As my friend said on the way out last Friday, it is a big relief to leave Sierra Leone for even one week it feels as if you are leaving behind a heavy load and you feel a little bit light headed just knowing that you are leaving the country. It is sad, but that is the reality for most hard working people in this country who bear the brunt of the economic woes heaped upon us these days. The frustration of wanting things to happen and being an unwilling spectator witnessing them not happening and the attendant consequences for those of us whom our immediate relatives and friends deem to be relatively successful and therefore seemed to have seen a vision in which the almighty has decreed that we must be at all cost their ‘keepers’ is enough to make one happy even if one is leaving town for only two weeks. UTAir Helicopters
The UTAir flight was mildly amusing because I see Zeev Morgensten the proprietor is trying hard to keep up standards. The seats in the flight are no longer the long bench which was the feature during a long time during and after the war years but it is now arranged aircraft style. The helicopters are now very clean, … and I mean very clean, with all the safety features in place and I mean in place because I did pass my hand to look for the life jackets under the seats and they were there, not like the former Paramount Airlines where the Russian pilots used to announce in heavy accent that life jackets were under your seats and you pass your hand there and you encounter empty air.
The helicopter was not shaking as it used to and the service was fine except that the price had jumped to Le270,000. Yes well for those who cannot afford the four or five hours additional it would take you to take the ferry it is a price they have to pay, because to catch the 11 am ferry one must start by 10 am and that is five hours to the 2pm flight for the helicopter expensive yes but for business people or people pressed for time it may be worth the price.
At the airport, after the usual hustle with porters who treat people as if they are invalids and incapable of carrying a less than 10kg hand bag, it is the turn of immigration officials who sit two in the cubicle and who equally treat people as if they are all illiterates by demanding that they fill in the immigration forms for them.
This irked me a bit and the two immigration ladies after making me wait for three to four other people whom were behind me in the queue then said “How you nor appreciate we ba? (How don’t you appreciate us filling out the forms for you?)” I did not answer because that was like soliciting money by forcefully doing a job which was not in their job description of course I ignored the bait to dip into my pocket and just walked through to be searched murmuring a grudging thank you.
After being searched I went upstairs to the lounge and ordered a coke. Little did I realize that this was a different place from all others. The bottle coke came and it was Le4,000 – yes four thousand leones more expensive than in the night clubs and hotels in Freetown hmmmmm. Well … I said to myself the dollar is having tantrums these days and jumping up and down each day, so if local prices behave the same way who will blame them? Maybe I am also paying for the entertainment – so I spent the rest of the time watching an old game on the satellite DSTV.
Heading for the toilet I saw the Energy Minister Prof. Davidson talking to Aki Beckley the Salone man who helped transform Ghana’s roads to first class European standards. These two were obviously old buddies as Aki accused me good naturedly of avoiding him at the duty free shop and Prof. accused me also with a laugh of not going to see him since he took office. Ofcourse the issue they picked with me was that we journalists are only talking about Bumbuna and Prof. disclosed that he and Aki both engineers who studied first at Fourah Bay College took a second year engineering exam on Bumbuna in 1967. Aki Beckley also went on to disclose that when he joined the Ministry of Works in 1968 Bumbuna was one of the first drawings they had to deal with.
Ofcourse I was mildly amused that the gentlemen also remembered the lecturer who taught them. But yes here were young engineers to be then, who dealt with Bumbuna, and who are still looking at the same project in their retirement and it is still not completed … yes 42 years on. I say this not in any negative sense (and hope my colleagues will not use this intimately privileged information in any negative way) because the two gentlemen had nothing to do with why the project is still not completed, … but I said under my breath May God help Sierra Leone. Prof. was hopeful – as he has always seemed to me ever since I knew him several years back – that he will see the end of it … I dare say I believe the man, for one thing he is a true gentleman and not the usual politician.
Well with that ringing in my ears I went down the stairs to board the Kenya Airways flight, and away we flew bang on time 5.30pm. Zain the Bomba The flight was uneventful until we landed at Kotoka airport in Ghana and we were told we had a 45 minutes wait for refueling. So I used the opportunity to check if Zain … yes Zain the one network bomba were true to their word. So I switched on my Zian sim card which I had not taken out of my phone and after trying for about five minutes the first calls went through. Ofcourse the argument had already started that it was a hoax as others had been trying and were equally not successful yet. When it came through and we all started making calls then the compliments started and Zain was being praised. So the 45 minutes which turned into over one hour was then spent making calls home and bluffing … yes bluffing that I am speaking from onboard the aircraft in Ghana … yes thanks to Zain the Bomba network. But I said I will try it again in Kenya.
The 6 hours flight to Kenya was again uneventful but I learnt that we should now add 3 hours as they are 3 hours ahead so I actually arrived at 2.30 am in Kenya but that was 5.30am Kenyan time and yes … sleep was fighting me as I went to the immigration desk. I was asked to fill a form by the health official for those coming from Swine flu countries and of course trust me I protested that Sierra Leone we do not have swine flu so I should not fill the form, an east African said well you should just say not applicable but stubborn me I said no I will not fill the form insisting I was not from a swine flu area and the lady agreed and we had a laugh about it. I went to immigration and I did not need a visa – and nobody insisted they should fill my immigration for me and I was quickly sent through with an “enjoy your stay”. I went to the Kenyan airways desk and yes they quickly processed my one day free hotel accommodation and … yes not surprisingly there was bus shuttle to take me to my hotel. Coming from Sierra Leone the efficiency was mind boggling. I guess Kenya airways are providing thousands of jobs for the Kenyans. Imagine the pilots the air hostesses and stewards the airport staff the transport operators with drivers and even the provision of the overnight lodging was putting money into the pockets of the hotels the chain is endless … but my God why can’t we do this in Sierra Leone? And to think Kenya had their election troubles as well and their politicians are not saints but yet …
Here again Zain surprised me because here in Kenya it is even more efficient than in Ghana. I had switched on my phone on leaving the plane and by the time I finished with immigration a message had come to me recognizing my sim card and my phone also asked me if it could change my time because I was now in a new time zone. And the service was also excellent such that the first call to Freetown went right through. The only glitch was that if there is no + before the 232 (no connection if you just dial 076 000 000 you have to have the +232-76-000-000) you will not get a connection but everything else was just fine.
Well as the light of started seeping through the clouds we were driven to the Safari Club hotel. I observed that Kenya had not given up on colonialism and they had maintained the right hand drive with the cars moving on the left side of the road courtesy of Great Britain. There are three lane roads leading from the airport to town and man the place is cold 15 degrees centigrade. Maybe this is why I see so many people putting on European style suits.
Well at the hotel the shock for me is that my luggage was checked through to Beijing and I cannot wash my teeth nor change my pants after a hot bath. This is a lesson in traveling for me next time when the flight has an overnight stay I must make sure my toiletries are in my hand luggage and also I must wear dark colours otherwise I might risk looking unclean when I arrive on my final destination yes one cannot travel for three days in the same clothes and look sparklingly clean that is another travelling lesson. However a tooth brush and small tube paste and a single disposable shaving stick in the hotel shop is $8 (Le3750 x 8 = Le30,000) thirty thousand leones Holy Cow – I have to get out of this hotel and into the streets where I can get cheaper stuff.
Well after writing this piece on Saturday morning I searched my computer for a free internet connection and there was none all the sights requested payment, so I went to the front desk and they told me it is 900 Kenyan shillings for one hour and at an exchange rate of 69 Kenyan shillings to the dollar it would cost me around 13 dollars. Quick calculation to the rate in Sierra Leone which as I left on Friday was Le3,750 x 12dollars = Le48,750 ( forth-eight thousand seven hundred and fifty Leones). My God this is killing … for one hour? And we grumble in Sierra Leone? Well I will have to go for half that time and my per diem will have to suffer I cannot charge that to Awoko newspaper although that is what I should do normally.
So keep watching this space as I take you with me on my journey to China courtesy the Chinese embassy in Sierra Leone. Yes I know a couple of journalists have made this trip to China in the last few weeks some say it was to teach them how to be good propagandists and this and that, but trust me I will not hide anything just keep up with this space and I will tell you what everything is all about. For me now it is sleep time bye bye. By Kelvin Lewis