Freetown, Baby!

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.

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.”