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…

Famous Sierra Leoneans, #2: Ryan Giggs

The most decorated player in English football history makes it onto our list by virtue of the fact that his paternal grandfather is from Sierra Leone.

Not being a footy expert, I can’t waffle on for hours about Ryan Giggs’ dexterity on the pitch, the mastery of his corner kick, and such like. Fortunately, I do know a few people whose knowledge of football is better than mine. So I’ll let one of them tell you why, in his humble opinion, Giggsy rocks…

http://boos.audioboo.fm/swf/fullsize_player.swf

And there you have it.

Famous Sierra Leoneans, #1: Idris Elba

Known to millions of telly viewers as Stringer Bell in the crime series The Wire, London boy Idris is one of the finest British actors in recent years to find success stateside.

Idrissa Akuna Elba was born in 1972 to a Ghanaian mother and a Sierra Leonean father. His journey from Hackney to Hollywood has seen him appear in Absolutely Fabulous, Family Affairs, Luther, The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the US version of The Office on telly, and a long string of films that includes 28 Weeks Later, American Gangster and Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla. Off screen, he’s also a pretty nifty DJ. spinning tunes under the nom de turntable DJ Big Driis.

Look out for Idris this summer, playing the role of Heimdal in the film version of Marvel Comics’ Thor.

Famous Sierra Leoneans: Intro

Sierra Leone – my tiny corner of the west coast of Africa – celebrates 50 years of independence on the 27th of April this year.

It’s been a not uneventful half-century; there have been some bad times and some truly horrendous times. But Sierra Leoneans are survivors if nothing else – and as my way of celebrating all of us, I’m going to attempt to chronicle the contribution that Sierra Leonean people have made to the world around us. Trust me, we’ve given more to the world than just dodgy diamonds…

Perhaps I should qualify how I define ‘Sierra Leonean’ in this series of blog posts. It’s anyone who has at least one parent (or grandparent) who’s Sierra Leonean. Some may have been born there; some may have lived there for a while (many of them probably haven’t), but as long as they can legitimately claim Sierra Leonean descent, they’re in (we’re a very welcoming and inclusive bunch, us Sierra Leoneans).

So join me as I pay tribute to some fine upstanding people of the past and present – a few of the many bright sparks that hail from this great land (Well, maybe not great in size. But you get what I mean).

This series of blog posts was partly inspired by this website.