The city has disappeared from view, not because of rain this time, but dust. The harmattan arrived with a vengeance so the air was as thick as fog and smelled so dry – you are inhaling dust with every breathe – quite possibly harmful to health – and within hours every surface is covered in a fine layer of brick red dust. The landscape is dry and dusty and we are only just into the driest month. What a contrast six months brings; from verdant, tropical lushness to dessicated brown. From feast to famine, except that we are now in mango season, which has to be considered the most luxurious feast! Our troupe of monkeys have not only been enjoying our mangoes (and bananas if the gardeners are to be believed) but also been finding some ripe star fruit to supplement their diets.
We have been warned this week that water is in short supply. Freetown relies on two dams for its drinking water supply year round, operated by the Guma Valley water company: one near the village of Regent in the hills above the city, the other 13 miles away in the hills of the peninsula. However ‘supply’ is not as it is understood elsewhere. Only about 10% of the urban population has water piped into their homes. Everyone else either has irregular supplies brought by tanker to fill storage tanks, or walk, every day with containers to fill at a tap in the street. In rural areas collecting water is a daily routine for all but about 1% of the population that has piped water, and that is out of only 32% of rural inhabitants who have access to ‘improved water sources’. Even up in the villages near Freetown where we walk, the communal taps are often dry several days a week – they are fed from a tank which is not always replenished. It is certainly hard to imagine surviving without the luxury of turning on a tap and receiving clean water, but this is the reality for the majority of people in Sierra Leone
A good part of the road out to the beaches on the peninsula follows the line of the water pipeline which brings water from the Guma Dam. This dam was built in the 1960s to supply the growing city, but 50 years on is still the only source. The pipeline is above ground for much of the route, rusty and tapped into in many places, causing leaks of varying degree. But for the moment it is doing its job. The catchment area is the Forest Reserve so the supply is relatively unpolluted. But the Forest Reserve is increasingly threatened by creeping deforestation and haphazard development which could endanger this clean supply area. The beach road is improving all the time and with it the pace of building alongside it is accelerating. Lack of planning, let alone any regulations to enforce a plan, means this is unlikely to be stemmed any time soon.
However, the warm tropical sea is seductively nearby to sooth away such worries. It is easy to ride the waves, gaze at the hazy horizon and ignore the negatives. So this is how I celebrate a year of blogging….. bobbing beside the balmy beach. And, as quickly as the harmattan arrived, we wake up to clear air once more, the view is back and blue is restored to the sky and sea.