Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Sunday, 2 December 2012

Journey into the Unknown

Makeni - A friendly-sounding name, I thought, when I accepted the Lecturer's post in Makeni Teachers' College In Sierra Leone. It was 130 Kilometres from Freetown. Not too far to feel lost.

   Hanging around in Freetown in the first five days, going from one introductory visit to the Ministry of Education and the British High Commission, to another, I was beginning to feel more and more important with each day. Though I was demoted when I reached the BHC - instead of the reigning delegate of the Queen, it was one of his minions I met, the First Secretary. Overpoweringly large office, starched white shirt on the man, blazer hanging on the chair (clearly we did not merit the donning of the blazer) and the non-committal look. It was obvious this was one chore he wanted to get done with quickly.The air conditioner hummed and I remember thinking, you didn't need it with him sitting there.

   When the formalities were finished, Mike, my boss announced. 'Time to go to Makeni.' My official Landrover was still coming from wherever Landrovers go to birth, but a new Ford Capri stood in. And an old Landrover of the Head Office in Freetown. I travelled in the Capri with Charlie, the driver, and my stuff travelled behind in the Landrover, tilting and dancing all the way over the potholes. The Capri just jumped about.

   Mrs Stanley, our Office Manger, had been reassuring. 'We've send you with the single kit' she said. The single kit was a huge trunk which filled the back of the Landrover and there was enough stuff in it to go to the North Pole and back: crockery, cutlery, linen, blankets, water bottles, fans... We saw the Landrover occasionally behind us when the dust cleared.

   The tarmac was ancient history. The pot holes on the Freetown Lunsar Road were so deep you had to travel in second gear for most of the journey. Actually we travelled on the sides of the road: it was the middle that had been destroyed. When cars came by the dogs sleeping cannily in the middle of the road, got up and strolled over to the sides for a moment. Then they returned to the safe middle where traffic could not travel.

   I had no idea what to expect. Getting past the Okra hill, half an hour into the drive, so named because the road was as slippery as the inside of that vegetable, was an experience. You were on the edge of the hill and when lorries came from the opposite direction, you slowed down and prayed. The Landrover tilted precariously and seeing my clenched hands, Charlie remarked, 'They can tilt to 45 degrees without overturning.' He didn't slow down, I noticed.

   Half way to Makeni the first tyre on the Capri went. The drivers got out, stretched, drank water, and looked at the tyre. The next one went a few minutes later. They put the spare on. 'Where on earth can we get the tyre fixed?' I asked. 

   'Tubeless,' Charlie said. 'We'll manage.' And we did just about, limping into the College campus at four in the evening.

   'Shouldn't we be looking for somewhere to fix the tyres?' I asked. The Capri was going to be my transport until the monster Landrover arrived.

   'I'll come back tomorrow with ordinary tyres,' Charlie said.  'This is no good in this place.' And he was as good as his word. I was beginning to see how well the British Council looked after its staff.

   My home was in a shabby three-storey building, which hadn't seen paint in years. A woman had put up a stand in front of the entrance to sell cigarettes and matches. Her baby crawled around on the floor near her.

   I was expecting Paul, the British Council's English Lecturer, to welcome me. But what I got was a crowd of local women and children. They followed me up to my third floor flat and stood around looking at me. Someone produced a 'soda.' In this case a Fanta.
'Paul is gone to the waterfalls with his girl friend,' they said. Right.

   'I wanted them all to go away, so I could shower. My blouse was sticking to my back and sweat was pouring down into my eyes and down through my bra. Someone read my mind when they saw me looking in the direction of the bathroom. 'The water will come at 7,' they said.

   I walked around the flat, children tagging along. The bedroom was tiny and the slats of the bed had given way. The mattress sagged in places. I lifted it and had a look. I wished I hadn't. There was toilet paper stuck to the wall near it with slimy looking stuff on it. I went in search of the kitchen.

   The kitchen was the kind where only one person could go in at any one time. A narrow passage to the sink and a cooker on the right. It was clean and the cupboards above were pristine. The bathroom was a shower cubicle with a toilet and wash basin. Without water.

   'What have I got myself into?' I thought. Paul may have some answers.

   The drivers left and the crowd melted away slowly. I sipped the Fanta out of the bottle too tired to open that enormous trunk sitting in the middle of my tiny sitting room.

   'I'll manage,' I thought. And in the end I did. I loved Makeni and it was my best posting. 

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