Jan had no fear and also a much stronger 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser. He had been running around the back streets of Freetown looking out for historical artefacts. Freetown was at the head of a peninsula that always feels separated from the rest of Sierra Leone. It was the gateway to a large part of west Africa, having the best deep water harbour along a stretch of the Atlantic Coast from Nigeria to Morocco. The original inhabitants of the peninsula were the Koya Temne and the Krio that now dominated culture and ethnicity there were descendants of freed slaves that had been given the land “forever” by the local tribes. Hence the name Freetown. The British could not keep their hands off the region though and used Freetown as a base for their trading. The usual trappings of colonialization were set up; not just the old warehouses and substantial merchants buildings in the centre of the old city, but fortifications on the many hillsides to protect this fortuitous location.
Jan had scoured old documents and maps and found that several of the cannons still existed across the city and had spent some weekends looking for them. He had also visited the oldest school in west Africa, and gone searching for other historical colonial artefacts.
Jan and I made a couple of other excursions down the peninsula. One day we drove down to the point where Kofi had turned back and Jan gingerly dropped down this potholed but once tarmacced road. The road, flanked by thick vegetation turned to the right onto a badly maintained concrete bridge across a river. The potholed highway continued up the other valleyside and then … bump bump… you were up onto a smooth well maintained bit of metalling. Kofi and I had turned back less than half a kilometre from where the good road started. The chaos of the road out of Freetown was all down to the construction from the Chinese who decided to tear up the whole countryside one time before laying a road, as opposed to progressively rolling out a finished product. To the north of us was thirty miles of dust and mud.
Time to get on the road
I was off to Fintonia the next morning so did not engage more in that culture till I returned back the following weekend. After defecating through a hole in concrete, bathing with buckets and itchy sweaty sleeping under a claustrophobic plastic mosquito net; the little project apartment at the foot of the tower block in the northern fringes of Wilberforce was like a 5 star hotel. It had two main rooms, a kitchen diner and a lounge with TV, and two bedrooms off. The main bedroom had a window out front and en suite bathroom and if I could, I would try and take that. With other consultants coming through it was a case of first come, first served and more often than not I was put in the second bedroom. This was at the back of the main living room and built into the hillside, so there were no outside windows for light, ventilation or view. Worse, it had a small window which opened onto the living room itself, so if others were in the house and using the living room the light and noise came through. Still, I was usually too tired from the work and the heat to care and slept well whichever of the rooms I ended up in.
The STEWARD apartment block
On the floor above, our project manager, Jan, lived in a spacious apartment with a proper balcony and plenty of room; as it was up from mine, there was more distance from the front of the block to the hill behind. We did not tend to socialise a huge amount the first time I was there, but now the weather was out I often could hear his music when I came out the front and we talked a lot more. He’d started exploring Freetown of a weekend and he asked if I would like to join him on some trips. I jumped at the chance. The GIS colleague with whom I was most closely working, Kofi, had taken me out a couple of times but he was not much of an explorer. He would take me to a restaurant (usually Chinese) or maybe go shopping. Once in the wet season I had persuaded him to take me down the coast but the road was one of those being upgraded by the Chinese and once beyond the city limits we had to traverse many road works, holes in the ground, ruts in the road, and muddy pools of water. We had gone south about 20 km when the road degraded further, the weather had closed in and we could see only a hundred metres ahead. It had not been pleasant and Kofi turned the vehicle round and came back. I think it put him off any idea of exploring with me any further.
I suppose Kofi had been concerned about his car. He had been given a project vehicle by our employees for the two year duration he was to be resident in Freetown. It had taken a while to get it to him as it was bought in his home country of Ghana and they had to arrange one of the project drivers to fly to Accra then drive the vehicle back through Ivory Coast and Guinea to Freetown. This had meant a mountain of paperwork which seems to be an essential requirement in West Africa to cover insurance, passport needs, customs claims and laissiez passer, or a carnet to allow passage. Kofi was very careful with this vehicle as he knew it would be the only one he was allowed. Having put up with taxis and drivers for the first couple of months, his freedom from having his own vehicle was therefore immense. He could choose when he arrived and left the office; he could shop and travel around at the weekend easily. So he was not keen on taking it out on the open road for a jolly. Although it could just about cope with the neglected streets of Freetown, it was not rugged enough to cope with the rural routes.
Sierra Leone was basking in a perfectly pleasant environment of between 26 and 30 degrees. There were gently refreshing breezes coming in off the Atlantic. The sun was out, and what was more, so were the people. I was heading off to Fintonia within a couple of days of arriving so did not have much time to soak up the atmosphere, but the office team were much more sociable than they had been in the wet season and I was invited to join them at an event on Lumley Beach. We gathered at the car park at the top of the compound and split into two cars, and picked up a couple of others from houses nearby then headed down the hill to the west. The short journey to Lumley would normally take about 20 minutes in the wet season as we picked our way around the potholes, but now we were across the Aberdeen Bridge where I pick up the ferry to the airport in less than ten. True, the Chinese were starting to make progress on a series of dual carriageways which were cutting through the suburbs, but just being able to see where you are going without the windscreen wipers on overdrive sped up the journey no end.
I’d driven along the long strip of Lumley Beach in previous visits but all I had seen was windswept beaches and boarded up bars and restaurants. Now there were twenty or thirty establishments all exposed to the air, their neon lights, lit up menus and tables and chairs on decks made the strip like a holiday resort anywhere. We parked up on the beach side and went through a wooden shack to order some drinks. The air was too stuffy inside the shack so we grouped a bunch of chairs around a table on the beach and settled down to study the menus. The sea was rolling in about twenty metres away and the boom boxes were playing up and down the clubs along the strip. Behind us next to the road an area of the beach had been cordoned off by grass fences. A stage had been put up flanked by walls of speakers. After dinner and a couple of beers we pulled up our chairs into this temporary arena and settled down.
The entertainment was provided by an NGO called “Performers Without Borders”. A few Europeans had teamed up with entertainers from across West Africa and there was a dazzling show of music, dance and skits. Yes the crowd were mainly expats but there was a life and a buzz which I had never before seen in Freetown.
The Show begins