Sierra Leone’s only magpie
This place is all over-hanging railed balconies and storefront shutters. Throw in the fact that this is very much the last major settlement between here and the Liberian border, as well as the prevalence of Lebanese diamond merchants, and the picture of a Wild West outpost idyll is complete. As I strolled up Dama road I could almost imagine a drunken gunslinger being thrown from the roof of Mr Bongoman’s diamond emporium.
I arrived on Sunday and took a brief walk around the town grid. Hawkers and horns, football tops, electricals, mangoes and motorbikes, Kenema is a town of constant commerce. Even on a day when the supermarkets were closed large crowds were gathering around three key sources of entertainment: the poster depicting the recent finalists in a local beauty pageant, a tiny TV set playing the very latest Sierra Leonean pop music videos, and a non-descript windowless shed at the outer edge of town. At least 30 men were gathered outside. I walked across and found a sheet of A4 pinned to the wall listing every single Premier League and La Liga match of the day in thick green marker pen. “1000 Leones per view” advertised an adjacent note – roughly 15 pence.
“Who ya like brother?” A large man dressed in a singlet sauntered over as I scrutinised the listings. I was keen to catch the northeast derby: Newcastle vs Sunderland, both embroiled in a relegation battle and desperate for points. I’d sort-of supported Norwich City as a child, it was, after all, my closest Premiership club, but as soon as the Canaries fortunes went south I looked north and settled on the Toon army for no other reason than my best mate at Primary School was a big fan.
“Newcastle my friend, what was the score?”
The man scrunched up his eyes and pursed his lips in trance-like concentration. The crowd of men pulled in tight around my shoulders. This was a rare spectacle. A genuine English football fan, sharing precisely the same post-match anxiety felt across this country every weekend in this nation of football fanatics.
Channelling the result from the 12 ‘o’clock kick-off direct from St.James Park to this dusty West African outpost my new friend eventually settled on the unfavourable outcome.
I removed my hat and stared to the sky as our patch of pavement erupted in hysterical laughter.
“My God! A Newcastle fan! Wait here!” shouted my host, as sympathetic hands slapped me on my back and squeezed my forearms.
Moments later he returned with a very elderly man who wandered over looking more than a little confused.
“This is the only other Newcastle fan in the whole of Sierra Leone!” was the gleeful announcement. Sweat was pouring liberally down my friend’s arms as the elder gent’s face finally cracked into a broad smile.
“Are you really!?” I asked, not even sure if this man understood English.
He gripped my hand in his and pulled me in close. Silence descended once more.
“What IS Pardew doing this season?” he whispered, simply.
It was magic.
Kenema is my jumping off point to the Moro and Mano rivers. I’m based in a spacious flat on the main drag through town, very kindly provided by the RSPB, and have been carefully piecing together my plans for the coming weeks. Things, dare I say, are looking fairly positive. I have my approvals in place and bar a few sundry items my kit is good to go. I have been introduced to a couple of excellent local contacts who will help get me started on the riverbank, a motorcycle ride and half day walk through the North Gola section of Parkland, and, surprisingly, it appears that I may have even overestimated the distances involved in getting through the Park. All being well I am hoping to get finished roughly two weeks after setting off, but this is the rainforest, so there are no guarantees, ever. My biggest challenge is likely to be language. The packraft can’t take anymore than myself and my kit, which means I will be entering villages alone, but one of the research technicians here has suggested an ingenious solution: simply record video clips on my camera with one of the Mende speaking National Park workers explaining who I am and what I’m doing, for ready playback to the village chief on arrival. Simple. In addition I’m considering getting a translation for the following:
“Dear tribal member. I understand something has upset you. Please hold up one finger if this is because Will Millard is camped illegally on your land, two fingers if he is fishing in a sacred hole and three if he has inadvertently stumbled into a forest initiation ceremony. Feel free to draw the appropriate compensation in the sand. Mr Millard apologises sincerely for any inconvenience he may have caused.”