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.
The Fire Bell
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 last view of Africa?
Slaves were “stored” under this
Imagine the smell, sight and noise under 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.
Welcome to Kent
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.
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.
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.
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.