Salone Catchup: A Text Message, Two Wedding Anniversaries and Some Retail Therapy

I’m not saying Sierra Leone is behind on showbiz gossip, but I just walked past a shop that had a huge poster on display – of Rihanna and Chris Brown together as a couple. I wonder if I should tell them…?

It’s Tuesday (yeah – I know you’re reading this on Thursday or maybe even Friday, but I wrote it on Tuesday). We’ve just got home from taking Tina to see the hospital where she was born. Fiona and a few helpers have been packing books and stationery into bags to hand out to children in a school somewhere. And I’ve been sweating a lot (have I mentioned that it’s hot over here?). A lot’s happened in the past few days. But first I should probably update you on how things have gone since Independence Day.

In true African style, I am now the proud owner of two mobile phones: one on the Airtel network and one on Comium. I’ve only made a couple of calls, but somehow the Government seems to have got hold of my number. The minister of Information & Communications sent me a text message the other day. It read:

“The Government wishes to inform the public that there is no scarcity of petrol. All queues around petrol stations are created by unscrupulous people to create confusion. The public is assured that there is enough fuel in the country to serve the public for the next three months.”

Ah, those queues! They’ve made travelling to and from the East End a real nightmare! Someone needs to pass on the news that there’s no fuel shortage on to the National Power Authority. After enjoying continuous electricity all throughout the Independence celebrations, as soon as the big day was out of the way, we went back to having day-long power cuts again. Ah, well, whatever…

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my last two trips to SL were for family weddings. The last of those was in 2006, when my cousin Liz got married. So on the 29th, while Ol’ London Town was rocking with street parties and Sky News pundits were analysing the Royal Snogs (as indeed they were when I popped into an internet cafe to do my routine Hotmail clearout), I was with Liz and her husband Kai, celebrating their 5th anniversary and having my first Star beer of this trip.

Speaking of Star beer, I should tell you about the time I had my first ever one. It was on another of my trips back here; the last time I saw my paternal grandmother alive. It was her who offered it to me – which at the time was kinda surreal, given how strict she was with her grandchildren when we were kids! You know you’re officially a grownup when you go to visit your grandmother and she offers you beer!

Liz and Kai aren’t the only ones celebrating wedding anniversaries. Mr & Mrs Buckle (the couple in whose home we’re staying) got married 30 years ago (also on 29 April; what is it with that date?), and on Saturday, there was a little party in the house. Friends and family all came to pay tribute to the couple. Through the speeches, we learnt of how the house we’re in used to be the Scripture Union’s old office (the Buckles were both heavily involved in both SU and YFC). We also heard of how during the 90s rebel war, the house had miraculously escaped being destroyed when rebel forces torched the length of Liverpool Street. The Buckles then opened up their home to 70 people who had fled from where they lived during the worst of the fighting, caring for them through the worst of the conflict.

Before our hospital visit today, Tina, Mum, Afia and I went to ‘Big Market’ to do a little souvenir shopping. Tina proved to have mad haggling skills – so much so, some market traders said to her, “Tina, you run this city!” That Swedish girl drives a hard bargain! She helped me get good prices for the things I bought for myself – including yet another little bata (a djembe) to add to my drum collection.

And that’s how things have been here in Freetown over the past few days. I’ll sign off for now, as I have a text message to reply to…


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…

In Conversation: Watcha Clan

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sista K, Supreme Clem and Nassim – three members of the Marseille based ‘global fusion’ band Watcha Clan. Their fifth album, Radio Babel, comes out in April and it’s simply the most awesome take-everything-you-can-get-hold-of-and-shake-it-all-about concoction I’ve ever heard; a mix that includes dubstep, drum & bass, rai, and folk music from Europe and the Middle East, underpinned by a strong sense of social justice. The band were as much fun to talk to as their album was to listen to. But don’t just take my word for it; have a listen for yourself…


Live review: Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”

Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”
Royal Festival Hall, 12 March

The last few Baaba Maal gigs I’ve seen were all collaborative efforts. There was the marathon Africa Express show up in Liverpool, where he rocked out with the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Hard Fi – and following that, a Meltdown show at the Royal festival Hall, at which he shared the stage with long-time collaborator Mansoor Seck and Brit rappers Kano and Bashy. Tonight’s gig was a similar joint effort; this time round Baaba played host to a string of female vocalists from Africa and the UK: Eska, Krystle Warren, Annie Flore Batchiellilys, Speech Debelle and VV Brown.

Baaba has been singing the praises of African women in an honorary feminist style for some time now (as he was the last time I spoke to him), and this gig was, in effect, him taking that further. Sure enough, the track ‘A Song for Women’ (from his last album, Television) had an airing – done as a beautiful duet with VV Brown. But I’m running ahead of myself…

Eska was the first lady to take the stage after Baaba and his band had got things started (actually, the first lady to take the stage was host Andrea Oliver, larger than life and rocking a ‘baldhead’ look as only she can). I’m one person for whom Eska can do no wrong, and she was on brilliant form – both as a vocalist and as a multi-instrumentalist. The first of Eska’s two songs was a reworking of Odyssey’s ‘Inside Out’ (of late, she’s been taking old 70s and 80s disco-pop tunes and reinterpreting them in a quirky jazz style). For her second song, ‘Rock of Ages’, Eska emerged from behind the keyboards and accompanied herself on a violin.

Annie Flore Batchielys was definitely the surprise act of the night – or at least the one with the most unusual entrance. Having been led onstage arm in arm by Baaba, she proceeded to back-track her way out of the band’s little circle, and stayed out of it for nearly all of the song she was supposed to be accompanying Baaba on. When she did start singing, however, she was electrifying. She did a couple of songs on her own while the band took a short break. I didn’t catch all of what she said while she was talking to us (Note to self: might be time to start listening to those French podcasts again), but everyone caught the profuse thanks to Baaba Maal in the closing lines of her last song.

For my money, Krystle Warren was the most intriguing of the other guests, but you kind of got the impression that she’d been added on to the bill at the last minute (especially when she didn’t appear in the grand finale). VV Brown was dignified and elegant while Speech tried to play up to the “rappers are rebellious” stereotype by declaring that she was going to take up more time than she’d been allocated for her set. But there was plenty of love in the house – as the founder of the South Bank’s Women of the World season (of which this gig was a part) discovered when she chatted to Andrea about the advances that have been made by women in the 100 years since the first International Women’s Day was observed. It was only at that point that I realised there was supposed to be a feminist angle to the whole event – but I’m sure I speak for all the blokes in the house when I say that it never felt exclusive or “girls only.”

I left the RFH nodding my head along to the opening track of Annie Nightingale‘s post-gig DJ set. As I stepped out of the venue, I wondered what Kwame Kwei Armah and Paul Gambaccini had to say about their feminist sides, and contemplated coming along on Sunday to hear them speak. In the end, I didn’t.

My weekly round-up

My workmates and I have to do one of these every Friday at work; it helps us keep track of all that has been achieved (or not) over the week. I thought I’d extend the concept to other areas of my life, and see what effect that has on my outlook. And so, in summing up, last week:

My niece turned 14;
I met Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez (and got paid for doing so!)
I had two nice pub evenings (one for a friend’s birthday and one for another friend’s ‘leaving job’ do)
And a nice pub lunch (with workmates)
And a nice afternoon tea (with an ex-workmate who’s about to start a round of chemo)
Swam for free when the guys at the pool didn’t have change for my £10 note
Had my work contract extended by a few more months (then had a few extra days added, so I could cover a conference).

A few crap things happened as well. But I think I’ma concentrate on these, rather than on the bad stuff. You know, accentuate the positive, an’ ting. Irie, man…