It was just gone 9pm, at Lumley Junction, a busy, urban intersection in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The car windows windows were up and the doors were locked. Lumley Junction has an extremely unsavoury reputation.
Ocadas – the city’s ubiquitous motorbike taxis – swarmed in all directions. I negotiated a path through the bulk of them, before one grazed the side of the car. The driver and I briefly locked eyes, then he roared off in the opposite direction.
In another 10 or so yards, the car began listing heavily to the right. The man who knocked on the car window and pointed to the tyre, confirmed my suspicions. The Ocada had gouged a fist-sized hole in the front, passenger-side tyre.
Women, all over the world, are repeatedly warned about the ruses that the ill-intentioned use to lure them from the safety of their vehicles. I tend to treat these with a degree of scepticism, nevertheless urban legends often come with a small nugget of truth so it’s hard to discount them totally. During one long, French summer, a story circulated about a pair of violent car thieves, who faked breakdowns on deserted country roads in order to steal from unsuspecting good Samaritans. This story may have prevented a few robberies, but it probably caused way more distress to those who had genuinely broken down and waited in vain for someone to stop and help.
In Nigeria, highway robbery and kidnapping, are frequent enough to persuade most people to keep driving. I haven’t heard of any kidnappings in Sierra Leone, but I have heard stories about people who have fallen victim to car thieves in circumstances very similar to the one I found myself in. So half my brain told me this incident had all the hallmarks of the incidents I’d been warned about, while the other half reasoned that I could not go another yard, let alone several more miles on this tyre.
The man who pointed out the burst tyre, commiserated with me under the heavy rain, then offered to help me change it. I had a dilemma. I could place my trust in a random stranger, in a dodgy location, who for all I knew, had as much idea of how to change a tyre as I did and was planning to rob me. Alternatively, I could call my usual driver, but he would take around an hour to get to me.
Mohamed was the stranger’s name. When we went round to the back of the car to get the spare tyre and jack, he warned me to keep a tight hold of my bag and my phone. I already had a vice like grip on both, but I doubled it.
The reason women find it so hard to change tyres is because it’s an extremely dirty procedure, especially in the pouring rain on muddy, dirty ground covered with God alone knows what. Then it actually necessitates brute strength and a lot of lying on the ground looking into the under-carriage, as well as items like jacks, braces, and locking wheel nuts. These all have very specific functions and have to be kept in sight at all times.
It is rarely a one-person job and this Toyota Pathfinder was certainly too big a job for Mohamed to manage on his own, so one by one, he recruited other locals. There were too many for me to keep my eyes on, and I started to feel that I’d lost control of the situation. It took a couple to raise up the car for some reason I didn’t quite grasp, and another to trundle off to pump the spare. I watched him go with some regret, thinking: “Well there goes my spare tyre.” Then when another asked to borrow my phone to better light the undercarriage, I thought: “Well there, no doubt, goes my phone.” When we pulled the mats from the car so Mohamed didn’t have to lie on the soaking ground, I thought: “Won’t be seeing those again.”
By this stage, the process had taken well over an hour in the dark and the rain. Every second of that time, I felt that I had most likely made the wrong decision.
It was only when the tyre trundled back properly pumped, my phone was handed back to me and the steady trickle of rain became a torrent, that I started to feel confidence in these strangers. Four carried on working; while one went to fetch an umbrella. Then, all of a sudden they were packing up, and the mats, jack, burst tyre and other odds and sods were all returned to the boot.
When I thanked them, I asked them to line up so I could take a photo. Human nastiness tends to be more memorable than kindness, and warps our thinking about people and places. It is easy to become desensitised in a country like Sierra Leone where the stream of misery, death and disaster is almost ceaseless. My friend describes it as being ‘embalmed’. I wanted to remember these five strangers, their kindness and generosity, and my own suspicion in the face of it.
Over 120 years ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem ‘If’ for his son, which paraphrased says: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too. If you can watch the things you gave your life to broken, and stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools …. you’ll be a man, my son.”
Sierra Leone stumbles and falls from one extreme horror to another – war, disease, and natural disaster. We are one of the poorest countries in the world, with the world’s worst mother and child mortality rate, and our people are intimately aware of the daily cruelty of terrible poverty. If those who experience the worst of all this are yet to lose their humanity, I have no right to either.