Fula Child”) is an upcoming young rapper from Mali, who uses traditional Malian instruments in his music. A very profound guy and a great interview. He did some workshops on the Saturday and performed on the Sunday.

This year’s Africa Oyé featured quite a few of the female singers (young and not-so-young) who are championing the cause of African women through song, and winning loads of friends and admirers with the

Kareyce Fotso

charm and humour with which they do it. The Cameroonian singer Kareyce Fotso was one such person. Embracing her acoustic guitar and playing a variety of percussion instruments, she charmed the crowd in no time. When Maya and I interviewed her afterwards, she told us the heartbreaking story of her elder sister’s forced marriage – one of the many issues she talks about in her songs.

Fatoumata Diawara: now she's on the ground...

Fatoumata Diawarafrom Mali was another one. I’d already seen her twice before – first as support for Staff Benda Bilili’s London gig, then at a showcase in an Islington pub called the Slaughtered Lamb (I kid you not!). On both those occasions, it had been just her with her guitar. This time she was with a band (and without the green tights that have kind of become her trademark),

... and now she's airborne! Watch her go!

and it was a whole different dynamic. She danced, she spun, she jumped… the energy coming off the stage could power a small city for a week. When I interviewed Fatoumata afterwards, she told me how Nick Gold (her producer – the man responsible for such World Music classics as the Buena Vista Social Club) had said he wanted the public to see all her different sides. Fatoumata (a former actress and one-time backing singer for Oumou Sangare) is another young African woman dealing with some of the heavy issues that affect African women, but doing so in a manner that invites people to join in with her.

It’s always a gamble recording interviews during Africa Oyé, as quiet locations for interviewing are very hard to come by. Listening to my recorded interviews later, I was glad to see that my “keep the record level low and the mike very close to the subject” strategy had worked – especially with Fatoumata’s interview, which we did whilst Marcia Griffiths‘ extremely loud band were on. We could hardly hear ourselves while we were doing the interview. But on the recording, Fatoumata came through crystal clear while the booming reggae basslines were distant enough not to be a problem. Yay for technology…

"Yo Liverpool, how you feeling?"

There was one point on Saturday afternoon when thought we were going to get washed out. But the very brief drizzle over Sefton Park was just nature messing with our heads (naughty nature!). The weather on Sunday held up even better than the previous day, give or take the odd occasion earlier on when the temperature dropped slightly and it got a bit windy. My first interview of the day was with Damily from Madagascar (with the help of a French interpreter), while the first act to perform was Steven Sogo from Burundi, with his band Hope Street. I interviewed Steve after his set, and he told me how some church musicians had taught him how to play guitar and bass. He’s only been making music a few years, but has already won an armful of awards from all over Africa.

Steven Sogo

The unscheduled interview of the day happened while I was watching (and occasionally photographing) the Ethiopian singer Zewditu Yohanes from the photographers’ pit in front of the mainstage. The set ended, and this lady who’d been standing next to me and simultaneously shooting the gig on a camera and a smartphone handed me a card as she walked past towards the backstage area. It read, “Princess Emmanuelle: the first Egyptian female rapper.” I wasn’t going to let anyone with such a claim to fame slip away, so I followed her and asked if she’d do a quick interview. Turns out she’d remembered my face from years ago, when she was on the performance poetry circuit and doing gigs with Soul artists such as the Escoffery Sisters. She was here as part of Zewditu’s team, and promised to help me get an interview with her if I was having any trouble. Funnily enough, so much stuff happened during the day, I ended up not being able to interview Zewditu – which was a shame, because she and her band and dancers put on an awesome show. But never mind…

The other act I didn’t see as much of as I should have was Khaira Arby from Mali. The little I did see of her set was amazing, though; another strong woman roaring on behalf of African women.

After interviewing him yesterday, this afternoon I got to see Amkoullel in action twice – performing on stage, and teaching a hip hop workshop. The audience at the workshop was made up mostly of young children who’d clearly taken to heart Amkoullel’s advice to rap about their lives and what was important to them; one little lad came up with the rhyme “Sometimes I wear a hoodie. But I’m not a baddie; I’m a goodie.”

Meeting the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars was definitely the high point of the second day for me. It was like a family reunion – even though we’d never met before! I interviewed two of the band members, Reuben Koroma and Ashade Pearce; between the three of us, we set all Sierra Leone’s problems to rights (as you do!); we discussed music, education, development and a million other issues, and I finally got some concrete answers to a question I’d been burning with since my trip to Freetown two months earlier: why had the All-Stars (easily the biggest band to come out of Sierra Leone in the last 10 or so years) not been a part of the 50th independence anniversary celebrations? (Let’s just say it wasn’t because they hadn’t wanted to take part). I missed their set because I had to catch a train back to London (the train I’m on right now, writing this). But phone numbers and email addresses have been exchanged, so I’ll be updated whenever the guys are in London.

"Me en mi fambul dem," Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars

And that was Africa Oyé 2011: a glorious two days of colour, vibrancy and brilliant artistry. Next year, the festival celebrates its 20th birthday. I can hardly wait…

Review: “The Man Who Committed Thought”

You’d have to be seriously brave (or just mental) to try to set all Africa’s issues straight in two hours. But that’s basically what Patrice Naimbana sets out to do in the one man show which won him an Edinburgh Fringe First award (on tonight in London’s Cockpit Theatre, as part of the Pentecost Festival).

The Man Who Committed Thought is utterly compelling. Playing multiple characters (a poor man whose cow is stolen from him; the corrupt politician responsible for stealing the poor man’s cow and more; the rebel who seizes power and the honest but flawed lawyer referred to in the show’s title, to whom the poor man turns in his quest for justice), Patrice talks us through the troubled history of a fictional African nation called Lion Mountain.

Well, I say fictional. The handful of Sierra Leoneans in the Cockpit Theatre knew all too well whose stories were being told here. The rest of the audience weren’t left out, either; the beauty of Patrice’s series of monologues is the way he keeps it topical and fresh by absorbing so much of what’s current and relevant to wherever he might be performing. so tonight there are references to everything from Bin Laden to Britain’s Got Talent.

Underneath all that, there are bigger questions being asked. Naimbana challenges his audience to look at all the grey there is in issues of social justice. There is a tension at the heart of the show; between the righteous anger at the Europeans who brought “Gonorrhoea and Jesus” to Africa (to quote Fela Kuti) and a respectful acceptance of the message of good news to the poor and dispossessed that that Jesus preached. Patrice packs enough humour into the show to ensure that it never gets preachy or sounds like an “angry brother” having a rant.

After the show, Patrice spent another half hour answering questions from the audience, during which time he told us about his father – a lawyer who took on many poor people’s cases for no pay, and whose stories were the inspiration for the show’s lead character. That was every bit as engaging as the show itself, and continued in the bar afterwards.

“The pride of Africa™”

It’s a sad fact of life in the arts and showbiz world that it’s the products with the biggest marketing budgets that tend to get the most (usually undeserved, if we’re judging on merit) media attention. Having been in music journalism for so many years, this really shouldn’t surprise me – but one tends to forget these basic facts until one gets an occasional rude reminder.

I had one such reminder yesterday, whilst flying from Nairobi to Amsterdam with Kenya Airways (“The pride of Africa™”). As do most other airlines, Kenya Airways publishes a guide in which it lists all the films, music, television and radio shows available on its in-flight entertainment system. And also as with other airlines, a couple of films are selected as the top pick for the month, and given a full write-up in the guide. A couple lower down on the food chain might get a paragraph or two; the rest get nothing.

Throughout this month, passengers on Kenya Airways (“The pride of Africa™”) have two African films to keep them entertained: Africa United and Benda Bilili! And which of these two great African films has “The pride of Africa™” chosen as its pick of the month to big up to its passengers – the uplifting family film about a group of Rwandan kids who hitch-hike to South Africa to see the World Cup, or the award-winning documentary about the hottest band to come out of Africa in recent years? The answer is neither. That honour goes to… [Drum roll, fanfare, hip-hop turntablist scratch solo] Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son. I know; there’s no way the indies responsible for either of the other two films could compete with 20th Century Fox’s spending power. But something about this seems just plain wrong to me.

So here’s a travel tip from me. If you happen to be flying on one of Kenya Airways’ Boeing 777s this month, ignore what it says in the entertainment guide and watch one (or both) of these two gems instead of Martin Lawrence’s latest fatsuit ‘n’ drag outing… [Trying extremely hard not to swear here]

(That is, if the in-flight entertainment system on your flight is working in the first place. It wasn’t on mine, so we were shown some Jennifer Anniston flick on the overhead screens instead. Thank the Lord for iPods and sleep.)

Salone: PS…

Should you ever decide to visit Freetown soon, be sure to stop at the Caribbean Fusion café on Sanders Street at some point. Best food in Sierra Leone (yeah, I know; the owner’s an old family friend. I’m biased. But that doesn’t make the statement any less true). Pop in, say hi to Valerie (that’s her on the left), have some of her food… and tell her George sent you.

My Road Trip/Hanging Out With the Women of Hope

All the years I lived in Sierra Leone, I was a spoilt city boy who rarely ventured out of Freetown. We had an uncle who worked as an air traffic controller at Lungi Airport, whose family we visited frequently, and my mum worked at the hospital there for a while, so we would always go and see her. But that was about sum total of my trips “upline” (Sierra Leoneans’ technical term for just about anywhere outside Freetown).

I probably wouldn’t have ventured out of Freetown this time round either, were it not for an email from a friend in the USA. I’ve known Paul Neeley for a few years now; we met initially via World Beat (the world music show I used to present on UCB). Paul emailed me to ask if I’d take some time out of my trip to go and visit the headquarters of Women of Hope International – a charity he’s involved with, based in Makeni.

Sierra Leone is divided into four provinces, although it’s only the northern, southern and eastern ones that are called provinces. The western one (where Freetown is located) is known simply as the ‘Western Area’ – but then it is tiny compared to the other three. Makeni is situated about 110 miles east of Freetown (well, most of Sierra Leone is east of Freetown. It’s that ‘Western Area’ thing). It’s Sierra Leone’s fifth largest city, and the capital of Bombali District in the Northern Province.

My old flatmate was the first to reassure me that the trip was easily doable. “You can do it in a day. It’s just three hours’ drive there and three hours back.” Another friend, Valerie (see next blog post), also egged me on to go when I was wavering. Finally, I emailed Kelsey Martin (Women of Hope’s US Programme Assistant, whom Paul had linked me up with) and said I’d try to come up to Makeni on Wednesday, the only free day I had left. The crucial thing for me was that I had to be there and back in a day. However, the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation only runs one bus there a day – at 6.00am. I could get there, but would have to wait until the following morning before I could come back. I did have an invitation to stay the night at Women of Hope’s guesthouse, so that wasn’t a problem. But nobody could tell me what time the bus back to Freetown was.

I left home just before five on Wednesday morning, and walked to the SLRTC’s bus station. It was still dark, and rather disconcerting to see the streets of Freetown so empty. Still, empty streets meant that this ‘JC’ could walk without being stopped every 10 seconds and asked if he had any £ or $ he wanted to change, so I made the most of it.

Getting a bus proved to be a total fiasco. According to signs posted all over the bus station, a ticket to Makeni costs 13,000 Leones. None of the buses terminate there, so you have to get the Kabala bus and get off at Makeni. Cool – but when I went to buy a ticket, I was told I had to pay the full Kabala fare (27,000 Leones)! Then when I tried to do that, I was told that there were no tickets and the bus was full. All this after waiting over an hour for the thing to arrive!

While waiting for the bus, I’d been talking to a couple of fellow travellers – in particular this one old man with two white plastic buckets in his hand, who was also waiting for the Kabala bus. After failing to get on the bus, I was ready to pack it in and go back home. The old man wasn’t having it. “Don’t worry,” he said encouragingly. “There are loads of vehicles we can get a ride with; we just need to go to Shell. Come on!” So I walked with him, having completely forgotten where “Shell” was! The old man was a brisk walker; before I knew it, we were at the East End Police station, where we hopped onto a poda-poda headed for Wellington.

We got off the poda-poda at the Shell petrol station in Kissy where, true to the old man’s word, minibus drivers were packing in passengers for journeys out to the provinces. I thanked the old man and signalled to the first person I heard calling for passengers to Makeni. A tall guy in a T-shirt came along and ushered me towards the front seat of a gold Chrysler Voyager.

We set off for Makeni at around 7.30am; me in the front seat with a lady and a little toddler on her lap seated between the driver and myself, an assortment of men, women and children in the back, and Beyonce, Rihanna and several random generic ‘urban’ acts repeated endlessly on the Voyager’s auto-reverse cassette player. The journey was smooth for the most part. However, our driver had seen fit to take more passengers than the number he was legally allowed to, and so he was stopped (and subsequently relieved of a few thousand Leones) at every single Police checkpoint we came to. Shortly after we reached Lunsar (the halfway point of the trip), my Comium mobile rang. It was Kelsey, asking if I had decided to come to Makeni. I told her I was on my way, and we arranged for her to collect me when I arrived.

Shortly after 10.00am, we arrived in Makeni. The vehicles that do this trip use the first NP petrol station as their terminal point, but our driver continued past it, further into town. I was looking for a suitable landmark at which to disembark when a white van with the Women of Hope logo drove in the opposite direction and stopped. I got off and took out my mobile to tell Kelsey she’d just driven past me. We had one of those “Hey! I can see you; I’m over here! I’m the one waving!” conversations; she drove up to where I was; I got into the van and she explained that one of their employees had also just arrived from Freetown and she’d come to collect her. Turns out the lady who’d been sitting next to me in the Chrysler Voyager worked for the very people I was going to meet! Her name was Rebecca and she had been in Freetown with her grandchildren for a few days, attending a family wedding. She does general housekeeping at the guest house, and wasted no time getting lunch ready whilst Kelsey told me all about herself and Women of Hope’s work.

Kelsey is originally from Seattle but recently relocated to Memphis (Women of Hope’s base back in the US is in the South). She’s spent quite some time in Sierra Leone getting things off the ground, and says she’s started to think of Makeni as home. Women of Hope was started by a group of American women who had links to Sierra Leone in one form or other, led by Kim Kargbo, a missionary kid who’s now a missionary herself and married to a Sierra Leonean. Kim had set up three NGOs in Sierra Leone prior to Women of Hope; the idea for Women of Hope came about out of the realisation that most of the NGO/charity work catering for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone tended to focus on men.

“Our goal is to support women with disabilities – spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially and economically,” Kelsey says. “We try to do that in the most grassroots way possible.” They had a period of consultation with local women, at which the women said their three biggest needs were shelter, education for their children, and money for food and business.

Women of Hope act more as facilitators, gathering women together and training them in health & sanitation and income generation. They also give women grants to start small businesses, and run support groups for mothers of disabled children. Right at the heart of their work are a team of local women who have been trained as ‘community health evangelists’ – basically social workers who pass on the training they’ve received to others around them.

Some of Women of Hope’s staff have disabilities themselves. Adama Conteh (their Logistics Officer) is blind, and one of Kelsey’s reasons for wanting to be involved in disability-related work stems from the fact that she was born with one arm. “I do this job to show others that disability doesn’t have to stop you getting on in life,” says Fatmata, Programme Assistant and Field Officer, who has walking difficulties.

Field Workers Fatmata (left) and Melvina (right) at work.

After lunch, Kelsey and I went out on the road with Fatmata and Melvina, the two Field Officers, as they visited women in one of the areas the charity covers. For logistics purposes, Women of Hope have split Makeni up into three geographical areas. The area we went to visit today covered Stocco Road and ‘Oslo’ – a residential area for amputees and disabled people, funded by the Norwegian Government.

'The Chief' holds court.

It was evident from the reception Fatmata and Melvina got that the local women appreciate the work Women of Hope do. They took me to meet Fatu (sorry, I mean ‘Mammy Fatu’), the matriarch of a compound just outside Stocco Road. Mammy Fatu is a larger-than-life bundle of laughs who everyone calls ‘the Chief’. As she joked about with Kelsey and I, little children mucked about and Sama (another older lady) sat making gari.

Field trip over, we headed for the office where I met Ruth Kamara, Women of Hope’s Programme Manager. Ruth used to work for another NGO committed to fighting human trafficking (another area Women of Hope is involved in). She decided to join Women of Hope because of its faith-based ethos, being a Christian herself. Also in the office was Adama, the Logistics Officer. I’d been in Freetown over a week and not had the “So why haven’t you found a wife and fathered a tribe of your own yet?” interrogation from some uncle or aunt. That lucky streak ended in Makeni, thanks to Adama…

After a nice dinner back at the guesthouse, Kelsey dropped me off at the NP station to find a ride home. The back seat of the minivan that took me back to Freetown was nowhere near as comfortable as the Chrysler Voyager had been. But not even that could put a damper on what had been a great day out.

The Women of Hope International staff. (L to R): Fatmata, Melvina, Patricia, Adama, Ruth and Kelsey.

Total ‘small ting’ expenditure on trip: Le 15k (actually, make that 5k. I did give the old man 10 grand, but he never asked for anything; I gave it to him because he genuinely helped me and I wanted to thank him).

Sending Out an SMS…

Those lovely people at Comium were kind enough to give me four free text messages when I bought my new SIM card from them. Time I used one, I think…

Messages icon [press] Message inbox [press]
[scroll down] MinInfoCom [press] Options [scroll down] Reply [press]

D-e-a… Deaf Millimetre

(What the – “Deaf millimetre”? Stupid predictive text! Let’s start this again…)

Dear Minister,

Many thanks for your reassuring SMS message of 29 April. It certainly made me feel welcome to receive a personal text message from the Government – not to mention just a tiny bit paranoid, as I hadn’t given my number to anyone. Still, it’s not like you’re a reporter for one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers or anything like that, so I guess I’ve got nothing to fear…

But here’s the thing that’s bothering me. You’ve gone to great lengths to assure us that there’s no fuel shortage; that Sierra Leone has enough fuel to last three months, and that the queues I’ve been seeing at petrol stations everywhere I go are “created by unscrupulous people to create confusion.”  Someone really needs to pass that information on to the proprietors of the country’s petrol stations – that is, unless they are the “unscrupulous people” you were referring to in your text message. The other day, the car I was in had to completely change its route home because half the road was taken up by stationary cars lined up outside a station whose entrances had been sealed off.

But that’s not the worst thing. I saw someone drive into a petrol station and ask for fuel, only for someone who worked at the station to instruct him to drive a few doors down the road away from the station… where he proceeded to sell him a plastic container full of petrol at an inflated price. I’m not mentioning any names or locations here. But if you guys and your mad espionage skills were sharp enough to obtain my mobile number before I’d even given it to my mum, I’m sure you’re on the case and have probably already apprehended the guilty parties.

All I’m saying here is, the more I walk around Freetown (and I’m having to walk a lot, because flippin’ heck, those petrol queues are causing some serious traffic jams!), the harder I find it to believe your text message. I’m not accusing you of lying or anything like that; after all, you’re the boss round here and I’m just a mere JC, so what do I know? In fact, I’m so much of a JC that yesterday, a white man with an accent from the place English people call “Oop North, like” introduced me to his boss with the words, “This is George. He’s a JC.” So maybe I should just mind my own business…

Kind regards,

George Luke 

[press] Send [press]

[INCOMING TEXT ALERT]
[press] Open [press]

Sorry, but your SMS message has not been sent as it exceeds the maximum length. SMS messages must be 150 characters or less.

Oh, crap. Well, at least I tried…

Salone: Independence Day

 

 Wednesday, 27 April 2011: Fifty years ago today, a Crown Colony on the west coast of Africa called Sierra Leone (“Lion Mountain”) gained its independence from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

All this week (and, I suspect, for a long time prior to now), anything in Freetown that doesn’t move has been trussed up in green, white and blue bunting. Turn on the radio, and it doesn’t matter where on the FM dial you plant yourself, you’re never more than two minutes away from another patriotic “happy birthday” song. It’s party time, all right…

The Independence Day celebrations started much earlier for me. Yesterday I went with Mum and the Buckle family to a wedding (weekday weddings are quite commonplace here). The wedding service started at 11.00am, at a church just up the road from where I’m staying. Now according to our invites, the reception and party we’re to start at 7.00pm prompt. In fact, the bride and groom didn’t turn up until just before 10.00pm (we didn’t go until 9.00; I think the Buckle family had been forewarned that the newlyweds were running on ‘BMT’). As a result of everything running so late, the speeches ended just before midnight – and at midnight, the Master of Ceremonies got us all to sing the National Anthem and wish each other a happy Independence Day.

Many international guests came to Freetown for the celebrations - and a few inter-galactic ones too, like this member of the Na'vi delegation...

Today’s big event takes place in the National Stadium, where the President will address the nation and a big cultural display will take place. It’s free for anyone to attend – as long as you come wearing the country’s national colours of green, white and blue. After briefly worrying that I didn’t have anything in those colours to wear, I found a pair of blue jeans and a white T-shirt with the slogan “Play hard, move easy” in big green letters on the front. With my attire sufficiently patriotic (and despite Mrs. Buckle’s insistence that I take a taxi), I walked to Brookfields where the National Stadium is – about 100 metres from the venue for the wedding reception we’d been at a few hours earlier.

I last visited this stadium twice in 1993: once to see the Leone Stars beat Senegal to win the Zone 2 final, and then to see the legendary Kanda Bongo Man in concert – a rather interesting gig, during which armed Military Police kept going up to the stage to nudge Kanda to sing facing the dignitaries in the VIP area, only for him to ignore them and continue singing to us plebs in the cheap seats instead. The stadium’s name has been changed a few times since the Chinese built it in 1979. First it was the Sierra Leone National Stadium; then just before it opened, it became the Siaka Stevens Stadium. Now it’s simply the National Stadium. I’m not accusing the now deceased former President Stevens of having ego issues, but he did have a street, a stadium and a town named after him while he was in office…

The lady traders of Sani Abacha strut their stuff...

People had started arriving at the stadium from about 7.00am: schoolkids in their ceremonial uniforms (yep – blazers in the blazing sun!), women traders from Sani Abacha (the street market in the East End) all dressed up in funky blue ashobi; ‘boo boo’ dancers going mental, and several people who’d taken the dress code to extremes and covered themselves in green, white and blue body paint. Although the stadium was already full to capacity when I rolled along just after 10.00am, I managed to find a seat in Stand 8.

Some of the amassed hordes inside the stadium.
Members of the Amputees' Sports Club arrive at the National Stadium.

The atmosphere in the stand was for the most part jovial and good-natured. Every now and then, the giant LCD scoreboard would zoom in on the visiting foreign dignitaries seated in Green, white and blue boxes in front of the VIP section. Liberia’s president, Mrs Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (west Africa’s first female head of state) got a lot of love from the crowd. A couple of jokers seated behind me had a few theories of their own as to which heads of state had come to Sierra Leone for the celebrations, and why:

“So where’s Obama, then?”
“I don’t know. But I saw George W Bush over there somewhere.”
“I tell you, the only Presidents you’ll get coming here are the ones who are sure of themselves. You know, the ones who know their people like them and won’t try to depose them if they left the country for a few days. That’s why Yahya Jammeh sent his Vice President along. You’ll never catch Mugabe at something like this!”

'El Presidente' inspects the troops at the National Stadium

I left the stadium right after President Ernest Bai Koroma had inspected the troops and given his address to the nation; a rousing speech in which he entrusted all the nation’s citizens with the job title of ‘civil monitor’ (the Sierra Leonean equivalent of the ‘big society’, perhaps?). People were still pouring into the stadium as I left, and I walked past many more headed in that direction on my way home.

Later in the evening, after watching Barcelona beat Real Madrid (and after the first power cut we’ve had since I’ve been here), the SLBC News ran a feature on some villages who weren’t celebrating the anniversary because they felt neglected by the Government and were living in really crappy conditions without the most basic amenities. I can remember a time when that sort of critical reporting would have landed a journalist in deep trouble here. There’s still a lot that needs to be done to improve the average Sierra Leonean’s quality of life. But with the optimism I’ve seen on display today, just about anything is possible.

Apparently, the independence celebrations continue all week. Bring it on…

No, I'm not being arrested...

Thought for the Day: “What does it profit a man if he makes himself completely mosquito-proof and avoids catching malaria, but in the process poisons himself with all the insect repellent fumes?”

Freetown: the Geezer Has Landed…

Outside Lungi Airport on a pleasant Sunday afternoon

Air France Flight AF774 landed at Lungi Airport sometime around five-ish on Sunday afternoon. The make-or-break moment of any trip to Sierra Leone – getting through the airport – turned out to be relatively painless. I’d spent half the flight mentally preparing myself to become the nasty hard-ass you have to be to survive the various leeches and hangers-on who’ve made getting through the airport such a nightmare on previous trips: “Do not make eye contact. Don’t accept any offers for help. Don’t smile.” I did it all so well, I ended up walking past the health inspectors and being called back to show them my vaccination certificate! In the end, I got out of the airport with only 8,000 Leones (about a quid) coming out of the “small ting” budget (for the uninitiated, “small ting” is the technical term for tips, bribes, or any other financial incentives you give to someone to leave you alone).

The Allied Marine ferry to Freetown was a pleasant experience; air conditioned, and with a complementary drink and music videos piped through two LCD TVs. A lot of local artists have recorded patriotic songs celebrating the big milestone. Most of these never really say much more than “Happy 50th birthday, Sierra Leone” (or words to that effect), but a few actually made some effort to talk a little about the country’s history, and appeal to Sierra Leoneans today to put the past behind them and work together to rebuild the country, memories of the 90s civil war still alive in many people’s minds.

After about 45 minutes’ sailing, we pulled into Government Wharf. I looked up and say my cuz Afia with a big smile on her face. Allied Marine’s ferry service brings you a lot closer to the centre of Freetown than the old ferry service used to, and Government Wharf is actually just a short walk from Mama Buckle’s house Liverpool Street, where Mum is and where I’ll be staying. But Afia wasn’t going to let me walk with big suitcase (I wasn’t that keen on walking the distance, either)

I was warmly greeted by Mama Buckle’s husband, and then after dropping off all my stuff, I sat down to a big plate of Jolloff rice, then spent the evening watching Who Wants to be Rich? (Ghana’s version of Millionaire) before retiring to bed.

Apparently Mum let slip that I was coming, so the sisters know I’m here. Curses…

Salone! Day 1 (well, kinda…)

Saturday night – in a random hotel room somewhere in Paris…

At last, an opportunity to have that “early night” I’ve been meaning to have for ages – and I have to come all the way to Paris to have it! I don’t even want it now! I’m in Paris! Friends of mine have got engaged here! I wanted to go on a late night tour of the city, but apparently you need to book those in advance, as the nice man at the tourist info desk informed me after I wandered in is direction, having been safely delivered by Air France an hour or so earlier.

You’ve probably guessed that France isn’t my final destination on this jaunt (well, there is a huge clue in the title of this blog post). I’m actually on my way to Freetown, Sierra Leone – but for several reasons which I’ll explain as we go on, the cheapest fare I could find to get me there involved a 12 ½ hour stopover in Paris. Hey – it’s with Air France and there’s a night in Paris involved. And it’s half the price BMI were charging! What’s not to like?

I’m not the only person in my family who’s made the trip; just the least organised. My mum flew over to Freetown a couple of weeks ago. And yesterday my sister Fiona flew over to join her, together with Tina – my Swedish adopted sister who I only met for the first time two years ago.

Er, something tells me you might want a little more back story on that last name I mentioned. A’ight. here goes…

It was the late 80s, and my mum worked in a maternity hospital in Freetown which had a children’s hospital next door to it. Tina was abandoned there as a baby – a cute little girl with a cleft palate who nobody wanted. My mum would bring her home at weekends, and for the first two years of her life, Tina was one of our family. Eventually she was adopted by a Swedish couple who took her to Sweden where she had corrective surgery done to her face, and where she’s lived ever since.

I missed out on all this excitement, as I was back living in England then. When the rest of the family came over, they’d talk a lot about Tina, but they never heard from her again. Then three years ago, she found us – another long story involving a Swedish television show and a certain social networking site. I finally got to meet Tina in the summer of 2009; the adopted (Swedish) sister I never knew I had.

Meeting Tina for the first time, May 2009

This is Tina’s first visit to Sierra Leone since she left for Sweden as a toddler. She asked Mum to go along with her for moral support as she expected it to be a bit overwhelming emotionally. Fiona runs a charitable initiative which donates stationery and books to cash-strapped Sierra Leonean schools, and so she’s always toing and froing between London and Freetown. This is only my third trip back since I came back to England for good, and the first which doesn’t involve a family wedding (and no, I have not come out here “to look,” thank you very much). It also happens to be the country’s 50th independence anniversary, coinciding nicely with the Easter holidays (which is why the likes of BMI were charging something in the region of 900 quid to fly people out here).

Oh, and there’s one other small detail: neither Fiona nor Tina knows that I’m about to arrive in Freetown, My mum does, but the whole family’s been under strict instruction not to tell them, so they get a big shock when you-know-who turns up (big brothers are allowed to mentally torture their younger siblings. It’s in the Big Brothers’ Instruction Manual or something). I can’t wait to see their faces…

PS. I’m writing this on Saturday night, but you won’t be reading it until Monday or Tuesday. ‘Cos if I hit ‘publish’ now, the secret’s out. See? I have thought of (just about) everything…