Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Diamond Differences

[Link to photo album for this post]

This time I had no choice.  I was in the middle of nowhere, so hitching was the only way to reach the closest city 200 km away.  Exhausted with malaria, I sat at the side of the road waiting for a vehicle.
I was stuffed in the back of a jeep, sharing a one person seat with two other people.  The road was unbearable.  Spoiled by the rain and bad driving, we got stuck several times behind vehicles which had been too hasty.  Stopping gave me a chance to vomit out my guts and for others to feel sorry for me.

Upon passing through the border of Liberia, I was put in the front seat of a taxi and waited for it to be filled.  My brain didn't work fast enough to think of finding a ride which was leaving immediately.  So I just sat there.  For hours.

Finally, here I was in Monrovia.  Desperate for rest, I stopped in a compound and lay down on a sun lounger at the side of a pool.  I was woken up hours later by a man asking what I was doing.  He invited me to stay in his home, where I stayed for the next week.  He turned out to be the second richest man in the second poorest country in the world.

For the following three weeks, I was shown dramatic differences in wealth in this country.  This also reflected back to what I saw in Sierra Leone, but hadn't fully comprehended at the time.  These two countries have such a large expat community, especially Liberia; with NGO's (Non-Governmental Organisations), big businesses, and funding from Europe and North America at every turn.  Both countries are rich in natural resources like diamonds, gold, and iron ore, among others.  Yet, despite all these facts, more than 60% of people live below their national poverty line in both countries.

It was nice to have a rest from the difficult conditions I had been living in for the past few months, so I couldn't really complain about staying with rich, white people and hanging around with them every day.  They were all very nice, interesting people.  But it was strange to adjust to this way of life when in the back of my mind I knew I was in poverty-struck Africa. Here's how my story in Monrovia went...

One night I went to a party of the man who I first stayed with, the second richest man in Liberia; only expats were allowed into the party, money was spent on alcohol, and by the end of the night there were people falling all over the dance floor from drunkenness.

The following day I was kindly invited to a buffet lunch; it was Easter Sunday so they had hidden painted eggs all around the house for us to find.  I admit I had a good time, had some nice conversations, ate some good "western" food which my stomach was dying for after such a long time away from it.

I met some journalists from Canada at this lunch, and managed to tag along with them on their business trip to Robertsport.  It was really interesting to hear them talk about how they create a story, how they find out all the information they need.  They asked about my trip and were astounded at what I was doing.  From then on they kept asking me questions about what I had come across, about people, about poverty.  I shared my stories willingly of course, but it did feel strange to be being interviewed by these people, who were also in Africa.  It was like they didn't know that they were here too.
Whilst the journalists were out collecting information each day, I spent my time at the beach and in the town.  There was a little boy, Elijah, who was always hanging around the beach, collecting coconuts and mango's to sell to people.  He said he didn't need money from me because I was his friend.  I ignored those comments and gave him a few dollars here and there.
When he was still at the beach in the afternoon, I asked "Why aren't you at school?"
"Oh, I didn't collect enough coconuts" he replied.
"What do you mean?"
"The teacher said no money, no school."
"What about your parents?"
"My mum is in Monrovia because my grandmother has died.  So I'm here by myself.  That's why I'm collecting fruit to sell."
I costs five US dollars for the books he needed for the whole school year.  I gave him the money.  He gave a fast, heavy sigh, smiled, said "thankyou my friend" and ran up the hill towards school.  I saw him later and he told me all about what he had learnt that day.
Later in the day, he hurt his foot playing in the sand.  He ran to me to tell me.  I cleaned it and wrapped it up in a bandage.  I felt like I was his mother!
When the journalists had got their stories, we returned to Monrovia.  I gave Elijah some money and told him to be careful with it and don't spend it all at once.  He is ten years old, so I doubt he will be manage it all that well.

After spending a week with the second richest man in Liberia, my already-organised Coushurfing host returned from a trip home, so I moved in with him for the following two weeks.  Mario had a good job, lots of money, but I could see that he didn't spend it on himself; he always talked about his family and what he had done for them.  Staying with him was very funny, he lived such a bachelor lifestyle!  One evening we had cereal and beer for dinner.

I was invited to a weekend trip to Mount Nimba by the friendliest couple I've ever met, Katie and Guillaume, and some of their other friends.  We had a great time, everyone was so friendly and fun to be around.  We walked up Mount Nimba, (where I unfortunately began vomiting; the first signs to me that the malaria had come back for a third time.  I won't tell that story again, it's the same as the last one), and saw the beautiful landscape together.
     After expecting an untouched jungle with an abundance of wildlife, I was saddened to see that whole mountain tops had been dug into mines to collect iron ore from the 1950's until the 1970's and left to stay like that for eternity.  On the other hand, this did create a unique picture of layered hillsides as well as a lake that had burst through from a spring during the mining, the iron ore even made the lake a bright blue colour.
     During the long drive back to Monrovia, we stopped in a leper colony to check out a shop which had been recommended to us by somebody.  The people of the village handmade wicker baskets, which I have to admit, were really impressive and would probably sell in Europe for more than fifty euros each.  There was a church service going on when we arrived, and when I went to watch the people singing their hymns, a small boy reached out to shake my hand.  For the first time on my trip in Africa, I had to refuse.  Leprosy is spread through touch.  He looked at me confused.  My heart sank.
     As we waited for some of our group to purchase some baskets, some of us sat in the car waiting.  The conversation was something about this new technology that had been developed where you put this tiny computer in your shoe and it can somehow tell you directions to the place you desire to go....our driver of the rented car, a Liberian man, who hardly talked for the entire trip, burst out "Why do you need that?!"  Yeah, that's right, what a stupid conversation to be having when we were in Africa, for one, and in the middle of a leper colony, for another.  I wasn't the only one who though this; we all looked at each other in embarrassment.

None of this story is meant to attack the people I met, who were all very nice people, or anybody else who is working and living in Liberia.  I am only explaining my experience and that it felt very strange and kind of unethical to be so separated from the real world, living a life of luxury, drinking, partying, playing, not being involved in the Africa that surrounds you.

After writing this post, I can see it will be really difficult for me to adjust when I return home. 

[Link to photo album for this post]

Friday, 19 April 2013

How di body?!

[Click here to view my full album of photos for Sierra Leone]

"Hey! How di body?"
"Di body good man!"
I learnt these phrases in Krio, Sierra Leone's half English language spoken by 97% of the population, pretty quickly. In fact, my body was getting much better, I was recovering from the malaria at a surprising rate. Wojtek and I made it to Freetown only a few days after my bout in hospital.

We took a shared taxi there; the first time I had used public transportation for a long journey so far on my African trip. Sharing really means sharing when it comes to these taxis. Three people in the boot filled with make-shift seats, four people squashed in the middle section, and two people on the passenger seat up front, one of them sharing the drivers leg-room. The road from Conakry was terrible, but after the border and beyond our spirits were lifted by the chaotic atmosphere created by the people we encountered along the way.

"Maa, I wana chick. Gimme a chick. Yah tha one! Yah give it here!"
A chicken was passed behind us through the window, squawking in Wojtek's ear, flapping it's wings frantically. The woman in the back needed to check out the chicken before she decided on a price to pay.
"Yah ok, gimme two!"
They were tied onto the top of the car.

"I said I wan banan! Woman a ya listenin to me? Ahh dis woman, she no listen! I wan six banan!"

"Eyy white man, you wana banan? Have a banan! Ya wan water?"

"Eyy white woman, lemme give ya a mango and ya be ma friend?"

This is what happened every time the car stopped; sellers throwing and offering goods through the window, men and women in the car asking and squabbling over prices.

Wojtek and I had fallen in love with Sierra Leone in less than an hour.


We had a Couchsurfing host organised in Freetown; I knew it would be a nice rest from the basic living conditions I had been used to for the past few months. Hamid was his name, I could probably tell you right now that this man is the future president of the country. His one hundred housemates, all of which gave us all the attention we desired, ranged from bankers to economists to social workers to educated unemployed.

We stayed in Freetown for around a week, but I honestly can't come up with many specific stories about our time there. Mostly, everything was just funny:

We got shouted at for not negotiating the entrance price for the national museum... by the woman who manages it.

The man in the tea shop never understanding our order of bread and egg; the only option available. Our English accents obviously weren't... clear enough?

"Hey white man, buy me a football an we can play together here", a child called out to Wojtek one day, pointing towards a flooded football pitch.

We also made a day trip to the famous Number 2 Beach, were disappointed by the amount of tourists, but astounded by the beauty. Lush, forested hills rose up around the pale white sanded beach and reflected in the clear, still water enclosed by a rocky edge.

Wojtek with Eugene the Uke

We hitched 400km to Kenema, managed to get ridiculously sunburned in the back of a pick-up truck, and was then offered a place to stay in the town by a nice man named Abdul. We stayed with him together for two nights, before Wojtek left to continue more quickly than me towards Liberia.

Whilst in Kenema, Abdul took me to meet his friend who owned a diamond business, who then took me to see a small-scale diamond mine where around ten men were working manually for two months straight on a wage of four euros for a ten hour day. They waved and posed with their spades whilst I took photos.
The owner of this business used to work just like them, but alone and illegally. He found a 15 carat diamond - a guaranteed one million dollars in his pocket. From that he created a legal mining business and is now richer than rich.

One morning, on my daily walk through the towns market chatting to random people, there was a huge commotion; people pointing and shouting and laughing. I was told there was a witch in town. Apparently a woman had made another woman pregnant. The pregnant woman's husband reported the witch to the local authorities. Nobody questioned it; it was true. I tried telling them about the old history of witches in Britain, and that there is always an explanation for strange things going on.
"No! This is AFRICA!" I was told.


I hitched alone through the tiny towns and villages of Eastern Sierra Leone, my last ride being stuffed in between the driver and the front passenger. Only slightly uncomfortable! On the up side, I was invited to a celebration they were attending in the small town of Potoru; it was a kind of wake for the death of a senior lady of the family. Hundreds of people gathered in the dark night, drums were played whilst the senior family members danced this traditional ritual in a possessed-like way around a fire, people sang loudly to the absent music, and I sat there in awe of what I was witnessing. I didn't get any pictures, it was too real and deeply spiritual to think about that.


I left the following morning, taking a bike then a boat to Tiwai Island. This place is home to one of the highest concentration and diversity of primates in the world, as well as 135 bird species, 700 plant species, and the rare pygmy hippo. The eight communities which surround the island take care of everything there. They protect the island from mining and poaching, they charge tourists for visiting the island and for guided tours, and then use the money gained to improve the facilities as well as for schools and infrastructure for the local villages. Check out the website for more information [click here]

Termite mound
Spider bigger than my hand

I took a nature tour, and saw countless monkeys swinging in the trees, so many huge spiders sat lazily in their webs, thousands of gigantic termite mounds bigger than myself, and trees with roots which I wasn't tall enough to step over. This island really is a jungle!

Spot the monkey!
I spent the night on the island, then started feeling ill again. By the morning I was a mess. I knew it was the malaria again. Back in Potoru I visited the health care centre where they gave me medication and told me it was free. I took refuge in the Tiwai Island tourism office for a few days but the medication just wasn't working. It must have been free because it was donated, and it must have been donated because it was old. The thing about malaria is that you lose all your ability to think straight and make decisions. This time I didn't have Wojtek with me. I slept for two days straight and I wasn't getting any better. Somehow, luckily, I made the decision to get to the closest city, where I could get up-to-date medication. That was around 200km of undriveable road away...
The whole journey I had a new answer:
"How di body?"
"Ahhh, di body no good!"

Monday, 8 April 2013

Malaria is real

Hardcore hospital - Wojtek and me
[Click here to see the full album]

Well, it's official - I got malaria. My guess is when I stayed at Jalou's place in Conakry [link], because it was exactly ten days after this that I got sick (which is the estimated time of being infected to when symptoms first occur).
I vomited, I sweated, I had diarrhoea, I sweated, I was cold, I had the worst headache of my entire life, and I sweated some more. Oh, and I slept through most of it - completely unable to muster enough energy to think straight, never mind move.

Seka in the testing laboratory

Thankfully, I was still with my travel friend Wojtek, so he made all the decisions for me. The hospital I went to, where I was given IV drips and medication, probably gave me more diseases than I first arrived with.

And that's all I can describe. I was sleeping the rest of the time.

The "clean" needle cabinet
When I got better after a few days (malaria treatment is effective almost immediately unless there are complications), I started to realise the luck I had compared to the reality for Africa's poorest. First off, I had money for hospital treatment. For most people here, money just for medication bought from a pharmacy is sometimes difficult to come by. Treatment is not free anywhere in Guinea. Secondly, I had somewhere safe and clean to sleep whilst I was ill; Wojtek and I went to a hotel for once on our trip. This makes a whole lot of difference. Most Africans are faced with sleeping in the same conditions where they contracted the malaria; in their homes (or slums) where there is dirt and stagnant water everywhere. Stagnant water is where mosquitoes breed. If somebody is sick and weak with malaria, how can they get better if there are many more chances to get infected again and again?

On Room Island [link], the French expat hotel owner's child contracted malaria and three days later she was dead. She was just three years old. Children are just too weak to deal with the disease.

Getting malaria myself forced me to learn the harsh truths behind this disease. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2010 alone, malaria caused an estimation of between 660,000 and 1.2 million deaths. So why is it one of the biggest killers in the world? Considering the fact that there is both prevention (using mosquito nets, repellent, or medication) and a cure, this question is answered very easily: poverty. According to different sources, around 90% of these deaths (in 2010) occurred in Africa.

With both cheap prevention and a cure available, deaths from malaria are avoidable with funding put in the right direction. It's very simple. Doesn't it make you wonder why it's not happened already?

[Click here to see the full album]

Magical Room Island

[Click here for full photo album]

Off the coast of Guinea's capital city, Conakry, lies two small islands and an even smaller island in between.  Google maps doesn't even know their names, but I do.  Room Island is the smallest.  It's full of jungle, beaches, and Rastamen.  All three of these are impressive beyond explanation.  The jungle; rife with palm trees larger than any even seen in South-East Asia, countless mango trees providing unexpected food at random times of the day, and as many plant species as you can imagine.  The beaches; quiet and perfectly white, unspoiled by tourists, and surrounded by beautiful scenery.  The Rastamen; ready to philosophise about spiritual life and always on the edge of song and dance comparable to the best in the world.

I met with my travel partner Wojtek (who I hitched with through the Sahara desert [link]) and we were welcomed to pitch our tents on the grounds of a small hotel owned by a French expat and his Guinean family.  This was our home for two weeks.

With the presence of other foreigners limited to weekends - mostly just French expats living and working in Conakry - Wojtek and I were treated to the full and undivided attention of the most entertaining people on the island.

Me, Ibrihim & Wojtek
First, there was Ibrihim; a hotel owner who would cook us dinner for a very cheap price and then get all three of us drunk on health- authority- unapproved gin.  The malaria which kept reoccurring made him look almost dead one day, before he would be sprightly running around unaffected the next day.

Second, there was Fire Bon Dem.  Mikey was his real name, but this Rastaman deserved a stage name; his musical talent exceeding most I've ever known.  Even jazz instrumental music could provide a base for his reggae singing. [Video below].  There was a problem one day when, whilst watching him and his band play, a local man caused a stir:
"Hey mon, ya spoilin uz! Dis iz a interview gon on naw!"  Fire Bon Dem shouted.
"But datz ma guitar mon, ya stole it!"
So cool is Fire Bon Dem that he can casually walk into somebodies house and borrow their guitar without them knowing!

There's many more amazing people on this island, but the last I will mention is Seka.  The cook (/singer/dancer/drummer/tourist guide) at the hotel who took a liking to me and started giving me free meals and after work taking me to his Rasta hangouts.

One night after a party, Seka and I waited on the rocks to get some hot bread that was being cooked for the village for the following day.  We were looking at the stars when I asked him if he knew what they were.  Me being a little drunk, I started talking rubbish:
"There are people just like us there; sitting around, eating, swimming..."
His face was hilarious.  Completely speechless.  Looking at me then back at the stars:  "Eh? Ah!? Eh! Wa?"
In his beautifully simple life of no conventional education, just growing up then his job of catching fish to cook for tourists, and knowing the same few hundred people from the village all his life... imagine how incomprehensible aliens must be?!

The parties were another thing altogether.  Guinean drumming from the best drummers in the world - you can look up anywhere about the reputation of Guinean musicians - a band of ten drummers pounding with incredible force and artistic beat was a show alone.  Then the villagers began to dance in the middle of a large opening, sometimes just one and sometimes a whole group; oh my, I have seriously never seen dancing so good - in the USA, Jamaica, Latin America, or anywhere on TV.  These people know what dancing is.  These parties were the best shows I've seen in my entire life.

Room Island really is a magical place.  The awesome nature, people, and entertainment (and lack of tourists) made me decide:
"One day, when I've finished with travel life, I'm going to come here to stay til the end."

[Click here for full photo album]