Freetown, Baby!

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.

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.

Taxi no make sense by jc2010sl
February 25, 2011, 12:30 pm
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Taxis and poda-podas in Freetown are always emblazoned with messages on their front and rear bumpers. Mostly these are religious professions or exhortations, and sometimes homespun wisdom; “Trust in God” and “Giver never lack” are common enough sights. Recently though, I’ve spotted some altogether more peculiar offerings.

Some are rather gnomic, like “Mi wan gren” which translates as “Myself alone”. Is the driver saying he doesn’t need help from anyone else, or that he’s abandoned in the world? Others are downright confusing, for example “10 * 1 = 11? Homework”. I asked my driver what this was about and after a lengthy pause he said, “Well, the answer to 10 times 1 is not 11, so the driver is saying if you think the answer is right, you need to do your homework.” I wasn’t convinced, but couldn’t come up with a better explanation myself. The oddest of all though was a message “Yu Nar Wak” – “You are a loser”. I can’t imagine painting that on a taxi is particularly good for business.

Taxi Driver by jc2010sl
October 7, 2010, 10:53 pm
Filed under: society | Tags: , ,

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.


Jungle Style by mabrajeux
September 29, 2010, 9:00 am
Filed under: nature - wildlife, photos, society | Tags: , ,

A popular joke in Salone goes thus: “What side of the road do people drive on in Freetown? The best one”. This should give you an idea of the style of driving in the capital city here in Sierra Leone, and which generally extends to the rest of the country too…

Another variant is ‘jungle style’ driving, as we encountered on Saturday. We were driving down the peninsula on our way to the beach when we noticed a long line of cars on the side of what is normally a fairly deserted dirt track / road. We stopped and enquired what was going on before noticing the Caterpillar Digger on the flimsy one lane bridge further down the road. Turns out, as our new friend Lemuel explained, that a truck had nearly driven off said bridge the night before and was now stuck with a couple wheels hanging off and unable to pull back. Which is where the digger comes in, as the workmen currently fixing the beach road were summoned to help, in the form of pulling the truck up, or back, or somehow onto and off the bridge. This was somewhat complicated by the fact that the truck was full of sand and its owner understandably tetchy about attempts to ‘lighten the load’…

So what is “jungle style” driving exactly? Well, according to Lemuel, it refers to the truck driver’s situation the night before: driving in the dark, along a single lane dirt road / track, with no lights and no brakes…


God bless Islam by jc2010sl
March 24, 2010, 1:03 pm
Filed under: society | Tags: , ,

It’s common to see vehicles in Freetown adorned with various messages and injunctions. Many of them are religious in nature, and you’ll commonly see signs like “Believe in God”, “Trust in Allah”, or “God will provide”. I saw one yesterday though, that stuck me as slightly odd:

I thought that “God” was Christian, and that Islam would be blessed by “Allah”.

I guess this blurring of religious lines symbolises in some way the incredible religious tolerance in Salone. It’s often said that Salone is a model of peaceful co-existence, something backed up by a Gallup survey, for those of you with pointy-headed inclinations.

I was intrigued as to why this was the case, and have been asking the drivers and my Salone colleagues why this is the case. Intermarriage between religions is often mentioned. The last president, Ahmed Kabbah – no prizes for guessing his faith – was married to a devout catholic.
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Seduction Salone Style by mabrajeux
February 16, 2010, 1:31 pm
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Number of marriage proposals: 1

Although I was pretty pleased with this achievement as I considered my first three weeks in Freetown, apparently by local standards I’m not really doing that well…

Truth is, people in Sierra Leone are generally incredibly friendly. Greetings are an important part of the local Krio culture and it’s very common to greet people you cross in the street, saying either ‘hello’ or ‘Aw di bodi?’(krio for ‘how are you?’ – watch this space for more info). People also often ask you your name, which is a bit unsettling at first, as if they are somehow invading your privacy but you soon get used to it and if I had a better memory, I’d be on first name term with half of Freetown!

But walking around the streets of Freetown you also encounter a more interested kind of attention… It ranges from shouts of ‘white girl, white girl’ when you walk down the street to the fully fledged promise of eternal devotion and marriage proposal… (well, just the one in my case) Although this attention is a little strange to get used to, you can soon tell the good-humoured banter from the more intrusive hassle and you learn to reply or walk past.

This seductive trait, along with Salone friendliness and willingness to chat can lead to amusing conversations, which can soon resemble an orderly interrogation, as I experienced a few days ago.
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Freetown traffic by mabrajeux
February 1, 2010, 5:02 pm
Filed under: photos, society, travels | Tags: , , ,

We started off the week end by a quick excursion to the centre of town, ditching the drivers and trying our luck with the local transport services…

Maybe a quick explanation is in order here. Not only is traffic in Freetown pretty hectic but you also have many different options to choose from:

• Foot: Walking around is quite nice if it’s in a quieter part of town, but the centre is pretty crazy. Also, Freetown is very spread out and walking from our place to the centre would probably take more than an hour. Also, some of the roads are pretty steep, most of the cars are in a questionable state and all the drivers seem to behave like London night bus drivers…

• Cycle: I have so far seen 3 bicycles in Freetown, and if the hills didn’t put me off cycling in the first place, the motorised competition certainly would!

• Poda-Podas: Our taxi driver yesterday described it as transport for ‘the common people’. Hundreds of those little minibuses with wooden benches cover a certain number of routes all across town. A bit like a bus, except it’s more often full and you quickly feel very intimate with your fellow passengers… Each seems to have a name or a motto, ranging from ‘Allah is great’ to ‘De Gunners’. Football might well be the number one religion here… (photos to follow, promise…)

• Taxis: regular taxis are shared and follow a certain route, so you can pile in as long as you’re going in the right direction. So far, taxis I’ve taken have been almost disappointingly civilised in terms of crowding but I have definitely seen up to three people in the front passenger seat! My taxi was also confidently hailed by a very young girl (maybe 7 or 8 years old) in a school uniform who announced she wanted to go to Hill Station before settling in the front seat on her own…

• Charter taxis: same taxis but you can hire it exclusively for yourself, so it’s a regular taxi, basically.

Add to this cohort of vehicles an astonishing number of 4*4s with more or less competent drivers and you might get an idea of Freetown traffic. Then take this idea and multiply it by the number of times a driver will beep his horn every 5 minutes (that’ll be about 10) and then you’ll have an accurate idea of how hectic it really is…

So after a quick tour of the city centre by means of taxi, foot and poda-poda, we eventually succumbed to the call of the beach and headed south to Sussex beach and Franco’s. But more on that later…