I nod to the guard as I walk through the gates of Mamba Point. This is a centre of affluence in Freetown. Located high-up on Signal Hill, it’s a hotel and bar where some ex-pats – many of whom work for mining companies or aid organizations – go for air conditioning and wireless Internet. I just needed to use its ATM, though. It’s not much of a surprise to find it’s broken. A sun-burned, middle-aged man is smoking a cigarette nearby. I ask him if there’s an ATM in the city.
“I would never use an ATM in this country. Are you fucking kidding me?”
I wasn’t kidding, so I didn’t appreciate his answer. I thanked him and walked off.
“Good luck with that” he said.
Before I left Canada, I had a common reaction to the news that I’ll be working in Sierra Leone (known here as “Salone”): “Stay safe!”
It’s understandable. This country has not appeared prominently in foreign news since the civil war ended in 2002. Death and violence are what much of the rest of the world thinks when they hear about this country. But in 2013, peace is the norm.
Wait. “Peace” may not be the most appropriate word.
Freetown is noisy. Car horns, loud voices and calls to prayer flood the streets from dawn ’til dusk. I can’t walk for 10 metres without people shouting hello, or calling out ” Hey, Peteh Crouch!”
The heat goes without saying. I was warned about it, but actually, I love it.
The most striking thing I notice about Freetown is the lack of development. This country is poor. Even the centre of the city looks like it hasn’t had a lick of paint for years. Roadways are crumbling, and the cars on them are generally 20-year-old Nissan Sunnys, imported from continental Europe or the U.K.. Yes, steering wheels can be on either side here.
Other than walking, there are four ways to get around:
Hire a driver and his car. Around $5 an hour.
Shared taxis – where you shout in the window as it passes, to see if it’s going where you’re going. A 15-minute trip can cost as little as 1,000 Leones ($0.23).
Poda-podas – like shared taxis, only cheaper. They’re mini-vans travelling on more fixed routes.
And Okadas – motorbike taxis, where you sit on the back and pray you will not die, as they dive through any gap available in either lane. These are more expensive than shared taxis, but are faster. If anyone’s asking I have never used these.
The modern vehicles that are on the streets are quite often white Land Cruisers, with a sticker on the door, denoting the aid organization. UN, Concern, Peace Corps, even Project Peanut Butter.
JHR‘s tight budget means I’ll be using the other four options. I mean, three of the other four options.
Anyway, why would I want to insulate myself from this great place after coming all this way? Are you fucking kidding me?