Not many people head to Freetown to relax. Africa’s capitals, its cities even, and those of West Africa in particular perhaps, have a reputation as big, dirty and chaotic masses of humanity. And they are. In the same way that London or New York could be so defined. And yet these two cities probably receive more visitors and tourists a year than any other on earth.
For all the times I’m forced into a stall of wax cloth or mousetraps to avoid being mown down by an oncoming poda poda (the minibus equivalent of London’s red double deckers) on a narrow downtown street or by the Presidential motorcade, complete with motorcycle outriders in formation, there is something I find strangely warning about Freetown. I might even use the word homely. I just did.
Sure the boys who make their living out of converting dollars into Leones (making you a fleeting millionaire) will single you out if you have fair skin, but otherwise it’s almost like you’re not special, which is lovely, because I’m not, and don’t have the budget that goes along with it. You certainly don’t get handed any old tatty bit of wood that bears a few amateur scratch marks to make it carry the resemblance of an elephant like in other cities I’ve visited on the continent (and I have visited a few…).
Maybe it’s the lack of tourists. If so, it’s a sad mark of tourism, and sad for the Sierra Leonean economy, still reeling from Ebola, the Rebel War (known more widely outside the country as the Civil War), and to a certain extent, Independence. My wallet feels safe in my pocket, which is rather an impressive fact I think.
I love it that no one cares who I am, how many children I have, or where I come from. No one (except the UN) gets over-excited if I pull out my camera. The anonymity and the chance to be alone (after months volunteering on a small island where there is nowhere to run and hide) is refreshing. The people, be they stall-holders, money changers, or taxi drivers seem eager to help for the sake of helping rather than the merest chance of the sighting of monetary remuneration.
It’s blissful under those hot and crowded but eerily easy to navigate streets. Their very names outline this country’s sometimes fateful history: Old Railway Road, Siaka Stevens Street, Wilberforce Street, Queen Elizabeth II Quay, Bai Bureh Road, Independence Avenue.
Freedom is why Freetown was founded, independence is what it gives me. And that’s why I heave a huge sigh of relief as soon as I hit its sprawling traffic even in the broiling heat of its poda poda fleet.