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Freetown - A view from our expert author


Beach in Freetown Sierra Leone by Katrina Manson and James Knight© Katrina Manson and James Knight

Set amid jungled mountains and a sweep of beach, brightly painted wood-slatted houses are draped over gorgeous green hills, sneaking down to a sea lined with beaches perfect for family outings, a kickaround, a swim or a cold beer. On a clear day, the picture is stunning.

Set amid jungled mountains and a sweep of beach, Freetown has among the most improbable layouts of capital cities, all tangled roads snaking back and forth, keeping pace with the hills and wandering ramshackle around the coast. Brightly painted wood-slatted houses are draped over gorgeous green hills, sneaking down to a sea lined with beaches perfect for family outings, a kickaround, a swim or a cold beer. On a clear day, the picture is stunning. 

While there are a few ‘sights’, the real draw of the capital is its atmosphere – sometimes almost suffocating in its hectic pace and dazzling in its brightness. But beneath the surface, history is everywhere, charting the birth of a home for freed slaves.

Freetown today is a city of small districts, which can take up just a handful of streets, each with a distinct character and a name borne of the communities that marked them as their own: Kissy for the Kissi farmers of the east; Congo Cross after the freed slaves of that country who were delivered here; Cline Town from liberated Hausa slave Emmanuel Cline, who in 1839 wanted to start a religious colony back in Nigeria; Kroo Town for the Kru fishermen of Liberia; and PZ after the Scottish-Greek trading partnership Paterson Zochonis that set up shop at the now-famous downtown intersection. Amid this patchwork of neighbourhoods is a larger rivalry between the poorer east and richer west sides of the city, which can take on epic proportions; with fashion shows, hiphop battles and beach parties all devoted to the difference.

For a town with freedom built into its name, hardship, struggle and the sort of poverty that can almost seem to render freedom meaningless are part of daily life. The city can sometimes seem hedonistic without reaching optimistic; people party to forget, sometimes they go out just to be seen. But what a party. Street parades, album launches, packed night-time beach bars and grinding dancefloors with floor-to-ceiling mirrors form partners in vanity. Most places don’t really shape up until way after midnight, and staying out until first light is common. And there’s always the warm embrace of a hammock on a beach to play out what’s left of the next day.

The city lives by contrasts – the traditional devils that dance on one side of town while a Jesus march takes place on the other; the fast-paced shouting matches that halt traffic but somehow never descend into violence; the fishermen heading out to sea in the dead of night as clubs still heave with enthusiastic bodies.

The city lives by contrasts – the traditional devils that dance on one side of town while a Jesus march takes place on the other; the jobless boys who cross-train with such discipline on the beach every morning; the downtown market trading women who move like princesses with eight baskets of charcoal stacked on their heads; the students who throw themselves into politics with as much fury as they whoop at the beauty pageants that lift their spirits; the fast-paced shouting matches that halt traffic but somehow never descend into violence; the fishermen heading out to sea in the dead of night as clubs still heave with enthusiastic bodies; the mangoes and bright Africana cloth next to shocking pink pigs’ trotters and secondhand bicycle parts; the ice cream melting in tiny plastic bags; and the young man selling face towels just as the beads of sweat start rolling.

And Freetown goes on; improving little by little, accompanied by grumbles but rarely rage, largely safe. However, progress is slower than many would like. Supply of water, roads, light, energy, healthcare and education will be shaky for a long time yet. The gridded basin of the central business district is enclosed by achingly poor slums, threaded with tens of thousands of plastic bags, household rubbish and abandoned machinery that collect below sea level alongside the pigs swilling in the dirt. Meanwhile faux-Doric columns go up on the well-to-do hillsides of Hill Station. The city doesn’t make sense, but you can’t help trying to fathom it.

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