Freetown, Baby!


Happy 50th Mama Salone by jc2010sl
April 26, 2011, 1:14 pm
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Bunting lines the streets, a Public Holiday has been declared and there is a palpable sense of excitement everywhere you go. It’s not the Royal Wedding, but an event happening tomorrow – the Fiftieth Anniversary of Sierra Leone’s Independence. Saturday street cleaning has continued over the last month or so, and every paving slab, tree or stone by the roadside has been painted with the Sierra Leone tricolour – blue, white and green. Slogans are painted on walls through town: “Slavery lasted a time, Freedom forever”, “Happy 50th Mama Salone”.

To coordinate the celebrations, the Government set up a committee. A few months ago several senior members, including the National Co-ordinator, were sacked by President following accusations of embezzling funds. But this doesn’t seem to have stemmed the popular enthusiasm: there is a real sense that the country has put its darkest hour behind it. Even the scandal offers some hope would the perpetrators have faced any consequences 10, or even 5 years ago, people ask.

At the weekend I took some friends over from Liberia for a stroll through the Krio villages on the peninsula. We bumped into one of the team drivers who lives in Leicester, and got talking to him about the decorations in the village; the paintings and the bunting. “Did the Government provide money to buy things? Were the village elders involved?” It turns out that the youths had scraped together the money. “Come, I’ll show you the tailor’s shop.” In his little stall the tailor was stitching together lengths of fabric with blue, white and green triangles. Every yard of bunting through the village, and there was plenty of it, had been made here.

I’m sure the English revellers will be enjoying the Royal Wedding later this week, but I wonder how much people would be willing to pay out of their own pocket for the privilege.

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Sign Language by jc2010sl
April 15, 2011, 2:57 pm
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Despite being the official language, there are occasional signs that English isn’t the first language in Salone. Sometimes its the choice of archaic vocabulary; people are asked to “proffer” views, and situations are often described as “obtaining”. But sometimes you’re just hit with a phrase that an English speaker of English would never use.

I can only wonder at the dregs of Freetown society left on the shelf from “Desperate Chicks Vol. 1”.

Revellers would probably do well to take heed of this warning on the Masiaka highway.

Safe journey? I’m not so sure.



Echoes of Empire by jc2010sl
April 12, 2011, 3:19 pm
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It’s easy to forget that Sierra Leone was once part of the British Empire. There aren’t many colonial era Government buildings in town – just the Law Courts and the Finance Ministry. The only houses left from the 1940s are the lathboard abodes in my neighbourhood – reportedly bought flatpacked from Harrods! There is the odd colonial-era building still standing in town, but they have often acquired a distinct West African patina.

Just occasionally though, there is a sight that reminds you that the Union Jack once flew. I’ve never heard of letters being delivered by anything other than hand, but on the Murray Town Road is a faded red letter box. I wonder when the last letter was collected, and I dread to think what’s in there now.

Out of the way on the peak of Sugarloaf mountain outside Freetown is a survey stone which has sat uninterrupted for over a hundred years.

And on the road round the peninsula there is a disused railway station.

Were it not for the walls made of laterite blocks and the tropical trees one might almost be on the South Coast.



The Longest Journey by jc2010sl
April 6, 2011, 3:36 pm
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The delay to my flight had me stuck in Conakry for another day. Might as well have a little stroll while I’m here, I thought to myself. Rather like Freetown, the taxis here are often adorned with weird and wonderful logos. As I wandered back from my breakfast, I took out my camera and started taking the odd snap of those that passed.

After a couple of such shots a pair of police officers rushed over and demanded if I had a photography licence. “No,” I said, having read in the guide that this provision had been abolished some years ago. They asked for some ID and when I produced my Driver’s Licence, promptly snatched it from me. “Oh, dear” I thought, “just what I need when I have to head to the aiport in 45 minutes.” When I tried to apologise if I’d offended anybody and explain that I didn’t think this law still existed, one of the officers became incensed: “Would you do this where you lived?” Well, yes actually. “Aha, but that is Europe, in Africa, things are different!” I pointed out to him that, despite being a British citizen, I lived in Sierra Leone and that one was free to take photographs there as well. All of which seemed to wind him up further, and was anyway entirely beside the point.

When I asked them again to give me my licence back so I could be on my way, they asked me to go to the police station. On arrival they gestured me towards a cell at which point I ran into the guy who seemed to be head of the station. Fortunately for me, the officer in charge was a reasonable man, and after I explained what had happened he let me go. As I left I thanked him for his help. He shook his head gesturing towards his subordinates outside. “I’m not being helpful, it’s just the law.” Close shave I thought to myself as I drove to the airport.

The Freetown-Conakry route is not a particularly well-travelled one, and the plane was a mere 7-seater. Still, it’ll do the job I thought to myself. But just as we were about to descend into Freetown the pilot turned to us (easy to do in a plane no bigger than my living room) and said we’d be denied permission to land. So it was back to Conakry for the not so merry little band. It turns out they were “doing some work on the runway.” We sat around in Conakry for about 2 hours, being told periodically that everything was fine and that we would leave “in ten minutes.” After about 2 hours we were finally on our way.

However frustrating this was for me, it was nothing compared to the ordeal of one of my flying companions. He had been due to fly on Friday, and had been shifted first to Sunday, then Monday, and finally Tuesday!

Next time I go to Guinea I think I’ll walk, and I’ll leave my camera at home.



Krapp’s Last tape by jc2010sl
April 6, 2011, 3:29 pm
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After 3 days on the Ile de Rhoume I headed back to Conakry on the islanders’ little pirogue ready to fly to Sierra Leone. On the way to the airport I decided to give the travel agent a call to make sure all was in order. Just as well I did, as it turns out the flight was postponed until the next day. “Change of plan,” I said to the driver “To the Jardin de Guinea” – a little hotel where I’d had dinner the week before. Unfortunately all the rooms were taken, but the barman said he knew of another spot nearby – perfect.

The driver claimed to know the way, but I wasn’t convinced. “I know the way,” said a woman outside, “I work there.” Likely story, I thought, she probably just wants a lift across town, but fair enough, and it’s no skin off my nose in any case. We climbed into the taxi, and she said again “I work at the hotel”, “Yes, yes,” I said “I heard”. “Je suis une masseuse, vous avais compris?” Yes, I thought to myself, I have understood both what you said, and what you mean…

As I got out of the taxi at the next hotel the bony old ghost followed me out. “Thank you, I’ll be fine from here,” I said, but she pursued me into the lobby anyway. Inside, I asked the receptionist for a small room. “It’s just me,” I said, looking pointedly at my new companion. “How rude!” she said as I quickly scurried away.

Perspiring somewhat from my trip across town I was glad to find a bath and bucket of cold water to shower. But where was the plastic cup and towel? Bucket showers are all well and good, but one needs one’s accessories. I asked a member of staff for the necessaries and she proceeded to take me on a “grand” tour of the 10 room dive. “Look, I just want a shower” I pleaded, but my request seemed to fall on deaf ears. As we entered the kitchen I decided to take matters into my own hands and seized a plastic cup from the sideboard. “What are you doing?” she asked, horrified. “Taking a shower!” I replied. “No, no, no, that’s not how we do things.” Heinous as my crime was, at least it prompted my guide to find the desired objects to facilitate my shower.

Showered and refreshed, I headed out for my lunch. “Where’s your wife?” asked the receptionist. My wife!? Talk about insult to injury. She was almost 20 years my senior and had more limbs than teeth. “I believe she was a ‘woman of the night’” I said, translating directly into French. “Vraiment?” asked the receptionist, horrified, “We don’t want that sort in here.” “Well neither do I; make sure she doesn’t come back.” That, at least, seemed a simple enough request to carry out.



Room to Grow by jc2010sl
April 6, 2011, 1:31 pm
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After a week in Conakry I headed off the coast to the “Iles de Loos” to relax for the weekend. It couldn’t have been a better spot for winding down. Unlike Sierra Leone which subsists on a diet of Western pap, Guinea seems to be a culture suffused with its own music, and very proud of it. This was particularly so on the Ile de Rhoume, where some enterprising local artiste has set up a residential drum and dance school for western enthusiasts. Everyone on the island seems to move to a West African beat. At dinner my companions and I were serenaded by a local band, led by the wide-eyed “One Stone” and his ever-smiling companion.

It was the same story when I strolled round to the school on the other side of the island. The building was transformed into something more akin to a dance hall. Apparently there was some big festival for the end of term, but who knows if this wasn’t a daily occurrence. Either way, the young boys banged out a steady rhythm while the girls threw their moves in the classroom.

They start them young here.



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.