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.
I recently came into a small amount of money – some hardship pay for the summer work in the Central African Republic that I didn’t realise was coming my way. So I now have an unexpected $4,500. It got me thinking about money. Growing up in Salford, Greater Manchester, sweets at the corner shop down the cobbled alley at the back of the house cost a penny. He-man plastic toys cost a couple of pounds. Ten pounds seemed like a most princely sum. It took a couple of weeks of pocket money to have a pound. I remember the scandalous tones used in the family to talk about another family who had celebrated the birthday of one of their children at Wimpey’s (a cheaper version of McDonald’s) where all the invites had been treated to a full meal plus cake. The rumoured cost was 30 pounds. I’ve spent the same amount on a single meal several times in the last year and not thought much about it.
For much of my life a hundred pounds seemed like a huge amount. In my teens I would dream of spending such vast sums on adolescent male dreams – progressively a computer (400 pounds for an Atari if I recall correctly), a mountain bike, a drum kit, an electric guitar, and then of course a car. If someone had given me a thousand pounds it would have felt like I’d won the lottery. I did holidays in Europe that cost 50 pounds (including the flight to Switzerland), raised a couple of hundred pounds for a life-changing couple of weeks in Romania, and dreamed of the mega-expensive Inter-Rail pass (about 300 pounds again if memory serves). A month travelling around the USA on Greyhound after two months as a camp counselor cost about $700 I think, with the bus ticket taking up around $400.
But at 34 (I say that deliberately because it sounds far younger than the soon-to-be-reached 35) what do you do with $4,500? How would you treat yourself? I have more than enough gadgets – I just need more dedicated time to use them. I already get plenty of exotic travel – my holidays are for seeing family and friends. A nice car doesn’t make much sense in Freetown, and I’m already buying a car. And anyway, what is the real difference between a basic car and a luxury one? I have enough clothes, and again, what do nice clothes give you, especially when you’re past wanting to impress anyone of the opposite sex except your wife and daughters?
So, I’ll probably give some to the church, some to my daughters to help pay their university fees and some to the investment account I have to buy some more shares, to one day buy a second house in Abidjan, which will help raise more money, and the $4,500 will probably be intact on my death and transferred by will to my children. After a while, you seem to just send your money to the bank and then the numbers on your annual statement change that little bit without it making an iota of difference to your life.
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.
I recently read ‘To the Letter – a journey through a vanishing world’ by Simon Garfield. It’s far from the best book I’ve read all year, but it caught my eye when I saw a review in the Gulf News, and it was a subject that I was interested in. Should we still be writing personal letters? One of the unexpected benefits of reading the book was discovering great letter writers of old. What makes letters special I think is their very personal quality, and I found it remarkable reading letters from the 18th century (esp. Chesterfield) and love letters from World War Two (which are scattered throughout the book). You can sense the very human nature of their authors. Despite it being an obvious truth, we so easily dismiss people in the past as being of a very different species, but letters more than anything highlight just how real they were. When we fall in love we think it’s the most magical unrepeatable experience, but it’s actually something that’s been felt a hundred million times by other people. It also shows how many of the ideas we think original have long ago been expressed and thought up. Nothing under the sun has not already appeared.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, but I do feel there was a time when my email inbox was full of messages from real friends, which is so rarely the case now; it’s all mailing lists and Google Alerts. I don’t think that’s just because I’ve moved overseas. Part of my motivation for reading the book was to know if I should do more letter writing and if the form is possible with email. The author seems to think letter writing is dying out, though he does say that people have been saying this for centuries. Physical letters do give you something that’s imminently keep-able. I do hope to start a ‘tiny letter’ soon though.
In two fairly prosaic and insignificant ways, Dubai has changed me. Firstly for two years I lived in apartments with incredible views. This was especially the case in my first year – all bedrooms and the main lounge-kitchen living area had wrap around glass walls looking out from what was the top floor flat (39th) over the towers of Dubai and the tiny villas below. It was something that was constantly part of our life, although we never used the balcony for anything except drying clothes and impressing guests. The second factor is that I stayed in some incredible hotels in the UAE and around the region – hotels I would never pay to stay in myself, but luxurious and well put together.
Conclusion? When I got offered a free upgrade to the ‘executive suite’ last night in an up country Sierra Leonean hotel, it doesn’t mean much. And when landlords want you paying thousands of dollars more for a place that has ‘a view’ it doesn’t get me very excited. While all views are different, I kind of feel I’ve had my taste of that cake, and while it was special, I don’t need to pay again for the same ride.
Public gatherings are generally to be avoided in times of Ebola, but it’s Sunday so I thought I’d make my first stab at finding a church (which came at the expense of a beach and lobster invite from my expat friends). Many readers probably don’t share my beliefs, but let me tell you it can be a hard challenge finding a good church in West Africa, though finding any old church isn’t too tough. There’s even one quite close to my new house, and on Fridays they seem to have all night sessions with the PA system on 11.
In the west, you can hit Google and go through church websites, maybe even downloading a sermon or two. Here, you’re in the dark. So I went through some old student Christian networks and got a contact here who invited me to his church this morning. I remember meeting a Lebanese guy in Brazzaville (Congo) who told me that when you’re Lebanese you can turn up in any city in the world, and when you find your community they are more or less obligated to give you a job. Perhaps there are similarities – my contact picks me up from home, takes me to his church, takes me to visit his family in the city centre and then takes me to lunch back at his place – even though we’ve never met and don’t have any direct mutual friends. And of course, we get on very well.
A word on the church. It was on the Pentecostal side, but I still appreciated it. The choir were all in robes, that carried influences of the US south. The message dwelt on the death of a young member of the congregation who had died suddenly in his sleep during the week leaving a wife and two children. It was quite touching.
It was great to be out and about on a Sunday morning – the streets of Freetown were thronging with people heading to church in their best. So good to see life outside the restricted confines of the office. I even spotted two work colleagues in the congregation, including a member of my team. I think a lot of people are staying at home during the week because I saw a lot more life than I do Monday-Saturday. But church attendance numbers are down sharply as people do what they can to avoid Ebola. The hand washing water had run out when we arrived at the main entrance, but the key Ebola messages of avoiding human contact, washing hands, going to health services when sick and avoiding dead bodies were given from the pulpit. At one point in the service, a woman fainted. People weren’t sure what to do and the ushers didn’t have their latex gloves. Finally she was carried out – turned out she had had stomach problems and hadn’t been eating properly, but initially Ebola was in people’s minds.
Afterwards we stopped by a relative’s house in one of the old districts of Freetown. A baby girl had been born 7 days earlier, and it was now time for the naming ceremony. The house was full of relatives, and people placed cash on the baby’s belly. I was honoured to have doors opened so easily for me to see inside people’s families and homes.
Yesterday, I mentioned my first invite to a friend’s place. Glad to say it was a huge amount of fun. My new friend actually only lives about 200m from my compound, in a huge family home overlooking the bay. Author Graham Greene reputedly stayed there back in the day – it was that sort of place. The host was hard at work in the kitchen putting together a shepherd’s pie. Starters was home-baked bread, with French brie hot off the plane from Dakar. The boast of the pantry was a head of broccoli (also from Dakar), which is treated as gold dust here (retail value 20 dollars). Another friend arrived to make a second dessert, and we munched, drank wine and GnTs, and tried not to talk about Ebola. There was even a guitar. The music was perfect – a mix of upbeat American pop and some jazz, with some old REM tracks thrown into the mix. We explored the house, played table tennis on the vast veranda, and set-up a regular rotation of card games, crazy dancing (just us five) and then table tennis.
It was a lot of fun. House parties are fun all over the world, so I don’t want to claim exclusive access to special evenings, but I do think there are levels of stress, exhaustion and tropical excitement here that lead to instant intimacy between people. Yes, in some ways it was one of those ‘expat in Africa’ nights. Even the simple pleasure of occasional human touches (innocent slamming hands on each either on the card deck etc) really met an amazing felt-need that particularly long-term people feel to touch again (ignoring the current Ebola advice).
The house was one of those special colonial residences you can find in Africa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a (vast) book collection more closely alligned to my reading interests, and full of books I’d either read or listed as ‘to be read’. The house had the haunting aspect of being a much-loved family home, but without wife and kids who’d left back in July. It was full of memories and joy, and now the nostalgia of an amazing life on hold. Young children playing at hunting black mambas in the garden, long weekend nights with other families in the house followed by morning excursions to the beach. For those who knew the pre-Ebola days, it’s immensely sad. For those, like me, contemplating several years here, it’s a taste of what life could be like again soon.
I’ve heard it said that the older you get, the harder it is to make real friends. And that we also grow less tolerant of the patience you need to get to know people. Non-friend hobbies become relatively more attractive. We prefer a night on the sofa with a good book. As a friend of mine, Ulrich, reminded me recently in a blogpost, school days really were remarkable – seeing the same group of people Monday-Friday for years on end. People perhaps knew you better then than anyone does now. You didn’t have to find time to see your friends – you were together for hours every single day. You can’t beat that sort of interaction. But know we all live in separate houses and lives, probably for the worse.
Moving to Freetown I can definitely feel a hesitancy about forming new friendships. I’m putting my efforts into setting up life and routines, and then hopefully friendships will follow. It’s true that this is not like the summer in Bangui – this is not a temporary posting where I just need to work hard and it will soon be over. This will be home for several years of my life. But having good friends elsewhere means there’s less pressure. And I also want to find the right people – I don’t fit in perfectly with the ex-pat crowd, though I do find time with them stimulating. But sometimes the know-it-all liberalism is a bit too much. But with West Africans there can be a barrier as well – such different life experiences and priorities.
I know there are people I’ll fit in with well who are just waiting to be discovered. I get on well with most people, and friendships will develop. However, when my family arrive I won’t have so much time for outside friends, so I don’t want to develop friendships now that then aren’t sustainable later. But tonight I have my first invite out to a colleague’s house for pizza and table tennis, and I’m very much looking forward to it.