To travel around Africa, you need more than a passport and a yellow fever card. The lay of the land demands tenacity; the social structure requires tact and a dose of self-reliance. Knowing this, when I bounce across the continent, I depend on my own resources to find transportation, accommodation and subjects to interview. But on a recent trip to Sierra Leone, I discarded self-reliance and suffered bitterly
A memory: About six months before heading to Freetown, I was introduced to Linda*, a Canadian filmmaker whose parents are from Sierra Leone. When I told Linda I wanted to visit Freetown, she rolled out a red carpet of kindness. In a matter of weeks, she had set me up with accommodation, a film crew and a fixer-cum-tour guide. The hookup was so sweet that by the time the wheels of Asky Airlines stroked the runway at Lungi International airport, an official was waiting to escort me. Mr. Phil as I learnt he was called grabbed my luggage and took charge of my right hand. The rest of my body followed behind like a schoolgirl. We skipped a lineup of fatigued travellers and walked boldly to the front of an immigration booth. A rotund fellow with sweat glistening on his forehead winked at Mr. Phil and stamped my ECOWAS passport. “Welcome to Salone.”
Salone: Located on the cusp of West Africa, Sierra Leone was formerly a resettlement colony for freed slaves. But in 1991, a gang of warlords destroyed its historical standing and turned the country into an epicenter of blood diamonds and maimed limbs. The war ended in 2002, but the reputation of Sierra Leone as the land of amputees was sealed in the global psyche. For this reason, I flew into Lungi international airport to cover the post-war developments in the country. Lungi airport is not fancy, it is functional. It is situated in an eponymous coastal town that offers so little in terms of employment or entertainment that locals and foreigners alike, share a common goal – get out.
Mr. Phil shepherded me out of the arrival lobby. When we reached a girl selling fried dough on a silver pan, he dutifully handed me off to my waiting fixer. On his nose, Cedric is about 5’9. He has shiny brown skin, large ears and narrow eyes that sparkle when a smile overcomes his face. In rapid Sierra Leonean patois, he explained that to get to the capital, Freetown, we had to drive to a local port where a ferry would transport us to the mainland. He motioned for me to follow him.
Cedric doesn’t walk. He marches. With his lean frame tilted at a 70-degree angle, he marched like there was a silent brass band beating in his head, commanding his steps with purpose and swag. He was energetic, entertaining, efficient and incredibly resourceful. Impressed by his ‘I-run-this-city’ demeanor, I threw self-reliance out of the window and substituted my brain for his. Instead of being an involved traveler, I handed my money to Cedric and assumed a passive mien as he haggled with taxi drivers and paid for our ferry tickets. I stood on the sideline as he got credit for my cell phone and arranged for food. If I had common sense, it was not evident because in the days following, I deferred to him for all the critical decisions pertaining to my stay. It was Cedric who told me which water to drink and cautioned me from getting too close to the Okadas**. He was the one who arranged the tour around stately parliament building and led me around the crowded streets. I knew I was being spoilt but I was so enjoying not making decisions for the first time in my life.
On my last day in Freetown, Cedric offered to chaperone me to the airport but I had decided to wean myself off his help before I got to my next stop, Mali. The flight to Mali was at 8:15 the next morning so I drafted a plan. By my calculation it would take an hour to get from Freetown to Lungi port and 20 minutes for a taxi ride from the dock to the airport. If I took the 6 a.m. ferry, I would have about an hour to wait for the plane. Had I conferred with my host, he would have reminded me that in Africa, things don’t run like clockwork. If I had my wits about me, I would have asked the pot-bellied man at the port’s ticket counter about a faster way to get to Lungi and he would probably have encouraged me to take the speedboats. But because I had not activated my brain in a week, it was functioning at a lower frequency.
The ferry arrived at 6 a.m., but by the time all were aboard, it was 6:34 a.m. As the ferry glided at snail pace, speedboats raced past us. A woman in the orange top kissed her teeth in aggravation. The first feeling that something was about to go wrong hit me. Holding onto the ferry’s rail guard for support, I approached a man in a pressed uniform.
“Sir, what time do you think we will get to Lungi?”
“My Seesta, me sef, I dunno why the ferry dey do go slow.”
I started to turn away but he stopped me mid-step
“By the way what is your name?”
“Oh, Ghana girl…I am Felix.”
“Felix, nice to meet you”
“I ‘ope you not after a plane this morning.”
“Actually, I am.” I responded walking away.
He followed me with his questions. “Na Which one?”
“I am supposed to be on Asky 8:15”
“Ei my seesta, you die finish. Asky don’t play with their time oh. If they say 8:15 then 8:14 sharp, the tires start rotate on the tarmac. 8:15, the nose don kiss the clouds.”
I began to sweat. “Oh no, so what do I do?”
“You should have taken the smaller boats, they get to Lungi faster. It is 7:30 you no check in sef. How you fit catch this plane?” Now he was scolding me. Reading the disappointment on my face, he softened. “Ok seesta Amma, let me see what I can do. See, I work at the airport. Let me call one of my people see what they can do. He punched some numbers on his Nokia and began to talk. I leaned closer to him to try and hear the conversation. He smelled of imperial leather soap and Pepsodent.
I butted in. “Oh no! Felix, tell Phil I know him. I am the girl he met at the Airport last week. Please, beg him to wait.” Anxiety accelerated my words.
“My seesta, there’s nothing I can do they are closing the gate.” At this point Felix seemed to have absorbed my problem as his problem and he was visibly distressed. “But why are you late huh? Why, my seesta, why?” Then he softened again. “Not to worry, we will get you on the plane.”
It was 7:45 when we docked at Lungi. Felix grabbed my suitcase, and we charged into a taxi. We zoomed past waving children and swaying palm trees. As we got closer to the airport, I could see the brown and white Asky plane humming on the tarmac. “Surely, that is a good sign.” Felix declared rubbing his palms together. When the taxi screeched to a stop, it was 8:10. Felix refused to let me pay. “Follow me.” He instructed. I grabbed my suitcase and panted after him. With his security badge secured in his right hand, we raced past customs, looped through security and run like mad to the gate. When we got to the waiting area, it was empty. A security guard stood in front of the sliding door, his stretched arms barring us from going farther. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing your plane on a tarmac, so close that you can smell the fuel, yet far enough that you cannot enter.
I dropped my bags on the floor and began to beg at the feet of the guard. When it seemed like he would not relent, he offered a compromise. He would let Felix run to the plane and see if the flight manager would allow me onboard. Before I could nod, Felix was gassing toward the aircraft, his neon jacket flying in the wind, black shoes pounding the tarmac like a foot soldier. When he approached the wings, he started waving both arms in the air until one of the flight marshallers ran to meet him. They walked toward the aircraft’s entrance and started talking. I fixed my eyes on Felix and watched for a sign that I should join the plane. He looked like he was haggling desperately but once his shoulders slumped, I knew it was over.
The door closed. Asky prepared to kiss the clouds.
“My seesta,” Felix commiserated on his return, “I am so sorry. I spoke to the flight manager, Mr. Andrews, but he refused. Unfortunately for you, the next flight to Mali is tomorrow, but it is full.”
I had no words to express my disappointment. I was stuck at Lungi with no money, no food and no way to get out.
This is what happens when you give your power to someone…
To be cont.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of certain indiviuals
**Okada-motorbikes notorious for their reckless antics
***ECOWAS-Economic Community of West African States