Freetown, Baby!

The Hummer Index by jc2010sl
March 29, 2011, 8:06 am
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African capitals are like buses it seems; you wait a year for one, and then 2 come along. Hot on the heels of my trip to Monrovia last weekend I’ve now hopped up the coast in the other direction, to Conakry, the capital of Guinea. While Liberia had an unmistakably American air, Guinea belies its status as a former French colony, not matter how prominent it was in asserting a proudly independent African identity. The first signs are the cars; instead of Nissans, a good number of the taxis are Renaults. And then there are the small details; the unmistakably French style of street signs, baguettes for sale on the road side, and people playing boules in the shade.

The other thing that struck me after travelling several countries so close together, has been how quick I and my travelling companions are to assess the level of “development” and the examples we cite to support our assertions. Of course, the development industry has a whole host of metrics, indicators and indicies devoted to the subject. Our reflections, it must be said, are a little less scientific!

The most obvious signs of wealth in the country are the state of infrastructure; roads, buildings and railways (if you’re so lucky). But these often reflect a benefits accruing to a rather narrow elite. I was struck for instance to see a train track by the side of the road on the way from the airport. “Do the trains run?” I asked the driver, “Yes,” he said, “delivering bauxite.” Sure enough, the next day I saw 10 or so huge containers rolling into the city, presumably loaded with ore. But there are other signs that give a hint of how much of this wealth has trickled down; public transport for example. Immediately striking on entering Liberia and Guinea was how many fewer motorbike taxis there are, and the better condition of car taxis compared to Sierra Leone. The other indicator is an even smaller detail: the cigarette. Maybe it’s the French cultural influence again, but I’m sure I’ve spotted far more Guineans (or Conakrians I should say) puffing away than I ever encounter in Salone.

But perhaps the most striking indicator proposed by my colleague was the “Hummer index”, which charts development against the length of vehicle. By this measure, Guinea wins hands down.


Border Crossing by jc2010sl
March 25, 2011, 8:30 am
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After living in West Africa more than a year, I finally made it beyond Sierra Leone last weekend. A 12-hour road trip took the team and me to neighbouring Liberia. Based on the advice on the FCO website I entered the capital, Monrovia, with more than a little trepidation. There were dire warnings of “prevalent violent crime” and we were advised to walk nowhere at night. Mind you, the FCO is always a little alarmist. If they provided security advice for the UK I imagine they would warn against “drunken marauding youths” in the sleepy town of Cambridge.

Even if the security advice was a little over the top, people didn’t seem quite as friendly as in Salone. On crossing the border I asked if I would be understood speaking Krio, and if there was a Liberian variant. I was met with an indignant “No; we speak American.” American it wasn’t quite, but there’s certainly a bizarre American twang to their accents, which is unsurprising given the country’s history.

Like Freetown in Sierra Leone, Liberia was founded as a refuge for freed slaves; the country’s name derives from the same Latin route that gives us the word “liberty”. Unlike Freetown’s former slaves, who were freed during the American War of Independence (and who’d fought on the British side) the Liberian settlers left the States in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

Freetown was by no means a heaven on earth, but in Liberia the intentions of the founders were turned on their heads. The country’s motto: “The love of liberty brought us here”, turned out to be a hollow promise. As it transpired, the freed slaves were against being slaves themselves, but not at all against the institution of slavery. The “Americo-Liberians” as they were called, proceeded to enslave the local population and re-create the social system they had left behind. The only difference was that they were now the masters. This gross inequality contributed to the huge divisions within the country and the subsequent civil war of the 1990s and 2000s which spilled into Sierra Leone.

The scars of war are far more evident in Liberia than Salone. As you drive into the city one of the two bridges crossing the Mesurado river is still being reconstructed, and there are bombed out buildings all over the city. At the top of the hill where the initial settlers arrived is the Ducor Hotel – the Ritz of Monrovia. During the war it was turned into a barracks and shells were fired between here and the Africa Hotel up the coast.

Walking around these destroyed buildings gives a sense of the scale of destruction wrought (holes have been dug into the walls to pull out electrical cables), but also how developed the city was, in parts at least, before the violence.

From the top of the ruined Ducor you can make out “Broad Street”, a classic American boulevard running through the city. It’s lined with street lights no less – something never seen in Salone – but in the distance on the left you can make out the shelled remains of the old city council buildings, also bombed to oblivion.

To the north of the hotel is the inner city’s slum; West Point, which must have borne the brunt of the shelling from the rival faction based up the coast.

I guess the level of development that the country had attained, and the fact that it was never formally colonised (only Ethopia shares this distinction in Africa) contribute to the evident pride of the people here. It also makes sense of the President’s Sirleaf-Johnson’s slogan, plastered on billboards across town; “Liberia will rise again.”

The Big Society by jc2010sl
March 17, 2011, 11:17 am
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I got a rather bizarre message in the email circular to the Freetown expat community last Friday. “The government has declared that there is street cleaning tomorrow. This means that no one is supposed to be on the roads between dawn and noon unless you are helping to clean.” April fool come early I wondered? It turns out not. Some brave soul risked the prospect of arrest (or more likely public lynching) for being out without a dust pan and brush and confirmed that everyone else was indeed cleaning.

It’s an initiative spurred by the impending 50th Anniversary of Independence no doubt. The same motivation to tidy the place up is doubtless what has prompted the good women of Hill Station to make huge pyres of “doti” (the generic term in Krio for any kind of dirt or rubbish) and burn them by the roadside creating a lethal smog.

There is an interesting political precedent here too. The “National Provisional Ruling Council” set up as a result of the 1992 coup introduced weekly cleaning days as a nod to civic unity and renewal. Many people look back on the days of the NPRC as a relatively benign period during the brutal civil war, and I’ve heard the cleaning days cited as an example of the good times. Not quite “at least the trains ran on time”, but that sort of thing.

Maybe here is an example of the “Big Society” our Government is trying to build in the UK…

Obamania by jc2010sl
March 14, 2011, 11:26 pm
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“Jackie Chan! Jackie Chan!” shouted the guy in the car park as my friend got out of the car. It’s a universal greeting for someone of eastern lineage (and she’s a relaxed Californian), so she didn’t take too much offence, even though she is a woman. “Actually, I’m American,” she pointed out. “Ah,” he said, becoming very serious of a sudden, “Barack Obama – he is my president.” It’s a common sentiment here. While the fact his father was born in Africa made some Americans claim he isn’t genuinely black (because not descended from American slaves) it’s precisely what makes Africans feel even more strongly towards him.

His name & image is everywhere in Sierra Leone, from stickers on polio victims’ wheelchairs, to flip flops bearing his name, and of course the poda-poda’s and taxis in town. Here are a couple that I’ve spotted; from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Even on the remote Turtle Islands, with no electricity or water, someone was sporting the popular “Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States” T-Shirt.

Jewellery is a common medium for the great man’s image.

Even a humble mud-guard isn’t too lowly to be plastered with his name.

I love that this pen is so simple in it’s branding; just “Obama”.

“Usay yu de go?” by jc2010sl
March 4, 2011, 1:22 pm
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One of the things I miss about home is long walks in the park. For the most part, there just aren’t the places to wander. There are certainly no parks in Freetown, and while it definitely has a picturesque charm, a stroll through the city isn’t quite the relaxing turn that say, Hampstead Heath is. The beaches are beautiful of course, but places to loll about on, not stroll around. There are a couple of walks around the Krio villages on the peninsula, and it was one of these I tried last weekend.

Swinging down from the monstrosity that is the US Embassy (no photo or I’d currently be in some cell deep within) you come to Leicester village, a pretty Krio settlement at the back of town. It was a public holiday and there were a fair few people milling about the dusty streets. They were all pretty friendly, and a couple of them asked me “Usay yo de go?” – “Where are you going?” When I answered “A de waka nomo” – that I was just strolling around – they seemed a bit perplexed. “Funny white people” they must have thought to themselves, walking around to no purpose. I walked down the valley to the foot of the village to find an incredibly beautiful spot where small terraces have been built into the hillside and farmers are growing remarkably European vegatables; lettuce, cabbage and carrots among them.

On coming back to the top of the village I got talking to the family whose house I’d parked my car outside. It turned out the father wanted to send his son into town to get some kerosene for his generator – this a wealthy family with the mother a teacher and the father working as a Government printer. “Sure,” I said, “I’m not going straight to town, but I can drop him off closer in.” Spared half an hour’s walk before reaching a road decent enough to pick up public transport, the kid hurried over to the car. As we reached the turn-off for town, I said I was taking the other way but that I’d keep an eye out for him when I headed back, and would take him to town if I saw him. “Where are you going?” he asked, “Leicester Peak”, “I don’t mind coming”. Fair enough I thought, he probably doesn’t have much else to do. As we drove to the top he told me this was a spot his village often comes to at Easter for “outings”; outdoor public parties with huge sound systems and all manner of street vendors. “I haven’t been for a year,” he said “I like it up here.” While I read my book, he sat around, taking in the scenery.

“Right, we’re off” I said, and we headed into town. I wanted some bread only sold by street traders so I said I’d take him right to the petrol station. Bottom Mango roundabout didn’t have the stuff I was after so I headed further into town. “We won’t be too long,” I told the kid. After turning off from the petrol station, he looked forward at the road and said “A no wan de cam yet”.

It was a phrasing I hadn’t heard before, and I didn’t quite get what he meant. I seemed as though he was saying that he didn’t want to be there; “I do not want to be coming here yet”. “Cheeky kid,” I thought – I’ve just given him a lift all the way from his house to the filling station! On further quizzing it turns out he was saying that he’d never been down the road before. In this context “Wan de” meant “one day” rather than “want to be”. So the phrase meant “I haven’t one day (i.e. at all) come here yet (i.e. before)”.

Given this was one of the 3 main roads in the city, and that the boy had lived in Freetown all 13 years of his life, I was a little surprised. When we got to the roundabout at the foot of the hill, his eyes were bulging. “Is this where the beach is?” he asked. He hadn’t been to Lumley Beach either it seemed. As I dropped him off he thanked me and headed home. I wonder when he’ll next be in that part of town.