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.
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.
Stevan had a wild idea to go and find another place he had been told about on the development worker network. It was called Franco’s which to be honest seemed a strange name for somewhere in Sierra Leone. He had vague instructions for how to get there – it was in the Sussex area down that peninsula coastline. Stevan was a savvy South African. He had only been established in Freetown for about a month when I arrived but had established a small network of reliable drivers to get him around and one of his main guys turned up at my apartment. The driver had already collected Ezra from his hotel and Stevan from his apartment up the street from me and we drove through the usual mix of traffic in the dark and wet of Freetown. The centre of Lumley was chaotic, the Chinese were trying to build their dual carriageway through a thriving market place which even at this hour was throbbing with activity. Once out of town progress was still slow. This taxi was an series of metal sheets held together by the rust, so to preserve its longevity, the driver would go at barely 10 miles an hour and drive round every pothole. In the dark the journey was interminable – we got mouthed off at by a herd of Boers who tailgated us with full beams then shouted obscenities at us as they zipped off in front leaving us in a splatter of mud.
Stevan tried to spot where our destination was in the gloom. We saw a sign on the right hand side of the road which said “Francos, 800m”. This was very encouraging and we crept along the right side of the highway looking out for a second sign. But we ended up in Sussex village itself and Stevan declared that we’d gone too far – it was supposed to be on the Freetown side about a kilometre from Sussex. Now, being a geographer I always have problems with directions which tell you to do something a kilometre before a town. We came back along the road and ended up by the sign again. This time I noticed in the head lights that while we had seen the “Francos, 800m” quite clearly, the small arrow pointing off the road was almost invisible. Bit of a doh moment.
We bumped down a very ill made road which appeared to be heading for the centre of a village, but eventually we saw white fluorescent lights and a big gate set in a whitewashed wall. After parking up we had a wander into the compound. All was deserted. It was after all the wet season and while we had been driving along it had started raining once again. But the lights were on and the tables were set in a grass thatch roofed restaurant open on three sides to the elements. We ordered a few beers and some fish and while waiting for it to be cooked up we took a brief look at the resort. Although pitch dark out the front we realised the restaurant opened out on to a beach in a sheltered bay. To the left was a large old house which was “Florence’s Resort”. Florence and Franco were a married couple and you could tell that one looked after the restaurant and the other the hotel side. Indeed this old Italian grandfather type came out of the kitchen while we were there and sat at a table at the back of the restaurant. A few other people did arrive while we ate but even though the atmosphere was subdued, Stevan took an immediate likening to the location. He was a rather manic man to say the least, always talking so fast and on diverse topics it was a struggle to keep up with him, but you could see the bustle and hustle in Freetown could be very wearing and Franco’s seemed like the perfect oasis for him.
Jan enjoyed my company that day and we vowed I would do it again sometime while I was there. We could not explore alone the next weekend though as several of the project staff and visitors such as myself agreed we would have a beach day at one of the resorts. I had actually been part of the scouting party that had found this place on a previous visit. On my second trip I had attended a workshop for the project along with many of the organisations that were partners in the programme. For a week it had been good fun. We’d had several crazy nights out after the day’s work was done. One night we went up to Country Lodge, supposedly the best hotel in Freetown, and sat drinking and eating well into the night. When we tried to negotiate a taxi to take us back to our accommodation, we found the drivers were all out to fleece us so we ended up grabbing a number of motos, the little motorbike taxis that flit around the streets. Expressly forbidden by most development agencies in Africa given their reputation for young drunk teenagers being the main source of riders, I found the experience invigorating and our driver (along with myself, a colleague and her laptop sandwiched between the two of us) got us down the hill, dodging the potholes, in double quick time.
At the end of the meeting a couple of others stayed on. I had still two weeks or rainy Freetown to look forward to, and one of the other stayers, Ezra, and a fast talking South African guy into media, Stevan, had decided to explore for a couple of evenings. We started in a bar which became a regular for me, Alex’s, down on the little peninsula in Aberdeen. It was tucked in the nook of a bay and was a great place (when the weather was not raining) to eat on the terrace. A flame thrower would sometimes entertain us from the beach below the terrace, and one time our dinner was disturbed by a horrendous noise coming in from the sea. A hovercraft came into the bay. I’ve talked already of the difficulty in getting across the lagoon from the airport to Freetown, and for a time one method had been a hovercraft. It was certainly a quick method of getting across but the service had stopped after a near sinking out in the sea in 2007, caused by multiple failures from bad maintenance. Old romantics of Freetown had tried to restart the service while I was travelling to Freetown. I was happy with the Pelican but wondered what it was like on this service. My only experience on a hovercraft was a brief but exciting journey across the Solent from Ryde on the Isle of Wight to Southsea.
The noise was deafening as a hovercraft came into the bay. All you could see were fuzzy strip lights through a haze of spray and the band stop playing and conversation came to a halt until this noisy creature got up on to the hard in the next cove and shut its engines down. Unfortunately I don’t think the service lasted. There were still issues with the maintenance of such a sophisticated piece of kit in the middle of Africa. Next to Alex’s, indeed part of the same business, was O’Casey’s Irish bar. This was a lively night club and I did come down on another trip and soaked in some lively dancing drumming and music. Alex’s has closed down recently which is a shame, but I did enjoy my visits down there.
We diverted one more time to take a look at one of the larger Krio villages called York. It was the same grid iron pattern that several of the villages had around here but in the centre were a couple of artefacts. The first was a memorial with an urn atop. The inscription on one face said “The York Centenary Stone was carved by the York Village Community People in the year 1919 to mark the first 100 years of free slaves settlement created in the village by White/Europeans in 1918-1919.”
At the main crossroads was a more eclectic monument. On a substantial concrete base were four more concrete blocks and hanging from a metal cage on top was a bell, sheltered from the elements by a rusty old corrugated iron pitch roof.
A father and child were sitting next to a plaque but we smiled at him and he moved aside to let us see this text. It said “The Town Bell/Fire Bell – This bell was donated by the CMS Missionary to the York Community People Because (sic) of a fire disaster which destroy the entire community in those days and even any people in this community do occupy themselves on either fishing or farming and the fire disaster took place when the people were out of the village in search of their living without anything to alarm the incident this bell hang by one Mr George Pratt regardless of its weight to served as a symbol of notification for fire drawling and sudden death of any prominent person in the village.”
At the heart of that rambling, naive, difficult to follow plaque was a heart rending story of a tragedy that so many places must have experienced. In most of Africa today, people leave their loved ones behind to go and tend in the fields or fish up on the sea, and when there are no other communication methods, if some disaster takes place there was no way of knowing till you returned. I wondered how many times the bell had had to be sounded as an alarm since.
We thanked the man for all his help and edification, and we returned to the vehicle. All our assorted stops en route had taken up both the morning and a good part of the afternoon and I was getting hungry. Jan had already decided we were to stop for lunch at another resort not far from Kent and I was eager to get there.
We parked up in the Mama Beach Resort in the appropriately named area of Eden Park. It was a usual mix of chalets and function rooms spread under the shadiest of trees. It had obviously been existing for years but was going through the final stages of a thorough overhaul. With great pleasure we sauntered through the gardens and by the pool and ordered some food from the bar before asking for a table to be set up on the beach below. While waiting for food I had a saunter around the beach. The tide was low so I was able to traverse the little estuary of a river that poured from the forest and walk across the flats beyond. Having turned onto the south side of the peninsula, we were partially protected from the Atlantic swells and this was a calm oasis of water which a few fishermen were taking advantage of in their dugout canoes. They had to angle way out as the water was so shallow. I looked to the south east and saw just the fringes of the coast as it headed towards Liberia. It reminded me that the Freetown Peninsula is very special in the whole of West Africa, it is the only place that mountains of any size come down to the sea. The coast to the south looked so boring and flat, and was probably a maze of mangrove swamps and mud flats, whereas this was a tropical oasis.
We had fresh fish with rice and vegetables washed down with a couple of Star beers. Thoroughly relaxed I was not too keen to head back to Freetown but the start of another week was beckoning and turn back we had to.
Some higher class houses were placed on the hillocks at the headland. I’d noticed a few places along this coastline where villas either existed or were in various stages of construction. But when I thought of the glory of the views and the beaches, I compared it with the Caribbean of course. If this were Barbados or St Thomas the whole beach front would have been built up with large white houses, and many of the hillsides around – anything which had a sea view. In some ways I hope that the Freetown peninsula stays like this with so much open and public space, but I do hope in other ways it is allowed to develop and becomes a little less of a secret. Unfortunately I had seen up at the city end of the peninsula how developments were starting to use up the empty spaces beyond Lumley. I was not over impressed by the quality of some of the residences; they seemed to be built on South East Asian concepts of the need for space and not African (or for that matter Caribbean). Tightly packed apartment blocks and villas with tiny gardens seemed to be the order of the day. For me I would love a small house with a large garden so not only would I be undisturbed by neighbours but also I would not inflict my own noises and antisocial behaviour on them.
We clambered back up to the centre of Kent where we were met by an old man with grizzly salt and pepper beard. He introduced himself as a guide. He had once been a teacher in Kent and both his English and history was good. He explained how the large red building in front of us played an important part in Sierra Leone’s history. At face value it was just an ordinary, if quite well built, brick structure. It was raised up above the ground like many buildings to cool the interior and keep off snakes. Inside was one large room which was now used as the school, but at one end there were a set of steps that led down under the floor. We were told that people from the interior were brought down to Kent and stored away under the floor here before they were shipped over to the nearby Banana Islands from where they would be picked up by slave ships and exported to the Americas. The little harbour where those fishing boats were moored up was the last piece of African mainland that they ever stopped on.
I’ve always wondered at these gateways to the ships that exist around Africa, the most famous being the Goree in Senegal or the forts on the Gold Coast. This was the first one I had seen in the flesh, and it made me look at the rocks again and wonder at the hundreds of feet of people who must have traversed them , possibly in chains, and bewildered, been put afloat on an ocean (which many may also never had seen before), never to set foot in their homeland again.
The space under this building was barely 3 feet high. It was no bigger than a one car garage. How many people would have been packed away in here?
The old man told us many tales in an erudite fashion but one detail caused me some surprise. He said that Isaac Newton’s family was involved in the slave trade in Kent. I found this curious as my limited knowledge of Isaac Newton was that he came from fairly humble origins in Lincolnshire and was unlikely to have connections with a global trade in people and commodities. I did a bit of Googling later and came across a reference to a character called “Isaac Walton” who had taught in the school at Kent for some years.
This minor detail does not detract from the story of this little peaceful corner of Sierra Leone being a cog in the machinery of the horrendous slave trade.
We passed on south through a couple more villages. Many of the settlements on the peninsula had curiously colonial hark back names. They would have been predominantly Krio cultures, the people descendants of the freed slaves. They had brought back place names from their colonial masters like York, Sussex, Aberdeen, Lumley, Waterloo, Hastings and , at the end of the peninsula, Kent.
It was to Kent we made our way. We again dropped off the main highway where it started to turn to the east but this time the village was a few kilometres away and we had to go through Bureh Town and past another gorgeous beach to reach the very tip of the peninsula. The main residential area of Kent was along a few streets at the east end of the village but the centre and focus for activity was right at the end of the road near where the coast turns right angles. We were charged for parking – the villagers here obviously a bit more savvy about tourist trade than others. And as soon as we started to explore we were accosted by various people. They were all friendly and wanted to show us their village which they believed to be the most important part of Sierra Leone.
We made our own way down to the beach at the Freetown end of the village. The sand was golden here and we got a good sweep back up to the mountains. Steering clear of the people playing ball games on the beach, we clambered around the rocky coastline and I came across a wonderful little harbour. The rocks opened up at one point and sheltered a long narrow deep cove filled with sizeable fishing boats. I stared out to sea. I was on a corner of Africa here, a place where the west coast of Africa turns into the Gulf Of Guinea. To the south of me was nothing but ocean for thousands of miles to Antarctica. Except of course that about a thousand miles south of here was Ascension Island. Sometimes I am amazed at how interconnected my travels become even though the routes to get to them are contorted by time and logistics.
We rejoined the Peninsula Highway and covered a few more kilometres. Jan had heard of a rather secretive little place hidden on the beach down here near John Obey. We saw the sign to John Obey Village on the main road but as we dropped down this gravel track anything but a secretive little hole came to mind. We were accompanied by a range of empty lorries, and ones full of sand were coming up from the beach. I’d seen evidence of sand mining in the Caribbean and in a few other island nations, a single pickup would turn up in the dead of night taking up a small hole’s worth of beach sand to go and construct the foundations from the house. It was usually on a harmless scale although it was deemed illegal and could cause undue erosion on the beach front if the site for borrowing was not carefully chosen. In fact it usually turned out worse for the quarrier – the sand would be saturated with salt which would cause undue corrosion on any structure it came in contact with.
Here at John Obey, sand mining was on an industrial scale and blatantly going on in the full sun. We saw about twenty trucks in less than half an hour coming in and out of this location. We continued on past the operations and turned right into a small car park. At first sight the resort looked like the previous one in Tokah; a few shacks under the palm trees but our initial impression was shattered when we went on a tour of the grounds. First, we saw these large dome like structures which were the guests’ bedrooms. Made of adobe they looked more Saharan than Sierra Leonean but they were beautifully crafted on the outside, with enough air holes to ensure ventilation of the deep cool interiors. Inside they were simply but carefully furnished.
We were shown all the different projects that go on at this place, which was called Tribewanted. They had plots to grow their own vegetables and fruits, there were beehives for honey, a line of fishing boats. As well as to give the guests the paradise treatment the intention here is to have them work closely with the local community from John Obey village coming in amongst the guests to teach help out with the daily tasks, tell stories about their village and share their skills in local crafts. Jan seemed impressed and was keen to book up for a few nights.
The beach here was not as white as up at Tokah, possibly the leaching going on from the quarrying at the back of the sands, but the sweep of the bay was just as impressive. A church group were having a large party a few hundred metres along and we went to watch the band play, the people dancing, the kids larking around in the water and a massive amount of food and drink being consumed.
The West coast of the Freetown Peninsula reminded me of some broad sweeps of coastline in the Caribbean. Against a backdrop of verdant forest clad mountains were a string of fishing villages and long white sandy beaches. Potentially this could be a vital arm in Sierra Leone’s tourist industry but the years of uncertainty during the civil war, and the difficult logistics of getting people from the airport to the resorts down here had stopped any mass expansion. In some ways this was good for those of us who had bothered to make the trip, but some useful potential income sources for the country were being neglected. Most of the people who seemed to use the resorts were the expats and development workers who lived in Freetown. Mingling in amongst the exclusive resorts you might find a huge beach party set up by some church or an impromptu rave on the sand.
Jan turned off the main road and dropped through the village of Tokeh to a tree shaded car park. A series of brush huts informally nestled under the palm trees contained a reception area, a kitchen and bar and laid out along the beach were a series of chalets. Jan and I sauntered over to a low wooden table and lounged around waiting for some drinks. I soaked in the atmosphere. After the hubbub of Freetown to the north of us, this was nirvana. The roaring Atlantic was rolling in to the broad expanse of sand, the sky was blue and the relief of the mountains enclosed this oasis.
A couple of hotel guests were settled on the loungers and hammocks out front, a scattering of kids were playing bat and ball on the sand. As our juices arrived the two of us sat in silence and just let the whole place wash over us. Both of us had had trying and busy weeks at the office. It was good just to rehabilitate in this environment.
The sea was not without interest. A small spit of volcanic rocks broke up the sand and was mirrored by a small rubbly island about 100 metres from the strand. The island was connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway and topped by the most straggly ill looking trees.
To the south, a huge party was already in full swing – it was only 11 am after all – and there were kids frolicking in the water while the heavy beat of dance music spread across the land – maybe it was not quite so idyllic as I thought.
Jan was keen to look around these resorts as he was thinking of where he might spend his Easter weekend. We took a look in one of the cabins – it was Spartan but comfortable. He asked for a price list and we headed back to his truck. I noticed in the corner of the car park that there was a rusty piece of red metal. On closer inspection I realised it was a very old British post box, its door missing and its body etched away by salt air but otherwise intact.