If you travel due south of York, Sussex, or Hastings, or roughly south-west from Kent, and cross the water, you reach Dublin. If you miss it, your next landfall will be somewhere around Venezuela.
There are no cars in Dublin. There are no bicycles either. In fact, there aren’t even any roads, just unsurfaced paths kept clear by constant use. Between 200 and 300 people live here, though it would be difficult to think this by looking around, since the majority are out on the water in their fishing canoes most of the time. The locally-grown papaya is the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. Confused?
A lot has happened in the past month. An intolerant businessman became an intolerant President-elect. I celebrated Christmas. Dublin got a new chief. And I abandoned the growing winter of York, Sussex, Kent and Hastings for five months of volunteering at a guesthouse in Sierra Leone, a minute walk from the village of Dublin on the Banana Islands.
If the British colonial presence hasn’t already made itself clear through the names of towns and villages about the Freetown peninsula, then the old imported iron lampposts, the canon, or the bell from the old church of Saint Luke’s that was cast in England should do the trick. The bell dates from 1879. The old Saint Luke’s from 1817, making it one of the oldest places of Christian worship anywhere in the country. (The village only got a new functioning lamppost last year.)
Named for the islands’ gentle curve rather than the fruit, the British (and other colonisers – Sierra Leone comes from the Portuguese for Lion Mountain) used the islands as a depot for the transatlantic slave trade and to avoid the bad air of the mainland. Researchers tell me that even today the incidence of malaria (the existence of the parasite in the blood) is 10% on the islands compared to 44% in the capital.
There is no getting away from the fact that life is hard for the majority of people, whether they live in Freetown, Dublin, or elsewhere. The initial thoughts that enter the mind on hearing the country’s name – blood diamonds, civil war, and the Ebola crisis – are not what make life difficult.
Life is difficult because everything, almost literally everything, is still imported, though not necessarily from Britain any longer. It’s what makes eating a pizza more expensive than consuming a lobster: the cheese, tomato puree, vegetables and hams all need to be imported. The lobster just needs to be plucked from the reef by one of the Dublin villagers and sold to me for my lunch.
If you came here as one of the few hundred tourists that visit every year in an information blackout without knowledge of the country’s troubles, I’m certain you could never tell. There is a vibrancy and vivacity to life here, a kindness, friendliness and humanity that keeps people coming back just as I have. Already I have met a great many people who have returned to the country after being posted here. It goes against everything you’ve probably every read about Sierra Leone. Except perhaps this, or the words of anyone whose actually spent any time here.