Arriving in Sierra Leone

The train from Stuttgart to Brussels was hell. I couldn’t fly because the small prop aircraft wouldn’t allow my three heavy trunks. So I had to take the train. I had intended no taking the ICE, with only one stop-over in Cologne. But when I got to the station, the conductor told me there wasn’t room on an ICE for my kit either. I watched sullenly as the train pulled away. I was re-routed on the regional trains because they’ve all got a bicycle car attached to them which is generally a large open area. Of course, this meant a few more changes–and a slower trip. I had my backpack, guitar case, and three heavy green trunks (about 70cm x 30cm and roughly 30kg each). Each change of trains meant lugging off the boxes and luggage, finding a cart, loading up, taking the lift down, rushing along the corridor to the appropriate set of tracks, taking the lift up, finding the bicycle car, and loading everything up again. All in about 5 or 10 minutes’ time, depending on the schedule. And it got into the upper 20s that day–and me in my sports coat and a wool fedora.

I changed trains four times in Germany.

I changed trains three times in Belgium.

I left Stuttgart around 13:00 and arrived at my hotel at half-past eleven that night. Quite a long day. But I met a cute German girl on the train (got her email). And on one stop in Belgium, two hoodlum-looking youths actually helped me with all the trunks (which was good because there was no lift). And when I arrived in Brussels, a nice young girl actually toted one of the trunks all the way through the station and out to the taxi stand and helped me get a taxi. I asked her out for a drink, but she insisted she was just being friendly. Amazing.

In my room, I dug up the number of an old friend I knew was living in Brussels. She was surprised and thrilled to hear from me and we spent the entire night drinking and reminiscing. I crawled into my taxicab early next morning exhausted. And as I’ve said before, I sleep quite well and easily on aircraft.

I stepped down from the Brussels Airlines Boeing 747-400 and was met by a cloying heat. There was a breeze, however, and it was thrilling to walk across the tarmac to the terminal. Customs gave me no problems with my Official Passport. I went into the baggage claim and immediately spotted my contact, Maj M. He was bald and dressed in old shorts, tee-shirt, and flips. I got a local boy to collect my boxes and we went outside to what would soon be my personal Land Rover Defender 110. There was a policy about not taking the ferry after dark, so we had to stay overnight at the airport hotel.

Maj M. was a wealth of knowledge in regard to the social quibbles at IMATT. It was immediately obvious that because there was no war, office politics played the lead role in daily affairs. I made an instantaneous decision to remain completely removed from all of it. And to tell anyone who wanted to drag me into it to fuck off.

That night we had dinner by the hotel pool. The breeze was very pleasant, but there was still this underlying sticky heat that you couldn’t get away from. We put away a few Heinekens along with barracuda and rice. The flying ants were a bit tough to deal with, but over time the annoyance faded. I stayed up a bit later alone at the bar with some Brits. We spoke a little about Africa and drank a few more beers. Then I was off to bed.

The next morning we set off in the Rover.

We drove down to the ferry landing and got aboard. We waited in the upstairs VIP lounge (a moldering, dirty room) and were bombarded by Arabic prayer chants from the stereo. Everything in Salone is played so loud that the sound is distorted. It’s a little disturbing.

The ride across is about half an hour. Maj M. and I continued our conversation about everyone’s dirty laundry. As Freetown came into view, I was reminded of both Liberia and Haiti from a few years back. Everything is so lush and green and beautiful…from a distance. Up close, the country is filthy and the smell is horrible. The folks here are much like the Haitians in that there is no capacity to plan for the future. Each day is lived in the pursuit of enough food and water to get by. It’s a terrible existence that is perpetuated generationally and enforced by poor governance.

But the Sierra Leoneans are extremely friendly. This friendliness is almost overwhelming. I remembered the special handshake and had learned a few phrases prior to arriving. “Ha di bodi?” (“How the body”) or “Ha di dey?” (“How the day?”) are common greetings, the response to both is “No bad.” They are friendly and then they want money. It’s very simple. They are socially accustomed to begging, especially from the rich white man.

I checked into the UK compound at Leicester Square. The American house is like all the others; it’s simple but functional. And surrounded on all sides by a wall. The brand new US Embassy sits across the valley a few kilometers away. It’s massive and dominates the hillside. I did my check-in, got my IMATT identification card and hung about. I realized that the best view, of course, is right out the front door:

Monday I got into Freetown briefly. I met Mimo, a Lebanese diamond dealer. He’s the sort of character who’s tied in with everything in the city. He knows all the club owners too and has promised to get me on stage for an evening.

Tuesday morning we drove the six hours to Kenema. The roads were quite rough part of the way. But they are repaving and it should be a much better trip in the coming months. Hard to believe the Brits paved every road in the 1940s and 50s and everything has gone to pot since then–most of the roads are just red clay now with bits of pavement to remind.

Once out in Kenema I was introduced to the folks at the house. There are several British army soldiers, two Canadians, and two British national policemen. So far everyone’s been great, in spite of Maj M.’s warnings and complaints. I got a crash course in running the finances (god help them if I remain in charge of the money figures) and general maintenance of the house. The fellow I’m replacing basically managed the house. But it turns out I’m going to be going out with the mobile teams to help train and advise the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF). I attended a few morning meetings at the RSLAF HQ and was impressed. They’re very professional by African standards. I think they’ll be fine as long as there remains a contingent of British support here. Once the Brits leave, however, it will be a repeat of the first British departure: Failure.

Kenema is a thriving town, the center of Sierra Leone’s diamond trade. And the only place to find a good meal is the Capital Bar. I had the double burger there for lunch on Thursday and it rivaled Hut’s in Austin. And I didn’t get a chance to visit the public baths in Baden Baden while I was in Germany, but I did pass by the Sierra Leone Roman Bath House on the way to Kenema.

On Friday I went out with LtCol S. and SgtMaj K. We observed a platoon doing a live-fire jungle warfare exercise. They moved through the jungle with instructors yelling at them and smacking them with sticks. “Go fasta! Move you legs! Wat di matta!” It was very much like OCS. I was impressed by their professionalism. The young platoon commander, a second lieutenant, was very inexperienced. He certainly needs some cultivation. The problem is that his seniors never went to any formal schools. They all got commissioned or promoted during the last war. So there’s no one there to instill in him the values he needs to be successful in the future. As a mobile team guy, I’m going to do my best to develop his abilities.

In any case, we had a little party here on Friday night to say goodbye to the fellow I’m replacing, Maj M. We all drank and smoked and met some NGOs who were friends with the young female lance corporal medic who works here. At some point, LtCol S., a little tipsy, walked in carrying my guitar and ordered me to start playing. Turns out another fellow plays as well, so we switched off about three songs each with my ending up finishing the evening. Everyone was quite fond of “King.”

And lastly I should say a word about my new boss, LtCol S. He’s an interesting fellow. He joined the army and after several years decided he was going in the wrong direction. He left the army and went to art college at age 39. This decision cost him his wife of 20 years and some estrangement with his children until later in life. But he wanted to paint. Eventually, he decided to balance the two parts of his life and he returned to the army as a reservist. And he’s been doing both ever since. He told me, “There will come a point in my life when I’ll be lying on my death bed and I’ll have about two hours’ conscious thought left. Do I want to spend those two hours in absolute hell? Or do I want to think back and say, ‘I may have fucked up, but I fixed it in the end?’ I think the latter.”

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