Advantages It's a new stamp in your passport, the beaches are gorgeous
Disadvantages Day to day life is a hassle
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
There's somewhere in the world where the sun shines almost constantly, and temperatures range from a pleasant 34 C in the day to 20 C at night. Somewhere that's the same time zone as the UK (no jet lag). Somewhere where there are beautiful, undiscovered beaches, lush nature reserves and rare species to discover. Somewhere that has yet to be grasped by the evil clutches of McDonalds or Starbucks but is not so foreign you can't feed your Cadbury's and Coca Cola addictions. Somewhere where a taxi ride costs 14p or you can eat out in the fanciest of restaurants for under £10. Somewhere where a main language is English. Somewhere where every time you go out in public, people will ask to be your friend.Apart from maybe the last one, that's probably sounding pretty appealing to a lot of people, but as you'll work out from the category I'm posting this in, I'm talking about Sierra Leone.
Let me guess. Your interest's just withered and died a little?In this review, rather than focus on a specific town or city, I want to give you a flavour of the country as a whole, and what a trip to this destination might entail.
FIRST: Forget everything you think you know...
Sierra Leone is a country roughly the size of Wales, and somewhat diamond shaped. It's a comparison they only make due to its infamous association with the gems, but if you squint, you can see it. It's a former British colony, and evidence of colonialism remains, from the familiar place names (Leicester Peak, Aberdeen) to the unbelievable obsession with the Premier League. I talked myself out of taxi fares and bank charges by dropping into conversation that I was from Manchester. This, in Freetown especially, is a Very Good Thing.The capital city of Freetown is the busiest and most cosmopolitan place in the country, though like their claim on security (it's the safest country in West Africa, you know) that doesn't mean all that much. It is a hectic place where foreign NGO workers, UN and military types mingle with local Sierra Leoneans and immigrants from neighbouring Liberia and Guinea (and, probably increasingly, those scuttling in from Ivory Coast). Like any city is has areas that are richer and areas that are poorer, areas that retain their historical charm and areas that are more modern, though if you're looking for sky scrapers and office blocks with walls of fancy glass windows you won't find them here. Most of the time there will be glass, but this isn't the case up country. I helped out with one of the National Immunization Days when the whole country (and others in West Africa) were having a coordinated effort to get the Polio vaccine out there. We went door to door, searching for all Under 5s, and at one house found 3 children who had been left locked in while their parents went to the market. We couldn't get in, so vaccinated them through the window (which had bars, but no glass).
Freetown is where the 3rd world comes crashing, helter-skelter into the 1st world. You have homes without electricity or running water but walk around the corner and you can get yourself a freshly baked pizza and Diet Coke, while watching live football or MTV. The capital has distinct "zones" with similar shops or businesses. I love supermarkets so was thrilled to find all the best ones near me. Between the UN gym and my home I would pass 5. Freetown Direct is the place to go for Haagen Dazs ice cream sticks, but is the size of a Tesco Metro. Mono Prix is misleadingly named as no two items seem to have the same price, but they have a massive selection of everything you could ever want and are great at mispricing things in your favour. St Mary's is smaller but currently has a 10% promo running on all stock which counteracts their higher prices. Essentials is also a misnomer, but they do have an outstanding chocolate range that no one else can beat. I suppose to some people that counts as an Essential. Pay Less is really pay more, but was handy for my house and the small chocolate range was probably a blessing in disguise. Nowhere else in town had so many grocery stores, so close together. We also had a lot of decent restaurants close by, bizarrely many more than you would find in the actual central downtown area.
SHOPPING: What's in a name? Here, very little...
Shopping here is unexpected and intriguing. Again, almost everything is imported, either from Lebanon or the UK. You can buy Dairy Milk, packet curries, Heinz beans, Sunpat peanut butter. A lot of the items are price flashed and then sold for 4 or 5 times the price - i.e. a 40p pack of biscuits they're selling for 8 000 (or almost £1.50).A lot of shopping is done on the street. Supermarkets don't sell fresh bread, fruits, vegetables, meat or fish, and these are bought off traders outside, some of whom cleverly and conveniently set up on their doorstep. Prices vary massively depending on where you are and reflect not only local demand but also the proximity to the source. Bananas cost 14p for 9 up country where you could also go and pick them off a tree, but in the capital you're lucky to get 3 for the same price.
While magazines and books barely exist in the country, there is a roaring trade in dubious daily rags that make the Mail and Sun look like quality journalism. One of the most surreal moments was when I read an article recounting a meeting I had sat through with the new Minister of Health. I couldn't recall any journalists in the room so can only assume someone issued a press release and it was copied verbatim. Journalism here is the exact opposite of impartial: it is emotive, personal, vindictive. And of course that makes it hilarious to read.
NEWS: The truth? The whole truth? No, everything but the truth
Originally named "Serra de Leão" by Portuguese explorers, this morphed into "Sierra Leone" or "Lion Mountain" over time. There are no lions in Sierra Leone, but that's hardly the point. Sierra Leone is a great place to go if you're a fan of wildlife. While you can make dedicated pilgrimages to see pygmy hippos or chimpanzees, you can also just look out of the window of your taxi and see hens and chickens, goats, stray cats, dogs with manky ears. There's an excellent and simple game you can play very easily in all of Sierra Leone. It's called "Dead or Alive?" and involves assigning all the dogs you pass in the street to one of these categories. I saw several definitely dead ones in the middle of the road, but the ones by the sides lie so still too, and look so unkempt, it's hard to tell. My favourite spot up country was a crazy (think BSE-style) goat let loose on my street, which bounded after me like a kangaroo on steroids much to the delight of my neighbours.
ANIMALS: It's a jungle out there...or at least a petting zoo
Let's talk about the culture of Sierra Leone. Not the art and literature and music kind as I never saw much evidence of those. They're largely hidden away and not for visitors, passed on from generation to generation through the secret societies. But no, not that culture. I'm talking way of life. There are behaviours that, if they were to occur in the UK, would mark someone out as being in receipt of (or need of) psychiatric care, or on the autism spectrum at the very least. Here, though, I suspect that my reluctance to engage in such behaviours equally signified something not quite right, and at the very least suggested I was deaf. Why is it totally accepted / expected in some cultures to go up to strangers in one place and ask their name, or ask every single person who passes you how they are, even if you've never seen them before, but totally unaccepted in another?
LOCAL WAYS: They don't do yogurt...but they do do culture
Then there's the actual cultural beliefs of a people. Witchcraft, especially in relation to health, is big. It's scary. We would see children in the hospital who had previously been taken to witch doctors, and who were wearing necklaces or belts that were supposed to be curing or protecting them. One writer explains that "Witchcraft ... takes hold in people's lives when people are less than fully open-hearted. All wickedness is ultimately because people hate each other or are jealous or suspicious or afraid. These emotions and motivations cause people to act antisocially". By this definition, I am probably a witch for the antisocial way I acted as I walk down the street.There is a massive sense of entitlement here. People will see something they want and ask for it. Walking down the street sipping water from a bag (cheaper than a plastic bottle)? Don't be surprised if people approach and ask you to give it to them. Beggars wedge themselves in through taxi windows when the traffics standing still (which, let's face it, is most of the time). Blind men collar young children and have them lead them around looking for gullible passers-by. Amputees in wheelchairs crowd around government buildings waiting for hand outs. Give once and, like an operant conditioned dog, they'll keep coming back for more.
Makeni is nearer to Freetown than Bo or Kenema. It is also hotter and has more Malaria. Kenema on the other hand is the centre for Lassa Fever. Bo is the party city, with a huge student population. With those as the selling points for each, I know which of the 3 main cities I'd choose to visit...
UP COUNTRY: Hot child in the (other) city...
Travel up country is by Chinese-built roads that would put the Romans to shame in places. Along the side of highways there are rocks painted white with numbers marked on them. These are the kilometres left until Freetown / from Freetown. There are very few destination signs telling you how far you have left to anywhere else, but the big thing people navigate by is Mile 91. Yes, mile. It is 91 miles from Freetown, but of course not 91 kilometers... Speed bumps come in 15s (3 lots of 5 in a row) and apparently mean speed up so you can fly over them and not subject your car to too much bumping... The key possible obstacles on a road here include goats, sheep, dogs and children who really look too young to be out alone (and who need to join the Tufty Club and learn some Road Safety). It is easy to hire cars with or without drivers, but not cheap (over $100 per day). Several of my friends who did so subsequently broke down, and of course there's no AA or RAC recovery over there.Once up country the only way to get around unless you have your own wheels is by motorbike taxi (ocada). I had some outstanding tail pipe burns on a couple of occasions that each took over a week to heel. The variety (and bulk) of things people managed to carry on Ocadas never ceased to amaze me. On one rather memorable day I spotted bikes carrying the following:
1. A double mattress
2. A big ol' DHL box of...something
3. Various school girls in full uniform, including little flat caps. Oddly no school boys.
4. A toddler, no more than 2 years old, sandwiched between driver and teen girl (? mother). No helmets in sight.
5. (Different) driver actually wearing a helmet...except it's not so much a helmet as it is a hard hat. Probably stolen from a Chilean miner.
6. Highly inappropriate Pumwi indecently flashing lots of leg due to wearing of inappropriate skirt in slight wind, and having to hold on tight to bag and bike, and since not a nice Hindu God, no spare hand to preserve modesty.
The languages spoken in the country vary with region. While in Freetown you'll hear English and Krio (which is easy enough to understand as it's similar to English) up country they speak Temne and Mende which are impossible to guess. Language text books or phrase books are pretty non-existent, and in some places there are no uniform spellings either. There is one Krio textbook I know of, called "Krio in a Nutshell". It is your typical set up of grammar, vocabulary and dialogue. We order beers, go to the tailor and then it's time for Dialogue Eleven: "Giving To a Beggar". This is ace. We never got this in Encore Tricolore. Later on we learn to "take a lorry", "greet the Paramount chief", "cook Plassa" and "talk with the house boy". You don't need to learn Krio, Temne or Mende before arriving (and at any rate it's nigh on impossible to do so), but if you're staying any length of time, it's useful as well as polite to try to pick up the basics. Also, expect not to understand everything, even when its claimed to be English. And watch out for funny constructions:
LANGUAGE: I ignored the beggar yesterday...I am ignoring the beggar today...I will ignore the beggar tomorrow
"Sensitization is very, very paramount" and "We must muster effort" were popular where I worked.
In Mexico when you go for a walk, around every corner there's a Circle K or a 7eleven or an Oxxo. Around every corner here you are liable to find a man peeing by the side of the road - though the usual toilet cubicle conventions apply and if there are multiple men peeing at once they have to be well spaced, not next to each other. I suppose it's understandable to some extent. Don't expect nice public loos in Sierra Leone. Apart from in a few (invariably Lebanese-run) restaurants you'll seriously consider holding it in rather than braving them.For a while I worked in a hospital that had one set of loos. There were 3, none with seats, all with murky puddles of lumpy liquid around them. And me, with my sandals on. None of them flushed in the conventional sense. The idea is, you do your business and then pour water down to flush it under a bit. Fine if you're basically peeing clear (as a result of all the water you should be drinking in that heat), less so if it's a higher number. Without meaning to be too graphic, have you ever seen an old poo that's gone furry? The person before me the one time I was brave enough to go had kindly emptied her bowels in the loo, and when I poured water over this, it disintegrated quickly and, well, fluffily. Ick. These toilets were by no means the exception. I spent over a month avoiding the loos at the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, a misnamed government department if ever there was one. There was nothing sanitary about these.
Streets in towns and along roads are lined will billboards, like none you'll ever have seen before. Not only are a lot of them hand written / painted, but they also have tons of wording on, meaning you can't easily read them if you're whizzing by in a car. They mainly cover important public information rather than advertising products and include such gems as:
STREET LIFE: Education begins at the side of the road
Rape is punishable in Sierra Leone...Epilepsy is not demonic or witchcraft...Beating women is a crimeThey also have a massive anti-AIDS message which is quite cheerful and seems to be effective. My favourites were Mr Condom (I am your friend! I will protect you from HIV!) and the Police Wives of Kenema's message which, in a nutshell said, please be faithful but, if you absolutely, positively have to cheat, use a condom. Nothing like a healthy dose of pragmatism.
Clothing in Sierra Leone is no less interesting than any other part of life. A lot of clothes are donated from the UK, either from charity shops or companies who are changing their uniforms. These are supposed to be distributed as needed, but invariably end up being sold on the streets. Want a Tesco store room uniform from circa 1995 or a pair of Cheerleading shorts? How about a T-mobile t-shirt? Or some (used) Nike trainers? You can buy them all here. In terms of fashion, anything goes. Some people wear local dress, others wear jeans and strappy tops. Hats and hair wraps are a huge business. One day I saw a woman wearing double denim. That is wrong on so many levels not least the facts that (a) it must have been over 34 C outside that day and (b)...it's double denim.
FASHION: Clothes maketh the man...double denim maketh the fool
The local currency (only available in country) is the Leone. There are 2 coins and 4 notes, with the largest single one a 10,000 note which is worth about £1.40. This explains why you need a comedy style briefcase to fill with bricks of cash on any trip to the bank. Since the country has neither the reliable electricity nor the inclination to run ATMs, your only way to access locally acquired cash is to line up in the bank, and bellow out your withdrawal request ("One point four MILLION") when it's your turn at the counter. You can change money in banks or on the street, but the easiest way is in supermarkets who will take £ and $ notes at good rates. Bizarrely they favour higher notes here: a $50 is infinitely preferable to five $10 notes for some reason.
MONEY: I want to be a millionaire, so frickin' bad
I found that while people were very interested in what I was up to, it felt more natural (and safer) for me to mind my own business when it came to their affairs. One Sunday morning my next door neighbours were violently beating each other and less violently throwing buckets of water over each other while I ate my breakfast. Houses are close together and the design makes it easy to spy on your neighbours (or, in my case, have them spy on me). Most structures were detached but with only tiny spaces between them - my perimeter wall was maybe 1m from the walls of my house, and the same from my neighbours on the other side. Hotels are better as most have more land but are still subject to the noisy rackets of people close by. My first week was spent in a hotel that picked up the sounds of a nightclub some 200m up the road. When you can hear every word of the lyrics at that distance you can't help but shudder at the thought of how loud it must be actually on the site. During the day sounds are more likely to be the BBC World Service (which, surely, does not need to be played at full blast), football commentaries (BBC again) or the only two songs currently being played (Forever Young and Waka Waka Baby)
ENVIRONMENT: The noises of the night (and day)
As a holiday destination, Sierra Leone is a hard sell but I don't think it's significantly worse that some places that regularly pop up in package holiday brochures. Goa and the Gambia are hardly 1st world destinations, and the Bahamas when I visited was an incredible mix of wealth and poverty lying side by side. The main concerns about Sierra Leone are unfounded to some extent and it is not more dangerous than anywhere else in the region. In some ways I could see SL as a more appealing place to visit. It is really uncommercialized, and if you don't mind rusty ceiling fans and cold showers then you can find bargain rooms in friendly hotels on the beaches which, a lot of the time, you'll have completely to yourself. It takes a while to get from one side of the country to the other, but the peninsula beaches are all within easy reach of Freetown and its international airport. My main concerns about the place revolved around the hassles of day to day life, and these would be less likely to be seen by short term tourists, especially if you head down the coast. The old adage is true: a nice place to visit, I just didn't want to live there.
How To Go Food Shopping In Manchester
FINAL BONUS: In case you still don't have a clear picture of the place
1. Get in car. Drive to Tesco.
2. Chose items. Lots of lovely choice. Whole aisle of olives. Yummy.
3. Put chosen items in trolley.
5. Go to checkout. Swipe Clubcard. Pay on card.
6. Put trolley bags into car.
7. Drive home.
8. Unpack into fridge, freezer, cupboards.
1. Walk down to main road, along bumpy tracks, dodging goats, dogs that need putting down and children.2. Wait to cross over so you can walk facing oncoming traffic. Ignore bikes who think you want a ride.
3. Cross over and walk along the road. There are no pavements. Next to major roads are open drains where the pavements should be: long, dug out canals you would break an ankle falling into.4. Have a heart attack when a bike comes up behind you -driving on the wrong side of the road.
5. Reach food market. Note that the different tables all sell different things, but whenever you approach one, the women from the others with converge upon you. Personal space is a foreign concept here. They are mere millimetres away from you. They want to sell you things you don't want (actually, maybe Mr Tesco does that too).6. Say what you want. Today: tomatoes, beans, one onion, one carrot. Refuse bags with multiples of the latter two - the quality's not wonderful and they'll just go off anyway.
7. Ask the price of each. Rather than barter, simply say 'No' and look away. Wait for a lower price.8. Allow the various stalls to put your requests into the same plastic bag. Check inside for items you don't want (i.e. cucumbers) and remove the offending items with a glare. This is not a free-gift-with-purchase economy.
9. Take advantage of the great mathematical dyslexia of this country. Look in the bag, decide how much you will pay (paying no regard for the previously 'agreed' prices), and hand over a wodge of money to one of the women.10. Leave as she is divvying it up among the others. Sigh as the euphoria of getting your chosen price evaporates in the knowledge that, since no one is complaining you didn't pay enough, they were clearly fleecing you.
11. Go to the proper supermarket for tinned and packet goods.12. Get excited that they've had a big delivery. Lots of new things including, whoop de doo, new chocolate and new biscuits.
13. Get confused about the price of kidney beans in relation to other kinds. Put some in the basket anyway.14. Notice there is a new type of peanut butter. Waste a few moments calculating the price per 100g to see if it's a better deal than the larger tubs. Remember the good old days of Division 1 maths - no mathematical dyslexia for us.
15. Go to the till and watch evil thief woman like a hawk as she enters the price manuallys, to ensure she doesn't overcharge.16. Go outside and stand on the steps to unwrap the cheap imitation Cornetto you have bought (and then remember it's not cheap, just cheaper: £1.50 compared to £5 for Walls)
17. Panic when a mad man approaches demanding "I want Glace!" Simultaneously become impressed with his French / your ability to look Gallic.18. Watch as the security guard beats him off with a stick.
19. Stand and eat your ice cream until he disappears, thank the guard and then head home.20. Walk along the other side of the road this time. In a choice of safety or shade, safety has to win. Better to be able to see the maniacs as they attempt to hit you, than worry too much about sun stroke.
21. Get home hot and dripping. Dump bags, strip off clothes and stand in underwear in front of the fan for a few moments.22. Get redressed in something else. Unpack into the cupboard.
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