“A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.” Henry Ward Beecher
Living in West Africa you certainly need your sense of humour and springs in your wagon because you will surely be jolted by more than just pebbles! You cannot fail to be surprised by the roads! Pot-holed, precipitous and perilous. Roads wind up the steep hills with minimum number of bends and few barriers, so vehicles missing the curves have been known to end up on roofs below. Unusually for the West African coast, hills rise up close to the shore along the entire peninsula which stretches south from Freetown.
Various theories are offered for how the country was named by the first Portuguese visitor, Pedro da Cintra who passed this way in 1462. Some say it was the shape of the hills which reminded him of a lion, others that the constant thunder over the hills sounded like lions roaring, or there may have been a surfeit of lions in the area, but whatever the reason he called this part of the coast Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountains).
Before we came here someone told us that Freetown was rather like San Francisco – it has a large safe, deep harbour and the city is built on hills rising from the shore. However, there is no Golden Gate bridge – which would make transfer from the airport so much easier – no sea fog, and thankfully, no earthquake zones.
There are also no trams up and over the hills. The old Hill Station Railway closed in 1927 when competition from cars meant the colonial administrators who lived up the hill no longer needed its services. I am not sure what the maximum angle a vehicle can drive up, but some side roads certainly approach whatever it is. One short stretch on Signal Hill has a ‘Last resort’ breaking place, a sand pit ending in a brick wall – in case you either don’t make the curve or don’t have brakes for the following descent – but this is unusual.
The edges of most tarmacked stretches are ragged to say the least and the central carriageway littered with potholes and there is little or no drainage to prevent the torrential rain from washing more road away. However, the current government of Sierra Leone has undertaken to improve the road infrastructure, so numerous contracts have been awarded for road construction – as I described in Bump to the Beach. One such road passes the High Commission. This project is to widen a single carriageway to dual, so considerable excavation has been necessary, taking land from both sides, in places creeping very close to existing buildings, in others demolishing them – so not without some controversy. A future project will pass the Residence, but this is yet to get under way. At least we have resisted giving up any of our land.
Road approaching the High Commission
Most of this preparation was done before we arrived and long sections are approaching completion. The curve outside the offices, however is still unmade and every passing vehicle kicks up clouds of red dust. I had no idea that the guard house roof is really black! Soon this road section will be a smooth black curve and there will be no more swapping from side to side as you progress up the hill on and off the short sections which are not currently being worked on. Very annoying for the shops on either side, which may or may not be accessible, according to the whims of the road builders.
However the traffic is altogether much more orderly than in Lagos (I guess most places are!) where we spent last year. There is none of the Nigerian rush to be first at any cost, including the distinct possibility of blocking the road completely by circumventing stationary traffic. There is much more patience here, and much less traffic. The poda podas are rickety minibuses which ply recognised routes packed with as many passengers as can be squeezed in, and some. Their drivers, as in others countries of the region, are oblivious to other road users, often taking fares and counting money while pulling out. Reckless and ubiquitous, the okada riders – informal motorbike taxi service – run by local gangs. Cross one rider and you cross them all. They weave in and out of traffic, not necessarily on the right side of the road, dropping passengers at their convenience. There are also battered taxis which work like informal buses, carrying as many passengers as possible and stopping to pick up or drop off wherever. Many are unofficial (no driving license? or proof of ownership?) – I saw one the other day do a very rapid U-turn regardless of a sharp curb, to avoid the police road check he had just spotted a few yards ahead. The policeman began to give chase, but was a bit too far away.
Unless you have your own car or walk, these are the only ways in which you can move around – although a few brave souls do cycle. The streets downtown are reportedly now easier to negotiate since a recent decree moved many street traders off the streets, so traffic can use the carriageways. It was not popular with the traders of course. There are plans for more formal markets for them to move to. The street markets which still operate are very colourful and it looks as though you can buy anything if you know where to look and hold on to your bag!
Unlike Lagos, it is considered safe to walk around Freetown. The disincentive to walking is the heat, particularly in the narrower streets downtown where the breeze does not stir the air. There is petty crime – where isn’t there? – but kidnapping and carjacking is unusual. Walking at night is not recommended, but this is just common sense as there is little street lighting. This is because there is no reliable electricity supply, so if you want constant power you have to run a diesel generator, which also means constant noise. No peaceful time in the garden. The city emits remarkably little light pollution. In fact you can hardly see Freetown on Nasa’s night shots of the earth – actually most of West Africa is in darkness and Lagos is also a surprisingly small dot of light given its size – estimated at over 12 million (twice the size of the population of Sierra Leone).
The scale of Freetown architecture is also modest. There are a few mansions behind large walls, but most houses are moderate size, with smaller dwellings in the poorer districts. What is striking is the amount of construction going on and the rapid expansion of the city in every direction, but especially up the slopes of every hill – despite the acute inclines. Often the first stage is to build a wall around your land, then later add the dwelling. Locals complain that the cost of housing has risen sharply since so many foreigners arrived who are prepared to pay inflated rents in US$. There is little or no planning.
The central business district has few high-rise and there are still many of the old Krio houses around – colourful, if a little tumbledown – and a few colonial remnants. Some of the most striking buildings are the old churches which mostly look in good repair. I intend to get down there with my camera soon. There’s plenty to explore here, even if not many obvious tourist sites. I look forward to sharing my discoveries with you.
map: thanks to mappery.com