If you have been following this blog and would like to hear about my new home, Uganda, please sign up here
If you have been following this blog and would like to hear about my new home, Uganda, please sign up here
It has been sometime since I last updated this blog. This is because my time in Salone has sadly come to an end. I very much enjoyed exploring this beautiful country and will miss the lovely people I met there. My next adventure will be in Uganda and I will endeavour to keep a blog there too, so will post a link here when I start it, so anyone interested can follow me.
In the meantime I thought I should make this post an index of past posts to make this site easy to navigate. Click on the brown names to reach the relevant blog:
There are other blogs about flowers, walking the beaches and the seasons which can be found by the search box or Past posts.
I hope readers have found this entertaining and informative and look forward to exploring Uganda with you!
The rainy season is with us. A couple of weeks ago we were enjoying the clear air and bright colours of the landscape washed clean and made lush by early showers. The colours are still bright and the landscape lush in between the torrential rain and the occasional ray of sunshine. Newly tarmacked roads are strewn with mud, stones and debris washed down from intersecting dirt tracks. It’s no one’s job to clean them up, so they will just get muddier and stonier. Potholes on older roads are getting bigger and deeper and ominously filled with muddy water.
Taking an umbrella everywhere is wise, but I have yet to master the art of getting into a car and collapsing an umbrella in a smooth operation which doesn’t negate the use of said umbrella; in those few seconds of collapse in torrential rain you still get very wet. Local guards and motorbike riders sport a variety of rain gear – quite a few sets of Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs) from ebola times have been seen around. Footwear is not a problem so long as it is washable or very waterproof.
Not expecting much respite until September, which will be after we leave Sierra Leone at the end of this month.
A leisurely 2 hour walk took us from the Guma Dam down to the Peninsula Road. You need to get permission to drive into the Guma Valley Dam area before arriving at the gate and, unless you want to return uphill, arrange for a vehicle to meet you at the bottom. The walk can equally be done from the bottom up (returning the same way), in which case, no permission is needed, so long as you don’t go over the dam. The dam is over 2 miles (3.5km) up a narrow track from the entrance gate, reached from a turning off the Peninsula Road before Sussex.
The dam and water works date from the early 60s and are still the main source of water for Freetown. The pipe follows the Peninsula Road along the coast to the city. There is a holding reservoir at Wilberforce where tankers are filled for distribution. Very few houses in Freetown are, or ever have been, connected directly to a water supply. Most properties have water tanks which are filled periodically by bowsers, others make the daily trek to the nearest tap or pump with their plastic jerry cans.
A well appointed roundel shelters picnic tables, while others nestle under lakeside trees. However we were not sure who uses them, given the area is not open to the public, apart from a few locals harvesting mangoes from the trees beside the car park.
The lake, created by the damming of the No.2 river, is very pretty – now at its lowest level as it is the end of the dry season, but the rains should arrive soon to replenish the supply.
The white paintwork looked newly done and very smart.
The spillway is also waiting for the rains.
The path crosses the dam, through the gates, making sure you see the instruction not to open without a pass!
The view down the valley gives an idea of how high we were – the road to Tokeh a faint red line in the middle distance.
The path then enters the forest and is a well defined track as it passes a couple of buildings then starts uphill. Shortly after this, we branched off to the right – not entirely obvious but the path is marked by small red ribbons as you progress. This stretch is a forest track, narrow and winding round trees, so we were glad of the guide. However, after sometime, a few scrambles and changes of direction we moved on to a very well defined track which later became a road – albeit 4WD and in bad repair. It was obviously built for vehicle traffic, but the lack of bridge bed over one of many streams would prevent vehicles using it now.
The forest was peaceful, with only a few bird calls to disturb the quiet. Despite being towards the end of the dry season the foliage was lush, although in parts the path was covered in a deep layer of dry leaves – just like autumn at home, kicking through leaves! Some trees drop their leaves to conserve water until the rains come. There are some surviving large trees, one with particularly red ragged bark was tall and straight, but botanical skills lacking, I could not identify it. Several others with smooth grey bark had spectacular buttresses and root systems. Unfortunately no wildlife to speak of except a variety of butterflies around each stream.
It was a lovely surprise to come across an area where the trees had been thinned and we could see across to the coast and our destination at No.2 River (such an imaginative name!) and, top right, through the trees Tokeh village. The dirt areas are where the road is being improved – from a very bumpy track to a dual carriageway!
From this point it was downhill all the way. Just beside the last stream we crossed we noticed a pipe inserted in the stream, then buried roughly beside the path. We found the reason why, a little way on.
This is the ranger station with a stream fed water tank to service the facilities – another surprise; this is the only place in Sierra Leone I have ever seen a notice like this: ‘Toilet’!! Definitely worth a picture! But none of us actually tried it out.
Not far beyond this we came to the junction with the road which is quite clear on Google Maps. It is then a dusty 2km along the road to the coast.
It should be quite possible to follow this trail from the road end. The higher part might not be entirely obvious, but look for the red ribbons. When you reach the track at the top, turn right for the waterfall – a little further uphill – and then return by same route. There is room to leave vehicles at the start of the track.
The Turtle Islands lie tantalisingly close to Sherbro Island, but are a world away from mainland Sierra Leone and certainly seem that far when trying to visit.
Having arrived in Bonthe [see previous posts about Bonthe and the journey there], we discussed the trip to the Turtle Islands with the boat driver to determine how long it would actually take, having heard several different estimates. We were assured that if we left early (7am) the tide would be right to reach the islands in about an hour an a half. We would have to wait there an hour or so for the tide to ebb, then we could return in similar time. So we agreed and set our alarm clocks.
We departed just after dawn broke with the rising sun reflected by the glassy water. Our boat created a white wake as we sped past sleepy settlements on the low lying shoreline. Small groups of houses appeared, preceded by the sight of tall trees above the normal height of the mangroves. In some places we could just see a dark entrance way into the mangroves, wide enough for canoes, but the settlement remained hidden by the foliage.
After the predicted time, our first view of the islands as they emerged on the horizon.
This is the tiny sand bar known as Nyangei, which is an incredibly high-density settlement on a narrow slither of sand, shown as N on the satellite image below and in close-up. There are over 80 houses on this tiny island. We approached from the north and first tried to go past the west side but were prevented by the emerging football field. We could see the goalposts sitting in the sea off the bottom left corner of the sand, but within half an hour it would be a dry pitch, so we had to retrace our route to avoid being marooned, and passed the other side of the island.
Our first stop was on Bakie – lower centre of the image above [click on it to magnify]. At least half the population came to greet us on the beach and the head man showed the community the cash gift we gave him, before pocketing it for safe keeping. After a refreshing coconut picked for us from a nearby tree, we walked around the island, guided by adults but followed by a posse of children; those with shoes having the advantage, while those without ran from shady spot to shady spot to avoid burning their soles.
Almost all the huts were built from natural materials, with a stick frame filled in with mud from the inside and a thatched roof. Dotted around were small, roofed structures with ladders for access by poultry (centre of photo). Further back in the village were smoke-filled huts where the daily catch is preserved before being transporting to the mainland. The art (or science?) of smoking has been lost in some parts of the country and there have been instances of fish rotting when not correctly smoked.
Shell debris littered the whole area showing how important a resource this is – we later saw a large pile of dried cockles, also ready for trading.
Following the school teacher, we went to see the primary school (photo below) which serves about 100 children; a blackboard on each side so two classes run at once. The older children have to go to Bonthe or the mainland for further schooling. This is a community school not supported by the government.
Having finished the village tour we were shown the Bakie Guest house which is marked on Google Maps and described in the Bradt Guide, but sadly is no longer habitable; the roof was removed by a storm and the building now looks decidedly dilapidated.
We walked from the guest house south along the beach to the end of the sand and unfortunately found ourselves separated from a further beach by a swampy inlet. Later it was passable and the whole coastal stretch around to the Atlantic was available.
It was then time to wait for the tide to flow out, before we could make our return journey, so we sat under a palm tree and relaxed as the villagers went about their business, cooking, playing, hairdressing, mending nets and sitting chatting. On a second pass a long the beach with the vague idea of having a swim, we realised that the stretch of sand just outside the village was in fact also the local toilet, so we passed on quickly and only paddled much further down. The water was not inviting as it shelved slowly and was not well tide washed. It appeared muddy and stirred up easily, so that, and the jelly fish beyond, kept us in the shallows.
Once the tide was deemed right, we said our farewells and set sail across the bay to the next island of Yele where we went through the same routine; greeting the head man (with cash), touring the village, visiting the school and being shadowed by dozens of children.
The settlement on Yele was slightly larger than Baki and had more concrete houses, plus a substantial school building (built a few years ago with help from the Bonthe council); the shiny roof at the bottom of the image.
The soil on these islands is mostly sand and very little grows apart from scrubby vegetation, some fruit trees and plenty of mangroves. In the villages a few people had small vegetable patches, fenced to protect them. The villagers seem to rely heavily on the sea to provide what they need and trade with Bonthe and the mainland for what they lack. It is a remote existence, certainly far from the madding crowd. I am sure if you slung your hammock or pitched your tent, you could spend a night under a canopy of stars away from the frenzy of modern life, but we preferred to return to a comfortable bed.
Most of the boats traversing the area between the islands were powered by poles punted through the shallow waters. It was these shallows, which you see a hint of in the satellite images, which slowed our return journey, the boat having to aim for the deeper parts and creep over the shallowest. Once out into the main river, progress was faster, but it took a good deal longer coming back, not helped by having to conserve fuel until another boat could rendez-vous with us to bring further supplies of diesel.
We had made our trip to the Turtle Islands. We didn’t see any turtles, but had not expected to. Several species are seen hereabouts and nest on these southern beaches. The remote location should be reasonable protection for their breeding sites. They are legally protected in these waters, but with little enforcement, whether the ban on killing them or poaching eggs is effective or not, who knows?
Was the trip worth it? On balance, yes, it was interesting to see these remote islands, which seem to float like bubbles from the tip of Sherbro Island, and the people who inhabit them. So long as your expectations are low, you will not be disappointed.
Last December I visited the Connaught Hospital in Freetown, which is the main referral hospital in the city and has served as such for over a hundred years. I was shown round by Jane Gibson whose husband, Terry, had been working at the Connaught for nearly two years, before and throughout the ebola outbreak (see here for his blog in 2014). So, my first paragraph of this blog about the tour was to be a short history of the Connaught Hospital to set the scene. However, after referring to Wikipedia for some background information, I set off on a different trail: “Connaught Hospital was opened in 1912 by the Duke of Connaught, Prince Arthur. President Kabbah re-opened the hospital on May 5, 2006, alongside the Princess Christian Maternity Hospital (PCMH).” I googled Prince Arthur and found that he was the seventh and favourite child of Queen Victoria and in addition to a highly decorated military career was made Duke of Connaught.
However, he was also appointed Governor General of Canada in 1911 and remained there until after the start of WWI, so he couldn’t have opened the hospital in 1912 (good old Wiki!!). I recalled seeing old photographs of his visit to Sierra Leone.
This confirms he visited in December 1910. This visit was on his return journey, on board the Balmoral Castle of the Union-Castle line, from South Africa where he had opened the first parliament of the new nation state. With no further helpful information on the Connaught Hospital available on the internet I headed off to the National Archives.
Government accounts (Blue books) are a good source of information and I discovered that the sum of £636 7s 3d was spent on a reception for HRH Duke of Connaught on 15th December 1910. It must have been a lavish affair as that is the equivalent of £57980 at 2014 prices!
Evidence of his opening or renaming the hospital was harder to track down. In the Blue Book for the year 1910 the hospital was called the Colonial Hospital. Checking subsequent years it remained the Colonial Hospital. It was not until 1920 that new information came to light:
In April 1920 the Governor proposed to the Secretary of State that compensation of £10 each should be paid to the female nurses who lost personal effects in the February fire. In May the Chief Dispenser, Assistant Chief Dispenser, Second Class Dispenser and the Gate Keeper all applied for compensation too.
The accounts show £8820 spent in 1920, £18502 in 1921 and £12405 in 1922 on the new hospital but it is still called the Colonial Hospital. The Blue Book for 1923 is unfortunately missing, but in 1924 it is suddenly called the Connaught Hospital. In the same year a mortuary is added at a cost of £217 18s 7d. So at some point, probably in 1923, the decision was made to rename the hospital.
Many other sites and publications seem to repeat the erroneous Wiki information, but I tracked down a 1961 Government Information Service publication which claimed “Duke of Connaught visited Sierra Leone and laid the foundation stone of a hospital in Freetown which bears the name ‘Connaught Hospital’.” However Sierra Leone Studies 15-17 p188 (The Journal of the Sierra Leone Society 1961) tells us “visit of Duke of Connaught …. in 1910…. He laid the foundation stone of the present Law Courts …. After the destruction by fire of the old Colonial Hospital in 1920 the new building was named after him The Connaught Hospital.”
The stone from the Law Courts supports this statement, so this seems to be the most likely story, but does not explain why the hospital was renamed in this way!
One more strand may be relevant. From 1920 to 1924 the Duke of Connaught’s son, known as Prince Arthur of Connaught, was Governor General of South Africa. His wife, Princess Alix was a trained nurse and very active with the Red Cross. It is possible that they visited Sierra Leone at some point to or from South Africa – could the hospital have been renamed after them?
If anyone has further information, please comment below.
More on the hospital itself next time!
Yesterday evening we spotted a small rainbow high above Freetown which seemed fitting on the eve of the announcement by WHO that Sierra Leone is ebola free after 42 days with no new cases. The mood in Freetown is one of celebration and reflection; celebrating the end of the ebola outbreak, but reflecting on the 3589 people who died of the virus, including 221 health worker of whom 11 were doctors. The President addressed the nation from the official ceremony this morning and cautioned against complacency. Although the outbreak is over, it doesn’t mean that ebola is gone for ever – new cases are still occurring in neighbouring Guinea. He urged the population to continue with health precautions and report all deaths so that swabs can rule out ebola.
The President’s theme was that this is a new beginning for Sierra Leone. A lot remains to be done to improve the healthcare system and strengthen the economy but he thanked the international community for their help in ending the crisis.
In the meantime, the people will celebrate in their own way. The general sense is of relief and joy. Last night a countdown was held at the iconic cotton tree in central Freetown and tonight a candle light parade is planned there. It is wonderful for the country that its ‘quarantine’ status has been removed and the recovery can begin. In the local language Krio, ‘don’ means finish but also indicates a present perfect (something has happened) so, ‘don don’ means it has finished. It’s the best way to sum up today – ebola don don.
I am still away from Sierra Leone, but would like to offer you all an interesting article about a project to map the old houses of Freetown, some of which I have mentioned in previous posts: Hill station
The Ebola virus appears to be under control but isolated cases are still occurring. After 8 Ebola free days earlier this month, there have since been 1 or 2 cases a day. Until all transmission is stopped, this virus will remain a threat.
I am not currently able to return to Sierra Leone, but am following events closely. You may like to read the following thoughts from a returning Sierra Leonean:
We recently spent a long day out travelling up-country to Makeni, about 175 km north-east of Freetown. We set off early over the nearly complete mountain road to Grafton and so avoided the congestion of central Freetown. The road is good tarmac all the way, which made the journey quite comfortable.
On the way we stopped at the Addax Bio Energy project, just south of Makeni. I had expected to be against the idea of a big company ‘taking land from local people’ and planting monoculture for bio-fuel, having read about palm-oil plantations, derided by environmental groups in other countries. However, I could not fail to be impressed by the investment and vision of this enterprise. In the middle of a scrubby piece of land, on which nothing seemed to be cultivated, there rose an amazing construction of metal girders and pipes. This is the factory at the heart of the project. In simple terms the process is to grow sugar cane and turn it into ethanol. Once the sugar cane has been literally squeezed dry, the bio waste will be fed into a furnace which will drive the turbines to produce electricity. This power will be used to run the plant, but importantly for a country chronically short of electricity, the excess produced will be exported to the National Grid – hopefully in excess of 15 Mwh – currently below 50 Mwh are produced in the whole country.
This project really is in the middle of nowhere: there were no roads and much of the area was cut off altogether during the rainy season. First the company spent a long time negotiating with local land owners in the villages surrounding the site. Land rights are fluid in a country with little regulation or documentation. An aerial survey was conducted to help establish who owned what, and where compensation would be paid. The land required for the sugar cane – eventually 10,000 ha – is spread in between villages: each circle of the crop is irrigated from a centrally pivoting irrigation arm, with water pumped from the adjacent river. The land between is still available to villagers for cultivation. In fact Addax have further projects helping promote better rice growing and teaching local farmers to be more productive, including providing them with agricultural implements. The farmers already benefit by now having access to wider markets via the new roads which Addax have had to build to allow materials to be brought to the site and eventually be the route for ethanol export.
The impressive factory and turbines have all been constructed on site with imported components. There has been no skimping on quality and safety – an extensive fire fighting system is highly visible as all the pipes are painted red. The policy is to employ as much local labour as possible, but in the construction phase it has been necessary to bring in experts. The expatriate staff numbers will now be wound down. There is a policy of employing as many locals as possible, but lack of capacity is proving a problem. They are expecting to fire the turbines any day, with diesel initially, to kick-start the process, but once the first crop is crushed they will provide their own power. This will be an exciting moment for a project which began 6 years ago, has made considerable investment and yet to see any product.
Later in Makeni we spoke to the paramount chief of the area who was very positive about the project. He was satisfied that proper negotiations had taken place and that it was a benefit to the local people. He is working with Addax to try to resolve some of the problems they are having with local agitators, some of whom are former workers sacked for theft, which is a huge problem for the company.
In Makeni we also met with representatives of Street Child, an organisation working with children found working/living on the streets, to try to get them back to school. This is achieved by helping their families develop a means to support themselves and allow the children to complete their studies. In rural areas this also involves building schools and financing teachers. We met at The Clubhouse, a restaurant run to fund the organisation. Street Child also organise the Makeni Marathon, which will be held at the end of May, as a fundraiser and many runners come from overseas for the event. Not quite the New York Marathon, but it’s early days! Since our visit, Street Child held a launch party at the newly opened Radisson hotel in Freetown. The UK government are matching donations to the project £ for £ for the next month.
Before leaving the city we also met with the new Lady Mayor – the first female mayor in the city’s history. She is keen to make her mark and one of her early initiatives has been to launch a clean up the city campaign, which includes strategically placed dustbins and skips for rubbish and ‘clean up day’ on the last Saturday of the month, when no traffic is allowed on the roads for several hours and everyone is tasked with cleaning up their road frontage. We certainly had the impression from driving round the city that this was having an impact.
The drive back provided plenty of examples of efficient packing for a long journey and I leave you with some of them: note the goat on top of one and passengers on the outside of two others!