Wherever we are in the world and no matter how adventurous or varied our lives, I suspect we all crave a bit of routine.
We need an anchor to hold us steady as we negotiate life’s highs and lows, pegging us to a state of relative “normality”.
For us, that anchor comes in the shape of buns.
A custom of buying pastries, doughy delights and iced fancies on Saturday mornings has been passed on through generations (well, at least two) of The One With The Common Sense’s family. And the Bun Day tradition is one we cling to.
Belgian buns don’t exist in Freetown. No-one’s heard of a Chelsea bun. And there’s been a croissant shortage since the day we arrived. But it’s fine. Macaroons, mille-feuille and doughnuts are available thanks to the Lebanese population.
Our preference, however, has been for giant rock cakes and vanilla muffins – so filling they’re almost a meal in themselves – washed down with tea and coffee from a flask as we sit in the car and look out to sea.
When followed by a stroll on the sands, it’s one of my favourite ways to enjoy family time in this remarkable city; a simple way to truly enjoy living near the ocean.
So, you can imagine our horror when, while humping a lazy woman’s load to the house, The One With The Common Sense lost her grip on the flask and its inside shattered into smithereens.
We immediately ventured downtown in search of a replacement for the one I’d got from a local stall for less than half the supermarket price.
It was the first time we’d braved the cramped and bustling city centre as a trio and I clamped one hand on wallet and the other on Flumpo throughout. But it proved how much more at home we are these days as we enjoyed wandering around stalls piled high with clothes, homewares or second-hand books.
We didn’t find a flask but I did finally buy some flip-flops. There can’t be many people who’ve spent seven months stubbornly wearing trainers in the West African heat but my natural aversion to bare toes held firm until I got fed up of having to negotiate laces just to take the bin out.
Lured by the aroma, I also indulged in some street corner grilled meat. I didn’t manage to figure out what animal it came from (best guess is goat) but it proved delicious and tender and was served wrapped in a page from an old Evening Standard, so what more could you want?
We were desperate to find some decent nappies, the Flump’s prodigious talent for filling four nappies in an hour or two before bedtime having exhausted our supplies from home. Thankfully, we found a stall selling a suitably sturdy Turkish brand at a third of the price of Pampers, which cost up to £20 a pack – and rising -in supermarkets here.
Inflation is approaching 10%, not helped by the Leone’s recent slump against the dollar, with the cost of some goods doubling.
When we arrived in March, roughly Le5,000 would buy a dollar. Now it’s more like Le7,000. In a society reliant on imports, not just of basic goods and materials – including the staple, rice – but of expertise, the effects of these foreign exchange movements are sorely felt.
The Leone has fared better against post-Brexit vote Sterling, which doesn’t do us any favours, but spare a thought for parents who don’t have our spending power.
Those who live hand-to-mouth, picking up one nappy and one sachet of powdered milk at a time, must be finding things even tougher than before.
The country’s parlous financial state has prompted an array of austerity measures. Many of them – cutting back officials’ travel allowances or fuel allocations and eliminating “double payments” of salaries and pensions – sound like they ought to have been in place already.
But the effect of an across-the-board 30% spending cut, freezing all capital expenditure and suppliers’ contracts is bound to hit businesses and workers hard. And an expected cut in the fuel subsidy would lead to higher costs for everyone.
There has been growing unrest in the east of Freetown – the poorer end of the city – where impoverished youths have set up roadblocks in protest at a lack of opportunity.
As I’ve previously mentioned, about 70% of 15-35yr olds don’t have enough work. That’s about 1.4 million people out of a total population of 6.2milllion.
And problems have been exacerbated by a hike in electricity tariffs.
Initial reports had suggested that a 15% VAT-style tax had been imposed on electricity. But we noticed we were only getting about half the number of units for our money, when topping up the meter with our regular sum.
Eventually, the press figured out that im addition to the tax increase, the unit cost had also been raised by about 50%.
This huge rise will affect everyone. Admittedly, it hits the wealthy hardest. Powering kettles, fridges or air conditioning – the preserve of the rich here – will use a lot more credits than simply operating the lights and charging a phone or two.
However, it’s certainly not going to help those who are already struggling to make ends meet.
As the One With The Common Sense is paid in Sterling, we get our cash via Western Union. Going to collect our transfers is probably the chore I dislike the most here.
That’s not because of the website’s habit of stalling part-way through, or that we have a habit of cocking up the payments and seeing our accounts frozen. It’s not even because of the occasional hour-long wait to collect the cash.
It’s just that I never feel more conspicuously “rich” than I do when I go to collect what can be a brick-sized bundle of notes from the teller. (Ironic, given I’m currently earning nothing.)
Others queue for small remittances sent over by relatives in Europe and North America. When informal payments home are taken into account, remittances contribute between 12 and 25% of Sierra Leone’s economic growth.
Last week, I stood behind an elderly man and his son, or perhaps grandson, as they filled in the paper slip to collect cash. He was having difficulties retrieving his phone number and initially asked me for help before deciding I wasn’t much use and enlisting the support of a woman customer.
She ended up practically carrying out the whole transaction for them.
It struck me just how much harder it is to perform even relatively straightforward things in life when you have poor literacy.
The knock-on effects on self-esteem were evident too. As we sat waiting for payment, the older man ordered the youngster (at least 18) to ask about the delay. Chronically shy, the lad had to be cajoled into going to the counter.
From their clothes, I could tell they didn’t have a lot and it made me wonder how much they relied on the cash from abroad.
It also brought to mind the youngsters you see leading around blind beggars here. You often see old men and women carrying sticks in one hand, with their other on the shoulder of a young boy or girl.
They’ll motion across their mouths with their hands, and rub their stomachs to indicate they’re hungry. Occasionally I’ll slip them a note but it becomes more difficult when you’re confronted by a convoy of up to 10 of them, all with the same request.
And I’m never convinced handing out cash is the right thing to do because it ties that youngster into a life of dependency on others. When that elderly relative is gone, what will they have to fall back on?
Officials have reportedly criticised beggars for exploiting children, while the beggars fired back that they have no other means of support.
Being asked for cash is a fact of life here. A security guard we’ve come to know spotted me out running recently and said he wanted to invite me to his church’s harvest festival.While not religious, I’d be fascinated to sit in on a service here. Most churches are of an evangelical bent and I’d say some of the singing (and quite possibly dancing) would be really something.
However, there’s no way the Flump is going to sit still through a three-hour service. And, despite making up the religious half of our partnership, The One With The Common Sense has repeatedly declined invitations, being no fan of a marathon mass herself. Not when the beach is calling, right?
So as I made our Harvest Festival excuses, the guard explained that he had an envelope for me to make a donation. Had I been attending, I’d have happily parted with some cash but I prefer to know where it’s going before I stuff notes in an envelope.
Shortly after that exchange, as I was climbing back in the car, I was approached by a young man and woman. They wanted a lift to Lumley and, as I was passing, I told them to hop in. (Tellingly, this was while The One With The Common Sense was away; she’d have pointed out the dangers of letting random strangers into your car.)
Anyway, they didn’t rob me at knifepoint. But they did end up asking me for cash. I explained I didn’t have any as I’d been running. They looked better off than many, and the woman said she had a job, but they still probably didn’t have much.
While I wish we could help everyone, we simply can’t. And when everyone asks, it’s hard to tell whose need is greatest, or where your cash will do most good. There’s also a danger it could make you cynical and unsympathetic, which I would hate.
It’s one of the reasons I can’t imagine wanting to be a (relatively) rich man in a poor country for any length of time.
(Biebelselskabet on Flickr)