A Bitter Sweet Return by Robert Jones

In December 2012, I ended my self-imposed exile, and journeyed back to “the land that we love; our Sierra Leone”. It was a short excursion to finalise the arrangements for, and attend my father’s funeral. Prior to this trip, I had not been back for over 19 years!

My journey started with a booking on a flight aptly named “Gambia Bird” – as it transited through, yes, you guessed it, Banjul, Gambia. For a small German operator, I feel they represented value for money. The seating was extremely cramped due to the size of the plane, and my 18 stone, 6ft 4″ younger brother was quite comical to watch as he squirmed, turned, and shifted to get comfortable. However, the meals were fresh and hit the spot. The options for flights to Freetown though was quite diversified with Air Morocco, BA, SN Brussels all flying to our capital. Worryingly, there was little competitiveness in prices around the festive period. It seemed to be an oligopoly of sorts; collusion cannot be fully negated.

I digress. After a 4hr lay over in Banjul, I set foot on Sierra Leone soil; the nostalgia was intoxicating. I was apprehensive yet excited to engage the immigration personnel and gauge their level of professionalism. I was impressed with the layout and investment in the airport but it seemed so frenzied with opportunists eager to identify some naive visitor to cream off. That said, it was an improvement on what I left behind 19 years ago.

I crossed over by ferry and it was a very disappointing experience. After a long wait for a ferry and observing the health and safety risks of overloading, we set-off. I opted not to stay in VIP but rather to ride up top with “my people”. I made a hasty retreat to the vehicle after someone threw-up and there was no one to clean it up. Someone actually stepped in it and with the flies and uncovered food/drink, it was no wonder that diseases were rife. I felt there were employment opportunities there for cleaning staff on rolling shift systems.

My journey home from Government Wharf took almost 5hrs because of the chaos on Kissy Road; amplified by the hoards of lawless “ocada” drivers, who not only caused mayhem on the roads, but endangered the lives of pedestrians by mounting walk ways and pavements. The traffic police officers seemed overwhelmed; almost scared in some places of these drivers. I learned later that the ocada drivers were mainly ex-combatants, so I saw the wisdom of the police not to take a more zealous approach in the face of such decadent transport providers.

Freetown seemed so congested. Both in terms of the vehicles on the road but equally so in the number of residents – including foreigners from China, Bangladesh, India, and more . Looking into the eyes of the indigenous petty traders, peddles and hawkers, of all ages I must add, I saw a lot of desperation and suffering. I observed kids of school going age selling everything to anything; side by side with those who would qualify as old age pensioners doing the same. The city of Freetown could do with an increased number of street cleaning, road maintenance staff and more oversight and supervision of the traffic police deployments around the city. City planning was either redundant or non-existent as buildings had been erected on every inch of spare land going which gave the city no defining aesthetic. But such is the appetite for real estate investment, I doubt I could persuade the developers to adopt a greener approach.

The city seems to have attained an entrepreneurial spirit with businesses at every corner; bars at each block, and of course the aforementioned traders. In addition there seemed to be agents of the two major mobile phone operators everywhere. So, grass roots traders and small businesses abounded but apart from the security agencies, car sellers and supermarkets it was hard to see thriving middle sizedbcompanies in action. My stay was limited, so this is of course, a limited observation.

Despite the blackouts, lack of sustained water supply and the offensively humid heat, I settled back into life in Freetown surprisingly with ease. In summary, the country has a long way to go; the few roads being resurfaced is only the tip of the iceberg. Sustainable utilities, healthcare, education, city planning and transportation, and employment creation are the challenges facing the current government. And has challenged all previous governments before it. The future is only as bright as we make it. The end.

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