We knew there’d be something.
Our return journey to Sierra Leone had gone far too smoothly for us to walk into a trouble-free house.
An infestation of ants had seemed the most likely problem when we left, while I’d been envisaging rainy-season floods or a toppled water tower.
The other great fear – that someone would have nicked our car – was eased when we arrived to find one of our watchmen diligently guarding it.
But when we opened the front door, we immediately got a whiff of what lay in store.
As the musty waft of damp – familiar from too many over-priced, under-maintained London rentals – flowed into our lungs, we braced ourselves to see what Sierra Leone’s rainy season had done to the place.
Sure enough, the bed we were desperate to crash into at the end of a 16-hour journey was blackened with mould. All manner of colourful cultures had developed in the milk splashes on the Flump’s cot, while the living room sofa was covered in a slimy black matter.
The car hadn’t escaped, its interior having developed a white furry lining, and half of the clothes and linen we’d left here were growing mushrooms.
Thankfully, one bedroom seemed to have escaped the worst of the mildew-fest, and we retreated there with the least musty bedclothes we could find to rest after the long flight from London.
Even as my eyelids drooped, I couldn’t be entirely certain the feeling of moisture seeping up through the mattress and onto my body was a product of my imagination.
Consequently, our first few days back in Freetown have been a non-stop frenzy of cleaning, airing, laundering and disinfecting. We should have known what to expect – our trusty Bradt’s guide had mentioned: “The region’s wettest country will have its way with you. Damp takes hold, as leather bags, shoes, clothes, belts and more turn white with mildew.”
But it still came as a kick in the nuts to find the kitchen we’d deep cleaned before leaving coated in an unidentified grease and littered with dead insects.
On the bright side, ditching most of the foodstuffs had ensured our assorted ant inhabitants had moved elsewhere, though not before finding their way into our dried goods packets and rendering the contents inedible.
So, as the Flump napped, we set about getting at least the living areas clean enough to be habitable for a toddler.
Faced with such a monumental task, you quickly get numb to the crunch of a decomposing cockroach under bare heel.
We’d heard from friends that it had rained practically non-stop for the past week but the weather was kinder to us, providing a gusty breeze and enough sunshine to dry our hand-washing and make the house a little easier on the nostril.The mildew on the mattress and car proved easier to shift than I’d feared and a couple of days on things were starting to feel a little more normal.
It’s still been two steps forward and one back, mind you. After two days’ solid cleaning, we sat down to relax with telly, tea and crackers, only for The One With the Common Sense to lose her waitressing touch and send a plate and jam jar crashing to the floor.
The following 20 minutes were spent brushing, mopping and picking up tiny fragments of glass.
The effects of the rains are visible everywhere. White walls have turned green-black with mossy growths, while the usually bright pastel orange and yellow frontages of our neighbours’ homes are dulled by grime.
It lends an air of decay to the city; a shame at a time when the rains wash down the atmosphere to offer a clearer view of its beauty than during the hazy hot and dry months.
On the plus side, the stronger winds offer sweet relief to the extent we’ve been using neither air conditioning nor fan.
A less welcome development at this time of year is an increase in burglaries, as thieves use the thunder of rain on metal roof as cover to break in.
A couple of The One With The Common Sense’s colleagues have been targeted, while money was taken from one of the flats next door in the last week.
The latter can’t have been helped by the fact they no longer have security, the guards having left on the departure of tenants in an adjoining apartment. Their absence feels like a loss to the little community who gather to argue about football outside our gate. We’d regularly chatted to the neighbour’s watchmen and they’d helped us out whenever our boys weren’t around.
The One With The Common Sense felt this loss more than most as the sight of Abu Rahman in his uniform would turn her into a giggling schoolgirl whenever we passed. In fairness, even I could see the attraction.
Thankfully, our guys haven’t deserted us. Abdullah, in particular, has gone back to organising my life as though I’ve never been away: checking I’ve locked the front door, warning me to take in the washing when it rains, and letting me know when the Flump is about to make a break for freedom on my blindside.
His good but imperfect English means he orders me around a bit: “You need to buy batteries for the torch… Check you have locked the car… Turn off the light.” I don’t mind; I need someone to sort out my life when The One With The Common Sense is at work.
Six weeks was a long time to be away from normal life (if you can consider our life here “normal”) and was probably a little too long. It was brilliant to catch up with so many friends and relatives in the UK and Ireland but neither of us really felt like we rested.
The One With The Common Sense took a few days’ leave here and there, in between working remotely, but there was nothing like the conventional fortnight’s total rest.
Even so, the ease of life back home did have me worried about returning here. I wasn’t relishing exchanging the comfort of our parental homes, the child-friendly environment, ease of travel and abundance of entertainment for a place where power or water supplies aren’t guaranteed.On more than one occasion I questioned why on Earth we’d make our lives more difficult than they needed to be, particularly as I looked ahead to a couple of weeks with the Flump at home and nursery still shut.
She’s at an age where she’s alternately fantastic fun and a nightmare in pastel pyjamas. It felt cruel to tear her away from a world full of parks and playgrounds, from the joys of yelling “TRAIN” whenever one rumbles past, and from the relatives she’s so attached to.
It wasn’t without guilt that I heard her plea for “Gran’s house” as we rumbled up the rutted track to our home in Freetown. Meanwhile, cousins’ names are regularly rattled off as “BobbyNanciBobbyNanciBobbyNanci” in vain hope from the back of the car.
Go to a kiddies’ playground here and – once you’ve paid the entry fee – you’ll find on its swings and roundabouts the rusty hinges, loose screws and peeling paint that have been nothing more than a memory in Britain since the 1990s.
There is, however, always the beach. And during a brief visit the Flump quickly rediscovered the love of saltwater she developed here, only to lose in an instant when her mother tried to dunk her in the Irish Sea.
Neither has there been any hint of the culture shock I feared before we returned, and we’ve slipped back into life – complete with all its quirks – with a speed that’s come as a pleasant surprise.
When a caterwauling reached my ears as I was washing dishes the other day, I realised it had been ages since I’d heard the haunting wail of the Call to Prayer.
I paused to enjoy that rare thrill of living somewhere truly different, until I realised that – rather than the chant of a muezzin – it was in fact the babymonitor relaying The One With The Common Sense’s rendition of the Wild Rover as she tried to put Flumpo to sleep.
Still, I look forward to making the most of the coming few months here. Our first few months were about settling in and getting by. The next need to be about relishing life if we’re to make the most of our time here.
For that reason, we’ve drawn up a few resolutions we’re determined to stick to. Chief among them are socialising more and getting up earlier to do more running. Oh, and eating fewer biscuits. Let’s hope they last longer than those at New Year.