“I need to search your bag”. I gave the man demanding to see my bag a confused groggy glare. It was four in the morning, in the poorly lit, small airport of Sierra Leone’s capital city Freetown. I had already passed through customs and had my bag scanned, so this new demand left me rather bewildered. I relented and placed my bag down as Mr. Fofanah, our Sierra Leonean mentor, walked up and demanded to know what was going on. The “security guard”, surprised to see the local gravitas possessed by my newfound friend, immediately declared my bags passable and wished me a happy stay. I had narrowly avoided a classic scam looking to extract a “fine” from unwitting foreigners. Welcome to Sierra Leone.
Freetown, our team’s first destination on this trip, most closely resembles a frenetic anthill. A far cry from the quiet, stately boulevards that dominate Western capital cities, the thin streets are filled to the brim with hawkers, motorbikes, and throngs of young men looking for work. For us this was only a temporary destination. We had only a day to pick up essentials, meet with some local contacts, and try to recover from our jetlag. With the help of our mentor and some local friends, we were able to overcome our exhaustion to buy cell phones, get dinner, and send some e-mails before we departed for our final destination Koidu.
A car ride across Sierra Leone is a harrowing adventure in and of itself. Police checkpoints, pitiful roads, and the perpetual danger of getting stuck in the thick mud that covers many sections all eliminate the possibility of a timely arrival. The government bus to Koidu can take up to 15 hours, so we opted for the more expensive and speedier private car option. The uncertainty of road conditions meant that we were awake and packed at four in the morning. To fit in our Range Rover, we jerry-rigged a seat from our luggage in the trunk that the girls rotated out of. After getting stuck once and answering the questions of a several curious police officers, we arrived in record time, just under nine hours.
Koidu is a rough city. Even our perpetually upbeat travel guide states, “the roads are beaten, flanked by empty buildings and deprivation”. The capital of Sierra Leone’s blood diamond trade and a flashpoint during the civil war, Koidu’s bombed out buildings and pitted roads give it an unrivaled air of seediness. We are staying just outside of town at the Wellbody clinic a (partially) Princeton founded NGO that provides affordable medical treatment around the Kono region. Our guesthouse with its generator and flush toilets sticks out like a sore thumb in a community dominated by mud shacks and concrete buildings. Located just on the edge of Dorma, our target village, we are walking distance from the residents with which we’re working. These first few days will be spent ingratiating ourselves into village life, making friends with the Wellbody staff, and getting acquainted with our mosquito nets.