Wednesday, 5 February 2014

'Early Morning Run in... Freetown'

First light: 0705 hrs
Time start: 0705 hrs
Time finish: 0747 hrs
Weather: 23C Humidity 74% (dry season)
Circumstances: Downtown Tuesday morning

This run is different. I live and work in Freetown. I've lived here over 2 years. Steph, you wanted it for your morning coffee - here it is.

Arriving back from Monrovia last week was eventful. On the boat across the estuary to Freetown we struck a hidden sandbank. From 20 knots to stationary in a nano second. So sudden was the stop most pax ended up sat 3 rows further forward than their original seats. Fortunately I was tightly wedged in by a rather plump African lady. I had the joy of watching fellow passengers fly past me. The boat then tilted to one side and pandemonium ensued. Many Africans have a primal fear of water due to the fact that most can't swim. After 45 minutes of shouting and chaos we were rescued and arrived safely into Aberdeen jetty.

This is Aberdeen, Sierra Leone. Not be confused with the other, and better known Aberdeen, beloved to so many oil workers. One is a place where the people are really happy, all smiles, brightly dressed, and reasonably tall. The other is in Scotland.

I'm setting off this morning from the National Stadium. Last February I was fortunate to attend President Koroma's second term inauguration here. It's my first time back since. Whilst an honour to attend, it was also the longest day of my life. As one wag said (could have well been me), the ceremony you thought would never start, once started you thought would never end. Nine hours later, I could wring out my tie and probably my shoes. I sat all day next to a gentleman well into his 70's, his fortitude and stamina were amazing. As the ceremony drew to the close I suggested we leave, he said he'd wait for the national anthem. I was outta there...I'd rather have sat through a Celine Dion concert twice in the same night. Mr Timbo, I salute you...

Sierra Leone. This is a beautiful country. Diamonds were first discovered here in the 1930s. The country is a hidden gem in many respects. As I begin heading south away from the stadium the backdrop of the hills surrounding Freetown is truly impressive. I turn east along Saunders St which merges into Siaka Stevens St. He is a former President, not to be confused with a 1980s UK pop singer of a similar name.

Freetown is awake. The streets are already busy. There's a haze over the city. The people here are more animated than Monrovia. Plenty shouts of, "white man, well done, well done, well done." I'm running along Siaka Stevens towards the Cotton Tree. This giant tree is over 200 years old and the landmark of Freetown. It was here in the late 1700s a group of African American slaves landed on the shoreline and gathered around the tree. They prayed and sung hymns to thank God for deliverance to a free land. They were free, this place would be called Freetown.

This area is the oldest part. I do a circuit of the Cotton Tree and run past the Supreme Court, an impressive old colonial building. I glance up the hill towards State House, towards Parliament and gradually pick up the pace running past the only post office in Freetown on my left. Although around 1.5 million people live here it has the feel of a village. Everyone is connected, related, everyone knows everyone and everything. A true village, complete with its one post office.

I don't want to romanticise what I'm seeing. As in Monrovia there is plenty of poverty. Many people are scratching a living in any way they can. They are extremely resourceful. They have to be. The reality here is the lack of life security means people die sooner, work harder, eat less, get ill, essentially the shitty end of the stick. Oh, and despite everything, it's also one of the happiest places in the world...

It's already hot. I once read that Sierra Leone has never recorded a daily temperature under 19C. The run feels special this morning. I am running with a smile on my face. I'm sweating, breathing hard, but it feels good. I head west on Wilberforce St. This will be my finish point later, I want to finish at the Crowne Bakery for breakfast. It opens at 0800 hrs. I have a clean shirt tied around my waist.

The city is getting ready for another day. The well worn taxi's are busy moving people around. The okadas (bike taxi's) are active. Everyday in the city around 40 newspapers are printed. The young boys are already selling them. The fruit sellers are arranging their wares. You can buy ground nuts everywhere. Coconuts are bagged and ready to distribute. I sometimes have a 'half young' after my run. Coconut water is natures isotonic drink. The disabled & amputees are beginning to move to their usual patches.

I'm joined by a local jogger. His name is Abdul. He wants to run with me. He wants to look after me. I pat him on the shoulder in greeting. He asks, "how d body?" My Krio isn't great but I can handle this one. "I is well". He smiles. The true answer, my left knee is sore, my achilles is still playing up from time to time. I don't know the Krio for this.

It's time to head into some of the side streets that join Pademba and Siaka Stevens, the main roads into the Cotton Tree and the heart of town. I run down Henry St, Charles St, there's even a Charlotte St - that's my youngsters covered. The side streets are full of life. Fuller figured, brightly dressed Salone ladies sweeping out their front yards. Stray dogs roaming to pick up titbits. Abdul stays on my shoulder. I've had worse, I've had young kids in flip flops keep up with me. One time upcountry, going up a hill, a women in flip flops with a baby wrapped on her back went shoulder to shoulder for a mile - now that was embarrassing.

I say my farewells to Abdul (so I can slow down), who's hardly out of breath. Back at the Crowne there's a group of disabled and amputees who essentially beg outside this establishment. It's not in your face begging; they have dignity, are polite and generally well-behaved. This is a crew. This is their patch. No-one else can come here. They are democratic. They are well organised. They have a Chairman, a deputy Chairman and so on. In this crew donations are shared equally and sustain around 50 - 60 people. I like the Chairman, he's never happy and always tries for more. Who can blame him.

I provide them with a big bag of 'Uncle Joes' rice every month. It costs $30. They're pleased with the rice, but it would taste better with some sauce for the cassava. The Chairman is never happy.

Freetown is a vibrant colourful city. It's noisy, it's smelly, it's hot, sticky and humid, it drains you, you see some unpleasant things, the infra-structure is creaking, but it's real and has tremendous heart. SL is a country on the up.

Looking forward, the third in this series will be a run at Tokeh Beach. A stunning beach around 75 mins southeast out of town along the Peninsular. Another side of this hidden gem. I'm there at the weekend. It will be a different run entirely.

If you're sat at home reading this in the storms of the UK, frozen Western Canada, or elsewhere - and have the spirit of adventure, don't obsess about creature comforts, not worried about the odd sandbank, then pack your anti malarial tablets and visit Sierra Leone. If you're considering Gambia (which is Africa light), pick up a copy of 'Heart of the Matter' and book for here instead (by the way, brush over the references to 'White Man's Graveyard'). If you're not convinced wait for the beach run. In any event come, the Chairman will be pleased to see you.

P.S. Many thanks for all of the positive emails following the first blog. A namecheck for Bev in Calgary who had a tough 2013. I'm thinking of you and know that 2014 will be much better. I had to look up vicariously...