6:45 a.m.: We leave our home in the Western part of Freetown, a small apartment in an area called Babadorie. We are staying with a Nigerian man named Michael. We walk 1/2 mile to Lumley Junction and catch a cab.
6:48: Cab runs out of gas. We get out and hail another cab.
8:00: We secure a mini van at a Shell station on the Eastern edge of Freetown for the trip to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city. Before we depart, I buy a bottle of water from a man who looks like he is suffering from psoriasis; his water-selling partner collects the money, but then refuses to give me my change. The first man looks disappointed, and the second, upon further review, looks drunk. An argument ensues between the two men, I’m stuck in the middle, and soon there are about 15 men standing around trying to get a glimpse of the action. There is a tussle between the two original men, and others get involved in the pushing and pulling, most of them, it seems, out of boredom. I’m standing there amidst the chaos, wondering what will happen next. The tussle between the sober and drunk guy is a sad affair of rubbery limbs and spit. I finally get my change from the sober guy and get in the mini van.
10:00: Soon after the pavement gives way to a dirt road, our mini van breaks down in a village submerged in palm trees: the gear shift is stuck in park and will not budge. Driver hits gear shift with his fist several times to no avail. One scruffy passenger mentions “fuse box.” The nearby bustling market sells firewood and palm fronds for roofing material. We wait thirty minutes before a young man from the village appears with an assortment of wires; he rapidly strips a few of them, fashioning new fuses for the car. Happily on our way.
10:45: Mini van makes grinding noises and comes to a halt on a bright orange dirt road in the jungle. A naked boy pees on the side of the road and looks on with mild interest. Out comes the piece of wire we were given previously, more fuses are made, this time by a tall passenger man who looks a lot like Lawrence Fishbourne. We are soon again on our way.
11:30: Arrive in Bo. Exit mini van and hail motorcycle taxi for ride to Bo city center. Ashley disappears up the street. My motorcycle taxi runs out of gas. I help the rider push the motorcycle to a little stand that sells fuel in one liter bottles. The girl who sells us fuel looks about 10 years old and is wearing a pink shirt that says ‘Little Angel.’ Her hair is tightly braided in a star pattern that culminates in an exploding tuft on the top of her head. We fuel up and soon arrive in the center of town.
1:30 p.m.: Diamond offices line the street in Bo. We want to see what they are like inside, though we know entrance is probably unlikely being that they sell only to licensed traders. My heart feels heavy thinking about the destruction these tiny rocks caused in all of Sierra Leone: turned men into animals. We pound on the door of one office, hear several bolts being undone, and are greeted by a swarthy, greasy-haired man who asks us what we want. “We’d like to see your diamond store,” I pipe up cheerfully, stepping in the room. Beyond him several men lean over a table with magnifying glasses and eyepieces. They all look up menacingly, though a bit like greedy children upset that we are ruining their little game. “You can’t see any,” the greasy guy drawls.” “Well, how can I buy any if I can’t see any?” I venture. “You have to have a diamond license,” he oozes. He pushes his hair out of his eyes. “Ooh, I see,” I reply. He stares at Ashley like a ravished wolf eyeing a bunny. “Well, guess I can’t buy any then,” I smile. “Guess not,” he responds. Greasy guy ushers us out and I feel like I’ve taken a long shower in iniquity.
3:30: Bo to Kenema: Ashley and I cram in the back of a taxi with two large men (Ashley on my lap), and a man with a woman on his lap in the front passenger seat. The guy sitting back left introduces himself as J-Bez, tells us he is a comedian and voice actor. Car starts to shake uncontrollably several miles outside Kenema. The driver stops the car a few times and looks under the hood. Shaking subsides, we arrive to Kenema under steel gray skies. Rain pours. J-Bez takes a liking to us and walks us to Star FM 98.4 where he does voice work. En route men of all ages yell out, “J-Bez!” Seems he is quite famous in Sierra Leone for his comedic renditions of the various tribes. The radio station has an extra rooms with a foam mattress on the ground. Best digs we’re likely to get in Kenema. It ends up being our accommodations for two nights.
9:00 a.m.: Our new friend DJ Master P (real name Sylvanus, who works for Star 98.4 – name taken from the mid-90s rapper most memorable for catchy refrain “Unnnnhhh, na na na” in one of his songs) hires a motorbike for the day to take us to the Gola Forest. Tire is flat. We take bike to repair shop. Throngs of late teen/early twenties type men stand around the oil and fuel-filled air smoking with an expectant, hungry look about them. We fill tire and depart.
10:45: Master P drives Ashley and me at excessive speeds through 40 miles of the densest forest I’ve ever seen. Vines curl and crush tree trunks and leaves bigger than my torso reach for the ground. I worry about Master P’s skills on a motorcycle. Hairpin turns and swift adjustments second after second. We arrive at Gola Chiefdom where Master P’s father is paramount chief. Discover that we cannot enter the forest because we do not have proper documentation, despite being told, in Kenema, that it wasn’t needed. We sit with several old men outside mud huts in silence. They are all dressed in traditional one-piece African outfits that brush the ground when they stand. Little children squirm and make faces. The wind is cool but heavy. An imam washes himself on the far side of a hut, preparing for prayer. One of the older men asks me where I’m from. “America. Oregon.” “You got ID?” he inquires. “Uh, yes, I think…” “I have ID!” he interrupts, and ducks into a nearby hut. I’m feeling strangely nervous, like I just got pulled over. We hear rummaging sounds and he emerges holding a Texas state ID card. He proclaims: “I have green card, too. I can come and go as I please…to America. Texas. Big.” His smile is so wide and genuine I want to hug him.
- Sylvanus a.k.a. Master P and Ashley
12:00 p.m.: Flat tire half way back to Kenema. Remnants o f a slash and burn forest – making room for rice and ground nut crop – encroach on either side of the dirt road. Hundreds of blackened, sharp sticks thrust up violently from the ground, machetes having made quick work of an enormous swath of land. 15 minutes later, the sky is clearing and shooting down arrows of heat. Master P flags down a passing motorbike. The two haggle for about 5 minutes, then Ashley and I board with the new rider who takes us to a village called Geima. Master P beings to follow us, slowly, with his flattened tire.
12:20: Ashley and I arrive in Geima. We buy ground nuts from a young boy who sits on a rickety bamboo bench. We wait with the wind through the trees. One little girl makes concentric circles around me while I perch on a tree stump. Her orbits are distinct, methodical. She laughs, and then growls from time to time, good-naturedly, as only kids can do.
1:45: Master P arrives with a fixed tire and winning smile. Explains that he decided to go the other direction instead to get the tire fixed, some indistinct place “deep in the forest.”
3:30: Rain threatens as we fly down the road to Tongo Diamond Field. Master P navigates monstrous potholes with effortless flicks of his wrist. Motorbike heaves a sigh of relief – me as well – upon reaching the town of Tongo Field.
3:50: Policemen stop us just outside the mine field, point out that the motorbike is not registered properly. They begin to explain that this is a big problem and I feel a familiar attempt at a bribe coming on. One of the officers, the supposed Sergeant, regurgitates several times that they are only there to “serve and protect life and property.” We are told to go to the Mine Office for permission to enter the fields.
3:52: We arrive at the Mine Office 200 yards down the road. It is closed. A man across the road asks us what the problem is. Master P explains the policemen will not let us enter the diamond field. The plainclothes man says, “Dey don know what dey talking. I’m de Sergeant, nodda dey! Jus go!” Seems there’s some confusion as to who is, and isn’t, the Sergeant.
3:55: Arrive back to original police officers. Although they have no jurisdiction over the area, Master P has to beg the police officers to let us pass, just so we can avoid the inevitable payment. They give off the air as if we were just given a map to El Dorado. They step aside and let us pass. Master P kicks up dirt and we vanish.
4:44: I’m sitting with a man named Emmanuel on a dirt mound above one of the innumerable diamond pits. He has been working in the mines for ten years, seven days a week. His body is coated in sweat; muscles unimaginable ripple when he moves ever so slightly. He tells me this work is making his life “tired,” and “difficult to manage.” I’m feeling smaller than the tiniest grain of sand.
- Tongo Diamond Field Monday:
8:00 a.m.: We meet Master P at the ancient clock tower in the middle of town. A man with no legs shuffles along the sidewalk on his knuckles. We walk to the motorbike repair area and Master P bargains for use of a bike for the day. He secures a bike, we board, and Ashley is sandwiched between Master P and I on the bike, our familiar traveling combination.
8:45: We secure a guide at the Gola Forest Preserve office. Ashley will ride with Master P while I’ll be on another motorcycle with our guide, Finando. Finando is wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a chimpanzee that says, “I’m 98% human. Don’t shoot!” I get on back of Finando’s bike and the extra space is wonderful. Ashley smiles while Master P revs his engine and gives me the thumbs up. I turn on my iPod and The Flaming Lips pump in my ears as we exit the office grounds. I’m smiling.
8:46: Finando stops and looks inquisitively down along the side of the motorcycle. Fuel leak. I stop my iPod. Wind up the headphones and put them in my pocket.
9:15: A new motorcycle is secured and we are speeding to the Gola Forest gate entrance, 27 miles away, Finando in the lead. I can feel Master P close behind, all efforts focused on holding back. Later we are to find out why he is such an extremely fast – and precise – driver: “Mi fade teacher me how to drive fast so when ad rebels come I could taka mi family into the bush.” It all makes sense: the speed, the letting loose, the horror.
3:35 p.m.: Finando, Master P, Ashley, and I are sitting in the depths of the Gola forest, quiet, sharing crackers and cheese. Finando tells us that the Gola was a major trafficking route for rebels during the war: arms and drugs from/to Liberia. Finando fled to Guinea where he lived for two years as a refugee. I take a breath in preparation to ask about Kenema, knowing it was devastated by the rebels. Finando anticipates the question, looks up slowly at the spread of greenery overhead and sighs: “You can’t imagine what a person can experience. Disgraceful.” The roar of insects is deafening.
6:00: We are giving Master P a hug at a gas station in Kenema. He thanks us for the “great great journey.” He’s driven us over 200 miles in a few days on the back of motorcycles that weren’t his. Bad roads, breakdowns, haggles, asking nothing in return. Still, he is giving us that wistful look that wishes we were going 500 more. We board a mini-van for the short trip back to Bo. Babies are handed in through open windows. Master P grins, waves goodbye, and weaves quickly through the busy streets.
6:45: Flat tire. I count the passengers: 18 adults, 3 children, and 4 babies (not including the money collector who rides on the back bumper). Men get out and urinate. Babies are handed from woman to woman, no concern about whose is whose, just looking for comfort, respite.
7:15: We are dropped off at an area of Bo called New London. I spy a Toyota 4X4 that we soon discover is going to Freetown. It looks more than road worthy! I urge Ashley to be quick about buying corn on the cob, packets of peanuts, and water, the only available food in the jumble of machinery and oil on the side of the road. And yes, there is room for us in the Toyota! We climb in and are off! Two skinny teens are crouched in the back of the car with the luggage. Their teeth are glowing in the dusk.
7:50: The Toyota has been vibrating for some time, every time the driver steps on the gas. It is now making a horrible screeching sound like a Skilsaw trying to cut sheet metal. The driver stops the car. Men get out. A grumbling passenger pushes his way to the driver’s seat, takes over. Everyone climbs back in. The new driver gives it gas and the car now sounds like it is going to explode or crash. I’m frantically trying to put on my seatbelt and telling Ashley to do the same. A screeching, whining, painful noise. The car stops.
8:00: A Land Rover pulls up behind the Toyota and, it appears, there is some familiarity between the passengers of the two cars. The driver of the Land Rover, a large Lebanese man, looks at the Toyota like a disapproving father. We get back in the Toyota and the Land Rover follows us and our ear-splitting wretchedness for several miles. Shapes emerge from the jungle and hold their hands to their heads.
8:20: The Toyota barely reaches a turnout with a lighted shack on a small rise in the road. I’m exasperated. I promptly get out of the Toyota and march to the Land Rover and ask the driver, “Can you take us to Freetown? We can pay.” The man looks me up and down while I envision us never really making it to Freetown, just getting infinitesimally closer with each successive breakdown, machine after machine after machine. “We might have room,” he smiles.
8:45: We are skirting potholes with ease in the Land Rover. The two Lebanese men in the front seat joke loudly throughout the drive and exchange brief arguments with a woman in back row. She is sitting on Ashley’s right and watches ‘Paul Simon: Graceland in South Africa’ on a portable DVD player. Two men are smashed up against Ashley on the left. Everyone speaks in Krio, so it is a bit difficult to understand, but manageable. The men up front speak of diamonds and prices with two men who sit in the back. I sit in the far back with the two skinny kids. I put on my iPod and The Flaming Lips start midway through a song. The kids next to me see the screen and try to hide their shy smiles. I take my earphones out, teach them how to use the amazing machine, that works effortlessly, and they bounce and weave their heads the rest of the way to Freetown. They really liked Michael Jackson, of course, enjoyed Moby, even Interpol, and the older of the two said “So good” when tapping on the screen at James Taylor. Who would have thought?
11:30: The driver of the Land Rover introduces himself as Samir. He’s a Lebanese diamond trader and construction manager in Kenema. He is dropping off in Freetown, about 100 yards from where we are staying. When we offer money for the ride, he politely declines, gives us his card, and said we always have a place to stay when we go back to Kenema.
8:00 a.m.: Ashley and I are walking in downtown Freetown, stepping between wheelbarrows full of grain and granite and women with enormous loads on their heads. More men peeing on the street. Ladies selling flip-flops out of buckets. A grizzled imam looks at me and winks. I’m getting a little annoyed at all the jostling and the constant pushing when suddenly I’m face to face with the Lawrence Fishbourne look-alike guy who remedied our fuse problem a few days previously. He beats me to the punch: “Bo, Bo, Bo! Freetown, Bo!” with an imploring look that hopes we remember. The stampede of feet moves on around our island of calm. We three stand and stare at each other and can’t contain our smiles.