On Walking on Water (sort of)

It started with one of those dream gigs us writers get every now and then: go on an all expenses paid trip to a holiday resort in Turkey, and write an article about it when you get back. So I did (who wouldn’t?), and amongst the activities on offer at this resort were some free windsurfing lessons. It seemed like a good idea (despite my initial quibbles) and I picked up the basics quite quickly.

On the water in Bodrum last year.
On the water in Bodrum last year.

A whole year passed before I ventured out on the water again – this time on a ‘Start Windsurfing’ course at a watersports centre in Wales. I was a bit rubbish this time (I spent more time in the water than on it), but at the end of the weekend, I returned home battered and bruised – and, more importantly, in possession of my RYA Start Windsurfing certificate. I then found somewhere closer to home (Broxbourne in Essex), where I’ve been having practice sessions at the East London Windsurfing School. It’s now end of term, so to speak; I had my last practice session for this year yesterday and am looking forward to next spring when it all kicks off again.

So, in these past few months, what have I learned about windsurfing – and what has windsurfing taught me about life? A few things…

  1. I’m always going to feel a little bit “oo-er” about going out on the water. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
  2. Windsurfing is a team sport masquerading as a solitary one. Yes, it is just you on your board, sailing solo. But at every step of the way, you depend on others and are encouraged to work as part of a team (it’s much more fun sailing in a group anyway). The ‘Seven Common Senses’ insist that you tell someone when you’re going out sailing, and for how long. Even the wetsuit is designed in such a way that you need someone else’s help to put it on (although I did manage to put mine on by myself yesterday).
  3. Some handy tips apply as much in windsurfing as they do in other areas of life. Looking up helps as much in windsurfing as it does in public speaking. And as Martin the instructor always says, “the more you do it, the better you get”. My piano teacher says that too – as has every book on writing I’ve ever come across…

What else? Oh yeah – if you are going to take up such a sport in Britain, there will be times when you will have to do it in bad weather. Just accept that and move on. And speaking of the weather, there will be days when the wind will simply not play ball. So as well as your sailing kit, remember to pack a book or magazine (or some knitting, or whatever your other favourite means of passing the time is), just in case.

See you out on the water next spring, hopefully…

My Name is Braima

“Party like it’s 1999.”

Hmm, sounds like a plan. Yeah, I know everybody says that, but trust me – I for one will be glad to see the back of this year. And this decade. In fact, the whole century can jump off a bridge. Like I had to in order to save my life. Only without the surviving bit at the end of it.

Sorry – didn’t see you there. Been a bit preoccupied with my own thoughts. A bit too much for a 16-year-old, I’m told. But then, being a war orphan kind of forces you to grow up faster than one would like to. And then something big comes along and hits you, and you realise that you’ve only partly grown up…

But I digress again. Where are my manners? Hello – my name is Braima. Braima Sesay. Braima William Sesay. Please don’t ask how I ended up with William for a middle name; it’s kinda embarrassing. Let’s just say it involves a future King of England and leave it at that, shall we? You can probably tell from my accent that I’m not originally from round here. Actually, I’m not even sure what my accent sounds like now. There’s a bit of London in there, because this is now my home. The odd palabra might slip in, because I’ve kind of been adopted by some friendly Colombians. Long story – but as no-one can afford to bail me out right now, I think I’ve got enough time on my hands in here to share it with you…

So let’s rewind back a year or two – and go back to a little village just outside Makeni. That’s in Sierra Leone. You know, where Ryan Giggs’ granddad came from. In Africa. You didn’t know that? Actually, half of Sierra Leone’s population supports Man U, and I’m sure not all of them know that either. Sorry, floating off point again. Me – two years into secondary school; loving English a lot but loving Chinese films even more. I regularly kekked – sorry, I’m in England now; I mean I regularly bunked off school to go and see them. It was just what you did. If you had to choose between simple equations and Jackie Chan, who would you go for? Seriously!

I got my love of Chinese films from my father, I think. Well, I guess I must have. We never talked about them at first, but when he found out I was a fan, that was it. We had something we could bond over. Which was good because he’s from the other half of Sierra Leone’s population (the half that supports Arsenal). My dad worked in a bank. I think he would have liked me to do that too, but I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. Maybe I still will. My dad loved his palm wine; he loved his friends; he loved my mum, and he loved the BBC World Service. And like me, he loved Chinese films. I discovered my dad shared my love of Chinese films the day my mum caught me going to one when I should have been in school. Of course, kekking – sorry, force of habit. Bunking off – is a gamble. And I lost big time the first time I did it. I had to choose the day my mum decided to do a mid-week food shop in the market just next to the cinema! Woman dragged me home by my left ear. I do miss her…

When she wasn’t using my left earlobe as a pulling handle, my mum was the best. I suppose she was still the best even when she was – I mean, I shouldn’t have allowed myself to get caught, should I have? Fatmata, her name was. Shorter than me. So much so, that her arm hurt her more than my ear hurt me that day she dragged me home from the cinema. It wasn’t so much me walking with my head down as her walking with her arm up. It goes without saying that the first words she said to me after letting go of my ear were “Wait until your father gets home.” And I did, expecting a fate worse than death. I felt like a cockroach as I stood in the middle of our parlour while mum recounted the afternoon’s proceedings to my dad. Then she left the two of us alone in the parlour and went off to attend to some other business. Me and Dad alone in the parlour. “Tense” doesn’t even begin to describe it…

But to my surprise, the expected beatdown never came. Instead, my dad sat me down and asked me, “So who’s your favourite Chinese film actor?” I would have pinched myself – but as I could still feel the extended ear pinch inflicted on me by my mum, I knew I couldn’t be dreaming. Dad and I talked for ages about the Chinese films we’d seen; he told me about the old-school masters from the films he saw when he was my age: Wang Yu, Carter Wong, Sonny Chiba… and the master of them all – Bruce Lee. That day, he promised that we would both watch all Bruce Lee’s films together. And then – more out of husbandly duty than anything else – he said, “and don’t do that again.”

I’m not sure how my mum would have reacted if she knew that he hadn’t beaten me as she’d hoped he would. But I’m not mad at her. I can’t be; she’s my mum. Was my mum. She was lovely. You haven’t eaten ‘casada leaf’ until you’ve eaten it cooked by my mum. And she always cooked it in a pot the size of a bathtub because of the open door policy she and my dad had going on. Anyone could come in and eat. And somehow there was always enough, and even though times were hard the pot was never empty.

When I meet God – if I do – he’s going to have to explain why the nastiest things always happen to the best people. With a diagram. Actually, on second thoughts, I’ve seen enough graphic nastiness to last a lifetime, so I’ll pass on the diagram. But I definitely do want to ask him what kind of loving deity allows one’s home country to be overrun by vicious rebels who ransack whole villages, make people choose how much of their limbs they want chopped off, and then force children to watch their parents being murdered and their mothers being raped – just before carting them off to be stuffed full of drugs and sent off to inflict the same sort of nastiness on other innocent people.

That’s my story – well, part of it. The ‘rebels’ stuck a load of us kids in the back of a Land Rover – me and some of my friends from school and boys who were my neighbours. I have no idea where they were planning to take us to, but by the time we got to Lunsar, I knew I had to escape. So I waited until the Land Rover got to this rickety old bridge. And when it was halfway over the bridge, I jumped.

What happened next is kind of a blur now. Well, actually it isn’t – but I’ve decided that I’m going to write a book about my life when I do get out of here, so I can’t give away all the juicy bits just yet! But to summarise, I lived on the goodwill of strangers as I trekked all the way out of sierra Leone to Guinea, where I ended up in a refugee camp. Then by some very good fortune – or so I thought at the time – I managed to make contact with an uncle of mine in London. I came over here and lived with him for a while – and that brought a whole heap of its own problems. Long story short, Uncle threw me out of his house. And then so did another uncle. And another one. And another one. And just when I’d run out of uncles with homes for me to be ejected from, I bump into this kind, friendly Colombian man and his son. Their family gave me a home and I started to get back on my feet. Found a job in a fast-food restaurant. Got some college applications in. Bought a Man U shirt from a stall in East Street Market. Discovered it wasn’t genuine. Also discovered that Millwall fans don’t like it when you walk down Ilderton Road wearing a Man U shirt, real or fake. Rescued by an angel. Then I caught my total toe-rag of a manager unawares in the middle of making a very troubling phone call. Next thing I know, I’m being accused of having my finger in the till and I’m given the sack. And then Toe Rag Manager winds up dead, and the Police think I killed him.

Of course I didn’t do it. I wasn’t even in the country when it happened – oops, I’ve already said too much. I could tell you where I was when the murder took place, but if I did that, I might as well just go ahead and phone the men in white coats myself, and give them all the measurements they’d need for my padded cell. Yes, it is that unbelievable. But it’s all true.

So I reckon I’ll be in here for a while, unless some miracle happens…

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…

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…

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…

My “NaNoWriMovember”

November was an interesting month, to say the least. It did seem to fly by very quickly; I’m not sure how much of that was down to what I spent the month doing. And what was that, I hear you ask? Well, I mostly spent it writing a novel and growing a moustache. Let me explain…

Back in April, I’d spent the month doing the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. That time, I only managed just over 29, 000 words (to be honest, I only really got going on day 23). Still, I learnt a fair bit from the experience – both about the novel-writing process and about myself.

I was in two minds about doing Nanowrimo after that; squeezing out two novels in a year seemed like a big stretch. But even though I had no pre-planned story idea and never really made the decision to do it until three days before kick-off, I jumped in on the first of the month and just wrote a load of stuff. There were a couple of days in that first week when I flagged a bit, but I basically just went with the “just write” advice and just wrote.

I started with a couple of characters just talking to each other – mostly over big dinners or very short chess games (very short because one of them was rubbish at chess and they’d both had a fair bit to drink). Various elements of people I’ve met began to click together to form new characters. After ‘freestyling’ for about a week and a half with three different sets of characters, their paths began to cross and a story began to develop – a story which became a bit more exciting (and totally daft) after I took a friend’s suggestion and wrote a certain reality TV character into the book! (Before I get sued, I should point out that the character in the book is only modelled on him. It’s not him!).

Anyway, to cut a long story short (and other cliches I’ve banned myself from using), I won NaNoWriMo. My word count clocked 51,725 on Day 30 – although according to NaNoWriMo’s word count verifier, it was only 50,056. Either way, that was enough to get me past the 50,000-word target.

Around the time I was twiddling my thumbs over whether or not to join in the exercise in total madness that is Nanowrimo, someone at work suggested that the men in the office join him in participating in ‘Movember’ – where men get sponsored to grow moustaches during the month of November, to raise money for the Prostate Cancer Charity.  Though not a big fan of either beards or moustaches, I thought I’d give it a go. After all, it’s a lot easier to do than writing a novel (if you think about it, it just involves NOT doing something – shaving – and so doesn’t really require much effort). And so I ended up with one seriously itchy caterpillar under my nose… and the campaign to kick cancer’s butt became £60 richer. Thanks to all of you who gave, and didn’t tell me I looked ridiculous.

There's one serious Mo', bro...

November was also special for reasons other than novel-writing and moustache-growing. Among the month’s other highlights, my dad turned 75 and we celebrated with an enormous meal in Rodzio Rico – a Brazilian restaurant in the O2. Two friends got married in a lovely wedding service in the City Temple. On a much sadder note, another friend died after a lengthy bout with cancer (the second friend of mine to die from that vile illness in as many years).

After all that, December’s looking rather unexciting. Still there’s Christmas to look forward to (do adults really look forward to Christmas?) and a few more mundane things to take care of – last year’s tax return being top of the list. Having not done any messing about with music in November, I plan to spend a bit more time working on stuff on the DJ front (expect a mixtape or two up on here before the end of the year).

And that was my “NaNoWriMovember”. It was fun, but I’m kind of glad it’s over.