Worryingly, Freetown is starting to look normal. Clearly, this needs correction. So, on the long commute back from the hospital on Friday, I tried to look again with fresh eyes and note down some of the sights for you.
First to catch my eye was a man sorting through a pile of rubbish in a purple velvet wizard hat, presumably essential to ward off the scorching afternoon sun.
Looking around, women are deftly weaving between the crowds and the gaping clogged sewers, whilst carrying the most enormous, precarious loads on their heads. This week, I saw a lady with a tower of small baskets of charcoal on her head that was as tall as she. Look, no hands! I saw no sign of an assistant with a step ladder to help her get the tower in place, though surely she must have had one.
Where I used to see dirt and chaos and people sitting around with various bits of junk, I now see industry, small businesses, family gatherings. The man crouching in a patch of dirt by the road next to a broken-down machine is actually a great business niche – he’s renovating and reselling small generators, crucial to a city still awaiting the full miracle of Bumbuna (a 20-year-old project that continues to raise hopes of reliable energy from a hydroelectric dam).
In one part of town, men are washing down some second-hand fridges for sale, shipped in from somewhere. Further on, in the Kroo Bay slum, a line of men are breaking up photocopiers and other broken machines and beating any metal components flat. The metal sheets are used to make charcoal stoves and grills for cooking meat and are sold by the side of the road.
The second-hand buggies and push chairs are not waiting for a young family to snap them up. They are used by cold drink sellers to ply the streets with their heavy ice chests. I have never seen a child in one.
Hawkers are ever-present, walking through the traffic. Selling peanuts, plantain chips, steering wheel covers and (my favourite this week) a man offering in one hand a huge portrait of Jesus Christ and in the other a sparkling representation of Mecca.
Men ply wheelbarrows of coconuts on many of the main streets – they will take the top off for you with a few taps of a machete so that you can drink the milk and then crack the whole thing open, so that you can eat the flesh. A rather day-saving treat for a stupid foreigner stuck in a two-hour jam to get home from work.
Helmets have been made compulsory for motorbike taxi drivers, leading to a range of improvised solutions, including plastic hardhats of the kind seen in the UK on building sites, mining helmets, riding hats etc.
It sounds like a cliché about Africa, but if there really is colour everywhere – brightly painted tin shacks, women in startling prints, everyone adopts something striking when they can, no matter how shabby or inappropriate it looks to us. Second-hand Tshirt slogans can be particularly poignant or hilarious. An elderly lady with breasts sagging below her waist has “Little Miss Trouble”.
And chat too. Everyone will stop to say hello. Many want a few pennies to help them with their problems. But many too are curious, interested and just nice. “Welcome to Sierra Leone” – I don’t ever tire of hearing that.
Emily Spry is a doctor from London who has taken a year out of her General Practice Specialty Training Programme to live and work in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She is working for the Welbodi Partnership, a charity which supports the main government Children’s Hospital in a country where more than one quarter of children die before their fifth birthday.