Last Christmas (December 2013), I went home after seven years. The journey was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand I was excited about visiting the place I call home, with all its familiar sights and sounds, and seeing all the relatives and friends that I had not seen over the years. On the other, I was apprehensive about the developmental changes that had taken place over the years.
I arrived at Lungi and was impressed by the courteousness and respect of the immigration officer who stamped my passport. Things were getting off to a good start. He had not asked about his Christmas present or what I had for him, something that others had warned me to expect based on their own experiences. Getting my bags proved not to be as smooth. While there was a conveyor belt for the luggage, a big improvement from the cart that just dumped our bags the last time, there was a hoard of people looking to get bags. Some of these people had not even been on the flight yet they had passports and ticket tags in hand. This was very troubling as ours was the only flight that had arrived at that time. This caused a lot of chaos, especially given that some passengers had been travelling for over 16-20 hours and were irritated and eager to get home. Why was getting your bags from baggage claim with only one flight more complicated than getting your bags at other airports where planes land simultaneously and there are a lot more passengers?
After much ado, we made it from Lungi to mainland Freetown to be greeted by the darkness with spots of light here and there. Electricity in Freetown is a luxury that one cannot count on. I must hasten here to say that while it is not ideal it is a lot better than the last time I was there. Seven years ago, we had light three times in a 4 or so week period including once when the light came for only 10 minutes. This time around it was more frequent. For the most part we had light in the evenings around 7pm and it usually went out sometime in the morning. The frequency of light in Freetown is very area specific. I have a friend who lives at Old Railway Line and they had light almost 24 hours every day. But if you live in Freetown you know what important building is at Old Railway Line which serves as a catalyst for this constant flow of electricity.
Another issue was water supply. Previously, I had stayed at Congo Cross which used to enjoy constant water supply. The taps were only closed at Congo Cross when there was a national cleaning of the Guma Dam which supplies water to Freetown and its environs. This time around that luxury was no more. Even the likes of Congo Cross suffer from periods of no water supply. This time around I was staying at Spur Loop and the whole time I was there, about two and a half weeks, there was no water supply. Every day we went into town we had to take 5 gallon containers so that we could bring water for use the next day.
After over 50 years of independence, we still cannot provide a constant source of water and electricity for the population of the capital city let alone the whole country? For me everything else was secondary. Light and water was not too much to ask for. You cannot take a long shower because you feel guilty. In my opinion, this lack of water encourages unhealthy practices because the thought of the pains involved in fetching water limits the ease with which it is used. Toilets sit for hours without being flushed, because flushing after every use would be too much, causing a stench that permeates the air. Dishes sit for hours because you want to collect all and wash once and for all thereby attracting rodents and insects which are a vector for diseases.
However, it is not all gloom. There is money in Freetown even though one does not seem to know where it is coming from or where it goes. There used to be a small stretch of land called Forest reserve that divided the end of Hill Station and the beginning of Regent Village. That stretch of land is no more, and in its place are numerous houses under construction. Most of these houses are huge borderline mansions, even when compared to Western standards, that are just scattered willy nilly over the hillside. It seems that people are just building where they see fit without any planning or thought and there are no consequences for such irresponsible behavior. In some cases there are no roads which lead to these structures which makes you wonder how the materials and supplies that were used arrived at their destination. This construction dilemma is not peculiar to Hill Station. There are buildings popping up all over the place like wild flowers in a field of grass. This is one of the reasons for the lack of water supply in Freetown. Since people are just building without any planning they lack water supply and revert to various means of obtaining it. At the top of most streets exposed running water pipes can be seen as people have cut said pipes to get water.
Another thing that Freetown has in abundance is vehicles; so much so that they are a nuisance. The city has more vehicles than its old colonial roads can handle which is one of the major causes of traffic that is so rampant now in Freetown. It took 45 minutes to travel from Cotton tree to PWD at the junction of Campbell Street, a distance of barely a mile. There are all kinds of makes and models of cars in the city from range rovers and hummers to Toyotas and Nissans. Another sign of the availability of money. I have never seen so many Range Rovers in my life. I even heard there was a limousine but I never saw it with my own eyes. Why someone would need a limousine in Freetown baffles me given that the largest roads we have are two lanes in one direction.
A word of advice to those going to Freetown, pack a comfortable pair of walking shoes and prepare to “Abu Black” your way around the city. At regular intervals you can stop and refresh yourself with jelly from the road side traders. Actually, the water is not that bad either. I drank water from the tap the whole time I was there and nothing happened to me.
There does not seem to be any law and order in the city. People do what they want with no consequences. The week before I left it was announced that the government was going to clear Sani Abacha Street (former Kissy Street) the following Monday. Before the weekend, the traders marched the streets of Central Freetown in protest and when Monday came nothing happened. If change is going to happen the government needs to have the backbone to carry through with decisions and make sure the consequences are upheld. The last time I was in Freetown okadas had been banned as a result of a nasty accident in which a police woman lost her life along Wilkinson Road. This time around they were back with a vengeance even though there are still daily reports of accidents. They are all over the place and seem to be the fastest way to get around given the traffic in the city. Rules might be upheld for a week or two but a consistent follow-up is missing.
Disturbingly, the whole time I was thinking “there go I but for the grace of God“. I could have been any one of the masses who are struggling to make ends meet. There is even a struggle among those who are supposedly well off. The masses are suffering and you see that as you walk the streets of Freetown. Not everyone has the means to leave even though they might want to. But Sierra Leoneans have a sense of humor that helps them survive tough times. We are a very resilient people. This was the country that survived for nine months without a single bank open in the country.
I have learnt that humans want a comfortable life and would do desperate things to achieve it. It is desperation and the promise of a better life that makes Mexicans cross the desert into the US. The same desperation and promise makes African immigrants attempt to swim the nine mile journey on the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa to southern Europe. Humans have and will always do what is necessary to achieve said comfort. In my conversations with young people while there, most of them want to leave. They look at you like you are crazy when you tell them you are thinking of returning. Opportunities are almost non-existent and the situation looks dire.
It is a big luxury to go to Freetown and know that you can leave. You are mad, frustrated and sometimes downright disgusted but on such and such a date you are leaving. Like the mastercard commercials, that is priceless. Sad to say this is the case of many from the diaspora, they have a Western passport/visa and can bounce if it does not work out. They sometimes go in with good intentions but if it does not work out they have that luxury – a way out – which your average Sierra Leonean does not have. Maybe it is time we give those living in Sierra Leone the opportunity to rule themselves. In the US, there is a minimum residency requirement to hold certain public offices. In Sierra Leone that is not the case. People go home to become state ministers and parliamentarians after long stints of absence from the country and people that they are supposed to govern. In Sierra Leone civil servants are more like masters than servants, they do not seem to have the interest of the people at heart just that of their pockets.
Sadly there are quite a few people who are in government who are from the so called diaspora. Maybe they are consumed by greed, but I am a bit at a loss as to the contributions from the diaspora to the development of Sierra Leone at this point. The diasporans are slowly becoming like World Bank expatriates who jet in tell us what to do and then leave. They have high paying jobs and work with people who are paid peanuts. It’s like David Beckham with LA Galaxy – his salary was almost that of the rest of the entire team combined.
As a people we are so used to dire situations that even when we are given what is due us we feel as if we have been given the world. We get excited when the roads are made. That is why we pay taxes and it is the duty of the government. We get excited when we have light three times a week. We pay bills to NPA and electricity is necessary for a comfortable life.
Socially, it was a nice trip. My highlights of the trip were a visit to Banana Island and the few sunsets on the beach that I was able to catch. Those sunsets on the beach were priceless. That in itself is a resource that I will pay for. Maybe it is high time we milk all of our resources for what they are worth. Sierra Leoneans know how to enjoy and I think that goes a long way in helping us survive the hardships we have been dealt by those that seem to govern us.
With all that been said, I will address the million dollar “what have you done for your country?” question. Lord knows I try to do what I can. It might not be enough but I try and this is not the forum to go into what I do and don’t do. This I can say, we are all looking for comfort. At this point in my life it will be hard for me to go to a place where I cannot even get light and water not to mention health services, education and other basic amenities. That is not too much to ask. At this stage the little individual contributions are almost non-significant to national development. What we need is national level change brought about by a government that makes sure the citizens abide by the rules and regulations of the country. I love Sierra Leone and always will. It has a special place in my heart but I am only willing within reason to make certain sacrifices for that love. I would very much love to relocate back to Sierra Leone but can’t find an answer to the question: When am I going to?
By Leonard Gordon