Africa met us a little earlier than we were expecting. As we changed planes in Brussels to join the flight to Freetown, we immediately knew which gate was ours; it was the one surrounded by a crowd of people (I think we’ve seen our last queue for a few weeks), carrying oversized hand luggage and animatedly talking and gesturing to each other. It was a good initial preparation for Freetown airport, but the truth is that very little could have prepared us for the hours after that.
As the aircraft doors opened, the heat, sounds and smells of West Africa hit us. We smiled at each other and then walked into the cramped immigration hall. Drenched with sweat within seconds, we slowly inched towards the immigration officials. Our two-year old daughter, stripped down to a pair of shorts, proceeded to cause havoc, dancing through the crowd, knocking over the barriers, and generally going where she shouldn’t. A kind Russian insistently pulled us up to the immigration officials, where we were whisked through and then Jessica and the children were ushered into the air-conditioned VIP area, while the team and I hunted for our luggage – the benefits of travelling with small children! With twenty-nine bags to collect, it took some time, but wonderfully they all came through and our very relieved team readied themselves for the next step – getting from the airport to the ferry which would then take us over to the city of Freetown. But again, there was someone waiting for us just outside the airport and it looked as if things were going smoothly. Only one of the three vehicles that were supposed to pick us up arrived, but that was fine. We precariously pilled all of the luggage on top of the poda-poda (mini-van), sat on each other’s laps and began the half-hour journey to the ferry. With the shock-absorbers completely compressed, we felt every bump of the road, but we were delighted to be on our way.
We arrived at the ferry terminus to find the gates closed, but Ali (who had met us), persuaded them to open the gates and we drove up to the ferry – just as it sounded it’s horn and pulled away from the dock. Our initial concern was quickly relieved as another ferry arrived and an inconceivably large crowd of people and vehicles got off the ferry. As I looked around and saw the small number of vehicles waiting to get on, we had our first hint, that perhaps things weren’t going to turn out quite as planned. Sure enough, no amount of persuasion was going to convince the crew to make the crossing back to Freetown. “You have three options,” Ali told me. “Sleep on the dock and catch the first ferry in the morning, hire a private boat, or take vehicles around the long way – a five hour journey over an uncompleted road.” The private boat was going to use all of our contingency funds, within moments of arriving in Freetown, sleeping on the concrete dock with three small children and fourteen ladies didn’t seem like a good idea, so driving it was! Ali quickly went off to see what vehicles were available. We surrounded the children and the large pile of bags, and waited. The private boat slipped it’s moorings, with it’s cargo of VIPs, and as it’s lights disappeared into the distance, Ali returned to tell me that there were no vehicles capable of taking us the long way around. Not for the first time that night, I wondered if we had made the right decision.
With mid-night approaching, we decided to see if we could sleep in the back of an army truck that was also waiting for the morning’s ferry. And then the wonderful generosity of heart and hospitality of the Africans stepped up. The soldier driving the truck allowed us to load the bags up into the back, and as we did that, Ali and several other men started to work on persuading him to drive us around the long way. His initial concern (not least about getting in serious trouble with his superiors) and lack of fuel (jerry cans of diesel were found) was overcome, and soon we had the children and some of the team on makeshift beds on top of the bags, while the rest of us sat on a couple of wooden benches (only partially attached to the bed of the truck) and we were off.
Needless to say, sitting in the back of a truck on wooden benches, for what turned out to be seven hours on an uncompleted road as red dust poured in and covered everything, was not one of the more comfortable experiences of our lives, but we were strangely grateful and full of joy; Elijah in particular kept saying that this was his funnest night ever (in fact all three children coped amazingly well – Star cried for a total of probably 5 minutes the entire 24 hour trip and Apollos exercised his extraordinary ability to sleep almost any where when he was tired)! We sang, we prayed, a few managed to sleep, and we gaped as we saw in the tail lights the ground we had just covered; it was a relief to not see the obstacles coming, but just be grateful in hindsight to see that we had passed unharmed. At one point we looked back to see that we had crossed a rickety wooden bridge with the marks of our tires going right out to the edges on either side. Guardian angels were working overtime!
Bleary eyed and incredibly grateful, we arrived just as the sun was coming up at the St George Foundation – the recovery centre for street children that will be our home for the next five weeks. The team was amazing through-out, taking everything in their stride, responding with joy and positivity, and not giving in to the fear that could have so easily overwhelmed us.