During my sabbatical (December 26, 2007 - March 19, 2008), I posted periodic updates so that my congregation could follow my progress on Amistad's Atlantic Freedom Tour. Since returning from my sabbatical in West Africa with the Freedom Schooner AMISTAD, many people have asked about the blog entries that I posted on my church's website. While I'm no longer in that position, I'm moving my old posts here so that they will remain available.
December 20, 2007
Here we are at T minus six days and the preparations for my sabbatical are at a fever pitch. I’ve gotten all my shots, the folks at Amistad America’s office are taking care of my airline tickets. I’ve got to go into New York tomorrow to get my visa from the Sierra Leonean consulate, then I’ve got to get my crew drug test. Of course, there are also the final visits with shut-in members of the church, preparations for the Christmas Eve service and also getting ready to host my in-laws for Christmas. I’m definitely looking forward to having all of the prep work behind me so I can settle down to the actual work of being a deckhand and historical educator aboard Amistad.
Freedom Schooner Amistad under Sail
December 29, 2007
Arrival in Sierra Leone
The old saying goes that all’s well that ends well. While it is certainly too early to say that about my sabbatical aboard Amistad, at least I can say it about my trip to join the ship, which has been challenging, to say the least.
Due to logistical problems, I wasn’t able to leave on December 26, as had been planned, but ended up leaving on the evening of December 27, with a redeye flight out of Newark. Upon arrival at London’s Gatwick airport, I rushed through immigration and customs so I could retrieve my baggage and then had to check my luggage back in with Astraeus Airline for the flight to Freetown, which was scheduled to leave at 13:00.
13:00 came and went and the airline announced that the plane was having problems. Every hour, there was another announcement that the problem was being worked on and around 17:00, we got five pounds from the airline so we could buy snacks. For the record, five pounds doesn’t buy a whole lot of snacks in an airport. Time passed and passed and passed and the passengers got increasingly irritable, but I was extremely fortunate to find myself with a few new friends.
One was Sandy, whose father had been a Sierra Leonian government official back in the 1960s and had evacuated his family when the civil war began. Later, Sandy and I met folks that I’ve been asked to refer (at least publicly) as Colonel and Mrs. X. No kidding. Col. X. is a British military officer who is serving in Sierra Leonian uniform as the Director of Military Intelligence for the Sierra Leonian military. He and his wife are delightful folks and they, Sandy and I ended up having dinner together before Astraeus finally decided at 21:00 that our flight was simply not going to leave that night. The airline sent us to a hotel, but it took until 01:00 before we finally got to the hotel. I believe I may have been asleep before my head hit the pillow.
This morning, we were picked up by a bus and taken back to the airport, where we ended up waiting until noon before we finally got to board the plane. The flight itself was uneventful, but it was beautiful to be able to look out and see the hills of Portugal as we flew over them. The Mediterranean was beautiful. I could see Casablanca as we flew just to the west of it. Flying over Saharan Africa was amazing. From 35,000 feet, it is hard to imagine people actually living in such a forbidding environment, but there were small clusters of buildings every so often.
After arrival in Freetown, it was time to go through immigration and pick up luggage, then on to customs. Once in the country, officially, it was time to wait for four hours to take a helicopter flight from the airport to Freetown proper, which is on the other side of a major river, with no bridge for many miles. The helicopters are old Soviet MIL-8s, but are kept in good condition and are flown by Russian pilots. Sandy and I rode together and we both enjoyed the experience very much.
No sooner had I gotten off the helicopter than I was met by Donald George, a Sierra Leonian who works with Amistad. On the way to the ship, we drove through downtown Freetown and I was amazed to see that the electrical grid here is so deficient that most of the nightclubs are lit by candles and oil lamps. We made a stop at one of Donald’s friends’ wedding reception, and I had the chance to meet a few people before arriving at the ship, which is anchored in the middle of Freetown Harbor.
So here I am, enjoying a cool breeze after the heat of the day, using the ship’s wireless Internet connection to check my email. I’m looking forward to seeing Freetown by day. It is nearly 02:00 and my body clock is a bit off, but it is time to go to bed. Morning will be here very soon.
My new friend, Sandy Jumu, on the helicopter
Getting off the chopper
December 30, 2007
Today passed quietly enough. There’s an Anglican cathedral that we can see from the ship, but I’ve got watch today and wasn’t able to go. I’m hoping to go to worship next week.
Like usual, today had 92 degree heat, but with a constant breeze Beaufort force 1 or 2, so it was tolerable enough. I spent the day well-coated with sunscreen and working with my watch-mate Johnny Kamara, a native of Freetown who has been with Amistad for a couple years now. Our major task was to make sail covers from some tarps so that the sun wouldn’t damage the sails unnecessarily. We also rigged awnings to cover the majority of the deck.
Our life aboard is almost entirely on deck, as there is little air circulation below decks. We’ve moved all of the mattresses from the bunks to the deck and we all sleep on deck with no fear of mosquitoes, since we’re anchored far enough offshore and since the wind is so steady.
Tomorrow, after lunch, Johnny and I will get to go ashore for the rest of the day and will then have all of the following day for our selves, since we work 24 hours on watch, followed by a “field day” of ship work that runs until 5:00pm, officially, but usually finishes up at lunch. I hope to have some good photos from that time of seeing Freetown.
December 31, 2007
Lazy day aboard ship
Today’s main attraction has been the number of small boats that have been out and about in Freetown harbor. Small boats here are all locally built and have distinctively different lines than the boats that I’m used to seeing. They’re all working boats, open and with high bows that must help keep everyone dry when there’s a sea running While the bigger boats run with outboard motors, many of the smaller ones are paddled with leaf-shaped paddles or are propelled by sails often made up of bedsheets or random bits of cloth stitched together and looking like a patchwork quilt. A spritsail rig seems to be very popular. What is particularly interesting is how highly decorated they are. Not only are they brightly painted, often in the colors of the Sierra Leonean flag, but they also usually have, in large letters, names like “BELIEVE IN GOD” painted on them. This is a very different world from all of the white fiberglass boats with names like “Millionaire’s Toy” that I’m used to seeing.
I took a shower this morning, after deck wash: the first one I’ve been able to take since arriving in Africa. It is definitely low-tech here, as our drinking water is delivered in five-gallon water-cooler jugs that we pour into the ship’s water tank. Less potable water for washing and other tasks is brought out from the navy base and we keep a barrel of it on deck. Showers happen by way of a five-gallon bucket hoisted into the rigging with a siphon hose and a clamp. It felt great to be clean after yesterday’s grubby work, but a new layer of sunscreen immediately had me feeling grubby again.
This afternoon, Barry, the Engineer, and I took the zodiac to the navy base to pick up drinking water for the ship. On the way back, I learned how to run the outboard motor, thus filling in one of my major nautical knowledge deficiencies. Now, all I’ve got to do is to get some practice time in, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, since we’ve got several trips every day to pick up or drop off our security guards or to ferry crew members who have the day off.
Local boats in Freetown Harbor
January 1, 2008
Thoughts Toward the Future
The new year arrived in Freetown with a huge celebration on shore, complete with VERY loud music that carried out to the ship and made it almost impossible to sleep. At the stroke of midnight, several vessels in the harbor fired off signal flares that were soon followed by fireworks from several spots in town. Once morning arrived, the whole city was in a festive mood, with all of the major businesses closed and people celebrating in the streets.
Johnny Kamara and I went into the city after lunch and met several of his friends there. Together, the six of us walked through the city, looking in several market stalls, visiting the Freedom Steps, where Sengbe Pieh and the other Amistad captives first returned to Africa, but which had been used as the point of departure for slaves sold from the Cotton Tree slave market for centuries previously. The Cotton Tree, which is over 400 years old, still stands in the center of Sierra Leone, where is it dominates the central square and is home to a colony of fruit bats. It is a bit disconcerting to be a white man in Sierra Leone because the assumption is that I am extremely wealthy which, by comparison to the general population, I certainly am, since I had about $40 worth of Leones in my pocket, which is what the average worker here earns in two months’ time.
Did you know that it is illegal to take pictures of government buildings in Sierra Leone? I didn’t until an officer of the Sierra Leone Police took my camera away from me and told me to follow him. Sometimes, it seems, ignorance really IS a defense and after about 10 minutes of fairly friendly questioning, they let me and my camera go after they watched me delete all of the pictures of Government House, which is the residence of the Sierra Leonean President. You’ll just have to imagine what it looks like or, maybe, you could Google a picture of it.
After making several threats to kill Johnny Kamara for not mentioning my potential legal problems until it was too late, he and I headed off to visit members of his family in Murraytown, one of the suburbs of Freetown. When we arrived by van (only 1,000 Leones each, which is about 30 cents!) Johnny proceeded to introduce me to what seemed like every person who lived in Murraytown. We spent the next couple hours visiting in the homes of several of his relatives, where we were offered a dish of dried fish and cassava leaf stew over rice and one of Jolof Rice, which is a spicy beef stew over rice. I was concerned about this for two reasons. First, Johnny and I were served food, but nobody else ate, which was very strange to my Western sensibilities. Secondly, cassava leaves are notoriously hard to clean (which is why Heather, our ship’s cook won’t serve them) and pose just a smidgen of a health risk. Still, I felt that I was expected to accept my host’s hospitality and Johnny and I ate the food that was served to us. It was quite good, nice and spicy and the cassava leaf stew had a flavor sort of like spinach, but with a strong bay-leaf type flavor. So far, no ill health effects.
After visiting in Murraytown, Johnny’s uncle drove us to Lumley Beach in Aberdeen, which is one of the hot spots for New Year’s partying. The beach was jammed with families walking around, swimming and playing soccer. As Johnny and I walked along the beach, at least forty people came up to him, calling him by name and introducing themselves to me. It was really interesting to meet so many people and to talk with them about life here in Sierra Leone, especially since my connection with Johnny and Amistad gave us points of connection even though our lives are so completely different.
In my spare time, I’ve been reading A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah, which is the memoir of a child soldier who served in Sierra Leone’s army during the civil war that ended five years ago. It is forthrightly written and, as such, is a harrowing, though very human narrative. The atrocities of that war were brought home to me first-hand in Freetown as we passed by several amputees whose fingers, toes, hands or feet had been hacked off by the rebels. It is fair to say, though, that the government forces didn’t exactly follow the Geneva Convention in the way they carried out their war, either, slaughtering entire villages and killing POWs. On this New Year’s Day, my hope is that the new year will bring further healing to this nation that has been through so much savagery and that the people and the government of this extremely poor but beautiful nation will continue to move forward in peace.
January 3, 2008, 05:00
It is dark as I sit here on deck, periodically checking the level of water in the bilges and making sure that the anchor doesn’t drag. Tonight’s security guard, Brima, is asleep on the aft cabin top. The smell of garbage fires has been strong all night, as the wind has been coming from the land, so I keep hoping for a change in wind direction.
Freetown harbor is far from the cleanest place in the world. Like most harbors in the world, it has its share of water-borne debris: plastic bags, oranges and melons, a dead dog and a whole lot of other junk have floated by, but the worst part is the air, which leaves the white paintwork grimy and in need of cleaning almost every day.
January 3, 2007, 21:30
A day at the Aqua Club
Every day can't just be work, work, work. Today, after coming off watch and finishing up tasks on the boat, Drew, Gina and I went ashore and met with Samuel, a SL native who has been helping Amistad's crew and serving as a guide for us. We all went to lunch at a little shack of a place called NIX NAX and had African food, including Jolof Rice, cassava leaf stew and groundnut soup (which, for those of you who know peanut soup as it is served in Virginia, is very similar except that it also has meat, which kind of makes it worth eating, though I still think it tastes like hot peanutbutter...). All four of us ate until we were ready to pop and the meal only cost us about 25,000 Leones (about $8.50 US).
After lunch, we all visited the Sierra Leone National Museum, which featured a large exhibit on the Amistad event of 1839 and also several photos and paintings of various historically important people and a section of artifacts that would be right at home in the Smithsonian or the American Museum of Natural History. I pointed out a kora (a West African harp-type instrument) to Samuel and asked him about the traditional music of Sierra Leone and if it might be possible to find some musicians performing somewhere while we're in port. He seemed fairly confident that we might be able to work that out.
After visiting the museum, Gina went off to do her own thing in town and Drew, Samuel and I took a mini-bus to the Aqua Club, which used to be THE PLACE for swimming, sunning and sailing in Freetown. During the civil war, it was closed down and has only recently been reopened by the nephew of the woman who originally ran the place. After paying the admission for Samuel ($1.60 US) and being told that Amistad crew members were welcome as guests of the establishment, we swam in the saltwater pool, sat in the shade, read, played rummy and enjoyed several beers (for less than $1.00 US each) before catching a taxi back to the navy base. I didn’t get any photos of the place, but will do so next time I go. I am very hopeful that the Aqua Club and other such places here in Sierra Leone will be able to make tourism a viable industry here in Sierra Leone. With prices here being so low, I expect that families in Europe will be able to travel here and stay for their vacations more inexpensively than they could go to Mediterranean resorts.
Tomorrow, I’m scheduled to meet Samuel, whose uncle is a Methodist District Superintendent (or some similar title) and visit some churches. Having visited churches in Hong Kong and in Mainland China during my travels in 2001, I’m looking forward to adding experiences of African churches to my understanding of global Christianity.
January 5, 2008
Mad Dogs and Englishmen (and Americans) Go out in the Midday Sun
Yesterday, Samuel and I set out on an epic trek to visit the half of Sierra Leone that I hadn’t met while traveling with Johnny Kamara on New Year’s Day. At 10:00, we set off from the Navy Dock and caught a poda-poda, out to Waterloo, a suburb to the north (I think) of Freetown. The ride up was characteristically crowded, with people crammed into the minibus. After arriving, we stopped to visit Samuel’s parents in their home for a few minutes before going off in search of an ocada (motorcycle taxi – hop on the back and hold on!) to take us the rest of the way to the Mount Mizer church where his aunt and uncle are pastors. It was a bit of an awkward situation for me, though, because Samuel’s sister was topless as we walked in.
After a high-speed ride on the back of the ocada (Helmets? We don’t need no stinking helmets.) over red-clay and rock roads, we arrived at the compound where Leonard and Fatmata Davies are lay pastors running a small church and a primary school that serves 300 students. Mr. Davies wasn’t there when we arrived, so Fatmata, showed Samuel and me around the compound, pointing out the space that they had within the compound where they hoped to build additional classroom buildings and a larger church. They also have plans of converting the existing church building into a clinic that will be able to serve the community. A doctor (wearing a black suit and white gloves!) from Freetown also happened to be in the compound on unrelated business and we all discussed the need to establish community clinics in partnership with churches and schools so that children’s health can be monitored on an ongoing basis.
When Mr. Davies arrived, we at on benches under a tree in front of the main house, surrounded by children who kept coming up and beaming at me and reaching out to touch my white skin, something many of them had never seen before. Never before – not even during my travels in China in 2001 – have I felt so conspicuous as I did during my travels with Samuel. Not only did children keep coming up to me, but adults would greet me with a perfectly straight face, saying “Hello, white man.” At one point, while we were walking down a road, Samuel started laughing when he heard someone inside one of the buildings call out to someone else “There’s a white man passing by.” At a later stop, one of the small children just started crying whenever she looked at me.
After leaving Mt. Mizer Church, we took another ocada and another poda-poda to go off in search of another one of Samuel’s uncles (the one who is the Methodist superintendent). When we arrived at his house, he, too, was out so we visited briefly with Samuel’s aunt and promised to try and come back another day. We then walked a half mile or so to go and visit another one of Samuel’s relatives that was also – you guessed it – not there.
We then caught another poda-poda and came back to Freetown, where we spent an hour or so walking through the central market district, which made New York’s Chinatown seem spacious and uncluttered. Traffic was snarled by pedestrians who had to walk in the street because the sidewalks were completely filled with people selling every imaginable item. There were even people sitting underneath parked 18-wheeler trucks, selling things to people walking down the street.
By the time we were ready to head back to the Navy Dock, Samuel and I were starving, so we went in search of something to eat. Ever since we had been sitting at Mt. Mizer Church, my stomach had been rumbling, but I hadn’t been able to find anything other than a few groundnuts to eat that didn’t set my danger sensors jangling. To make matters even worse, mealtimes, as we know them in the US, mean little to Africans, who tend to eat when they’re hungry, not at set times and in group settings. As such, Samuel had also gotten hungry but hadn’t mentioned it, since I hadn’t mentioned that I was hungry. By the time we were back in a place where we could get something to eat, my blood sugar had tanked and I had a pounding headache, due partly to the 90something degree heat and partly to hunger. Rule number one when traveling in Africa: take more food and water with you than you think you’ll need. You’ll need it.
After getting back to the ship, I took some ibuprofen and went to bed right after dinner.
Today has been a watch day for me and I managed to get laundry done. This is, of course, hand-washing in 5 gallon buckets on deck. The water we’re using for washing is from the Navy base and is a bit iffy, so we’ve got it stored in barrels on deck, with bleach added to kill whatever nasties might be living in it. Washing clothes in water with bleach isn’t such a big deal, but using bleach-water for rinsing doesn’t work nearly as well as one might hope, as the bleach leaves a slippery film on the fabric and, since we don’t have other water that we can use for laundry, we just have to make the best of it.
Due to the unrest in Kenya, the entire African banking system seems to have shut down. This is because Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya form – at least metaphorically speaking – the three legs of the African Financial Stool and, whenever one of them has a problem, it causes the entire stool to collapse. On Amistad, this has meant that the usual funding channels for the ship have also ceased to function. Since we’re paying to have bottled water delivered to the ship for cooking and drinking, this has meant that we were unable to be resupplied until we could come up with enough cash to pay our water bill. After several phone calls back and forth to Amistad’s office in New Haven, we received a big stack of bills this afternoon. I had never held such a huge pile of cash in my hands before, but some of the thrill went away when I thought about how little value such a large stack of Leones actually represents.
I had a couple surprise visitors this afternoon when Sandy Jumu, whom I had met in London, appeared on the dock and asked if he and one of his friends could come out to see the boat. I’m pleased to be able to say that I didn’t embarrass myself in my handling of the small boat and that their hour aboard AMISTAD made them both very happy.
Now, the crew is settling down for the night. Once again, there’s loud music playing on shore, so I hope everyone’s got the earplugs in. I’m on watch until 03:00, so I’ll try to get this sent out this evening, as the Internet connection is a little less slow during the wee hours.
January 6, 2008
An African Epiphany
This morning, after cleaning the ship’s “soles and bowls,” Heather and I went to mass at the Anglican Cathedral in Freetown. Today is the Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the wise men bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus and is the final day of the twelve days of the Christmas season.
Today’s mass at the cathedral was well attended and the mass a very impressive high-church affair, with incense, a huge processional and glorious music from the choir, which featured boy sopranos. As a member of the United Church of Christ, much of the service was familiar to me, but with certain notable differences. The congregation chanted at least a half dozen Psalms. Many of the hymn texts were familiar but were sung to unfamiliar tunes. The formal liturgy of the Anglican tradition was second-nature to Heather, whose father is an Episcopal priest, but I found that I was always just far enough out of my tradition that I had to pay very close attention to the flow of the service to keep from losing my place.
The dean of the cathedral and his wife were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary and they set aside time during the service to have the bishop officiate in a brief service where they renewed their wedding vows. In his sermon, the bishop spoke of the gifts the magi brought to Jesus and how we also need to offer ourselves in service to God and the world in the new year. There were numerous sung responses in the liturgy and the choir sang “And the Glory of the Lord Shall be Revealed” from Handel’s Messiah. After the service, as Heather and I reflected on the service, we talked about how the service (which ran three hours) is reflected back in our US/Canadian cultures in a combination of the high-church Anglo-Catholic worship and the black church traditions that we have both experienced. This morning’s worship was a very visible reminder that our shared faith bridges barriers of geography, race, culture and tradition.
In the afternoon, Drew and I went into the city to do a little shopping. Freetown is very quiet on Sundays and even the market stalls that are normally very busy are quiet. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to wander the streets and get a better sense of the city’s geography without having to dodge traffic or fend off hawkers. I’m becoming increasingly comfortable here and am looking forward to future expeditions and further chances to get to understand the people and the culture of Sierra Leone.
January 09, 2008, 05:00
A Thought in the Dark
I’ve been on watch since 03:00 and have done my boat checks, finding no cause for alarm. The rest of the crew is asleep, as are our Sierra Leonian extras. The wind is blowing from the shore carrying with it the sound of the muezzin, calling Muslims to prayer with the words Allah akbar, God is great! As I have traveled through SL, I have seen churches and mosques practically side by side. The manager of the bar near our boat told me about his son, who has both a Christian name and a Muslim name because, here in Sierra Leone, the population is almost evenly mixed and Christians and Muslims travel in the same circles.
The other day, Heather was telling me that, when she was traveling in Switzerland, the common greeting when meeting a stranger is “God is big.” I can just imagine walking along a Swiss mountain path and seeing the vastness of God’s creation and being unable to contain the wonder of God’s majesty. Perhaps, since our Muslim sisters and brothers begin each new day with a celebration of God’s greatness and since we Christians also rejoice in the bigness of God, we may, one day, learn to live together in unity, rather than just in toleration..
In our life on board Amistad, we have Protestants, Catholics, Jews, a Unitarian and a couple Muslims aboard. We work together for the sake of Amistad and her mission and find that the diversity of our faith enhances our life together. In a little while, I will need to do another boat check, then it will be sunrise and time to raise the flags: Sierra Leonean, Australian, Canadian, US and UCC, celebrating everyone aboard.
January 10, 2008
Yesterday afternoon, Amistad was paid a visit by several descendants of Sengbe Pieh, the leader of the Africans who escaped from their chains aboard the original La Amistad in 1839. Some of the Pieh family had been present for the keel laying ceremony at Mystic, CT, in 1998 when construction was begun and they just happened to be in Freetown, visiting relatives when they saw the ship in the harbor. It was a real privilege to be able to share the boat that I love so much with people whose family has been so intimately connected with the story.
Later, I was invited to go to Lakka (la-CAH) beach for a party celebrating the 26th birthday of Eboi, one of the Sierra Leoneans who has become a good friend of Gina, one of our crewmembers. Around 2:00, we went to Eboi’s house and sat around for a while, watching American movies that had been given Krio subtitles. As Krio isn’t really a written language, all of the words in the subtitles were in English, which was really strange, since they didn’t necessarily match what was being said by the actors.
When it was finally time to go to the beach, 19 of us (plus the driver!!) climbed into a poda-poda for the hour-long trip, over the typically bad African roads. There’s a joke in Kenya that goes, “What do you call a pair of ears sticking up out of a pothole? A giraffe.” Though there are no giraffes here in Sierra Leone, the sentiment still applies.
A flat tire and an hour and a half later, we finally reached the beach, which is one of the finest beaches I’ve ever seen, even in postcards, though I’m still not certain if it was really worth the bone-crushing ride. We spent the afternoon playing volleyball, swimming, talking and eating, then loaded back on another poda-poda for the return trip, with the apprentice (the young man who collects the fares) riding on the back bumper.
Today was my day off and I slept in, then got up and breakfasted on coffee and pecan pie which Barry and Eve made yesterday while they were on watch. Then, Barry, Eve and I went to spend the afternoon with the Pieh descendants who had visited us on the ship yesterday. Fatmata really pulled out all stops and fed us royally with several traditional African dishes: boiled cassava root with a fish and beef soup, fufu (a rather sticky ball made of cassava flour) with egosi seed soup, and tula (too-LAH), a truly wonderful fish stew, served over rice. All of the stews and sauces were quite spicy and were delicious. Egosi seeds come from a melon that is grown solely for its seeds; the flesh of the melon is simply discarded. The boiled cassava root provided a good base for the soup, but neither Eve nor I cared much for the fufu. Still, when we brought leftovers back for the rest of the crew to eat, I gave the fufu a second chance. (Mom always made my brother and me take two bites of anything on our plate…) Even on a second tasting, the best I can say is that I wouldn’t seek it out as a something to eat again.
These last two days of spending time on shore with Africans have been wonderful. I have gotten a better sense of Sierra Leone’s recent history, as well as many more chances to see the country. Tomorrow, I’ll be back on watch, so I don’t expect I’ll have much of note to report. Soles and bowls, deck wash, set-up for meals, dishes, boat checks, ferrying our security guards back and forth, boat maintenance, etc… It’ll be good when we finally get a chance to go sailing.
January 14, 2008
It is amazing how quickly time can pass when one is busy. As predicted, being on watch wasn’t particularly noteworthy (either on the 11th or today).. Saturday, January 12 and Sunday, January 13 were, however, quite nice.
On Saturday, we had three guests aboard Amistad for lunch: Susie Pratt, the Deputy Director of the US Mission in Sierra Leone, and two other embassy employees, Danna and Amy. It was the first time that any of them had been out to see the ship, though Susie has been opening her home to crew members as a place where we are welcome to relax, watch TV, sleep in real beds and have hot showers (complete with water pressure). As Susie, Danna and Amy were leaving, Susie invited the crew members who were available to her home that night for a party celebrating Amy’s arrival in Sierra Leone.
That night, Susie’s house was crammed full of wonderfully interesting people, most of whom were members of the international diplomatic community or Non-Governmental Agencies. There must have been at least 20 nations represented on the guest list and the conversation was wonderful, ranging from the monitoring of elections in Africa to governmental corruption to the preservation of chimpanzees to low-power community radio stations. After the party was over, Drew, Heather and I spent the night at Susie’s home, and I spent part of the morning watching cricket games on South African cable TV before retuning to the ship in the early afternoon.
After lunch, three Canadian officers (two Navy, one Army) who are attached to IMATT (the International Military Assistance Training Team) came to the ship to visit with Heather. During their stay with us, we were all invited to join them in the IMATT compound to visit or to use their Internet connection. I am really impressed at how welcoming everyone has been to the Amistad crew, inviting us into their homes, feeding us, offering to print our photographs for us, sending their drivers to pick us up and take us around.
On Sunday evening, Susie sent her car and driver to take Barry, Eve and me to the Hillside Station Hotel, which is perched at the very top of one of the highest hills overlooking Freetown and Lumley Beach. Barry, Eve and I were joined by Amy and Danna and we all had a really overpriced (by Sierra Leonean standards) dinner together before going our separate ways.
Today has been another watch day, the big events of which were re-hanging the tarp awnings to keep the sun off the deck, and the moving the oil drums that are stowed on deck so that we could clean underneath them and give the wood a chance to soak up some water.
In sailorly news, I learned how to make an eye-spice yesterday and even have a photo of my first effort to prove it. Of course, I’m having trouble with the internet again, so I might not be able to get the photo uploaded.
January 16, 2008
Yesterday was a work day for me, which means that the day began a little before 8:00 with setting up the main salon for the crew’s breakfast. After I finished up the dishes in the galley, all hands turned to for deck-wash on steroids. I climbed out on the bowsprit with a firehouse, spraying down anything I could reach with the water stream, and then Johnny took his turn with the hose, spraying down all of the standing and running rigging. It was like a monsoon as Sir Isaac Newton’s theory was proven once again and we were all glad that the tarps had been set up the day before. After everything that could be reached by the water had been hosed down, Barry, Johnny and I got into the small boat and continued the process, with me hosing down the side of the boat, from gunwales to waterline and Barry and Johnny scrubbing away with long-handled scrub-brushes. It was a tremendous effort, but was really necessary as the red-clay dust that is everywhere here in the harmattan season had completely covered everything.
After my work day was finished, Drew and I went ashore and went exploring. We went to Regent’s Village, which is up along the coast road beyond the IMATT Headquarters and the US Embassy, to visit one of the oldest stone churches in West Africa. When we arrived, we found a Brethren pastor who is working as a teacher at one of the government-run schools. He took us to the parsonage and introduced us to the pastor of the church. Both men then took Drew and me for a tour of the church, which has a lovely pipe organ that was built in the 1950s for a church in England and which was then transported here about five years ago. After the requisite clergy chat about the size of our churches and the number of people who actually attend, Drew and I continued on our way, inviting both pastors to come to see us aboard Amistad.
As we walked to the bottom of the hill, we came across a Sierra Leone Police officer who greeted us and asked if he could be of any help to us. Frankly, we didn’t need a thing as Drew and I have both become quite comfortable with getting around in Sierra Leone, but the police officer continued to chat us up and then insisted on taking us to the police station (which was only a few yards away) and introducing us to his commanding officer. As we walked up to the station, the first SLP officer’s commanding officer (a woman!) greeted us and asked us what our problem was. When we explained that we didn’t have any problem and had only come to the police station because the other officer had wanted to be social, she asked us again what we needed. Again, we explained that we didn’t need anything and that life couldn’t be better, thanking her for her concern. Then, we slipped off to catch a taxi as the CO gave her subordinate a look that said, “What the heck were you thinking bringing those two opotos (white men) here for no reason?”
Drew and I got another taxi and continued on to our ultimate destination, the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary (http://www.tacugama.com/). A few nights ago, at the party at Susie Pratt’s home, I had met Bala, the organization’s founder, and he had invited me, along with the rest of the Amistad crew, to visit. As the taxi started to drive us up the side-road to Tacugama, the road very quickly deteriorated to a four-wheel-drive-only track and the taxi dropped us off to walk the last kilometer or so down a road that was cut right through the jungle. When Drew and I arrived, it was feeding time, so we got to see the chimps up-close and personal as they were fed their supper only a few feet away from where we were standing. It was a truly awesome experience.
When Bala and his wife founded Tacugama twenty years ago, it was common for Sierra Leoneans to purchase baby chimps as pets, but once the monkeys are 3-4 years old, they are too big and strong (not to mention independently-minded) to keep. Former pets were either locked in cages or turned loose to fend for themselves in the fringe jungle that once existed around Freetown. Now, thanks to Bala’s efforts, there are laws against keeping chimpanzees as pets, and Tacugama has become a home for nearly 90 chimps, who live in the managed habitat. Though there still remains a problem with poachers killing the chimps for bush meatl, the Tacugama sanctuary has made real progress in improving the lives of chimpanzees in Sierra Leone and in all of Africa.
We spent last night at Susie’s home and Drew left very early this morning to go to Conakry, Guinea, where his girlfriend is scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening. The two of them will then return on Friday. I got up, puttered around the house for a while, enjoying the air conditioning, and then Susie’s driver took me to the US Embassy, where I spent a little time checking my emails and surfing the web before leaving to return to the ship.
Today, I learned a wonderful way to confuse the heck out of Sierra Leoneans. I chose to walk from the US Embassy to the ship, a distance of maybe four miles. While the local folks are used to seeing US Embassy and IMATT personnel driving past in land rovers, I got the impression that seeing a white person walking along the road, particularly in the middle part of the trip, was a real surprise to them. I had several taxis and poda-podas slam on their brakes so they could offer me a ride and a couple locals asked me if I needed them to help me get a taxi. Every time, it took a lot of explaining before people understood that I was walking because I actually wanted to walk, though I’m not actually convinced that they really believed me. It was a very enjoyable, though hot and dusty, journey and I had the chance to visit with many folks along the way. I was also able to take the time to enjoy and photograph the scenery that I had whizzed by so many times in taxis.
On the housekeeping front, several of you have asked for information on Amistad’s crew members. While I’m not going to take the time to write a bio on each one of them (or the bandwidth to upload them), you can find photos, bios and blogs for each one of them at http://www.amistadamerica.org/. I encourage you to visit there and find out who my shipmates are. You’ll find everyone there, except, perhaps, for Ben, our new engineer, who was also aboard for the first leg of the trip. His information should be online soon.
Also, thank you all for the emails you have been sending me. It is really nice to stay in touch with the folks back home. Unfortunately, our Internet connection is not very robust and tends to disconnect easily, which makes uploading even this blog a real chore, much less trying to respond to every email that I receive. Please know that I am really happy to hear about your lives, but that I am not really able to do much more than keep this blog going, given my technological options.
January 22, 2008
The last few days have been fairly busy, but the kind of busy-ness that doesn’t make for good prose. I ended up working a FULL 24-hour watch day, as Johnny Kamara had gone up-country to meet with some village chiefs, so I was pretty useless the next day and spent much of it sleeping.
On Saturday, I was at a restaurant (Alex’s in Aberdeen) and met John, the Welshman who is the engineer for the new ferry that arrived at the Government Wharf a few days ago. The old ferry caught fire and sank not long ago, when it ran out of fuel not far from shore. People brought fuel in buckets and the boat caught fire. Everyone ran to one side of the boat to avoid the fire and the ferry capsized. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt, as there were already so many other boats around the ferry and everyone was rescued quickly. The new ferry is a very sleek looking semi-hovercraft that just arrived from England and the engineer has invited Amistad’s crew to come aboard for sea trials and we’re all looking forward to it.
On Sunday, I attended Zion Methodist Church on Wilberforce Street. Zion is one of the oldest churches in Freetown, dating back to the 1790s. I’ve been doing my best to visit as many churches as possible and was very pleased at the warm welcome that I received. The sanctuary reminded me of some of the African-American Baptist churches I’ve attended, painted a rich teal and with the chancel windows painted with Biblical scenes. It seems odd to me, though, that in this African church, Jesus and all of the other people in the paintings were VERY white.
In the evening, those of us who weren’t on watch went up to IMATT and had dinner with several of the soldiers there at the Africa Bar, which had the slowest service of anywhere I’d ever been. The pizza was mediocre, at best, but the company was great. I’ve got a lot of respect for the men and women who are deployed here, doing their best to help Sierra Leone develop a professional military. They’ve got an uphill battle as they fight against tribalism and institutional culture, but they’re making progress and they’re making a real difference in building a new future for this country.
This morning, Heather and I went shopping. I was the designated schlepper of the propane cylinder that we were taking to get refilled, but also had the chance to show off my negotiating skills as we haggled with black-market money-changers for a rate of exchange between US dollars and Sierra Leonean leones: (2,925 leones to the dollar) – not bad, since the published rate at the official currency exchanges was 2,900 leones, with a 15% surcharge.
Over the last few days, we’ve had several more groups of people coming out to visit the ship and it has been great to get the chance to explain the Amistad story and its relevance to modern life. Mostly, we’re inviting people aboard who have been connected with our stay here in Sierra Leone, like the staff from the Aqua Club and Bala and his family from Tacugama. It has been especially fun to see the faces of the children who have come out, watching as they light up when we come racing across the harbor in our Zodiac. Drew has been particularly good with the kids, too, giving them a chance to throw a heaving line and to use the boat falls to lift heavy objects.
Drew’s girlfriend, Alison, joined the ship as a volunteer crewmember a couple days ago and Barry left us at midnight last night, so our composition is changing. Also, Cia and Vincent, our two Sierra Leonean assistants, have swapped shifts, so Cia is spending the days with us and Vincent is here overnight. The rest of the crew for leg 3 of the trip should be arriving in the next week or thereabout, so we’re in the last few days of calm before everything starts ramping up. I’m really excited about heading up the coast to Dakar!
January 25, 2008
It seems like I’m settling into a routine where I have a flurry of busy days and then write a single entry to get caught up. Fairly soon, though, all of our routines will be changing, as Capt. Eliza will be showing up in just three days and the final crew transition will be happening right after that. It won’t be long until we set sail for Goree Island in Dakar. For now, though, there’s a certain monotony that comes with being anchored for an extended time.
The last couple days have been broken up by two trips to the UN Hotel at Mammy Yoko, which was taken over by the UN peacekeeping troops during the war and has remained the central base for UNAMSIL (the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone). My trips there have been in order to drop off and pick up the crew’s laundry. Doing laundry on deck is now a thing of the past, since Heather became the two-time victim of a Tumbu Fly, which is a parasite that implants its larvae inside a host, where they grow until the maggots eat their way out. As it turns out, one of the primary modes of human infection is through laundry that is left to air dry, where the fly lays its eggs on the fabric and the newly hatched larvae embed themselves in the skin of the wearer. Parasite jokes have become de rigueur on board Amistad and we’ve all been remembering the last time we watched the movie Alien.
My skills with the small boat continue to improve. On Wednesday, I was ferrying Ben to the Navy dock when we saw that the new ferry, the Princess Caroline, was having difficulty coming alongside the pier. Since Amistad routinely uses the small boat as a mini-tug, it made sense to offer to do the same for the ferry. It was the first time I had used the small boat to move a larger vessel, but everything went well and I managed to maneuver her right into place, alternately pushing on the bow and stern quarters. Yesterday, I took the small boat for my longest trip, so far, as I ferried some of our crew members to the Aqua Club. It was about 20 minutes each way and the weather was great, with just enough wave action to make the trip interesting.
Last night, as I was on watch, the ship was surrounded by a pod of dolphins who were swimming up the river. At first, when I heard them breathing, I thought that one of the crew members was coming down with a wet, hacking cough, but as the sound got louder I went to the rail and could just barely see their backs breaking the surface as they breathed, with a loud chuffing sound. I’m on watch again tonight and am keeping an ear pealed for the dolphins’ return, hopefully close enough that I’ll be able to get a good look at them.
Today’s schedule was a very nice break from our usual routine. At 10:30, as we were finishing up deck wash, a cameraman visited the ship and interviewed the Sierra Leonean members of our group for the BBC’s “Inside Africa” program. At 1:30, the German ambassador to Sierra Leone and his entourage visited us. Rumor has it that we may be returning to the Government Wharf and tying up there for a couple days so that people can have a final chance to visit Amistad before we head on to Senegal. Donald George was aboard today and mentioned that the President of Sierra Leone is planning on coming to be part of our farewell ceremony and we’re all looking forward to meeting him and maybe getting a crew photo with him.
I’m sending along a couple photos that I took on my walk down from the US Embassy last week. Everywhere I went, children wanted me to take their pictures, so I’m sending along one of a couple boys who were out collecting aluminum cans for recycling, for which they get 1,000 leones (about 33 cents) per pound. When I passed over one of the bridges on the edge of town, the embankment was covered with a huge, smoldering pile of garbage and, below it, was a bit of land being cultivated by people trying to scratch out a living. The stream that runs through the center of the photo is essentially gray-water runoff from all of the houses on the hills. The environmental problems here are mind-boggling and, while there are certainly lots of NGOs and church groups working to improve the lives of the average Sierra Leonean, there is a great need for further work.
January 28, 2008
Hash House Harriers
Saturday evening, Eve and I went to spend the evening with our friends from the US Embassy, Danna and her husband Joachim. The next day, after Eve had returned for her watch day on Amistad, Joachim, Danna and I rode out to Lakka Beach for an event with the Freetown Hash House Harriers. I had never heard of Hash House Harriers, but was tickled to find that it is a group of expatriates who get together on a regular basis to enjoy each other’s company and to run. The group describes itself as “a drinking group with a running problem.”
January 30, 2008
Days on board lose their moorings and the seven-day cycle that usually guides my life has completely disintegrated. In its place, the repetition of watch day, work day, off day had become the rhythm of my life, but that has all changed again. At about 2:00am on Tuesday, the next wave of Amistad’s new crew arrived, with Capt. Eliza, our new First Mate, Logan, and deckhands Joy and Toby arrived and the ship has come to life. No longer are we just waiting; the time has come to really get to work and get ready to embark on our journey! The down side to that is that days off also appear to be a thing of the past as we all are required for the tasks at hand.
Today got started with a whole lot of excitement as we had a plumbing malfunction, where one of the pumps ceased to function and water began pouring into the bilge in the main salon. Logan and I were out working in the head-rig when we heard the alarm and heard Eliza calling us in to deal with the emergency. The entire crew flew into action, opening up sole boards, breaking out pumps and getting them fired up, checking the through-hull fittings to stop the water from flowing in. It was amazing to see everyone responding so quickly and so effectively to the emergency. Afterwards, when the water flow was stopped and the bilge was pumped out, we all were faced with the task of removing all of the cans and bottles from the bilge and cleaning them with a bleach solution so we could re-stow them in the bilge for later use. It was smelly, hot and exhausting work and took over the entire morning, but we still managed to push ahead and get several other projects taken care of, including work in the head-rig, hauling down the foresail gaff in preparation to repairing a tear in the sail. We also had the pleasure of welcoming several guests aboard in the afternoon, including Bill Pinkney, the original captain of Amistad. All in all, it was not a bad day’s worth of work. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get any deck water aboard today, so all of us are facing the prospect of another smelly and gritty night.
February 2, 2008 04:00
I was on watch yesterday, all day and am in the “home stretch” now. Today is going to be a very busy day, with breakfast for the crew at 5:45 and a trip to Bunce Island after we’ve gotten all of our usual morning tasks taken care of.
Lately our focus has been on getting the ship ready for sea. We’ve been divided into two watches and I’m working with our first mate, Logan and our Engineer’s son, Toby, whose 22nd birthday we celebrated on Jaunary 31. Danni made a wonderful chocolate cake and we all sang and danced to a R&B version of Happy Birthday. We all got a real kick out of making up dance steps from some of the unique actions of shipboard life: Climb the Ratlines, Raise the Anchor, etc.
For the last two days, we’ve been tensioning the headrig, which has meant that several of us have spent several hours out in the rigging along the bowsprit, re-reeving the lanyards that hold the stays in place. We soap them up where they go through the deadeyes to provide lubrication and then haul away with 1/5 ton capacity chain come-alongs – it is hard and filthy work and we all come back onboard completely covered in tar and other dirt from the rigging.
On Wednesday, we had several visitors, including a German film crew who are making a documentary on Sierra Leone. They corralled Cia in the bow and interviewed her while Joy and I worked on the headrig in the background. Later, the cameraman asked if he could go aloft for some shots and I got to give him “Going Aloft 101.” Afterwards, as we were talking, they turned the camera on me, so it looks like I might possibly end up in their movie, shirtless and covered in grime, as I discuss my impressions of Sierra Leone and how we in the Western world are, voluntarily or not, complicit in the economic practices that keep Sierra Leone and other third world nations so desperately poor.
We shop at big-box discount stores and consider ourselves fortunate to buy things so cheaply, but we don’t consider the real costs of the items in terms of the impact on the environment caused by producing our plastic gee-gaws, the effects on the people who work in sweatshop conditions to produce them or the loss of well-paying American jobs because of the mega-sized stores that pay minimum wage to their employees. There’s a sermon in there next time Luke’s version of the Beattitudes comes around, “Blessed are the poor,” rather than Matthew’s more often quoted “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Yesterday afternoon, the ship was visited by a dozen or so folks from the European Union’s mission here in Sierra Leone. I was elected to teach the history of Amistad to the group and was amazed to look out at the group and see not only our guests, but our crew to be listening so intently. I was particularly tickled to have Quentin Snediker, the shipwright who built Amistad, paying such close attention, even though he knows the story well enough that he wrote the historical section of Amistad’s crew manual. I guess it must pay to have a preacher on board.
February 3, 2008
Yesterday, after a hurried soles and bowls session, Amistad’s crew, along with Capt. Bill Pinkney, Quentin Snediker and the German movie crew boarded the 60-foot ferry Amistadt (yes, with a D) and journeyed for two hours up the Sierra Leone River, past mangrove swamps, to Bunce Island, one of the oldest slave fortresses in West Africa. The island lies at the end of where the river is navigable by ocean-going vessels, so it became a hub of trade for gold, ivory and slaves, which were brought from the interior by much smaller boats.
Being present on Bunce Island was an odd experience for me in many ways. Walking along the path through the jungle, passing towering trees whose trunks were surrounded by buttresses of roots, clambering into a cave-like storeroom that was filled with bats, were all very different from anything else I have ever done, making the whole place seem oddly exotic Landing on the beach where boats once carried human cargo onto slave ships was deeply moving. Walking to the cemetery, filled with graves of those whose deaths gave the name “White Man’s Grave” to this part of Africa led me to reflect on the lives of not just the Africans who were enslaved, but also of the Europeans who left behind their friends and families in search of wealth, but who found only sickness and death.
Thinking of all those whose lives, both black and white, who were destroyed by the slave trade set a somber mood for the day and led me to ponder the systems of exploitation that exist in today’s world, where the victims are dehumanized by the oppression that they meet on a regular basis and where the perpetrators also become victims because of their participation in or aquiescence to injustice. I think of the white South Africans who participated in apartheid, of the Germans who followed their government blindly in its efforts to exterminate Jews, of straight people who deny gays and lesbians the right to marry the ones they love, of people who ostracize others or deny them employment because of the color of their skin or the country in which they were born. The world in which we live demands that we pay attention to the way our lives impact others and that we look beyond our own desires in order to ensure the welfare of others.
This morning, the crew turned to, readying the ship for our departure from Government Wharf, where there was a huge celebration to see us off. Though we were all shipboard, it was amazing to hear the musicians and to see the traditional dancers as they offered us their blessings for our voyage. The celebration concluded with the lowering of a huge Sierra Leonean flag and the raising of the US flag in its place and the ringing of the ship’s bell 53 times in commemoration of the lives of each of the 53 captives aboard Amistad in 1839. After the sendoff, we traveled about a mile or so and anchored in Aberdeen Bay, where we have been spending the rest of the day getting the ship ready to sail on Wednesday.
It looks like there will be 11 of us on the trip to Dakar, including three additional Sierra Leoneans, who have been working with us over the last several weeks. We’ve got Vincent from the Navy, Sia from the Port Authority and Samuel, who was one of the AKAL Security guards who has been looking after the ship and who really went above and beyond the call of duty in helping out with the crew’s work on board. Tomorrow will be our final day of preparations and then we raise the anchor and set sail at 07:00. We’re all looking forward to going sailing and to arriving in Dakar in about a week’s time.
Next week is my son, Ian’s 12th birthday and I’m getting a bit homesick thinking about missing his celebration. I’ve made him some videos for his birthday, but haven’t been able to send them off to him because of email problems, so happy birthday, Ian! I love you – and your mother, too! I’ll contact you when I can.
February 6, 2008
First Day at Sea
After you puke the first time, everything improves.
This morning, we left Aberdeen Bay and began our trip to Dakar. After an early breakfast, we all turned to and raised the anchor. Those of you who know my music would have recognized the chanty Cape Cod Girls. “We’re bound for Dakar-oh!”
After motoring for a couple hours, the transition from mill-pond smooth harbor to less-mill-pond-smooth ocean took its toll and I made a dash for the lee rail. Surely, it was the mushroom omelet I had for breakfast and not seasickness. Right?
In the late morning, we set the mainsail, foresail and jib, but continued to motor as we were headed right into the wind. Our watch (the starboard one, consisting of Alvah, Samuel, Sia and me) was dismissed after lunch and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. When we were awakened for dinner, the motors were off and the ship was sailing along full and by, a nice change from the noise and smell of the diesels.
We’re supposed to be sailing due West, but the wind won’t quite allow it, so we’re actually making a course of about 240 degrees. The plan is to run about 200 miles offshore to avoid the pirates (yes, pirates.) and then to turn north and make our run to Senegal before turning East again.
We’re now on a two-watch rotation, which means that we’re all working 12 hours a day, which is kind of confusing as it puts us on a two-day rotation where each day we work rotating shifts of opposite hours.
This rotation keeps us working alternate watches so that, over a two-day period, everyone is up for all of the watches. I guess it is fair that nobody gets stuck with the midnight watch every time, but it also means that nobody’s body adjusts to a regular 24 hour day, since the rhythm is a 48 hour cycle.
Unfortunately, for Sia, the seasickness has been continuing all day, with regular runs to the rail. She’s in a bad way, but was at least chipper enough (barely) to want to take a trick at the helm at the end of tonight’s watch.
February 7, 2008
When my father was in Vietnam, he was part of the Americal Division and he continued to wear that unit’s patch on his uniform throughout the rest of his military career. As a child, I remember looking at that blue patch with the Southern Cross in white and thinking about far-off places where you could actually see stars that were different. Last night, while I was on watch, I saw the Southern Cross for the first time. We were sailing on a starboard tack with very light air and I was at the helm, steering Amistad toward the point where we’ll be able to make a big right turn and start our real run up to Senegal.
Late Entry: February 14, 2008
On passage from Freetown toward Dakar
This has been a very interesting trip and we’ve seen so many amazing things. We’ve seen flying fish constantly since leaving Freetown. As the ship plows ahead, entire schools of them leap from the water and go flying along the wave tops, looking for all the world like birds, with their wings flapping rapidly. It is amazing to see them fly, banking and darting along a foot or two above the surface of the water, then plunging back into the sea. From time to time, an ill-fated one will land on our deck, its wings buzzing against the deck like an insect beating its wings against a window screen until one of us goes to rescue it and return it to the water. At night, our wake is filled with phosphorescence and the waves that break on board cover the deck with glowing green particles that wash away into the scuppers.
Very early in our passage, Logan and Eliza were out in the headrig and Eliza looked down and saw a whale shark just below the ship. Whale sharks, which are very rare in this area are actually giant sharks that eat plankton, just like the great baleen whales do. Another evening, near sunset, Amistad was joined by a mega-pod of about 1000 dolphins. We watched for nearly two hours as the pod, consisting of at least five different species of dolphins moved from one horizon to the other.
The crew here on Amistad have guidelines for the blog entries that we post. One of the guidelines is that entries are supposed to be for general-purpose readership, rather than notes home. At one point, there was apparently an issue with some blogs being more like personal advertisements. Since I’m the one responsible for getting all of the crew blogs posted, though, I’ll take a little liberty, especially since it is Valentine’s Day.
MWM, clergy/sailor, looks forward to seeing MWF, writer, mom, wife of 13 years. Must have pre-teen son who plays clarinet and violin.
February 15, 2008
The last ten days have been very difficult for all of us. Our plans on reaching Senegal have fallen apart because both the current and the trade winds are against us, so we’ve made our way to Praia, the capital of Cape Verde on the island of Santiago. The Cape Verde islands, which lie about 200 miles off the coast of Africa were colonized by the Portuguese and were used as a resupply point on transatlantic passages because of their position relative to the trade winds and currents, a truth that became obvious to us all as we found that we couldn’t avoid coming back here on our way to Dakar.
February 18, 2008
All of us aboard Amistad had hoped that Praia would only be a port of refuge and that we would be able to go to Dakar and visit the slave fortress at Goree Island before returning to Praia for our official visit at the end of February. The last few days, however, have shown us that it will not be possible, as our journey to Senegal would be against the wind and currents, which is complicated by the little problem that we’ve developed a leak in the foc’s’le that requires us to pump the bilge every hour or so while we’re under way. Now, the official plan is that we’re going to stay here in the Cape Verde islands, traveling from island to island, publicizing the Cape Verdean history of the slave trade and making the repairs necessary for Amistad’s transatlantic crossing to Barbados. Unfortunately, all of these changes in Amistad’s schedule make it impossible for me to make the transatlantic crossing, so I’ll be leaving Cape Verde by plane when my time with the ship is done.
Over the last few days, we’ve made some very good friends here in Cape Verde, including Ramiro Mendes, a Cape Verdean musician who splits his time between here and his home in Beverly Hills. He has made lots of contacts for us and is doing a fantastic job of getting us pointed in the right direction. Last night, he took the members of the starboard watch (my watch) out to hear come Cape Verdean music. It is beautiful music with lots of influences from African and European cultures. I’m looking forward to learning more about it and hearing more of the local musicians perform.
After listening to the music, we went to the airport to pick up four new members for Amistad’s crew. Now, we’ve got US, Sierra Leonean, Canadian, British, and Barbadian crew members and the spreaders of the ship are filled with the flags of all of our countries, along with the Connecticut state flag and the United Church of Christ flag. She’s a well-decorated ship, indeed! What’s even better, at least for those of us aboard, is that we now have enough crew that we’ll be able to divide into three watches instead of the two that we had been maintaining, so we’ll have a bit of free time where we’ll be able to read, write, teach and learn with our students who are aboard instead of just working and then falling into our bunks.
Tomorrow, we’re scheduled to sail to Fogo, one of the other large islands in the archipelago. I don’t know what the internet access will be like, but I’ll try to keep you all posted when I can.
February 23, 2008
Mindelo, São Vicinte Island
Sometimes the place that you travel and the place you think you’re going to travel end up being two different places. In my last post, I said that Amistad was headed to Fogo, but it turns out I was simply wrong. We arrived at Sao Vicinte yesterday in the wee hours of the morning and I woke up and came on deck at lunchtime to find Amistad in one of the most beautiful harbors I’ve seen, surrounded with palm trees and volcanic hills. There’s a marina here and there are several large sloops and ketches flying the flags of many nations. It seems that Mindelo is quite the destination for international cruisers. Mindelo is a lovely town, very clean and well-kept and I get the sense that it is more affluent than many of the other islands in the archipelago, so it is no real surprise to find so many foreigners here.
Yesterday afternoon, the crew spent some time out in the headrig, furling and refurling the sails, trying out different approaches and looking for a system that would provide a good balance between ease of stowage and stability in rough seas. It is always a challenge to establish new ways of doing things, but the new mates have all brought their own experience and expertise with them and the crew is learning all sorts of new methods. As Logan, our first mate, explained, smiling, there are many ways to do any number of tasks, but the correct way is the way that the first mate wants them done.
After the sail handling, the crew had the chance to go into Mindelo for the evening. We were met on the dock by a couple local folks who appointed themselves to be our tour guides. For most of us, the time ashore began at the Club Nautico, where we took showers (cold, but still pleasant as it was the first one I’d had since arriving in Cape Verde). From there, we hit the usual assortment of tourist shops, buying postcards and other souvenirs.
Before it got really dark, Joy and I went for a walk with one of our guides, Paulo, and went up one of the hills overlooking the harbor. At the top, there is an old fortress that Paulo told us had been used as a slave jail. Frankly, I’ve got my doubts, as the fortress has a commanding view of the harbor was clearly used as a battery for harbor defense, along with another similar battery on an island in the approaches to the harbor. One of the problems with tracing the history of the slave trade is that it is difficult to determine the veracity of the stories that people tell, especially if they know that you’re interested in the history of the slave trade. We found the same problem in Sierra Leone, where the stories that people told us differed significantly from the historical documents. I wish I had more hard information.
After it got dark the crew met for dinner at a small restaurant on the main street and most of us had catchupa, which is a “24-hour breakfast” dish of beans and sausage served with eggs and linguica. We also had the opportunity to sample some of the local rum punch, which was also quite good, though it was very smooth and had an uncanny ability to sneak up on you. After dinner, we returned to Club Nautico and listened to some Cape Verdean music before returning to the ship and a good night’s rest.
February 28, 2008
Early yesterday morning, we raised the anchor and left the island of Fogo. This morning, while I was on watch, we arrived back at the island of Santiago and anchored in a picturesque bay near the town of Tarafal, in the northeast of the island. There’s a desert mountain just to the north of us, with the main town to the southwest and a rocky cliff along the southern side of the bay.
We spent most of the day doing small tasks aboard ship, drying out survival suits, scraping woodwork, and polishing brass. In the late afternoon, I was the guinea pig for the immersion suit demonstration. Immersion suits are commonly called “Gumby Suits” as a person wearing one has very little mobility, especially since the suits are sized as “universal” and are designed to fit a range from 110 lbs to 350 lbs. That’s a lot of extra room for a small-to-normal sized person! After much laughter, I got into my Gumby suit and leapt from the side of the ship, where I floated for a while, inflating my extra flotation cushion and being photographed by the whole crew. I guess there’s just something about a guy in a bright red Gumby suit that makes people want to take pictures…
February 29, 2008
Setting sail for Praia
Today was a day of preparation for our return to Praia. The day began at 0700 with breakfast and was steady work until 0300 on the morning of March 1. During the day, we got everything lashed down for sailing, scraped, sanded, varnished brightwork, polished brass, remade safety-line anchors and accomplished a whole host of other projects. While all of that was going on on deck, Eliza and Chris Nelson, a diver/caulker who just arrived from the US, tackled the leak that has been the bane of our existence since we left Freetown. Now, it seems that the leak may actually be stopped and we’ve unshipped the “temporary” pump that has been taking up so much space in the fo’c’sle for the last month.
Around dinnertime, we welcomed two camera crews on board to join us for the transit to Praia. One crew is from the US and is doing a documentary on Amistad’s visit to the Cape Verde Islands on behalf of the Cape Verdean government, while the other is a crew from a local television station. All four of the guys have been real troopers so far, helping to raise the anchor and to set sail.
Tonight was my last night-watch under way. While I’m looking forward to getting home, I’m also somewhat wistful, regretting that I will not be able to make the Atlantic crossing as had been planned originally, knowing that my departure from the ship will make life harder for those that I leave behind. Still, I’ve got another 10 days before I leave Amistad and plenty of work to do teaching the Amistad story and its relevance to modern life.
March 3, 2008
Return to Praia
On Saturday, at about 4:00pm, Amistad returned to Praia. When we first arrived, we were met by a Guarda Costaria patrol boat that was to be our escort, then we stood off below the cliffs to bide our time until the official arrival an hour or so later. When we finally got to enter the main harbor, I moved to the small boat and served as a combination escort/tugboat for Amistad. As we turned to enter the inner harbor, we could hear the military band playing Sousa marches and then a howeitzer on shore began firing a 21-gun salute for us. It was awe-inspiring to be welcomed into Praia with such honor and ceremony.
Once we were at the dock, we were greeted by a chorus of school-children and other musical groups from the community, including a group of women who sang and played hand-made drums fashioned out of purses and plastic bags. As we later learned, this type of makeshift drum playing originated here during the time of slavery, when Africans were forbidden to possess or play drums, so the not-drum became a symbol of African identity and cultural resistance against the Portuguese slaveholders. The afternoon finished up with a visit by the Prime Minister of Cape Verde and the minister of Tourism, who both spent a significant amount of time aboard, visiting with the crew. I was impressed that a head of state would be so accessible and tried to imagine what it would take get an American president aboard Amistad. Finally, the crew was invited to a banquet that had been set up for us on the quay.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Tourism sent a bus to take the crew around to several locations on the island. In each town we visited, we were greeted by the Municipal Presidents from several of the towns here on the island of Santiago and, in each place, we were treated to various refreshments, including a fantastic lunch in Tarafal at a restaurant called Baia Verde.
One of the surprising highlights of Sunday’s trip was a stop at a concentration camp (yes, a WWII-type concentration camp) where anti-fascists were sent by Axis governments and which was converted into a camp for political prisoners who opposed Portuguese colonial rule in Cape Verde as well as in other African countries. The camp has now become a monument to those who were imprisoned there, but is a stark reminder of the lengths to which tyrants will go to ensure their power.
March 8, 2008
The last few days have been a whirlwind of activity. After spending the better part of a week in Praia, we sailed to Cidade Velha, the first European settlement in the tropics. UNESCO is presently in the process of adding Cidade Velha to the Global Heritage sites because of its history as a major port in the slave trade, a designation that it well deserves.
The town is northwest of Praia on the island of Santiago and occupies the mouth of a canyon that runs deep into the interior of the island. It was settled as a Portuguese colony in 1464 and developed into a major supply stop for transatlantic ships. After being sacked by Sir Francis Drake, the Portuguese built an imposing fort above the city. One of the major landmarks of the town is the large stone whipping post or “pelorinho” that stands in the center of the square.
When we arrived in Cidade Velha, we were greeted by 400 or more costumed dancers who put on an impressive narrative dance depicting the slave trade in Cidade Velha. Later, we were taken to the town’s church for a formal welcome and a blessing from the priest. Over the last few days, we have been taken to the major historical sites in Cidade Velha, attended a reception at the President’s palace, and were treated to several meals at a local restaurant, where there was a monkey with whom several of the crew were very enamored.
March 9, 2008
Today, which was Amistad Sunday in the churches in the U.S., some of the crew attended worship at the church in Cidade Velha. As it turned out, it was a service of the Stations of the Cross, where a large statue of Jesus was carried through the streets of the town, with stops along the way to commemorate each of the events of Christ’s journey to Gethsemane. After the procession, the whole congregation returned to the church for mass. During the sermon, which was given in the local Creoule, which I can’t understand at all, I found myself thinking about the parallels between the journey of Jesus to the cross and the similarity of the slave trade, which ripped Africans from their homes and families and propelled them into the miseries of slavery in the new world.
This evening, after a farewell reception at the beach where we’ve been landing our small boat, Amistad returned to Praia harbor for final preparations for the crossing to Barbados. I’ll be returning to the US in the next few days and am already missing my shipmates, though I’m also looking forward to getting back home to my family and friends there.
March 10, 2008
Looking back from Praia
Amistad’s travels in West Africa have been a very positive experience for me, as well as for the people of Sierra Leone and Cape Verde. I have had many opportunities to engage with a variety of people in conversations about race, justice, and human rights. I have seen people’s eyes well up with tears as they have encountered the story of the Amistad Captives’ bravery and perseverance and how Congregationalists in Connecticut responded to their need with equally courage and determination.
Looking back on this trip, I have especially enjoyed getting to know our crew members and the Sierra Leoneans and Cape Verdeans with whom I got to work while I was in their countries. My experiences with the churches in each place have been a mixed bag. When I met with the Bishop of Praia, I was taken aback at his inisitance that the church had given the slaves “dignity,” a word that he used with great frequency without acknowledging the church’s role in perpetuating slavery. In the local congregations, though, I have found that the churches are doing what God’s people do best: working together to help people live their lives with integrity and sowing the seeds for positive change in their countries and in the world.