You know it’s been a trying week when your highlights include an electric shock and being taken to the police.
But a combination of the heat, total culture shock, a toddler with a temperature and a running battle with a generator made my first week in Sierra Leone a stressful one.
It created a fractious family atmosphere, with up to a dozen cries of “we have to go home” – at least two of which prompted semi-serious discussions – a couple of blazing rows and one notable mention of divorce. (I’m blaming side-effects of antimalarials for that one.)
I’d never really suffered from culture shock before, or perhaps just once at the start of my hapless backpacking in south-east Asia. However, a good walk to a street food stall and a bottle of Chang soon had me ready for a night in Bangkok (which, of course, is enough to make even tough guys crumble).
Maybe it was because The One With The Common Sense had been in Freetown a fortnight and was so much better schooled in the way of things; or perhaps it was the responsibility of keeping the Flump safe, but for a day or two I was almost afraid to leave the house.
It’s not that I felt threatened. I just struggled to take in everything: the dust, heat, noise, chaos at busy junctions and the constant, unsmiling stares as we were driven around.
The latter doesn’t necessarily represent unfriendliness. Most of our interactions have been fun, with people often laughing and fussing over Flumpo. Before that stage, however, I’ve found an aloof curiosity, perhaps a shyness or wariness that I can’t quite put my finger on.
It left me unsure how to act or communicate and – combined with my struggles with the environment – made me feel like some useless English character from an EM Forster novel.
Concerns about an overheating and listless toddler didn’t make the long Easter weekend any easier. Thankfully, her mischievous smile and boundless energy returned after a day or two so it must have been a temporary adjustment to the heat, antimalarials, or both.
Sadly, the prolonged headache of adjusting to life in Freetown shows no signs of passing, having set in the day we moved into our new home.
The place is enormous – with more bathrooms than our London flat had rooms – and I’ll write more about the moral dilemma of living in such grand style in future posts. It’s also fairly dilapidated in parts, although this doesn’t cause much worry.
Our biggest difficulty is keeping the place cool. To explain, Freetown’s state power network suffers frequent blackouts. Supply to our area is more reliable than most, meaning we generally have air con at night to stay cool and ward off mosquitos, but it can still be off for much of the day – often in mid-afternoon when the heat is most stifling.
During these periods, you need a generator for cool air, or to keep the fridge going. Unfortunately, Easter meant we were unable to get hold of our own generator and so The One With the Common Sense was loaned one by a work contact.
We arrived at the house to find it parked in the hallway, rather than hooked up around the back, and empty of fuel. Consequently, we had to head straight off to find diesel before the building’s caretaker, Aruna, gave me a lesson in basic generator mechanics.
This could be summed up by saying: fill with diesel, attach two wires to a car battery, turn ignition, then poke two exposed wires into random holes in the generator socket to hook up supply to the house.
Amazingly, it all worked fine.
That’s to say it did until the mechanic phoned to say our living room air con unit was too powerful for the generator and that we should only use the bedroom one – and no other appliances – unless there was “light”, as the locals call government electricity.
This left the three of us practically confined to quarters for the night – uncomfortable given two of us were yet to adjust to the heat.
Still, it’s amazing how quickly you get used to power cuts – heading out to pull a lever to switch the supply, then firing up the generator. However, one night, the juice failed to flow through to the house.
Aruna appeared and began messing about with the exposed wires by weak torchlight, giving me the willies no end. With no success, he announced he would fetch a screwdriver and left me to a more delicate tinkering – or so I thought. Cue a not insignificant jolt that left my leg hairs standing to attention.
I’m not the first in my family to get such a belt. I distinctly remember finding it hilarious as a child when my dad caused a plug socket to go bang (and he had the qualifications for this caper). I trust he sniggered from On High at my incompetence.
Aruna returned out of the darkness not with a screwdriver but with a bloody big knife, which in itself was alarming enough until he started shoving it into the socket to force in the wires. I stood back and cowered until he announced that a proper mechanic was required and left me to head back to my sweaty bed.
As I type, we’re still using a borrowed generator but at least we’re more accustomed to the heat. Also at the top of our shopping list is a car, which we hope to secure in the coming days.
Until then, however, we’re relying on hired drivers, which has proven another experience. Motoring here makes the North Circular look civilised, with motorbikes zooming across your path, as taxis, minibuses and 4x4s jostle for position, constantly honking.
It seems the horn conveys a variety of meanings, from “watch out, I’m here” and “I want to turn but have no indicators” to the more traditional “get out of my way”.
Mr Sowa, our recommended driver, takes a slow and steady approach, which is fine by me. He’s a kindly man, who’s even bought the Flump a coconut or two.
However, a trip to Lumley Beach, the two-mile stretch at Freetown’s western edge, first went awry when he used the concrete bollards separating road from promenade as an indicator of when to hit the brake.
The crunch as we rolled into them was only marginally less alarming than the yelp from the missus. (Her common sense comes packaged with a heightened sense of drama.)
She suggested we move further along the beach, only for Mr Sowa to find a gap in the bollards and drive, inexplicably, along the prom. Inevitably, he was interrupted by the sound of sirens and the approach of an enormous and formidable policewoman shouting at full volume.
There followed an argument with fellow officers (she won), and an escort to the station during which our man was told he would be charged and taken to court. He was hauled out of the car while we were left in the back to field requests from her colleagues for photos of the Flump, who wasn’t much in the mood for posing.
Fortunately for us, Mr Sowa returned with licence intact – presumably after the loss of a few quid – and we were able to get home.
It all made for a pretty stressful week, though thankfully we can laugh about it now (I’m not sure Mr Sowa can, mind).
We have been exploring our locality on foot a bit more, which is helping us to feel at home. I’ve been for my first run, a 7am slog a mile uphill and back, and even popped to the bar on the corner. When I say bar, you might mistake it for a concrete outhouse at home.
Nevertheless, I found three fellas enjoying the craic on plastic garden chairs.
I stayed long enough to ingratiate myself by joking about escaping the missus – ah, the universal language of men – before taking my bottles home to toast an eventful first week with The One With The Common Sense (who, despite above mention of divorce, I truly hope never to escape).
There are bound to be more bumps around the corner (metaphorical ones, please, Mr Sowa) but it feels like we’ve at least made a start to calling this home.