On 11 July 2017 DFID hosted an international Summit on Family Planning. As part of the process for securing commitments from countries on improving sexual and reproductive health and rights, I was seconded to Sierra Leone. This is the diary of my first day.
I followed the thin line of passengers from the plane to the transit bus across steaming tarmac. Inside, people gripped metal rails or pressed themselves against the thick plastic windows, sticky with condensation. The air-conditioning emitted a constant whirr but was already a welcome escape from the heat outside. As the bus moved the unit coughed, and a pool of previously trapped water spilled down onto the passenger next to me, who swore and shunted his case off towards a drier spot.
Inside the airport queues were divided into ‘Sierra Leonean’ and ‘Other’, and with each arrival, the attendant managing the line would ask whether they held a Sierra Leonean passport. When I reached the front he pointed silently towards ‘Other’. After a fingerprint scan and a photo, I was greeted by my driver, Ernesto, who dropped me at the ferry that would carry me from Lugi to Freetown.
The boat itself was tiny, and dipped unnervingly as I entered, but soon we were racing across the sea while the wind tugged persistently at the door, unfastening the zips and allowing occasional plumes of spray inside as the boat careened over the water. Eventually, an amber glow spread along the boat and, as the bow dipped, we finally saw Freetown for one fleeting moment before the waves snatched it from view. It was a mountain of tiny lights, spread so thinly that the city the night around it was still unbroken. A second wave, we were closer now, and could just about make out cars and motorbikes, their headlights tracing the red clay paths. The city rose along the rim of the mountainside, and in the centre, an enormous crescent moon bloomed in a deep orange, erected in celebration of Ramadan.
Minutes later we docked, and Alex, my next driver, led me through the terminal to an enormous Jeep with bright blue diplomatic plates. We rode through the hot streets as people thronged across roads and roundabouts, selling drinks and clothes through car windows. Packs of dogs trotted behind or lazed in the shade of shopfronts and strange trees. As we climbed further into the mountain highways gave way to unmarked trails, leading to the top of a city that seemed to rise indefinitely. On a ridge overlooking the city we drove between the dilapidated old colonial houses of the first British civil servants in Sierra Leone – they had built their homes in the cool of by the hilltops in days when people were traded beneath the ancient cotton tree at the courthouse.
Rounding a corner we pulled in to the hotel where I’d be spending the next seven days. We were soaked by the sudden onset of a torrential rain as we hauled my case out of the boot. An amused receptionist handed my room key to me at arms-length.
I collapsed onto my bed to the sound of the great palm trees outside my balcony heaving beneath the downpour. Exhausted, I recalled Alex’s parting words: “In Sierra Leone the rainy season lasts for five months.”