I finished last week's column just before stepping ashore in Freetown.
We went on a short bus tour of the city.
My only previous experience of sub-Saharan African capitals has been of the prosperous cities of Capetown, Nairobi and – before its desperate decline – Harare. Freetown, with its truly appalling traffic clogging narrow streets, its high, derelict old Creol buildings, its lack of any apparent infrastructure and, above all, its pock-marked ruined buildings from the recent civil war presented a different face altogether.
The knight declared it the most backward African capital he had ever been in – and on this cruise there will be only one country he has not visited before.
The welcome we received could not have been more enthusiastic. Banners hung at the exit to the port, and at the beach we visited: “Sierra Leone welcomes the Saga Ruby”.
We were, as one of the cruise lecturers told us, a symbol of normality returning. As our police escort guided us through the streets, people turned and waved at us.
At the beach, with its incredibly basic bar, where we were entertained by dancers and a stilt-walker, schoolchildren came as well – to get a sight of us. I suspect there are parts of Sierra Leone where, as in Mungo Park’s day, they have never seen a white person.
As we left the port, which showed very little sign of activity, workers there lined the barriers and waved us away.
Last year my daughter gave me a Christian Aid Christmas gift – a market stall in Sierra Leone. After a day there, I am determined to favour any aid organisation that favours that country, which seems to have been left so far behind.
The next day the ship cinema gave a showing of Blood Diamond, set during that dreadful civil war. The lecturer, who had spent years at Freetown’s college, told us that it gave a very accurate representation of the horrors of that time.
We then had two days at sea, on the second of which I gave a lecture on Mungo Park. I always have the feeling that my own knowledge on any subject is no more than average, but I was encouraged, first by the number of people who came to it, and secondly how many people told me afterwards that they had known almost nothing about him, other than his name, and sometimes not even that.
Rereading Park’s book in preparation for the talk made me realise all over again the immensity of what he achieved. But more than that, his respectful attitude to his African hosts was well ahead of his time. Unlike later explorers, he was neither there on behalf of the British Empire (which didn’t really exist in his day), nor was he evangelising.
His motives were those that echoed the age of Enlightenment into which he had been born: “I had a passionate desire to examine a country so little known, and to become experimentally acquainted with the modes of life and character of the natives.....”
Needless to say my lecture did not end without a suggestion that my listeners should come to Selkirk to see his memorial and the cottage at Foulshiels.
The prosperous port of Takondi in Ghana was our next stop. Here wide-lined streets showed evidence of plenty of new building, but there was not the same hustling of tourists that we found in Dakar.
In the Sunday market, broad-smiling stallholders amid piles of fruit, fish, furniture and hard goods raised hands to clasp to ours, and well-nourished children grouped around us – without holding out their hands for coins. Did you know that Ghana had a general election last month, in which there were no riots, no intimidation, and after which the existing, defeated government ceded power without a rumpus?
Our last call in west Africa was to Togo, a former French colony to the west of Nigeria.
Here we went out of the capital, Lome, to a village where we watched a voodoo ceremony. It including the burying of a live chicken, which was later disinterred still alive. Male dancers danced themselves into a trance and then drew knives or burning brands across their chests, without injury. I do not pretend to understand it.
In some ways it is frustrating to get such a superficial taste of all these countries with their different histories, cultures and politics, but also with much in common.
Some people, believe it or not, don’t come off the boat in port at all, and others complain about the heat, the fact that the buses aren’t up to British standards, and even – this is true – about there being so many black faces. If only they would look into them and see the welcome they give us.
Here’s a delightfully-easy pudding from west Africa.