Damned if you do, dead if you don’t
“The man who was going to carry the load, he’s not here.”
“Yes, I can see that Sakpa”
“He had a big fight with his wife at the disco last night and she has banned him from coming.”
I plunged into the forest just after dawn with Shariff, an able replacement who shouldered my pack with the oars and raft with ease, and, right on my heels, chatting away about diamonds, his ex-wife, the path ahead and Liberians, Sakpa followed, with 35 kilos of dehydrated ration packs balanced on his head whilst he nonchalantly swung his arms from side to side as if we were going for a Sunday stroll.
“These paths Will, they connect all the villages to the border with Liberia, the bush border, where we can cross and trade in the forest without a problem.”
No need for a passport here then.
A few weeks later I had to cross on the official international border. It took two excruciatingly tedious hours where I was stopped no less than 9 times by police, the military, customs, and immigration, for various stamps, bribe attempts and relentless hounding to change currency on the black market. It was even worse for the locals who were charged an informal ‘tax’ if they were engaging in commercial activities, which, of course, almost everyone was.
Here, deep in the forest, there is no policing, the border is utterly fluid and at points you could simply lob a stone from one side of the river to the other.
At mid-day we approached a clearing in the forest. “Vaama village” Sakpa announced. I paused, suddenly feeling a little nervous. This was my first proper forest community of the expedition. “Are they friendly?” I murmured.
“Yes” responded Sakpa, before adding the cryptic qualifier: “too friendly.”
There was no time to ask for clarification. We were heading in.
A cluster of five straw roofed mud-brick houses were grouped around a small thatch covering where the chief swung idly in the shade. I trialed the Mende word for “hello” that Sakpa had been drilling into me all morning.
“Kai Goma!” he replied smiling and extending his hand expectantly. Of course I completely let myself down at this stage of proceedings and went for the standard shake only to be slickly outmaneuvered as his palm slid across mine, up, down, twice over with a slap and then an attempted finger click as he retracted his hand from my limp-as-lettuce grip.
Tribal handshakes: You never know where you stand.
I took in my surroundings. One of the huts had curling yellow posters for both Liberian and Sierra Leonean candidates pinned to the wood. I felt a frisson of excitement. I was finally getting close to the border. This whole area had been pivotal to maintaining the grinding conflict of the 90s and early 2000s. A large permeable unpoliced boundary where blood diamonds could cross freely through an impenetrable forest with innumerous hiding places and a free supply of food: an enormous natural supermarket where no one need pay for the goods, except, of course, for every single indigenous forest resident who were either murdered, fled, or took up a near permanent state of hiding for years on end. Today, after ten years of peace, things had settled back to a sense of utter timelessness and the communities had largely returned in this corridor between the Gola North and Central forests.
Chickens scrabbled around in the dust for insects and seeds, a tightly woven fish-trap full of finger size fish stood in a corner and two women ground a pot of stringy fibrous looking roots into a thick viscous oil. I recorded a small piece with a half dozen children looking on in wide-eyed incredulity at this white man who had just popped out of the forest. It felt warm, welcoming, idyllic even. I was almost half way through a syrupy piece to radio before Sakpa arrived with the charred hindquarters of a vulnerable species in his hands.
“Duikers!” announced Sakpa gleefully.
Still covered in fine brown hair with hooves the size of my thumb-tip, this small forest antelope is relatively common to the forest and one of the most highly sought after bushmeat species. It was probably a Maxwell’s duiker but it was hard to tell as it was already partway through the smoking process: cleanly gutted with ribs standing proud, and blackened inside with wood smoke. The village was surrounded by community forest; the all-important natural buffer between the National Park where hunting with traps and snares was legal.
A young man sat down next to me on a small stool. He was dressed in a basketball singlet and smart long trousers, but unlike the others in the village he didn’t make eye contact and stared instead at his bare feet. The atmosphere changed markedly.
“This is my friend” began Sakpa solemnly. “He has a bad sore. He is trying to get to the nearest medical place…” as he spoke the man slowly pulled his trouser leg up.
I have seen some serious infections in rural communities in my time but this was easily amongst the worst I’ve ever encountered. I was absolutely shocked. Almost all of the flesh and skin on his calf was missing, his wound was red raw, exposed and badly infected. In short, even if he got medical attention right now, and had access to antibiotics, the chances of him keeping his leg would be slim.
“It is very dangerous as he is not even able to walk a short distance. He is trying to get money but he is financially broken” continued Sakpa.
I asked a few more questions but really the reason for the presentation had already dawned on me.
“He wants to go to Kenema but he has no money” Sakpa repeated. I wasn’t being forced, but it was expected that I would pay. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation and it never gets easier. What is the right thing to do? On the one hand you have a very sick man in desperate need of medical attention, that, for the price of a round of drinks in London I could help immeasurably, on the other, I have a village full of people with other treatable ailments, if only for a little money, and many more similar encounters to come in the future of this project. I know I can’t help everyone and am very wary of establishing the notion that any individual westerner to pass through a village is a cash cow for solving the village’s financial problems. We’ve all been there, every one of us, from the times we are approached on the street by homeless people to the cold calling and slew of junk mail that pours yearly through our postbox, the quandary of where and what to give to charity is omnipresent. Some argue giving money to a charity and not an individual is a good way of spreading a donation to a collective of those in need, whereas others are happier to give out occasional handouts to individuals in the knowledge that the money may be spent more directly on a specific problem. If I give money now, I wondered, is my motivation partly to assuage my own guilt at being better off? To move the problem on in my mind and maintain the village idyll I had established on first entering the clearing 20 minutes ago? I was full in the knowledge that a one-off payment will make little overall difference, that secondary infection from open wounds is most commonplace to anyone living a hunter gatherer lifestyle in this sort of environment, that all I’m doing is fixing today’s problem whilst doing nothing to help in the long term, but what really, I asked myself, is my purpose in being here? In spite of my lofty idea that I’m raising awareness of this region by reporting back I knew that deep down I was also partly motivated by a selfish desire to further my own career. I found myself reaching for my wallet.
“He needs to pay people to carry him in a hammock” continues Sakpa.
“Won’t his friends carry him for free?” I retorted.
“Times are very tough, some people do that but some people refuse”
I did see. Time away from the farm and forest is time you are not actively providing for your own family. Everyone has their problems. I say I’ll try and help and hand out enough for a course of antibiotics and the portering.
“He has been cursed” says Sakpa. The sick man nods along, “I was healthy”, he says, finally speaking with my cash clutched in his hands, “and very strong.”
“Someone here was jealous…I was struck down.”
My concerns turn immediately to exactly how my money will now be spent, fearing it’ll simply go into the hands of the local witch doctor who will conduct an investigation into the spiritual source of the curse as septicemia consumes this man’s body. I reiterate the need to get to Kenema, to purchase antibiotics and Muhammed nods back in agreement. Who now, I wonder, is placating whom?
I vow to give a donation to one of the medical charities here and leave the village feeling awkward.
Seven hours later we made it to the village of Levuma. The remote abandoned fishing hole is still a half days walk away but I take the opportunity to get one last big meal in me before I move onto rationing on the river tomorrow. That night I clasp eyes on the Moro for the very first time. It is wide, slow and achingly beautiful. We wash and I swim naked across the international border and pick a flower from the opposite bank, returning the souvenir to the non-swimming Sakpa in commemoration of my illegal international travels.
Catch up on the first episode of Will’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z and tune on for the second at 11am on the 20th September on BBC Radio 4.
Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for the charity Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/