Sitting on the front step of my house looking over our wooded compound, the sun is gradually setting on a warm Saturday evening, my last in Sierra Leone. In the past hour, we arrived back from grilled lobster on the beach and playing in the river just as it flows into the ocean. The tide was out and we could walk across the river and on to the shore. My son enjoyed lying in the water with the back of his head washed in the river. Returning home, the kids slept the whole way, and the passage through the market bustle of Lumley was relatively quick, despite the main opposition party holding a street campaign. I express pride that my Rav4 has completed its last major journey before being sold.
In the course of an hour back at the compound, we see everyone bar one of the inhabitants. In our absence, Moustapha, the caretaker, has organized a fire to burn rubbish, but a dead tree at the site of the fire is now smoking, worrying my wife T. Our neighbours, C and baby G, come out to play with J, while M helps Moustapha and his boys pull down the tree and cool the embers down with water. A young puppy that’s scared for its life and only arrived in the compound yesterday is being enticed out of its hide-out. For T, it’s the former dog reincarnated in some way, ‘Puppy’, who was recently put down down after colliding with a car coming out of the compound. Indeed the new dog does look remarkably similar.
An Italian man staying with our neighbour G comes out and runs his own dog around the compound, as the kids play about under the unoccupied but just refurbished new house. Then neighbour D wanders over with a beer to exchange news – he climbed one of the main peaks on the peninsula today and shows us a photo. The sun is setting over the sea, much more visible now bushes around the old house have been cut back. Warm social evenings with laughter.
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:
- 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.