We've been in Freetown for a week, and while it seems to have gone past in a flash, it's hard to recall my preconceptions of this amazing city. It feels as if we have always known Sierra Leone (though I doubt I could ever get used to the heat of the afternoon sun, or the effect of the humidity on my hair, or "Sierra Leone time", where everything starts about an hour after advertised.)
Before leaving Hull my anxieties about the trip were focussed on where we'd be staying, how on earth we'd get there, and how the hell we were going to make a decent show in less than two weeks. To be honest, I didn't think much about Sierra Leonean culture, and having never been to anywhere in Africa, I had no frame of reference for what it would be like.
My biggest worries were
"Will it be hot? I'm too white for that much sun,"
"What food will we eat? Can I bring snacks in my suitcase?"
"Do you think Fantacee is as cool as her name suggests?"
There have been moments this week when we've looked at each other amidst a sudden rush of disbelief. That we're actually here. I had a moment two days ago, swimming in the cool ocean and turning round to see this fabulous green landscape stretching out beyond the strip of white sand and bright parasols at the edge of the sea. I had another last night drinking cold star lager on our balcony, and again this morning listening to the distant rumbling of thunder.
My current impression of this city, of which we have barely scratched the surface, is of a place that is equal parts struggle and celebration. We have driven past people living in shacks, seen beggars, and met people made homeless by the mudslide. But we've also witnessed people dancing in the street on a Friday night, been greeted with smiles and well wishes, and had a running race with local children up a hill.
The hills, running down to the coast, allow an amazing view across the city, a sprawling colourful web of bright rooftops amidst lush greenery. The buildings range from shacks made of wood and corrugated iron to grand residences with large gates and balconies, in some places wedged close together, almost stacked on top of each other, while in other places there is green land, or red roads in between. And there are people everywhere - crammed into taxis, revving motorcycles, washing in the waterfall, walking in the road with heavily laden baskets balanced on their heads. The shops have bright, pictorial signage, and spill out into the road - every street is littered with stalls, and sellers move from car to car offering everything from fresh fruit, to cleaning products, to counterfeit westlife CDs.
There is a warmth to Freetown that I'm not sure I can adequately describe in words - and I don't mean the high temperatures, although I have found it difficult to work on anything physical, even in an air conditioned room, when the sun is baking the earth, and the humid air reaches 30 degrees. We have been made to feel incredibly welcome by the three amazing artists we have had the fortune to work with. Fantaceee (who absolutely lives up to her name) has eloquently advocated for the people of Sierra Leone, informing us about so many facets of daily life, history and culture here in Freetown. Rashid has helped us navigate language and currency barriers. Beejay had provided some cracking banter. Even our intrepid driver, Suri, has made sure we find our way in safety, sometimes over bumpy dirt roads, all while chuckling as we sing along to his CDs (Celine Dion and Rick Astley all the way).
The work is hard. Sometimes things take longer than they do in the UK, because we are having to make something that is clear for artists who don't speak English as a first language, or because we can't quite pronounce something they've taught us in Krio, or we descend into a fascinating, but unproductive discussion about Sengbe Pieh, the APC, or the mudslide. But there are moments that flow so smoothly too, where our two ways of working seem to slot together perfectly. I have been blown away by the passion and raw talent of the artists we are working with, all capable of such expressive performances, so confident in their improvisation, always up for trying something new.
We've only got a few days left in this amazing city and I know time will fly. So I am going to stop writing this blog right now, and go experience as much of it as I can.