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.


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.”

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…

Bunce by jc2010sl
December 19, 2010, 12:27 pm
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An hour’s boat ride up the Sierra Leone River lies a small deserted island. Around 250 Years ago there would have been a very different scene though, for the Island is Bunce; site of the largest British slave trading post in West Africa. Thousands of slaves were kidnappened in the interior, some from as far afield as Mali, and brought to the castle to be sold to plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia.

On our way to the island we picked up our guide for the day – an old man from the village – who looked almost as old as the site itself. Despite his advanced years he was full of vitality; scurrying around the ruin, acting out terrible scenes and gesturing wildly to re-inforce his Krio.

Monkey bread; a peculiarly tasty sour-sweet fruit

As we wandered around the ruin, he traced the grim trial that the slaves themselves would have suffered. Shackled and terrified, they were brought from the jetty to a holding area and kept for several days inside a large hall. The Portuguese, who captured the fort for a time, created ventilation shafts to reduce the death rate. One can only assume they were motivated by profit rather than humanitarian concerns. As potential buyers arrived, the slaves were herded into a small room and denied water and food for several days. They were then brought into the exercise yard, men and women both, and forced to run circuits to demonstrate their strength.

Any who suitably impressed the buyers were duly sold and branded with the mark of their owner.

As horrific as the events that took place were, there is a slightly unreal quality about the place. After all, it’s a beautiful island, with an old ruin. Without a guide to explain what had happened, there would be no sign of its grim history. What really resonated with me was the small graveyard at the other end of the island. No monument here for the hundreds, and possibly even thousands of slaves who died as a result of their horrific treatment. Instead, it is the slave-owners who are commemorated here. Among the gravestones was one that particularly caught my eye. It was raised to a Sierra Leonean, and just about legible were the words “gratitude” and “faithful services”.

It brought home how totally the bonds of humanity were broken to sustain the institution of slavery.

Taxi Driver by jc2010sl
October 7, 2010, 10:53 pm
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It’s the same the world over – wherever you go the taxi drivers have some kind of scam. In Thailand they say the attraction is closed today, but they know a great little souvenir shop. Surprisingly enough it’s owned by their friend and you’re not allowed out until you’ve bought something. In India horns are attached to the meter so that every time your driver vents his fury, the price shoots up. One of my friends experienced Sierra Leone’s version the other day. Sitting in the back seat (and we’re talking 4 people squeezed across the back of a Nissan Sunny, not a Hackney cab) someone leaned over her to “close the door”. It was only afterwards she realised her phone and wallet had been snatched.

It suddenly occurred to me that someone had tried the same scam on me a few weeks before. I can’t say that I particularly suspected the guy leaning over to “close” the door; I guess I was just wary enough to avert an annoying phone theft. Even though I’d managed to avoid being pick-pocketed I still felt slightly pissed off that someone had tried to steal from me.

And then I realised how ridiculous this reaction was compared with the potential response of Freetownians each time they get into a cab. Most taxi drivers are ex-combattants from the civil war. A key plank of the country’s Demilitarisation, Demobilisation and Rehabilitation (DDR) strategy after the war was to give the disaffected youth a stake in society and a way out of their banditry. For many this meant trading their AKs for a little capital and buying taxis or okadas (motorbikes) or setting up carpentry shops.

Many have blood on their hands. Some of them must have taken part in “Operation no living thing”: the horrific campaign of violence and mutilation launched on Freetown in 1999. As a social group they wield some power, especially where ex-combatants are concentrated. Who knows what Freetownians think of their taxi drivers. On the rare occasions that the war comes up in conversation people mostly talk of moving forward rather than a lust for vengeance. It’s particularly unjust in a country where so many people have so little to see people gain from violence, but that was the price of peace. It certainly made my sense of affront pale into insignificance.


Anthony Charles Lynton Blair by jc2010sl
September 3, 2010, 4:53 pm
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On my office door there is a sign that reads “Office of Tony Blair, Consultant”. It’s not strictly accurate, as the organisation I work for is no longer the Office of Tony Blair, but a separate charity that has spun out from our patron’s office. I’m not really a consultant either, more of an advisor (although quite how my role should be defined is a matter of lively discussion with some of my Government counterparts). Anyway, the point is, it says “Tony Blair” on my door.

As I was entering my office just now a man I’d not met came and said hello. “My son is 9 years old,” he said. “I have named him after your boss: he is called Anthony Charles Lynton Blair Kamara, but we just call him ‘Tony Blair’.” He then very proudly told me how he was doing in school and asked if he could bring me to meet him. “Er I guess so” was my response. “You’ve met him have you?” I told him I had, and he seemed even more excited that his son come and meet me.

Never far from the news, Tony Blair has been particularly prominent this week. The usual suspects have said all the things that the usual suspects say. When his book is no longer front page news, I suspect they will continue to say much the same. What I took from my brief exchange this afternoon was some of the profound feeling that the people of Sierra Leone still have towards him. I can’t think of a time when someone I’ve never met before has wanted me to meet their family on such a flimsy personal association with my organisation’s patron. I doubt it will happen again.