Freetown

Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Sierra Leone  ,
Thursday, December 28, 2006

We arrived in Sierra Leone after an 8km motorcycle ride across the border. Border crossing was painless and it seemed strange to hear the guards and policemen talking English which is the official language here.

The trip from Kambia to Freetown was long only because the van kept overheating. In Africa no trip ever goes straight forwards. There will always be something like you run out of gas, your car breaks down, the route changes or you have to wait an hour because some women hasn't finished her couscous. Still on arrival in Freetown we had a few kilometres of walking to get to the nearest hotel, which was prolonged a couple of kilometres when we got lost a few times. After the first few hundred yards walking, we noticed that that Thomas' Rastafarian look was creating quite a sensation as most people would stare and every 20 seconds someone would yell out as loud as they could from across the street 'Hey Rasta!'. Then as he has a beard as well there was plenty of 'Hey Jesus!', otherwise we got commonly referred to as 'White Boy' when someone wanted to have our attention. It got annoying reasonably fast mostly due to the aggressive way of yelling so after 5 minutes you just end up ignoring absolutely everyone.
Was talking later to a Guinean later, and he was saying people here, just are not use to seeing white people, and when they do see a white person they think they are either here for work or up to no good.

The first night was spent in a seedy neon signed inner city hotel with no running water and swinging low wattage bulbs. Too late to try anywhere better and too tired to care much, I knew the ear plugs would lower by a few decibels the generator just outside our window. Sleep came and then next day we made our first priority our lodgings.

Freetown is situated on a peninsular at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River and is built on a range of hills, meaning great views. After trying three other suspect hotels we found ourselves climbing up one particular hill to get to the YMCA which turned out to be friendly with cleanish rooms, cold water showers and electricity between 7pm and 1am. The room looked back up the hills where an entire community of Sierra Leonean where living in corrugated shacks below our window. The other side of the building was the terrace which looked down to the ocean and over a lot to the town, including to the right the cotton tree.

A lot of the American slave trade began in Sierra Leone in 1560 at which time the now 500 year old cotton tree was witness and probably provided a bit of shade to the initial slaves sold under its' branches. A couple if hundred years later, still standing, it was present when the departed descends returned as freed slaved in 1792 and formed what is now Freetown. In 1808 Sierra Leone became a British Crown Colony and then gained independence in 1961.

It all turned to shit, when in 1991 the Revolutionary United Front initiated the civil war by attacking villages in the east of the country near the border of Liberia. Decapitation of heads of community leaders where on spikes. Tens of thousands of people were killed and 2 million people fled the country into neighbouring countries. It would seem that the rebel leader in Liberia, Mr Taylor, was financing the RUF to destabilise the country with the aim of getting his hands on the diamond mines. Over time the RUF gained control of most of the country, including Freetown. It wasn't till 1998 after a whole lot of coup attempts and one genuine election that a Nigerian led West African peacekeeping force retook Freetown and gave it back to the previous elected government. The RUF regrouped and in 1999 retaliated by launching the infamous attack on Freetown called 'Operation No Living Thing'. This resulted in a massacre which killed 6000 people and mutilated many more by chopping off limbs and ears.

The international community had to now do something and a huge UN peacekeeping mission was deployed, it even had an aircraft carrier! The RUF was disarmed in 2002 which marked the end of the civil war.
Now huge amounts of cash is being pumped into Sierra Leone but according to the UN it's still the worlds poorest country and the life expectancy for men here is 38. But since 2003 it's been pretty calm.

As a result of all that history there exists a huge compound full of UN trucks, who drive around doing something or rather. While at Freetown the only other Europeans we met happened to be 6 US Peace Corp volunteers who lived in remote villages in Guinea but had come to Freetown to celebrate New Years Eve. I always thought the Peace Cop was like the Marine Corp, but purely to maintain peace. This is completely wrong, turns out it was started by President Kennedy to promote cultural exchange between America and poor countries. These guys sign up for 2 years then go to their allocated remote village and get given a hut to sit in. Three or so hours a week they spend teaching something in the local school. All seems strange to me and after speaking to them I got mixed reactions regarding their experiences.

Every morning, tummies rumbling we headed down close to the port towards a minor taxi stand, in front of a concrete block church with a steel gate perforated by a bullet hole. There sat a middle aged lady with a couple of daughters in orbit, taking care of the clients who squatted on low wooden beaches in a huddled circle. Here we sat with empty bellies till lady would produce a bowl of plumpy rice covered in a thick spicy sauce made from crushed leaves that looked like spinach. Hot spicy dish for breakfast was never before imagined, yet a spoonful of a third sauce, two thirds rice, dipped in some chilly powder and it went down the hatch. Wait 5 seconds and Boom!, all your lower intestines are aglow, while the skin inside your mouth is searing, releasing that endorphin rush that kick starts all four cylinders, setting you up and running for another day.

Regarding sight seeing here, I think the Lonely Planet's introduction hits the mark. It says 'Freetown used to have a dirty and decrepit air and very little worth seeing. And then there was a war'. However we made an effort and saw quite a few old buildings, a lot of which has been shelled and burned out. We even walked a couple of hours across town and saw West Africa's first university. While admiring the red brick ruin, we got swamped by kids. One in particular had something under his t-shirt. I pointed at it and said what have you got there. All the other kids thought this was very funny. When he lifted up the front of his t-shirt, where his bellybutton should have been was lump of flesh the size of a tennis ball. On a kid of that size it looked like he had a third arm. I don't know why they don't cut off the umbilical cord correctly, must be education again, probably why Sierra Leone has the highest child mortality rate in the world. Later while walking away from the University, we met a guy who walked funny, and we found out he'd gotten a bullet in the knee and went further and showed us 2 cm wide scars around his elbows from being tied up for months. People with missing hands and forearms weren't uncommon.

New Years Eve arrived and we debated what our options were to celebrate. Effectively we could have spent it in Paddys bar with the UN people or hang out around the YMCA. The latter won out purely because of innate laziness. At the stroke of midnight we were on the third floor balcony over looking the lights of Freetown as the gospel choir in the basement of our building were making a hell of a racket with some drummer, who was thinking 'it's all about me'. The bells of a church rang, while fireworks of varying extravagance based on social economic status helped identify the various suburbs and provided some festive notions. Having decided New Year resolutions are for losers, we both agreed that it always takes a month or two to write 07.

Had I more time in Sierra Leone I would have gone visiting other towns, but instead we took a day trip to one of the many beaches along the coast from Freetown. Sussex beach is reached after 3 taxi rides and a short walk through a little village. Here I probably found not only the nicest beach I'd seen in West Africa but also the most deserted; It's obvious that when the tourist market gets going again this place will be quickly full of topless smoking German sunbathers.

The night before heading back up to Guinea, Thomas brought home a friend. Sondrine from the Ivory Coast was a large lady dressed like she had just stepped out of a church in southern Mississippi. She even had a dainty hat and gloves. In my opinion a lot of these ladies who wear full length dresses with shoulder pads made of rich printed fabrics look like really comfortable padded arm chairs, in which you could settle down to a nice game of rugby and a cold beer. Anyway she spoke English very well and was absolutely lovely. Having fallen in love with a guy from Sierra Leone, she had moved to Freetown and now has 3 kids. Problem was her husband's family wanted him to marry someone from the tribe, so they tried to have her killed by hiring local witches. But she says she survived because of her faith in Christ. Still they have now separated and she's to go back to the Ivory Coast once her French Teaching Role is terminated. A very educated lady resulting from being an ambassador's daughter, she told us that witchcraft was still very prevalent here in West Africa, especially in Benin and Sierra Leone, but less in the latter as many witches died in the last civil war. Even the consumption of human flesh as sacrifice occurs in more remote villages. Often the victim is handicapped or sick, but a witch having helped a family in the past in this fashion, will in the future call in a debt to help another. This occurred in Sondrine's family when her uncle and others killed and ate her dad.
After her reluctant departure we wondered over Sandrine's fables and agreed she was a very nice person.

Day of our departure we negotiated a very chaotic taxi system to get a ride back to Conakry in Guinea. While leaving the city we were caught in a sort of parade with masked people running around dancing with a group of musicians who were following about 6 girls with white painted faces. These girls were being initiated into one of the secret societies that maintain tribal culture and traditions. I thought all this very interesting, the driver just wanted to get out of second gear, and he soon did direction Conakry.
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