A series of rapids began in the wake of the rocky island I had camped on the previous night. I had to learn my limitations immediately; some of the rapids I could shoot but others required a long and arduous portage, forcing me to break down my kit, shoulder the raft and then put it all back together on the other side of the obstacle. It was physically demanding time-consuming stuff that would eat massively into the distance I could cover in a single day. The temptation always was to take on the rapid; a skilled run could see me move through a hundred metres in less than a minute, avoiding heavy hauling of up to an hour, but if I got it wrong and capsized the consequences were unthinkable.
Temperatures at midday were around 40°C. I had started off barefoot and in shorts but by the end of the second afternoon my skin was bright red with sunburn, from that point on I wore trousers tucked into socks at all times and ducked out into the shade for the middle two hours of the day. I looked forward to this break more than any other. In the evenings all my time was taken with repairs and fixing camp before collapsing exhausted into bed, midday was the one time I could properly relax and, as I soon discovered, the river was full of fish that were easy to catch with a piece of rehydrated chicken strung onto a hook or a flashy metal lure.
I had broken the journey down into stages: stage one was just to make it to the village of Mokbaima on the Sierra Leonean bank. To give myself a fairly easy introduction to the river Sakpa was walking back through the forest to the village to meet me. If I had encountered any terminal problems I had an easy out, plus, he could warn anyone he met that I was on my way downstream. Stage two was to make it to the Mano river junction and stage three was to make the sea.
At sundown I could hear voices on the river ahead. Darkness was quickly overwhelming the forest and the cacophony of noise from the night creatures was an aural reminder that it was high time I was safely off the river. I pulled round one more final sweeping bend onto the population and silence descended abruptly. I switched on my recorder:
“I can see people, and not a moment to soon, because it is almost dark…”
As I cornered I became aware that about 30 people were stood up to their waists in water and staring directly at me. They were silent for three reasons: number one, a white man was floating towards them from an area of river that no man had ever descended, number two, this stranger was also about to plough straight into a massive rapid right before their village, and, number three, they were all completely naked.
“This is either the Gola forest nudist colony or the Mokbaima village bathing area…” I continued recording.
I negotiated the rapid okay and then almost punctured the raft on a thorn-filled bush (no pun intended) before discovering there was, in fact, another village hidden on the Liberian bank. I shouted ‘hello’ again and finally got a friendly response. Everything was going to be fine; Sakpa had done his job very well.
“We are here to assist!” shouted the band of naked men who trotted over and started manhandling the raft. We had a quick chat and I explained I was actually staying on the opposite bank, handily, everyone in Liberia speaks English, they helped me ease the raft back over to cross but as I moved out into deeper water a man started screaming: “Pumoi money!”
I pretended I couldn’t understand. It was impossible. He wanted me to return to the Liberian bankside immediately and was gesticulating wildly. “Just get in!” my new friends whispered in my ear imploringly, “Pull in!” the crazy man shouted furiously.
I thought it through quickly. I could go back, calm things down and inevitably end up paying money or getting into an argument, or I could continue to cross into the deeper water where, unless this man could swim (which was highly unlikely) I wouldn’t be followed. In the end I did a mix of both, sort of shouting across a few friendly remarks, whilst very clearly moving off to the opposite bank.
I found Sakpa waiting under the village mango tree grinning ear-to-ear.
“No problem Will!” he smiled coolly.
* * *
Night fell and I was sat down in a wicker chair and given a small fish to eat. Children crowded around along with a goat and dozens of tiny chicks. I had, as instructed, headed directly to the chief’s hut and was waiting for an audience with the man. Eventually he emerged from his hut and sat down opposite me, wearing a smart white skullcap and grey gown. Things quickly got serious.
“The Gola Rainforest National Park have not delivered on their promise to build a feeder road connecting this village with the main road.”
I was about to discover that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I reached for the recorder and Sakpa offered to help translate my questions into the Mende language.
The nearest road, I was told, was sixteen miles directly through the bush.
“So what do you do if you need healthcare or education?” I asked.
“When people get sick we have to place them in a hammock and carry them to the feeder road. Also, we have a lot of children here.” It was true, there were at least 30 stood around me, watching quietly in the dark in grubby t-shirts and ripped shorts. “None of them have access to education…give us the feeder road and we can take our commercial products to sell in the market, get the finances we need and send our children to school.”
I asked if there had been any improvements in their lives since the Gola Rainforest became a National Park.
“No” he answered flatly.
“We used to use the forest products to educate the children but now we get no benefit whatsoever from the Park, the situation is ridiculous. We go to meetings but nothing ever happens. The patch of forest that we are allowed to use is insufficient. We are really suffering.”
This was at odds with what I had been told so far. Working closely with the researchers at the GRNP offices in Kenema had shown that a great deal of thought and compromise had gone into establishing the 2011 boundary line between the National Park and the Community forest so this very situation would not arise. The GRNP argued these communities hadn’t entered the region designated as National Park prior to the war and had worked carefully with local chiefs to draw a boundary line that would not infringe on their activities in the future – yet two years down the line the chief of Mokbaima was absolutely adamant the National Park had caused them increased hardship.
“There were 32 houses here before the war, everything got destroyed, we’ve barely rebuilded, and now Gola has taken over and restricted our access to money – there are no old people here, every one of our elderly was massacred – maybe if we still had our important elders alive we could build the pressure and political will to help us rebuild, but they are dead and we don’t have access to the right contacts.”
I was curious, just over on the other side of the river the Liberian forest was considered ‘protected’ but was not yet officially a National Park (a fact that had considerably slowed the establishment of the Transboundary Peace Park), if they truly had suffered as a result of the National Park on the Sierra Leonean bank then surely the most obvious comparison would be with their neighbours in National Park-free Liberia.
“Yes. Of course they are better off. They can do what they like” responded the Chief.
With that answer I had just flushed a week of chilling on beaches at the end of my expedition directly down the toilet. Whatever unfolded on the rest of the journey I was now committed to an arduous overland journey across the border and into Liberia and then back into the bush on their side of the riverbank. I had to find out if that comment bore any weight. I wasn’t here to just journey down the river, I genuinely wanted to learn something about balancing community development and conservation and as I was now getting directly conflicting responses to my questions I knew I’d have to just go and see for myself.
There was no getting away from the fact that people out here were poor, among the poorest in Africa, so whether or not people were better off in Liberia was purely relative. The question really is who, ultimately, is responsible for the plight of these people living in the bush? The GRNP are the target of these peoples anger as they are the only outsiders they regularly come into contact with but it seemed to me that the GRNP were having to take up the considerable deficit in rural development without ever really having adequate financial or human resources to fully meet the multitude of demands from these border communities. The Chief blamed the National Park for their suffering but it was clear from taking in the demographic of the village that the vast majority of young adults, the strongest and most vital workforce for this deeply physical environment, were already missing from the scene, with or without the National Park. Weeks later I raised the point with the paramount chief of the neighbouring district in Liberia, having experienced an identical set of circumstances over the border, she answered: “you grow up out here, you covet education and jobs, you get an opportunity to leave and earn hard money in the town, gain experience and look to the big city for the big break, you provide for your family from outside of the village, but you don’t come back if you have the opportunity to leave.” Furthermore, on my return to Kenema and the GRNP offices, it became clear that this village had never in fact been promised a feeder road and many of the present residents had moved to the area from outside to search for diamonds. The fact is there has never been a worst time to be a hunter-gatherer. As desertification squeezes the amount of fertile land at the top of the sub-saharan region, land-grabs for bio fuels and soy mop up enormous amounts of what’s left below. Rural-to-urban migration is happening on an unprecedented scale (Africa has the highest rate of urban growth in the world with a handful of the fastest growing megacities already established in the continent this decade) and the specter of providing food for an ever-swelling population looms large across most of the region. However, relative to the rest of Africa, Sierra Leone and Liberia’s populations are very low and their natural resources and forests remain quite intact – if they can be managed responsibly the future could yet be bright.
I tried to wrap up the interview but before I could the chief made one more comment:
“Thanks for explaining your purpose to us. When we saw you, a white, coming down the river, we felt that maybe you were coming to take over our river along with the forest you already taken from us.”
Sakpa started laughing, giggling uncontrollably in fact, but the chief wasn’t laughing and I had gone bright red. I explained I was actually doing the expedition mostly for fun in fact. I changed tack slightly and asked him what he would do for fun if he had the money.
The chief considered the question for a moment.
“If I was a rich man I would take an adventure in the western world. New York I think” suddenly the chief switched to English, “ I definitely would not go rafting.”
Catch up on the first episode of Will’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z and tune in 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/