Visit to Brussels & Thoughts of Sierra Leone - March 4th 2014

It's an early start today for a trip by Eurostar to Brussels to meet the wonderful Alfred Woeger for a catch up (he was the Project Officer for my EU/ICMPD Sierra Leone trip), to collect some gifts sent by a lovely Hotel Mariam waitress for me and to discuss the MIEUX projects for 2014.  It is great to see him! We enjoy a glass of thick Belgian Hot Chocolate (I try not to think what it is doing to my cholesterol levels) before going to the ICMPD office to meet Chantal Lacroix, Deputy Head of Mission, and the rest of the team. Everyone is great, so many different and interesting backgrounds. Chantal has some ideas of where I could possibly add my expertise at the end of the year which we discuss and Alfred talks to me about potentially leading a training in Rwanda this summer. I have already been added to a proposal for a MIEUX action in Georgia* so it is all very interesting.

(*Not the 'Always On My Mind' or 'Midnight Train To' one although maybe like me you'll be singing those songs all day now)

I have lunch with the team and then spend the afternoon looking at the European Parliament buildings and sit in the sunshine thinking of Sierra Leone. Alima, who I enjoyed meeting so much last year in Freetown, has sent me a carved plaque along with a necklace and earrings for me to remember her by (Alfred brought it back from a recent trip). Alima, I remember you clearly. I remember the cassava chips you made at home and brought in for me as I had discovered I loved cassava root. I remember how very kind you were to me all week. I remember I gave you the bracelet I was wearing that my Mum had made me and how pleased you were. I remember how different our lives were economically and how I wished the differences could be ended. I remember too how we were the same too, hard working women with families and friends who want to be kind to others. Thanks Alima, I remember you. I send love. 

Alima and Tee, Hotel Mariam,Sierra Leone

Alima and Tee, Hotel Mariam,Sierra Leone

The plaque Alima sent for me, thanks Alfred for bring it back.

The plaque Alima sent for me, thanks Alfred for bring it back.

Outside the European Parliament 

Outside the European Parliament 

Freetown to London - September 1st 2013

 An immigration officer knocks on my hotel door at 7.15am  – Alsuine has told him to be early! I go downstairs and am horrified to see he has come by motorbike – is he asking me to travel to the airport by bike? With my case? Not at all he tells me, the plan is that he will flag down a taxi and then he will follow me and my luggage to the airport so he can help me through immigration. At the last minute I decide that traveling the one mile to the airport by motorbike would make a fitting end to my African adventure –  I ask if he minds if I ride on the bike. He doesn’t. We do it. It is fantastic. Once my luggage is checked in we go back outside to take a photo – I think neither Alfred, Alusine or my family will believe that I did it without evidence!

7pm I arrive home to see that my lovely family has strung bunting outside the house with WELCOME HOME TEE written across the flags. I am back. I have done it.

“Aporto, Aporto” Sierra Leone - August 31st 2013

First thing I go to visit the Grandfather of my son’s primary school friend Imaani who lives in Freetown and we chat about Imaani and his daughter Barbara (also my friend who gave me lots of advice prior to my trip – thanks Barbara!) Then we say goodbye to the staff at Hotel Mariam, everyone has been so lovely I find it quite emotional. I give everyone tips – small to me but, Alfred tells me, probably half a week’s wages to each of them. Wow. I also visit Alsuine’s family again, chat to the staff in his hairdressing business and he oversees me buying African shirts at Victoria Market (adjacent to Victoria Park – very different from our London one despite being named after the same Queen). Alusine rejects one design I like because it is Nigerian – it’s important I get authentic Sierra Leone designs he feels, I agree of course and am glad he is there to show me the difference.  Later I buy some fabric from a man in the street carrying assorted reams on his head (definitely from SL).

I am not sure how I feel about the fact that, African fabrics aside, the only clothes shops and stalls I see all sell second hand European clothes. Nobody wears anything new. It makes our life full of endless stores and shopping malls seem so very selfish. Alsuine tells me he is going to drive us around the bay so I get to see some of the Sierra Leone countryside. I do. There are lots of small villages along the way, I notice some signs to the mining areas (very emotive discussions in the car), we get to see the President passing in a big cavalcade and stop to buy bananas and roasted cassava root (I love breaking pieces off and eating the warm floury inside). We stop at Alsuine’s home town and everyone except me eats meat on skewers. On the road again I tell everyone in the car I am pleased I have learnt one word in the Sierra Leone language - ‘Aporto’ the word for hello I say. I know this because all week people have been waving at me in the car and shouting “Aporto, Aporto”. I have been waving and shouting “Aporto” back. I wonder why everyone in the car is laughing. It’s because ‘Aporto’ is actually the word for white person…

6pm – we arrive at Lungi airport to drop off Alfred and the wooden crocodile off for the flight to Brussels. I am sorry to see Alfred go, I really enjoyed working with him and admire his joyful nature and his calm way of working – his insight really added something to the course.  It has been a very full on African day – I feel as if my head will explode. The driver returns me to the guesthouse for my last night (first time I am alone – I am a little nervous). Alusine promises someone from the Immigration service will arrive to take me to the airport promptly at 8am. I tell him I will be calling both him and the Head of the Airport Mr. Bassie (he was also on my course) at 8.01 if nobody arrives! I remember this hotel. I don’t shower.

Buying Sierra Leone fabric in Freetown

Buying Sierra Leone fabric in Freetown


The last day of the Sierra Leone Leadership course - August 30th 2013

The delegates surprise me by coming less formally dressed, a Friday workplace tradition there as well as here. Some are wearing traditional African clothes and this prompts a discussion on where I should go to get the best African shirts for my husband and son. Alsuine (Immigration number 2) tells me he will take me to Victoria Park in the morning. The final day is packed and very successful, we have covered a lot of ground, worked at a sufficiently high level and everyone has a clear action plan for their next steps.  I give everyone a copy of The Gherkin Guide and they all say they will think of me when they see the building on the TV (I tell them to think of Norman Foster too!) The feedback is great and I let the group know they have given me as much as I have given them. Alfred takes a quick photo on my phone before Mr. Koroma arrives for the official closing and presentation – looking at it later I realise he has captured a very relaxed moment (Albert is even holding a cup of tea!) and I’m glad to have it to remember everyone by.

We hire the Hotel Mariam car and driver to give us a tour around Freetown after dark, navigating the numerous holes in the roads is very different in a regular car to travelling in a 4 by 4 government vehicle and I’m sure we do lots of extra miles just avoiding the holes! The capital is absolutely overflowing with happy, colourful, noisy life and I’m so glad I got to see it at night – the biggest crowds are at bars showing European football matches, football is massive here – they even show it at the cinema. They don’t show anything else.

A relaxed moment captured – nice to have this as a contrast to the formal photo taken shortly afterwards (nobody smiles in the formal photos).

A relaxed moment captured – nice to have this as a contrast to the formal photo taken shortly afterwards (nobody smiles in the formal photos).

 


Second day of Sierra Leone Immigration Officers Course - August 29th 2013

Second day of the course is brilliant. Occasional power cuts while Hotel Mariam turns their generator off for refueling (without this there would only be electricity at night). We tackle some important issues, lots of expertise is shared and also we laugh a lot. Alfred persuades me to go for a walk after dinner – I am not encouraged by the fact that he fell into a big hole at the side of the road in the pitch-blackness last night – but I go anyway. I bring my torch. We walk to a beach bar, the wind blowing gently in from the ocean feels fresh and the sand feels nice to walk through (ok I can’t feel it on my toes as am wearing heavy duty Timberland boots but nice all the same). We have some drinks (I worry I am getting addicted to Diet Coke) and walk back. Arrived safely at hotel, Alfred has avoided the hole this time. I am delighted we went.  

Alfred and the hole he fell into (daylight view)

Alfred and the hole he fell into (daylight view)

Sierra Leone TV arrives - August 28th 2013

Sierra Leone TV come to film the opening of the course for the news and Chief Immigration Officer Alpha Kholifa Koroma introduces me as the most knowledgeable and celebrated leadership trainer worldwide (No, I didn’t write it myself). He, Alfred and Tom Ashwanden (Head of Governance, EU Delegation to Sierra Leone) talk about the work of the EU and ICMPD and the MIEUX Action programmes in Sierra Leone (this is one of them) and we go outside for the official photograph. The 14 delegates are all very formally dressed – I secretly thank my Mum for persuading me to put a very formal suit in my case at the last minute, even though it was wool. (Wool!!! Make a mental note, next time I come to Africa on business- buy lightweight formal suits!) Day 1 goes well, we achieve a lot. Afterwards Alfred and I walk along Aberdeen Beach (Tony Blair famously photographed here) we turn back after reaching the Chinese casino and visiting the roundabout where everyone gathers after dark to chat (all sitting on the roundabout itself!) All the hotel staff gather to watch the news with us after dinner (fish and chips again). Alfred and Tom on a lot – I appear briefly (Mr. Koroma’s introduction of me makes the edit).

Chief Immigration Officer Alpha Kholifa Koroma,Sierra Leone's senior immigration officers, EU Officials Tom Ashwanden and Alfred Woeger and me.

Chief Immigration Officer Alpha Kholifa Koroma,Sierra Leone's senior immigration officers, EU Officials Tom Ashwanden and Alfred Woeger and me.

 

First Day in Sierra Leone - August 27th 2013

4am – I have been sitting next to a miner on the plane – he kept me awake with tales of how awful the country will be, but does offer to escort me through the airport in case of problems. I accept. My official status stamped in my visa means I am whisked through all the checks though and Alfred Woeger is there to meet me.  We go to a nearby small hotel. I am so tired and so relieved to meet Alfred that I don’t mind that it isn’t The Four Seasons (well not much, actually it is a bit of a shock). Realise I don’t have a bottle of water to clean my teeth, use Diet Coke instead. Go to sleep – wake up two hours later to the sound of African rain.

8pm – finally am in bed. Have walked around Lungi (bought bananas), marveled at curtain-like rainfall, met immigration officer no.2 (Alusine Joaque) and driver – both lovely. Been on ferry across the bay – seen huge fish for sale and got startled several times by people carrying live chickens – impressed by people carrying all sorts on their head – fruit, bread, fish, cleaning materials, logs (!!) a huge pile of assorted biscuits and eggs (no, not even one broken) – driven though various areas of Freetown – affluent (colonial architecture, large verandahs) to slums (saw children and grey hairy pigs swarming over a rubbish dump). Driving through the centre like driving down Columbia Road on market day – right through the middle of all the densely packed people! Visited several street sellers, the no 2 immigration officer’s family and the immigration offices where we were welcomed by Chief Immigration officer (No.1), arrived at Hotel Mariam – been to beach, beautiful from a distance but full of rubbish and hospital waste close up – went to craft market where I brought a mini elephant and the project officer brought a 3ft wooden crocodile. Had fish (barracuda) and chips for tea – left the salad (thanks David Halford). Much clearer on what’s needed for the course. WiFi ostensibly working but in reality not.

Woman selling biscuits on Lungi to Freetown Ferry. I  bought some biscuits. 

Woman selling biscuits on Lungi to Freetown Ferry. I  bought some biscuits. 

Leaving for West Africa - August 26th 2013

It’s arrived. Today I am heading to Sierra Leone to run Leadership & Management course for the country’s senior immigration officers, an ICMPD programme where experts are sent by the EU to build capacity in other countries. I am going in spite of the Foreign Office safety warnings that have been keeping me awake at night. The fact that I have had travel, health and repatriation insurance (the latter in case of death or kidnapping I presume) and a Foreign Office hotline number to call in case of emergencies (I have compiled an extensive list of possibilities) is all making me feel worse not better. I have been immunised against Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Diptheria, have started to take the malaria tablets – but found nothing to cure cowardice.  My BA flight leaves at 10.40pm and arrives in Freetown at 4am tomorrow. Except it doesn’t arrive in Freetown, rather like London Luton being nowhere near London the Freetown airport is in Lungi and the capital is across the bay. As most of the safety warnings are about travelling to Freetown,particualry at night, this was my biggest fear. I had rejected the original plan that I would travel alone to the hotel – either across the bay in a speedboat or in around the bay in a 4 hour drive. The boat was out because of the combination of ‘no sea rescue’, the journey would be in the pitch black and the fact that I don’t like boats much. (I did try a trip around Paxos last year and, despite the sunny day, turquoise water and English speaking captain, had a panic attack the moment we left the harbour and had to be put ashore). I also rejected the 4 hour drive around the bay in a government vehicle, pitch black again, rainforest this time – even the news that there are hardly ever hold ups at night now wouldn’t convince me. So – ICMPD Project Officer Alfred Woeger is meeting me at the airport. My friend Maureen comes with me to the airport and my friends at Aspire Leadership, who recommended me for the work, phone to wish me well. I don’t sleep on the plane.