We're on the way back from Mabella, a textbook slum next to Freetown's most bustling business district. It's extremely humid, as usual, and, as usual, I'm covered with a layer of sticky grime. I invariably leave Mabella feeling filthy. Today we saw an eight-year-old girl drink from a mud puddle nestled along the heavily traveled main dirt track through the slum. Foreigners don't come down to Mabella very often, and children - children who no doubt play in mud puddles, and worse - routinely run up to touch my freakish white skin. Though this season's cholera epidemic is winding down, disease remains a very real threat, and given the dearth of toilets, it's certain that potentially harmful germs are everywhere. Weaving through the marketplace in the upper part of the slum, you're assaulted by wafts of rotting tubers, urine, dried fish, raw meat and feces, and by people hawking a huge assortment of goods. It's easily overwhelming, and by the time we've finished the day's interviews and navigated our way back to our vehicle, I'm beat.
All I can think about at this point is an icy bottle of soda. I scan the masses of street vendors, who display a department store's selection of goods in front of the car window, one plastic basin at a time: cheap Chinese watches, chintzy-looking DVDs with religious themes, sticky rodent traps, underwear, beef brochettes, swollen mini cucumbers, electrical tape, laundry starch. Finally, I spot what I'm looking for: a young boy balancing a tub of sodas on his head. I call him over, grab one bottle for everyone in the car, and fork over a pair of dirty 5,000 Leone notes.
The boy looks at the bills, alarmed. My colleague in the backseat takes them from the boy and hands them back to me. What's wrong with these bills? she asks. I take a closer look, and quickly realize that the "dirt" is actually greasy black mold, that has all but destroyed the money. Meanwhile, the traffic ahead begins to flow, and our vehicle lurches forward. The soda vendor, horrified that we may disappear without paying, attempts to run after us, giant plastic tub still aloft. I manage to find two bills with minimal mold damage; my colleague passes them to a runner, who delivers them to the boy.
Now I'm the one who's stricken. I open my leather wallet, and discover that a gray fungus has colonized the interior. Most of the bills inside have begun to turn black, and some are unusable.
Freetown is said to be one of the wettest places in West Africa, with about 116 inches of rain a year. That's more than three times the annual rainfall in Seattle. It's certainly the wettest African place I've ever visited. Evidence is everywhere - matches that have absorbed so much moisture that four disintegrate before you manage to light one, towels that don't really dry you off, giant rainforest tree species with enormous buttresses scattered around town and spilling down the hillsides, laundry that takes so long to dry it smells of mildew. And now even my money is rotting.
I make a mental note to buy a new wallet. A cotton one this time.