The plane takes off and you realize you´re on your way. Africa lies ahead. Flying over the south of Spain you watch as the earth falls further and further away. You cross the straight of Gibraltar and can just make out the Morroccan city of Tangier with its labrynth of streets below. Flying south you can almost see Western Sahara caught between its colonial Spanish masters and it´s inherited regional conflict. And then there is Mauritania. The desert below seems never ending... as it grows more with everyday. The Atlantic washes up against it beaches and somehow even the water appears dry. As the hours pass you realize the stop in Dakar is nearing. Slowly the abandoned desert gives way, and small villages begin to dot the landscape. And there it is, Dakar.
The city´s skyscrapers are a sharp contrast to the Sahara you´ve just finished passing over. They jut upward out of the rocky shoreline. A mix of dirt and paved roads weave between them. The plane touches down. But its not your stop. Some Senegalese get off followed by a procession of European tourists, aid workers, journalists, military attachès, and just plain business men. The plane sits on the tarmac for an hour. Noone gets on. Everyone starts talking, you know Freetown is only an hour and a half away. The memories are coming back. ¨Do you remember him, do you remember her? Where were you on this day, where were you on that day?¨ Again the engines begin to roar. ¨Passengers please take your seats and fasten your seatbelts in preperation for departure.¨ The plane moves south. A baby returning to his unknown home cries in the seat in front of you.
Next to me Ernest begins to sweat. Is he nervous? Nerves and emotion mix. I can´t tell exactly what he´s thinking.
Below the desert is forgotten as the earth turns ripe, a lushish green, forests and jungle, swamps and coconut beaches. The earth is alive, it´s soil red. Freetown is near. Finally the plane touches down and you taxi through a maze of abandoned aircraft, wings broken, engine parts missing, recycled for another use. The doors open and the heat rushes over you like a wave washing from your skin all the impurities of air-conditioning. On the tarmac they make you wait for a bus to drive you the forty meters to the terminal. It´s all very official but completely pointless.
There´s a sign with Ernest´s name on it, we´ve been received. 20 euros goes inside the passport and its handed to the customs agent. The bag is left unopened. We pass. Everyone seems to be Clifford the man who´s supposed to collect us, or atleast everyone seems to know him. A police officer pushes aside. Clifford steps forward with his ID card out... we´ve found him. A van pulls up, it´s sliding door opens. We load the bags and pass out euros to the crowd we´ve amassed around us. It´s an hour van ride to the ferry that will carry us across the bay to Freetown itself.
Luggage is carried on head. And the boat rocks from one side to the other. Half a euro get´s you a seat in first class, a poorly ventilated hallway full of foreigners. Arsenal is playing on the television.
Ernest has bought 3 sim cards for his mobile phone in the last 10 minutes. Not one of them works. I´m asked if I´m a journalist, the camera hanging from my neck calls attention. Outside to smoke a cigarette.
The smell of shit and piss wafts from a bathroom window. And where Freetown should be on the opposite shore it is dark, very dark for a city of 2 million inhabitants. A flicker of light here a flicker there. You land on the East Side. The ferry unloads and the mass of people push and honk their way off the boat. You pack your car or catch transport and begin to navigate the chaotic mix of people, cars, dogs, mopeds, children, cats, pushcarts, and buses that makes up the East Side.
To get to Aberdeen where we are staying we must cross all of the East Side, just as the RUF did in 1999 as they advanced on the capital... through a rain of small arms fire, mortars and rocket propelled grenades this ragtag army terrorized this part of Freetown in their attempt to push out the ECOMOG Nigerian forces. But now it seems the war has passed. All that is left are the pock marks in the buildings hit by fire. But you wouldn´t notice unless you knew how to look.
The streets are all familiar to Ernest. He jumps back into his memories, back into his reality.
You pass the building where you were born. You look for the family compound its ashes long since swept away... an empty lot remains. An apple tree stands alone. Roads have changed directions, there are new babies, and funerals have come and gone. New homes have been built and limbs have been lost.
Ernest finds himself back in the mix.
Music blares from speakers in the streets, mixing from one block to another. Generators roar powering lightbulbs. There´s a celebration of collective amnesia. The war has passed. Reggae music, reggae, hip-hop, reggae, dancehall, reggae... country western? It all mixes together. You leave the East Side and pass through the center. 10 story government buildings, a candle lights a room on the third floor. People drive with their horn, and either on the right or left side it doesn´t matter because you cannot drive fast.
We cross Murraytown junction and arrive at Aberdeen bridge, the stopping point in the RUF´s advance. It was here that ECOMOG forces held off the rebels. After the bridge we pass Paddy´s on our right, a discothek once the un-official base for international forces. Cheap prostitutes, drugs, alcohol, and proximity to the front lines made it a perfect barracks. Today Paddy´s still offers many of the same amenities only the war has ended, and instead of soldiers the clientale are aid workers and tourists.
We pass Bintumani Hotel, a monstrosity that sits on the Aberdeen hillside, a throwback to the time before the war when this city was a tourist destination. Today the walls are crumbling under the new Chinese management. We finally arrive at the compound where we are staying, a chalet surrounded by hotels and a view of the ocean. The night breeze is rich with freshness. Clifford presents us to the caretaker and Ernest dives into some fried fish and plantanes. We are here, the journey has begun.