Journeys in Freetown, as I have previously described, are rarely straightforward, even with the luxury of my own vehicle. A recent visit to the National Railway Museum was no exception. Accompanied by two intrepid guests from UK we set off with a rudimentary map as guide. We headed downhill and in fact found several stretches of formerly bad road, had been graded and so spared the suspension. We passed the UN Special Court, which was closed on 2 December, signalling a further step on Sierra Leone’s journey out of post-conflict status.
It was not until we had negotiated the first few streets lined on both sides with stalls and pedestrians, who stray, unnervingly for novice drivers, into the roadway three and four abreast, but also magically side step cars as they approach, that we encountered the first problem – a policeman who waved us along a road we had hoped to avoid, instead of towards the junction we needed. Not to worry, we consulted the map, which showed many streets connecting the road we were on with the one we needed. We inched up the congested Kissy Road, renowned in Freetown as the biggest traffic jam in town, and looked for our opportunity to turn. The first street was hardly wide enough for a car and full of stalls and people. The next was blocked by a wood yard, stacked with timber. Further along we spotted a policeman at the top of a street, so reckoned it must be navigable. I indicated hopefully and was waved down the street, which fell away in front of us, looking quite promising.
Steering between people, stalls and wide open drains on both sides we progressed to within stone’s throw of the road we wanted when we realised we had met a poda poda stop. These are the people carriers which serve as buses throughout Freetown, decorated with colourful designs and varied slogans, many exhorting God/Allah to look after the driver. The poda podas were lined up on the righthand side of the street, so I took the left, hoping to drive past the queue, but was thwarted by a parked car. We were stuck. There was no way I was going to reverse up the street, so we were going to have to wait. The driver next to us kindly told us we would have to join the line, and as the front poda moved away, he let us in. We then realised that ahead of the parked car, there were two other vehicles, both of which were in the process of being clamped! and there was a tow truck taking one away! This is a novelty in Freetown.
Just then, a man approached the car which had blocked our way, clamp in hand, and magically the owner materialised to protest. Soon a crowd and numerous police were arguing and gesturing around us. The gist seemed to be that the car owner could not enter his gateway because of the parked podas, so had left his vehicle on the street. It was made clear he had to move or be clamped, so he began trying to swing into the driveway, right next to my car. It was obviously impossible until we moved, which thankfully we able to do when another poda pulled away, now full. A few minutes later the helpful men who were marshalling the line realised we wanted to get on to the road and had the podas move to allow us out.
On our way once more, the rest of the journey was more straightforward. In fact we followed the line of the former railway, past the Princess Christian hospital to Cline Town, described in 1910 by T J Alldridge as “being a convenient distance from Freetown was formerly one of the principal suburban places at which the leading European merchants had their bungalows..”. There was no sign of these in the congested streets full of lorries in varying states of repair making their way to and from the docks which are close by.
We swung through the colourful gates of the museum and had our choice of places in the parking area. We were welcomed by the staff and met with visitors from the UK National Railway Museum in York, who are here as part of a lottery funded project to digitalise endangered archives. Only recently arrived, they were still gathering material and working to get their container of equipment released from the docks.
The museum is housed in the old railway workshops, so the rolling stock inside are in context, on rails and in some instances over the inspection pits cut between the rails. Our local guides were knowledgeable about the items on display and took us on a tour. They clearly spend a lot of time and effort caring for their charges.
Unfortunately most of the carriages were vandalised before the museum was founded. The metal side panels were removed, so the restorers have replaced them with wooden panels. Notice the panels above the windows which were provided as sun shades.
A special carriage was commissioned for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit in 1961 at the time of independence, but a change in schedule meant she did not actually use it. The museum attracts a variety of visitors but local children (who enter free of charge) come most often – Blessing of Cline Town appears frequently in the visitor’s book.
Some of the older generation must be able to remember the railway in operation (the last train ran in 1974), but for the younger visitors it is simply part of history as the only trains in the country now run to transport iron ore.
For me, it is where my great grandfather once worked. It was here he was the Locomotive Superintendent and Storekeeper from November 1897 to May 1904. Outside the museum we walked to a nearby compound, now a school, which includes the Bishop Crowther Memorial Church with the dates 1864 and 1891 on the front, and to the right another stone built church building, now without glass in the windows, but being used as a classroom. These buildings must also have been here in my great grandfather’s time. I am gradually finding my way around modern Freetown and trying to listen to the echoes from the past.