By: Christina Stevens (Globalnews)
A few days ago, it was “cleaning day” in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I don’t mean that everyone was at home scrubbing down the house, it’s actually an official day mandated by the government.
No one was allowed to drive on the roads until after noon to facilitate a major cleanup, people were expected to clean the areas in front of their home or business.
Just one of the quirky ways Freetown takes you by surprise. It’s a tough place to describe. Tumultuous, chaotic, loud and frantic yet somehow at the same time very laid back. This is the puzzle, full of contradictions that is Freetown.
You arrive at Lungi International Airport, inconveniently located across a large river from Freetown. This means that after hours of travel, you still have work ahead of you. Once you are passed passport control, you have to get through a throng of people, everyone trying to help at once, resulting in some serious confusion on my part.
The idea is to get to a minibus which will take you to the ferry. Your luggage follows along in another vehicle. After a bumpy ride to the port (it’s the end of the rainy season, so the roads are a mess), you board the ferry, and it’s another hour before you hit land on the other side and retrieve your luggage.
That was the last moment of calm for a little while. Once in town, the real fun begins. Somehow, with horns blaring constantly, drivers manage to avoid each other with barely centimetres to spare as the roads are overcrowded and it seems like everyone is trying to get somewhere at the same time.
You know it’s really bad when the traffic is so backed up, the driver actually turns off the car and we are literally parked in the street waiting for any kinds of movement.
Weaving and dodging in between these cars packed onto the road are countless motorcycles. I am still trying to decide if the riders are smart (many times it is only the motorcycles which are moving, the cars are literally parked in the traffic) or if they are crazy to risk being sandwiched or hit time and again.
[notification type=”info”] With a very skilled taxi driver, I arrive at my new home. It is up a hill with the city’s sparkling lights descending below it. I wake up to a stunning view of Freetown, the beach curving into the distance. [/notification]
A short walk down the dirt road from the apartment, and I get a taste of how friendly and welcoming Sierra Leoneans are. Every few metres, I would come across someone who would yell out a cheerful “Hello” or a “How are you?”
[notification type=”info”] People take the time to stop and talk here, it is very refreshing. This is the laid back part of the equation. [/notification]
Back to the traffic, which is constant. One way to get around is by shared taxis. They go up and down some busy routes, picking up passengers and dropping them off as it warrants.
The thing is, they are in high demand and sometimes hard to get, and when you do manage to hail one down, be prepared for a crowd. The drivers will pack in as many people as is possible. Imagine a full car, now add in another three or four people. Don’t be surprised if you end up sitting pretty much in a stranger’s lap.
But hey, why not take the opportunity to strike up a great conversation? It’s one way to get to know Freetown better. You never know what kind of valuable information you could learn, like for example, it’s “cleaning day.”
Christina is a Global National correspondent based in Toronto. She is currently reporting from Freetown.