Saturday, September 3, 2011


Above: street scene in Kenema - 1969 - Kingsway Street

Above: heavy rain - downtown Kenema on Kingsway St.

hawking goods - downtown Kenema - Kingsway St.

Above: Fula salesmen selling garrah in Kenema

above: butcher in Kenema market

Kenema - our town for two years - was the major town in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. Big, by Sierra Leone standards, it was located on a plateau just below the Kambuhii Hills in tropical rainforest. The streets and organization of the town was somewhat haphazard giving it somewhat of a 'wild west' quality. My sense was that it was diamonds that made Kenema a town of importance. It was here that the Diamond Corporation had its up-country headquarters and it was just east of here that diamond mining, both legal and illegal, was done in earnest. Although we lived on the outskirts and on Dama Road most of our needs were directed toward downtown. Kenema had its shops - in those days mostly owned and run by Lebanese. Many of these Lebanese merchant's families had come to Sierra Leone in the early 1900's. In the 60's it was the Lebanese who formed the Sierra Leone merchant class. For the most part, in those days there were very few, if any, stores run by Africans. In the "Syrian" stores - they were confusingly known as "Syrian" stores - you could find fabrics, clothes, occasional food goods, but rarely anything local. Most of their goods came from Europe or the Middle East. The Lebanese were relatively successful - and I suspect many were involved in one way or another with the selling of diamonds. Their homes were above their stores - and were concrete structures with fancy interiors. In many stores, Africans were hired. There were other stores in town - owned by Indians. [Choithram's, Chellaram's, and Chanrai's] One that comes to mind was called Chelleram's and it catered to some degree (although not exclusively) to the expatriate community with meats and other goods from Europe. There was also an Indian store known as Chanrai's. Both stores - despite selling the same goods - filled a niche and were successful. There was also a store called "Cold Storage" [named PZ - apparently a German origin to the name] which sold goods for the European expats and only occasionally for relatively wealthy Sierra Leoneans. Here you could buy imported products (meat) from Europe. In those days there was a wonderful and big open market that sat somewhere behind the post office and near, or on the way to the Government quarters. There was also a market off Kingsway at what was called Kingsway Corner I am told - I do not remember this one. In the local markets you could get local produce, including rice in bulk, okra, potato leaf, cassava leaf, palm oil, and freshly butchered beef (by a local man who hung the beef from a tree in the market and hacked off an amount according to your need). There were fresh fruits including the ubiquitous shaved oranges and then local pineapple. From time to time fresh oranges were 'shaved' and then sold on the street as well. This was always a treat on a hot, humid day. And the pineapple that was sold on the street was wonderful, fresh, and eaten like lollipops. Many of the streets were crowded with men selling garrah cloth, or flipflops, or even palm wine. For the most part these men (and sometimes women) were Fulas or Mandingos - both groups seemed to be more oriented to merchants and selling. In thse days many of the streets were dust if paved. And there were many rutted streets. Kenema was very spread out. There were 3 major secondary schools: Kenema Secondary School (a government school), Holy Trinity (a Catholic run boys school), and Holy Rosary Secondary School (a Catholic run girl's school). There was a government hospital in town - more like a clinic then a hospital, it was ill-equipped and poorly funded. On Kombema Road was the Peace Corps headquarters for the Eastern Province. Jim Alrutz - was the area head of the Peace Corps. The town even had a movie theater - I think it was named The Capitol Cinema.  There was a train (small gauge) that came through town several times a week. The trip from Kenema to Freetown could take 24 hours. Perhaps the most unusual for me was the mosque in Kenema. Large by Sierra Leone standards, I once went inside to see its ornate interior. Five times a day the mullah would call out on their loudspeaker for prayers - this was something that we could hear even though we lived about a mile and a half from the mosque. I was told also and now remember "Sea Product' a fish wholesale market near Kingsway Street.


Hamza Hashim said...

Do you happen to have any pictures of the Capitol Cinema?

sl 68-70 said...

Although I have many memories of seeing movies there I do not think that I have any pictures of the Cinema. I will look through my files and see what I can find.