I’d been thinking about returning to Sierra Leone for years, but it took the Friends of Sierra Leone to make it a reality. I can’t thank the organizers enough for all they did to make a potentially very difficult experience a great one. In addition to worrying about the basics of travel, as the one Returned Peace Corps Volunteer of our group who had served in the country’s capital of Freetown I was incredibly nervous about what I would see. I’ve already posted about how Krio came back to me. So, I’m happy to report, did Freetown. That city where I spent two years of my youth looked incredibly and reassuringly familiar.
Certainly there were differences, only to be expected after so much time. For one thing, there are many more people now in Freetown.
During the war they fled there and many just stayed. And so, many places that are not really suitable and where no one lived in my day (say a ravine or a watershed) are filled now with simple shacks and people. For someone unused to Africa it would probably look disturbing, but to me it just looked like a larger version of what I knew.
The Cotton Tree is one of the icons of Freetown and it was great to see it proud as ever.
I worked just up the hill and walked past it daily for two years. In front of it is the Law Court looking even better than ever, and then there is State House. My school and the A.V. Centre where I worked my second year were located just above that and the buildings are still there, now part of the Ministry of Defense complex (so no photos:). We spent every weekend at Lumley Beach, often at the still-there Atlantic Club, but boy is it different there now! Back then no Sierra Leoneans every went to the beach, but today happily they do and so the place is packed and busy in a way that it wasn’t when I lived there.
The original Peace Corps office building where I went every day is still there. Since we didn’t have cell phones (or any phones for that matter) it was our gathering point, the place where we could find each other, go to lunch, and make plans for the evening and beyond. Today it is a law school, but it is painted the same colors as in my day and looks just the same.
As for the new Peace Corps compound, it is near the hospital I stayed in when I got malaria the first time — up on one of the hills and gorgeous.
Another downtown landmark was the basket market. While in the same location it was rebuild and now, while the baskets and other household items are still available, there is now a second floor with cloth and things more for visitors than locals. (I had been warned and so was prepared to see differences in the cloth, but I was surprised at the differences in the baskets — not as finely made as the ones I still have from long ago).
Pure nostalgia for many of us was the space that once held the City Hotel. This iconic place mentioned by Graham Greene and others was where we would spend happy hours on the second floor veranda. After reading of its demise, I wrote the following letter to the New York Times:
To the Editor:
I was one of the hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers who whiled away many an hour on the second-floor veranda of the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone (Freetown Journal, June 26), drinking Star beer and taking in the Graham Greene-like colonial atmosphere while watching the late-afternoon flight of the bats out of the palm trees along the street.
While the City Hotel may be in ruins, the huge old tree known as the Cotton Tree still stands in Freetown, a hopeful omen that this raked-over country badly needs.
New York, June 26, 2000
So we all had to take a photo of the ghost of it.
One of the places that was especially meaningful to me was my home. It is still there on one of the main roads and I choked up every time we passed it. Also Choitram’s Supermarket where I shopped. (One of my friends reminded me that it was the only place we could get ice cream — those bricks of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla that tasted all the same.)
And so Freetown, where I spent an important part of my life, is looking great. And, if things continue to improve, hopefully many others will get to see the city as from there you can head out to one of the most beautiful countries in the world.