The helicopter service to Freetown from the airport at Lungi was suspended; it had crashed one too many times. That meant I would have to take the ferry, across the neck of one of the world’s largest natural harbours. After a jolting truck ride, I found myself at the edge of a concrete pier, watching the sun-set through the haze, waiting for the boat. Fishermen poled their pirogues onto the brown strip of beach. A couple of women slouched over baskets of mangos. A boy wandered by to ask for money, then posed for a photo, droop-lidded and smirking, his dog-tags glinting in the twilight. Shiny SUVs with corporate insignia piled up along the loading ramp behind me, glamorous, outsized and out of place.
Against the trace of the hills on the opposite shore, a spot grew into a wide white ferry, the Murzuk, registered in Libya, sidling up to the pier. Rust climbed up its hull like a rash. The crush of bodies against the rails reminded me of the last time I saw a Libyan vessel, just as overloaded, pulling into Valletta from Benghazi and heavy with men looking for work. I took a seat on the wooden benches of the first-class section. Over in the VIP lounge, the Chinese businessmen from my flight were relaxing over an ample supply of alcohol. But we had entertainment too, flickering across a small TV screen: a dramatic re-enactment of the capture and rescue of some Royal Irish Rangers, seized by the West Side Boys, notorious rebels in the Sierra Leone civil war, just eight years ago. My fellow passengers were transfixed: outside, they peered in at the windows, three deep.
Things don’t take long to become history in a country where a devastating decade-long war ended in 2002 and where half the population is under the age of 18. A study by Médecins sans Frontières concluded that virtually every Sierra Leonean personally experienced the horrors of the conflict: starvation, displacement, slaughtered relatives, destroyed homes, amputation of hands and feet and ears. Millions may still be living with the psychological effects. The UN Human Development Index, which ranks countries by life expectancy, education and standard of living, places Sierra Leone 177th out of 177. Twenty-eight per cent of children die before reaching the age of five. One in every fifty live births results in the mother’s death. Other statistics are predictably dismal. There are 900 kilometres of paved road in the whole country; Sri Lanka, which is slightly smaller, has 78,000. Sierra Leone has 46 internet hosts; Laos has 935 to serve a population only slightly larger. Twenty-two out of every thousand Sierra Leoneans subscribe to a cellphone service; even Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, has more than twice that number. This is not a developing country: it is, in the polite lexicon of international aid workers, a ‘reconstructing’ one.
Yet this had once been a utopia of sorts. The origins of Freetown date back to the 1780s in Britain, where a group of abolitionists decided to establish a free black settlement in West Africa. The colony, they hoped, would ‘civilise’ a region ravaged by the slave trade, and undercut the trade by offering more profitable commerce in the products of free African labour. Under the sponsorship of the Sierra Leone Company, Freetown’s 1200 founding settlers arrived in 1792. Most were former slaves from North America, who had earned their freedom by fighting for the British in the American War of Independence, and afterwards been granted land in Nova Scotia. These black loyalists would be joined by other groups, including Jamaican Maroons and, after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, ‘recaptives’ liberated by the Royal Navy from illegal slave ships. They soon developed a language, Krio, an English creole heavily laced with African loan words; their descendants, the Krio, form a distinct ethnic group. By the 1820s, when American abolitionists founded Liberia on similar principles, Freetown had become the ‘Athens of West Africa’, home to the first university conceived on the European model in the region, and to a cosmopolitan population of free blacks from around the Atlantic.