Friday, March 23, 2012


Kenema was the seat of the Eastern Province in Sierra Leone. In those days it was a big town by Sierra Leone standards. Freetown – the capital of Sierra Leone was much larger but Kenema had its own excitement. First off it was to some degree remote sitting a day’s drive from the capitol. The old, narrow gauge railroad passed through Kenema, A trip by rail from Freetown could take 24 hours. I was struck by the way in which Kenema streets were organized. Laid out in a somewhat haphazard fashion the town had a somewhat disorganized feeling to it with main streets running in every direction. Downtown streets were paved and for the most part in good condition, and downtown buildings had a new feeling to them with many stores lining the streets with their homes above the stores on the second floor. But the somewhat boomtown atmosphere was frequently apparent where houses and stores could be juxtaposed with large gasoline (they called it petrol) storage areas sitting in their neighborhoods or across streets from them. I remember there being a large mosque at a cross roads in town from which calls to prayer came over a prominent and loud speaker system. Five times a day the speakers called local Muslims to prayer. Other religions had their churches or meeting houses on the outskirts of town. In Kenema Town, the streets could be crowded on a busy Saturday. Fula men could be seen walking about hawking their fine garrah cloth or other items, Lebanese and Indian  stores were open and busy, streets were lines with shoppers, and many of the main streets were busy with motor vehicle traffic. Saturday was a busy time especially in the mornings when most of the commerce seemed to go on. By Saturday afternoons, shoppers had moved on back to their homes or their villages, and downtown streets could be quiet, with very few people. This carried over to Sundays in which a Kenema main street felt abandoned. Sundays were quiet. In the big markets in Kenema shoppers obtained the daily staples such as upland rice or other produce. In the local markets you could buy everything from freshly butchered beef to various sauces, okra, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, hot pepper, dry fish (called dry bunga), and so many other items. These markets were most busy on Saturdays. We tended to head to Town on Saturdays to do banking – an experience that could take several hours for us if we didn’t get there early enough. All banking transactions were done by hand – and when we deposited our Peace Corps living expense check it was not unusual for us to stand in line for an hour or more before being able to do the deposit. For us – patience became the necessity – you did not rush Sierra Leone time because it did no good. Time moved at its own local pace and impatience just made things worse. On weekdays we might head to town for food and supplies. Once every two or three weeks I would pick up a 5 gallon can of kerosene. Our fridge was a kerosene run operation. At its base was a reservoir for kerosene – and above the reservoir was the burning wick which periodically had to be trimmed. Somehow – this system kept our small fridge cold and thus our food safe. So when the kerosene ran low I made trips to the local supplier to get more. When the wick seemed to be nearly used up – I would see to it that a new wick was ready for replacement. In our neighborhood we could get wonderful bread – and lots of snack food such as roasted peanuts, or fresh oranges, or even – in season – fresh pineapple which they skinned and which you ate like lollipops. Our neighbor’s son – Amadou Bah – the local beef dealer – would deliver freshly butchered meat to us weekly. Our neighborhood sat about one mile from Town on a plateau. At the bottom of this plateau sat a large swamp that separated our neighborhood from the edge of Kenema proper. In this swamp they grew rice and on the edge of it Pah Maju grazed his cows from time to time. There were other times, when the cows would be herded down our road and to other fields for their grazing. If we headed to Town from our house we would walk north on Dama Rd, through our neighborhood, then down the north side of the plateau and by the swamp, finally reaching the edge of town. Reaching the edge was an abrupt change from where swamp rice was being either grown or depending on the season, harvested or planted. It was at this interface that the fine Lebanese houses and shops began, where streets became busy, where cars or lorries might park or drive.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was a VSO volunteer from 1971-73, teaching Biology at Bo School