When I arrive in a new African country, I like to leave my camera in my cabin the first few times i go into town. I can hear from a million people how safe (or not) a place is, but I like to suss it all out for myself, so I go out with nothing on me the first few times while I get the feel of a place.
Today, that was a terrible decision on so many levels.
It started when we left the port gate and found a poda-poda half-filled with our friends, who were heading out to spend the long weekend at the beach. They offered us a ride to town and so we hopped in. There was music blaring from crackling speakers, a wingman to open and close the door (except they call them apprentices here) and I had to brace myself to stay seated while the bench I was on threatened to tear free from a shaky welding job at any minute. I stared out the window beside me at the streets, more colourful and vibrant than I remembered, filled with people selling anything and everything. Tissues and tank tops and flip flops and feather dusters and cookies and crackers and I could go on. We were ten minutes into the day, and I was already regretting my decision to leave the camera behind.
Once we piled out of the van, I was enveloped by it, by the rush of West Africa. The heat, the smells, the open sewers to be dodged, the quickstep out of the path of oncoming trucks, the hands always reaching for me, to touch my arms and grab my attention for a quick word. How de body? I wan talk small wif you. When I got separated from my group by a few steps, a man grabbed my wrist, and instead of the typical greeting, launched into song. (This is the next moment I was wishing for a camera, set to record.) You are beautiful, white woman, he crooned, and without missing a beat I sang back to him. My husband thinks so too! My marital status seemed to have no bearing on the state of his heart, because he sang right back to me: I don't care; still beautiful!
I extricated myself from that situation, and we made our way to a place commonly known as Fabric Street since all the shops and the little stalls set up in front of the shops and some of the kids walking past with bowls on their heads are selling brightly-coloured fabrics in any pattern imaginable. We browsed for about an hour when we looked up and saw a whole group of white people, a camera crew with fancy equipment and intense looks on their faces. And right there, in the middle of the muddy, dirt road, was Eva Mendes , interviewing a woman selling fabric. The girl from Hitch, on the streets of Freetown. Strike three for camera-less me.
We stood staring for a minute until one of the assistants kindly asked us to move aside. It turns out we're a little too white to be in the background of a movie about Sierra Leone. Eva (we're on a first-name basis by now, I'm pretty sure) was filming for a PBS documentary based on the book Half the Sky , which I don't know much about, but seems to be pretty awesome. It's about women's issues around the world, things like child prostitution and maternal mortality and gender violence, and from what we learned, they're flying around the world with different celebrities, doing interviews in lots of countries and bringing many of these untold stories to light.
At any rate, we got the chance to say hello to her, and it turns out she really is very pretty, totally down to earth, and couldn't have been more excited to hear that we actually had Starbucks coffee on the ship. (Honestly, she almost lunged at me when I said that.) When she found out that we consider these crazy, muddy streets home, she asked about what we do, so we told her a little about Mercy Ships. You want to know what she said?
You guys are freaking rad. Except a different word. But this is a family-friendly blog, so you get the point. Eva Mendes thinks we're all 'freaking' rad, and I couldn't believe I didn't have my camera right then.
The rest of the day went as expected until we were on our way back to the ship. We caught a ride home in a Landrover with some other friends, and were nearly there when, for some unexplainable reason, it just stalled and refused to start again. No one hesitated; all of us girls jumped out and pushed the dang thing a good ways to the HOPE center, where we left it to be sorted out by the transportation guys. I was pretty much past thinking about my stupid decision to leave the camera behind, but did wish I could have shot a video of us ladies heaving on the huge, white vehicle. (Interesting note: it's actually better for guys to push cars not because they're stronger, but because the wideness of women's hips means we can't actually fit so many of us back there. Consider yourself informed.)
This has been set of experiences more deserving than any of the title TIA: This is Africa. So naturally it just ended with Jenn calling me down to D Ward to bring the IPod for an emergency dance party. The sight of a little boy who just lost an eye to cancer dancing his heart out in little stripey socks while another pikin sporting a matching tiger-print gown and tiny black loafers looked on approvingly was just the thing to round out the whole day.
(Sorry I don't have any photos to go with all these words. Did I mention I left my camera behind?)