Sierra Leone is a country which many don’t know much about, other than it being badly hit by the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016. When She Went Wild and Street Child presented me with the opportunity to go there and film the marathon that Street Child have been organising for the past seven years, I just couldn’t turn it down.

This little known country sits just 7º above the equator in Africa’s temperate tropical zone. It’s home to a wealth of wildlife, huge swathes of jungle and some of the friendliest people I’ve met. It also happens to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with just nine others in deeper poverty. This is why Street Child operate there and their aim is simple: provide children with a good education and their parents with the means to keep them in education. They also worked hard during the Ebola outbreak to ensure that people understood how to protect themselves and their families from the disease.

Shooting in Sierra Leone was a big challenge for me. I’d not been to Africa before and had a limited luggage allowance in which to pack my equipment, so I had to choose carefully what I was going to take. Once out there, the temperature was much hotter than the average I’d been expecting – according to my research, typically in May it is around 28ºC as it’s the beginning of the rainy season, but it hadn’t rained for some time and there was only the day of the marathon which was lower than 30ºC. Couple this with an average humidity of 70-90% and it makes for some difficult conditions to shoot in, let alone run a marathon!

A traditional wooden canoe rests on the shore of a river in Sierra Leone
A traditional wooden canoe rests on the shore of a river

About the trip

I was in Sierra Leone for a week; while the marathon is just a one day event, Street Child are keen for runners, volunteers and supporters to see where the money they are raising goes and how it is used. This means that several trips are planned – and this is what makes it an adventure. Street Child work hard to ensure the marathon trip is a safe way of seeing the country, but many of the places you’re taken to involve travelling across bumpy mud roads and (sometimes) on little metal rafts across rivers. As a result, I brought back many souvenir bruises from bumps in the road which had caused my camera to bounce around across my legs. It’s worth saying though that if you’re ill or injured while out in Sierra Leone, there is a team of British doctors and medics from Exile Medics there throughout the week who do a fantastic job of looking after everyone.

As I’d arrived on the Tuesday, a day earlier than most of the runners, the Wednesday was a day to relax and begin to acclimatise to the heat. I spent it exploring Makeni with a runner and two other volunteers who were also there earlier than everyone else. Work began on the Thursday, where I went to visit local businesses around Makeni which had been supported by Street Child. Among others, we met a woman who had set up a business in order to keep her niece in school, whilst also looking after her niece’s baby – her niece was just 12 years old when she became pregnant. Street Child had taught the woman business skills and helped the niece remain in school, despite needing to care for a young child. There were clearly a lot of children in schools around Makeni, as I often saw many children in different uniforms and there was a school right next to my hotel. Being a busy urban area, Makeni is relatively wealthy in comparison to the rural towns we visited, but there are still a huge amount of people who just can’t afford to send their children to school. These are the people Street Child aims to help and there is a huge amount of respect amongst the locals for the work that they do in Sierra Leone.

The river ferry on the way to Upper Tambaka, Sierra Leone
The river ferry on the way to Upper Tambaka

On Friday, we travelled to two rural communities in the Upper Tambaka area, near Kilimi National Park and the border with Guinea. This was around a 3 hour drive each way and involved crossing a river on a ferry – which turned out to be little more than a metal raft pulled across the river by the ferrymen using a metal cable attached to either bank of the river. Due to the nature of the roads in this area, we were in a convoy of several 4x4s and the ferry was only able to take one car at a time. We had to leave one car behind though, as it was unable to get onto the ferry! For a short time we were a little worried that we were also going to lose our lunch, as this happened to be the car that was carrying it and the waterline was very close to the boot. Luckily, the driver was able to reverse back onto the riverbank and on inspecting the boot we discovered that no water had gotten in, so our lunch was safe!

Trips out into the rural areas are a wonderful way of seeing Sierra Leone though; this country has a wide range of wildlife and some stunning scenery. I kept a running total of all the wildlife I had encountered during the week, though I wasn’t lucky enough to see some of Sierra Leone’s star creatures. In Upper Tambaka it is sometimes possible to see African Bush Elephants, Chimpanzees, Leopards, Lions and even – if you’re extremely lucky – Pangolins.

Upon arriving at the first school, we were greeted with lots of singing and dancing from the local community, before being invited to sit and hear about the community. One of the members of the group was the person who had sponsored the building of the school we were visiting, so the chief of the community made him an honorary chief as thanks for what he had done. Before the school had been built, children had to walk for over an hour and a half each way to reach the nearest school, but now the community and others surrounding it could benefit from educating their children. The sponsor later told me that having met the villagers and the chief, he now feels responsible for them and wants to ensure that his community prospers. One of the other members of the group had brought footballs to donate to the schools and after visiting the classrooms, everyone went outside to play.

The community at Upper Tambaka, Sierra Leone, singing and dancing to welcome us
The community at Upper Tambaka singing and dancing to welcome us

After having lunch in the National Park, we visited the second school. We weren’t able to spend as long at this school as the first one, as we needed to get back, but it was wonderful to spend time at both of these schools, surrounded by friendly people who appreciated the assistance they’d been given and the landscape that they lived in.

Saturday was the day before the marathon and the runners were invited to take part in workshops which taught them about things like how Street Child support family businesses and a little of Krio, the widely used local language. English is the official language of Sierra Leone, however many people (particularly in rural areas) speak Krio, which is an amalgamation of English and Creole with older tribal languages. I didn’t join the runners for the workshops, as I was taken out to another rural community (this time only an hour and a half away from Makeni). This trip was a special one outside of the normal organised activities, as Nick Hewer (best known for his time on The Apprentice and currently as host of Countdown) was visiting a school that he had sponsored and named after his grandson.

Again the community greeted us with singing and dancing – all of the schools had the children singing welcome songs for us, while the women of the communities danced. We met the chief of the community and were told how much this school had already done for them. Shortly after visiting this school, we stopped at another which Street Child had no involvement with. The difference was huge – this school was only partly built as the community had struggled to fund it and find teachers.

We arrived back in Makeni in time to catch the football match which had been arranged. This wasn’t an ordinary match of football, but was played by those who had had a leg amputated during the civil war, many years ago. The teams were comprised of the warring factions and had decided to play football matches as a way of promoting peace in the country. Some of the members of the teams must have only been children when their legs were amputated. I’m no football fan, but it was incredibly impressive to see how dexterous and fast they all were. More impressive still was that many of the players had signed up to run the 5K and 10K routes on marathon day.

Two runners in the Sierra Leone Marathon
Two runners in the full marathon

It was an early start on Sunday, as the marathon begins around sunrise in order to take advantage of the lower temperatures. It had rained overnight and so it was a pleasantly cool morning. It was a pretty manic day trying to keep up with the runners. I was with a photographer and we had a car to take us around the marathon route and at several points had to race ahead of people to catch them on camera – such as the winner of the marathon, a locally known runner who completed the full course in an incredible 2 hours and 39 minutes! We attempted to film and photograph as many of the runners as possible, but with around 80 international and over 600 local runners, we were never going to be able to catch everyone. It’s worth saying though that this isn’t a marathon to try and get a new personal best time at; it’s better described as a fun run than a race. A completely crazy fun run, but one that you can be sure to remember.

Tokeh beach in Sierra Leone
Tokeh beach

On Monday, we travelled to Tokeh, a town on the coast of Sierra Leone near to its capital city Freetown. Tokeh sits between two large river deltas, named River No. 1 and River No. 2, and has beautiful white beaches and turquoise waters. River No. 2 was made famous back in the 1980s due to an advert filmed there for Bounty chocolate and the locals are very keen to keep Tokeh and the river beaches as clean and free of litter as possible, more so than anywhere else I’ve been to. I took the opportunity to relax a little, as the past few days had been pretty hectic, before heading over to the beach party that Street Child had organised. We had a stunning sunset and later had a lovely bonfire, though it was possibly a little too hot still to get too near to it! At night, Tokeh beach comes alive with small white crabs who are quite amusing to watch as they scuttle around looking for food. It was time to travel home on Tuesday, but not before having the morning to wander around the beaches and watch the fishermen sail around the bay.

Filming the trip

I had hoped to squeeze my camera equipment into my carry on luggage – and if I’d taken the A7Sii, I would have been able to do this with ease. Instead, I opted to take the FS7. There were many reasons for this – better data rate, better slow motion, better cards, better batteries, built in Neutral Density filters – but it also provided me with the opportunity to use the Zeiss LWZ.3 21-100mm lens. Zeiss very kindly loaned me the lens in a PL mount and having this meant that not only did I have an exceedingly sharp and precise lens to shoot with, but I didn’t need to take any others with me. There were times where I wished I had my Canon 300mm with me to film some of the wildlife, but that wasn’t what I was there for. Ultimately, only having one lens was the right choice as it virtually eliminated the risk of getting dust and other things onto the sensor.

The focal range was perfect for what I was shooting, I just had to remember that I was there to film people and not wildlife! At 2kg it was a great lightweight option, but my overall shooting kit weighed around 6kg and so I struggled to shoot handheld or on shoulder for longer than 10 minutes in the heat and humidity. While the A7Sii would have been a lighter option still, I would have needed to bring more lenses with me than just the one – plus it’s difficult to shoot handheld with as you have to hold it out in front of you, where the FS7 at least can be used on the shoulder. I’m confident therefore that the FS7 was still the right choice of camera to take, even if I did have to regularly take breaks to drink a lot of water and rest a bit. If I’d thought ahead, I could have removed our Arri rig and used the original camera handle, which probably would have reduced the weight further, but would have also would have given rise to other issues, such as the viewfinder bracket and grip handle being not quite long enough to use comfortably. There’s also the fact that I had a huge amount of things to organise in a very short space of time and so removing the rig was not a priority, plus I needed the baseplate at least to support the LWZ.3 properly on 15mm bars with our lens support.

Leanne filming at the school Nick Hewer sponsored in Sierra Leone
Filming with the Zeiss LWZ.3 at the school Nick Hewer sponsored in Sierra Leone

I tried to keep my settings similar across everything I shot, so the camera was set to shoot in S-log 3 Cine gamma at 25fps with slow motion at 100fps. I opted not to go to 150fps as I felt 100fps would be slow enough – I was filming people, not wildlife after all. I kept the aperture at T4 as often as possible, only opening up to T2.9 in very dark places such as at the beach party and inside some of the schools. I almost always had the ND filters on at 1/64, but changed this for slow motion and for very dark areas where I also needed to open the aperture.

As I was limited in my luggage allowances, I wasn’t able to take a tripod or any other support equipment and so had to do everything handheld or on the shoulder. The only other thing I could bring with me was a small cinesaddle  – this was useful for filming low angles and out of car windows, as well as trying to minimise the amount of bruises I got from the camera baseplate while travelling around the country. It also helped to keep the camera safe in transit, as I was able to wedge it around the camera in our Peli 1650 case. I was pretty nervous about shipping the camera in the hold and not being able to take it in my carry on luggage, but both camera and lens survived the trips there and back – and actually made it onto my connecting flights (something else I was worried about).

Promotion Hire very kindly loaned me some extra batteries and a top mic to use on the trip, plus a sheet of poly plastic to protect the camera if it rained. Sadly I lost the plastic (sorry guys!), though thankfully it turned out I didn’t need it, but it was very useful to have the extra batteries as the electricity in Sierra Leone was unreliable. I was always able to shoot when needed, thanks to the spare batteries, and charged batteries whenever I was able to. The top mic came in very handy too, as there was an awful lot going on which wouldn’t be the same without capturing sound – and I wasn’t about to rely on the internal microphone on the FS7, not least because no one can work out where it’s located!

Two 64GB cards turned out to be more than I needed each day, though I also had a 128GB card with me just in case. I took two G-Tech hard drives with me along with my laptop and was able to download the footage each night. I shot entirely in HD, reducing the amount of storage space required during shooting, but also allowing me to shoot at higher frame rates than in 4K.

Once home, I began working out a structure for the video based around what Street Child wanted it to portray. It was important to them that I captured the spirit of the whole marathon trip, and so I filmed everything I could while I was out in Sierra Leone. They impressed upon me the importance of meeting the people that the money raised goes to help and the experience of being out in a country which people might not ordinarily have an opportunity to visit. The marathon has also previously been called “the craziest, most worthwhile” marathon and so I wanted to get that across – though I think my version of crazy is slightly different to theirs! Running through the jungle on a mud road in 29ºC heat and around 90% humidity while monkeys and birds calling to each other are all you can hear… that’s kind of become normal to the team who organise this event (as crazy as that in itself sounds!).

It took me a little while to find a structure, but once I did the edit went quite quickly and relatively smoothly. The sound was hardest to work on, as there was often so much going on that I had to do several edits of the same piece of sound in Adobe Audition. Nick Hewer had kindly done a piece to camera for me on the Saturday, and this was one of the hardest things to isolate, as there was music and other people in the background which at the time I hadn’t really noticed – but I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as a normal, controlled interview when I shot it. A friend of mine who is a soundie also kindly had a look through his sound library and gave me a couple of tracks to use for the bonfire on the beach. The music at the time of shooting had drowned out the sounds of the fire, but in the edit it didn’t seem right to not have that sound for the corresponding shots.

A stunning sunset at Tokeh beach, Sierra Leone
A stunning sunset at Tokeh beach

Colour grading the video was possibly the best part of the edit. I’d been using a regular 709 LUT until this point, and it looked relatively okay, but it didn’t quite get the colours right as I’d remembered them – especially on things like the sunset at Tokeh. We have a library of LUTs to start from and so after looking through these, I chose one which fit the best with the colours of the Sierra Leonean landscape before making adjustments on each shot. This LUT makes reds, greens, blues and oranges more vibrant, and these are the main colours you’ll come across in Sierra Leone. Finally the graphics were put in place. To give them a textured background, I photographed some stone in our back garden and overlaid the orange colour that Street Child use in their logos while Alex helped me to animate the graphics themselves. From the moment I started looking through the footage, I was keen to use a static shot I had captured from the car of a runner running through the frame to make the opening graphics appear and so I spent some time in After Effects masking this to him exactly as he ran, frame by frame.

I’m really pleased with the video and I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to go out to Sierra Leone. It really is an incredible country – one of the most tolerant and welcoming countries you could possibly visit. I was acutely aware of the value of the equipment I had taken with me while I was in Sierra Leone – my smartphone could pay two teachers salaries for a year and the camera equipment’s value would build several schools – but ultimately, I hope that the video I shot will help Street Child to raise funds worth many times the value of my equipment.

If adventure is your thing, or marathon running, or both, the Sierra Leone marathon should be on your to-do list. There’s a reason why it keeps popping up in running awards and lists of things to do in Sierra Leone. Yes it’s crazy, but it most definitely is worthwhile and you’ll come home with a hand carved medal, some incredible memories and quite a few new friends.

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