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.
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.
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.
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).