Been off for a week in Sierra Leone training their political parties ahead of their local election campaign which starts on Monday and ends on July 5th.
This was another cross party effort (as none of the UK parties really have sister parties over there)/ I was training in the second city of Bo with Sheila Gunn, John Major's former press secretary and a former Camden Councillor (until beaten by the Lib Dems, natch). Also over there were Lib Dem Winchester PPC Martin Tod and Chris Page of Labour, a councillor in Southwark where I used to work.
How was it? In a word, hot. In two words (to misquote Robin Williams being unfunny) Damn Hot.
We were meant to be training women on the first day and young activists and candidates on the second. Unfortunately, one of the parties got things mixed up and we had their male candidates (of all ages) on the first day. Still, things worked out ok with about 25 trainees on day one and 37 on day two.
We talked to them about building a campaign team, about the message that they wanted to get out to the electors and about how to get that message across. As ever, there were many lessons that we learned from them as well as them from us.
The trickiest thing about the trip was what to do when you get to Lungi Airport. For the uninitiated, it is on a spit of land separate from the city. Flights tend to arrive late afternoon and the options are:
- driving on unmade roads for three hours with the constant danger of a speeding airport fuel tanker coming the other way;
- taking the ferry which is usually over crowded and has a very poor safety record;
- staying at the airport hotel and travelling next day (fully booked usually);
- taking the hovercraft (recently suffered loss of engines and drifted out to sea for two hours before passengers evacuated to fishing boats;
The helicopter option (1960s Soviet machines with 1960s soviet pilots) is no longer there as one of them had a little 'incident' recently which resulted in the deaths of a Togolese football team and the other cannot get a safety certificate.
Took the hovercraft. At least in would be over quickest.
Freetown is still very busy and the petrol supply seems to have been restored. Bo is another kettle of fish. The second city is tiny in comparison and has virtually nothing going on. We stayed at a passable hotel but there was no other possible option. The road from Freetown was patchy - fully paved in many areas but packed earth in others - and there was nothing on it. Apart from NGOs, almost nobody travels between cities and, more importantly, nothing else does either. As with the UK in the 1770s, the food for the city is grown in the fields around. There is no 'bread basket' of the country and if food runs out in an area then people starve.
We did venture out to see the sights and found a town with lovely old architecture in a colonial style - houses with full length verandas facing each other across the main street. Sheila felt it was like the wild west and expected gunslingers to come out of the doors. I felt that if that happened they were unlikely to be quaint and more likely to carry uzis.
The 'best restaurant in Bo' according to Lonely Planet serves a full menu of seafood choices as well as pasta and an interesting assortment of other dishes. When we got there we had the choice of chicken or fish. Hmmm.
Back home now. Must right up proper report.