Nearly drowning and Plantain Island

Africa, Documentary, street photography, travel

Today’s another one of those posts that is not reflective on my current position (my parents house in the middle of the Forest of Dean in the UK). Instead it’s a small collection of photographs taken on Plantain Island in Sierra Leone.

I actually just spent four days on the island – I paid a hefty contribution towards the islands taxes (hefty only if I had been a local admittedly) – and spent it wandering about capturing what I saw.

Slightly more risky was getting there in the first place. I partly chose to do this project because it would be very cheap (a large consideration when half of your work is done for free). Getting there cost me just 15,000 Leones. A little over two pounds.

But it was on a fishing boat, one of these ones above, from the dirty, small-yet-heaving fishing town of Tumbu. It would be a 23 mile journey and I was assured would be no longer than three hours. I counted this from the time the boat would actually leave for Plantain Island and not from when I got into the boat (perhaps two hours waiting in the boat after three hours waiting in Tumbu). I didn’t mind this – Africa has trained me to become very good at waiting, and a camera and a 40gb of memory cards makes it even easier. It does however get slightly nerve wracking when the longer you wait in a boat means more people get on it.

This above photo shows one half of the boat from where I was sitting. In total there were 72 people on board a boat that was designed to hold a maximum of 35 people. Where that latter number was gotten from I have no idea (the guy in a rather sand-worn business suit next to me told me), but considering the guys that make the boats are generally locals who hack them together (rather skilfully I must say) from felled trees and old broken boats it seemed unusually conservative for Africa.

Nevertheless, that fact coupled with the information that a boat just like this on the Plantain Island route sunk the previous year killing all 45 people on board somewhat played havoc with my nerves.

And so I didn’t welcome the oncoming storm. I now consider putting my camera away deep inside a mass of luggage so as to protect it rather foolish (for someone who likes to record life as it is – but then I didn’t know things were going to get serious.

When the rain hit we all hid under a large tarpaulin. It smacked the side of your face, cold and gritty. I squeezed up to a skinny mother with her three children, one just a few months old perhaps the cold wetness helped balance the previously pungent aroma of body odour. At first the main problem was just to make sure that water gathering in puddles on top of the tarp didn’t suddenly drain through a hole onto you. It was a ruthless game where you poked your finger to one side of the puddle you could feel sagging on you so it would relocate towards your neighbour and hopefully find a hole near them so you would remain dry a little longer.

I luckily don’t get seasick but others were most certainly vomiting away… some on their baskets of goods, one mother on her poor and rather startled baby girl. I didn’t realise the gravity of the situation until I thought I’d poke my head out of the tarp to look over the edge of the boat. By sheer coincidence I did it at a time when that side of the boat dipped right under a large oncoming wave and I got a face full of water and suddenly we had a flooded boat. I gasped with the shock of the wetness although it was warm in stark contrast to the freezing rain. Several inches of water in the bottom of the boat is an enormous amount of extra weight and several people broke into action.

I stood up – preferring to know if we were going to go under – but unable to help the three men who were desperately bailing out water with the few sawn-off jerry cans available. The sea was a series of unsettling, unbroken, moving moguls, textured with the relentless rain. Its warmth was deceiving to the deaths it had the unconcerned potential to cause.

It did occur to me that perhaps this was normal for trips to Plantain Island, but there were a number of men babbling Islamic prayers (including the captain) and I realised I had reason to be worried if they were…

After a while of being in the same situation with a few more waves and (still) not drowning a new worry emerged. We couldn’t see more than fifty metres around us because of the storm. And we didn’t have a compass. We had been like this for almost an hour now and didn’t know if we were going in the right direction.

There was almost a point where we were considering transferring half the passengers to a passing fishing boat but it soon turned out they were planning on spending the next several days out at sea.

The worrying continued for around two more hours, until the rains lifted for a short and we could see where we should be headed. We’d been going off course by around 45° for perhaps an hour or more. We made it to Plantain Island after five hours on the waves, all looking like drowned rats and shivering uncontrollably. I’ve never been so happy to be on land.

So. This is what I got from the following four days. And this is why I decided to go. And why I think the journey was worth it. Although I did return overland…

A child plays amongst the rubbish on the shores with the old slave quarters in the background.

This is Plantain Island. It is of historical significance, with slavers, pirates and early colonist all inhabiting the island in its past. However, in more recent years the island has been disappearing. Whether it’s through erosion or sinking (they’re not sure) the locals will confirm that the shore lines have in some areas withdrawn as much as 20 metres in the past 10 years.

At the end of 2011 a brand new fish landing bay is supposed to be opening up on the mainland – just a 30 minute boat ride away. It’s aim is to reshape the fishing in the are: make it more sustainable, commercially successful and environmentally friendly. For those it employs it should mean a better future for the inhabitants of that area of Sierra Leone. Either way the vibrant life and culture of Plantain Island will almost certainly change in the future.

These photos are a record of the island taken in a week in October 2011.

Women buy fish on the shores of Plantain Island which they will smoke-dry and later sell on the mainland for a small profit.

The beach.

Relaxing in the midday heat.

Young girl lying in the school playground.

Latest football fixtures outside the TV cinema on Plantain Island. There are few generators on the island, but one is used to power the TV and sky channel so European football can be watched.

An argument breaks out in the cinema over who is the best football player – Messi or van Persie.

Women pray in one of two local mosques on the island. Almost everyone on the island is Muslim.

A girl plays around on an old mattress on a fishing boat.

A baker takes a moment to check on his wife who’s baby is screaming.

A grandmother curls up on the wall as nimbly as a child.

Relaxing on the porch on the beach, Plantain Island.

Men drag a crate of dried fish across the beach to put on a boat to take to the mainland.

Fishermen take a break in the ocean after spending the morning shifting crates of dried fish.

A woman carries fish she’s just bought on the fish back to smoke-dry at her house.

A married couple are put in the stocks for fighting each other.

A woman takes down her washing off the line as the sun slips under the horizon.

A fishing boat arrives after dark and women gather to buy their catch.

In the pouring rain women and fishermen bargain and sort out their catches of fish.

A Plantain Island resident walks through the village late at night with his torch, underneath the milky way.

The series of around 80 photographs has been laid out in a book.


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