CategoryUrban issues

Freetown – tangible progress, by Mats Utas

New roads and through fares, broadened streets, less traffic congestion, paved streets, a toll road making the exit out of the city much easier.

Thousands and again thousands of new houses being constructed, literary littering the hills around Freetown, and strewn out around stretches of road where their used to be forest and scrub.

The sound of generators, that once was a fundamental rhythm of the street, has silenced. During one of the few blackouts we drove through dark streets and I asked a longtime friend of why there were no lights in the windows. He simply stated that people had gotten used to the presence of electricity so they no longer maintain their generators. They tossed away their embarrassing Kabbah Tigers – a 100 USD generator named after the president at the time. Darkness still overcomes Freetown once in a while, but most nights when I am here the city is dressed in light.

It has been ten years since I last visited Sierra Leone

The first morning after my arrival it is cleaning Saturday. People clean their backyards but also public areas. Cars are not allowed to ply the streets up until noon. Smoke and the smell of burnt plastic dominate airspace. I enjoy the sounds of Wilberforce village an older part of the city that has received a good brush-up and now appear rather middle-class. A radio is playing E get Cro Cro a tune by Sierra Leonean musicians Manzu avec C-Bolt popular in 2004-05. Cro-cro in Krio (as well as in Nigerian pigeon) means rashes and although the song is mainly a cautionary tale over deceases a prostitute has, cro-cro was back in my days most often mentioned in relation to how filthy the city was. Cro-Cro, just as cholera, typhoid fever and the likes, is an outcome of a filthy city. Yet with a variety of cleaning efforts Freetown is much cleaner today. By stating that I am not saying that all is good. But, just as with the availability of power and the paving of streets, it has improved greatly over the past ten years.

Between 2004 and 2006 I did a two year long fieldwork centering a street corner in downtown Freetown. It was a quite messy area both socially and infra-structurally. Many of the guys I worked with were former combatants struggling to make do in the post-war realm. The more legal part of the income they made came from washing cars. The street corner was unpaved and in the dry season within minutes red dust covered newly washed cars. In the rainy season roads turned to muddy stretches and gutters were overflowing. Today the street corner is paved. Many of the guys from my fieldwork still hang-out on the corner, but to a much lesser extent. They are no longer dependent on the infrequent and ill-paying carwash business, but have jobs elsewhere in the city. They no longer live rough in the streets. Thus looking in the back mirror they were not as stuck as they themselves felt at the time. Life to most is still not easy, wealth is not available in abundance, but it is important to point out that they have maneuvered out of the hazy social death they at the time believed they would remain in.

Back in 2004-06 our discussions were dominated by topics centering the civil war, but also an equally violent aftermath. We talked about death, about drugs, about crime and about bare survival. Today we talk about children and we talk about relations. I want to repeat that life is still not easy for a majority of these guys. And quite a few are no longer with us having at a far too early age passed away – most recently Ebola took its toll. Yet still there has been progress. And in their faces it is hard to see that ten years has past. Their facial expressions signals newfound dignity and quite a bit of health. Rounder faces, clearer eyes. They made it this far.

Freetown is far from problem-less. The growth of the city is creating new emergencies. The shaving of the lush green hills surrounding Freetown is not just making the city look less attractive, but it destroys delicate eco-systems, creating ample space for catastrophes like a mudslide in August 2017, killing around 400 persons. Freetown has grown from a city of 130.000 in 1963 to over a million today. Despite good efforts has been placed on widening the road networks it is hardly enough. There is abundant need for a public bus system, and if being more ambitious a tram line. More serious the water and sewage systems are severely under-dimensioned and the lack of water might well turn into a serious emergency in a not so distant future. As I stated above electricity is much more reliant today, but how sustainable it is can be questioned. There is currently a big ship producing much of the power for the city on roadstead outside the city. It is reliant on oil – not very sustainable – but more seriously, on the short term, it could sail off with the blink of an eye if the government fails to pay for it. Close by where the ship is anchored, there is the slum of Kroo bay where people continue to live in pan-bodies, shacks, and where many people balance on the edge between life and death on a daily basis. When I was in Freetown a fire ravaged the community and it is alleged that several hundred houses were burnt down.

Socio-economically Freetown is still crumbling under a corrupt bureaucracy and with an insufficient taxation system that does not render a sustainable national economy. Little is indicating that improvements on this front are enough. The new president’s paopa (force in Krio) ways may make some more apprehensive, but it is difficult to believe that people within the vicinity of the president will not maintain impunity. I hope I will be proved wrong. There is however also a risk that paopa and the new ideal of a soldier team (written on mini-busses and an expressed idiom by local gangs) will once again turn the Sierra Leone to a more authoritarian country – and again let’s hope I am wrong.

I keep returning to roads. I believe in order to improve the Sierra Leonean economy it is pivotal that road transport from the countryside is good. If roads are in a bad state agricultural products ends being spoilt during transport thus driving up prices. But also the transportation itself will be expensive as bad roads demands high maintenance and repair costs on vehicles. With regards to infrastructural problems East-Central Freetown is still a bottleneck, but once leaving this behind the eastern part of the city has now a road of free flow all the way to Waterloo. Although some Freetonians are worried by the fact that the Chinese are making profit because of a road toll, even the toll gates are seen as a proof of progress by most. And one driver told me that except for the toll gates, there are virtually no police checkpoints taking your money:

you can go all the way upline with only a 2000 Leones (20 cent) bribe 

That’s development. Still local rice sold in Freetown is more expensive than the imported one. That’s sad.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many people can hardly afford to put food on their table. Most do not have the resources to plan ahead. However that said Freetown is still a city of smiles and amicable social wealth. Much more smiling than my home country Sweden. That’s a conundrum. It is a country of “shuffering and shmiling” to quote great Nigerian singer Fela Kuti.

Postlude

First time I visited the country was in 1992. The next time was during the war in 1998. I lived in Sierra Leone for two years between 2004 and 2006. Between 2006 and 2009 I on average visited the country twice a year. After a ten years long break I returned during the spring of 2019. The worst condition I have seen Sierra Leone in was actually in 1992 weeks prior to the military coup that brought Valentine Strasser and NPRC to power. It was at the very beginning of a civil war that took off because of a direly mismanaged state. Although the war caused devastating destruction and human suffering, international attention drew more resources to the country and already a year after wars end conditions in the capital Freetown, but also in much of the “upline” provinces, was arguably better than before. The Ebola epidemic (2014-2015) was the next set-back, but it appears that at least Freetown has recovered well. Indeed lots of people passed away and it devastated families, but although I have no date to prove it I wonder if the resources which the international community provided is now in parts spent in the ongoing construction boom?

In between homes – the in-between existence of refugees in transit in Eastleigh, Nairobi, by Lena Johansson (master student at Uppsala University)

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Eastleigh shop in 2009 soon after Obama became US president. Photo by Mats Utas

Eastleigh, Nairobi is pictured as a good area for Somali refugees in media and in UNHCR reports. The migrant Somali population in Eastleigh has developed trade networks and made it a commercial area with major significance not only in East Africa but also globally. According to a report from 2012, by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), asylum seekers and refugees are surprisingly independent and integrated into the socio-economic life in Nairobi. The estate is considered a good area for refugees because of possibilities to socio-economic activities and according to the report, the profile of Eastleigh refugees is “one of incredible resilience and ability to survive in the face of significant odds” (UNHCR 2012). Continue reading

Congosa politics: Rumours and elections in Sierra Leone, by Diana Szanto

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The red party. APC political rally in Freetown

Congosa in Krio means gossiping and spreading rumour, but its connotations are much darker than in English. It equals with name spoiling. In a society where attack against somebody’s public image can meet mundane as well as occult retaliation, gossiping is considered as the antisocial behaviour par excellence. However, although unanimously condemned, congosa is omnipresent and is an essential part of public life. Friends, as well as strangers constantly share, comment and analyse stories of uncertain origin in a sort of collective jubilation. Rumours are much more than stories circulating without signature with questionable truth content. Because they are often the expressions of mistrust, doubts and alternative hypotheses challenging – while evoking – the moral order of a society, they touch upon the political, everywhere. But in Sierra Leone the political and the rumour are probably even more tightly knit together, in a way that congosa and politics become inseparable. Commenting on a previous Sierra Leonean election (that of 1986, still within the one party system) Mariane Ferme notes: “only through the careful and sometimes unpredictable management of rumours of secrete gathering and strategies can the abuses of the electoral system be kept in check” (Ferme 1999:161). Continue reading

Sierra Leone General Elections 2018 – A personal diary, by Diana Szanto

On the 4th of April, I was sitting on the veranda of a restaurant in Lungi and watched mesmerized the police officer next to me who, in his full gear, consumed bitter wine sold in small plastic packets. As he was finishing one packet after another, he was visibly getting drunker with each sip. The scene provided the context – both in historic and sociological terms – for what had been the most important public issue for Sierra Leone for the past few weeks:  the presidential elections.

With his drunkenness, the policeman’s voice grew louder. I could not miss it: he was boasting of his rebel past.  He was armed.  With this open and embodied reference to the RUF he reminded us all how the brutal memory of the civil war was still so near, constituting a permanently threatening background to national politics.  Sierra Leone got liberated from a deadly civil war just 16 years ago, too short time for a nation to forget the trauma but sufficiently long for the new generation to forget about the healthy fear of violence. In fact, the spectrum of violence seemed so real that the maintenance of peace and order was the number one stake in this election. A lot of people whom I asked about their hopes responded me spontaneously: “I just pray for peace”. Continue reading

Urban kinship: the micro-politics of proximity and relatedness in African cities, by Jesper Bjarnesen and Mats Utas

IMG_7873It is our pleasure and privilege to introduce a special issue of Africa, exploring the micro-politics of proximity and relatedness in six African cities. To understand how social and spatial proximity affects the dynamics of everyday sociality, we suggest the notion of urban kinship to capture how idioms of relatedness in the city build on more enduring socio-cultural legacies, often explicitly articulated in the language of family. Kinship ties are often thought to be naturally given, both in the sense of being biologically rooted in descent and in the sense of being inevitable as social ties. But kinship ties are indeed negotiable and require active work, in terms of their implications for the reproduction of relatedness as well as in their nominal orders. Continue reading

Fragile Security or Fatale Liaisons? Reflections on 2 March 2018 Attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, by Sten Hagberg

On Friday 2 March 2018 around 10 o’clock, two coordinated of terrorist attacks took place in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The first attack involved gunmen seeking to enter the Embassy of France, exchanging fire with soldiers from Burkinabe and French special forces. Four gunmen were killed in the attack against the Embassy, and no casualties among the special forces. The second attack took place a few minutes later. A vehicle stuffed with explosives detonated at the Chief of Defence staff’s headquarters (État-major des Armées), followed by shootings between attackers and Burkinabe defence forces. Eight Burkinabe militaries were killed together with another four attackers. Moreover, there were many wounded in the headquarters. The car bomb seems to have targeted a high-level meeting of senior military staff of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The blast destroyed the room where the meeting would have taken place had it not been relocated shortly before the attacks.

In total, the attacks led to 16 deaths, including eight assaulters. The number of wounded people amounted to some 80 persons. Yet in the afternoon the same day, French media outlets held that as many as 30 people had been killed. While this information was rejected by Burkinabe public authorities, and soon turned out to be false, it did fuel rumor and speculation, fear and anxiety. Continue reading

The myth of the trickle-down effect: What Guinea’s recent upheavals intimate about the country, by Joschka Philipps

The dry season’s dust has again settled on Conakry’s streets, aside from a few marks of ashes and rubble on the sides of the main avenues, everything seems to be back to the bustling normal. Just about ten days ago, things looked quite different in the Guinean capital. On February 20th, a nation-wide general strike in the education sector culminated in violent demonstrations, which took the government by surprise. Seven people were shot dead by state forces, thirty were injured and a dozen arrested, numerous vehicles were burnt, and a gas station and a police commissariat were pillaged. Though Conakry has experienced plenty of similar events during the past decade, there are a number of reasons not to write this off as simply another instance of urban violence. Continue reading

Flavour was not supposed to die…, by Andrew Jefferson

flavourIt’s raining in Freetown and the traffic is, as usual, slow on the road through Congo Town towards Kroo Town Road. The radio announcer is going through the obituaries in a solemn, deliberate monotone, the names different, the pattern the same: Mr John Koroma of Kissy Town passed away on said date leaving said relatives in said location… repeat… repeat… repeat. Variations on the theme. After a few minutes of death reports the obituaries are rounded off with a few snatches of Abide With Me, by which time we have actually reached Kroo Town Road. We swing right on the now tarmacked road that runs parallel to Adelaide Street and pass what, ten years ago, was the Pentagon car wash, a hangout for ex-combatants and others struggling to make a living in a world of ‘no war no peace’ under conditions that one of them described as ‘exorbitant poverty’.

I’m heading for the office of Prison Watch (a local human rights NGO) on Gabriel Street at the other end of the road but it was Pentagon that was my first point of reference in Sierra Leone. It was there my encounters with marginal, hustling youth began (thanks to Mats Utas!). And it was not far from there that I first encountered Flavour. Continue reading

The protest march in Guinea and the tragedy of the stray bullet, by Joschka Philipps (Conakry, August 18, 2016)

Thierno Hamidou Diallo, may he rest in peace, was fatally shot on August 16th, 2016. He is the tragic victim of the anti-government demonstration in the Guinean capital Conakry, which he had nothing to do with. The 21-year old man was hanging out the laundry to dry on a balcony when the bullet hit him.

Until then, it had been the most peaceful anti-government demonstration that one could imagine, and probably the first after which the Guinean opposition and the Guinean government congratulated one another for “the discipline and professionalism of the security forces“ (opposition leader Cellou Diallo) and for having successfully taken “another step in our democratic advancement” (government spokesperson Albert Damantang).

About half a million people had attended the political rally at the central stadium, the atmosphere was hopeful, and when the rally was over, the great majority went back to their homes in peace. Continue reading

One year after the elections: a deceptive calm in Burundi? by Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs

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Burundian soldiers patrolling the streets of Bujumbura. Photo by the author

The car stops and the driver turns off the ignition and leans back in the seat. Before us winds a long queue of cars and minivans in the afternoon sun. People have gone out of their cars and sit in the shade along the roadside. Talking, eating, listening to the radio. The atmosphere is calm and quiet, but also restrained, subdued. Everyone is careful, observant. The scenario has become common in the capital Bujumbura in recent times. Streets and intersections blocked off to all traffic, often for several hours, waiting for the President’s convoy to pass. Usually it occurs when Nkurunziza is on his way in or out of the capital to the countryside where he prefers to stay most the time. When the convoy eventually passes, nobody is allowed nearby, no cars and no people. All street corners are emptied. Even the security personnel guarding the streets must physically turn their heads away, direct their weapons in a different direction, and may not look at the passing cars.

 

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