Friday, March 28, 2008

Bintumani ho!

I just climbed the highest mountain in West Africa.

At 1,995 meters (6,542 feet), Mount Bintumani in northern Sierra Leone lacks the body-taxing altitude and snow-covered peaks of its larger sisters. (Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, stands at 5,895 meters above sea level, while Everest is 8,850 meters high.) It is instead a gentle giant, with sloping grass-covered skirts rising to an improbable rocky plateau, which perches like a slumbering stone bulldog upon an oversized knoll.

Climbing Bintumani is even less daunting than it might be because 1) if you go by the shorter eastern route you have just one day’s hike to the summit, followed by another day down; and 2) for $5 per day plus food you can hire a porter to carry the bulk of your things. I felt a bit foolish sweating my way up the mountain in my high-tech hiking shoes with only a daypack on my back, while Musa followed in flip-flops and a rucksack packed with 6 liters of water (for me, plus the 4 liters in my own pack); oatmeal and sugar for 17 breakfasts; a pot packed with cooking and eating implements; extra socks and warm clothes (also for me); and various other “essentials.” But I probably wouldn’t have made it otherwise – or at least it would have hurt a lot more.

Here is one of our porters, Saiyo, ready to leave his home village with someone’s pack on his back, and then further up the mountain with a bunch of plantains on his head.

The plantains – harvested partway up the mountain – were the only food, besides a few cups of uncooked rice, that the porters brought along. Despite our request that each of them bring a pot of rice and sauce for their dinner, they came empty-handed. They also brought nothing to sleep on or under, nor warm clothes for the damp and cool mountain evening. We’d been warned and had budgeted food and some water for the 9 guides and porters as well as the 8 of us, but did not have extra tents or sweaters. (In fact we were somewhat under-prepared ourselves: my friend Aongus slept in a makeshift shelter under the “porch” of one tent, while a couple snuggled in a mosquito-dome made for one. And all of us were cold at night.)

It made for some gentle joking as we made 17 peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, stirred a pot of oatmeal for the porters’ dinner, or handed over our extra tarp (meant to cover our bags in case of rain) for the guys to sleep under. And joking turned to frustration as we shouted and struggled to keep pace with our guide, who had a tendency to hurry off with the porters, seemingly unconcerned that we trailed behind without a clue to the path.

But the guys were good-spirited and we eventually grew on one another. I even got to play doctor, which probably redeemed me in their eyes for not having a spare tent to share. As we settled into our mountain camp, in the shadow of the summit, we discovered that our guide Pa Mara (see photo below) had a festering axe wound on his thigh. Two days old, the wound – though seemingly minor from the outside – was probably deep and definitely infected, swelling his knee and thigh and giving him a mild fever. We unpacked our UK government-issued first aid kit – actually more of a mobile hospital – and I began washing Pa Mara’s leg with bottled water and dressing it with layers of sterile gauze (thinking all the time, “If my Mom could see me now.”) Another dressing in the morning and a few paracetemol (Tylenol) and he was in much brighter spirits.

Helped by moments like this, we all made friends in the end – not only through our mutual gratitude (how can you not like someone who totes your heavy pack up a mountain or ministers to your festering wounds?) but also through the exhilaration of our shared experience. Most of the porters had themselves never scaled the mountain, and a few shared our nervousness as we neared the top. Our banana-toting porter Saiyo became particularly anxious as we scrambled through a thick morning mist up the steep upper reaches of the mountain, just short of the rocky plateau, until my friend Drucil started teasing him that if Drucil, a “Freetown boy” could make it, so could the country-born Saiyo.

As we emerged on the top, a vast rocky expanse, the porters and guides stepped immediately aside to pray, before joining in our more secular revelry. When I later asked if the mountain was a sacred space, they said simply that Allah could hear them better when they were up so high.

Most of the porters also refused our offer of celebratory champagne, which we raised in our own tribute to the gods of the mountain. (We even poured a bit in libation, in case the mountain god were more a reveler than a teetotaler.) But they did enjoy posing for light-hearted photos, as well as exploring the summit and its breathtaking views.

After a long trek back down the mountain, and a bumpy, dusty, 11-hour drive back to Freetown, I’m struck by how happy we look in all the photos from the trip. Scratched legs and sore knees and sweat-soaked packs and all, I think Bintumani refreshed and rejuvenated us.

Perhaps Allah or the mountain god were indeed listening from the top.

A sad postscript

In a sad postscript to the trip, we returned to the porters’ home village of Sangbania to find that Saiyo’s son was vomiting blood and had been moved that day to a larger neighboring village to seek medical attention. Saiyo grabbed a ride on the roof rack of our Land Rover, and we drove through the quickly-failing light until we reached the village. While we pitched tents and strung hammocks on the newly-built school outside of town, Saiyo went to see after his son, and returned later with news.

The boy, 18 years old, had fallen from a palm tree some months earlier. At the time he’d been very hurt and vomiting blood, but later grew stronger and seemed to have recovered. Then suddenly the vomiting returned, and after vomiting blood for the better part of a day and night, the boy was now too weak to walk or even sit upright for more than a short time.

The village lacked a government clinic and the family – subsistence farmers when not earning a bit of money trekking tourists up the mountain – lacked the money to bring him to a hospital or clinic. Instead they paid a nurse to give him an injection (quite possibly of sugar-water or some other useless substance) and a “native doctor” to find an herbal remedy.

We knew the boy was in serious trouble if he had internal injuries – as it seemed to our inexpert selves – but that his best bet was with a clinic or hospital with trained personnel. So we woke early the next morning to visit the family and offer to bring the boy most of the way to the nearest government hospital (in Kono’s district headquarter town) and to give them money toward treatment and transport.

In the end they refused the ride to the hospital, preferring to go to another clinic where they had some family nearby, but gratefully accepted our contribution (about $70) to the transport and treatment. They promised emphatically not to spend the money on native doctors or anything else except the boy’s treatment.

We’ll probably never know what happened to Saiyo’s son, because we have no way to contact the family. But I hope they indeed brought him to the clinic, and if necessary to a hospital, and that the nurses and doctors somehow found a way to give him the help he needed with the limited supplies on hand. In an act of forced optimism, I envision not the likely tragic outcome but the grin on the teenager’s face as he learned how much money we’d offered his family, and as the terror in his eyes was displaced – momentarily, at least – by hope.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Visit Sweet Salone!

In my ongoing effort to convince everyone to come visit , here are two recent pieces on tourism in Sierra Leone.

The first is a wonderful travel article from last Sunday's edition of the UK newspaper, The Observer. It draws in part on the same island-hopping trip I described in my last post. The cover photo (shown here) is by my stellar photographer/journalist/travel-guide-writer friend, Katrina Manson, who is also responsible for the photo essays on cleaning day and a Freetown slum linked from earlier posts.

The second is a video from the Sierra Leone National Tourist Board, so you can see the sights and sounds for yourself.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


There is something deliciously luxurious about boarding a boat (no, not the boat in the photo) for five days of island-hopping. Coolers full of beer and soft drinks. Crates of canned goods and snack food. Waterproof bags protecting cameras and iPods. Backpacks stuffed with mosquito nets, sun cream, bikinis, and beach wraps.

My fascinating and mildly glamorous companions only added to the indulgence. Actors. Journalists. Photographers. TV producers. Presidential advisors. Investment fund managers.

It’s a tough life.

Day One was spent mostly in Freetown, trying to get the hell out of dodge. We finally pulled out of the marina five hours later than planned, still in good spirits despite the delay and the fact that one of our number was struck low with malaria. (He, trooper that he is, simply curled up in the hold and suffered through the journey.)

More than five hours of choppy seas later, and just before sunset, we reached our first destination: Bonthe town on Sherbro Island. The island is a rather large landmass, resembling a peninsula only slightly cut off from land, and its capital town is quite a quaint and pretty place – if somewhat crumbling and battle-scarred – with large homes and wide sandy lanes. The only motorized vehicles on the whole island are two newly-arrived okada motor-bike taxis; a third returned to the mainland after it found business too slow.

However, after two delightful nights at the new and full-service Bonthe Holiday Village – complete with electricity and satellite TV and multi-course meals – and due celebration of one 30th birthday and one engagement, we were ready for the real adventure.

The Turtle Islands lie off the southern coast of Sierra Leone, not far from Bonthe. Unlike their much larger and more-developed neighbor, the Turtles are a string of tiny sandy islands, speckled with palm trees and fishing villages. At least one small hotel operated on one of the islands in the pre-war days, but today you can stay only as a guest of a local village, and only in the simplest conditions. (No bathrooms, no running water, and a bed on the ground...)

Reaching the islands was a bit tricky, not least because we (again) mis-timed the tides and found ourselves navigating narrow channels between very shallow sandbars. After several hours, we decided we’d gone as far as we could until the tide rose again, and three of us set off in a smaller skiff to reach the island where we hoped to spend the night. We left the others (all visitors to Sierra Leone) in the larger boat with contingency instructions in case we didn’t return by nightfall; they seemed less-than-thrilled by the possibility.

As it turned out, everything went swimmingly (no pun intended). Our advance team reached the island in no time at all, and were met by a delegation of villagers and enthusiastic children. We asked the village chief for permission to spend the night, and whether they had fish and rice to sell us and someone to cook for us. The answers to all were yes.

While my companions made the necessary dinner arrangements and the skiff returned to collect the rest of the group, I chatted with a few young women from the village. One handed me her brand-new baby boy, Mohammed. ‘A very big name for a very little boy’ I said as he nuzzled, all snoozy one-month of him, into my neck. Mohammed’s mother’s friend spoke clear Krio and a bit of English, so I asked her if they frequently had strangers (visitors) to their island. She laughed and said no. Never.

I then supervised the cleaning of our humble lodgings: a few roofless (and bathroom-less) rooms in the old hotel, plus the surrounding sand, overlooking the water from atop a small embankment. From that viewpoint I watched the skiff and our larger boat (now able to skirt the sandbars thanks to a higher tide) arrive in style with the rest of our group. They were certainly a fascination for the locals!

The island itself was tiny, with a circumference you could easily walk in just a few hours. The village was home to maybe a few hundred souls, all of them making a living from the water. Transport from the mainland arrived every Wednesday and returned a few days later. If anyone needed to reach the land in the interim – for instance, in case of a medical emergency, as there was certainly no clinic on the island – the only choice was a fisherman’s dugout canoe.

In the center of the town I found a fenced-off area filled with fishing nets rolled and put away for the night. I asked and was told this was to keep the women away from them. If a woman entered the area or touched a net, the fisherman would no longer catch any fish.

Returning to our “hotel,” I found the chief helping a few of my friends to string mosquito nets from exposed roof beams and palm fronds. I chose a spot on the sand between two palm trees for my own bed, while the other two ladies went for a swim in the fading light.

Later, filled with fish and rice and roasted marshmallows – and rum – we played silly games and listened to birthday-boy Tom sing and play the guitar. The full moon shimmered off the sea and glimmered through the palm trees. From nearby came the muffled sounds of a village evening: men’s voices, children’s laughter.

In the morning we set off again, with a promise to return soon.

We meant it.