Postcard from Sierra Leone

Words & Images: Tom Owen

The whole week I am in Sierra Leone I sleep perhaps three hours a night. The heat, the noise, the disorienting feeling that your brain is being rolled over and over itself in a tumble dryer.

I am not-sleeping in the best room in the house, in the best house in the neighbourhood. The furnishings are stark. One fan. One double bed with a sponge mattress. One mosquito net which I assiduously tuck and re-tuck every sleepless hour. One poster of a white Jesus in the corner.

In my bike box, which lies propped open against the wall, an explosion of second-hand kit, water bottles and spare parts. A heap of junk which – by being flown 3,000 miles – has been transmuted into a treasure trove.

I’m not blind to the measure of the hospitality. It sits incredibly uneasily. Everyone here has nothing and they can’t help but try to give you everything. It’s the best room in the house, but it’s still impossible to sleep. For a week, whenever I walk into a room someone stands up to offer me their seat. It’s profoundly uncomfortable.

This is the house of my friend Karim, who everybody calls ‘Stylish’. Stylish is the king of cycling in Sierra Leone – part mechanic, part philanthropist, part community organiser. He is the most remarkable human being I’ve ever met. And I’ve met Lachlan Morton.

And then, when the night is over, the sensory assault of West Africa in full cry begins. I open the bedroom door to a chorus of good mornings. I go out onto the porch for some fresher air. Some mornings there’s actually a breeze before the hot wet heat settles on the day. Stylish makes coffee with beans he asked me to bring him from England. Most Sierra Leoneans only drink tea, but Stylish is different in so many ways.

I met him in 2016 on my first visit to the country. I came home from that trip with malaria and the unshakeable feeling that I, we, could do so much more. Now you know why I’m so vigilant about the mosquito net, and why my bike box is filled with used kit.

I am here for a bike race Karim organises, the Tour de Lunsar. To see him in action is like watching a virtuoso conductor in front of a symphony orchestra. “We have to go to the police station to confirm some permissions.” “We are going to the shop now to meet some people.” “We have to find somewhere for the riders from Makeni to sleep.”

He has – and I have no idea how – organised a squadron of volunteer marshals, many of whom have never seen a bicycle race, to help pull off this epic undertaking. I find out later they are a bunch of his mates who go to the same tea shop as him to hang out and play draughts.

There are motorbikes with pillion riders handing out water as well as a police escort. Stylish has shut down the centre of Lunsar, or at least he has shut it as much as you can shut any major market street in a West African town. Crowds of hundreds, maybe thousands, line the central circuit.

Bike racing in West Africa is chaotic, driven by emotion. The break nearly always wins because cooperation between teams is rare. Even within teams, it’s not exactly guaranteed. In the national federation, it’s actively discouraged.

We have a long way to go, but we’re on the right path – and Stylish is the man to steer the course.

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This postcard first appeared in Conquista 23.