Some 90% of Sierra Leoneans are supposedly a member of one of the country’s secret societies. Not that their existence is secret, nor an individual’s membership (I saw a number of men with rows of raised marks on their backs – the scarification that indicates the society and their rank within it), but the content and meaning of the ceremonies and initiation rites must not be revealed to non-initiates on pain of death. The societies are powerful, both in the sense of favouring their own for jobs (rather like the Freemasons) but also in the magic that can be learnt by those who go through many stages of initiation.

One of the few public manifestations of the magic of these societies is on major public holidays – including Easter Monday – when some of the society “devils” appear in the streets.

When I asked about this most people responded by describing the Easter parade. I guess this probably originates from the devils, but is now more like a carnival procession. Although I would have been happy to see it, that wasn’t really what I was looking for. Anyway, killing time in the morning (the parade being late in the afternoon – as it turned out, too late for me to see before I had to leave for my flight) I wandered around the streets of downtown Freetown, an area I hadn’t seen before.

Then, coming towards me along the street, I saw a small group of men. Some in jeans and T-shirts chanting, and playing clangy metal instruments, but quite clearly the three men in front of them were devils. They had bare torsos and wore long grass skirts, with a white cloth wrapped around their middles and another on their heads, and the one at the front also had a red headdress. But what was most striking was that they, and the white cloths, were smeared with what appeared to be blood. I got closer, and then could see that the flesh on the arms and chest of one was pierced with knives and porcupine quills – clearly it was real blood. & the devil at the front appeared to have a large dagger through the middle of his body, the handle sticking out at the base of his back and some eight inches of blade protruding from his stomach. This couldn’t be real – could it?

I looked into his eyes and they were bloodshot and staring into some place where I don’t think I want to go. & I was reminded of a Chinese harvest festival I saw in Malaysia many years ago, where I watched a man slice his tongue in half lengthways while in some kind of religious trance. So I know that it is possible to rise above bodily pain and trauma, and people I’ve described these devils to all assure me that what I saw was real and not a trick.

The Sierra Leoneans ascribe it to magic. I don’t believe in magic (or religion, or anything else that seems to run counter to common sense and evidence), but the belief in magic is so prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa that just occasionally I find myself wondering if perhaps this continent works in a different way from other parts of the world and there is something here beyond what we can see and touch.

Beaches and islands

On my first weekend in Sierra Leone, a colleague kindly offered to show me a couple of Freetown peninsula’s famous beaches. We went first to Lakka, a crescent of golden sand with a few palm trees, a couple of colourful fishing boats moored in the calm water and a number of simple shacks selling grilled fish, shrimp and lobster. We stopped for a drink at the rocky headland at the end of the beach, and I found myself wondering how much it would cost to buy the little resort of clapperboard houses with shaded verandas that appeared in need of some love and care from a new owner…

Soon (too soon) we were moving on, driving 50km out of Freetown to River No.2 beach, which most people seem to rate as the best of all. This one has white sand, bigger waves, and a stunning backdrop of jungle-clad hills – as well as a small river that meanders across the sand into the sea. You can lie in this river and drift along in the current as the tide comes in or goes out, or even take a boat upstream and watch out for monkeys catching fish, using their tails as bait.

A boat trip wasn’t on the agenda that day, but I walked along the sand, swam in the sea, drifted in the river, drank coconut water and feasted on grilled shrimps with really good chips. It is a beautiful place. I wonder how many years it will be until Europe ‘discovers’ Sierra Leone. Its beaches are as good as any I have seen in the Caribbean, and it’s only a 5-6 hour flight from the UK and in the same time zone.

The next weekend, after my work was finished, was Easter, and I prolonged my stay so as to go into the rainforest. I’d organised this beforehand over the internet as I wasn’t sure how easy it would be logistically to do it independently with only a few days for the trip. So at 6am my guide was there at the hotel to start the 8-hour journey to Tiwai Island. This is a 12km square island in the Moa River, which flows through the Gola Forest in the eastern part of the country. It is known for its pygmy hippos (although they are very hard to find, and we didn’t have any luck with them), its nine species of primate (we saw four and heard three others) and its 135 species of bird (I didn’t count…).

An NGO run by local villagers maintains some basic accommodation on the island – a number of tents set up on concrete platforms, with a dining area, kitchen and toilet/shower block. Alternatively you can wash in the river as I did. I slept well there, and spent long hours walking along some of the many trails in the forest. We didn’t see the white-breasted guinea fowl that my guide was keen to show me, but I was happy enough with the black bee-eaters, great blue turacos and yellow-casqued hornbills, which are all quite stunning birds. The Diana monkeys were also impressive. I did manage to pick up quite a few mosquito and/or ant bites, but that didn’t spoil the experience at all, I just wish I could have spent another couple of days there.