A few weeks ago we took the new mountain road, through Regent and down past Charlotte Falls to Grafton. It’s a wonderful, newly upgraded road which snakes around the hillsides and slowly descends the valley to the village of Grafton, where it meets the main road from Freetown to Waterloo and beyond. (The new road was opened officially for Independence Day, 27 April). From where we live it offers a short cut, avoiding the congestion of the city and eastern suburbs.
The road through Waterloo is lined with stalls of all kinds and is always thronged with people. Just beyond the fruit and vegetable section we turned down a side road – off the tarmac and on to ‘normal’ roads with lumps, bumps and goats. Several turns and many bumps later we reached the pottery. I was surprised to find a solidly built, spacious building. The potters were there to greet us and show us their wares, spread on the tables inside. No-one was working, which was a shame, as we had looked forward to seeing them in action. It seems they hadn’t been working for some time, as they had quite a stock of finished goods, but no customers – not surprising given their location – so they had stopped producing for the moment. The quality of the goods is not bad, but shows neither consistent quality nor particular artistic flair. It is not an indigenous product so appears to be designed to appeal to the few westerners in the country. Unfortunately for the potters, most of these people will have seen much finer products elsewhere, so their market is a few souvenirs or items for immediate use.
We discussed with them how the facility works. It was set up by a German NGO as a training centre for potters. They had, over the years trained numerous potters, but when asked where these potters were now working, the answer seemed to be that they weren’t, or certainly not as potters. We enquired further and found that basically there is very little demand for pottery and therefore no work for potters. We wondered why was the centre training more potters?
Making the pots is a long process. The local clay (brought to the centre in bags – as hard as cement) has to be first pounded to powder, then mixed with water before it can be shaped on the wheels. The only glaze they have is a dark greenish brown. A few years ago someone brought some blue slip glaze from overseas, but it is now finished and they have no way to import any more.
The potters who were at the centre (we wondered how they made a living – apart from our purchases that morning!) had decided they needed a bigger kiln as the one provided when the facility was built was getting old and they could only fire a limited number of items at a time. To make the bigger kiln, they would need to make special fired bricks of the type used to build bread ovens and for which they thought there would be a market locally. Someone had donated a brick-making press, but it made bricks with three holes in the centre and people wanted solid bricks, so they asked if we could help them buy a new press. We asked further questions to establish the viability of this plan, but it was clear that it was in the concept stage rather than a business plan. We offered to consider the idea, if they could produce a properly costed proposal.
Last year we advanced this group a loan to enable them to attend the annual trade fair. They did so and carefully recorded their sales and repaid the loan, so we know that they are serious people and we are happy to support them further. However, we want to make sure they direct their efforts towards some lucrative,viable business. In the meantime we have secured a pitch for them, once a month outside a local hotel, in the hope that they will be able to sell some of their stock to improve their cash flow.
We later learned that the centre is part of the Sierra Leone Adult Education Association (SLADEA) which has centres in six locations around the country and teach adult literacy classes in seven more. When we visited the headquarters to meet the boss, we found no clarity in quite how the whole organisation is funded, how they fund the pottery or to what end. They do not seem to have considered expanding the activities they run there to make it more relevant to the community. The centre was set up at Waterloo to provide youths with training and employment, but no one had wondered whether there was any demand for the goods they might produce. Local people tend to buy cheap plastic cups and plates and not hand-thrown pottery ones. Neither do they store water in clay pots as they do elsewhere in Africa, so it is hard to know what they can make to sell in the local area – except perhaps for bricks. But this does seem a waste of the skills they have! At least the HQ agreed to provide them with some transport so they can bring their wares to Freetown to sell.
We enjoyed sharing a picnic lunch with the potters and talking about the centre. We hope to continue to work with them to find a way forward. We hope they will sell some of their goods each month in Freetown.
On the way back through Waterloo I managed to grab a snap of the site of the old Waterloo railway station. The station building has been replaced by a police station, the rails with a road, but one of the signs is still there, along with an old water tower used to top up the engines. The road is now a busy one, taking all the traffic between Freetown and the interior.
A rather more tranquil scene is shown in a photograph from my great-grandfather’s collection, showing a tea party on the station platform. In those days the railway was the only way into the interior apart from walking or being carried in a hammock. Horses were a rarity in West Africa because they were susceptible to a mosquito borne horse sickness virus. The railway was, therefore, an important instrument of trade and development allowing goods and passengers to travel more quickly and comfortably to and from the capital. Waterloo was named by the original settlers, who were veterans of The West Indian Regiment and the battle of Waterloo. As a Londoner, my great-grandfather would have been familiar with Waterloo Station in London, and maybe this is why the photograph was taken.