Archives de catégorie : Africa

The Power of Fear

(I’ve been clearing out my computer desktop and found some blog posts that I’d started writing but never posted – this is one from late 2015.)

For the last few weeks I’ve been mulling over a creative project. It’s not amazingly innovative – the proposed name I have is Freetown 366. It would be one of those projects where I try to publish a street photo every day in 2016 (which happens to be a leap year). The goal is to have a big creative project for me to focus on, which gets me out taking a lot more photos (instead of just listening to photography podcasts and reading websites).

The issue is of course that that’s quite a lot of photos, when so far I’ve taken no street photos in my life! For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to get myself to walk around the streets with my camera. But here comes the rub – I always find an excuse not to. A few months back it was that I needed a new camera – which is why a bought a little Sony camera (A5100). Then the big fear was theft, so I bought a handy wrist strap. But still I kept finding excuses – including the weather. I came to realise that there was a deep seated fear inside me about stepping out. On the surface the principal fear would be getting my camera stolen, getting into arguments or getting attacked – all of which are pretty unlikely events. The most likely negative outcome, getting the camera taken from me, hardly constitutes the end of the world.

Instead there’s a really deep underlying fear of failure, and a reluctance to leave comfort zones. It’s actually a big thing for me. I don’t really have many excuses for not doing projects like this – work is calming down, I have plenty of free time (not having much else to do without family here). And I also want to be the type of person who is a good photography, carries out projects, and writes. These are things I pencil in for my post-2030 working life, though I take on board the wisdom of Tim Ferris and others that there’s no use saying ‘I’ll do X later in life’ – if you can’t do it now, you won’t do it then.

On Friday evening (when the light was really nice) I delayed again, but on Saturday I got up with the sole intention of driving to work and then walking from there to take photos on a stroll in the city centre. This time, after weeks of putting off, I actually did it. I’d like to say that after overcoming my fears things all opened up and I came back with lots of stunning images. In fact, after more than an hour walking around I came back with very few keepers. But it’s a start.


Postscript (15 May 2018) – I finally got out there, and I didn’t skip a day of publishing photos throughout 2016 on a Facebook page, Freetown Street 366. The project didn’t create a massive buzz, but those who found the page, enjoyed the project, and the photos were featured in a local online magazine, where they are continually used to illustrate stories. There were no negative experiences to report from the streets beyond a few people saying no when I asked for permission to take their photo – and the camera I bought back then with its basic lens has been kicking around in my work bag every day since then, and continues to serve me well (in fact I sold all my other camera equipment).

There’s a mix of quality in the images, but all in some way capture the Freetown street. Did it massively increase my photography skills? I don’t think so. Did I learn how to use the camera beyond the basic settings? No. But still, I have the satisfaction of having completed a major project and created a body of work that I can be proud of. So, here’s to breaking through fear.

Planning for the future

At the weekend I was speaking with a friend of mine, a West African retired from the UN after close to 20 years work. He lives in a big house in Freetown and I go there at least once a week for a church group. He said that when they were in their mid-40s « ambitious, young and foolhardy » they had great plans as they built the house. The reality though is that their two children are in the US and rarely visit Sierra Leone, and they basically just use one of the five bedrooms in the house. He was considering selling to get a smaller place.

I imagine this sort of thing is not an uncommon story for such people – and I felt it could be true for myself and my wife too. Spending the next decade and a half saving for the future, setting up a nice home, and then when house was built, the bank accounts filled and the pension fund strong, we retire, just as the children leave home for university in a far off country, rarely to be seen again.

This train of thought leads me to two (obvious) ideas, both of which are easier thought than acted upon:

  1. That for people in my position, the strong likelihood is that future financial strength is almost guaranteed, on a current trajectory. It is highly likely that in 15 years, I will actually have saved too much money. Having spent too much time concerned with collecting enough money, I will now spend my waking hours wondering about how to ensure I can give it away to my children as easily as possible. The three practical lessons from this should be i) you can perhaps worry less about saving, ii) it should be easier to leave salaried life sooner iii) one should not spend too much time worrying.

2. Secondly, that it would be easy to ignore that the good times are in fact NOW. The family (except our two elder children at university) is united, and will be so for the next 15 years. We are both in good health. Now is the time to enjoy, not scrimp and save every penny. Key moments are holidays – so better to invest in quality holiday time, and perhaps even a pleasant family bolt-hole for adventures, than think that all this comes from early retirement.

Depends how you look at it

I had a feeling it’d be one of those days, and that’s kind of how it turned out. The fact that we had a major donor proposal due to be submitted by 5pm today rather spoiled my weekend. To start the last minute work on bringing all the contributions together, I skipped the morning exercises and left for the office at 615am. This involved going under the bonnet, as the car battery had been left disconnected overnight, as I seem to have an electrical issue with the car which is draining power.

Work was intense – seeking last minute contributions, working to a looming deadline that couldn’t be shifted, while at the same time fending off several really important things that will have to wait till tomorrow. At the same time, due to my issues waiting for a US visa waiver (I’m due to travel on 30 August, I applied for a visa waiver on 11 August, but everytime I visit the website it says ‘Authorisation pending’ promising a result in 72 hours after application), I’m rushing through an application for a standard visa at the local embassy. A guy who helps me out, Lamin, was at the bank first thing to pay the visa fee (you have to pay cash at the bank and get a receipt). After three hours queuing, they told him that he needed my passport, which he came to get. After three more hours queuing, the told him he needed my application receipt. As I explained on the telephone to the man, none of this information was detailed on the website explaining how to pay the fee. At least they accepted a photo sent via Whatsapp.

Work finished late, I squeezed a session in the gym, and then on the way back from work my car lost all power, and came to a stop just as night fell, about 200m from the office. The car was supposed to go to the garage today to fix a probable alternator problem, but it didn’t because my friend was tied up at the bank on the aforementioned duty. I sat for 20 minutes on an unlit street waiting for help, with the added bonus of having taken the electric window down to handover an office key, and not being able to get it back up when the power failed. Mosquitoes are not my favourite creatures.

So an expectedly bad day. But there were some bright spots. I was trying to remind myself all day that these momentary dramas quickly lose their stress after a few weeks. In the scheme of things, they don’t amount to very much. In fact something similar was said on a podcast I was listening to this evening.

The other positives:

– After all that stress, the day is over, and here I am in a comfortable house, with electricity, and the chance to write down these things down. Even if I got home late, I still have a good hour of free time before bed.

– I’ll write a blog post soon on ‘right hand men’, but Lamin was really the hero of the day – he spent a rotten day queuing at the bank, and then rescued me this evening – swapping batteries so that my car could be deposited in the work car park and arranging a taxi to take me home.

– At the gym, I was alone with the new gym instructor, so he led me through a one-on-one training session. My shoulder injury from May still doesn’t allow much weight lifting but it’s slowly healing. The session made me feel good about my fitness and core strength.

– When the car broke down, I was not far from the gate, so I asked one of our security guards to sit with me while I waited for my rescue. We had a nice conversation, including him telling me about his plans to study economics at university. He didn’t know a huge amount about the subject, so I took him through a basic explanation of the demand curve. It takes a car break down for me to have a proper conversation with someone I see almost every day and get to know his life story, dreams and struggles.

– The taxi that took me back home, stopping for fuel at the local petrol station at a busy junction I pass everyday. I realise now that I miss West African taxi rides – it’s one of the things you no longer have in your life when you own a car. You get to observe so much more – the main thing is not having to drive and concentrate on the wild driving. But there’s also the fact that the windows are down (no air conditioning) so you feel closer to things. A busy West African junction is always full of interest, even at night.

So, light and dark today, and one person’s drama, is another’s refreshing life experience.

A morning stroll

I was up country this week. After rising early, I took a stroll out from the hotel while awaiting breakfast. It was before seven but you already had the feeling a hot day was coming – far hotter than what we get on the coast. The hotel itself was Lebanese-owned and the separate bedroom blocks around a narrow quad each had a large 4×4 parked outside.
Outside the gate, the high wall, and the G4S security guards, the mud road was wide and looked like it had recently been flattened. The ground was moist with dew yet to be burned off, and the majority of traffic outside was schoolchildren walking in all directions, and the odd dog shuffling around. The hotel was on the outskirts of town, so the land in the vicinity was a mix of small homes and fields. There was green space. A stream with croaking frogs ran through fields a short distance from the hotel, and I picked one of the mud crossing paths and headed to a small bridge. Children said hello as they passed. Around homes, kids were washing themselves from buckets, lathered from head to toe in soap. Parents were sitting on their front steps greeting passers-by and exchanging news with the rest of their families. There was often laughter in the air.
I’m sure they knew I was from the hotel. They probably considered I was one of those crazy people who’d waste $80 for a bed for the night. I obviously had more money than sense.
An idea came to me to make a little video one day juxtaposing the start to the day here, and then with some busy professional in the West. Emphasising (unfairly, but for a point) how the latter could go to work without anyone saying hello, and never sharing a joke. At the end they would both see representations of the other – the westerner would say a charity advert showing a miserable African, and the West African would see something aspirational showing the apparently glamorous life in the paradisiacal west.
In less than a month I’ve been in deep snow in the foothills of the alps, spread out on perfectly cut lawns at an English country house on a warmish Spring day, and here several hours from the coast in Sierra Leone. It’s a privilege.

The height of the crisis

I remember the end of 2014 like a crazy dream. Hundreds of Ebola cases a week, the stress of constant 7-day work and pressure, and above all, the existential menace that this deadly disease could catch any one of us. I say a dream, because almost everyone I was close to at the time has left. Many had families and could no longer bear being apart. Others were only there on surge, destined to leave after a few months. The dream is no more.

But I’ll always remember that surreal time, including the very regular visits to the bathroom to wash hands; scrubbing hard just in case. Most of all I think of those evenings at M’s with colleagues in which we struggled to talk about anything else. We were all suffering from extreme fatigue – but the wine, the dancing and the attempts to discuss other matters (or at least life before Ebola) were like a caffeine boost to keep us going through the hardest times. It was winter in more ways than one, but somehow we survived, if only to go our separate ways.

Like any crisis, there’s an indelible mark left behind and you consider those times in all the richness of the experience. In many ways, these are the standout moments, the story of what was going on when your first child was born, the world events that you saw firsthand. Like war, they are terrible in their time, but memorable ever after, and something remarkable to have experienced. When we danced like 14 year olds and when we played card games, daring that most remarkable of feats in Ebola times – the human touch.

Leaving Abidjan again

This morning, for the umpteenth time in the past 12 months I boarded a flight to leave Ivory Coast. In a week interacting with friends and acquaintances in Abidjan, I realised many haven’t worked out that I no longer live in the city, leaving as I did at the end of 2012, which of course isn’t so long ago. There was a mega-concert by the Belgian artist, Stromae, on Saturday night, a TedX Abidjan event this afternoon (which by accounts on social media seems to have been quite special), and then this next week there will be the annual meetings of the African Development Bank. In short, it looks like exciting times, while I’m missing out on the lot.

Today, it was interesting in this mood to be continuing my reading of Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer biography, and in particular the part where he left a Germany on the verge of World War 2, for the safety of an arranging lectureship in the USA. Almost as soon as he arrived in New York, he realised it had been the wrong move, and that his destiny (life mission) lay back in Germany, despite the very real risks to his life (which proved to be real).

For the pastor Bonhoeffer, at a moment of world historical importance, this was the voice of God calling him back to his mission. I wouldn’t see my situation quite so dramatically, but it’s interesting to compare that feeling of being in the wrong place, and being out of line with a mission. Bonhoeffer’s short second trip to the US was useful in helping to clarify his thinking on his personal mission, and also the global church. And, for me, being away from Abidjan, is part of a process of growing, while seeking to still stay engaged. I think the tricky bit is that latter half – of growing and becoming stronger while not disengaging/losing touch of the movement.

King Leopold’s Ghost

Last week I finally finished Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, a book that was a must-read when I first flew to Congo in 2005, but which I’ve only recently got around to reading. The remarkable book highlights the outrageous tyranny of King Leopold’s regime in what is now the DR Congo, and the utter savagery of the colonial project there. We forget these things far too easily.

An encouraging part of the book was the role played by Anglo-Saxon Evangelical missionaries in denouncing the abuses, something that is well stated in the main text, while in the end notes the author says that with hindsight he should have given even more prominence to the subject. It’s fair to say that in the secular circles I move in you hear a lot of negative criticism of these sorts of people, and many of the churches here are indeed appalling. But good to know that people of good character were part of the story as well.

Letter to Daniella

I’ve been a bit quiet recently especially considering (or perhaps because) our daughter, Daniella Ramissou, was born three weeks ago. She’s so precious and it’s already sad to be apart. I’ll definitely write more soon [ed – how often have you seen that written on a blog and then that’s the last you hear from someone for months?]. In the meantime, I published a post on my other site, Drogba’sCountry (it’s a blog that is less personal and focuses almost exclusively on Ivory Coast / Cote d’Ivoire). I wasn’t sure which blog would be the better home for the post, but in the end I plumped for DC, with a link from here. Here’s the piece.

Feeling human

I sometimes try to put my finger on the essentials that make West Africa so different from Dubai or perhaps Western Europe. One recent idea I’ve been dwelling on is that in West Africa you feel like you exist, whereas elsewhere you might as well just be a ghost. Let me explain. In West Africa, when you (and we could dig deeper into what I mean by ‘you’) walk the streets or drive in your car, people are looking at you. Eye contact is taking place. People you pass in the street might say something to you, men and women will look you directly in the eye. Old people will say hello, children will wave and try and engage in conversation. Random people will approach you. Humanity and society just feels like it’s more real.

You could easily reply – that’s because you’re a foreigner with weird skin colour. And there may be an element of that. But when my wife gets in a bus in Abidjan, there is much more a sense that this is a gathering of humans. Exchanges will take place – greetings, and then commentary, and then discussion, and then shared jokes.


The funny thing is that when you arrive in a new place like this, you find yourself with huge amounts of start-up money in the bank, but a life that is lacking in the very basic things. All around me people with very low incomes are enjoying some of the great things in life – having your own place, living with your wife and children, a sense of home, an organised household, and a complete set-up. Whereas you with your fabulous wealth have to put up with being far from loved ones, living alone, and eating food from the can or instant noodles. You barely get a piece of fruit and veg, while the families all around you are enjoying all manner of fresh pineapples, ginger, papaya and oranges at near knock off prices. Your neighbours play with their children all evening, while the best you get is whatsapp. Hmmmm. Hopefully a transitional phase.