Friday, 16 April 2010

8 minutes to Aberdeen or Eternity

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Things aren’t what they were. They’ve put seats in the helicopter that ferries us from Lungi Airport over the Sierra Leone River to Aberdeen. And Aberdeen links Cape Sierra to the capital Freetown.

The way things were (thanks to roystonford)

In the old days, we squeezed around a mountain of luggage in the middle of the fuselage, and sat on a bank of ragged foam cushions against the sides. If we were lucky, the washing line strung across the tail carried a few grubby pairs of ear defenders. And sometimes we even received a security briefing from a young man in a singlet. “Don’t worry”, he'd say, “about the vibration as we come into land: these guys [the Russian pilots] are experts.”

It’s the same Soviet-era helicopter, and feels as though it has been recycled with a job-lot of old hardware from a former satellite republic. Neither the battered gunmetal door nor the safety record inspires confidence, but then neither does the hovercraft (it tends to sink), the ferry (bow doors stuck open) nor the road (5 hours in dry weather).

At least the helicopter flight is brief: eight minutes to Aberdeen or Eternity. And now we can go to the Maker in a proper seat facing a flat-screen video presentation of Sierra Leone’s gorgeous beaches.

There are even real windows to look out of, though it’s mostly blackness beyond Lungi airport perimeter, for Lungi village only has kerosene and candles. But as we draw closer to Freetown, the marvel of electricity illuminates a little more of Aberdeen than it did the last time a freelance contract wafted me this way.

Yes, anyone would think that things are looking up here in Sierra Leone, despite all that global misery that our would-be leaders can’t quite handle back in Blighty.

Aberdeen, Grafton, Murray Town, Regent Road. Mrs M will feel quite at home, if ever I earn enough airmiles to get her here. From Kissy in the East to Lumley in the West (I think), Freetown is a sort of crazy Monopoly board invented by a mad hatter. Its roads and settlements are scrawled over hillsides, ravines, swamps, riverbeds and bays, and as often than not the name of each has more than a hint of the old Mother Country.

I hear that IMATT, the International Military Assistance and Training Team, has continued the tradition of applying British names to this corner of Africa. The hub of their staff accommodation is called Leicester Square (£560 rent with a hotel if you land on it). Perhaps if you can’t pay, they send you to Coventry Street (£28 rent with no house).

Well, it’s fine by me, because everyone says that the British Army and IMATT have done a great job in helping bring about and hold onto a delicate peace here for nearly a decade. If things are looking up, or at least not looking as dreadful as they might, it must be, in most part, thanks to the maintenance of that peace.

It’s hard for a soft old freelancer not to get a bit emotional, and feel a tiny bit proud of our boys and girls.

Still we like not to overplay the fact that we are the old colonial power. So we leave the coat of arms at home, and work far too hard at everything till our short sleeved shirts and M&S chinos are drenched in sweat. This is a source of great amusement to our African counterparts who wear good quality suits or tailored Africana and shiny brogues in well air-conditioned offices.

There’s plenty to talk about after so long out of town. Who is in, who’s out, who’s been sacked for corruption, or got a job at the Bank? What’s happened to Macaulay? What of Gloucester? It’s enough to bring on a small rash of Shakespeare. The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?

As I write, the date of my return to Marple Bridge and Mrs M at Mandall Mansions is a little uncertain, thanks to an Icelandic volcano.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Tom welcomes your comments.