It was my good fortune to meet Mohamed for the first time soon after I arrived in Sierra Leone in the late summer of 2004. I had been posted to Freetown as military advisor to the Sierra Leone Government with the task of re-building the Ministry of Defence into a subordinate organ of the State rather than a threat to it, and to act as the Deputy Commander of IMATT
As a lifelong avowed railway enthusiast I had conducted some limited research into what my new home for the next year or so might offer from a railway point of view and thus, armed with a new British book called Sierra Leone Narrow Gauge, on my first Saturday in Freetown I visited the former National Workshops in Cline Town.
I eventually arrived at the gates to what I took to be the Cline Town railway workshops, and drove straight in, waving at the guard to whom I gave a cold can of Pepsi. The place certainly looked like a railway facility, but here and there were posters and daubed slogans in Chinese/English exalting the African workers to ensure that the ‘new’ factory would be open in 78 days. Not certain what this all meant, I got out of my Land Rover and started to explore the site, Sierra Leone Narrow Gauge in hand, quickly identifying many of the key locations illustrated in the book, including the main erecting and repair shop complete with huge overhead cranes.
As we approached what the book informed me had been the Works office building, a Chinese man approached, smiled, and in excellent English enquired if we were from the Government. “Sort of” I replied. “Have you come to take the trains away?” he further enquired. The subsequent exchange revealed that the factory site had been gifted to the Chinese on condition that it be converted into a factory employing Sierra Leoneans, which the Chinese intended would open, as publicly advertised, in 78 days (over the coming months this number changed erratically, on one occasion jumping from 41 days back to 47 days overnight – the Chinese motivational techniques were emphatically not well received by their Sierra Leonean employees!). Not quite sure if he had got his facts right about the existence of any “trains”, I asked if he would show them to me. As I walked deeper into the factory complex I was informed that the building housing these artefacts had been gifted to the Chinese, that they had repaired the roof, but that the removal of the rolling stock was overdue and that further delay could not be tolerated, in other words shift ‘em or we scrap ‘em.
I soon approached a huge building of obvious railway pedigree with a degree of excitement and trepidation. Every pane of glass in the extensive windows was broken, and the bottom window ledge was much higher than I could peer over, so some piles of old sleepers were dragged over and heaped into a makeshift viewing platform. I climbed up, looked through the broken window into the gloom, and waited a second for my eyes to become accustomed to the murky interior.
Then the shock hit home. Just in front of me was a Manchester built Beyer-Garratt articulated steam locomotive, filthy but fundamentally intact; ahead of it was a Hunslet 2-6-2 Tank engine; a variety of diesels were just discernible in the background, accompanied by various items of rolling stock; a very regal carriage, clearly of some importance caught the eye immediately; and another vehicle with a balcony at one end was stripped of its cladding so that only the rib sections remained (this vehicle turned out to be a coach built for the State Visit of Her Majesty The Queen in 1961 soon after independence). I wanted to get in the building, but the doors were locked, and I was informed that the key holder was a Mr Mohamed Bangura, former (and the last) manager of the Works; the Chinese gave me his mobile ‘phone number, and we arranged to meet.
The next day, having gained access to the building, I managed to get a good look at everything and immediately decided to make a photographic record of the whole collection with Mohamed holding up a board with the details of each item boldly written in the foreground, just in case the situation was irredeemably dire. He told me how, following the closure of the railway, the collection had been placed in the building – which had originally been the carriage repair carpentry shop – with a view to perhaps one day creating a museum, but that nothing had come of it, and that his subsequent efforts had been directed at preventing pilfering and theft during the civil war.
The Workshops had been home to about 10,000 refugees and displaced persons and anything not firmly bolted down was clearly fair game. He had been unsuccessful in preventing theft, and was very apologetic to me for his failure, but from where I was stood I actually thought he had managed to save a significant amount in very difficult circumstances, and I told him so. We struck a very powerful personal bond at that precise moment. One of my major concerns was the way in which the Chinese were demolishing the Works’ infrastructure to make space for their new ‘factory’, and the resulting heaps of machine tools, lathes and the other essential components of a heavy engineering workshop, filled me with foreboding, fearing that they would next turn their attention to the remaining railway stock. I had quickly come to know the senior intelligence analyst attached to the British High Commission, one of whose roles was the personal briefing of the President on security and intelligence matters. We met at dinner on the Sunday evening, and I quite casually mentioned what I had discovered at Cline Town.
Quick as a flash he suggested we get word to President Kabbah, whom he very regularly met, that I was interested in saving the remains of the railway for posterity. From that point onwards matters moved very quickly. On Monday morning contact was established with the President, the situation was explained and the edict was issued that I was to be at the Works at 10am the following day, accompanied by Mohamed, to receive His Excellency, his Cabinet, a delegation from the Chinese Embassy and a TV camera crew – and I was to do all the talking! At the appointed hour, the President’s motorcade swept through the gates at Cline Town, numerous dignitaries swarmed around him, the Chinese delegation was delighted with his impromptu visit (not knowing why he was there!) and the TV film crew shoved their lenses everywhere. We began with me briefly explaining the history of the railway, the miraculous survival of the stock they were about to see, and of the need to preserve Sierra Leone’s rich railway heritage for future generations, even though the Government had plenty of other more pressing matters on its hands such as the poor state of the economy.
Mohamed made an impassioned plea as a Sierra Leonean that these priceless artefacts had to be saved for future generations in a way which had far more credibility than from me, the recently arrived crazy Brit! Having explained just what was possible, and with strong but unspoken hints that I would be willing to fill my free time whilst in Freetown helping to preserve the collection, we then all moved into the building where the stock was stored. Many of the older politicians were instantly overwhelmed with waves of nostalgia – the railway was a big thing for people in its day (the then President, Siaka Stevens, being interviewed by the BBC on his retirement was asked what his biggest regret in office had been. He unhesitatingly said it was the closure of the railway).
Others were just astounded at what had survived. When it was agreed that Mohamed and I would be allowed to do something (none of us were sure quite what) I could see the looks on some faces giving away their utter scepticism, but maintaining a positive demeanour so as not to upset or offend the President. There was still one problem to be addressed, the fact that the building had been gifted to the Chinese and at this stage they presumably believed that it was still theirs. I spotted my moment. Gesturing to Mohamed, the senior Chinese representative, and his interpreter to stand with me next to the President, and in front of the TV camera crew, I said to him: “You don’t need this building, do you?”
The interpreter duly translated this and the Chinese gentleman then vigorously shook his head from side to side. At this point, everyone smiled, the President shook his hand, and that was that – the project had just been given the green light. A little later I noticed that the interpreter was having what the Army would call an ‘interview without coffee’ with the senior Chinese representative. It subsequently transpired that he had misinterpreted my question as “Can they have the building?” hence the shaking of the head, but it was by now too late! After an hour or so, the President departed, wishing us well in our endeavour, whatever that was. It turned out that he had an interest in the old railway, but never thought the opportunity would arise to do anything about its remains. Early in the evening, a one hour TV programme was screened covering the day’s events in Cline Town, and an hour after that I was on board HMS Southampton moored alongside at the Freetown Docks, attending a cocktail party, with many of my fellow guests being the Ministers and officials I had met earlier in the day.
After such an entertaining departure from their normal routines they had light heartedly decided to christen me the Minister for Railways, and let me know how much the day’s events had cheered up President Kabbah, but most of them were quite candid in their belief that absolutely nothing would be achieved. I was determined, though, to prove them all wrong, and thus the origins of the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum had taken root through the instant bond between myself and Mohamed. I had been in Sierra Leone just 7 days. The following Saturday, armed with a set of keys provided by the relevant Ministry, a packed lunch, several bottles of water, a broom and dressed in overalls, Mohamed and I appeared at the gates of the future museum. It was 9am and already the temperature was in the high 80s. After initial resistance, the ancient padlock eventually succumbed and we prised the doors open with much brute force, kicking and pushing. The interior was dark and once again I had to wait a moment for my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom, but once they were the scene before me gave me a bit of a shock. When there were lots of people in the place during the President’s visit the problems to be faced did not seem insurmountable.
But on our own, surveying the chaos of 30 years of neglect and the attentions of myriad refugees, the enormity of the task suddenly hit us. We had no plan other than a big picture idea, and certainly no sense of how we might mobilise resources to make something – anything – happen. But ideas came to mind, we recruited a dozen local unemployed Sierra Leoneans, and the project grew at an unexpected rate. We probably thought that it would die a death over the coming months and years but the reality is that it is now probably the best resourced and managed railway museum in Africa. Mohamed was absolutely central to the project. He was a major source of historical information, and the restoration of the