Makeni - Freetown
It looks like the scene from a war film: thick black smoke snakes up high into the azure sky from four separate fires dotted across the horizon. You could trick yourself into believing that the Sierra Leonean countryside has just been the victim of a bombing raid by American B-52 bombers. The real culprit of this apocalyptic scene is deliberate slash and burn, which is destroying whole swathes of forest and most of the creatures that once lived there.
Nobody pre-warned us but it is a national Muslim holiday today so I just popped into the Restless Development office first thing to get a few hours of morning office time, most of it spent posting blogs and catching up with emails.
I have worked eleven straight days so it is time for me to take a break from Makeni before I go stir crazy. Unfortunately for me there is no space in Charlie's car heading south so instead I have negotiated a seat in a ‘shared taxi’ en route to the capital. One place in the car costs 17,000 Leone for the 135-kilometre journey. If you pay 34,000 (£5) you can get the front seat to yourself. Not only is this considerably more comfortable but the front seat also has a seat belt.
Many people won't visit a particular country because of a fear of 'terrorism' or, as is the case with Sierra Leone, because of some completely inaccurate preconceived idea that the country is still a war zone (more than a decade on from the civil war's end). Where I differ from most people it seems is in my absolute dread of roads. There is nothing more dangerous than travelling on the pot-holed, anything-goes roads of India, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Sierra Leone - to name just a few. You are very unlikely to be kidnapped and murdered by insurgents anywhere but your odds of having a mishap whilst travelling in a badly maintained car or truck are considerably higher than most people realise. And so it is rather reassuring that our driver has gone out of his way to drive carefully and at a normal speed all of the way to the capital, while the punters in the back have been heatedly debating what they think should be the future development plan for Sierra Leone.
Poverty is right up close in your face in Kissy where our journey ends. Nearby there are a couple of shocking slums, built by the edge of the sea. This is the east end of Freetown. From this point you need to find your own transport to get you wherever you want to get to in this chaotic, sprawling city of 1.5 million. I share a second taxi to the Murray Town district of the capital with one of the gentlemen who travelled down with me from Makeni. Ibrahim tells me when he left teaching, after 28 years in classrooms, he was earning $200 per month (excellent by local standards). Now he earns three times that figure working for an industrial company, which sends him down to Freetown twice per week to pick up materials from the main depot.
There are reminders of the Caribbean here in the two-storey wooden residential houses and shop fronts which look like they belong to a bygone age. The east of the city is choked silly with traffic although congestion has been eased this very week with the newly enacted law banning motorbike taxis from downtown Freetown. Some roads shoot up at steep angles into the hills; others drop suddenly to the litter-strewn sea below. The 500-year-old Cotton Tree in the middle of downtown is a surreal sight. This huge ancient tree actually serves as a busy roundabout and is home to an untold number of bats. The Freed Nova Scotians who settled Freetown cleared the land from the sea to this tree upon their arrival in 1792. The streets in the immediate vicinity of the Cotton Tree feel grander than they do elsewhere with the colonial Courts of Justice the most impressive of the buildings. Otherwise the scene is one of dizzying, colourful, scorchingly hot chaos. Street hawkers sell tie-dye, plantain chips, violent Nigerian gangster movies, Arsenal football tops; every-colour-under-the-rainbow-fizzy-drinks, fried chicken feet, and phone cards. A brightly painted Methodist church is located next door to a vehicle repair shop, diesel fumes spilling out onto the street; a concrete mosque looks out onto a busy row of market stalls; a Krio house - the windows boarded up with cardboard and plastic bags - is next door to a shop called God is Great Enterprises. There is nothing seemingly unique about Freetown aside from the way in which all of the above collide; in this sense Freetown has a character all of its which makes it quite unlike anywhere else I have ever been.