The fingers of urban sprawl are clawing up the hills surrounding Freetown. Trees are long gone and unplanned, unregulated buildings are appearing seemingly randomly only later to be connected by, sometimes precipitous, tracks. There is certainly no laying of drainage or utility infrastructure prior to development. It will not be long before this sprawl envelopes what were isolated ‘mountain’ communities, some of the earliest places settled by the returnees, the villages of Leiceister, Gloucester and Regent. This area is referred to locally as ‘mountains’ but Leicester Peak is only 548m above sea level and technically a mountain needs to be 3000m to qualify for the name. Check this website for a 3D image of Leicester Peak and surrounding area.
I already mentioned the village of Regent in a previous post, but the other two villages nearby date from the same early period. Leicester is just below the EU building which clings to the lower slopes of Leicester Peak, and it is here I began a walk with friends.
Leicester Peak in background, EU building on right
The road is being improved as part of the road development plans and as you can see has reached the ‘graded’ stage. The problem of not getting the tarmac down before the rains can be seen in this photo – rain run-off soon creates deep gullies. The style of the village houses is the same as the Krio houses in downtown Freetown: a base of stone or concrete blocks which raises the house off the ground. Stone steps lead up to the living quarters. Shuttered windows are on all sides to allow the breeze to flow through the house. We also noted that all the upstairs windows have half shutters inside of latticework wood, which seem to act as ‘lace curtains’ ie to give some privacy to the upstairs rooms. The walls are wooden planks and the roofs corrugated iron. One house we passed had walls and roof of corrugated iron – we could only imagine the deafening din during a storm! It looks as though corrugated iron has been used to replace the wooden planks, which mostly have survived remarkably well.
Notice the exterior food larder on the back of this house (looks like no longer used) shielded from rain and sun, with netting walls, it would have been a relatively good place to store food.
The church at Leicester has been here since the arrival of the first settlers, but has been rebuilt. Although as the crow flies it is not far from Freetown – about 5 kms to the first settled area – but imagine the difficulty of traveling those few kilometers cutting your way through dense tropical forest, in temperatures around 30°C and high humidity. Some years after the first settlers were dispatched with supplies for 6 months, someone was sent to see how they were doing. It took a long time to reach the villages and they were found to be in dire straits, with many settlers having died of disease in those early years. We took a short detour to the cemetery, which is down a grassy track from the road and perches on a spur of the hill overlooking Freetown.
We had arrived rather ill equipped to deal with the vegetation, so could only pick our way along the tracks. We found some old gravestones and some more modern ones. In the foreground here is the grave of Mr William Smith, a leader and lay helper of Leicester Church, who died in 1875, and his wife Nancy, who was born in Gloucester in 1824 and died 63 years later in 1887.
We continued down the road then branched right along a track which lead through the fields towards Gloucester. The fertile soil along the valleys allows the cultivation of vegetables. The hillsides are skillfully terraced and neat rows of vegetables looked lush and thriving. A shielding row of spring onions (or garlic?) are carefully planted around each patch of lettuces, designed to keep pests at bay: complimentary planting. On the lower ground, irrigation channels surround each bed.
And over the hill near Gloucester, the terracing reminded us of Asia.
These crops provide a valuable source of income for these families as well as delicious fresh food. The order and labour intensive nature of these enterprises are a sharp contrast to the random and ugly appearance of the areas of urban encroachment nearby and the uncultivated scrubby hillsides.
We crossed the river which runs through Gloucester courtesy of a bridge named after a local man who had been a community leader. There were numerous plaques on the bridge detailing his good works, those present at the ceremony and donors to the cost, but most were in bad repair and hard to read. Up the hill we could hear the children in the secondary school as we passed, before walking behind the stained glass windows of the church and round to the front and finding opposite it, the primary school. The children were just pouring out prior to going on a visit somewhere. The Head Teacher was standing in the road with a long length of rubber pipe in his hand. He assured us it was a pointing tool, not for hitting the pupils. However it was clear that the stick wielded by his assistant was not only for pointing.
The church is an impressive building which took some years and no little effort to build. It was certainly ambitious given that the village today is small, but much bigger than the original village in the early 1800s.
The smaller Methodist church we passed on the other side of the valley has a plaque recording its history:
We waved the children goodbye and continued towards Regent, pausing when we reached a crossroads beside an orphanage, apparently run by a Canadian NGO (but I can find out nothing about them on the internet). Some villagers under a tree told us about the large building on the opposite corner which they said was supposed to be a community center, but that no one had been inside it. Indeed it was padlocked and behind locked gates. After some discussion and an eye on the gathering clouds we re-traced our steps to the village and took a path down through some gardens, across the small stream and up the opposite hillside, where the path was less clear, but with the help of a woman waving us on and a small boy who put us on the track, we made it to the road which lead back to Leicester. It was an interesting and enjoyable walk, but we were all looking forward to a cool drink and a shower – feeling pretty dog tired.