This blog post is dedicated to my keh-keh driver O´Bai, who sadly passed away 2 weeks after my trip.
February 15, 2023: Central Freetown
After a long day and a half on the road from Monrovia, my share taxi driver announced that we had reached the end of the journey. As we entered Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, and its long mess of suburbs, people started getting out. At some point, the driver said we had reached the last stop. On the side of a very busy road. I had made it.
It took me awhile to find a share taxi. I kept asking share taxis to take me to the city center, central market, cotton tree, Magazine or government center, but nobody understood. I eventually tried my luck by getting into a taxi silently and just seeing where it would take me. Another passenger got in at the same time and said “Eastern Police Station on Sanni Abacha Street”, which did the trick. Sheesh!
As we neared the city center, the traffic got so bad that we stopped moving altogether and I decided to get out of the car. The only word that came to mind was “clusterfuck”.
The market was packed and endless. I did looks being the only foreigner here, but the market was so busy that most people just went on with their day.
Based on online reviews, I found a restaurant called Crown Bakery. It had a guard outside. Inside, about 1/3 of the people were white. Everybody was put together in business attire.
The owner, a man in his early 60´s, was white and ran the cash register. His nearly identical looking son worked alongside him. His accent sounded South African. The owner told me that he was born here in Sierra Leone and speaks Krio the local language. I ordered a grilled snapper, and it was delicious. Although at $12, it was a tad expensive.
I then walked out of the market and in a district with government offices. I saw the central bank, the judiciary, the president´s office, and the ministry of finance. The buildings are a mix of modern mid-rise and elegant colonial structures.
Amidst these buildings is the massive cotton tree, symbol of the city. Sierra Leone was founded by former American slaves who fought for the British in the American Revolution in exchange for their freedom. These “Loyalists” were given land and supplies to settle in Nova Scotia, Canada. In 1792, a group of these former slaves, tired of the cold winters and racial discrimination in Canada, decided to resettle in Sierra Leone. Upon landing, they founded the city of Freetown (Free Town) under the shade of this cotton tree.
Near the cotton tree is the National Museum. The museum was open and there was a British school group in there. The museum had two exhibits. The first was on secret societies featuring spectacular costumes. The second was on principal chiefs, tribal chiefs who held both formal and informal power in colonial Sierra Leone. Interestingly, the long-term British High Commissioner was also formally given the title of Principal Chief by the government of Sierra Leone. While photography was technically not allowed, the guy assigned to show me around didn´t mind.
To reach my Airbnb, I decided to take a motorcycle taxi. The driver asked just 40 Leones or $2 USD to cross the city. It seemed too good to be true…and it was. The driver had zero regard for safety, winding in and out of traffic. His standard position was going on the wrong (left) side of the road and then cutting over to the right when a car/truck was incoming. There were multiple of close calls, but luckily, we did not get into an accident. The bike was also so loud that he used paper napkins as earplugs. About 3/4 of the way through the ride, we got stopped by the police at a checkpoint. It turns out that my driver did not have a license. He was able to bribe his way out of this. Eventually, I got dropped off at the market across from my Airbnb. I had arrived safety, but this was a terrible mistake. I vowed to never ride a motorcycle taxi in this city again. After the ride, I noticed that many women had scars on their arms and legs – most likely from motorbike accidents.
When I checked in to the Airbnb, the receptionist asked me to pay. When I said, I already had paid, they said yes and gave me the key to my room. So shady! Anyways, the room was fine and at $25/night, was considerably cheaper than all other option in the area.
For dinner, I decided to stroll Lumley Beach, the city´s main beach. The southern tip of the beach was only a 10-minute walk from my hotel. The beach stretches 5 kilometers to the north. It is probably as good as any city beach I have ever seen. Stores line the coastal road, but there are still undeveloped stretches.
Based on a recommendation, I stopped at Roy´s for a sundowner. Roy´s might be the most famous bar in Freetown. The clientele was a mix of white and Lebanese expats. I sat at a table with a beach view and ordered a Star Beer. Finally, I could celebrate reaching the end of my long journey from Monrovia.
The table across from me had two white men in their 50´s. They looked South African. After staring at them for a good 15-20 minutes, I went over and introduced myself. Like the restaurant owners, they were born here in Freetown and own a number of corporations, the most relevant one does underwater tests for the oil industry. We downed a few glasses of whiskey together before they invited me to their private island. Unfortunately, that was when I had to head back to the US. Darn!
For dinner, I found a pizzeria serving Naples style pizza. Somehow they got the big oven! It was delicious. The restaurant also had gelato and TVs with a big group of locals watching the Premier League. I then walked home and went to bed.
February 16, 2023: The Freetown Peninsula
Freetown the city is at the tip of a large peninsula known as the Freetown Peninsula. The peninsula contains some of the nicest beaches not only in the country but the entire world. My goal was to visit some of those legendary beaches.
At the hotel breakfast, I met a British man who used to be in the special forces. Now, he is working on a biodiesel refinement project. He said that the project was in a difficult stage. While the job is interesting, he feels he is underpaid, and his project sponsor is not local. He said that the job is lonely because he has nobody to talk to- yes there are lots of locals, but they come from a very different place. He really wishes there was somebody who understood him. Besides him, there was a Russian man sitting in a corner alone. The Russian man was apparently also ex-special forces and sits at the edge of rooms out of habit.
To reach the beaches, I decided to hire a driver for the day. Based on my experience the day before, motorcycle taxis are out. Instead, I hired a rickshaw/tuk-tuk (known locally as keh kehs). The driver, O´Bai, was recommended to be by Sally, a friend of a friend who lives locally.
O´Bai picked me up at my hotel at 10:30. We then drove south along the coastal road for 30 minutes. Unlike seemingly everybody else in the country, O´Bai drove respectfully and patiently. Eventually, we reached River Number 2 Beach.
After paying 10 Leones to get in (I also paid an extra 10 for O´Bai), I was treated to the most pristine…and empty beach I have ever seen. River Number 2 Beach In 1988, Bounty chocolates filmed an ad campaign entitled “Taste of Paradise” that “catapulted” the beach to global fame. The water was a toasty 30C or 85F.
Unfortunately, I could not go in the water because I cut my foot a few days before and did not want to risk infection. Still, I peacefully sat in a lounge chair at the edge of the beach for an hour.
Just off the beach, there were vendors. I bought a tribal mask. Weirdly, the negotiation was very easy. Perhaps this was because I got ripped off or perhaps the people here are nice, and I gave a fair price.
Next, I headed south to Tokeh Beach. The road was not completed, and we had to traverse a small dirt stretch. We also passed through one checkpoint where we did not have to pay a bribe.
Tokeh is best known for its luxury resort but there is also a town. We ended up in the town. O´Bai took me to a community beach plot managed by a local family. Seemingly the entire community pitched in to make money and to make my stay enjoyable. They sat me down on a shaded chair. Then a guy sold me a coconut. Then another guy walked over with a selection of fish to eat for lunch. I picked the snapper. Then another person tried to sell me drinks.
In the meantime, a girl probably aged 10-12 starts to cook my fish on a flip grill.
An elder- one of the only old people I have seen on the entire trip- came up and asked if I was single. After telling her that I am engaged to be married, she said that since my fiancée isn´t here, she could help me find a new one very quickly. I laughed it off.
After eating my fish (delicious by the way), I then walked around the village. Most of the people were sitting underneath a sprawling tree creating fishing nets together.
Everybody wanted to say hi to me and/or sell me something, but it was not a hard sell. I really liked the people here.
The girl who cooked my fish then took me to her house to try to sell me baskets that she made. She said that her late father taught her the trade. I have no idea if this is true, but either way it’s a brutal sales tactic.
Overall, Tokeh was a very unique and personal beach experience unlike nothing I had ever experienced. O´Bai then took me back to my hotel where I gave him a very generous wage for the day.
After resting up, I walked up Lumley Beach to a bar called Alex´s to meet Sally, a friend of a friend who works for an NGO here in Sierra Leone. She is from Scotland, but has worked on and off in Sierra Leone for years. Sally explained that there is a vibrant expat scene here in Freetown.
Alex´s had a trivia night that drew a large expat crowd. Sally and I joined a team of young British doctors here for a 2 month stint. Our arch-rivals were the Irish embassy staff.
Sally explained that there are a few types of expats here. Western expats generally fall into two camps: NGO workers and industry/manufacturing people. Both groups generally keep to themselves. Additionally, there are Lebanese and Indians who have been here for generations and have their own strong communities. While Western expats generally stay for limited durations (a few months to a few years at a time), the Indian and Lebanese expats stay permanently.
Because the Western expat scene is small, everybody knows everybody. If you go on a first date with somebody, everyone will know. If you are driving somewhere atypical – like somebody´s apartment – everybody will know. In general, expats do not date locals.
During the weekends, everybody goes to the beach. The favorite beach is Bureh, 90 minutes south of Freetown. Generally, people will spend the night at Bureh when they go. In two weeks, they is going to be a big expat games weekend at Bureh where the embassies and NGO workers compete in sports.
We got second in trivia- the movie round really hurt us. I really loved all the people here and could see myself fitting in with this community. Based on my experience so far, I could probably fully enmesh myself in the scene in 2 weeks here.
Many of the NGO workers got into their waiting white Toyota 4-Runners with dedicated drivers, but I caught a shared keh keh home.
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