Thursday, July 15, 2010

Snapshots of Freetown 2: Sani Abacha Street

As you reach the end of Kissy Road and pass the clock tower at Eastern Police Station, heading West towards the center of town, Sani Abacha Street slopes down in front of you and then up again, affording a clear view of what is to come. Chaos.

A mass of pedestrians swell and surge around vendors and wheelbarrows and poda-podas and massive trucks, the latter discharging their contents in a stream of speed-walking laborers or inching through crowds spewing toxic fumes. From above, it’s impossible to see even the smallest patch of open pavement. The street is a writhing mass of motion, both human and machine.

You take a deep breath and start your descent into this ocean of people and sounds. Horns blare as vehicles plow through the crowds, scattering pedestrians and, sometimes, vendors themselves – their wares, spread on flattened cardboard or nylon sacks on the ground or piled on makeshift wooden tables, hastily pulled back towards the curb.When two trucks meet, they scrape by one another by mere centimeters, squeezing all foot-bound souls into tiny spaces between the roadside vendors, onto the treacherous sidewalks, or into filthy gutters.

Next in size to the trucks and poda-podas, and often much faster, are dozens of wheelbarrows, omalankes, and other hand-drawn carts. The bare-chested men and boys who drag these, piled high with anything from scrap metal or building materials to cases of beer and soda, are among the hardest-working people in this bustling commercial area. Sweating buckets in the tropical heat, their chests and backs rippling with muscles that gym-heads in the US would kill for, they drag their heavy carts over potholed and unbelievably crowded roads. When they start to pick up momentum, they are loathe to slow down – and hence their urgent shouts join the din, calling out a guttural “hup hup” to anyone in their path, followed by more explicit and angrier commands to those who don’t catch on. Hesitate for a second and these carts, like the trucks and poda-podas, will run you down.

And then, from all directions, come the shouts of hundreds of vendors, pitching their wares at full voice and in an endless carnival-style repetition. Their Krio phrases run together in an often unintelligible stream, this already minimalist language abbreviated further to enable rapid-fire sales pitches. Often, only the prices emerge clearly from the din.

“Buy biscuits 2 for 1-5”.

“You don buy chocolate 1 block.”

“Umbrella 10-10 thousand.”

“Halfback 5 thousand.”

“Grafton 2 block.”

“Kola 1 block.”

“Buy 3 thousand.”

“You don buy?”

“2-2 thousand.”

“1 thousand.”

“5 block.”

And on and on.

The wares are more varied than you could imagine, and you wonder if there is anything you couldn’t find on this street. A mountain of radios to one side. A precarious tower of pots and pans to the other. A tray of chintzy gold jewelry atop a makeshift wooden stool. Familiar breakfast cereals – Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran – are sold in slightly battered boxes, as though they were carried across the ocean in giant container ships. (Which they probably were.) Vast assortments of personal hygiene products also include familiar names – Irish Spring soap, Colgate toothpaste, Head and Shoulders shampoo – alongside Arab brands and cheap Chinese knock-offs. You see a glamorous array of perfume bottles and wonder how the 90-degree heat affects their scents.

Many, if not most, of these stalls are run by women, and behind and among the displays are a smattering of young children: babies set on the ground, watching the crowds with wide eyes; toddlers wandering amongst the passersby and playing near the open gutters; slightly older children, some in school uniforms, helping to mind their younger siblings. If forced to the crowded sidewalk by vehicles or the crush of people on the street, you pick your way carefully with your eyes firmly on the ground, hoping you’ll neither step on these children nor fall through the large gaps in the sidewalk where cement slabs are broken or missing.

One of the most common items for sale is fabric, and you see stack after stack of brightly-colored fabrics: printed cotton, embroidered lace, hand-died gara, metallic shine-shine, textured brillante, sequined chiffon. These lengths of fabric, sold by the yard or by “lapa” (a two-yard length suitable for a sarong-style skirt), are stacked on tables, spread artistically at street level, or rolled and stuck into large plastic bins like the spines of giant multi-colored sea anemone.

Fabric sellers are almost always women, and rarely shout. Fruit and vegetable sellers, also women, are constantly shouting. Okra. Cucumbers. Tomatoes. Onions (“yerbas” in Krio). Avocado (“butter pear”) larger than you’ve ever seen. Bananas. Pawpaw. Mangos in mountainous stacks, the smallest smooth-skinned and fist-sized in uniform green or yellow; the largest a mottled reddish-green too large to hold in one hand. Large plastic tubs packed with oversized bunches of cassava leaves and potato leaves adorn the ground. Similar tubs are filled with gari (ground cassava flour), rice, or caustic soda.

As you draw closer to the end of Sani Abacha street, near the area known as PZ, the street widens slightly. The vendors have more space to move, and a few actual shops – as in brick-and-mortar buildings – blare Sierra Leonean pop music from their open doors.

To your right, a young woman shakes a plastic basket filled with cheap metal silverware, the jangling ringing out above the pandemonium around her. “5-5 block,” she shouts.

Ahead of you, a young man blows on some newfangled and deafening noisemaker meant to imitate the howls of a very unhappy baby. People turn to watch and laugh, ignoring the approaching traffic. An impatient truck driver blares his horn, hardly slowly as he drives the crowds out of the way.

Taxis, absent from Sani Abacha, meet you in force when you reach the PZ intersection, and you are forced again to the sidewalk. Your ears are ringing and sweat drips from your forehead. A few police officers try feebly to direct traffic. One gives up and calls to a passing vendor, a young man carrying women’s blouses on hangers. The officer admires one, a bold pink and yellow floral print, and they begin to haggle.

(Photos courtesy of and Sigma Delta on flickr. Tenki!)

1 comment:

Brendan said...

You write so well Ry. I was able to see the colors, smell the air, and even taste the food in the street vendors. You romanticize the madness well; makes me want to visit again.