Thursday, April 13, 2006

Welcome to Freetown

I thought the best place to start my "dispatches from Sierra Leone" would be to paint a bit of a picture of the place itself -- starting with Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone and my home base for the time being.

Freetown is a ramshackle city of probably 1 million people, spilling across a series of lush green hills and marshy lowlands, which in turn cluster around white sand beaches and a complex of peninsulas and inlets.

The city has much of the chaos and confusion that typify urban areas in this part of the world: narrow, potholed or downright crumbling paved streets and even narrower dirt roads, crammed with cars, mini-buses (known here as Poda Podas), pedestrians, street peddlers, beggars, and stray dogs; air filled with blaring music, honking cars, shouted greetings, and the constant whirr of gas-fueled generators to take the place of the almost non-existent state power authority.

Maneuvering the street, whether on foot or by vehicle, is nothing less than an adventure. Pay too little attention to the ground beneath your feet and you may fall suddenly through a large gap in the sidewalk and into the teeming gutter below; pay too much attention to the ground and your may get whacked upside the head by one of the oversized loads people carry on their heads -- everything from building materials to crates of homemade bread to 5-gallon jugs of water. And at all times, watch out for the speeding, veering, careening, threatening traffic; NGO-mobiles, public taxis, motorbikes, and private vehicles of every stripe are equally unconcerned about the safety of pedestrians, and equally likely to veer suddenly and without warning into your path.

Most of Freetown's buildings, like its roads, are in an advanced state of disrepair – due both to wartime damage and the ravages of time and poverty – or have been abandoned entirely in favor of makeshift structures erected from assorted scraps and huddled in the shadow of the crumbling colonial buildings. But the bustle of commerce is clearly evident – not only in the petty traders peddling everything from scientific calculators and cheap flip-flops to cucumbers and CocaCola, but also in the thousands of banners and billboards advertising an array of competing cellphone providers, travel agencies, and brands of beer.

From downtown Freetown, if you wind your way up into the western hills you'll find stunning views and the larger houses of expats and elites. And if you wander down toward the beachfront you'll find beach bars, restaurants and dance clubs -- many of which are bustling nearly every night of the week, and filled to bursting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Even in the nicer parts of town you'll see heaps of garbage left to smolder and rot on the street, because the promised collection trucks never came; and even there the municipal electricity may come just once a week, or even less.

But in the city and the environs alike, you can feel the warmth of this nation's people; their rush to celebrate at the slightest excuse; and their love of life -- even when it seems that life has rarely loved them back. Shouted greetings abound: "Padi, kushe?" (friend, how are you?); "Ha de bode?" (How the body?); and the common and friendly (if off-putting), "Hey, white girl? Will you be my friend?" In response to that, there's little to do but smile.

(Photo credit: Y. Zhou)