The open-thatched stalls were almost empty when I arrived in Sierra Leone. Mr Camara, the immigration officer whose name I’d been instructed to ask for at yet another bamboo border post, explained the weekly market had been quieter than normal. “People are afraid to come across from Guinea because of the elections. How is it there?”

I explained that despite a few bribe-searching optimists Guinea had been one of the most welcoming countries on my journey. Now I was entering a country whose name for most people is etched with images of war. Understandable I think. There was a civil war here that lasted 11 years and killed over 50,000 people. But Sierra Leone has been at peace for over a decade and is currently regarded as one of the most stable countries in west Africa. That might not be saying much for a country which is also one of the World’s poorest. Like Guinea, electricity and running water are almost non-existent outside the capital.

Mr Camara allowed me to pitch my tent in a room within the immigration office, before I joined him under the star-lit darkness and listened on the radio to Ghana sadly and controversially being knocked out of the World Cup. Sierra Leone is the third country in which I’ve been present during the tournament, but the first where English is used in the football commentary.

Back in Anglophone Africa I felt at ease and relaxed as I discussed the rest of the games and the road ahead of me. “It is bad as far as Falaba and then improves towards Kabala where it is paved”, explained Mr Camara the following morning as he placed a firm stamp in my passport granting me permission to stay in Sierra Leone until the end of August.

Entering Sierra Leone 

At this time of the year the problem with unpaved roads is due to the rain. Where the road is on a slope cavernous gullies can form during heavy downpours, whilst the road can disappear underwater whenever there is a large hollow.

Road to Kabala: Northern Sierra Leone 

The rain came shortly after I stopped in the first Sierra Leoneon village. Here I spent an hour hearing how people fled to Guinea during the war. “We suffered immensely. They were terrible times”, explained one man. I wondered whether questioning people about the war would be difficult or inappropriate, but here as elsewhere during my first week in the country people appeared all too willing to talk about their experiences.

It was dark again when I arrived in Kabala later that day. The town sits amongst a boulder-strewn landscape in the north-east of the country, although I could see nothing when I made it back onto the paved road.

Upcountry Sierra Leone 

Short of cash I needed to change money, doing so at a pharmacy of all places. It was Lebanese run, like most large shops and businesses in Sierra Leone. And much of west Africa for that matter.

Rain is refreshing and cooling in the tropics, until it falls so heavily and for so long that it merely chills and defeats you. From under a plastic-covered tarpaulin a school teacher waved me down to escape the downpour one afternoon. He was drinking from a small plastic satchet. On it was a picture of the African continent and a blonde woman throwing a punch. Double-punch was the name given to this pineapple-flavoured beverage. With an alcoholic content of 45% and a price of $0.10 even a teacher who makes 200,000 Leone a month ($50) can afford to buy a round or two. I asked why he wasn’t teaching. “It is the end of the school year and the students are sitting exams.”

I later visited the one-room school, met the Headmaster and somehow found myself sitting down alongside a number of other Double-punch drinking teachers to be crowned ‘Youth Development Manager’ of the village’s ‘Agricultural Cooperative Program’. The man chairing the meeting, whom I’d met on my tour of the village, considered my arrival on this afternoon to be a “gift from God” and that he was sure I would be helping and returning in the future. Had the rain not still been falling I might have taken this as my cue to explain the important meeting I had to make, then pedal on, but the bike and gear were already in the teacher’s compound and I’d accepted the invitation to stay the night. 

Food, (rice and cassava) was later served with the elders whilst I heard the problems associated with their country’s youth. For those that do go to school there is very little for them to do once they finish. My new friends offered nothing but hospitality, but as with other encounters in Sierra Leone it was hard to judge to what extent friendship went without the hope, if not promise, of me offering something (money), if not now then for sure in the future.

Friends for a night

White men riding bicycles aren’t that common in Sierra Leone and it is rare to pass through a village without being reminded that you are a foreigner here. Looks of surprise followed by waves and smiles greet you at the roadside, and I seemed to spend half of the time with one hand waving back as I pedalled past the palm-thatched huts. Sierra Leone must rank as one of the most friendly and welcoming countries I’ve cycled through. 

“Oporto” is a word any white-skinned visitor will hear quickly here. Children yell it out, (and there are lots of them) as their bare-breasted mothers, many still children themselves, look on. The word derives from when the Portuguese were first sighted after dropping anchor in the country over 500 years ago. Confronted by large mountains at the mouth of a wide navigable river they called the area ‘Serra Lyon’ (Lion Mountains).

I imagine that at one time this peninsula of green mountains and white sandy beaches would have excited air passengers looking down at the capital before arrving  in the country. Now all one probably sees is a glistening patchwork of grey metal as corrugate-roofed shacks sprawl up the hillside.

On the ground Freetown is massively over-crowded and chaotic. I expected the pollution, the open sewers and free-for-all traffic laws, but perhaps not quite so many people on the street. On one particular road the mass of humanity reminded me of India. At least they have cows to control the traffic. The road was a carnival parade of people selling goods. Many of these market-sellers probably weren’t born in Freetown, but fled here after the war when their villages and homes were burnt and ransacked by the rebels. They’ve had plenty of time to return, but of course no-one wants to. If there is any money to be made it’s not out in the villages that’s for sure.

The beach in Freetown offers some respite from the crowds and mess downtown. I escaped here for a few hours whilst waiting to collect my Liberian visa.

Lumley beach Freetown 

 

Cycling in Freetown draws as much attention as it does in the villages. White faces here are far more likely to be seen behind the windows of white SUVs displaying the name one of the many dozens of different NGOs that operate in the country. Freetown, like most African cities, cannot be recommended for cycling in. It’s not so much the hills as the fact that there are no other cyclists on the road.

I still have to pedal out of the city, where I’m writing this from now, but for the last week I left my bike here in the compound of a Sierra Leoneon family, one of whom I recently made contact with over the Internet. He founded an NGO several years ago dedicated to helping distribute bednets to Sierra Leone’s poorest. In his possesion were some of the nets that people who’ve sponsored this journey have funded. I wanted to be part of the distribution and help. A bus, taxi and motorbike ride later I reached the village of Sahn Malin in southern Sierra Leone.