Sierra Leone Marathon 2014

Plotting marathon route using a motorbike and GPS

Race Director Ben Hodgson's account of exploring the race route  in Makeni - 29 June 2011

For weeks I'd been looking forward to exploring the backstreets of Makeni and the surrounding countryside to come up with a 42km course for the Sierra Leone Marathon 2012. I was the envy of my running club in Durban: "You get to make up your own marathon course?!" 

But even before I arrived in Makeni (my second visit there), I knew that planning and plotting the course was going to be a challenge. All my attempts to obtain a detailed map of the area had failed, and online mapping was very limited. Without a map, it's obviously quite difficult to record where you've been on your various explorations and, just as importantly, how far you've travelled. To solve this, I invested in a brilliant Garmin GPS - the everything-proof 62s - which turned out to be a great decision.

I had three days in which to come up with the course. But I wanted to do as much of it as possible at the same time of day as the race would actually be run - starting at dawn. My tattered large-scale tourist map of Sierra Leone had given me a very rough idea of some roads that might be interesting and scenic to use. First up, I needed to measure them, check their suitability for runners and support vehicles, and map the positions of any villages the race would pass through.

My guide and co route-planner, Mohamed Conteh and I set off on his motorbike from HANCI's headquarters in Makeni at 6.30 am. It was dawn, and the temperature was comfortable, probably in the low twenties, and not too humid. The streets of Makeni were still relatively quiet, but still much busier than you'd expect from a European city at that time of day. 

We headed down the Kabala highway, past African Minerals' huge camp, and on to Panlap Junction, all good paved road. At Panlap there are checkpoints if you want to proceed towards Kabala or, as in our case, if you want to turn left towards Kamakwie. The police at the checkpoint looked somewhat bemused by the sight of me in full running gear and Camelbak, but dropped their barrier of string without asking any questions. 

Now on a mud road, we cruised (and occasionally bounced) north towards Kamakwie. A few kilometres from Panlap, we crossed the half-built railway that will eventually carry iron ore from African Minerals' huge new mine in Tonkolili, to the east, all the way to Pepel on the coast - a huge terracotta-coloured carpet unrolled through the forest.  

We continued north as far as the village of Konsho. Here, there is the ruin of a church and a recently dedicated memorial to various missionaries who died there between 1894 and 1918, perhaps from malaria. Two of the missionaries named on the memorial were aged 3 and 5.  The church was the marker for a left turn down another road, now heading west.  Having never been down this road before, I decided that it was a good time to get off the bike and test out the terrain on foot. 

By that time, at about 7.30am, the temperature was starting to rise. But I was looking forward to giving my new trail shoes an outing, and my legs a good stretch (I had spent the whole of the previous week in the back of the a 4x4 exploring various SCOSL projects all over the country). Not many people run for fun in Sierra Leone. Or even walk for fun. With the rising cost (and often scarcity) of fuel there, people travel on foot just as much as ever. So I was fairly sure that going the sight of a foreigner jogging along rural roads would elicit some surprised looks from the locals. But I couldn't have imagined what I would stumble across on the way.

The road west from Konsho is occasionally muddy and a bit rocky in places but was an absolute joy to run along. This stretch turned out exactly as I had hoped - passing through farmland and the small communities that cultivated rice and palm oil on it. It also showcases the depressing amount of deforestation that has taken place over the centuries: like so many other countries, Sierra Leone has over-exploited its tropical forests for timber. But even despite this, it is a gloriously green and fertile-looking place. 

There was one stream on this stretch that wasn't bridged (but easily could be) and was too wide to avoid getting wet feet. Some local kids on their way to school watched with great amusement as I spent a couple of minutes sizing up the possibility of jumping it before finally resigning myself to damp shoes for the rest of the morning. 

Mohamed rode ahead of me on the bike, stopping each time he came to a village to enquire its name so that I could tap it into the GPS. First up was the village of Makai - a few dozen huts at a road junction.  Families were gathered in front of their homes as cooking pots bubbled on fires. Adults looked at me with bemusement; children with excitement.

I continued on towards the village of Mankay. This stretch of road was the narrowest and most overgrown so far, but also the busiest so far in terms of human and vehicle traffic. By busy, I mean a few groups of women carrying fruit or cassava leaves in plastic bowls on their heads and the very occasional motorbike. In fact, in an hour of running, I saw perhaps 2 dozen people on the road between the villages, and 3 or 4 motorbikes. "Apato [white man], good morning" was a common refrain. One motorcyclist asked what I was doing (fair question!) and then suggested that I fix up the road to make the race easier. The people of Mankay were very enthusiastic about the marathon and keen for the route to pass through the village. I promised to return to talk to the community about what this would involve.

All three days of exploration were hugely enjoyable, but this first day was special in that it was the only time I had time to try out part of the route on foot.  The occasional very brief and shower of tepid rain helped cool me, but as the morning humidity rose, I start to sweat properly. I decided to take a short breather west of Mankay when we reached the site of a huge railway cutting for the African Minerals line. 

About 3km further on from the rail cutting, Mohamed was waiting for me in what appeared to be another small village, with one family home on the left hand side of the road, and what appeared to be a farming complex on the right. A few people were milling around, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I asked Mohamed to check the name of the village with one of the locals, who told us it was called "Patient Compound".  Not so much a village, then, as a traditional healing centre.

Things got really interesting when one of the patients introduced himself as "Jimmy" and began to tell me more about the treatment at the compound. He produced a small plastic bag of what looked like fine gravel and poured it into the palm of his hand. He said that the stones were a sample of what the healer had recently removed from his body. I was intrigued and asked him to explain further. What followed was one of the strangest experiences of my life.

Jimmy launched into a lengthy explanation of the black magic phenomenon of "Fankeh".  I suppose the best translation of Fankeh is "curse". According to Jimmy, a Fankeh is imparted to its "host" either at the hands of, or at the request of, someone who wishes that person ill. It can be imparted either by physical contact (a hand on the shoulder or a brush of the arm, for example) or using a 'witch gun'. A witch gun is an invisible weapon, resembling a conventional gun, that fires 'witch bullets' such as the stones that Jimmy had showed me. 

A third method of having someone afflicted with Fankeh is to take a photograph of the intended victim, or an article of their clothing  to the witch doctor who can then do the business remotely. Alternatively, Fankeh can be imparted by having a witch doctor plant it in the ground or on a chair that you know the victim is likely to step or sit on. In any case, Fankeh can only be imparted by a person who has the hereditary gift of black magic. In short, if you have the gift, or know someone who does, it's not that hard to arrange for someone to be afflicted. 

The victim will not be immediately be aware that the Fankeh has been implanted into his or her body. Over time, Fankeh can cause poor health (either localised pain, or a more serious condition), bad luck (such as reduced job prospects due to favouritism of others), losing money, the freezing of bank accounts, and business failures. In fact, there are seemingly very few variants of ill fortune that can't be attributed to Fankeh.

Curiously, a practitioner of black magic can, much like a Jedi, choose to use their powers for good or ill. Removing Fankeh is the preserve of witch doctors who have inherited the gift of seeing and being able to diffuse Fankeh. It's not cheap, though: removal of a Fankeh can cost up to 600,000 Leones (about £90 or a month's wages for an average professional person in Sierra Leone). Those same witch doctors can, again for a substantial fee, make you Fankeh-proof - giving you a kind of shield to ward it off. I wondered whether it was more lucrative to be an agent of the "dark side", or a healer, or whether there were witch doctors who made money both ways.

For those who are already afflicted, traditional healers ('good' witch doctors) can locate Fankeh within your body, and remove it through manipulations. Certain herbal preparations are also necessary to cleanse the skin and so to allow the Fankeh to pass through it. It was this procedure that Jimmy had recently undergone. He introduced me to the resident healer in the "Patient Compound", whose nickname was "Madingo". Through the translations of another patient-in-waiting, a young man in his early twenties who happened to be an English language student, I discovered that Mr Madingo had started out as a civil servant before becoming disillusioned with the lack of progress in Sierra Leone. He had changed career, becoming a farmer, before giving this up, again as a result of disillusionment. Finally, he had made use of his hereditary gifts and become a healer, practising from the Patient Compound, to which some people travelled from hundreds of miles away for treatment.

Mr Madingo suddenly offered, through the interpreter, to show me how his treatment worked. I was told nothing beforehand about what the patient, a woman in her late forties, was suffering from. I later discovered that she had been diagnosed with malaria by two conventional hospitals. She had taken anti-malaria drugs but they appeared not to have worked. Out of desperation, she had come to Mr Madingo (she lived in Makeni) and had spent 2 days awaiting treatment at the compound. She had already had certain herbal remedies applied to her skin which, she said, had made her feel slightly better. 

With a crowd of the other patients and me all watching, the woman was ushered onto a small mat and asked to remove her blouse. A paste based on crushed mango leaves was then applied to her chest, back and neck by one of Mr Madingo's three assistants. Mr Madingo, dressed in an oversized polo shirt and baseball cap, removed his chunky gold watch and handed it to an assistant before pouring oil onto his hands and rubbing them together. He spread the oil liberally over the woman's face, breasts and belly. "He's going to shock it [the Fankeh] out of her body," explained my interpreter.

The procedure was far from solemn, with Mr Madingo frequently chortling to himself as he worked his fingers hard into the woman's flesh. The Fankeh appeared to be lodged at the top of the woman's rib cage, and Mr Madingo lifted her breast to get better access to the spot. He prodded and probed harder and harder with his fingers and thumb, eliciting bigger and bigger grimaces from his patient. Eventually, with a flick of this wrist, he sent a shower of small stones flying down on to the mat. I counted perhaps a dozen.

Mr Madingo wasn't finished, though. He started a new, even deeper and evidently more painful attack on the woman's rib cage, this time on her right flank, until he eventually brought forth a few more tiny stones.  The assistant sprayed oil onto the area Mr Madingo had been rubbing. "It's to cure her blood," my interpreter said.

Mr Madingo then paused for thought, wagging his finger reflectively. "It's been in her body a long time," he said. He sent another assistant to fetch a medicine while he carried out a final check of the woman's shoulder and neck. He kneaded away for some time, chuckling to himself once more and apparently telling the woman to relax. Finally, he flicked his wrist for the final time and a single stone tumbled onto the mat. Her ordeal now over, the woman was handed a plastic beaker of viscous green liquid to drink. 

One of the assistants collected all of the stones in one corner of the mat. There were perhaps 15 or 20 in all. My interpreter asked her some questions about the previous (conventional) treatment that she had had. All the while she ran her fingers over the no doubt very tender areas from which the Fankeh had been released by Mr Madingo.

It was a strange experience, needless to say. Sceptical though I was, I had to admire Mr Madingo's apparent sleight of hand. Or his supernatural abiliities, as the case may be. Almost as strange was explaining to Mr Madingo my own mission. Like the villagers of Mankay, he was sceptical that people would willingly run 26 miles for fun, but he was very happy for the marathon to pass by the compound. As I left, I couldn't help smiling to myself at the thought of Mr Madingo treating a cramped runner by the side of the trail to remove the Fankeh from his or her legs.

Over the following two days, Mohamed and I refined the remainder of the route (which is provisional and subject to change if any engineering works are scheduled for next year). It is predominantly along tar roads, including a two kilometre stretch along the main highway into Makeni. The home straight passes SCOSL's proprietary bar, the Clubhouse, which will no doubt host the marathon after-party, and Makeni's mosque, market and stadium. All in all, the course is about 70% trail run and 30% tar roads. It's stunning (especially the crossing of the Mabol river) and, as my Madingo experience shows, is liable to provide some fairly memorable moments. An aerial view of the course (which you need to open using Google Earth) is downloadable from the marathon website  -www.sierraleonemarathon.com - although the images are taken some years ago in the dry season so aren't quite representative of what you'd see on the day. But do think about signing up for the run next year. You won't forget it in a hurry!

In the meantime, a huge thank you to Mohamed for putting up with three consecutive early starts and for all his patience, driving me around in circles under the thrall of the GPS.


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