The journey to Sierra Leone was long. I left California Monday afternoon and, after two layovers, I finally arrived at my destination the next evening. It really didn’t start to sink in that I was heading to Africa until our plane began flying over the Sahara. All I remember seeing was vast areas of sand, with layers of blue and orange coating the horizon. The nice lady sitting next to me described it as an “ocean of brown.” I would concur.
When I arrived at the airport, I was both excited and anxious. Excited because I couldn’t believe that I had actually made it to the Motherland. Anxious because the task ahead of me, I knew, was going to be a challenge.
We got off the plane and walked a short way to the security gate.
I stood in line, patiently waiting for the security personnel to check my passport and send me on my way. There was a piece of white paper with my name written on it (spelled Martin Richards [“Dang,” I thought to myself at first, “They didn’t spell my name right, like always.” But I found out later there was a reason.]) by one of the security windows. No one was holding it. It was just resting against the window. That told me that my guides were nearby. Then the deluge began, not from people saying hello or asking for anything, but from immigration officials skeptical of the reason I was there. If it wasn’t for a young man sent by one of my guides whisking me through the line, I might have still been in that airport. Nonetheless, my guides were waiting for me right when I got past security, and they made me feel welcome.
It was pitch black when we got on the road. We had to catch the ferry to get from the airport to Freetown. It must have been about 11 o’clock, and people were either walking on the side of the road or chilling outside of their residences.
While on the way to the ferry, we overheard a news update about Haiti. I asked one of my guides, Theo, what he thought about Haiti. He said it made him very sad. Then he told me the Sierra Leonean government donated $100,000 to Haiti, the first of its kind for the country. He added, however, that people have been wondering how the government could make such an enormous pledge when it didn’t have the money and people were suffering in their own country.
We continued down the road, and as we got closer to the ferry, I noticed that many of the buses (here, they are usually small Eurovan-type vehicles) were emblazoned with religious homages and benevolent sayings like “God’s Time is the Best” and “Allah is the Greatest.” Theo told me the main religions practiced here are Islam (about 60% of the population) and Christianity (the rest), and they all get along. He said that it is not a part of the law, but when an official is elected to office from a certain religion, for example, normally they like to have someone from another religion in the next subordinate position. Theo himself is a Rastafarian.
We arrived at the port where the ferry was supposed to take us to Freetown. To get on, cars have to line up single file. We waited for at least 30 to 45 minutes for the ferry to drop off passengers coming from Freetown. Getting on the ferry looked like a task. Vehicles have to scale a slippery ramp that looks like it is nearly at a 45-degree angle. Many cars hydroplane on the first attempt (we slipped back on to the pavement on the first try) but usually make it the second time around.
Theo took me upstairs to sit down. We walked into a nautical enclosure that said “First Class” on the door post. There, people sat on wooden seats, a young man with dreads was DJing and there was a small bar where women were selling snacks and drinks. Second class was upstairs, on top of the ferry, where everyone else sat. Theo took me up to see what it looked like, and there was a cool breeze from the ocean. I would rather be up here on a night like this, I thought, when it feels like about 80 degrees just on the inside.
We returned to first class. After sitting for awhile, I noticed a familiar song playing on the TV above the DJ. It was Soul for Real’s “Candy Rain.” I nearly jumped out of my seat because that was my jam back in the day.
We finally arrived in Freetown, and as we stepped off the ferry the darkness was broken up only by the lampposts at the port. Beyond that, the city was nearly pitch black at this time of night. The only other specks of light came from a far-off distance beyond the port. Theo told me those were fishing boats. He told me that the country is having a big problem with poaching right now. Although there is an abundance of fish available to catch, Sierra Leonean fishermen have to compete with poachers from outside the country, who basically have free range over the seas because of lax (or should I say hardly enforced) regulation. Looks like there will be a lot for us to talk about while I’m here.