I had imagined, I suppose, that I would be one of the only people boarding a Sierra National flight into Freetown, Sierra Leone (named “the worst country on earth” by the United Nations a few years back). Perhaps, I thought, there would be a few UN workers here and there. Maybe a NYC taxi driver coming home to his wife and kids. But mostly I thought that Sierra Leoneans would all be far too poor to be on an airplane.
I hadn’t figured on the elite bunch I saw in the check-in line at Gatwick (having come in via Toronto the night before). One man looked as if he’d sauntered off the Armani runway during fashion week, styled impeccably down to his shiny, pointy, Prada boots. I imagined he was a famous Sierra Leonean musician (and later found out he was a Paris-based DJ of Sierra Leonean origin). Other men were decked in flamboyant three-piece suits. I started wondering if I should have left all the trappings of my New York City life behind.
And it seems that I have begun to meet, one by one, the characters I had constructed for my going away party (see previous blog “Hearts of Darkness: A seedy expat bar in the tropics”). Waiting to board the plane I spotted an extremely tall, white, older man who, in addition to course black hairs on the bridge of the nose, also had two round patches of fur on each cheekbone. He wore a yellow-checkered button down and khakis (looking very Banana Republic before it went high fashion for Gap addicts) and told me that he values diamonds for several West African governments. (“That would make you, a…?” I asked. “A consultant, shall we say,” he spoke with a formal British accent. I imagine he takes high tea and says “old chap” often. “His people” had been in Sierra Leone for over a century. “It used to be a beautiful country,” he went on, “we never could figure out why they blew each other up and destroyed everything.” I was thinking: “Wasn’t it over control of the diamond mines?” )
The man sitting in the seat directly in front of me turned out to have been born and bred in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and had come to the country years ago, staying on to develop a diamond export business. He used to manage the Wu-Tang Clan (a huge hip-hop group for those of you old foggies), he claimed, and asked me if I wanted to help him plan a huge benefit concert with some hot new American talent (those in the music industry take note!).
There was also an African man sitting a few rows in front of me who had been dragged onto the plane by two British immigration officers, hands-tied, kicking and screaming. He had made for the door while we were boarding on two separate occasions and was summarily put back in his seat. The Icelandic Air stewardess-on-loan assured us that he was not violent.
I slept for most of the trip.
When we arrived in Sierra Leone, finally, after 7 hours or so, it was getting dark. The sky was hazy and grey. The earth below us was red and overgrown with jungle vegetation. We flew over a compound lined with white trucks and helicopters marked with the black UN insignia.
We put our seatbacks and tray tables to their upright positions and landed.