Days and Nights of Freetown – The Tragedy of York

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.”

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York Stone

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.

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The Fire Bell

Living in the Community – Light and Fire

The lack of lighting in the evenings was mesmerizing.  The pin pricks of light from the phones just about lit up the chests and chins of the people walking by with them.  One or two houses might have a Coleman lamp, but most of the domestic light came from the fires and was both a dim orange and constantly fluctuating.  Then the odd headlight from a car or a dimmer front light on some of the bikes.  That was it.  The ground around was dark, the trees only just discernible against the night sky.  And of course the night sky itself was intense; whether it be from the myriad stars of the Milky Way when we arrived to the first slivers of the new moon on subsequent nights.

One other light would make an impact on us.  Some nights we would look out and the silhouette of the nearby hill was clearer than usual – a red glow behind gave away that a fire was burning up in the distance.  The glow would burn quite intensely, pulsating for many minutes.  It was difficult to gauge how far away the fire front was, but one night, we had been watching the glow getting stronger and could then hear crackling.  The active fire must have been several kilometres across and it was having an effect on the air around us.  First we noticed that we were being rained upon by black cinders, then there was a whoosh from the west and a rush of wind blew straight out of the forest, down the road and out to the east, taking with it a huge swirl of cloud and ash.  The air around us was being fiercely sucked up into the fire front.  We had to hold on to our papers on the table to stop them joining the wind.  It blew for a couple of minutes, the trees violently tugging at their own roots in the maelstrom, before something happened which turned off the wind.  The fire never reached the village but it was another reminder of how vulnerable these places were.  As part of the project, the village had been encouraged to have fire wardens that kept watch for fires in the dry season, and a store of beaters and other equipment was kept in the community centre in case there was a need to protect the properties in the village itself.

Fire became an increasing hazard as the dry season went on.  Not only was there little water on or in the ground to dampen any sparks, but the luxurious growth of understory that built up over the wet season dried out to be perfect tinder.  The scrunching noise you hear as a fire whips around a forest is all caused by it catching a frond of dry grass and exploding along the parched stems and into the dry undergrowth.

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In the dry season this vegetation can burn so quickly

Into the Jungle – Land use in the scrub (1)

The drive back to the camp went through a mixture of woody savanna and open fields and I saw for the first time the dynamics of the shifting agriculture or swidden as it is sometimes known – all aspects were on show en route.  We would see the heavily forested river valleys, generally untouched by this form of landuse, and the long stretches of woody savanna; this is fairly thickly wooded land but able to survive the harsh dry season between November and May.  It had a lot of herbaceous grasses and other plants that grew vigorously in the wet season – as much as 3m high by the time the rain stopped.  This would then seed and dry out and thick scratchy material was left behind as the trees lost their leaves and were reduced to knobbly skeletons.  The mixture of leaves and grass became a tinder box as the dry season progressed and natural fires from lightning strikes in particular might ravage through the understory, leaving a black and white scar across the landscape.  Most of the trees would survive as would the seeds, rhizomes and bulbs in the soil ready to rejuvenate the grassy layer the next wet season.  One or two trees here or there, weak from age or damage, might succumb to the fire and their ashy imprint left on the ground would be all that remains after all their years of life.

Many fires are started deliberately.  Indeed the first step to shifting agriculture would be the chopping down of many standard trees and lighting the bush.  If done correctly it could be controlled within a tight area to be prepared for cultivation, but so often it would spread dangerously into the surrounding shrubs.

The herbaceous layer of these forests are vigorous and if the ground is not tilled and weeded before the dry season, they will grow back more strongly the following year.  Along our route back to the camp,  there were lots of examples of patches of ground in various stages of clearance.  Eventually though people would plough or build mounds of soil, and dryland rice would be cultivated in these patches.  The goodness in the soil, however, without further inputs from manure, compost or fertiliser, would dry up quickly and the fields would be abandoned and left to regenerate first into herby fields, then shrubs and given time in to small trees and back to woody savanna.  As you went round the countryside you would see this checkerboard of clearance, cultivation, abandonment and natural regeneration, but it would be hard to determine exactly which stage it was at.

Into the Jungle – First explorations

Although it was dark I could see the ferry terminal was tucked underneath a long concrete bridge and Haba drove across this into the city proper and wound his way steeply uphill for about twenty minutes.  It was not that far a distance but almost every inch of journey was on heavily potholed roads.  These roads were full of taxis and belching buses, and although it was getting past 8pm, most of the roadside stalls were doing brisk business, including the bars.  We eventually did leave the hubbub behind as we climbed through a quieter residential area.  At long last, Haba did a hairpin turn and drove fiercely up a concrete ramp into the forecourt of the Hill Valley Hotel.  Hill Valley – what a name.

Clinging to the side of a steep hill, it was built on about four levels, and each building had three or four storeys. It had a heavily wood panelled reception and it took a while for my formalities to be sorted out, I then went up to the highest part of the hotel and was shown a rather grimy room, again with dark decoration and deeply varnished wooden furniture.  It was getting late but I felt I needed some food so headed downstairs;  a very tall Englishman greeted me as  I walked in to the restaurant; this was Hugo who was to be working with me on the project.

I was still a little sketchy about what was happening.  The project was funded by USAID and was run by the US Forest Service (USFS) International Program.  But it contained a lot of formal partners, including my own contractors, Thomson Reuters, and for this next week or so, some external organisations who were contributing to the project.

What was the project?  It was called STEWARD or Sustainable and Thriving Environments for West African Development.  The basic premise was that the Guinea Forest was an important biome for biodiversity and potential climate chance mitigation, but also an important resource for local communities and contained some rich mineral veins and logging potential.  The project was to try and find ways to preserve what was left of pristine forest in two main areas, conserve the rest and improve the cultivation and natural resource management by those communities so that the pressure on removing the rest was halted and the forests could be safeguarded as a sustainable resource for generations to come.

This was a tall order; the pressures on the system were great as logging the great gallery trees was eating away fast at the remaining good “jungle”.  However, the whole ecosystem was not really jungle.  Particularly in the northern zone, there was a proper dry season, and away from the rivers the huge tropical trees could not survive.  The predominant natural landscape was a thick woody bushland, petering out over areas where soils were very bad, or where localised seasonal inundations would be too stressful for trees, leaving a grassy lowland (or in the French a bas fond).  In this complex of natural vegetation types, rapidly expanding populations using mainly shifting agriculture had degraded the vegetation.  Fires regularly burned in the dry season too, some of which used to clear scrub but could get out of control.

STEWARD had built up a series of practices with local communities to conserve the land, intensify agriculture through better practices of manuring and compost, replant trees in community forests, arrange people to mobilise to control fire breaking out.  And because these areas were transboundary – that is the northern area straddled the Guinea/Sierra Leone border, and the southern one crossed between Liberia and Guinea, issues of harmonizing laws in all these countries was vital.  There was no point in recommending something on one side of a border only for the other side to continue desecrating the environment.