The wall outside the Gola Rainforest National Park office brought me here. It is covered in a heavily detailed mural; a hand painted paradise where conical thatched huts converge with dark forest. Every one of the forest’s celebrity species makes an appearance: pygmy hippo, python, the picarthes and the elusive leopard. It is as impossible to ignore this wall as it is the huge clock tower and the Kenema town sign, all are covered in rainforest scenes and animals, yet all emanate from the artistic talents of just one man’s hand.
I tracked Solomon down to his workshop of curling wrought iron walls in the centre of a bright and bustling suburb. He didn’t work alone. Hand selecting local talent to join him on his projects he had covered everything from t-shirt printing to signpost design and carpentry. If you live in Kenema and have artistic flair the chances are Solomon will try to take you in. Out the front two boys were shaving each other’s hair into Mohawks with a single razor blade. They wanted to join Solomon’s workshop when he had space, but till then he had told them to: “sort out their hair because it looks like a forest.”
Solomon greeted me warmly. A larger than life personality with an infectious booming Frank Bruno-esque laugh, Solomon has had his fair share of hardship, losing an arm and suffering bad burns down his right side in the build up to the war, but that was never going to stop him.
Solomon took me on a whistle-stop tour of his workshops: a shed filled with strings of white t-shirts imploring people to “go for free malaria treatment in all government hospitals”, piles of wooden signs waiting for the UN logo, and yet more signs drying in the sun depicting village scenes of correct hand washing procedures under the heading: “Welcome to Landoma – absence of toilet in a community is a disgrace to human dignity”.
We stood side by side admiring his handiwork.
“People from Sierra Leone are quite direct aren’t they Solomon?”
“Yes, they have to be,” Solomon pointed at the hand washing sign, “maybe someone uses toilet in the stream and other people drink it, or wash their clothes and get lots of brown spots…”
Like I said, people in Sierra Leone are quite direct.
Solomon introduces me to his head of woodwork, a small man in blue overalls sporting a pencil thin moustache. He was halfway through sanding a chair leg. “It’ll take three more days,” he said, looking a bit glum. “I have been here twelve years.”
I thought I should leave him to crack on with it.
“One has to be engaged, one has to belong” Solomon said once we were outside, he leant into the microphone, fixing me with deadly serious eyes as he warmed to his theme. Art, he argued, is without prejudice. Young, old, beggars, the physically disabled, men and women, are all welcome to work here, and he revealed grand ambitions to expand as soon as possible
“What is the option? You beg till you’re 40? You look back and what do you have? What have you learnt? Nothing. All those people in the carpentry workshop are illiterate but they have skills now, they have a trade. Everyday I talk to my staff, ‘be self reliant, try to do something for yourself, for your old age, for your community, for the government’ ”
When he lost his arm it could easily have been the end of his career. He retrained his one arm with ruthless determination, sat his o-level in art, and then went off alone, eventually pulling in contracts from every major organisation in Sierra Leone and contesting for a seat on the local council in last year’s elections.
I asked Solomon how he engages and inspires the youth in his workshop.
“I do comedy, I run, I am a singer, also, I have an album” he dropped in, casually.
“You have an album!” I was seriously impressed, “Solomon, I would love to hear it!”
My interview would finish crammed into the front seat of Solomon’s car with big reggae beats from his ‘all amputees’ band blaring from the speakers.
“This song is talking about peace and hope…we have fought the war…nobody won…drop the guns let us unite….” Solomon was shouting over the music, “ohhhhoooo…never lose ‘ope” “yes! “never lose ‘ope!” “hence there is life we still got ‘ope! ‘ope! ‘ope!”