Ben Hodgson: Returning To Sierra Leone
Sometime around 6am, I awake to the sounds of morning prayer from the nearby mosque. It seems that the loudhailer is broken, so the imam resorts to shouting at the top of his impressive lungs. I realise that I have slept for a full 10 hours, not something I am used to in the sticky air of Sierra Leone. The night has been unusually cool.
I disentangle myself from my mosquito net and consume a couple of sachets of water and some Jaffa Cakes as a makeshift breakfast. Then it’s out into the hazy half-light of a January morning in Makeni to relive some memories of my preparations for the first ever Sierra Leone Marathon in 2012.
I make my way to the original start line of the marathon by Birch Secondary School and set off slowly: this is all about enjoying the sights. Familiar scenes greet me immediately. Cooking pots simmering over hot coals, parents chivvying their children to get ready for school, people brushing their teeth and rinsing the brush from a plastic watering can, teenagers queuing at a well for their turn to draw water, or walking stiffly homewards under the weight of a full bucket in each hand. Girls braid each other’s hair. Skeletons of abandoned cars and minibuses, stripped of anything that can be unbolted, remain on the same street corners.
A toddler squeals as his mother sloshes a jug full of cool water over him to wash off the soap, and then forgets his annoyance to shout out a familiar greeting in my direction: “APATO!” Further down the street a group of older children turn it into a chant “A-PA-TO, A-PA-TO!”. The air is warm and tinged with wood smoke. Above me, the imposing Wusum hill, around which the marathon is run, is shrouded in mist.
I continue along the course I used to know so well for another mile. It is exactly as I remember it, except that there are streetlights and, I now notice, many people are no longer doing their morning routines on their porches by torch or lantern light, but under fluorescent bulbs.
And then I reach a junction. The next stretch used to be a rutted dirt track. Now it looks like it has been tarred. It feels too wide, somehow. Am I going the right way? I scour the shop signs (“World’s Best Barbing Shop”, “Man United Auto Spears”) for a familiar road name but can’t find one. I look for familiar landmarks for reassurance – mosques, radio masts, the clocktower. But it’s no use; the replacement of mud roads, rickety bridges and open ditches has conspired to disorientate me. Finally I find the Cathedral – I’m back on track and can look forward to one of my favourite stretches of the course towards the bridge in Talent Town. And then I take a wrong turn and end up in a family’s back yard, much to the kids’ amusement, and their goat’s annoyance.
Armed with directions from their father, I head off again, hurdling the furrows cut in the mud roads by the long rainy season last year, skidding on the Harmattan dust. But I lose my way again and decide just to explore these new streets. By now children are leaving home to walk to school, immaculate in their white or yellow shirts. They greet me with no small hilarity. It’s getting warmer and I’ve been running for the best part of an hour. A sweaty white face is not a normal feature of the walk to school.
I run straight until I hit a tar road and spy the Makeni clocktower in the distance. I’m back on familiar ground. Motorcycle taxis honk their horns as they pass me, perhaps assuming that I need rescuing from this sweaty madness. Along the main road, posters of Neymar and other luminaries of world football remind passers-by how to avoid contracting Ebola. But the checkpoints that were in place only a few months ago are unmanned, and the only barriers across the road are there to catch motorcycle taxis riders who haven’t paid their union dues.
I reach the finish line of the 2012 marathon, having covered only 12 zigzagged kilometers. At Birch School, teachers are corralling tardy students. They are made to raise both arms in the air and hold them there at the teachers’ pleasure. I buy a couple of loaves of bread from a trader and sit down for a second breakfast.
The following morning, the mosque’s loudhailer is working again. I set off to meet the Assistant Race Director of the 2016 race, Alusine Kanu, for an inspection of the new half marathon course. As we run, it’s fun to share memories of 2012 and to hear stories of the races run since then. The new course is simpler, with fewer turns and avoiding many of the traffic hotspots. We pass Talent Town, which now boasts some of the biggest houses I’ve seen in Makeni. 4 years is clearly a long time in a country which, but for Ebola, was on track to record double digit growth last year. But the countless Hiluxes owned by mining companies have disappeared, victims of the crash in the price of iron ore. And yet, in the distance, the blasts from the horn of a massive train dragging ore to the coast give some cause for optimism.
Alusine describes how much the marathon is now a fixture on the Makeni calendar, and how he is already getting calls from would-be runners from all over the country asking when it is taking place in 2016. The Sierra Leone Marathon is alive and well, and has come a long way from its beginnings in 2012. I can’t wait, finally, to run it in May.