Freetown, Baby!

Big Brother by jc2010sl
June 30, 2011, 7:55 pm
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A couple of months ago adverts started appearing in the local papers advising residents to obtain National Identity cards. One presumes the system was paid for by considerable cross-subsidy given that expats paid 440,000 leones (about 100 US Dollars) while locals paid 50,000 leones.

I was surprised to find the process not nearly as labyrinthine as I thought. I was fortunate that someone in my team had gone as a Guinea pig the week before. I was further aided that my colleague shared a surname with the head of the office – a co-incidence he seemed to delight in. I was shuttled from place to place and accorded the due dignity owed to “Mr’s Goodman’s colleague.” If anything, it was Kafka in reverse.

Given the recent furore in UK over the proposed introduction of ID cards, you might well ask if there was a similar debate in Salone over the need and rationale for the cards. If there was a debate, it passed me and everyone I know by. The Government Press Release was equally uninformative, stating baldly “The National Registration Secretariat is pleased to inform the general public that it will soon commence nationwide registration and issuance of biometric national identity cards.”

The cynic in me thought that whatever the purpose, the police would find a way to profit. “No ID card, sir? I’m sure we can make an arrangement.” But 3 months on (and having been asked for my driving licence on a couple of occasions) I’ve yet to be asked for my ID card. Maybe the police aren’t as enterprising as I thought, or maybe just more honest.


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.

Charlotte Falls by jc2010sl
September 8, 2010, 9:21 pm
Filed under: nature - wildlife, photos, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

The rains seem to rumble on interminably. We’ve scarcely had a day without some kind of deluge for the last 2 months. I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising given that Salone gets almost double the annual rainfall of London in the month of August alone.

The rain though does have its advantages: it’s not quite as oppressively hot; the Saharan dust brought in by the Harmattan winds has been taken out of the air; and the streams of the Western Peninsula are in full flow. Nowhere is this more impressive than at Charlotte Falls, a little waterfall tucked behind Freetown in the Regent saddle.

To get to the falls is a short drive out of town followed be a walk through Charlotte village and up along the river. Despite being only 30 minutes from the bustle of the capital, it’s a window onto what the early Krio villages must have been like. Houses are scattered along the river and up the hillside; dirt tracks run though the village and there isn’t a paved road in sight.

The houses are the same as they would have been 60 years ago, except that where once corrugated zinc would have been used for the rooves only, the walls are zinc too now. A slim sign of material progress since zinc is more durable than wooden boarding because it’s not susceptible to termites.

Walking out of the village to the falls themselves we came across an abandoned house. Apparently it was deserted because thieves from the neighbouring village made a habit of robbing the house while the owner was selling his wares in Freetown. The rooms inside were tiny, and the wooden walls on the inside were decorated with repeated stencil paintings of butterflies and tigers. Finally we made it up to the Falls themselves – a picturesque sight nestled in the hillside.

Although not quite at their highest, they were still impressive, and the plunge pool was deep enough to have a chilly dip in. Apparently the mossy stones can serve as a water slide, but I wasn’t feeling in adventurous mood.

As headed back into Freetown I wondered what the inhabitants of the village thought of where they lived. Was it the beautiful idyll that it had seemed to me – an escape from the traffic and noise of Freetown? Or a rural backwater they longed to escape for the bright lights of the town?


Road to nowhere? by jc2010sl
July 21, 2010, 5:16 pm
Filed under: public life, travels | Tags: , ,
Traffic is pretty horrendous in Freetown, largely because there are only 2 routes to the city. The northern side of Freetown gives out onto the sea and to the south are the steep Peninsula Hills. Heading east the only way out is the Kissy Road, and to the west is the Lumley Road. Pretty much all traffic coming into or out of the city takes one of these roads, with the result that they are always jammed, and sometimes totally grid-locked.

Maybe it’s because the Western end of town is less crowded, maybe because it’s where the political class lives, but on this side, the roads are being widened into dual carriageways. There was a lot of activity clearing a path for the new Lumley Road on Saturday. Groups of people set about the dwellings and shops next to the road with sledgehammers and crowbars gleefully pillaging anything remotely re-usable. Corrugated iron, tyres (to hold roofs down) and long planks were all dragged away. One man was even smashing the concrete off some steel cables that had been used to reinforce it. No less a person than the President himself came to visit the site and review the “work”.

Of course in the long run, improved infrastructure is precisely what the country needs – enabling people to access jobs in town and bring their goods to market. But I doubt there is any form of compulsory purchase equivalent in Salone. And it is the poorest, living in shacks next to the main arteries, who feel the brunt of the development.

Mango pikin by jc2010sl
March 22, 2010, 10:21 pm
Filed under: nature - wildlife, society, travels | Tags: , , ,

On my way down to the beach yesterday I came across a novel sight – a group of boys picking mangoes. One had placed a ladder against the tree and climbed out of sight into the canopy. Periodic shouts from the foliage were followed swiftly by little green bombs falling to earth. Two boys at the bottom held taught a large sack, to catch the fruit as it fell.

Coming back, I saw the boys sitting in a circle as an archetypal African matriarch roundly chastised them. “Mango thieves?” I asked our guide for the day. “No, no,” he said, “it’s more complicated than that.”

The boys, it seemed, or at any rate their families, had owned the land. They’d sold it to the woman now berating them. But they claimed that when they’d sold the land, they hadn’t sold the tree that grew on it. I guess their argument was that they’d sold the freehold to the land rather than the leasehold on the tree.

It made for an amusing scene, but the problem is a serious one across Sierra Leone, where land ownership is frequently disputed. Disagreements often occur after someone has invested in land – typically by constructing something. Scores of people emerge claiming title to the land, and frequently the initial investor will walk away rather than fight a protracted legal battle.

It means numerous unfinished buildings all round Freetown, but worse than that, it’s holding back the country’s growth.