“If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”
― David Livingstone
Life here is rarely dull because it is so unpredictable. A simple outing along a well known route can turn into an adventure. Take this morning, when I set off with some friends for a walk on the beach: outward journey straightforward along beach road, celebrating the extent of the newly graded surface. We enjoyed our walk followed by coffee/ frozen coffee yoghurt (delicious!) and set off home. As we began the return leg along the beach road the roadworks stewards with their red and green flags were waving them wildly – both at the same time, so we were a little confused but carried on. Past the next one who not only waved his flags but gave us a cheery wave of his hand. The next indicated we should leave the carriageway and go along the side of the road, and we continued until we came to a string across the road, but here we found we could go no further. So, we turned around and went another way, round and about by a longer route. Nearing the junction we would have reached earlier, had we not been diverted, we met a traffic jam caused by a large crane obstructing our side of the road. It was lifting the remains of a lorry, which yesterday had careered down a hill, straight over a roundabout (despite very deep concrete kerbstones around it), and into a queue of people waiting for minibuses. We heard that 3 people were killed and many injured. The driver bailed out and ran away, fearing mob justice. As we eventually began to climb the hill, we saw the remains of a pick-up truck which, at the weekend, had bulldozed two houses, also coming down a hill, no doubt without effective brakes. It seems healthier to wait around on top of hills.
My other adventure this week was to a hill, visiting the National Archives at Fourah Bay College, the premier university of Sierra Leone. Founded in 1827 it is the oldest university in West Africa. The first buildings were constructed in the 1840s on a site in Cline Town, but it was later relocated to its elevated position above Freetown on Mount Aureol. It is possible to drive up from the city, but I chose the ‘country route’ taking me up over the base of Leicester Peak, through Leicester, and along the ridge, before descending steeply and round a hairpin bend to the campus. To describe the road as ‘bumpy’ is an understatement, like describing the Himalayas as molehills. In some parts it has been graded – they have broken up the worst rocks, and compacted gravel and stones on to this base, but the rainy season has created deep gullies and in one place almost washed away the gravel leaving only bed rock. In other places the remaining veneer of tarmac is potholed like swiss cheese which make navigating round the chasms like trying not to step on the cracks in a block pavement, in the end I just gave up trying to avoid them and instead looked for the ‘best line’. At the next roadworks section a small dump truck occupied over half of the remaining tarmac carriageway, leaving me the narrowest passage to avoid my outer wheels plummeting down the eroded slope, but thankfully it was just enough! I discovered later that this is ‘Rue de la Paix’ (Peace Road) financed by the EU, so thanks to the EU taxpayers one and all, this road is improving.
Suddenly the road did improve, and I managed to change up into third gear! But that was a short-lived celebration! This was the start of the campus which was beautifully planned, with blocks of student accommodation on the top of the hill, then staff bungalows with their own gardens and lower down the faculty buildings, all set in landscaped tropical gardens. The campus features in a book I am reading ‘A Memory of Love‘ by Aminatta Forna. Today, it is looking tired and the buildings are crumbling, but the original plan is evident. In it’s heyday, it would have been a state of the art campus, with panoramic views over the city.
I was first directed to the Library building where the National Archives have their office, but the oldest archives are in the Kennedy building, named after JFK – his bust sits on a pedestal in front of it. Walking up to the 4th floor provided me with some exercise – there is a lift, but without electricity, it doesn’t work. At the end of a corridor a door opened into the archive rooms. Metal shelving was stacked from floor to ceiling with cardboard archive boxes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything seemed so well organised. I was shown an index book which lists all the records still here, but unfortunately the boxes had been taken out of the store and replaced, but not in the same order as the book indicated, so finding a particular document can be challenging.
However, I spotted an entry for the ‘Blue books’ which are the annual reports from the colony to London and can be a good source of information. Fortunately the archivist knew where these books were stored and I was able to find my great-grandfather’s name in the list of Railway employees, along with their wages and dates of leave. I found out that B S Armes, the Locomotive Supervisor and Storekeeper was relatively well paid. His salary was £600 pa. Using the average wage index that would be about £216,000 in today’s money. However, making comparisons is difficult and there are many indexes available which give an indication of worth – as measured by per capita GDP it would equate to £313,000. The General Manager was paid £700 and the train drivers, mechanics and others around £200, which could equal £70-100,000 today. The local clerks were being paid about £24. When I was researching at the UK National Archives in Kew, I found an entry of a letter from the Governor indicating that they were considering bringing train drivers from the West Indies because the British drivers were too expensive and troublesome!
With the return journey in mind, I could not spend too long pouring over the documents on this occasion, and I set off back up the steep curves of the university road and on to the ‘work in progress’ road. I hope that by the time I come this way again, the works will be well advanced and the passage a little smoother. Who knows I might get to use third gear a little more often and have less bone shaking. But, you never know, and that’s what makes our time here a bit more interesting!