Banana Islands, Part Two: for real this time

The warmth and moisture of the rainforest on Banana Islands spreads to everything the air touches. By the time we packed up and left on Tuesday, even clothing we hadn’t worn felt damp. In general, air in Sierra Leone feels thicker: in the city, it’s the thickness of pollution – trucks spewing black exhaust, a garbage dump the size of a football field, on fire – and in the forest, the air hangs with moisture so thick you can almost see it.

We woke up Monday morning with clean air in our lungs, scouring the Freetown grit and soot out of our lungs. We wandered down to the beach before breakfast, collecting some shells and taking a few photos (“snaps” as they call them here), then we returned to the thatched restaurant surrounded by logs growing thick with fungi and hammocks made out of discarded fishing nets. We had a breakfast of instant coffee, omelette, toasted buns, Laughing Cow cheese, and honey, which was incredible: made from tropical flowers, it was drippy, extremely sweet and tasted like fruit syrup – like nothing I’ve ever had in Canada. I know the flavour of honey varies depending on the pollen that the bees use… but this was beyond any variation I’ve ever tasted.

After breakfast, we decided to explore Dublin and set off up the slippery path of packed mud towards the village, careful not to lose our footing in our flip-flops. We walked among the wooden Krio houses (mended over the years with corrugated metals), waving and chatting to the local residents. We saw chickens and goats running free through the forest (which isn’t unusual for Africa, people tend not to pen their small animals), and fruit hanging from trees – guavas, limes… We visited the primary school, a long one-room building with a chalkboard and some rickety tables and chairs. Outside, the teachers were finishing up their duties for the term, filling out grade sheets and recording marks. They invited us inside, where we were treated to a cheerful and bouncing song-and-dance performance from the students, as well as lots of hugs, laughter and grins from ear-to-ear.

We also visited the other guesthouse on the island, where the cook gave us a tour of the grounds and the surrounding area. We saw the remnants of stone walls on the island built by slaves, now sinking back into the earth as the rainforest reclaims the land. Our guide also showed us what used to be a large pit ringed by stones and filled in with soil, where slaves that were too tired or ill to work were left to die. After the British abolished slavery in 1807(ish), they used the Banana Islands to stem the slave trade which still ran rampant out of West Africa. Some abolitionists established Freetown as a colony of return for freed blacks, and the British military set up shop on the Banana Islands to prevent slave ships from entering the colony’s waters. Still on the island are a few very worn and sunken cannons, with the year 1813 stamped into their shafts.

After our tour of Dublin, we went back to the cove where we’d landed on the island – Dalton had offered (for a fee, of course) to take us on a boat tour to the other large island, Ricketts. We piled back into the wooden fishing canoe, along with Dalton and his cousin Malcolm, originally from Ricketts. The ride took about 45 minutes, over much calmer seas than our trip to the island the previous day – we saw the big fishing boats from Tombo (another town on the coast) like giants drifting on the horizon, as well as the small-business fishermen bobbing in their individual canoes, casting their lines in the hopes of scoring a few barracuda or snapper.

From the sea, the Banana Islands look untouched by man – just two massive hills of lush green vegetation, with the occasional palm tree sticking out at an odd angle. The shoreline is mostly rocky, waves crashing on the huge grey stones that line the shore. The two main islands (there are a few smaller ones as well) are not very far apart – maybe 25 metres – and are attached by a man-made stone bridge, giving the islands an hourglass shape if viewed from above.

Ricketts was smaller than Dublin, home to about 150 people. Malcolm showed us around to the Anglican and Methodist churches – there is no mosque on the islands, even though they are home to a few Muslims… but as Malcolm pointed out, god will come wherever you call. We also saw the chief’s house, painted with a mural of Jesus ringing his doorbell and “Jones Mansion” emblazoned along the overhang of the roof. Dublin was a plethora of fruit too – breadfruit, sour sharp (and its sweeter cousin), papaya and avocado. Malcolm called over one of the boys who were hanging around playing soccer, who scrambled up the trunk like a monkey and used a long pole to knock down two
football-sized papayas – which we brought back to Freetown to share with the house.

We also saw the cemetery, completely grown over with foliage – the rainy season has started and everything is growing madly, too quickly to keep up. Malcolm said that every September, once the rainy season has ended, the community gets together and cleans up the graveyard then holds a big feast as a way of remembering their forefathers, a tradition they have been carrying on for generations.

Ricketts also has a primary school, but it’s incomplete – when the SLPP took power after the war, money was given to the community to build a new school and housing for the teacher, but today only the shells of the buildings sit abandoned on a hillside, trees and vines weaving their way through the walls. When the APC took power the money dried up, so the kids still take their lessons in the Anglican church in the middle of the village.

Getting fresh water on the islands is a big problem, and is part of the reason Malcolm moved to Dublin, which has a well in the middle of the village. In Ricketts, the well is a mile away, so when Malcolm was growing up, he woke up at 6 a.m. to make four trips to the well to gather water for the family before he started school for the day.

After our tour of Ricketts we headed back to Dublin to frolic on the beach. It was high tide so the sandy part of the beach was underwater, meaning it was less likely we’d get knocked over and dash our brains out on the rocks. We got some colour on our pasty skin and some sand in our swimsuits, then headed to our hut to relax before a dinner of fresh caught lobster.

The lobsters were right out of the sea, sliced down the back and filled with garlic and tomato sauce, grilled over an open fire with a side of rice and garlic sauce. Definitely the best lobster I’ve ever had, possibly one of the best meals of my life. We dug in with reckless abandon, sauce under our fingernails and shards of lobster shell littering the tie-dyed table cloth.

The next morning we got up, took another swim, ate another delish omelette and took a walk in the forest, where I got a record 15 mosquito bites in about 20 minutes. We walked down the coast to the site of a guest house which has been built but has yet to open, for reasons we were never really told. If they do get it up and running, it will give both of the other guesthouses on the island a run for their money – it has the best beach by far and boasts the most secluded location, although the forest is so thick that almost any home or hut on the island can be considered private.

After our jaunt and a final swim, we headed back to Kent to meet our taxi man… who didn’t show up. I called to ask where he was and he said he wasn’t coming – which wouldn’t be a problem in other parts of the country, since taxis are always going by… but not in Kent. It’s off the beaten track, meaning taxis rarely venture down to the town – so when they do, they extort foreigners for all they can because they know we’re desperate to get back to the main road. Luckily, Dalton was also heading up the peninsula to get some supplies for the Slovenian couple who had arrived at the guest house the night before, so he was able to get us into his shared taxi. One Nissan, a trunk full of bags, eight adults, a child and a baby: four adults in the back, three adults and the kiddies in the front… and one guy on the hood of the car. The taxi took us to Tombo, where we caught another taxi to Waterloo, then a poda poda to the east end of Freetown – at which point it started to pour, and we had no idea what street we were on. After about 15 minutes of wandering we found a taxi to take us home, making it a two-and-a-half hour journey… not the most relaxing end to the trip, but better than sleeping under a tree in Kent.

Yesterday we finished all our tourist-y stuff – shopping for fabric, jewellery and batiks. Today it’s just the last minute things: packing, one more trip to the beach, one more trip to Mary’s cookery for lunch, maybe a final World Cup game. We’re going out to an African restaurant tonight for dinner – which reminds me I have a fragment of a post on food that I’ll try to finish up and post today as well.

Dalton’s guest house as viewed from the boat ride to Ricketts (the thatched roof is the restaurant):

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