Beaches Bikes and Brake Failures

February 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

On reflection, I still feel a little guilty; apart from this little attempt, I have done a completely terrible job at giving you much of an indication of the cuisine in Sierra Leone. To ease my guilt I can say, well, it’s already been done. In case I have left you curious and wanting, look here for a detailed effort on many of Salone’s dishes. But the real truth is there are just so many other more exciting things to write about. You have to trust me on this one; food is definitely not the countries strong point. Although I cannot say the same for my last five days in Sierra Leone spent on the beaches of the peninsular.

Tokeh, River #1

To get to the beaches we take bikes. The going is fast and dusty, the mountains rising from the sea swallowing us up forested and deep.  We stay at different places along the way sleeping in little thatched huts on the sand with mattresses made of old rice sacks stitched together and stuffed with grass. The water is bath like warm as we float in its blue and green. We laze in the shade of the palm trees sharing the beaches with the fishermen and their nets, their boats at sea tied to trees on the shore. The colourful wooden vessels are sharp-nosed and slim with names like “Believe in God”, Jesus is in the Boat” and “ Movement of Jah People” painted on their sides in blue and yellow. They have a certain knack for names here, At John O’bay we meet a Mr. Perfect, and at Bureh a Prince William, just to name a few. In this tropical paradise we dine on fish, lobster, crab and oysters plucked straight from the sea.

We spend two nights in York staying with the Whale Foundation an NGO that works in the area. York was built by freed slavers once slavery was abolished (look here for more info). The town escaped the burnings of the civil war and the old buildings charm us, tall, wooden, shuttered and dilapidated.  The windows look into shadowy insides, floating with curtains of blue and pink printed roses that are pleasing against the faded and pealing salmon pink and brown of the houses.

York

Each night we can see the lights of the illegal fishing boats out at sea. They pay bribes to the navy and the ministry of fisheries to rape the seas with their trawlers and fishfinder radars. The locals are no competition with their leaky rigs and nets that they scare the fish into by rhythmically drumming the sides of their boats. They tell us how the illegal boats will attack them and cut their nets if they get too close. They have noted the dwindling fish stocks since the illegal boats arrived. Now the locals need to go further and further for their daily catch. We meet a man from the Environmental Justice Foundation an NGO that do research and work in the area trying to stop the illegal fishing and to protect the local people from its effects. The foundation provides very interesting information and videos that you can find here.

Sadly our beautiful time on the beach, warm and relaxed, toes up in the sun, comes to an end. Heading back to Freetown from Tokeh we can only find one bike. So it is D, me, our bags, a big bundle of water under my arms and the driver all atop the Honda. The drivers slow and careful pace pleases me, until, that is, we start going down a hill and discover that the brakes don’t work!!! I look down at the bottom of the hill, an eroded and bumpy corner turning into a narrow concrete bridge with no railings over a rocky river. As we begin to gather speed, I notice that the driver has begun to direct us in the direction of the jungle on the side of the road. D, me, our bags, the big bundle of water under my arms, the driver and the Honda crash into the dense green scrub, sharp thorny branches breaking our fall, the bike falling on our legs. Lucky we’re only left with a few bruises and scratches. Somehow I don’t feel overly fazed. I must be getting used to break failures. This is our second one in less than two weeks. The last one leaving me petrified rolling backwards down a steep hill and a nasty cut on the underside of my big toe. I lose my shoe when I try to launch myself off the bike to what I think is safety. As a result, I get stuck, my foot dragging on the gravel as D desperately tries to pull me back on before my leg goes under the wheel. In hindsight I didn’t react in the most sensible manner. However, at the time it seemed better than continuing backwards down the hill! I had already calculated in my head approximately how fast we would be going when we hit the corner and it was pretty damn fast, especially for reverse. But somehow with me half on and half off the driver put the bike into gear and turned it sideways brining us to a stop.

Back in the jungle lying in the thorns under the bike, we decide to get a lift in a red sports car that comes by in a timely manner. Covered in dust, the axle grinding and bumping along the road we make it to Lakka and from there to Freetown in a taxi.

That night I fly out of Sierra Leone leaving the warm weather and my darling D behind, but not forgetting a bout of gastro to accompany me my 20 hour flights and stopovers to Belgium. One last departing gift.

The Hill We Watched

January 21, 2011 § 4 Comments

We have watched Mena Hill from our house ever since we arrived here. Wondered how big it was, always confused, sometimes looking huge and looming and other times small and meek. A trick of perceptions leaving us curious. We watched it through clear blue sky at dawn and dusty dusky hues in the evening. We watched it burn red and hot strips of flame, the crackling clearly audible through the still air.

We waited for a cool moment to climb.

One hazy afternoon we go with our friend AKK, leaving our front door and traipsing down the road with clouds of dust rising around our feet. We pick our way along a path leading us through Cassava plantations and past a slow stream with women beating their washing against the rocks. We start our ascent on crumbling slopes dotted with more Cassava and eventually through thick tall and heavy grass.

As we climb, AKK tells us of the name ‘Mena’, and how all landforms in Sierra Leone are named after spirits. “African mythology is filled with spirits, invisible beings with powers for good or evil… Many spirits are associated with physical features such as mountains, rivers, wells, trees, and springs.”(I find this information here later).

At the top, looming boulders on a charred peak meet us. At our feet, a tiny landscape of coral burnt grass stumps. I sit on a rock with AKK and we watch Makeni through the dust. We talk of generosity and acts of kindness.

The definitions I have built around myself begin to crumble and I become beautifully aware of how the exact end of my body has no start or finish it just washes into the rest of the world. All the creatures and the whole universe and me, we are all the same.

I remember sadly the riches of Australia where everyone hoards their wealth behind their private locked doors.

My experience in Sierra Leone, if you have something you share it with someone who doesn’t. And when you have nothing, someone will give you what you need.

There lies the memory that we are one and the same.

It is the same lesson I learn in all developing countries I visit.

The conversation leaves my heart gentle. It is so simple to be kind.

We descend with the red round sun behind us, wild fires charging a distant ridge.

moments past

January 16, 2011 § 5 Comments

A few little moments past that don’t seem to fit anywhere…
… blue plastic cups make a pretty colour against yellow walls
and

Maggi, who lives with us as our security guard, helper and friend

taking photography seriously

A passer by

 

Who lives next door

 

Francis

a wedding on Saturday
… pink
and gold


… that is all

Thyme for Pumpkin

January 9, 2011 § 3 Comments


The markets in Makeni, shoulder to shoulder with hot crawling crowds carrying their buys and sales and indeed, their handbags, on their heads for convenient hands free shopping. The way is particularly slow, pedestrians congested in the narrow spaces between the stalls, every productive piece of bare earth used for displaying neatly balanced towers of onions and stacks of maggi cubes, portions of salt, plates of roasted peanuts, handfuls of chillies and piles of dried fish. However this is not really a market, it’s meant to be a road lined with stalls, but they inevitably spread to encompass the whole space. When a car wants to pass through, it noses itself into the crowds as women hurriedly gather their trade and punters squeeze against the sides of the street.

It is here one sunny day that I spy amongst the dry and smelly fish, a big beautiful deep green pumpkin. ‘Yes mam, yes mam’ says the soft and rounded lady sitting behind her display holding the pumpkin out to me on a seemingly particularly stretched out arm. Her body reaches heavily out over the fish towards me. She is guessing I will be stupid and white enough to pay her almost a dollar for this one so she won’t take any chances with me missing the cue. And she is right of course, I can’t resist. Soon it is heavy in my bag on my shoulder as I balance my new weight on the back of the Okada home, weaving through the cars and pedestrians. I am happy with my buys today, also tucked away in my bag, tiny bundles of individually wrapped dried thyme that I find with excitement amongst the maggi cubes and salt in the markets but just never recognised before.

Beautiful things. My pumpkin at home amongst the basil seedlings

What then? Well not traditional but predictable, pumpkin soup with spices brought gallantly all the way from Morocco, pumpkin fritters that leave me wanting to cry and finally, Pumpkin in a Skillet with Thyme, Lime and Chilli.

 

Recipe for Pumpkin in a Skillet with Thyme Lime and Chilli

This recipe makes for a lovely snack and is so simple. But lets not mistake lack of complexity for lack of tasty because it is the latter indeed. I can be grateful for that here where you are far from overwhelmed by an abundance of variety and reminded of how effective just a few ingredients can be.

You will need

About a quarter to half a pumpkin sliced roughly 5mm thick
Oil for frying
Thyme to taste
Chilli powder to taste
1 or 2 limes
1-2 fresh chillies, seeds removed and finely sliced

In a skillet or heavy based fry pan gently fry pumpkin over a medium heat until golden brown and crisp on the outside but soft in the middle.

Sprinkle immediately with thyme, salt and chilli powder and serve with a squeeze of lime and sprinkle of fresh chilli.

Eat straight away; it is best hot and still crisp.

Served on our broken chopping board, the prettiest thing I could find in the house

Salone Chop

January 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

Mokabi, local vegetable related to eggplants but very bitter unless you salt it, boil it and then rinse it in cold water.

Carried away by travelling stories as I am, I seem to have ignored the fact that this blog is meant to be mostly recipes and stories about food. So here I have put together a post on Salone cuisine as I have experienced it so far. I wouldn’t be able to say that it is completely traditional but it’s been an interesting exploration in itself.

The Krio word for food is simply ‘chop’. Most locals will agree that unless you have had rice with your chop you have not eaten. The second most common ingredient after rice would have to be cassava, of which both the white root and green leaf are used.

Cassava leaf

I have seen so many chickens killed, plucked and cooked here in Sierra Leone. Here is Teeboy our neighbour.

Theresa our neighbour and friend cooking dried cassava

Theresa has been cooking for us 3 times a week. Usually spiced cassava leaf with dried fish and rice, or beans and cassava root all made with lashings of palm oil. As long as there’s not too much dried fish, I think I have started to like this standard local fare especially since my attempts to cook here on our small coal pot have left me often disheartened. My first three dishes – black-eyed peas that tasted like mothballs, watery pumpkin soup and soggy pumpkin fritters – well, I don’t really want to talk about it. Thankfully we have overcome the dilemma of melting plastic bags on the coal to get it lighted, like the locals do, by buying some kero to assist our attempts. Even though not as resourceful, at least it is not as toxic. But since then I have had some small successes, including fried spicy pumpkin, black-eyed bean stew and some rather nice cardamom pancakes with fried bananas wrapped inside. I tried to stop my mind from wandering to thoughts of buckwheat pancakes with home-made honey labna and stewed seasonal fruit with a hint of star anise, to no avail. It dawned on me that my taste buds have been too long spoilt with the luxuries of a well-stocked wholesome organic pantry and I’m reaching the point of no return. Even my shame for cringing at a perfectly nutritious meal in a country where the very basics of food cost a person almost their entire wage, are doing little to satisfy these damned taste buds.

Chillies come wrapped in leaves and garden eggs (eggplants)

However, I also have a confession to make, a favourite local chop of mine is far from wholesome and I have no idea about whether it is organic. It is a Shawama, which is BBQ beef cooked with chilli maggi powder on fulla bread with mayonnaise and I usually have it with a can of soft drink. Now for those of you who know me, wheat and beef are two things that rarely end up on my plate and prior to coming here I don’t think I had had a soft drink since I was in my teens and wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I had. I don’t know what is happening to me but perhaps my taste buds are getting a little less fussy after all. Although I think it is more a case of finding comfort in things that are familiar, I am an Australian after all.

Fresh coconut

I didn’t want to leave you with an unsavory taste, so here is a very photogenic coconut eaten fresh from the tree.

I promise recipes very soon.

Morning in Makama

December 27, 2010 § 3 Comments

Morning in Makama, the mist holds the night longer than would be normal. Distant drums break the dawn, the birds and roosters seeming to call in time. The neighbours wake before the sun, begin their chatter early so that once it is day it is like it was never night. The sweeping of Maggie’s brush on the floor brings rhythm to my day as I sit and wait for the long golden streaks to fall between the shadows. The far off sounds of children begin to rise.

I enjoy my cup of tea far too much and before I know it there is only one sip left. I don’t feel ready for so many sounds yet, this morning I am feeling slower than most. But this sweet time is too good to waste in bed, the sun has not yet turned our house into a furnace and the air as I sit by the window is kind to me. Here they call mist African snow, and I can understand why as it brings with it the coolest moments you’ll find in Salone.

As the day continues on its way, children with buckets half as tall as themselves scamper together to the well. Soon they will return, calculated, careful and slow, their buckets full to the brim on their heads, backs and necks tall under the weight.

Every morning now a young boy comes to our house with bread carried in a large bowl on his head. He has the best loaves we have found here, soft chewy baguettes they call Fulla bread served behind a shy smile. He cooks his bread in a big oven that all the bakers in the area share and hire for an hour or two each day. Seems such a logical way for everyone to do their small trade.

Other regular traders to our house include a young girl who sells oranges already pealed but with the white pith remaining so that you can cut a hole in the top and suck the juice out. Ingenious!

Young girl comes past our house selling oranges

Such a nice way to buy groceries

Slowly things are becoming more familiar here, cultural etiquettes, and what at first seemed like strange and sometimes bewildering activities are becoming normal. Bit by bit I am getting used to the constant calls of ‘Orpoto’, meaning white man, when I walk down our dusty road. But the friendly and open nature of the people is so welcoming and I’m beginning to figure there’s not much a broad smile can’t solve. It is hard to picture these warm-hearted individuals were part of a civil war so recently passed. You could never imagine on meeting them what they may have been through, normal people with yet another tragic moment in the history of their country, rebuilding their lives.

Our neighbors Watte and little Fatima

Our neighbor Mammy Mabinty who lived in America during the war. She says she misses American food - so much chicken and salad!

rose petal and ginger tea

December 17, 2010 § 4 Comments

Rose petal and ginger tea

Before arriving in Sierra Leone, a man at a spice shop in Morocco gave me a bag of rose petals. At the time I didn’t think much of my gift or of how useful they would be to me at my next destination but they smelled divine and didn’t weigh much so they went in my backpack with everything else. However it wasn’t until I was siting here in the heat of Sierra Leone nursing a runny nose, soar throat and once monthly pains in my belly that I decided to make myself a ginger tea, and on seeing the rose petals sitting on the bench I decided to chuck some of them in too. I was surprised by the velvety warm soft taste; the juxtaposition of hot ginger and cool rose on the tongue; like drinking a cup of love on a sunny day.

I decided to do a bit of research on the health benefits of rose.

Apparently roses aren’t the most romantic flower for nothing; they are said to comfort the heart and emotions. This explains a lot as I find them utterly irresistible and it is with great difficulty that I overcome the temptation to smell every one I pass. Perhaps this is accentuated by the fact that my grandparents owned a rose nursery just outside of Brussels and one of my first memories is of wandering through them with my Oma as a 4-year-old.

When I came across the less romantic properties of rose I couldn’t help thinking that this flower was designed to solve all my problems, especially whilst living in Sierra Leone. Rose clears heat and toxins from the body resulting in a cooling effect (oh sweet yes!), can benefit a sore throat and runny nose, and relieves painful periods. It also contains high levels of Vitamin C, helps the body fight against infection, helps establish healthy bacteria, helps cleans the kidneys, liver and gall bladder, helps remedy gastro, diarrhoea and dysentery, works as a laxative, helps infertility and has a positive effect on the nervous system therefore helps fatigue, insomnia and depression.

So I am thinking it was with some luck or perhaps a future insight that the man at the spice shop gave me a bag of rose petals. And when combined with the more widely known benefits of ginger – boosts the immune, and treats colds, chest infections, digestive disorders, nausea and joint pain – this has become my new super tea and what’s more it tastes so good.

The recipe for rose petal and ginger tea is simple

1cm by 1cm cube of fresh ginger peeled and sliced thinly
1 dried rose bud or a couple of rose petals
1 cup boiling water

Place all ingredients in a tall glass or fine china teacup, and let cool slightly before sipping.

Serves 1

Enjoy

Arriving in Sierra Leone and climbing Mount Bintumani

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Our flight from Morocco landed in the early hours of the morning so we arrived in Sierra Leone in a somewhat peaceful daze. To get to Freetown from the airport you have to catch a ferry across the bay so on leaving the airport a van took us down a rough and bumpy track to a make shift wharf made from old yellow plastic containers strapped together with rope. Our ferry was a small and somewhat shabby looking enclosed capsule like boat docked to this bobbing yellow rig. Through the haze of my weariness I couldn’t help marvelling that this was the common way to come to and from the International Airport. But the ferry ride was calm and in my sleep deprived state I felt completely at ease in the hands of our crew of young boys, they seemed no older than 16, who one by one dropped off to sleep on the floor and benches until there was just the driver left standing. At first the lights of Freetown across the bay seemed impossibly far away but we arrived just as the night sky glimpsed morning, the mist lightly lifting and phosphorescence in the wake of our boat.

From then on we were tucked under the wing of Dan and Ame, our friends from Australia who Damio will be taking over from as the volunteer program coordinator for the NGO Energy for Opportunity (EFO). Our drive to Makeni, where we will be living, was somewhat uneventful if you ignore the fact that the driver stopped to rotate the tyres on three occasions, and each time we were swarmed by curious children as well as adults trying to sell us bananas or peanuts that they carried in big platters on their heads.

The house we live in is very luxurious for Salone standards; we have a concrete floor, a well, solar power that can run low energy appliances, and toilets – luxurious even though they don’t flush because we don’t have running water.

Three days in and already tiring from a diet of rice with a sauce of cassava leaf, dried fish, chilli and plenty of red palm oil, we embarked on a mission to climb Mount Bintumani, West Africa’s highest peak at 1,948m. This involved taking motorbikes from Kabala, a delightfully cool township in the mountains of the north of the country, to the village of Sinekoro further west, higher and heavenly cooler still. A five-hour ride on a bumpy, beaten up, steep and slippery track, two to each bike plus a pack and enough water for five days and four people, the going was rough but thankfully slow…ish… We arrived at a Village just before a river where we stopped to talk to the chief.
Village scene. Photo by Damian Meoli
At each village you stop at in Sierra Leone, or if you are travelling on foot, each village you pass through, it is kosher that you meet the chief who will ask you a series of questions about where you are from where you are going and what it is that you are doing. We were informed that the river was too high to cross on bikes. So with porters instead of bikes and bitacola (a very bitter nut given as a gift to wish a safe journey) in our pockets as a gift from the chief, we crossed the river on a suspension bridge made of woven vines strung between two trees. We walked the rest of the 8km to Sinekoro.
Bridge made of vines. Photo by Damian Meoli
Bridge ties. Photo by Damian Meoli
En-route at all Villages we were met with what seemed like ever multiplying mobs of waving and excitedly screaming swollen bellied children and of course chiefs and other village officials. This made the 8km walk take us a good 6 hours. Finally we arrived at Sinekoro and with more chief and village negotiations and what seemed like hundreds of onlookers we organised porters for the trek up the mountain the next day and food and a place to stay for the night. I slept surprisingly well on the concrete floor of the school with a belly full of chicken and ground-nut (peanut) stew. The four of us paid about AU$5 between us and had a chicken killed and cooked in front of our eyes in a huge pot on the fire along with a pot of rice the size of a small bathtub. This fed all of us our bike riders our porters and about ten other village folk that for some complicated reason that I found difficult to work out were involved in us being there. I enjoyed sitting by the fire with the two women cooking, their babies strapped to their backs, elegantly moving amongst their work and picking the pots up straight from the fire with their bare hands. A small group of children gathered around us that within about half an hour turned into 30… they seemed to mysteriously multiply wherever you went.
people around fire. photo by Damian Meoli
The next day we woke early to begin our climb to Bintumani. The day began walking through fields of ground-nut with banana and red palm trees growing by their side. We then entered thick lowland scrub, with all sorts of plants I recognised as being weeds in Australia, many of them I remembered from my grandmas garden in Queensland. I began to fret that this barely penetrable path in the stifling heat represented the walk for the rest of the day, however with great relief we entered forested jungle and began to climb steep and steadily. At one point we came out upon a grassy hill, which we made our way across, the blades well above our heads, crippled by the heat, views of the mountain high above us. Soon again we were back in the relief of the tree cover and as we climbed it became cooler with every step. Our guides showed us, and we tasted, the bitterness of the bark from trees that were used for relieving headaches and stomach pains and from a distance we watched monkeys flying from tree to tree.

Finally we emerged again from the forest, but this time not into the heat like below. A gentle cool golden grassy alpine plain materialised through clouds rolling by at ground level. On the other side of this small piece of heaven we made our camp by a stream in the shade. The rest of the mountain before us and steep paths and cliffs behind us, it made for a scenic camp, with views of what had been and what was to come.
clouds
We lazed there for the afternoon, washing our clothes and ourselves because our sweaty stench attracted bees that came in the hundreds. That night we slept on the ground with our mosquito net above us. I slept cold and uncomfortable under my blanket waking before light feeling un-rested. Ame and I stayed behind that morning as the boys walked the last leg to the top of the mountain leaving in the just light of the early morning. We boiled water on the fire and lay in the sun. After lunch we started our descent making faster time not that the going was necessarily easier given the steep slippery nature of the path.
morning sun on Bintumani
Back at Sinekoro it was like our last night there repeated. The swollen bellied children gathered again and we ate a meal cooked in enormous quantities on the fire. When we were finished Ame gave the last of our bowl to the children, which resulted in a sudden scramble that lasted 5 seconds and just as suddenly dissolved. If you had blinked you would not have known it happened except for the bowl left empty and spinning in a cloud of dust. I remembered our last night there where one of the cooks had rationed out handfuls of the leftovers to the eager children, now I understood why. As an aside, the swollen bellies of the children are apparently not so much a lack of food (there are bananas and oranges that practically grow wild) but a lack of protein.

The next day we made our return journey to Kabala, my body resented me for getting back on the bike and the trip was worse than the first… I never knew going down steep bumpy hills on a bike was harder than going up. I also kept wondering if the suspension had been shot or whether it was just me. But I was thankful for the breeze when we moved and the pretty views of mountains fields and villages we passed. We were all slightly surprised when we made it with stiff and aching bones back to Makeni by that night.

(All photos in Arriving in Sierra Leone and climbing Mount Bintumani are taken by D except the last one which is taken by Dan)

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