Monday, November 05, 2007

Pirran in Peru

Pirran is my brother and fellow food adventurer. He sent me these shots of scrumptious-looking fried guinea pig and crayfish ceviche (lemon and chilli), taken in Peru yesterday. Also of him grinning after drinking coca sour, which is a cocktail made from pisco (like grappa), lime and coca leaves. He’s the one in grey.

The guinea pig tasted as expected, like a cross between chicken and rabbit, but the skin was reported to be particularly delicious – it looks it!

Don Cucho, Peru’s most famous chef, prepared the lunch for Pirran. My bro was then chuffed to see him on TV last night. ☺

Now I have food and drink envy. A condition often inflicted by Pirran’s bulletins.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Sierra Leone

I love Sierra Leone! Friendly, happy, welcoming people, who love their country, despite being some of the poorest people on the planet. Plus super-fresh and wholesome food, rainforest and empty Bounty beaches. And it's even warm in rainy season.


I recently went to Sierra Leone with my father, who works there sometimes. Everyone still thinks of the place as war-torn, but the brutal decade-long civil war ended in 2001, and the country is now one of the safest in Africa. The vast majority of people are desperate to maintain peace after such a bloody war. ...Except that we did go when it was the first election since the war, so the country had ground to a bit of a halt - no civil servants knew whether they would still have a job in two weeks, teachers were running ballots, so schools were closed, and everyone stopped work, which meant that commodities were running out. There was also some political tension and a bit of trouble by a violent minority, whilst the main topic of conversation was the election. Since then, though, the country has become peaceful once again.

Here's my Foodie's Adventure Diary...

N.B. While reading you may notice a lot of chips in my Sierra Leonean diet - I'd like to point out they these were always freshly-cut, fried real chips and consistently delish!

Into Africa - 20th August 2007

I'd never been to Africa before. I didn't know what to expect. After a long, delayed flight with two stops and quite a bit of daytime wine, I was knackered and dozing as we landed on the dark, rainy runway. The airport was bustling and confusing, with men jostling to ask if they could take my bags. But the first things that struck me were that it was warm (I feel the cold badly, and hadn't experienced properly warm rain before), and the air smelled wonderful, of woodsmoke, charcoal and soap.

Luckily, my dad knows the place. He knew which guys were genuine luggage handlers, and our bags disappeared to be taken separately to the hovercraft. I was wide awake by now, and sucked up the atmosphere and sights, as we bumped along in a bus, with stalls and people and palm trees lit up by strings of lights and the bus headlights. A few potholes and a sand dune later, and we were dropped at the beach, to await the hovercraft. It had stopped raining, and there was a brightly painted, scruffy beach bar, which sold cold beer. The beer was served, as is the custom, with a tissue wrapped around it. It was my first taste of the local beer, Star, which would become my main fluid intake over the next few weeks. I felt very lucky and alive, as I gulped my beer, whilst watching the hovercraft's lights get closer to the beach, drinking in the palm trees, people and the bar, and enjoying the warm breeze.

First Experience of Freetown - 21st August 2007

Breakfast at Hotel Barmoi could involve eggs, sausage et cetera, but the whole time I stayed there I went for their toasty Sierra Leonean coffee (sadly, the only place I found local coffee!) and fruit, which was either papaya with lime and sugar, mangoes, bananas, or a combination of two.

After breakfast, I was plunged into the incredible hustle and bustle of Freetown, and had my first experience of the torrential downpours of rainy season. We dodged rivers of rainwater and beeping traffic, and slipped into the quiet calm of the Crown Bakery for lunch. The Bakery feels like an unassuming London café but is relatively expensive, and has a Sierra Leonean and international menu. I chose deep fried fish in a bun, which turned out to be cod, and was yum. Pa had fajitas which were good n’ tasty.

In the evening we went to Alex’s, a mainly open-air seafront restaurant. This is a pretty major place to eat in Freetown, where loads of ex-pats eat (the prices being too high for most locals), and all nationalities drink in the sports bar next door, but it would be difficult to find without someone in the know; it’s tucked away behind shacks and stalls. I had bonita fish in a coconut sauce, with draft Star, chips and salad. The start of things to come…

Cassava Leaves & Mud Cakes - 22nd August 2007

Went to the coolest place for lunch; D’s Bazaar, in Freetown. The kitchen is basically a landing on the stairs, with a couple of gas rings, and pots everywhere. It is expertly managed by two cheerful cooks. The first-floor café was bright and clean, with colourful tablecloths and plastic flowers. We got a table by the balcony, and ate spicy cassava leaf stew (which had ‘cow meat’ in it), with rice, and a delicious dish of ‘special rice’, which consisted of spicy, tasty rice served with fried chicken and fish. We drank Star beer.

In the afternoon, I went to the Freetown post office - the only place you can buy postcards - and walked around the centre of the capital, where, being white and female, lots of people shouted to try to get my attention, to buy their wares or just to say hello. There wasn’t any difficult or uncomfortable hassle, except that I wanted to buy some chillies in exchange for taking a picture of a fantastically colourful market stall, but the women running it wanted to charge me a fortune for the privilege. I didn’t have that kind of cash, and didn’t want to feel ripped-off, so I contented myself with buying what looked like flour-covered pastries, possibly similar to baklava. They felt curiously heavy and solid, but the girl who sold them to me didn’t speak enough English to tell me what they were, other than that they were “rich”.

I took my treasures, which smelled spicy and sweet, to the office where my father was working. I asked his colleagues what I had bought. They said they were hand-rolled, dried sea mud, which was full of minerals and meant for pregnant women to eat. They're called 'wojo', meaning clay in Creo. Not to be discouraged, I gave one a go – after all, they were so fragrant! But, unsurprisingly for dried mud, my mouth was filled with an almost tasteless, ashy, dry, powdery substance and grit. I’m sure they’re very nutritious…

Lebanese Mezze

Supper was fantastic Lebanese mezze served in the Lighthouse Restaurant - another comparatively pricey seafront eaterie. I didn’t enjoy the atmosphere here as much as in other places, but that may have been because there were less people around (it was raining and there was one of the metropolis-wide power cuts). But the surroundings were beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed the food! Our selection included fattoush, tabbouleh, mutabel, little spicy sausages and meatballs encased in rice and fried. Oh yeah, and we drank Star beer. Then finished off with rum.

There is a strong Lebanese presence in Sierra Leone, with loads of second and third generation Lebanese running thriving businesses, and Sierra Leoneans feeling “like bothers” towards their Lebanese friends.

Chimps & More Cake - 23rd August 2007

My third day started off with a trip through Regent - the first place where freed Caribbean slaves settled and built a village. It has not changed much since it was established, with Creole architecture and beautifully tended vegetable gardens among the lush foliage, by the river. We were on our way to the nearby Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Chimps are still hunted for meat in rural parts of Sierra Leone, and their babies sold as pets to rich people in Freetown. Numbers are estimated to have fallen from 20,000 in the 1970s, to less than 3000 now. Both the hunting and the keeping as pets are illegal, but it’s not always easy to educate people about that fact.

Some pet chimps are mistreated and chained up, whereas others are treated like spoiled children. We met one grumpy, rock-throwing male, who used to have his own bedroom with a TV. Even if they start off pampered, cute baby chimps turn into unpredictable, large, very strong, wild animals, and are consequently mistreated later on. The sanctuary takes in these chimps, which are seized from dealers or their adopted families, or handed in.

The idea is that after their rehabilitation into the enclosed forest of the sanctuary, they will be re-introduced into the wild. But there isn’t the funding to research suitable areas for release. Unlike wild chimps, they can be dangerous to humans, because they aren’t scared of them, so the chimps have simply collected in the sanctuary, since it opened in 1995.

Charismatic Dr Rosa Garriga joined the sanctuary as a resident vet a couple of years ago. She has made huge progress in publicizing the plight of the chimps and the work of the sanctuary in the local community, but is frustrated because so much needs to be done in terms of funding and research, which she feels she cannot do alone – I reckon she probably could, though! She’s a tough cookie and passionate about her work.

I’m one of those people who find chimps adorable and just want to cuddle and be friends with them, so it was a real treat to go and see some. But what made the experience even more awe-inspiring was seeing them in their ethereal natural habitat – rain forest-covered mountains. The photos don’t do it justice.

We got back to Freetown in time for lunch, but then had a lengthy search for various cafés serving local food, all of which had closed down or were being cleaned up after a party! Then we stumbled upon Ki-Ki’s, in Campbell Street, where we had barracuda in rich tomatoey, spicy sauce, with rice and Star. I was lucky to be able to chat to Ki-Ki herself, because she normally lives in London, but was back in Freetown for the elections.

In the afternoon, I tried out the Salvonne Bakery, which has a range of heavy-looking pastries, cakes and bread, including small, solid croissants and steak and kidney pie, which I hear is delicious. I bought a little savoury cake, which was light and moist. Its fragrant sponge was mildly spicy, and flavoured with vegetables.

Notorious Paddy’s

In the evening, we went to the notorious Paddy’s, which is a sports bar, restaurant, and all night club, where everyone goes to party. I was with my dad, though, so the partying was limited to tasty kebabs, chips and Star, and taking in the pleasant surroundings. Paddy’s is one huge roof with not much in the way of walls, which makes it spacious and airy, adding to the chilled-out atmosphere. There's an area of tables to eat at, a big dancefloor, a central bar and games like pool.

Beach Boys & Biscuit; Lobster Heaven - 24th August 2007

Beach Boys & Biscuit

Hung around in Lumley, where the hotel was, and walked on the beach, while my dad went to work. I got approached quite a lot by young men, who were mainly friendly and wanted to offer their services as ‘THE main beach boy’, who could help with arranging… well, anything touristy, really; trips, barbecues, drumming shows. I also got some minor hassle from guys who wanted to chat. Individually they were no problem, leaving me alone as soon as I said I wanted to walk on my own. But it was a little tiresome just because of the numbers of people I had to tell to go away, which I don’t like doing, and I did have to be firm with a couple of them, who argued the point of wanting to be my friend – “You no want to be my friend? Why you no like me?”

The hugely long beach takes quite a while to walk along and back again, so I was pleased to snack on boiled peanuts (slightly sweet and juicy) and a sweet deep-fried pastry for my lunch. They were sold to me from plastic tubs, which two small children, of about four and seven, carried on their heads.

Lobster Heaven

The evening was the moment I had been waiting for, for months; lobster at Paul’s…

Before the war, the beach resort at Lakka, down the coast from Freetown, was a tropical paradise. It still is, except that the restaurants, bars and places to stay are falling to pieces. Since the war, tourists have stayed away, and the failure of the government to maintain the road to Lakka has compounded the problem, because locals are not willing to spend hours navigating the ‘road’, whilst ruining their cars. The road is so appalling it has become a national joke, and it is exhausting just to sit as a passenger and be continually jolted for the hours it takes to drive a few kilometres.

Anyway, after being thrown around on this stretch of mud, ponds and rocks, we finally got to Lakka, where I was going to stay in a beach shack for the weekend. ‘Pierre’s Resort’ used to be the classy, French-frequented Cotton Club, but its collapsed clubhouse and collection of wooden cabins are now slowly mouldering into the beach. It is still charming, though, and the scruffy paintwork in amongst palm trees and overgrown paths, has an appeal that would be wiped out by maintenance, a refit, redecoration and – in the case of fallen-in roofs – a rebuild. My shack was full of colonial styling, which had clearly once been gorgeous and quite luxurious. Salty sea air, torrential rainy seasons and neglect have eaten away at the fixtures and fittings, the paint and the furnishings. But there’s the possibility of outside investors taking over the management and revitalization of the old Cotton Club, so if you want to experience this magical place as it is, you’ll have to visit soon.

There was no time to hang out in my home for the weekend; we had a reservation at Paul’s place, a couple of hundred metres’ walk down the beach. A call that morning had assured that a large lobster was caught and kept alive in the sea, ready for our evening meal. Paul doesn’t have customers very often (rainy season, effects of war, lack of road), and we were the only ones eating that night, so I was able to watch the meal’s preparation.

It went like this: massive lobster killed and cut in half lengthways, it’s glistening flesh and shell smothered in secret recipe garlicky seasoning. Fire lit, chips cut, oil heated and chips cooked over fire, lobster grilled over fire, helper sent to Pierre’s Resort for Star beer. What could be better? as Rick would say.

I felt amazingly lucky, gorging on the best lobster possible (for about €10 each), perfectly cooked, with salty chips, lime on the side and cold beer to drink, whilst sitting at a makeshift, tie-dye tableclothed table, in candlelight, on a beach, in a warm breeze, with palm trees swaying and friendly locals chilling out nearby! Absolutely nothing could be better! The lobster was slightly charred on the outside, cooked right through, and had moist, tender flesh.

Pillows and covers that smelled powerfully of damp somehow didn’t seem a problem, as I fell straight to sleep, with the sound of waves crashing just metres away, and warm rain thrumming on the roof.

Beach Life – Shacks & Seafood - 25th August 2007

Waking up in my own mouldy beach shack was idyllic. After a strange breakfast of delicious char-toasted baguette and butter, with disgusting tea made from mildewy teabags and powdered milk (They had no jam. Or fruit. Or real coffee. Or milk.), my dad came to pick me up.

Another jolting trip along a non-road, further down the coast, and I got my first glimpse of the white sand and aqua water of No2 River Beach. This beach is like a Bounty Bar advert, with mountains and rain forest stretching down to the white sand, and hardly anyone about.

There’s a couple of stalls selling nice souvenirs, like jewelery and sculptures. You can also order clothes, which are made while you wait, from locally dyed material. There’s a large kitchen in a building next to the stalls, from which food is served to customers in thatched shelters on the beach. Deliciously fresh pompano fish in a herb and tomato sauce, came with yummy, starchy sweet potato chips, and was washed down with Star. A very thin mummy dog and a scrawny chicken became our friends as they gobbled up scraps of leftover chips.

Then heavy clouds rolled over, and a downpour started. The downpour kept going, so we decided to leave, and headed back towards Lakka, stopping at the Italian-owned restaurant at Sussex Beach for tea. I never got to see the actual beach here, because the restaurant overlooks a tidal lagoon, with the sandbank beach on the other side. The tide was low, but I still didn’t want to wade through seawater with my camera. I’m told it’s another gorgeous stretch of peopleless sand (yellow this time) and palm trees.

If you go to Sussex, you’ll meet the soppy little dog, who tempts visitors to tickle it’s tummy by walking up to them and flopping on its back at their feet, tail wagging furiously.

Tonight we had a second date with Paul, which was pretty similar to the previous evening, except that I had freshly caught crab (y.u.m.), and pa had prawns. It was also my second and last night at the beach hut.

Leaving Lakka - 26th August 2007

I slept deeply again - that sea air? Pure food? Exhaustion from bumpy roads? After a breakfast of toasted baguette and Nescafé with powdered milk, I sat on an old wooden beach lounger and talked to some local boys, while I waited for my lift. They took me on a tour of lovely Lakka village. It is nestled in the forest, where mudbrick and corrugated iron-roofed houses and huts are scattered in glades between palm tress and the sweet-smelling flowers of creepers. It wasn’t the best time to visit, apparently, because most of the villagers were at one or other of the various churches – it was Sunday. My guides weren’t at church, because they were Muslim, apart from Augustine, who had decided to take the day off because it was his birthday.

My dad arrived and took me away from Lakka, which had begun to feel like home, even though I had only seen it for the first time two days earlier. I felt sad to leave.

Nevermind, we were back off to Sussex for lunch. I still didn’t see the beach, but the groupa carpaccio was fantastic, and I had a glass of chilled Chardonnay – the first wine I’d had in soooo long. I felt the nectar trickle down my throat and got that warm feeling as it spread out in my stomach. Wine is of course especially wonderful when you’ve been deprived for a while. The main course was barbequed angelfish with chips and salad.

After the tiring journey back to Freetown, we decided to eat our evening meal at the hotel. Their rooftop restaurant has good views over the sea and nearby buildings, and the wall is made of windows, which we opened up to hear the sea and feel the breeze. After being such greedy pigs all weekend, we both ordered a small mixed salad, which was nothing special, but nice all the same. Also, to settle our full stomachs, we enjoyed G&Ts.

Countryside & Roadside Snacks - 27th August 2007

Monday morning, and we were off to the hydroelectric dam project that my father is working on, in Bumbuna. First we had to get through Freetown’s traffic mayhem, which meant sitting in stationary traffic for quite a long time, watching people selling, delivering, shouting, greeting, carrying and hanging out. Then there was a terrific downpour, and umbrellas of all colours burst into flower, whilst stalls were quickly covered in plastic.

Eventually, we left Freetown behind, and I spent the four hour drive upcountry enjoying the sights of palm plantations and my first African thatched houses, as well as returning the many greetings from villagers and fellow road-users (on foot, in cars, in buses, on motorbikes and in lethal-looking lorries). I was taking in scenes so typically African that I felt like I was in a fibre-glass-based safari park.

Lunch on the road was sweet green bananas, and char-grilled corn on the cob (tasty but could have done with some salt and butter), bought from street sellers. We also purchased some strange fruit that we were told were plums, but looked nothing like them and were inedible raw.

As we got further into the countryside, children outside mud and straw houses would go berserk waving, laughing and screaming “O Poto, O Poto, O Poto!” (Meaning ‘European’/ ‘white man’) at us as we went past. We’d get to what looked like major places on the map, but the settlements themselves were no bigger than a small village. The mud, thatch and tin cottages and huts, with chickens and goats milling about them, looked restful and solid after the slums of Freetown.

The Range Rover climbed up ochre dirt tracks, further into the jungle. We eventually arrived at the dam project worker’s camp by early evening, just in time for some pre-dinner drinks with freshly roasted peanuts - which tasted exactly like peanut butter. Without a doubt the nicest peanuts I’ve tasted, I vowed to try and find raw peanuts in Europe when I got back, so I could re-create the home-roasted flavour.

I asked the barman for the best places to drink in Bumbuna village, and he told us about Mabinti Johnny’s bar, where you can also get good food. We’d have to search it out the next day…

Being an Italian-run project, the camp’s cafeteria serves Italian-style food. ‘Camp’ makes it all sound very basic, but actually it’s a collection of bungalows and communal buildings. It was a nice change to have red wine and a meal of meatballs, potato, cheeses, charcuterie, and salads. ‘Specially the wine. ☺

Beer in Bumbuna - 28th August 2007

My morning dip in the huge, deserted pool, surrounded by rain forest-covered mountains and cloud, gave me a good appetite for the large Italian lunch.

The evening mission to find Mabinti Johnny’s was not successful. Well, actually, we did find it, but the lady herself was not there. A boy waited with us and assured us she was on her way, but we hadn’t seen anybody else and weren’t sure that anyone was taking Mabinti a message that she had customers. It later turned out she had rushed back but just missed us. After a few minutes, we decided to come back another time, and went instead to the U & Me Pub (‘Da Place to Be’), which had a picture of a black and a white person shaking hands on the brightly painted sign.

I had wanted to try Maltina – a non-alcoholic malt drink - or palm wine, which is drained directly from the tree, but they didn’t have either, so we drank Star. We asked for peanuts, too. After about 45 minutes of drinking our beer, the groundnuts were ready. This was remarkably quick, seeing as a child had to be sent to buy them, a fire was lit and allowed to come up to temperature, a pot of water heated up, and the nuts washed and finally boiled. After another beer with the juicy, sweet nuts, we dashed back up to the camp just in time for our Italian canteen supper.

An Amazing Day; Chiefs, Chimps & More - 29th August 2007

An amazing day, involving a river crossing, a fight, a waterfall, a couple of village chiefs, some chimps, a funeral, sampling local delicacies, foreign students and almost night on the town…

Meeting & Market

First of all, we went to see the Bumbuna Chief, because my father needed to discuss the progress of the dam project with him; the dam and power station can only be a success and be protected from pillaging in the chiefdom with his support. Luckily, the ex-geography teacher is both impatient to get ‘light’ for his village, and is fully behind all the environmental and social measures involved in the preservation of this newly protected area of rain forest. As he my dad chatted, I admired the Chief’s carved wooden throne and nice leather sandals.

Next we visited Bumbuna’s daily market; lots of stalls selling dried fish, vegetables (aubergines, cucumber, chillies) and spice mixes. I bought some deep-fried things of assorted shapes and hues, thinking they’d all be different flavours. But they were all very similar in taste, being mainly made of bland, fried dough.

We also bumped into the smiling, friendly woman who runs the U & Me Pub, and her mother. It was good to see a local we vaguely knew and say 'hi'.

Waterfall & Kerfuffle

Off we went to the end of the village, and parked next to the river, as excited children collected around us, running from every direction, and all keen to act as our guides. They knew why we were there; the only reason strangers go down that way is to see Bumbuna falls.

The rainy season meant that the river we needed to cross was swollen and fast flowing, but I managed to wade to the other side with the help of three small but strong children! Once we got to the far bank, we walked through the forest, pied-piper stylee, until we got close to the Bumbuna falls (which sound like they are drumming BOOM... BOO-NA). The thundering falls were gushing violently over boulders, as we made our way along the water’s edge, over rocks and tree roots, to get as close as we could. It was an exhilarating sight.

Then everyone turned around and started the walk back down the path, avoiding a troupe of army ants, to the river crossing and then the car. The kids wanted cash. We should have brought food or sweets, or at least some small change, and certainly should not have given them the two largish notes which we did give them. This is where the fight broke out. Tears, shouting, grabbing and upset, all caused by our evil money, after a happy morning with excitable children. At least I still had the fried dough balls, which disappeared in a similar way to a leg in a tank of piranhas.

For the rest of the trip I carried groundnuts, which I handed out instead of cash, and told my dad he should bring sweets everywhere with him next time. The people I gave the nuts to - who beg for cash but rarely get anything - were often surprised but always pleased. One grateful nutter started ecstatically shouting in the street about how "food give life!"

Jungle Safari

Back to the camp for an Italian lunch - more of the same; meat, rice, salads, cheeses, fruit. We were joined at our table by some foreign exchange engineering students, who were working in Freetown, but had come up to visit the dam for the day.

Then we were off on a trek through the jungle to Kasasi, a village that until weeks before our visit was only accessible on foot. There is now a rough track, but we walked there anyway, through forest, past rice fields, palms and far-off waving figures which appeared from thatched huts and fire shelters on the hills around us. The track was often more like a stream, and we had to dodge the deepest water whilst occasionally sheltering from the warm rain under our umbrellas.

We met some women on the path, and asked how much further it was to their village. They told us not far, and shook my hand, saying "my sister".

When we entered this beautiful village, the trusting people were pleased to see us, and we sat in their central meeting building to talk to them. This was where we met the second chief of the day, Kasasi Village Chief.

It was so peaceful there. The buildings looked like they had grown out of the earth – which they kinda had! There were two tiny tots, toddling between everyone’s legs, and looking like the epitome of health. Plump, with shining eyes and smiles, the rice-and-fish diet and close community was obviously working its magic, and the kids positively glowed. I suppose that’s how all children are supposed to grow up. Unfortunately, my camera frightened them and them made cry, so I couldn't get a shot of these gorgeous little cherubs.

My father was pleased to see that a woman he had previously met, who had been in a terrible way after a spitting cobra poisoned her eyes in a rice field, was fully recovered. Also, he had helped a boy that had had a badly broken leg to get hospital treatment, and was given the news that the boy was also now fine.

After a short visit, we headed back off up the path. Some villagers and the Chief appeared to be accompanying us, but after a while they dipped off down a steep path into the forest.

A while later, soaked through and almost back to the car, we were brought to a sudden halt, by the most incredible sound; real, live, wild chimps! They were very close by, but we couldn’t get nearer, because there was a rice meadow between us and the bit of forest where the calls were coming from. We stood for ages listening, and attempting to decipher their language. It seemed like one female sounding seriously pissed off, an aggressive male, and finally another male calming the situation. We couldn’t see any chimps or even movement in the trees, but the fact that we had heard them was amazing in itself; there are thought to be about four chimps in that family group, who roam in their own territory of hundreds of km2.

It’s hard to describe the emotions evoked by hearing wild chimps, so human-like in behaviour and communication, totally wild, doing their own thing, keeping to themselves but living in harmony with nearby humans. Unless the humans hunt them. Again, I felt like I was in a situation that was too like the movies, just too African to be real, and couldn’t shake the comparison with a fake safari park, blaring chimp noises over loud speakers.

Finally, we gave up looking for trees shaking, and called our goodbyes to the chimps. After a few minutes, we were back at the car, where most of Kasasi was waiting for us! They had beaten us back to the car, and wanted a lift into town. All the women clambered into the back wagon section, crouching on the metal floor, while the chief and his male friend sat on the back seat.

Maltina & Palm Wine

We bumped along, my dad trying to minimize the jolting for the women on the hard floor. They asked to be dropped at a house just outside Bumbuna, and as they all piled out and greeted the household, they started to wail and hold their hands up. A passer-by explained that someone at the house had died and they had come for the funeral.

As we were almost in town, we decided it was time to try Mabinti’s bar again. This time, the door was open so we called hellos to Mabinti. She was washing, but would be out in a second. Mabinti appeared, wrapped in towels, apologizing for not being dressed. We were welcomed and asked to make ourselves at home on the terrace while she got some clothes on.

Then she served us our drinks; I got to try Maltina, which was a bit sweet for my taste, but the intense malt flavour was delicious. Pa had Star. Mabinti sat down with us to talk. Unbeknown to us, someone had already been sent to get us palm wine, and a child had gone to buy peanuts. The nuts arrived and the fire lighting and cooking process started. Then the palm wine turned up, and Mabinti sampled it for us, to ensure it hadn’t been watered down, which people sometimes do in rainy season, and which could make foreigners ill. She declared the wine safe to drink, so we each had big enamel mugs of the stuff, which was rather sour, and tasted like a mixture between white wine and retsina - an acquired taste, but I quite enjoyed it after the sweet Maltina. I was later told that palm wine is often a lot sweeter and more palatable. It didn’t seem to be very alcoholic, but I guess that varies too.

In the end the penny dropped, and we realized that the bush telegraph had spread the news from the U & Me Pub that we liked groundnuts and wanted to try palm wine, which is why Mabinti had sorted everything without needing to ask what we wanted!

We had long chats over the palm wine. Mabinti told us that starting from about the age of ten, she was a nanny for an English family. She had become a part of the family, but lost touch with them when they moved to the UK. When she’d heard the previous day that some English people were looking for her, she hoped it might be her English family. She also told us how her guesthouse was destroyed by rebels in the war, and that the rebels murdered her husband.

We were invited back any time as Mabinti’s dinner guests. After meeting her two tame monkeys, some local kids and a sty full of pigs and piglets, we left with a massive bag of groundnuts, a load of limes from Mabiniti’s beautiful tree, and a couple of grapefruit.

On the way back, we passed by the funeral house, where the Kasasi Chief and his villagers waved as we passed.

Almost A Night on the Town

It was almost time for supper, but we made it back to the camp with a few minutes in which to shower and change out of our still walk-sodden clothes. During dinner, we sat with my father’s colleagues, as usual, plus the foreign students, who had decided to stay for the night after all. Following the filling food, we all retired to the bar for beer and grappa – helps with the digestion, you know.

A couple of grappas later, Michaelo, one of the Italian workers, came in, all fired up, wanting to take us all to Bumbuna for dancing and drinking, with his wife, Angela. Angela was a beautiful, fiery Sierra Leonean, with cornflower blue eyes. My dad went to bed, but the rest of us piled into Michaelo’s car, and went for a drink and boiled peanuts outside a house on the main square. I so wanted to go dancing, but all the discos were closed, because there weren’t many dam workers around anymore, which meant that no-one had any money to go out.

So, following a mad drive around the tiny mud-and-tin town, we headed up a steep track to the local radio station, in search of a party. The poor DJ was on his own, and totally bewildered by a load of white people suddenly bundling into the studio. I think he was probably a bit intimidated, too, so I was glad to leave him to it after a few minutes, and we headed back off to the camp.

After a soft drink outside Angela and Michaelo’s bungalow, I was given a lift the few hundred metres back to my apartment. They absolutely would not let me walk, because the rain meant frogs, which meant that cobras would be out hunting, and would be easy to tread on in the dark.