Days and Nights of Freetown – Finding Franco’s

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.

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Francos in the Dry Season

Days and Nights of Freetown – Lunch in the Garden of Eden

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.

Days and Nights of Freetown – Specking out the resorts

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.

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Tokeh – A little slice of paradise on the peninsula

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.

Days and Nights of Freetown – New Road

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.

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Time to get on the road

Days and Nights of Freetown – Kofi’s car

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.

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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.

Days and Nights of Freetown – A Whole New Freetown

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.

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The Show begins

Into the Jungle – Speeding into the interior

While we had been coming along the peninsula the wide mangrove swamps of the Freetown harbour lay flat to our left and you could see why no-one had every driven a shorter route from Lungi Airport through here, it was a quagmire of channels and thick vegetation.

Beyond Waterloo the scenery changed.. For one thing there were far fewer people and vehicles here, and our speed on this graded road increased dramatically.  Second we were going through gently undulating countryside now that was peppered with palm trees.  I had a few discussions with my fellow travellers about these but could never work out whether these were stands of native palms or the remnants of some old plantations.  They certainly looked quite well ordered, but did palm trees always grow like this in the wild?  Most of my memories of palms were fringing tropical islands or mixed in amongst scrub.  Here they were the dominant tree rising high above the other species and often well spaced apart.

We dropped down to a large river crossed by a single lane metal bridge.  It was more by luck that we did not get stuck with a lorry coming the other way, but while we waited for one or two cars to cross from the other direction, a series of wise hawkers tried to sell us groundnuts , bananas and unripe mangoes.

We reached a check point but were waived through quickly.  Sierra Leone certainly seemed more relaxed out here in the countryside.  It had been over ten years since the civil war, and some wounds were being healed.  However, it was obvious from the number of limbs missing of people that others would never be forgotten.

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Materials for the new chinese railway

We passed a couple of main roads heading off to other parts of the country; one to Bo, the second city of Sierra Leone, then we turned off ourselves from the main road to Conakry in Guinea and headed eastwards.

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The landscape started to change again; the palm trees thinned out, there were wider open plains mostly grazed, punctuated by dense stands of forest usually surrounding villages.  These were both the fruit trees that people prized – mainly mangoes, but in some places they were sacred groves.  An offshoot of having a place for spirits, burial sites and the like was that the vegetation cover was so much more highly prized.

We passed the first mining town we had seen.  Lunsar.  A new railway had been constructed, again by the Chinese, to access a mine deep in the interior of the country.  It was carefully graded and had heavy engineering to keep the worst of the tropical downpours from undermining the line.  Brand new, it cut a red scar through the landscape as it ran parallel to the main road.

Into the Jungle – Heading off the Peninsula

I said earlier there was only one main road out of Freetown to the rest of the country and it often was clogged up with traffic.  This is true, but there were two alternative routes – a very circuitous route right round the coast, on a difficult road, or a mountain track that we were about to take.  It started out as a normal two lane highway, then became a single track tarmacced road, with a few potholes.  Then it became a muddy track, and the four vehicles struggled along the road for the best part of an hour.

The track was made worse by the improvements being made to it.  I know, sounds perverse, but let me explain.  The government had finally woken up to the severe limitations of depending on one road in and out of Freetown, as well as all the congestion in town.  The Chinese had been contracted in to make a series of dual carriageways around the city.  These were slowly making progress – on my first visit people were very proud of the half mile stretch near the office.  Unfortunate thing was that it took about a minute and a half to drive the whole length of it then you were back to bumping along severely potholed roads.  These feeder roads were all to link up to a new highway that would take traffic out of the western suburbs and potentially past the office from the city centre up in to the mountains and then meet the main road at the little town of Hastings at the isthmus of the peninsula.

The construction of the road through the mountains was in its initial stages – in about four or five places deep river gorges were being filled or bridged, and there was a lot of associated traffic churning up the existing road.  It was almost impassable even by 4x4s but we struggled through.

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Leaving Freetown behind

Haba drove with more skill and speed than the others and kept disappearing into the distance.  We regrouped at a filling station in Hastings where this road hit the main road out of town.  We seemed to be navigating by filling stations.

For the first time in about five days, we were on good roads.  The main highway out of Freetown from Hastings onwards is well graded, well tarmacced with only the occasional surprise deep pothole to buckle your axle on.  But for the next ten kilometres or so it still passed through fairly urban ground.  The suburbs of Freetown had swamped over old Krio towns and made them busy.  The Krio were free African people living around the peninsula, and often still have better education and living standards than the communities in the interior.  The houses were larger and in most areas here there was electricity and water supply.  It still looked like a jumble of periurban activities from smallholding and goat herding to arc welding and phone card sales.

We passed through the busy town of Waterloo, where the peninsula gives way to the rest of Africa.  We stopped a couple of times at the market that sprawled along the length of the main road to pick up bread and a few snacks.  I’d bought some fairly expensive maps of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia when I had been in Stanfords in London, and kept looking at them.  I wanted to keep them dry in the bush and had them in plastic folders.  I had not been so thoughtful in the car to put them away while we were travelling and my water bottle – condensing the humid air around it, managed to soak a hole in my map on the first day!

Into The Jungle – The journey commences

So we had a day or two of meetings in Freetown and at the STEWARD office in a pleasant villa perched high above the city.  The house was on two levels; most of the offices were upstairs along with a kitchen, a small study/library area and a large meeting room with a huge wooden table in it.  Downstairs was a simple entrance; on one side a reception area and on the other some steps down to the former garage, now converted into an office space, which Kofi and I were to use.  I was interested to see that a rather grand chair and large pristine desk had been placed in it just for my use – considering I was going to be only visiting for about 12 weeks out of the next 18 months, it seemed like an excess but it was on offer so I did not refuse.  The echo was bad in here and Kofi liked to keep the AC on ice cold, so when he spoke to me in his thick Ghanaian accent it often took me a couple of times to comprehend what he was saying.

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Kofi at the office

We obtained a pile of Leones for travel – dollars not often used out in the villages.  The exchange rate for Leone was about 4500 to the dollar.  A ten thousand Leone note was the largest denomination; just over 2 dollars.  So you can imagine for a week’s trip you ended up with a lot of currency.  Many people just carried it around in black plastic bags.  I split mine up all over my person and locked baggage and hoped I could account for it all by the end of the trip.  I was fortunate that since Kofi was living there that he could sub me if I was short, and he quite appreciated having the dollars in return as he could make use of them when he was travelling, and it saved me going through various methods, legal and illegal, to obtain local money.

Stephanie urged us to be checked out the Hill Valley early so Hugo and I spent a late evening sorting our bills out.  We had a reasonable breakfast and were all ready to go at 8am.  Nothing turned up.  At 8.15 we phoned Stephanie; she wondered why we had not been collected by one of the rental drives.  A few phone calls and half an hour later, Stephanie and Annie turned up with Haba in the STEWARD vehicle.  The rental driver had got lost and could not find the Hill Valley Hotel; one of the most prominent hotels in western Freetown.  We had not started and we had lost almost an hour.

We were driven not through Freetown but up the hill past the presidential palace and the US embassy to a filling station high in the hills.  Everyone else was already at this rendezvous point and we spent a few moments rejigging some of the luggage (ensuring that whichever vehicle you were in you had your own luggage in case we got separated).

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All together at last and ready to roll

Into the Jungle – Lengthy Logistics

That environment, as I was soon to discover was incredible, full of surprises, and, most of all, very remote.  I had timed a three week visit with that of the USFS and many other partners, who were there to travel around the priority zones and learn what had happened in recent years.  STEWARD had been going for several years already and many prototype activities had occurred.  This current phase was a big extension.  A couple of USAID personnel from their Accra office had also turned up, and some people from the US Geological Survey who were conducting a huge mapping exercise across west Africa to look at land cover.

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USGS maps

The idea was we had a couple of days in Freetown to arrange logistics and have some start up meetings, in particular with CARE International who operated many projects in the area we were to traverse.  Then we would go in a convoy of four vehicles to Makeni in central Sierra Leone for a meeting with another project funded by the World Bank that was working in the area, then head north to the zone itself.

The logistics would have been difficult even if we had been a small party, but there were about twenty people involved in this trip, and we were not all staying together.  Hugo had to return to the UK early, so would only be with us about 3 days on the Sierra Leone side.  One of the USGS guys and myself and my new found Thomson Reuters colleague, Kofi, were to travel back to Freetown a day later after having made a short trip onto the Guinea side.  Then the others were going to travel the length of Guinea to the other area before driving down to Monrovia and flying out from Liberia.

A whole load of issues came up; the main one for me being that my VisitSierraLeone visa was a single entry one; if I got in to Guinea and then attempted to re-enter Sierra Leone it would be probable that it would be refused.  Others had no Guinea visas; so one of the office staff spent the next day or two at various embassies around Freetown trying to get the right stamps.

The project currently had only one up country vehicle, so three others had to be hired from a local firm, along with drivers.  The two USFS staff temporarily running the project – Stephanie and Annie, had to arrange a lot of the fuel, water, food and currency, as well as the documentation to allow vehicles across all the borders.  I was glad to be treated like a VIP guest and they just had to tell me when to be where and what to bring.