When I was nineteen years old, I packed whatever scarce belongings I had gathered in my life and left my home in Switzerland for a four–month trip to Sierra Leone, West Africa. I had finished high school the year before and spent my time since graduation working the ten–to–five night shift in an Irish pub. My friends had all left for university already and were studying anything between biology in England, business in Holland, medicine in France and politics in Scotland. Meanwhile I had no idea what I wanted other than head out somewhere off the beaten path, leaving the monotony that was slowly but surely eating me up from within.
I can’t remember why I chose Sierra Leone. Perhaps because of the very reason that, besides whatever Hollywood–embellished trivia I’d picked up from movies like Blood Diamond and Lord of War, I knew absolutely nothing about it. My family reacted with well–meaning panic. My kind yet slightly authoritarian grandfather used everything in his arsenal to talk me out of going. He came prepared with a pile of documents he’d thoroughly collected and printed from his computer, covering all about the country’s scary recent history, unpredictable climate, unreliable infrastructure and waterborne diseases. When that did not manage to convince me, he sent my uncle to do the same. You know there is a war going on? No, that ended eleven year ago. Cholera outbreak? That was last year. Floodings? Malaria? Corruption? I guess so. And? Still going.
My father knew me better. When he was my age he left Sweden to work the deck on a passenger ship en route around the world, and I’d grown up hearing bizarre stories from Jamaica, New York, Hong Kong and Johannesburg. He knew that, like him, when my mind was set on something, no authoritarian threats would ever change my mind. Get your vaccinations, he told me, and bought me water purifiers and malaria pills. And off I went.
The capital of Freetown is a beautiful, loud, hot, dusty, vibrating and awe–inspiring place. During my first weekend there, a few of the locals I met in the city took some fellow travellers and I to a nightclub. We drank fruit wine out of petrol jugs and lost at billiards to British middle aged men in cargo shorts. It felt like a scene from a 1950s motion picture and we all played the part of the expelled European. The locals taught us how to dance azonto and made fun of our ridiculous attempts at these movements they all seem to simply know from birth. When the music became too loud our dancing feet brought us to the beach nearby and we drank pineapple juice from paper cups and played the same Ghanaian music we’d heard in taxicabs and in the street. I lost my shoes in the sand and spoke of life and travel with a French–born photojournalist who could not get passed the fact that I was nineteen and lost in a land everyone else seemed to have overlooked.
Another weekend we went on an excursion to an inland river island close to the Liberian eastern border. What could have been a three hour drive amounted to about seven on pot–holed forest roads, my head bruised from all the times it jammed against the car’s interior. Upon arrival, the mainland village chief sent for the island guide who picked us up in an inflatable rubber rescue boat. We traded sleeping arrangements for a bag of rice and a tank of gasoline. The next day, our guide took us on a boat trip around the island to admire the serene and quiet surroundings. There are pygmy hippos in this river, our guide informed us. Besides that, no one but the village men and women ever pass through these waters. Turning a corner, we almost crash into a scrawny wooden canoe carrying three men in football tank–tops and a motorcycle balanced perfectly between them. Oh, and Guinean nomads.
A few weeks in we befriended some South American businessmen who brought us to a nearby beach. Their pickup truck wasn’t large enough for an extra three young girls so instead we packed ourselves onto the open cargo space. At the beach they bought Star beer and Savanna ciders and when the thunderstorm rolled in over the soaring mountain backdrop and the lightning began to roar we all ran into the ocean. The air was so drenched in rain it made no difference to be above or beneath the water anyway, and with only our faces floating above the surface we all suddenly felt more part of this earth than our city–dwelling European upbringings had ever allowed us to before. Only days later did I remember my mother’s stern instructions to never enter water during lightning.
One day, after a chicken sandwich lunch, I started feeling sick. Two hours later I yelled in panic at the poda poda (mini bus) driver to stop and let me out so I could vomit in the street. In the evening when my stomach had been turned inside out more times than my fevered mind could recollect (and no amount of Coca–Cola or powdered micronutrients would do the trick) I finally surrendered and began the search for a doctor. The closest hospital was down the street and originally a surgical centre designated for war victims. In other words, the staff’s unwillingness to treat a spoiled foreigner with salmonella could not have been felt stronger. After an hour of sobbing hyperventilation in fetal position on a cold stone waiting room bench, however, the other patients (patiently awaiting their malaria treatment) finally convinced them to let me skip the line. The Italian doctor reluctantly surrendered, laid me on a stretcher and brought drip with muscle relaxants and rehydration. Before stabbing me with the needle, however, she (suddenly animated) called over her nurses, three local women from the village. Look at this! she excitedly tucked at my wrist. Look how easily you can see the veins on her pale white skin! It’s as if she’s see–through!
Once back on my feet, I spent some time exploring the surrounding villages outside the city. Because paved roads along the cost are scarce, to get around you had to hitch a ride with an okada (or motorbike). For 3 000 leones (around 0,3 dollars) you’d get a supremely efficient yet terrifying ride across the pot–holed dirt roads, holding on for dear life at the person at the wheel. The drivers, 20–something young men, were known to have been former child soldiers of the war. On one particular stretch the road had been prepared for asphalt, that is, covered with large pieces of sharp gravel. A comparatively smooth surface, the drivers always took the chance to max out the speed. What’s that sound? I hollered in the driver’s ear during one such speeding, referring to a vibrating, clinking sound coming off the bike. No worries, it’s just the front wheel. It’s a little loose – he replies casually, then speeds right on. Alright, I frantically think to myself, if we crash now, my parents will have to pick up my splattered body from this gravelled road piece by piece. Well then, mister former child of death whose upper body I am now clutching for dear life – my life is in your hands.
One evening, a local we befriended from the community where we lived brought me and another European (a white man from Germany) to a concert. While supposed to start at ten o’clock, when midnight rolled around and the gig did not show the slightest trace at commencing (African time, our friend casually remarked), he brought us to a section in the arena unofficially designated for smoking diamba, or, in more familiar terms, marijuana. A little apprehensive of the legality of our upcoming endeavor, upon entering the section and seeing people of all kinds and walks of life – businesspeople, parents, teenagers and government officials – we relaxed and sat down. Everyone does it, even the police, our friend assured us. Alas, no more than five minutes had passed when, out of nowhere, the white man was forcefully grabbed, handcuffed and dragged away by the uniformed policemen. We jumped up and ran after, our friend understanding the situation perfectly – the police, seizing the opportunity, wanted the white man to bribe them to reclaim his freedom.
Since the end of the civil war, the only people allowed to bear arms in Sierra Leone are military personnel. Police officers are, with the exception of batons, generally unarmed (a small relief in the heat of the moment). Our friend stood violently arguing with the policemen, urging them to let him go – when the camouflaged military men show up, their assault rifles hanging casually across their backs. Suddenly the policemen are no longer arguing with our friend, but with the military men. Loudly shouting at each other in their native Krio (an English–based creole language, mostly unintelligible to me), the military, shaking their Kalashnikovs in the faces of the police, finally convinced them to release our friend. Shaken and confused, we deeply thanked the men in green. Don’t worry about it, they casually replied, shrugging their shoulders and adjusting their rifles. The police can be corrupt. You want some weed?
One day, out house puppy became sick. We did not understand the cause until we found a bite mark on her belly and she started frothing at the mouth. As recent as the day before, I had gotten scratch marks on my hands and arms from play–fighting with her. No big deal, in usual circumstances. When that very same puppy starts salivating and acting aggressive, however, one is right to start to worry. At 99,9%, rabies has the highest mortality rathe of any disease on earth – were the first cheerful words that popped up in my frantic internet search. If it is not treated before symptoms appear, it is deadly. Closing off the dog behind locked doors, we hurried off to the nearest hospital – only to be rejected. Rabies shots? We don’t do that here. Try the other hospital, on the other side of town. Our anxiety growing stronger by the minute, we hurried on – only to be rejected once again. Try the central medical store, a kind–looking nurse tells us. What’s that? Without receiving an answer, she gives us an address and sends us on our way.
Rather than a hospital, our third location is an outdoor warehouse yard crammed with giant trucks and large blue shipping containers. Confused, we grab the first man that appears from the barren concrete buildings. Rabies shots? Of course! Follow me! He pulls us into one of the buildings, up the stairs, through an empty corridor, into a scrawny, empty top–floor office. Sitting us down in front of the wooden desk, he opens a drawer, pulls out handful of small glass medicine bottles and hands them over. Unsure of how to proceed, we stare at him in confusion. Oh, you need syringes too? Yes, yes please, sir. He re–opens his drawer and pulls out a batch of needles. We resume our staring. You need help? Yes… yes we do. He administers the shots, takes our 30 000 leone (around three dollar) payment and sends us on our way. Before departing, we ask him cautiously – I’m sorry sir, what is this place, and what is your role here? Ah, this is where UNICEF sends their medicine for the entire country’s hospitals, he proudly exclaims. I am the logistics officer!
My time in Sierra Leone was beautiful, mad, eye–opening, terrifying and fantastic. To be sure, I am not trying to romanticise my time there, nor the state of affairs in the country in general. No place is perfect, and this country in particular have had it rough. But a place cannot be defined by its successes or misfortunes. It is defined by its people. It is defined by the generosities and spirits of the individuals that make up the entirety. That is what matters, and that is how we, as outsiders, should view a place. As a composition of individuals trying to puzzle together this thing called a human life with as much tremor and struggle as anyone else on this planet.
And to all you fiery twenty–somethings with restless hearts and minds and souls, without a clue in the world what you want to do or where you want to be – just head out there. It doesn’t matter what you do, just do something. Yes, you will encounter setbacks and adversities and at times you will fall and scrape your knees (or worse). It will hurt. But that is what life is anyway, no? A pile of pains and struggles and if you are lucky a few moments of greatness in between. The only way for you to grow is if you face that. So get out there.
It will do you good.