Days and Nights of Freetown- Africa’s infrastructure nightmare.

I got as close as I dared and worked out what had happened.  A lorry had been crossing the bridge and had overloaded what was now apparently a much weakened structure.  At a point as far away from the supporting columns as possible the weight of the lorry had made the bridge literally snap and it had plunged into the river, the far part of the bridge had dropped into the river too pulling the south end upwards, and at the same time it had dragged a portion of the north side of the bridge down too.  The force of the break had twisted the girders, wrenched out the pins and snapped the weldings.  Peering down into the fast flowing river I could just make out the cab of a modern lorry.  No-one could tell me whether the driver had survived the traumatic plunge or subsequent immersion.

Not point in dwelling too long on this disaster.  The villagers of the settlement on the far side were an industrious lot, had set up a regular ferry service and were doing a brisk trade.

The narrative of this disaster was typical of Sierra Leone.  Years of neglect and lack of maintenance meant what minimal infrastructure the country had was deteriorating.  Out of the fragments of an emergency, though, there was a spirit of entrepreneurialism, and a solution could be found.  If only that spirit could be tapped and more widely fostered the country would become a powerhouse in the region.

How to tap that spirit and who should lead were questions left dangling with me.  Any person who had obtained power may give a perception of some benevolence to those who they guarded, but in reality most of the their time was spent finding ways to further themselves and their immediate circle.  And so many basic problems in Sierra Leone seemed never to be solved.

Days and Nights of Freetown – To the collapse

I was happy to go – it was somewhere new.  We headed out along the main road out of Freetown to the rest of Sierra Leone.  As I’ve said elsewhere, the Chinese were building another road through the mountains to take pressure off the main road and route traffic from the Western Suburbs to Hastings but it was still not ready, and the illegal use of the course of the road was now being strictly policed.  So it was all slow going, but once past the hubbub of a Saturday market in Hastings and Waterloo we were on the open road that I knew well from my forays up to the north.  We only traversed a few kilometres though before Jan turned off to the right at the village of Malolo and continued along a wide but untarmacced road to the east.  This was in theory the most direct main road from Freetown to the Southern Province and ultimately to the Liberian border, but the underdevelopment of this region in amongst low lying swamps meant that more vehicles would head inland to Bo and Kenema before turning southwards to the coast again.

The road was eerily quiet, we only saw a few taxis and bikes as we passed several villages.  The road was unnaturally straight and flat even for the best of the metalled African highways, and I realised that in fact we were following the route of an old railway.  It turned gentle corners every so often but was for the most part elevated above the level of the marshy swampland and pockets of agriculture below.

The woodland became more dense as we went on and while agricultural produce was not present on the roadside, many charcoal bundles were for sale.  I had no idea what this bridge looked like so was amazed to see it was a big old structure spanning a river of about 300m.  There were a bunch of taxis hanging round one end and I could see people were walking down the embankment of the old rail track to the left of me.  We got out of Jan’s vehicle and I walked along the old course of the railway.  Below me to the left was a muddy harbour where people were transhipping from their land transport into small dugout canoes and being ferried across the river.  Them and their livestock, belonging and commodities.  In front of me the bridge was a single track iron girder structure with wooden planks placed crossways.  The metal looked a bit rusty and some of planks could be replaced but it all looked perfectly respectable.  Ahead of me something was wrong – I could see the far end of the bridge was perched up about 10 metres above my level.  I took some ginger steps along the way.  While the part of the bridge I was on had guard rails made of girders coming up to my chest; over the main part of the river they were more at lorry height.  This main part had collapsed.

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Just a hint that something was wrong.

Days and Nights of Freetown – Searching out the museum

Jan and I had one further excursion.  As well as the cannons and old buildings, he’d also located another piece of colonial anachronism that existed down near the docks on the east side of the city.  Someone had established a railway museum and obtained various artefacts from many different sources.  The national railway system closed down in 1975 and, apart from the evidence of some tracks in places, Sierra Leone had become a rail free country until the Chinese started to build lines into the interior again in recent years to transport high grade iron ore down to the ocean.

The collection of locos and other railway jumble were hidden away for many years during the civil war, but once peace had been re-established, news of this amazing piece of industrial archaeology came to light to one of the peacekeepers form the UK army.  He spearheaded the efforts to raise funds and first preserve the collection then restore and rehouse the amazing set of engines.  Using various tourist guidebooks, I steered Jan through the streets of central Freetown on a Saturday morning.  Even now the place was heaving as people shopped in the early cool air.  Every inch of the main streets seemed to be taken up with hawkers selling clothes, mobile phone covers, vegetables and fruit, newspapers, CDs and videos.  The traffic was moving, yes, buy only at a few miles an hour every minute or two.  It did eventually thin out a little on the east side of town and just where the main road out into the rest of the country was heading out to the south at a roundabout, we veered off into an industrial area on a small stump of a peninsula called Cline Town. Although there were still some residential blocks, compounds and the odd informal cluster of shelters, the area was more full of workshops and warehouses, and at the far end several large gates heading to wharfs.  The instructions from the guides were vague and we had circled a couple of streets several times before we finally spotted a small sign against a warehouse.  There is was, but it was shut, despite the guide informing us of the opening hours.

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The Cotton Tree in central Freetown – looking a little worse for wear

Big disappointment as crawling over old railway engines is a good distraction for me but we still had a few hours to spare so Jan asked me where else I might like to go.  I was happy to explore anywhere so he told me of a couple of places out east that he would like to see.  One was the report that a bridge over a river had collapsed and nearby there was a community making charcoal that Jan had visited once before and he had promised to take them some of his pictures.

Days and Nights of Freetown – The villagers join us on the beach

An impromptu market spring up on the shore as several of the big mammas who were catching the fish in their bowls were passing them on to others on the shore lines.  It was not clear but it looked like several of these women were managing the sales of the fishermen and ensuring that they got their cut even though many were still out in their boats.  But there was the odd opportunistic guy who dipped a single bucket into the water to get enough food for his week.

The concentration of fish in this little area had caught the attention of much of the bird life in the environs and they were swooping in on the catch, or  stealing the odd fish from the periphery of the market place.  Some of the fish were being cleaned right on the beach there and the entrails were picked up by birds and by the lucky crabs who lived just where we were standing.

We watched for a while as the final stragglers of the catch were brought up and the remaining net tidied up into one huge pile ready to be loaded on to a cart and taken back to the village to be repaired and prepared for the next haul.

We bade our farewells to this village, privileged to have been included in a huge community ritual and started to walk back to our resort.  At this point I realised just how far we had travelled and it took over 30 minutes to get back.  We’d been away a couple of hours but it did not seem to bother the rest of the group who had been reading, drinking and doing a bit of pottering of their own.

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The tide was completely out now and only a trickle came from the lagoons and the river.  Laziness had taken over the whole world, whether it was the sun, the beer or the palm wine.  Kids who had been playing now leant on a nearby wall and said a seldom word to each other.  Dogs had half buried themselves in the sand to cool down and probably relieve the tics or fleas.  The sun was setting over the ocean and turned the bay a distinct purple grey hue.  Reluctantly we packed up our belongings and headed back to Freetown and work.

Days and Nights of Freetown – Working on the beach

It was tiring work – and my soft hands blistered easily on the rough rope.  I got a mixture of encouragement and jibes from my effort, but most of the people there were pleased a white guy had come along to help them get the catch.  Most of the hauling was achieved by a few strong heavy set guys, but even a few little children were joining in as were a couple of women who could have easily put me over their shoulder and taken me off to their village if they so thought about it.  Someone at the back started to chant a deep slow song which helped to pace the hauling hand over hand.

At this time the beach was dominated by men.  I then saw a load of people, mainly women, come through a gap in the dunes, no doubt from the village that was just behind, carrying an assortment of plastic bowls and buckets.  They took up positions in the shallow water and waited as the net came closer to the shore.  I noticed the boats which had been spread out in the water when we first approached had now come in close to the net and their occupants were reaching down inside the net to scoop up the first of the catch.  On went the hauling.  Now I could see the water surface was boiling away as the fish became more tightly grouped and began to panic.

Jan and I had given up hauling in and watched the scene, Jan trying to get in with his camera to get some close ups.  A couple of people started to introduce themselves to me and ask where I came from.  Some were friendly, some inquisitive, others just drunk on palm wine and after money to feed their habit.

The final push to bring the net in commenced – it was barely 100m round the water and the fish took up almost the whole volume.  The fishermen had obviously carefully chosen this late part of the afternoon when the sun was beginning to get low in the sky to spread their net, as it is when fish tend to congregate in the shallows, and they could maximize the haul.  Buckets and bowls were now being dipped into the melee and up came a full catch of silvery slithering creatures.  I was disappointed to see how small most of the catch was; mostly juveniles.  Was it a case that overfishing had depleted the bigger sized fish as elsewhere in the world or were these the ones which hung around the shallows at this time.  Whatever, two things were clear; in quantity terms this was a huge source of protein to an entire village, but also the practice of taking out such big amounts of small fish did not bode well for the long term sustainability of the fishery.

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On the beach

Days and Nights of Freetown – Helping the fishers

I am rarely able to sit still for very long and within an hour of lunch I wanted to explore.  Jan said he would join me; he could do with a walk.  We waded across the river which was now hardly more than the trickle of water and we walked across a mass expanse of flat sand to reach the dunes.  We could see they sat atop a long spit of land, and from where our little river broke into the Atlantic, there spread about 5 kilometres of flat hard beach sand.  We were up for exercise following our long lazy lunch and we set off at a pace.  We passed plenty of other tourists from Franco’s for a while doing something similar but he further we walked the more we met just locals; some kids playing away from the village, the odd fisherman who was checking a boat moored up on the beach.  Off in the distance we saw a huge amount of activity both on the beach and in the water.  It became obvious as we came closer that a whole village had come out in the late afternoon and the fishermen had let out a massive net in a semi circle from the beach.  Several boats were out in the deep keeping an eye on the net which was kept in position by a number of floats.  One boat was holding the far end of the net in position close to the edge of the beach.  A second boat that was  letting out the net was drawing close in to the beach about a 100 m from the first and several men from the beach dashed into the water and grabbed hold of the net.  At this point they arranged themselves on the beach in a line and started to haul the net in.  About thirty people pulled like in a tug of war and dragged the net about half way up the beach.  The man pulling at the back would release his grip on the net, and while some people behind him were folding the net neatly on the beach, the man ran to the water again and took up a new position at the front.  Jan and I watched for a while until people realised we were standing there and smiled.  Jan was a keen photographer and started to take some snaps.  I was invited to help haul in the net so I took my position up near the front and started to pull.  It was horribly hard work.  The net was already heavy but it was loaded down with sea water and some bric a brac – even the occasional fish caught in the string.  But the net, called a seine, was gradually tightening – the semi circle growing smaller and the boats out in the water were checking that it was not losing its grip on the bottom and letting fish escape.  Such a clever simple system – floats on the top to keep the fish from escaping over it, weights on the bottom to stop them from scrabbling underneath, and all the time we pulled the net hand over hand the net tightens and the fish herded closer and closer together.

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On the beach

Days and Nights of Freetown – Lazy Lunch

So it was not much of a surprise to find out when I got back in the dry season that most of the resident project team had made Franco’s a regular spot to hang out.  About ten of us travelled down in convoy, there were no problems finding the turn off in the light and when we entered the compound in the full sunlight it was like I was in a different world.  It was now bustling with several families, the kids running in amongst the bushes.  There were groups of young people, obviously aid workers of one sort or another.  Some more affluent Sierra Leonean families were there too and we were lucky to find a couple of free tables.

We set up on the beach around a couple of pulled together plastic tables and we ferreted around the compound for enough plastic chairs.  I sat down on mine which promptly sank eighteen inches into the sand, buckled and tipped me onto the ground.  Any attempt at cool beach behaviour was now lost.  We ordered some food and I took a beer and wandered around.  The restaurant and main house of the hotel was sat on a small artificial spit of land built on a lagoon.  One the east side the mud flats extended out naturally into a patch of mangroves, on the inside there had been some dredging of the sand which made a slight harbour from which both fishing and pleasure boats with shallow drafts could nestle.  In front of the beach was a large estuary that curved back on itself before discharging in the sea a couple of hundred metres away from us.  At the moment the lagoon had a fair amount of water in it and only a few more adventurous people were wading out across to the far side where there seemed to be a high bank of sand dunes.

So we ate lunch and chatted and joked, fell asleep , sun bathed and relaxed.  It was a good day after all the hardships of living up in Fintonia and the work we had done the previous week.  We observed a few people swimming out from the jetty, a couple of locals passed by with dug out fishing boats to inspect their nets up the river.  All the time the tide was retreating and more of the sand became exposed.  At one point a large group of young guys all in the same style of red t-shirt but dressed in various shorts, boxers or briefs,  energetically ran across the largest emergent sand bank.  They did acrobatics, tossed a football around and fooled around with each other before heading out over the sand dunes.