It’s a big city, but definitely not the Big Apple!
Cities, no matter how unsustainable they may be over a certain population, I still love them in all shapes and forms, my favorite city aside, Freetown is just another one of those places. The shapes and forms of Freetown are many. If you are not paying attention while walking down the street you might very well wind up in a river of cholera and who knows what because a large piece of the pavement isn’t there, and a semi-green sludge trickle of something resembling water is running literally a few inches under your feet. Surprisingly it doesn’t smell. In the rainy season it’s worse, but now the drier weather is with us, the bigger puddles are gone, so you can more clearly see the ravaged pavements and roads. The roads may seem a safer place to tread upon, that is if again every sense is alive – a friend of mine once called cycling musical, well I can say walking in Freetown is quite melodic as well, and you have to, “C sharp or B flat”. So you make your choices and take your chances, the here again gone again pavement or the motorcycles, cars, trucks, 4X4’s and potholes of the street. The constant honking of horns is something I might even miss when I get back home, I just hope I don’t start beeping at everyone I see, or just to show off my cool-sounding horn. Motorcycles rule the roost though. Okada is what they are called, and just stand anywhere for a few seconds and you will flag one down easily, after they hand you a cheap plastic helmet that usually never gets strapped on, so is basically useless, off you go. They are the main mean of transport and snake through the traffic with their drivers constantly swerving and weaving, but usually getting you their alive, along with a heightened heart rate. Who needs aerobics? My entrance to Sierra Leone was on the back of Richard’s motorcycle with my backpack and two large pieces of baggage full of bike parts and clothing to give to some people in the program sprawled somehow between me, the driver and the handlebars. I was in love instantly, not with Richard, but with the chaos of Freetown. Instinctively tucking in my knees as we wedged between trucks, cars, black smoke spewing buses, and dark complexions and bright smiles everywhere in between, we made it to our destination with my 2 patellas still intact.
A song once sang about no one walking in LA, but even though it seems that Africans don’t walk much because of the number of motorcycles with 1, 2 and even 3 passengers excluding driver, people do walk, out of lack of funds, or hawking the wares balanced, might I say definitely not precariously on their heads. It is obvious that Sierra Leone is not on any westernized country’s tourist trail yet. I am still amazed that in such a big city, as I walk the streets I do not see another pale complexion. Things, I am sure in time, will change. The streets, sidewalks, and everywhere in between is just a big mass of moving humanity. The colorful dress of the beautiful woman with their proud gait and multi-colored plastic buckets of food, cloth, exotic fruit, drinks, nuts, and babies strapped to their backs constantly snap me into the reality that I am in sub-Saharan Africa. Men, children and women selling dvd’s, books, radios, bread, pots, pans, cornflakes, razor blades, melting chocolate, washing powder, and makeshift drug stores selling antibiotics and everything else pharmaceutical, send your senses reeling as the blaring music assaults your eardrums nearly drowning out the drone of the ever-present vehicular noises nipping at your heels. Beggars hone in on my white face, like anywhere in the world it is a reality of city life, sometimes I share food with them, but can not save every destitute person. Oddly though, I feel relaxed in Freetown, the greetings in Krio, Temene, English and a handful of other languages being spoken on the streets, coupled with the flora and intense heat of the sun in November, let me realize I am not walking down 125th street to meet my brother on the 11:45 to East Norwalk, as I can almost trick myself into a sensation that I am at another place I used to call home, definitely not, but I am in a good place, a good space, a continent in need of some help, but a people and a culture that may have suffered a grizzly past but can quite possibly have a brighter future. If they look to our western financial empires being brought to their knees, and hopefully learn from the unfolding nightmare of a failed economic system and don’t buy the false dream, Africans may be able to walk into a future they can call their own, I have lots of faith for this grand continent.
I have been down to Freetown a few times and if not walking through the market places, or doing deals for tools and bike parts in overcrowded streets with every bit of space taken up by food hawkers, clothing sellers, and anything else you can think of, I am just enjoying the sights sounds and general craziness of one of the most chaotic cities in Africa, so I am told. I guess at first it can be intimidating, but as you come to know and love the Salonians more and more, you realize not only are the villages full of smiles, so are the bigger cities and towns. Of course there must be crime lurking somewhere, and Freetown at midnight in certain places probably doesn’t come highly recommended, but I have walked the streets from midday till 11pm and have never been bothered. One night we found some live music in a great place full of humanity, and there was never anything but kindness and a memorable evening of genuine African music, a few cold beverages and dancing.
Like the big city I grew up in, Freetown is close to the water. It is a peninsular with a small string of mountains in its center. The views are wonderful from certain vantage points, and although I haven’t been yet, I hear the beaches range from exquisite to environmental disasters. Every once in a while you can peek over the crumbling buildings and see the inlet of the Atlantic where the Sierra Leone River empties out from the interior of this small coastal country. When I crossed the small strip of water on arrival I was overwhelmed with the feeling I had arrived in a different world. The trash bobbing in the coastal waters is a sad sight indeed. The spit and polish of this city is long gone, but the vibrancy of its music, and its infectious charisma of the friendly population let me realize that what they have lost in wear and tear over the years doesn’t compare to what they have always had, a strong sense of self, and a connection with their land. The tribal differences are strong, but the traditions that bind them together is the glue of this country founded by ex-British slaves. It all comes together in Freetown, just like the large city across the Atlantic with its impressive skyline and melting -pot population. As a hurricane named Sandy recently wreaked havoc on the east coast of America, and a civil war a decade ago here, I hope the people in the coastal regions of America can rebuild and maybe look to places like here and realize that even though most people live on a dollar a day, and live in sub-standard housing, life can and will go on. We all must lean on our fellow humans for strength, not only in times of need, but always, that is the way forward for us all, and thankfully the bulk of the population realizes it here. Today is a national election, and everyone is hoping and praying for a quiet day of voting, as I have mentioned before, and hear nearly every day down here, the people are tired of fighting, and have succeeded for the most part in achieving that goal.
Transport I have tried to describe in other updates so I won’t go over it all again, but the one thing I find intriguing is the lack of personal vehicles, but the constant traffic on the roads in the city. Once you leave the city limits it’s a different story, but trying to find transport for 20 – 40 bicycles brings a whole different layer to the transport story. It doesn’t stop you in any way getting to your destination, it just makes the already over packed, crowded vehicle that more top heavy. Even though I have been on many a crowded vehicle, when I am bargaining for a lift and see a minivan (poda) with a roof rack filled with everything from mattresses to bags of coal, and we are shaking hands on the deal after 10 minutes of dealing in price, I still can’t believe the 20 bikes will somehow wedge in amongst the already crammed in luggage. 20 minutes later we are bumping, and beeping our way out of town past the sprawl of machine shops, furniture makers, welding workshops, kids in dirty shirts selling fruit, people lining the roads for miles it seems selling a constant barrage of foods, but we are slowly making it towards the bush somewhere. The police try to get their hands greased, but since the price of the journey already incorporates a few backhanders to those in charge, I hold fast, and pull out my, “I am doing this for your citizens” card, and keep my hand away from my pocket, and only thrust it out for a handshake. So far it has worked.
Leaving Freetown once again, 20 bikes on top of our straining roof rack, our fan belt replaced just before the rear tire had to be exchanged with the front one and the spare had to replace another, I was contemplating how it all seems to work. Just like the van working, chugging along with lots of human and other cargo, so does Sierra Leone. It works, Freetown works, yes there is room for vast improvement, it wouldn’t be a bad change to not have cholera outbreaks in the rainy season, a change in sewerage systems might be nice one day, replace those large pavement blocks that just disappear every once in a while would probably save a few broken legs every week as well. Getting some of the people back to the villages might be a long-term solution to the spreading disease-filled shanty towns around Freetown, but we all have to learn in our own time. I have faith Sierra Leone will. Freetown will be a long time in improving its crumbling infrastructure, but the solid foundation of its resilient population will see it though, and I look forward to one day reading about the improved pavements of this diverse wonderfully crazy city.