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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View:Exploring Freetown

CHETANYAI never know what I’ll find when I turn a corner in Freetown. It’s unlike any city I’ve been to, and I’ve unexpectedly stumbled on so many things just walking around. In fact, there are too many to list. The paved street outside my hostel turns into to a dirt road through a cluster of makeshift houses, making the city suddenly look rural. There’s the scene I saw near Siaka Stevens street: a woman hawking sandals, baskets of charcoal on piled up on the ground, and an elderly man sitting in a tiny shack, with the words “Expert clock repairer” in faded paint. Nearby, past fruit and cigarette sellers, is the CD market that intermittently blares Bollywood songs in the evenings, overlaying an Indian soundtrack on top of the West African street and its beeping horns.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this city. The layout alone defies description. Just in the downtown area, crowded, slum-like areas made up of rusting tin roof houses fill out the city, adding bulk and masses of people to the old skeleton structure established long ago by its urban planners. Some streets in downtown Freetown are laid out in a grid and lined with sturdier-built houses and buildings. They can look brand new, faded and decaying, stuck in the early stages of construction, and everywhere in between. And that’s just downtown.
Over the weekend I visited part of western Freetown, which requires a taxi or poda poda ride over the river, past a vast sea of shacks, and onto the highway. This road eventually leads to the beach. It’s dotted with Lebanese grocery stores, industrial materials shops, and a military zone I accidentally walked through on the wrong side of the street. In this area there are air conditioned cafes, practically as chilled as the ice drinks they serve. One of them was one of the whiter rooms in Freetown, full of expats or visitors typing on computers. Inside feels like a world away from most of the rest of the city and country.
Like east Freetown, for instance. The same weekend, my friend Michael from Awoko showed me around the poorer, less developed side of the city. It was eye opening. Before we got there, we passed by the largest hospital in Freetown, a whitewashed complex of buildings, some built by British colonists. It was a bleak sight, because it looked more like an apartment building complex than a hospital serving a city of 800,000. I wondered why there still wasn’t a bigger, more modern hospital here after two hundred years of history. Freetown deserves so much better.
Not far away was a street dominated by trucks and industrial materials shops. All the names on the shops were South Asian  Michael explained that a lot of shops in Freetown are owned by Indians or Lebanese.
We stopped by the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) headquarters, a light green painted building with huge posters of political candidates. Before long, we could see the seashore to the left of the road. Down below was one of the ubiquitous communities made up of tin-roofed shacks. This one extended to the beach, where people were pushing a boat into the water. This was one of the spots where slaves were packed onto ships bound for the New World, Michael said.
We reached a white clock tower decorated with photos of President Koroma. Michael told me this was the dividing line between east and west Freetown. And it was here that I should start watching out for pickpockets, he added.
East Freetown didn’t seem strikingly different to me at first. The street we were walking along looked similar to those downtown, with shops and houses on either side. But they were narrower, and the buildings more dilapidated. One street was normally one of the biggest market streets in Freetown. At the moment it was basically empty, with bare makeshift wooden platforms lining either side of the street. On busier days, this was where vendors displayed their goods.
We reached a roundabout, the steep green hills of the city looming above. Much of the hill was covered in shacks, and many areas had patches of brown from deforestation. We walked past construction, a movie theater, and then back the way we came, buying bags of homemade rice ice cream from a young girl. On the way back, a kid saw me taking pictures of huge shipping crates by the water with my phone. “Snap me!” he said. He posed, and I took a photo.
Eastern Freetown seemed a lot less rundown and sketchy than I’d read about, but maybe that was just the area I was in. In fact it seemed similar to downtown. But it definitely seemed less cosmopolitan  not that that’s really the right word for any part of Freetown. It seemed like the side of the city a travel brochure or a tour guide would always skip over, not because it’s a terrible place, but because it’s mostly just a place where people work hard, and live in what housing they can afford.
And that’s why I’m glad I saw it. I sometimes feel out of place walking around in Freetown. It’s not that I feel unsafe  far from it. And it’s not that I get a lot of stares from people, because I almost never do (which was surprising to me). It’s more a nagging sense that walking around here for no “real” reason is a bit intrusive. The fact that I, a Westerner, am walking in these streets means I’m infinitely luckier and wealthier than the people working hard in the sun, or selling products in baskets. But since I am here, I think it’s important I get an accurate picture of the city. Seeing the random, unglamorous parts gives me a better sense of what Freetown is really like. I still don’t fully understand the city, and I wonder how many really do. I guess I have a lot more exploring ahead of me.
*Chetanya Robinson is a journalism intern from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the 7th intern in as many years in an internship program with Awoko Newspaper
Friday July 22, 2016

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