Friday, 13 May 2011
Growing up in the Capital City, Freetown, my childhood was nothing short of idyllic, I grew up surrounded by a loving extended family and attended a school I looked forward to going to (inspite of my frequent canings – I admit I was handful) because I would get to spend time with my friends and work hard in order to be top of the class. There were activities and events throughout the year to look forward to from schools’ thanksgiving ceremonies which involved getting dressed to the nines and marching in the streets of Freetown for all to admire, to ‘Jumps’ as the daytime parties were known back then. School sports days were an exciting time where you’d get to compete but again always an opportunity for a new hairdo, new specially-starched uniform and a chance to show off to friends and family.
It was all about traditions and we loved looking forward to these at different times of the year, at Christmas it was about the family get-togethers, scrumptious meals of jollof rice (rice cooked in a tomato stew) with chicken stew, krio salad (a salad that is packed with what seems like 101 ingredients and named after the descendents of slave returnees) and roast-beef (not to be confused with British roast beef – these were beef kebabs marinated in hot scotch bonnet pepper, tomato puree and peanut butter). Christmas day started with church, and church traditions, and ended with visits to the various grandmas and aunties’ homes in the centre of town – where the action was. With each visit came more food, more laughter, and more celebrations. There were masquerades where figures referred to as ‘debul’ dressed in elaborate costumes, covered head to toe, would dance and perform tricks in the streets. As children we were told they had special powers and were not be stared at - of course we obliged and marvelled at them as they performed magic. They had names likes Mama Para (the really tall one – probably on stilts), Gunu-Gunu, Paddle and Kaka-Debul.
Boxing Day involved outings to the beach – with delicious food, home-made ginger beer and sweet bottled drinks like Vimto, Mirinda and 7-Up packed in Coleman picnic coolers, we’d head off to the likes of Sussex beach again with family and friends. New Year’s Eve (‘watch net’) would involve going to church and as we got older maybe a party or two afterwards. New Year’s Day was also a beach outing day, who could blame us in a country where the Atlantic oceans stretches over 300 miles. On Pray day as Eid-ul-Fitr is known in Sierra Leone we’d receive food from our Muslim neighbours who had been fasting or better still attend the numerous parties and celebrations they had. At Easter we attended church and spoke solemnly of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ but for children the highlight was kite flying. These came in all shapes, colours and sizes and we competed with each other to see whose would go the highest, who could bring whose kite down, Easter without kite-flying just wasn’t Easter.
When I left Freetown and moved to London, I recall feeling constantly nostalgic for my old life. The traditions just weren’t the same in England; and although I was young enough to be able to adapt, my childhood lost its sparkle, I envied my friends who’d stayed who probably envied me for being in the ‘First world’. It was even harder for my cousins who moved to the UK in their teens, they felt as though the rug had been pulled from under their feet, like a parent interrupted a ‘sweet’ party and sent everyone home. Although they got on with life, there was a greater yearning for the life they’d left back home. They’d recount exciting stories of Inter-Sec Sports where the various secondary schools in Freetown competed, the latest fashions, popular boys, even the newly opened nightclub Bacardi’s they’d sneak to occasionally and I would sit and listen with envy.
Visiting Freetown at Christmas time now became our new tradition and one that we equally looked forward to; as we exited the plane, thoughts of poor cabin crew service and ghastly food would evaporate as we felt the blast of humid air in our faces and walked across the tarmac towards eagerly awaiting family members and random strangers who just liked the buzz of an airport. The partying would usually start the same night – with phone calls to the few friends still in town confirming the best parties for us JJCs (Johnny-Just-Come - a term used to refer to Sierra Leonean holidaymakers) to attend. The next morning our aunt would treat us to oyster stew which we'd eat with kotor bread (traditionally baked half baguettes sold at local Fulani-owned stalls). We'd also sample all the local snacks throughout the holiday the granat cake (peanut brittle), breadfruit chips; we'd enjoy fruits we never got the chance to eat in London like chuk chuk plum (a prickly fruit), guava, small pink apples and countless other exotic fresh fruits. At the end of our two week holiday we would return to the UK, saddened by the thought of leaving sunshine and incessant fun for cold winter days that started in darkness as we dragged our feet to school and ended in darkness as we made our way back.
Years later when I moved back to Sierra Leone, the country took on a whole new meaning for me, the partying was now infrequent but I appreciated its natural beauty more than I’d done as a child. Sierra Leone is stunning in a word. Its landscape, green and hilly, the ocean is visible from most parts of the Capital City, did I mention its miles and miles of white sand beaches? The people are warm and friendly and even though they seem to revel in a bit of ‘kuss-kass’ (drama), their bark is far worse than their bite. A 5ft nothing elderly lady can challenge a burly taxi driver, knowing full well he will concede in an argument over the elevated fare he tried to charge her. There were times when I would drive through the streets and find myself shouting at people ‘fool-man’ ‘your idiot’ ‘oosai yu pull yu licence’ (where did you get your licence from) as I knew I wasn’t about to be pursued by some nutter and become the victim of road rage. Insulting people (‘for koss’) is an integral part of who we are and often times the ones with the loudest mouth are the most cowardly ending a verbal fight with words like ‘nar way nor more....’ (if it wasn’t for the fact that....). As an adult, I got to travel outside Freetown visiting Makeni and Port Loko where I found people equally approachable and welcoming. I found it comforting that I could also speak to my people in Krio (the lingua franca) – it meant that we could somehow relate to each other, even though not everyone in the places I visited spoke it, there were always a few who did.
Sierra Leone’s architecture is also worth a mention, from the traditional colourful Krio houses in the Capital City and the Krio villages in the Peninsula to the modest wan-flats (bungalows) and huts in the villages, to huge beautifully designed houses scattered in the suburbs of Freetown. Sierra Leone's architecture is an assortment that captures the imagination and tells the story of the country’s rich history.
Recently I stopped by an Italian colleague’s office to ask him a work-related question and spent thirty minutes listening to him tell me about how beautiful Sierra Leone is; he had spent a couple of years there working with the UN peacekeeping mission. He told me that the ‘patch granat’ (roasted peanuts) that were sold on the beaches were the best he’d ever had, not too salty, just right and so crunchy. The lobster he had at Bureh town beach was the largest, most tasty he’d ever had and did I know that River No. 2 was just so beautiful, the white sands and clear water, he’d never seen anything like it. (I smiled and told him there was one just like it in Jamaica). He went on about the food, oh the food, and how his house-help used to make fresh shrimps which were so huge, he made a fist to demonstrate and they were just so delicious. The people were so nice, he was invited by colleagues to their houses to eat and this was so unusual because he’d lived in Liberia and Guinea and Angola and this had never happened in those places. As he continued waxing lyrical about Sierra Leone, I smiled, nodded and remembered why I love my country so much.