If we were going to end up without any water, it just had to happen on a day we were going to a wedding.
We were surprised but delighted with the invitation to an evening do in Lakka, a short hop south of Freetown along Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsular.
We’d passed many an hour chatting to the family from our favourite beachfront haunt and I’ve made it one of my weekday “offices”. So when Karl – a German businessman who wound up in Lakka and stayed – got engaged to Juliet, one of the owner Tommy’s twin daughters, we made the guest list.Okay, the novelty of a little white baby probably swung the invitation, but we weren’t going to let that stop us seeing how nuptials go down in Africa.
Unfortunately, a burst pipe – one of several exposed on the rutted road to our house – hampered our preparations.
Usually, we can ride out a leak thanks to our big storage tank. However, a separate leak in our yard meant it hadn’t refilled from the mains.
Typically, we discovered this when the shower ran dry while I had a head full of shampoo. I managed to avoid a Grange Hill head-down-the-loo situation with the last drops from the tap.
But while the Flump had already been bathed, the One With The Common Sense was forced to resort to a “Glastonbury shower” using babywipes.
She scrubbed up remarkably well considering.
I hadn’t a clue what to wear. On Saturdays, our part of town is awash with wedding parties in seriously sharp suits. However, this wasn’t a daytime affair and we’d been advised to wear “whatever suits”, so I didn’t want to go overboard.
I opted for my brightest trousers (more Bargain Hunt than the African style I’d aimed at), a smart shirt, not-too-jazzy tie and blazer – something I’d not worn since Year 11 but for some reason thought might come in handy here.
Unfortunately the Flump has inherited her father’s sense of style. Her short – and, frankly, slightly odd – hot-weather haircut and posh frock, made her looked like a cross between Donald Trump and Diana, Princess of Wales.
At least she and her mother were suitably clothed, with serious power-dressing among the women. I, however, was hopelessly overdressed. This being a beach community, most blokes simply turned up in smart T-shirts and even shorts.
The other mistake we made was to arrive about 45 minutes late which, by Salonean standards, is way too early. It was nearly 9pm when the happy couple arrived.
So we sat back and enjoyed the venue – a wood-beamed hall with sides open to the moonlit beach where waves lapped 20 yards away – while taking turns to stop the Flump destroying the decorations.
It had elements of a wedding breakfast at home, with a blessing and speeches. However, an MC, rather than a best man, took charge of proceedings.
He looked impossibly cool in dark jeans, black T-shirt and tailcoat and was ably supported by a DJ who punctuated proceedings with a variety of deafening sound effects. My highlight came courtesy of a street dance quartet.
Two of them – representing bride and groom – performed a dance off which ended in the victor pretending to beat up his opponent to a soundtrack of punches, kicks and the loser retching. “Gunshots” rang around the venue as he finished the job with six rounds from a tennis racket.
We were engrossed. But I was amazed how many others were checking their phones and chatting, rather than paying attention.
At weddings, I’m generally insensible by about 8.30pm. However, no drink passed my lips until gone 10pm. Before then, we’d toasted the happy couple with the fiery ginger beer that’s a local delicacy.
Unlike at home, no close family or friends were primed to save Karl from having his stiff white man dancing exhibited for the duration of the first dance.
Unfortunately, we had to leave before things really got going to get the Flump home for an already very late bedtime. (Why did we not think to stay over?)
It proved tricky, given the venue had been locked up to ward off gatecrashers.
We might have been sober and leaving before midnight but climbing over a bamboo fence in our glad rags and jumping onto the beach, while passing a baby between us, still counts as a pretty rock and roll exit in my book.
Our battle with the water pipes is ongoing. Ibrahim, one of our watchmen, spent much of the last week digging up the dirt road to fix whichever of the blue water pipes serves us and next door.
It’s not uncommon to get a shower from a hidden piercing as you pick your way down the bumpy street but the repair process often seems to dislodge other pipes to be driven over and ruptured.
Despite the best efforts of Ibrahim (and half the street), supplies remain intermittent. At one point, he filled a variety of buckets and bowls to at least enable us to flush the loo and bathe the Flump.
Those were exceptional circumstances. However, water shortages affecting the city – forcing authorities to lock off supplies to areas for set periods – combined with roadworks damaging underground pipes – left us completely dry one day.
Our caretaker explained the problem by offering a tour of the district’s spaghetti-like plumbing. The language barrier may have hindered my understanding but it goes something like this:
- Landlord originally installs large pipe from main reservoir to his properties
- Others pierce the pipe to divert water to their homes
- Caretaker pays for access to alternative source during emergencies
- Next-door tenant has small new pipe laid from alternative source
- Others pierce/sever that pipe to divert water
- Caretaker sends watchman with shovel and solvent to effect repairs
- Repeat from step two
It was impossible not to feel guilty as I listened, while a few yards away people queued at a standpipe to fill jerrycans to hump back to little more than slum dwellings.
I’ve no idea whether the payment in step three went into the water board’s coffers. I’ll let you decide whether it has the whiff of the bribery or corruption that’s said to dog this country.
Either way, the situation might neatly sum up the developing world. When things go wrong, those with money can find a workaround. As services improve, the rich access more of them. But do things get much better for the majority?
Perhaps there is greater access to water – electricity supplies are improving – but it didn’t look great from where I was standing. Sure, we pay a substantial sum for our supplies but – with Freetown’s building boom sucking away water for ever-grander homes for foreigners – where does that leave everyone else?
It makes me glad that our neighbours nip into the yard to take water from our tap. The irony is that the wet season is under way. At least the reservoirs should be replenished soon enough.
The atmosphere has definitely changed in the last week. Friday was the first time I didn’t really experience any baking hot sun throughout an entire day.
It gets very clammy, although the breeze offers some respite. Our first experience of rainfall here was amazing. An eerie mist blanketed the surrounding mountains until we could no longer see homes on the hill opposite, then a strong wind blew right through the house.
It was a novelty to open windows for fresh, naturally cool, air. The following downpour was pretty spectacular, hammering on our roof. I can only imagine the deafening noise in the corrugated iron shanty homes.
From next month, it’s likely to be raining for hours on end.
There was plenty of sun for our first (sort of) visitor since we moved here. As Diego, a Bolivian-German colleague of the One With The Common Sense, stayed at a nearby hotel for a week, we took it upon ourselves to show him around.
The obvious trip was to River Number 2 Beach, the beautiful location for the famous coconut-laden Bounty advert from the 1980s, and an example of how Western NGOs can make a positive difference.
Supported by Germany’s Welthungerhilfe, the community came together to offer food and drink, beach huts and overnight bungalows. The profits go towards housing and education for villagers, and paying them to keep the beach clean.
While idyllic, it can be so full of foreigners – and the native Lebanese population – that you could forget you’re in Sierra Leone.
Diego was keen to see a more realistic side of life and so we went for a few drinks in my local. Who knows what passers-by made of two speccy white blokes, perched on a block of concrete outside the tiny bar, watching traffic zoom along the pitch-black road?
Later, we climbed over a pile of roadworks rubble to sit on the terrace of another little bar in a pretty impoverished neighbourhood. Shocking pink bench seats gave it an unlikely Essex nightclub-feel but the welcome was friendly. I suspect I’ll end up there again.
Aside from Diego’s excellent company, playing hosts allowed us the pleasure of showing off a “home” city that we barely know. (It’ll be some time before I have an itinerary to match my Liverpool Old Man’s Pub Tour but I’m working on it).
Our last beach trip taught us two things: The Flump has become a real water baby. Six weeks after being terrified of a paddle, she’s completely unruffled at getting dumped face down in the water by a wave.The other lesson was about gender stereotyping. The Flump’s bright pink swimsuit means nothing to the locals. You’ll often see boys wearing pink clothes that at home would very definitely be marketed at girls.
Consequently, her chubby face and short hair prompt people to ask whether she’s a girl or boy. A bunch of kids at the beach were clearly in hot debate about it until she was changed into a dress, at which point one declared: “Na’a man. (she’s not a man).”
It seems the customary way to avoid confusion is to pierce a baby’s ears. We’ll probably stick to our stuffy Western ways and avoid that.