I’ve only been to West Africa in rainy season, and I’m not too sorry about that. But this trip has a whole case of unknowns, which can prove especially trechorous during monsoon. It’s my first abroad since charity: water, when I usually had an accomplice help with the logistics. And it’s my very first where I will, after one week with an organization, work independently of any support on an independent journalism project in Freetown.
I’m traveling with a non-profit fundraising + awareness-raising org for one week in a rural district famous for what the entire country seems to be famous for: diamonds. We’re going to an area where the waterborne disease schistosomaosis is rampant, especially for miners who spend hours wading in dirty water in hopes of uncovering a precious stone.
I’ve relied on the organization to take the lead on planning this one. They’ve secured a driver, and (I’m told) a translator, which are really the two essentials for me. You can sleep in a car if you haven’t figured out good lodging; you can get by on Clif bars for awhile, too. But you cannot tell a story in a culture that is not your own without a translator to make the conversations real. And you cannot get anywhere in a developing country without a driver.
The story is a different… well, story. If your contacts are in place, if you have a trusted implementing partner in the field, if you have the ability to get from place to place, and to speak with anyone you can intercept, then the story can grow from a vague idea or theme into a concrete film. I have yet to find an international storytelling experience where the story I had in mind — no matter how much time I put into planning from the U.S., no matter how rote the storyboard and how sure the schedule seemed — turns out the way you think it should. When you get on the ground, you start asking questions, and you (I should say I) learn that things are not the way all the reports and the conferences and the media stories abroad say they are. This is a good thing. It means you have some reporting to do, and then you need to start working your butt off on a story that represents what you’ve found.
This is where journalism insticts are my guide. Technically, when I’m shooting a story for a nonprofit or cause, I could definitely nail down characters, scripts, activities to film, etc., far ahead of time. But I’ve learned that (1) your schedule is at the mercy of people based in-country, and this means it will most definitely not align with what you think is possible from your office in New York; (2) unless you’ve done an exploratory trip to figure out your characters, you have no idea whether they’ll actually be compelling people on video, or whether they actually have anything interesting to say; and (3) when you mix your insticts for what makes a good story with patience, the story will come to you.
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We land to dripping darkness, on a tarmac lining the peninula across a bay from Freetown proper. Not just us; everyone arrives here because the airport requires a bus ride, a ferry, and then a cab ride to get to the capitol. When we speed across the bay on a Pelican, I’m fumbling to wipe fog from my glasses while straining eyes to catch a glimpse of some sort of city skyline, but all I can see are what seem like a handful of lights dotting the beach. A shore-side view from our hotel for the night gives me a little moonlight on ocean, but everything else is unknown until sunrise the next morning.
We head upcountry early, a 4×4 packed with gear, bottled water and anticipation. The road to Kono district is long, and we soon learn that half of it is yet submerged in a deep orange soup made from rain and neglect of road construction since colonial workers laid bricks more than a century ago.
I have a gift. Just as my mother can find sleep in absolutely any situation, I can find words on a page as I bop up and down along rocky roads to villages far off in the jungle. I get more reading done on my trips abroad than any other time, thanks to the many daylit hours spent in a car. I’ve never actually worked on a city story (with the exception of a short one in Dhaka); each story has meant a good two or three days spent getting there.
This requires badass cars and even badderass drivers. Each puddle is thick enough to hide anything beneath the surface, and whenever we go splashing I imagine we’ll in fact end up diving, into a small pond feet deeper than possible for our car. But our only holdup is when we pull up behind a line of packed buses and tankers who can’t get past one semi wheels-deep in the mire. Their tires spin chunks of mud in the air while the people sitting outside a house along the road cheer, jeer, and drink ginger beer. The mud is so thick here that kids are getting stuck up to their knees as they wade through to catch up with friends. We find a detour also blocked, but possible — after a Unicef Land Cruiser yanks a bus out of the way, we pass.
Soon, fog settles in and the darkness creeps again. I’m curious about the lodging options in Magburaka (our stopover for the night) and it turns out to be a comfy guest house. I smile that it’s called Havanna Motel, for how quiet and quaint it seems. We eat rice and chicken in the adjoining restaurant, where everyone else is sipping Star beer and watching Spanish soccer. A muffled voice comes over the restaurant’s intercom (a pair of loudspeakers right behind my head):
‘Excuse me, excuse me. Thank you, thank you, it is now happy hour. All girls drink for free.’
‘And boys drink for free.’
I laugh out loud; aw, this cute little bar! I’m less amused later when I find out that the adjoining restaurant is actually a disco, and posi pop beats pound until midnight. My half-dreams are of porch light domino games in Catadupa, Jamaica, where people seemed to have about the same soundrack, and visions of diamond miners plunging into the mud.
Freetown to Magburaka, Sierra Leone.