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Monthly Archives: May 2010

Buying roasted meat from the Shell Mingo market

Down the road from where I’m staying outside Bo, about 20 minutes walk towards town along road newly tarred by the Italians is a intersection.  Turn left and you’re on the Freetown highway, recently completed by the might of the military sounding Chinese 7th Railway Engineering Division. Turn right and you’re on the road to Kenema, passing the half-built football stadium a new open air church and then hotels and compounds filled with Chinese contractors.  Straight on takes you along the route of the old british railway line, past the steel shuttered welding shops, whitewashed churches with painted glass windows, a blue and white painted mosque and into Bo Town itself.

But this intersection, a flat concrete roundabout know as “Shell Mingo” is interesting for more than the eventual destinations of its offshoots.  Every night Shell Mingo comes alive with market stalls, milling customers crowding both sides of the streets, perusing the offerings being lit by small kerosene flames or just passing on the day’s news with groups of friends.  The most established stalls are wooden shacks, just large enough for a shopkeeper to stand between the laden shelves which line the walls, roofs made waterproof by white plastic sheeting bearing the faded blue logo of the UNHCR.  The smaller stalls are simply wide concave trays, carried on the head through the busy Bo streets during the day, put down to rest atop stools at night, wherever a space can be found.

Mainly the smaller stalls sell food, small loaves of finger-like bread are stacked on end, cassava, corn cobs and chicken are grilled on sheets of punctured steel balanced on charcoal stoves, dried fish, pierced from mouth to tail with a wooden skewer are stacked in arcs surrounding the lamp.  The larger establishments sell everything from strength pills and “protector” condoms to candles, cigarettes and penny sweets.

The mass of people wandering from stall to stall, parting every few seconds to let through a motorbike before engulfing the action again makes the scene appear like the post-impact shot of a disaster movie.  The effect is enhanced by the light smoke from refuse fires that glows hazy in front of the kerosene lamps, barely illuminating the half-finished concrete buildings that surround the intersection, providing stoops for those wanting to finish the evening’s purchases in peace.

An astounding thing happens in Shell Mingo when it rains, almost before the first drop touches the tarred ground the meandering mass turns into a shoal, splitting in two and sweeping under the safety of the zinc eaves of the larger stalls. A few seconds later the smaller stalls are covered and replaced on the head of the proprietor, who then perches on the stool under their makeshift umbrella.  By the time the raindrops have started beating on the dry ground Shell Mingo has all but disappeared, retreated to safety.  Once the rains finish the entire shoal returns to its feeding ground and the choreography resumes.

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Aruna had his weekly haircut this morning, his friend holding a razor blade against a comb with his thumb and shaves the hair on his head down to thick black stubble.  Then he switches and uses the razor alone, dry, to shape a dead-straight ‘fringe’ line and a thin line from front to back on the left side to give the impression of a side parting.  Finally the beard is shaved down to a thin line that follows his jaw.  

I have barely seen myself in a mirror since I arrived here 6 weeks ago, it is strange, coming from the UK to be now living in a place where personal hygiene and image are outsourced so readily to family and friends.

 

My building in the Fawundu Compound

My building in the Fawundu Compound

 

My home-away-from-home in SL is the Fawundu family compound, a collection of 3 small buildings on a plot of land just outside Bo town.  Senesi bought the land, covered in trees at the time, during the civil war which spanned 1991-2001.  He built the 3 residences, a well and a small shelter which has become the focus of the compound, where every night the family gathers to talk love, life, religion and politics (in that order).  The land is still scattered with trees and the neighbours pass through regularly to lift water from the well.  There are about 20 people living in the compound, (“we are plenty”) but the numbers swell and contract as friends, family and connections ebb and flow.  

Bo itself is a strange place, although it holds the title of Sierra Leone’s ‘Second City’ it feels more like a gold-rush trading outpost. Everything has a temporary feeling, as if the entire town was put up in great haste with no real plan, and that it could all disappear just as easily.  Reinforcing bars still stick out of poured concrete buildings as if to hint at the possibility of a second storey, whenever the time is right.  I guess it takes great faith to put down roots so soon after 10 years of brutal civil war.

Lebanese builder’s merchants and diamond traders fill most of the simple, unpainted concrete buildings which stand behind the chaotic lines of  street traders.  The Lebanese came to West Africa as economic refugees in 1893 after a silk-worm and subsequent agricultural crises hit Lebanon.  Their knack for business shows in the almost complete control they hold over trade and enterprise in Bo, it is always to the Lebanese that I go when I need to buy tools and materials for my work.  

During the day the air is filled with the sound of small generators, supplying power to the myriad of street kiosks, offering to charge mobile phones or perhaps offering the rare possibility of a cold drink.  The only places, however, that can offer reliable respite from the heat are the air-conditioned banks and the mini-market, both supplied with grid power from a distant hydro-electric power station.  

Sightings of white people are up to 5 now, after briefly catching eye-contact with a pretty young woman, a passenger in an MSF Landcrusier passing me on the back of a motorbike taxi.  I’m not sure whether the surprise in her face was because of seeing me on local transport, or whether she was still shocked by the general chaos of it all.

My arrival in Sierra Leone, in many ways started as I was sitting Heathrow Airport, gate 21a as I was identified by some unimaginable hand as the local authority on changing mobile phone sim cards.  Just as I was helping one woman, dressed in a long brown drum-print dress to open the back of her phone and prise out the small card another, this time in a blue mottled shirt appeared beside her, holding out her phone.  A small throng gradually appeared, some to ask for help and some just to watch over the proceedings, I did not grasp it at the time, but I had already landed, even before reaching the plane.

An in the departure lounge an hour passed after the scheduled take-off before boarding whilst harassed flight crew tried desperately to limit the amount of hand-baggage people were taking onto the already packed flight.  It took another hour after boarding to get people and packages into seats and overhead lockers, nobody at this point  seemed too worried about the delay, the flight-crew obviously having adopted the attitude of “Eh, Africa”, an obvious prerequisite for continued sanity on the Continent.

Landing at Lungi airport, an old RAF base over the bay from Freetown, was a surreal experience.  Despite clear weather the ground was completely invisible in the dark, not a single light was visible until we hit the ground and finally the runway lights came into view.  The plane taxied, parking haphazardly on the apron and spilled passengers into the humid night.  After walking the short distance to the terminal I managed to get through immigration, customs and baggage collection in a state of bleary-eyed semi-consciousness before the total chaos of the arrivals hall.  I pushed past the throng of touts, taxi-drivers and porters and almost out into the open again before being found by a middle-aged man in a light shirt and 3/4 length white trousers.  Senesi introduced himself and took me to his car, a white NGO registered Landcruiser.  Still on airport mode I pushed past a man offering to take my bag, only to discover that this was Senesi’s driver, Mohammed.  Once sitting in the back of the car, baggage sprawled across the floor Senesi suggested we make the trip back to Bo immediately rather than spending a night in the local guest house as we’d arranged.  At 9:30pm after a full days traveling I knew this meant another 6 hours drive, but the excitement of being on African soil overtook my need for sleep and I agreed.  The 6 hr drive actually only covered about 120 miles, but the first 60 miles were on bad roads, pot holed and scarred by heavy rain and we could only make 15-20 mph.  The conversation in the car wandered between politics, history, the drilling project and life in the UK, a subject that never ceases to fascinate Sierra Leonians (“In London do you have light all the time?”)

Once onto the good roads I quickly started falling asleep, lying on the bench seat that runs along the side of the Landcruiser.  The trip from then consisted of hazy memories of looking up through the side windows, seeing the outlines of palm-trees, barely visible against the night sky.  At some point it started raining heavily, the noise amplified by the thin metal roof and wheels on wet tarmac.  The next thing I remember was arriving at the dark compound, being introduced to a flurry of faces before being led by torchlight to my room.  It was 3am but everyone seemed to have stayed up to welcome me, I felt guilty not being able to respond with anything more than grunts and (hopefully) warm smiles but eventually I was left to lie down on the low wooden bed and rest.