A pen-and-paper post from the airport in Freetown

I got back into Dakar late last night, safe and sound, after waiting around the airport in Freetown because my plane was delayed for nearly 7 hours. I thought I would miss my connecting flight in Banjul, Gambia, but as it turns out, happily, there was an error in the computer system, and my flight happened to be scheduled for the evening anyway.

There was a delay because of severe thunderstorms (and when you talk severe thunderstorms, you should check out the severe thunderstorms West Africa gets in the rainy season), so that just meant I had a little more time to knock back a couple of local “JacBrew” beers at the airport bar.

I’m safe and sound in Dakar, and after getting back from the airport and having a shower, I went to a wonderful outdoor restaurant/music club, where I had some nice shrimp curry washed down with the local Flag” beer and caught a gig by the internationally-known Senegalese musician Cheikh Lo.

Dakar kicks ass. It’s beautiful, cosmopolitan, safe, there’s an infrastructure, and the people are super-friendly. I’m really going to enjoy this leg of the trip, which lasts for four more days.

I had a couple of long delays, so while waiting in Freetown and Banjul for my connecting flights, I managed to write out these blog posts on paper (man, imagine that!):

Cell phones in Freetown

One of the most surprising things to me about Freetown was the ubiquity of mobile phones. They’re everywhere! One estimate I heard was that half of Freetown – something like 600 thousand people – has one. As in other places, Freetown has its ‘mobile girls,’ young women who, thanks to mobiles, are always on the go, planning parties or the night’s events.

Many people have multiple phones – one each for the top three operators – and use phones imported from Europe that are then unblocked if they’re tied to a single European operator. The street finds its own use for things, William Gibson says.

The presence of cheap telephony here, as elsewhere, meant a huge increase in convenience. Before, to make an international call, people used to have to travel downtown to the central telephone office, waking up early to get a good spot in the line to make a call.

There are 5 mobile operators in Freetown. One is South African-owned, two or three are Lebanese-owned (two are even run by competing brothers), and one is Sierra Leonian-owned, but backed by Chinese investors. There’s even a new service selling ringtones. One provider, Comium, offers free ringtones as a unique selling point of their service.

Mobiles are now thoroughly a part of life in Freetown. My taxi driver, an old gruff man proud of his sixty years, had three stowed in various pockets around the car.

The tot-tot

Another thing that caught my eye traveling around Freetown were the vans that serve as semi-public transport, called ‘tot-tots’. Every tot-tot is painted with slogans, some advertising their Christian or Muslim faith, with slogans like “Allah is One” or “The Lord is Almighty.” One even had “Nasrallah” written on his. Go figure.

But before you go getting the wrong impression, relations between religions are for the most part harmonious, thanks in part to a history of religious tolerance that has more or less held up till now.

The tot-tots are run by sole proprietors, but they have ambitious names, such as when an operator uses his last name, followed by “Tours.” So you have “Smith Tours” and so on. The tot-tots are always full and are slower than regular taxis because everyone has to get off at different locations.

Taxis are done a bit differently here too. The taxi driver will usually stop to pick you up, but will also pick up additional fares as well, so that unless you pay the driver extra – like many foreigners, or was that just me? – expect to be smashed in, 5 to a small Nissan Sunny.


West Africans use “sssss!” to get your attention. I found this out while waiting for the helicopter after arriving. When I tried to take a picture of the Soviet Mi-8 military helicopters used by Paramount Airlines to ferry passengers between the airport and downtown, an old woman made the “sssss!” sound and told me “no pictures!” Eager not to break any cultural taboos, I was careful for the rest of the trip to always ask before taking pictures of anything.

You can hail a cab with “sssss!” You can call a waitress with “ssssss!” I didn’t, though, because for one thing, coming from me I’d probably mess it up, and it also seemed kind of heavy-handed for a foreigner to be doing it.

Poverty and power

Yes, of course, Freetown is poor. Astoundingly poor. And there are amputee beggars that congregate around the places people frequent, especially people with money. But far more hopeful to me was to see how many micro-businesses there are. Streets are packed with stalls offering anything and everything: mobile phone top-up cards, shoes, cosmetics, fruits and vegetables, you name it.

People hustle to get by. Everybody works hard, and one of the striking things was, in the face of such conditions, how clean everyone’s clothes were. (This of course is being said by someone who looked rumpled and sweaty even getting on the plane in Prague). To quote Stevie Wonder in “Living for the City,” his shirts are old, but never are they dirty.

One thing others have pointed out about living in poor areas – even in the U.S. – is that it’s ironically much more expensive to live there. Take generators in Freetown as an example. Because there’s no electricity grid, everyone who uses a generator has to buy gas or diesel for it, which costs around $5 per gallon. Our generator used about 2 gallons a day, so for electricity alone on working days, the e-riders have to pay around $200 per month. I can’t recall exactly what my last electricity bill was, but I’d venture to say it was around $50.

The phenomena of mobiles, lack of electricity and hustle have combined in the so-called “telecenter” in Freetown. These are usually shacks that sell both top-up cards and mobile phone charging. So even if you don’t have a generator, you can still keep your mobile phone working.

The lack of electricity also lends itself to frustration about the political situation. I heard from a couple of different people that Freetown would have electricity from the grid if it weren’t being diverted instead to power the mineral extraction equipment elsewhere. Can I vouch for that? Of course not.

There’s a big hydroelectric plant that’s supposed to come online in 2007, but many are skeptical as to whether it’ll be finished on time (it’s been under construction, on and off, since the 1970s).

What gives me hope?

The simple fact that despite all the obstacles, people somehow manage to get on with the details of their lives, and that for me is probably the thing that leaves me feeling most hopeful after being here. People in Freetown are very good at coping, and I got the distinct impression that they’re going to muddle through, just as anybody would.

Could they use some help? Absolutely. But there’s a difference between giving a hand and giving a handout. I asked once about the growing presence of the Chinese here, and the answer I got was: The Chinese are here to do business with us, and that’s good. We don’t need more charity aid. We need a stronger economy.

I’m hopeful when I see people like the e-Riders, guys who otherwise would be working for a multinational or for a government ministry, but who are instead putting their ICT skills to use to help other organizations. They’re sharp and committed, and know what’s up. Case in point: When I started to give my spiel about Ubuntu and the Ubuntu philosophy, they interrupted me with: “Yeah, we got to meet Mark Shuttleworth at the Africa Source conference in Uganda earlier this year.”

I expected to come to Freetown to give an introduction to Ubuntu, the open-source approach and all that, but they were really looking for a refresher course. So of course that helped us get to speed.

The first Software Freedom Day in Sierra Leone, as organized by the Sierra e-Riders and other organizations, is scheduled for September 16, 2006.

3 thoughts on “A pen-and-paper post from the airport in Freetown

  1. Nice blog, Doug! It seems that writing things on paper first gives it a special touch. That is what I feel from your blog. Have great rests of the stay!

  2. I’m loving your travels and reporting thereof. Since I’m never likely to get there at this stage, it is much appreciated. Although I did have dreams of the Paris – Dakar Road Ralley …

  3. hello, i was born in Czech Republick, but am living in england.- i speak czech anyway
    My fiancee is from Freetown and i love freetown….am going there nex year, my first time, am learning local language – kreo – and i hope i will like it
    i wish u the best!!!

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