Freetown First Impressions

By David Klooster

March 23, 2010

carrying home the firewood(carrying home the firewood)

I’m here in Freetown with Sean Maddox, at the end of our second day of trying to build a foundation for Reading Sierra Leone. It’s my first time out with CODE, though Sean and I have been trading many stories since we met in London at the boarding gate, about our years in similar work in many places. We share Liberia as a place we’ve worked before and grown fond of, though on different projects, and then he matches one of my Eastern European stories with one of his from Africa, and on it goes through the day.
Part of what is fascinating about coming to a new place in our travels is learning to let go of the lenses we’ve brought along with us and coming to see the place on its own terms. Most of our work so far has been a round of meetings to learn from the local people and about the places that might play into our work in the years to come. These meetings are about listening carefully, trying to watch for the enthusiasms or the hesitations that need to be followed up on, and hoping to find the partners who will become colleagues, and, we hope, friends in the months to come.
One of the first overwhelming impressions of the city is of the huge street commerce everywhere. Everyone on the streets seems very young—crowds of kids and teens and 20 somethings. Rarely a face over 40. And everyone is selling something. Kiosks and tables are full of goods for sale, and everyone has a small segment of the market. A table of cosmetics, next to a pail of bright red pigs feet, next to the building supplies store, next to a table of books, next to a stack of vegetables. Everyone is hoping for a sale, but there seem to be dozens of sellers for every buyer we see.
And the economic issues are mentioned in most of our meetings—the struggle to motivate teachers who barely get paid for their work with classrooms ranging from 50 to over 100 students. The lack of books and supplies. The problems the families face. Money and its absence are a continual theme of the day.
And, as so often happens on trips like this one, the conversations one overhears on the hotels for foreigners are jarring. Tonight as I waited for Sean, I overheard an American at the next table talking to a couple of local entrepreneurs about why his brand of whisky was the one they wanted to import, and would they like one shipping container full or two?typical clapboard house in Freetown

(typical clapboard house in Freetown)