It might be five weeks since we left its shores but only now can I say we’ve truly left Sierra Leone.
Of course, the emotional ties – to places, friends and former colleagues – remain. But the thing that’s kept our minds well and truly anchored to Freetown is physical: a 45kv generator and the bloody great, off-white lump of rusting metal it’s encased in.
Until yesterday, it was still sitting outside our former back kitchen window swaddled in/held together by a big blue tarp. And that meant our watchmen were still sitting out front, “guarding” it, as though any old petty thief could stroll in and pinch something that took 10 men an entire afternoon to manually heave from the front gate.
I don’t have details of how they managed to shift the great hulk. The canopy was twice the size of the generator, which was big enough to power a small office, and arrived by crane from the back of a lorry. But we’re informed it has left the premises.
So now we can pay our watchmen their final wages, hand the landlord back his keys and repay the interest-free loan we had to take from The One With The Common Sense’s employer to cover the cost of the sodding thing (along with an entire year’s rent) in the first place.
At one stage, with our departure looming and no firm bids on the table, we’d almost given up hope of recouping any of that outlay.
However, thanks to both the superior negotiating skills of one of the One With the Common Sense’s colleagues and Sterling’s post-Brexit vote weakness, in real terms we sold at a remarkable 90% of cost price.
Being forced to fork out a year’s rent upfront, a bombshell initially and still a source of some rancour, has proven a blessing in disguise in some ways. It gave our friend time to find a buyer, take delivery of the most enormous carrier bag of Leones (terrifying) and make the necessary banking arrangements, in exchange for a decent cut.
But it hasn’t made having to settle a hefty loan, weeks after leaving the country, any easier to stomach. Indeed, when we tot up the final accounts on our 10-month sojourn, they’ll be firmly in the red.
Things are only likely to get worse next year at tax-return time. A quirk of the system means that HMRC classes those like us, who live or work abroad for a short period, as UK residents. It leaves the One With The Common Sense facing demands to hand over a fair chunk of what she earned in Freetown.
Not that I’m complaining too much. It was all our choice. And while we might be financially worse off for our time away, it’s proven an enriching experience in so many other ways.
It does, however, underline that Sierra Leone doesn’t necessarily offer the stereotypical expat experience of living it up tax-free, having home-help do the chores and then returning home to plough the proceeds into a big, new house. This isn’t Dubai we’re talking about.
Again, part of it comes down to choice. I could have opted to work (or, more correctly, to be gainfully employed). Then we could have hired a nanny, a driver, housekeeper and “chop-chop” lady to do our dinner. That’s certainly a direct way of helping local people.
But I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of “staff”. It’s a bit too Downton Abbey for me, and I’m sure all right-thinking people would agree there’s nothing whatsoever good about that.
Besides, I’m perfectly capable of mopping my own floors and would rather do it in my own time than have to manically run round getting the place tidy for a cleaner.
It took me ages to get used to having our watchmen open the gate for us, turn on the generator, or switch to emergency water supplies. I could have done all that – (although, admittedly, there really was a knack to that gate) – and it was weird seeing someone wander round outside the windows, even if they couldn’t see in. But we’d have been foolish to forego some security.
Over time we got used to it. It was reassuring to hear Ibrahim or Abdullah shout “good morning” through an open window. We would often pass the time chatting to them outside or hand them a cuppa and some snacks as they sheltered from the rain.
But while we liked and trusted them, you wouldn’t describe them as friends in the normal sense. We rarely invited them inside – I don’t think any of us would have been comfortable – and that’s not a particularly nice way to live.
Occasionally they’d warn us against leaving something carelessly exposed, while Abdullah was constantly checking we’d locked doors, as though to point out that we should trust no-one.
Hiring staff certainly does come with risks. We heard numerous tales of cleaners with light-fingers, while the first suspicion in most robbery cases seems to be of some form of inside job.
Still, we heard as many recommendations of trustworthy workers and doubtless most good employees don’t crop up in conversation at all. And while we were generally careful about letting people into the house, I don’t remember ever having cause for suspicion.
Aware that we weren’t employing too many people, we tried to contribute to the community by paying those we did hire well – about 25% over the going rate in the case of our watchmen. Even so, that only amounted to about £80-a-month.
It doesn’t matter that we can argue we were paying well over the average wage and, I hope, treating them better than most employers, it still sounds derisory.
And there’s the rub. I’m simply not comfortable with living in a big house, behind imposing gates, eating expensive food and having workers call me “Mr Andy”, while just outside people face real hardship. I don’t imagine I’d ever get used to it and I wouldn’t really want to.
That’s not to criticise those who embrace the lifestyle, and revel in it. As it stands, Sierra Leone needs foreign expertise, and those who come in need to be at ease and to enjoy life if they’re going to stick around to make an impact.
Packing our bags and heading home might make us feel less awkward but it doesn’t make a jot of difference to those who have no choice but to stay behind.
The One With The Common Sense’s new job involves projects in Sierra Leone, so I’m glad to say its people and their problems won’t just disappear from our thoughts. It won’t be long before she’s touching down again at Lungi airport and I’d like to think the Flump and I might go with her some time.
In any case, whatever my discomfiture about certain aspects of our expat life, I’m still glad we did it. It certainly doesn’t mean we’d rule out heading overseas again, just perhaps in different circumstances.
Besides, I haven’t quite given up on those dreams of Paris or Brussels yet.
- Downton Abbey tea photo: Carl Mikoy/Flickr