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Freetown – loud, chaotic and incredibly sympathetic

Arriving in Freetown Friday in the late afternoon, we are amazed by its charme – even though it is barely possible to drive during rush hour and an angry policeman threatens us with arrest after a dubious turn around maneuver. The streets are filled with small stores, workshops and booths, always represented by big colorful, self painted signs. The city is located at the northern tip of a peninsula at the Atlantic ocean. Looking south one can see small mountains, from which the tropical rainforest partly stretches out to the sand beaches at the northern coast. Between land and peninsula there are water areas as well as swampy mangrove woods.

Quickly we find the Liberian embassy at which we are still welcomed, despite our late timing. Our only problem: Our pockets are empty, the same applies to our tank. As we realize that every ATM either is cut off power or does not accept VISA, we literally start a bank marathon. After a lot of patience and endurance we are finally successful. Withdrawing, fueling up, back to the embassy. There we can’t believe our eyes as we directly get our passports with the Liberian Visas.

We find a place to stay at the guesthouse of St. Edwards College, a catholic school and one of the best of its kind in Sierra Leone, as we learn later. In the vicinity we find a lot of simple and cosy stands, restaurants and bars. We get to know the streetseller Prince and fall in love with his sandwiches, consisting of bread, mayonnaise, Maggi, onions and eggs in just the right combination. Prince tells us about his true passion: He is coach of the community’s soccer youth and enables them to pursue their hobby as a team. To finance the necessary equipment for them he sells sandwiches. He shows us photos of tournaments from the past and invites us to an upcoming game.

One of our first events in Freetown is the Human Rights Film Festival Sierra Leone. Its additional name ‘Open You Yi’ translates to ‘open your eyes’ from the local language. The location is Atlantic Beach, a chic bar at one of the spacious beaches in the northwest of the city. Similar to Dakar these are used extensively for sports, countless young people jog or play soccer. At Atlantic Beach a lot of English people are present, as we later learn due to a lot of English volunteers and supporters. We get to know the organizer Idriss, who gives us background information about the festival. After positive feedback the last years, the event takes place now for the third time. They show local productions like a short movie about the street gangs of Freetown, as well as a haunting movie about a political movement in Angola.

The next appointment is in the evening as well. During daytime therefore we undertake a tour through the different quarters of the city. We pass the Cotton Tree, standing at least since 1792 in the center of Freetown as its landmark, completely covered with bats. Eventually we get lost in the chaotic market hustle. Half scrunched, but enthused by the atmosphere, we start looking for a place to observe the whole from above. After a couple of attempts we find ourselves in front of the highest building we can find nearby. The open first floor is a gaming hall, equipped with old Playstations, foosball- and pool tables, young people are competing everywhere. We observe a group of young people playing Playstation in the open first floor. Due to the little age difference the ice is broken quickly and we get escorted through the stairway towards the top, accompanied by more and more kids and youths. Already after a few steps it becomes pitch black, the stairs‘ width is less than a meter, there is no rail. We pass a lot of curtains on the left and right after which small appartments are located and finally reach the top floor. Amazed we look right at a crowd of people behind one of the curtains, staring at a big screen – a cinema! We are excited, because we did not expect to find somethink like that in a residential building. One more stairway and we reach a single room, through the window we get to the balcony, and climb a shaky wooden ladder up to the highest point oft he building. The view is incredible: From above we can see the mountains in the south, the winding coastline and the ocean in the north as well as Freetown perfectly located in between with the market crowds right beneath us. Looking west we see the sun set. We directly set up an appointment for tomorrow, since we decide to record our crowdfunding video here.

In the evening we are picked up by Mahmoud with his car, of course we forget our camera. Together with David Sengeh from MIT he started the project „Innovate Salone“. It aims to support creative school children, giving them the chance to receive 500 US-Dollar of starting capital if they can present a savvy idea how to improve the situation in their community. The most popular example is Kelvin Doe, student who build his own radio station out of electronic waste at age 15. As DJ Focus he not only provides entertainment to his community but also gives them a platform to promote local events like soccer matches or markets. Further projects from this initiative are a wind turbine, an automated water pump as well as collecting, grinding an then selling broken pieces of glass internationally. The latter project temporarily had to be put on ice because of insufficient funding, instead its initiator Edmond now successfully is starting a website called GoShop.sl, the Amazon.de for Sierra Leone. We get his number.

On Monday morning we pay the Ghanaian embassy a visit. In contrast to the Liberian embassy, people here seem less cooperative and we are rejected with the argument that we are no residents of Sierra Leone. Next we visit the local branch of GIZ. The German Assiciation for International Cooperation is present in almost every African country. We get information about the recent development of Sierra Leone and are introduced to David, a sierra-leonian entrepreneur and IT service provider to the GIZ. Starting with a credit from a friend, he first bought a used car and started to lend it away. With the profit he managed to buy second and later third car and expanded his business. Besides renting cars he also rents houses and runs an IT consultancy – he learned programming during seminars for computer science teachers. Curiously we listen to his success story made in Africa, which also contains some personal conflicts: David is confronted with the question whether he should invest his money in the growth of his company or follow the expectations of his family to support them financially.

Our next item on the agenda is the main shot for our crowdfunding video. Again we weave around scampering shapes through the dark stairways and are brightly welcomed by Sorie, whose room we had to cross already yesterday to get to the balcony. On the rooftop we place our equipment and record several shots for our own presentation – hoping that the improvised concrete ceiling will not break under our feet. During the following aerial filming suddenly our adrenaline shoots up: The whole city is watching us, all people within one kilometer range look up to us standing on the roof. Without thinking about it, we pack our stuff as quickly as possible, say goodbye to our host and disappear – the risk which too much attention might entail here is too high for us. Through the twighlight we bring our equipment to the car, park on our overnight place and do not come to rest until we get a sandwich from our friend Prince.

Tuesday is a special day. Everything sounds fairly simple: Meeting with Edmond from GoShop.sl at 03:00pm, the friendly game of Prince’s soccer team at 04:30pm, in the morning around 09:00am we quickly start for two spontaneous visits. But of course things will go differently…

We lose our way and end up at the gates to the harbor, secured like a fortress. We follow the request to turn around, but make a huge mistake. Because of the perfect view on Freetown we shoot a quick photograph, resulting in yelling harbor workers, soldiers and policemen who order us to the next police station. They threaten us with arrest. About ten people stand around us talking and it takes a couple of minutes until someone even starts listening to us. Then we tell our story. Little by little everybody calms down. After several questions about our car and the journey eventually people friendly describe us the way to our actual destination.

As if the previous situations was not enough, the correct road – according to the description – suddenly becomes a market street, crowded to overflowing. Turning around is impossible: People, baskets, stands and trolleys are surrounding us, from behind cars start to honk. Without having a choice we centimeter by centimeter make our way through the crowd. Hastily people step aside, take their goods from the street and put them back right behind us, just to repeat the same procedure for each of the following vehicles. The highlight: On the right side in front of us a truck is blocking the way, on the left side a pile of fish is lying on the ground in a length of several meters, impossible to remove. At first we don’t understand, as more and more people start pointing in the direction of the fish. Then we start moving, and indeed: the merchant watches us and our followers simply driving over his fish, like it was the most normal thing in the world – the pile perfectly fits between our wheels and the fish survives the action undamaged, but presumably slightly smoked. After more than one hour we arrive the end oft he market.

Next, during lunch on the street, we get a wheel clamp on our car. The accusations: Parking in a distance less than 25 feet from a cross-way, in a stopping restriction zone. The first one simply turns out to be wrong, furthermore from the supposed prohibition sign only the rod is left. The 30€ fine has to be paid at the next bank, after a phone confirmation the responsible person would remove the clamp. We don’t accept that, unfortunately there is nobody in a responsible position we an explain ourselves to. We pay visit to several police stations. Two hours, a lot of nerves and 15€ later we get the clamp removed.

Behind schedule we arrive at the office of Edmond, founder of GoShop.sl. With his internet startup goshop.sl he is launching the first online shopping platform for Sierra Leone. The purchases are processed particularly by his business partners in Great Britain and the US – currently still order-based, but a warehouse is being planned. We learn that electronic devices for example are quite expensive in Sierra Leone. The few importers often demand horrendous prices, the purchse through European and American websites fails due to a lacking acceptance of African credit cards. His business model therefore is based on providing high quality products with transparent prices and enabling mobile payment, as this is widely spread in Africa. The distribution finally is done by an employed driver, since the postal service is not sufficiently reliable. Because our host still is a little tired for health reasons, we skip photo and interview and grant him some rest.

At the evening we team up with Prince and watch the friendly match of his soccer team, he himself is the referee. We are deeply touched by the warm welcoming and his players’ obvious passion for the game. During the exciting match, which is only hindered by some crossing motor cyclists we can identify some promising talents among the players.

The next day we visit Kelvin Doe alias DJ Focus, who already gained a lot of international popularity by the video linked subsequently. We meet him at his school together with some members of the Innovators Club, a group of young inventors founded by him. During some conversations we gain valuable insights in the youngest Generation of Sierra Leone. They want to build generators and small helicopters, but lack basic ressources and fellows. The latter might be caused by the school politics: It is not the choice of the students to decide about their focus, but their parents‘. They decide about their kids pursuing Arts, Economy or Science and unfortunately often money is the crucial factor: Science is the most expensive focus to choose. The group looks into the future with mixed feelings: Some predict to become like the „old people“ anyway and nothing will change, others are quite confident that they will provide their children with more freedom and change their country.

After a week in Freetown we took the city to our heart. Along the coast we drive southwards and think back to open, cheerful people and a unique cityscape between mountains and the ocean. To jammed streets, filled markets and tasty sandwiches. And of course to a series of most interesting people and experiences.