by jim weller
Introduction to Stories from Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Stories from West Africa Part 1: Sierra Leone
Weather conditions, February 8, 2008: Snow, wind, bitter cold. I had arrived at Kansas City International Airport to board a flight that would eventually take me to Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. Looking back, I wish I could have seen the harsh weather, and delays it brought, as a harbinger of the two years of problems that would follow.
The entire Midwest was in the middle of a terrible snowstorm. Flights throughout the area were being delayed or cancelled, including those scheduled to arrive from O'Hare Airport in Chicago, my first layover. A personal two hour holding pattern, waiting on my flight to the snowy, freezing, bottled up Windy City.
I passed the time snacking on expensive stale airport food, washed down with overpriced cheap bourbon, and wondering what I was going to play out. When the flight arrived, the passengers were informed it had mechanical problems, forcing yet more delay, and more bourbon.
Finally, the announcement for boarding was made. My stomach was queasy, and my brain was taxed. The libations had also made me somewhat hazy. I looked at my watch and knew my scheduled three and a half hour layover in Chicago had disappeared. I was worried about missing my connecting flight to London.
Once boarded, those worries were soon confirmed, and exasperated, as the captain announced O'Hare Airport was landing about ten percent of their usual air traffic per hour.
Once in the air, the flight turned pleasant enough considering the abominable snowman was having his way below. A short couple of hours of confined relaxation that ended abruptly as the flight closed in on our destination. We were slotted into a holding pattern above O'Hare, left circling an airport under siege from a giant white out.
There was nothing to do but squirm in my seat and wait; and oh yeah, hope. I remember wondering how many other passengers were feeling the same. I refused to look at the time until we began our descent.
Then, mercifully, the plan headed downward. I dared a glance at my watch. Some of my tension was released and I gained some small confidence I would make the bus to London. There would still be a little hustle required, but my hopes brightened, and I felt I was up to the O'Hare Airport sprint challenge.
My new found confidence lasted about three minutes. The airplane, that seemed to just lumber while in its long drawn out holding pattern, now pulled up quickly. The pilot had aborted the landing part way down.
"I'm screwed," I blurted out loud.
"There's no way I'm going to make it!"
The guy sitting next to me offered support and encouragement but I would have none of it. They couldn't move the planes off the runway quickly enough. We were back to our holding pattern and I was back to missing my flight to London.
Once we finally did hit the gate, I gave it hell of a try. I ran, dodged, jumped and even pushed, a little, through the terminal. I finessed, as much as is possible post 911, through the security luggage check point.
I sprinted the final yards to the designated gate. I could see the Airbus to London still sitting next to the gate as I ran up to the British Airways counter. It was to no avail. The ground crew was in the process of deicing the wings. preventing any further boarding. So now what?
I had a three day layover in frozen Chicago because flights from London to Freetown were only scheduled twice a week. It seems people are not flocking to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Hell, for me, had frozen over.
But still, I was headed to Freetown, and after three days of lying around icy Chicago I would not taste anything close to biting cold for another two years.
The accounts that follow, "Stories from West Africa, Part 1 - Sierra Leone," are stories of my two years as General Manager with TAAKOR Tropical Hardwood Co. (SL) LTD.
TAAKOR was a logging company that made a huge investment in the timber industry in Sierra Leone, based on promises from a notoriously corrupt government, in a less than third world country.
When I arrived in Sierra Leone later that same night, there was a ban on all logging activities. I was pulled into a position that I would be unable to fully perform, for a company that was unable to operate. It went downhill from there.
Regardless, I spent two years there, two years fighting the Government, logging contractors, various village Chiefs and Elders, workers, banks, vendors, and our own management. It was a roller coaster that brought frustration, but also, in the end, a great amount pride.
Throughout that two year period, there were many tales ranging from humorous to heart breaking; and sometimes dangerous. None of them are close to being "Tall Tales."
These stories are my dealings with the people I met, and the battles I fought to help make the best of what turned out to be an impossible situation.