Betty had done a superb job of putting together a program of activities for our visit. Our first stop was a local girl’s secondary school, where summer school was in session. The students, 150 or so girls from age 10 to around 13, were assembled around a large open air stage in the school yard and Sophia was presented with a megaphone to deliver a motivational speech about the project, and the importance of female education. A cameraman from the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Company (SLBC) was also in attendance to record the visits. After the speech, the girls were invited to ask questions; the majority of the questions at first were about being a pilot, rather than anything to do with being a doctor! While most of the girl had probably met a doctor before, a pilot was someone new and exciting. The conversation did turn onto female health after a while, and Sophia’s advice seemed to be well received and sparked another round of questions and comments.
After the talk, Sophia presented a “Flight for Every Mother” poster which was swiftly hung up on the wall of the school. As we were leaving, one of the younger girls was trailing us, but too shy to start a conversation. I chatted to her, and asked her what she liked most about school; she didn’t answer the question directly, but pointed to Sophia and said to me “I want to be like that lady”.
Our next stop was the Ministry of Health, where the Sierra Leone Health Minister had agreed to meet with us. The Ministry was housed in a large municipal building along with several other departments such as land, business and agriculture. The minister, a relatively young lady who was obviously passionate about her work, listened with interest to Sophia’s explanation of the project before explaining to us some of the main challenges they face, and programs set up to combat these issues. Maternal health, and female education, were both high on the list. She expressed her appreciation of the work being done and the importance of support from other nations, and invited us back for a longer period whenever we could come!
That afternoon we were dropped at a small cafe within walking distance of our accommodation; the Oasis cafe. This seemed to be something of an expat hangout, not that Freetown has many expats as far as we could tell; there were maybe four or five other people around. The food was excellent, continuing a theme set the previous night; meals in Freetown turned out to be the best that we’d had so far. Sophia had been in the city a few years before, not long after the civil war, and apparently the difference in all areas of life, food included, was quite pronounced.
First on the agenda for Friday was a visit to the SLBC studios. Sophia was due to appear on the country’s most popular morning radio show, “Tea Time”. She was being interviewed along with a Muslim leader who was talking about the pilgrimage to Mecca, and a local health advocate who was talking about the problem of cheap alcohol in the community. The collection of speakers was a slightly strange mix, but still interesting, and over the hour long program there were a great deal of positive reactions from people calling in.
From the studio, we headed to the hospital where LSTM had arranged for Sophia to give a teaching session to a group of midwives. We were accompanied again by the cameraman from SLBC. This was the first time we’d actually been able to run a full training session and it was well attended by 15 or so hospital staff, with the department chief dropping in from time to time. The session was started off with a short lecture on causes of maternal collapse, followed by instruction on the resuscitation of newborns. To conclude, some practical training was carried out using the “Mama Natalie” birthing simulator to practice dealing with complicated births.
Our work at the hospital completed, we headed out to one of the local clinics in the city; this one was at “Ross Road”. These centers were of course much smaller and more poorly equipped than the main hospital that we had been to visit in the morning. They dealt with all health issues here, preventative as well as curative, but also had two small rooms dedicated to maternity. Here more than anywhere they were particularly grateful for the equipment donations; although simple, the gear would clearly make a big difference to the help that they could offer to pregnant women.
That afternoon we once again found ourselves in the Oasis cafe. All the same people from the previous day were there again, including two girls who were in a state because they’d been kicked out of their rental accommodation and were frantically trying to find somewhere to stay. Apparently their only option so far had a landlord who disliked Brits, so they were working up a story about being from the Yemen; it was not yet entirely convincing.
The weekend, and it was time for a day off. Perusal of the Lonely Planet guide book to Sierra Leone the day before had identified plenty of interesting tourist activities to occupy ourselves with. My first choice of the chimpanzee sanctuary was shot down; perhaps due to uneasiness with the reported chimpanzee escape and murder spree that had happened there some years before. We settled instead on the apparently beautiful beaches at the evocatively named “River Number 2”. A taxi driver was hired for the day and the three of us (we had been joined by Mel, the new project director for HPA) set off along the coast. It was, of course, raining.
A new highway along the coast was being installed, although work had been put on hold for the rainy season. In some locations the road was accessible, and we cruised at good speed along the smooth, albeit still dirt-topped, highway. In locations where work was not so advanced we were forced off onto the existing local roads, which had to be slowly and carefully negotiated by our driver, for fear of the deep rain-washed gullies and other obstacles giving the aging Nissan Sunny more of a beating than it could handle. Along the side of the road at irregular intervals were large stockpiles of boulders. It seemed that these were intended to become gravel for the new roadway, but instead of being mechanically ground down the occasional man, woman, or child was passed, chipping away at the rocks with sledgehammers.
The side road down to “River Number 2 Beach” was now more of a torrent, seeming to be the preferred drainage route for the highway. Much of the road was washed away and there were times, with the Sunny’s wheels spinning and slipping, that I was fairly sure we’d be walking the rest of the way. However, we managed to get through and arrived at the gate where the local collective who run the beach as a tourist operation charged us each $1 for entry. Moments later were were settled at a table in the restaurant, watching the rain beat down on the empty beach and surrounded by stray dogs (or, as a local salesman informed us, dogs that were “raised under the free-range method”).
As we sat down we were taken through the menu (“We have chicken or fish, with rice or chips”) and ordered our meals; after no breakfast we were quite peckish. Three hours later, having talked at great length, bought a few things from the beach salesmen, and been for a walk up to see the river in the gaps between rainstorms, we were getting really very hungry and wondering if perhaps the fish had to be caught first, or they had simply forgotten our order. Even the dogs waiting by our table for scraps were starting to look bored. Never fear, upon returning from a stroll on the beach Mel and I were informed by Sophia that lunch had arrived! In keeping with the meals in Sierra Leone so far, the food was in fact exceptionally good; as one would hope after all the attention that must have been lavished on it.
After lunch we set off on the canoe trip that we had been persuaded to invest in, to see the waterfall “and the crocodiles”. In retrospect this seems a little strange, but we completely glossed over the issue of the crocodiles and asked instead about the weather; surely, we thought, we shall be drenched? “No poblem”, came the reply; “the tide is going out now, so it won’t rain”. When challenged as to why he was carrying an umbrella, he did admit that this method of predicting weather was not entirely foolproof.
The river was, due to the season, flowing fast and high. The first section of the river was run by the “Captain” (as he called himself) wading in front of the canoe pulling it. Eventually the river was a little deep for this, and the flow slightly slower, and we set off at a crawl up-river. The scenery was very reminiscent of the Florida everglades with mangrove trees lining both banks; the way that new limbs will occasionally plummet into the water and become new roots, instead of sprouting leaves, is fascinating. Eventually the roar of tumbling water could be made out, loudly enough that we were grateful to be travelling upstream, and not down.
The waterfall was flowing freely with the constant rain. No crocodiles were in sight, thankfully, as we stepped out of the canoe and set off up the waterfall, guided by our Captain. As a true Englishman I elected to take the umbrella which turned out to be a very handy aid for clambering over wet and slippery rocks. Things nearly went sour when Sophia slipped and went into the water; there was no danger to her but she had the camera around her neck! With impressive reflexes, even before she was half way down she had lifted the camera above her head and signaled for me to save it (through a kind of “Whueeerg!” sound). The journey back down the river was much quicker, and after a final drink on the sand to enjoy the brief moment of sunshine that had appeared we headed back to the city in our faithful Nissan.
We woke up early on Sunday morning, ready for a 6:30am departure from the accommodation, and a 7:30 water taxi across to the airport. It was, of course, raining hard. We had a little trouble leaving the building as the front door was locked from the outside and the night watchman had evidently forgotten that we were leaving early and was still asleep. Eventually we realised that the back door, from the kitchen, was open and that we could leave that way and walk around to the front. One hopes that we’d have worked this out a little faster in the event of a fire. On entering the taxi I was pleased to discover the sunglasses that I had lost the day before; not that it looked like I’d be needing them any time soon.
The office at the water taxi was heaving with people, and after a long wait we secured tickets number 41 and 42. Several boats were being prepared, and we didn’t have to wait long before crew members with umbrellas hustled us down the ramps and on board. Despite being much more heavily loaded than on the trip into the city, the engines seemed to be working properly this team and the sea was calm, leading to a much smoother and faster crossing. We were discharged onto the jetty on the other side and packed tightly into a waiting bus that took us to the terminal where we were reunited with our luggage, and settled in to wait for Franklin and his handling team. Outside the rain continued to beat down and we started to wonder if we’d be leaving today…
Once Franklin arrived he escorted me up to the tower to check out the weather situation. Good news! The rain was already subsiding, and the satellite picture showed that the bad weather was part of a large weather system parked over the coast; once we flew a few miles in land we’d be, relatively speaking, in the clear. Wanting to take advantage of the break in the weather I headed through security to get to the aircraft and prepare for fueling while Sophia went to pay the fees. One of Franklin’s less experienced assistants accompanied me, and we ended up stuck in a long queue with British Airways and Arik Air passengers; I later found out that Franklin had taken Sophia through a different route with no waiting at all. My bottle of water caused great consternation as a prohibited item, but as soon as it was explained that we were headed to a private flight then we were waved through without any hassle.
Before starting the aircraft up to taxi for fueling, I emptied the luggage compartment and removed the rear bulkhead. With the leak that had been causing the rear carpet to become soaked, and the non-stop rain, I was concerned about water getting behind the rear bulkhead and affecting the electrical equipment mounted there such as the battery and inverters. To my relief, everything was much drier than before, and the electrical area held no water at all. The leak seemed to have mysteriously fixed itself…
Sophia had had to pay for half of the airport fees in dollars, and so we were running a little low. Given that the fuelers would accept dollars only, we were forced to compromise on fuel and only load 60 liters. This was still enough to get us to Yamoussoukro with a safe margin, but was a little less than I’d hoped to take on board. The fuelers generously gave us an extra 10 liters free before posing with the aircraft for photos; they had not fueled something so small before. As we took the pictures, an ear-splitting roar came from behind us and we turned to see the British Airways flight becoming airborne just a few 10s of meters from us, London bound. It made us both a little homesick! After another round of photos with Franklin, who had very generously waived his handling fee, we started up and taxied for departure.
The weather was typical, with rain showers and cumulus clouds all around but no thunderstorms or other hazardous weather to worry about. As usual we were being asked for our ETAs at reporting points along the entire route almost as soon as our wheels had left the ground. There was not too much in the way of other traffic around, although we did listen in to a long conversation with a military aircraft who had departed from Saudi Arabia and was on his way to Ascension Island; ATC were very keen to take down the name, address, and phone number of the operating company. We presumed that this was something to do with sending a bill for their services. It took a good 5 or 6 tries before they were able to read back the spelling of “Riyadh” correctly.
Yamoussoukro is the political, although not the economic, capital of Cote D’Ivoire. We approached the airport from the northwest, crossing a large lake before turning onto finals. Out the left-hand window could be seen the city’s most impressive building, the tallest basilica in the world. Tower directed us to park about halfway down the large apron, which was empty apart from an old 737 which had evidently been parked there for a number of years now. The only people around at ground level were the fire brigade, who marshaled us into our parking spot and informed us that we were the only flight of the day. Despite being an international airport, it seemed that the immigration police were not present, and we were told that we should simply accompany the firemen around the end of the terminal building and down the road to try and find a taxi.
The complete lack of flights caused a corresponding lack of taxis. We waited at a crossroads for a while with two of the firemen until finally a taxi came past. It was full, but this didn’t stop our friends. One of them managed to squeeze into the vehicle and accompanied it to its drop-off point, to ensure that the driver came back for us! Some time later they re-appeared and we loaded our gear before heading into the town. This city was bu far the most developed we had been to so far in West Africa, with good tarmac roads, very little litter, and a spacious, well designed layout. A problem soon became apparent in that the taxi driver had no idea where our hotel was, but after a couple of phone calls and a little bit of aimless driving around the correct location was identified and we checked in.
We awoke a little later than planned on Monday due to a problem with the alarm and a complete lack of natural light in the hotel room. As it turned out, the taxi that we had arranged to collect us never showed up, so we didn’t need to rush. The morning was spent fielding emails and plans for the next few stops, as well as re-planning the following day. Sophia had been invited to meet with the World Health Organisation (WHO) whose offices were in Abidjan, a good three to four hour drive away. It was, however, just over an hour’s flight. Some research turned up a flying club at Abidjan airport; an initial telephone call failed due to insufficient French language skills, but a follow up email secured contact details for a senior pilot who spoke good English, leading to an invitation to go and visit them the next day.
Later in the afternoon we decided to head to Yamoussoukro’s top tourist attraction, the Basilica. This was constructed in the late 80s by the then-President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, at a cost of around $300 million. Clearly money that could not have been spent anywhere better, in a West African nation. The dimensions are astonishing; 158m tall, with the cross at the top being 9m in height by itself. The area is paved with 7 hectares of imported European marble, and the stained glass windows were imported from France. The basilica will seat 7,000, with room for another 11,000 standing. Flanking the main building are two large villas; one is the rectory, and the other a papal villa which has only ever been used once when the Pope came to consecrate the building in 1990.
Included in our entry fee was the services of a local guide, who spoke good English despite his modest protestations to the contrary. He took us first to the main building, explaining that photographs were not permitted inside. However, as soon as we stepped inside the main entrance he suggested we take some photos, and this practice continued throughout the visit. The Basilica was empty save for a handful of cleaning staff, and one or two other small groups of tourists. We were told all about the large columns that ringed the perimeter; apparently these were not structural but instead contained stairs, elevators, or rainwater drainage from the roof. We entered one of the columns, and took an unusual cylindrical elevator up to the gallery which offered a superb view of the interior and dome. A side room at this level contained a model of the Basilica along with photographs of the construction and comparisons of the building with cathedrals in France, and the Basilica in the Vatican.
Having already exhausted the dubious menu in the hotel restaurant, we decided to walk to the Hotel President, only a kilometer from our own lodgings. This hotel was clearly a grand old place in the 70s or 80s and was now a little tired, but still showed signs of its glory days. The restaurant was a circular construction perched at the very top, on the 14th floor, and was surprisingly good quality, with excellent food and drink. We enjoyed treating ourselves a little, still at a much lower price than we’d pay in Europe, before strolling back to our room. Seeing people walking down the road in that area was clearly a little unusual; every taxi that passed hooted their horn at us in an attempt to pick us up.
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