Freetown, Baby!

Independence Day by jc2010sl
April 29, 2010, 3:10 pm
Filed under: photos, public life | Tags: ,

On 27th April 1961, Sierra Leone gained independence from the UK. As you’d expect, the anniversary is a day marked by celebration and fanfare. The big event, starting the night before, is a lantern procession through the streets. Each part of town and some of the guilds and traders creates their own lanterns and all converge on the centre to be judged.

We got ourselves down to the cotton tree near the judges to see the parade at 9 as instructed and duly waited 3 hours for the procession to start – so far, so Salone.

I’d expected the lanterns to be, well, lanterns – giant constructions with lights inside. Instead, they were more what we would think of as carnival floats. They were hand drawn carts with a motley collection of mechanical figures on top. Fashioned from papier mache and worked by a series of concealed wires and levers the characters looked like variations on Frankenstein’s monster. As they passed the judging platform the figures jerked to life, whirring and dancing.

Some of the lanterns were historically themed. One depicted the running down of the Union Jack and the raising of the Sierra Leone national flag as Sir Milton Margai, the first PM, lurched towards the Queen. The other theme this year was the Free Health Initiative which was being launched on Independence Day itself. Many of the lanterns depicted doctors and pregnant women, including this offering.

Every lantern was followed by about a thousand revellers who were then forced down the street by the police and boy scouts who were “controlling” the crowds.

At about 3am with only 7 of the 33 lanterns having passed us, the national grid cut out. By this stage the route we’d arrived by was completely blocked by the thronging crowds. We decided to get out via the court building from where the President was watching the procession. Blocking the way was an army officer in fatigues. I thought for a moment we might be stuck, until I noticed it was Captain Sesay – one of the security detail I’d worked with on the recent Tony Blair visit. Having recognised us we were duly motioned through and escaped by the light of the full moon.

Better than anything else I can think of, the event captured Salone, the good and the bad: disorganised and chaotic, throbbing but good natured, lively and inventive, and most of all, completely surreal.

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[…] m-a Last week, Sierra Leone celebrated its 49th Independence anniversary and along with the more traditional celebrations, another treat was announced: a concert at the National Stadium by none other than […]

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