This piece originally appeared in print in
So It Goes, Issue 4, Autumn 2014.
By 11.30am the temperature on the black granite outcrop had reached 34°C. A hairdryer-hot breeze carrying Harmattan dusts from the Sahara smudged the low hills on the horizon a hazy powder blue-brown. Resting below us, the murmuring collage of dirt streets, squat mosques and mango trees of Kabala, capital of Sierra Leone’s northeastern Koinadugu district.
“She will only become more beautiful with tarmac roads and electric lights.” Alfred, a Christian and one of a handful of Scout leaders in Sierra Leone, has climbed Gbawuria Hill behind the town on New Year’s Day for the last twenty years. What started as a New Year’s camping adventure for young Scout groups – of which there are still 25,000 active members in Sierra Leone – has grown steadily into a symbol of Sierra Leoneans’ irrepressible talent to celebrate together.
A local Limba man, carrying fresh poyo (palm wine) in yellow-rubber oil drums up the 400-metre ascent to the top of the hill, wishes we “enjoy di picnic”. Already aware that Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches would be difficult to find, the gallons of poyo gave us a significant clue as to what sort of picnic this would be. By 4pm the sound of a generator – also carried atop a head – had been eclipsed by cosmic synth and syncopated azonto rhythms. 2,000 people throbbed on loose rock in stilettos and snakeskin suits, shrouded in the smoke of BBQ goat and grasscutter (cane rat) meat. Pyramids of Extra Stout and bundled sachets of industrially produced gin and bitter kola satisfied energetic gyrators and the wealthydiaspora crowd. Below the summit collected groups of svelte youth splashing aftershave and adjusting mini-skirts before their final assault. In a fold in the hillside, three barechested men fought off a throng as they butchered a hand-caught rabbit.
After a fevered scramble off the dusty escarpment, over a cup of silky sweet fly-strewn poyo, Kabba explained what distinguishes Sierra Leone from the rest of the world, “We can call it tolerance – you understand?” Kabba, a Fula and a Muslim, has lived in Kabala for thirty-seven years. “Kabala is a Muslim town – look at our fine mosques! But we Muslim men can also be Christian. We can even marry a Christian woman and our families will be happy. The Christian men tell us, God bless Islam!” Kabala is not unique. The president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is a Christian but was voted to power by a 70 per cent Muslim population. In a country where religion underpins every aspect of daily life, it is easy to see why Sierra Leone’s communities are so strong and their celebrations so vital.
From the mountains of Kabala, to the paper chain of beaches stretching south along the Freetown peninsula, communities celebrate with the same urgent abandon. Over two-thirds of Sierra Leoneans live below the poverty line, which gives intensity to any chance of a party. Christmas and Easter see Freetown’s districts draped in brash canvas banners and spidery graffiti advertising carnivals: ‘Triple Swag House Party 3: The Next Episode’; or ‘Di Bench Family Outing Christmas 2013: Hamilton Beach’; even ‘Little Miss Lumley: Small Person Beauty Pageant (only 20,000le!!)’.
Most conspicuously, outings offer communities an affordable yet raucous opportunity to unite during a festival. A small fee (two or three dollars) buys coach transport to a local beach, a soundsystem to wake forgotten ancestors and a rare opportunity to peacock beyond the usual confines of the city. They are a distillation of the gregarious and inclusive attitudes we had found in Kabala on New Year’s Day; unbridled from everyday politeness, yet embodying the deep grace of human spirit which can allow a Muslim woman’s marriage to a Christian man in Sierra Leone.
The St John’s Church Kroo Town Easter outing at Bureh Beach begins slowly. Pockets of police and soldiers loll on rocks, gnawing meat sticks behind local children fishing for minnar (bait fish) with hand lines. A devoted DJ behind two yawning stacks of speakers repeatedly scatters a flock of black-and-white terns from the river mouth with a mix of Rihanna to Ghanaian Hip Life. Gradually the Kroo Town congregation and their neighbours file in, heads loaded with cool boxes and picnic pots of rice and sauce. Groups of young men splinter, posing for album covers in the surf, in Timberland boots and fitted shirts. Young women take their turn in anything from vests requesting us to ‘Want Me Need Me’ to vivid hourglass wax print dresses and golden roman sandals over white sport socks. Congregation veterans sit in the shade fanning, debating, sleeping or hollering at toddlers venturing too close to the water. By dusk couples roll surreptitiously in the sand whilst backs are turned. Fronts contort to the DJ or share wine with a partner, or two.
Taken at face value, Sierra Leonean celebrations evoke mixed emotion as an outsider. Bashfulness, stiff upper lips, mirth, intoxication and exultation – often in that order – are typical. But, beyond the distortion of the speakers, jubilant flirtation and steroidal picnicking lies a culture of deep respect, empathy and hope. From outings and beauty contests to interfaith weddings, Sierra Leone’s celebrations demonstrate why it is time for the country to shrug off its international reputation as a bloody war zone. Instead, as religious intolerance and bloodshed spread globally, Sierra Leoneans and their celebrations can teach us hard-gotten lessons in keeping the peace and living for the moment.
As New Year’s Day starts to exhaust itself, Kabala slowly dissolves into the murk whilst fruit bats circle above their mango tree camouflage. Kabba passes the last of the poyo around in an upcycled Power Horn energy drink bottle. A dubious energiser before we rejoin the bands now playing in the town hall, where it is promised we will find Love. “Drink it – you must be ready to find your fine Salone wife! There are too many sweet ones here at New Year – even my sister! I will be best man.” An invitation impossible to refuse.
Words: Pete Belk
Images: Tommy Trenchard, Pete Belk, Erika Perez-Leon and Andrea Martin