Rainy Season Blues

welcome to Freetown

It is difficult to imagine a country in war.

This is the thought that goes through our heads as we enter Sierra Leone and walk through the streets of Freetown. We are in search of hope, after a disheartening visit to Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, and we have the feeling that we will find it here. After over a decade of devastating civil war, by all accounts Sierra Leone is now safe, beautiful, friendly, and developing.

There is also an added element of excitement for me, as one result of colonial constructs is that Sierra Leone is an English-speaking country. Having been mainly in French-speaking Africa since our re-entry to the continent, I look forward to communicating in my first language for a short while.

The moment that we cross the border, the billboards start. Looming over the border post is a large panel that says “Corruption hinders development” (although this doesn’t stop the border police from asking playfully “What did you bring for your sister?”). This is followed in quick succession by various posters about AIDs, safe sex, picking up your voter IDs, and so on. Sierra Leone is the land of the NGOs.

view from our hotel onto busy Rawdon Street in downtown Freetown

Sierra Leone – or “Salone”, as it’s affectionately called – is an English-speaking country. But it has its own special brand of English. In fact, in our taxi across the border, it takes some time before we even realize that our seatmate is speaking a type of English with her son. Known as Krio, Sierra Leone’s main lingua franca is derived from English, but has a multitude of influences from other African, European, and West Indie languages. In Salone, you greet someone with: “Ow de body?” The response: “De body fiiiiiine!

We arrive in Freetown in the middle of a traffic jam. But we soon realize that Freetown is always in a traffic jam. Bone-crushing, claustrophobic, ridiculous traffic of the type you’ve never seen – a combination of massive potholes, rain, people, merchants’ wares spread out into the already-small streets, vehicles, and okadas (motorcycle taxis) zipping in and out. The most hectic street is probably Sani Abacha Road as it branches out from PZ Turntable (the centre of town) to the Clocktower. We try to watch our step as we are squeezed between people, merchandise, motorcycles, and cars, doing our best to dodge the murky puddles left behind by constant rains. Yes, it is the rainy season in Sierra Leone – which is no joke in one of West Africa’s wettest countries!

The traffic jams are probably Freetown’s most memorable sight. There is little do or see in the city – the few “sights” include a huge iconic cotton tree in the city centre, old sagging wooden clapboard Krio houses, the ornate Law Courts building, and small landmarks that recall the “return” of freed slaves. These include the (unlabelled) Old Wharf Steps that they climbed upon arrival, and the doorway of King’s Yard Gate that many of them passed through. But despite the lack of outstanding sights, there is a buzz about Freetown that gets our blood moving. There is a certain charm in the layout of the city, with its buildings and shacks piled up on hills wedged right beside the ocean. There is no sign of war or unrest, besides the many war victims that we see walking around, who all seem to have been supplied with proper crutches by either the government or an NGO.

Freetown is PUMPING!!

the Law Courts and iconic cotton tree

layers of Freetown, built up from the ocean

old Krio house, Freetown

old buildings, downtown Freetown

one of several monuments to the freed slaves:
“In grateful recognition of the enduring efforts of international hero Thomas Peters (ex-slave -> deliverer -> leader), de facto founder of the settlement re-named Freetown in May 1792, thereby wrenching humanity from the ills of slavery.”

the Old Wharf Steps

engraved plaque over King’s Yard gate

it looks like we’re rich… but we’re not (US$1 = 4350 Leones)

driving through more rain and traffic jams as we leave Freetown

Kalimba collecting poyo

Black Johnson beach: we liked the name

Over the weekend, we head down the Freetown peninsula to spend some time chilling at one of its famous beaches. We have heard of one called Black Johnson, and of course, its name inspires us. It is a beautiful location, but here we learn more about the blues of the rainy season, as well as about the effects of the presence of all these foreign NGO workers on the prices at the beaches around Freetown (since when does a basic hut on the beach cost US$50 per night?!).

Nevertheless, a few hours relaxing on the beach – especially in the middle of some long and bumpy rides – does more good than harm. We enjoy the view of a lovely sunset, swim in the ocean even while it’s raining, and spend a good number of hours sleeping with the cabin door open to the sound of the waves. We also taste poyo, Sierra Leonean palm wine, which we see being collected by a nimble man named Kalimba directly from a palm tree in front of our cabin.

a rare moment of sunshine at Black Johnson beach

clouds rolling over Black Johnson beach

sunset on Black Johnson

thrilled to be getting in this taxi with 14 other people

Two days later, we get on the road again, heading southeast towards Liberia. We intend to stop for a night at Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, an apparently lovely little park, but the incessant rain changes our minds. Instead, it’s a short overnight stop in a town called Bo, where we pick up a bush taxi headed for the Liberia border.

Again, it’s a mauvaise route to the border. It’s as if these border areas are forgotten by governments, who only extend road infrastructure out a certain distance from the capital city. Once again, we board a crappy falling-apart vehicle, except that this time we learn about the talent of Sierra Leoneans at cramming record numbers of people into a car. The “sept-place” stationwagon (as it was known in Senegal, where it actually held 7 passengers) is now a “quatorze-place”, with 3 passengers (plus driver) in the front, 4 in the middle, 3 in the back, 1 in the trunk, and 3 on the roof. We have no idea how they managed to hang on during the long and bumpy ride!

It takes 9 hours to drive the 200km down a muddy road from Bo to the Liberia border, and we arrive at Gendema (the border town) too late to cross. One last overnight stop at a grungy border hotel, then it’s off to Liberia we go.

Our sojourn in Sierra Leone may have been dampened by the rainy season blues, but one thing is certain: The scars are healing, things are developing, and this is a country very much at peace.

the road to the Liberia border: la route est mauvaise