Rogbonko Village Retreat was the furthest inland that I would venture on my trip to Sierra Leone, 4 hours and a world away from Freetown’s noisy gridlocked traffic, from the street-sellers of wares ranging from imitation jeans to caged songbirds, toothpaste to vacuum cleaners. My driver Albert sped eastwards from the wide sparkling bay with its palm tree beaches, and into countryside waiting for the Summer rains, past cooking fires with lazy smoke curling in the still air, chickens scratching in the dust. After a few false turns, necessitating at least one unscheduled bumping detour across a fallow field, the landmarks on the direction instructions thankfully came good.
And sure enough, on the edge of the village, here was a well, surrounded by women and children energetically filling plastic canisters and washing-up bowls (a ubiquitous sight, in vivid – or lurid depending on your taste – colours); nearby, men-folk were building what turned out to be the new mosque. All gave a hearty wave as though our arrival was universally anticipated.
On the outskirts of the village next to a wooded area was the guest hut, comfortable and well-appointed; a barrel of washing water and handy jug to self-administer a shower, and brightly patterned bedcover under the usual mozzie net.
The only thing missing was cool air. So - options: cool-box Star beer in the shade or hot wander around the village to meet some of our hosts. Plumping for the latter, I took the path to the main clearing. Girls walked ahead and behind me, coming back from the forest, balancing on their heads brushwood trussed with string or fabric bundles of fruits and even a few coconuts.
I was quickly adopted by two teenaged lads keen to practise their English and tell me all about themselves and, the universal topic, their devotion to Liverpool FC. The main street was quiet but two smaller roads running parallel either side were lined with huts whose inhabitants were manually threshing rice on the pavement, or energetically pounding palm nuts in giant pestle-and-mortar combos made from hollowed cut tree-stumps and shoulder-high wooden clubs, or just stretched out to snooze, eat and play.
As in villages the world over, everyone knew everyone. And so, in quick succession, as well as the lads’ families and neighbours, I was introduced with some ceremony to the village chief, the local pastor (and taken to admire his surprisingly airy spacious Anglican church) and head-teacher. The latter seized the opportunity to put down the rake which he had been using to shuffle palms nuts roasting over glowing coals on a metre-long hotbed. Wiping his brow and grinningly posing for a photo, he explained in his excellent English that the village numbered 1500, approximately half Christian and half Muslim, co-existing peacefully.
His school, he said, had 150 pupils - he pointed behind me where a good number were hovering. Their English sadly wasn't up to following what was said but, what they lacked in conversation, they more than compensated for in enthusiasm for my camera when I motioned to several boys to form a group. Some degree of disorder ensued as a dozen moved together but then each tried to push himself to the front until they had virtually inched to where I stood, oblivious to my shooing gestures. A strikingly beautiful woman with heavy wooden earrings and elaborately-dressed hair stepped in, taking boys firmly by the wrists and issuing commands as efficiently as any wedding photographer coordinating champagne-fueled guests.
With order momentarily restored, I snapped quickly, and braced myself for whoops and shrieks and tugging little fingers, as I was instantly surrounded and mobbed with excited demands to see the results on the little screen. One thing naturally led to another until children and adults alike had satisfied their curiosity and my memory-card was full – the children squealing with delight, hopping and beaming, the older village women solemn, some positively unsmiling despite having made clear, by pointing to their chests and lining up, that they expected to be accorded the same service. They inspected the screen closely, gravely nodded their approval and slowly moved off, back to their cooking-fires.
By now, the call of the shade and icy Star was over-powering. Promising to return when the sun dipped and my memory-card was swapped, I was formally escorted ‘home’ to my waiting jug and barrel.