I sampled my first taste of Sierra Leone before I’d even left London – on the runway at Heathrow, ahead of my eight-hour overnight flight.
Feeling nervous about trying to control a livewire 17-month-old, I apologised in advance to the guy next to me for the inevitable disturbance my daughter would cause.
“No problem,” he replied. “I have one of my own; I know what it’s like.” Just as well, given that no sooner had he sat down than the Flump whipped the fetching straw trilby from his head and – to his amusement – deposited it atop her own.
His anything-goes attitude set the tone for probably the strangest flight I’ve ever taken. The experience had begun in Terminal 4, where dozens of Africans were frantically weighing luggage, unpacking and rearranging contents in a bid to keep within the 23kg limit. I knew how they felt, having reorganised my cases at home the bathroom scales groaned.
A chaotic atmosphere prevailed on board, where passengers stood chatting, bantered across the aisle and swapped seats at will. At one point, I heard a flight attendant groan: “I just want people to sit down so I can do my job”. He clearly didn’t rate his chances.
I was impressed with Royal Air Maroc’s spicy chicken, while the Flump used a sweet yoghurt to lightly marinade my neighbour. He probably preferred that to having milk regurgitated over him by the four-month-old to his right, as happened shortly afterwards.
This tiny chap’s bedtime – in a bassinet across the aisle – prompted more seat swapping. My neighbour was given some respite when a girl of about 10 declared: “I want to sit next to the baby (meaning the Flump).”
My daughter responded by clapsing the youngster – Chloe, I later found out – in a cuddle that lasted at least 90 seconds. I was a bit concerned young Flumpo might try her usual hair pulling and eye-gouging but I needn’t have worried. Instead, she happily posed for selfies amid this happy band of travellers.
Chloe cheerily spent the last hour of the flight to Casablanca leading a highly-charged Flump up and down the aisle. I was a bit concerned about their incusions into First Class until Chloe popped her head around the curtain to ask: “The man wants to know if Eva (sic) wants to be a pilot?”
I got up to find my daughter in the cockpit, pointing enthusiastically at the lighted dials. She was only removed after making a grab for the pilot’s emergency hatchet.
More selfies – this time with the cabin crew – were followed by further fuss after landing in Morocco; first from the security man in transit, then from a variety of shopkeepers. Clearly, a bloke travelling solo with a blonde, blue-eyed toddler is a novelty in those parts.
Next, we were left standing on the runway at King Mohamed V Airport as argy-bargy over carry-on luggage led to a stand-off between a stewardess and several passengers.
It didn’t stop the Flump stealing the show for one traveller, however. I’d been a little unnerved by a Chinese bloke who’d stared at her throughout the bus ride from the terminal. However, as a light rain began to fall, he caught my eye and – seeing my hands were full – motioned that he could cover her head with her hood. An offer gratefully received.
The second flight proved a much calmer affair. The Flump had a bassinet of her own (I was amazed it took her weight), offering everyone the chance of at least some sleep.
That peace ended at Lungi airport, where people squeezed through what looked like a set of patio doors to wave Yellow Fever vaccination certificates in the general direction of a man in a white coat.
During a long wait at passport control (nothing on Heathrow’s Terminal 5, mind), I ordered my various papers: A letter from the wife’s employer explaining why my toddler and I were travelling on business visas, another from the missus giving assurance I wasn’t kidnapping our daughter etc.
However, something simple always seems to throw me in these circumstances. “Where are you staying?” the guard asked.
“Umm.” I had no idea. In fretting over my preparations, I’d only focused on the journey to Freetown where – I hoped – The One With the Common Sense would resume arranging life for me. I had neither the name of our hotel, the address of the house we’d be renting, nor her employer’s details.
After much fumbling around, the guard demanded: “What are you doing now?” I explained that I was texting to find an address but he just grunted: “Go away.” A different sort of welcome to Freetown.
We were spat into the clamour of the baggage hall, where I knew a bloke called Ken would meet me and arrange our boat transfer into town.
I’d managed to shove my way to the belt and haul off my first case, with the flump held in my other arm, and was waiting for the second, when a man approached. “Andy?! Your wife is waiting for you outside. I can take your baby to her.”
It felt more than a little unconventional. However, this was clearly Ken – who, as owner of the boat company, had special airport access – and The One With The Common Sense had texted to say she was there. So it was that The Flump passed through Customs – presumably with nothing to declare – without Dad, and was reunited with her mother after a fortnight .
When I eventually made it through, The One With the Common Sense was less delighted to see me than she was that her daughter still recognised her, and wasn’t bearing a grudge at her temporary abandonment.
My real Welcome to Freetown came while being shepherded through the dry heat of the night towards a minibus by a multitude of workers desperate to carry our bags. Their pleas for tips were painfully polite but I had nothing to offer.
To think I’d felt bad about having no change to tip the taxi driver who’d dropped us at the station in Liverpool. My sense of guilt was heightened as the pre-dawn light revealed a hotch-potch of tiny concrete homes with corrugated iron roofs. Unlike my Liverpool cabbie – or the relatively wealthy Sierra Leoneans (many naturalised Brits) on my flight – these guys had virtually nothing.
A short wait for the ferry offered a chance to reflect on the realities of where we’d arrived. Poverty – and the work of NGOs to relieve it – was the reason we were here. But what would be my contribution?
The words of my flight neighbour returned to me: “You can’t help everyone. Just do what you can.” But who best to try to help, and how, is something I’ll have to work out.
For the meantime, we had the small matter of transporting an exhausted toddler by what turned out to be a glorified speedboat. With no infant life-jackets on board, we squeezed her in to one we’d bought specially – still too big but enough to keep her head above water.
As we bounced violently across the water, I noticed a glazed look on the Flump’s face and feared a shower of vomit. I needn’t have worried, however. Her head slipped onto her chins and she fell asleep, propped upright by her flotation device.
The sun rose to give Freetown an orange glow during the crossing to Aberdeen harbour; a new dawn in so many senses.
It was a mercifully short drive to our hotel, for a shower, breakfast and – just like after work – a collapse into bed unaffected by daylight. It had been a very different nightshift.
A note about discrimination
This journey – more than any I’ve made – gave me an insight into how racism is alive and well. It seemed my fellow passengers were treated with disdain by some (not all) staff at check-in, or on the plane. Not me.
The same could be said at Casablanca, where I was spared the surly attitude presented to the young black lads ahead of me at security. It felt uncomfortably like it wasn’t all down to the novelty toddler factor.
As for the Sierra Leoneans, their complaints of “terrible service” and “bad attitudes” of the Moroccan flight crew seemed largely unfounded. Meanwhile, at Lungi airport, the Chinese travellers were singled out for what seemed unnecessarily harsh treatment.
I have sympathy for check-in staff whose desks are swamped by people repeatedly weighing and repacking cases ahead of every Freetown service. But my limited experience of paying eye-watering prices for poor-quality imported goods in SL has taught me never again to leave a case even 500g shy of the limit.
Always best to put yourself in another’s shoes before judging, eh?