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View from Freetown, Sierra Leone

Political impotence and uninhibited economic inequalities stifle the vibrant cultural legacy traceable in Freetown’s urban grain, reveals Killian Doherty

Freetown is a literal and tragically ironic name for a city. Founded by freed African-American slaves, having fought for the British in the American War of Independence, the city of Freetown was established in 1792 on a forested promontory along the coast of West Africa. Wavering between ex-slave settler, tribal and British rule and finally gaining its independence in 1961, Sierra Leone’s bustling port city of Freetown has had brief glimpses of prosperity much rooted in its hopeful origins of emancipation.

Yet despite this rich and vibrant confluence of cultural diversity, Freetown is overshadowed by Sierra Leone’s crippling 11-year civil war. The conflict was born of a country’s laissez-faire attitude to its natural resources, that still echoes in today’s stupefying levels of social inequality where the average life expectancy is just 45 years. Publicly reproached for its dire ‘Human Development Index’ and unabashed levels of corruption, Freetown is shackled to the languishing after effects of Sierra Leone’s recent past that stymie its (re)development.

Home to 1.2 million people, Freetown today is burdened by intractable urban growth and an ostensible incapacity to administer itself. Rural-to-urban migration, as a result of returning diaspora and land insecurity, feeds inner-city informal housing settlements that populate the most inhospitable ground conditions conceivable.

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Sierra Leone’s bustling port city of Freetown

The instability of Sierra Leone’s administration struggles to provide basic infrastructure and public services to meet these increasing demands; you are regularly confronted with road blockages that throttle the flow of commuters, most of whom travel by motorbikes, minibuses and taxis. Open untreated sewage seeps between streets of varying degrees of incompletion or degradation.

An urban patchwork of 18th- and 19th-century Krio (freed slaves) homes, monstrous gated enclaves and ambitious pockets of undeveloped plots collectively delineate the impact war has left on its urban spaces. Freetown is a free-for-all town, contested, unregulated, laid out and reinforced along the lines of wealth and power.

Yet it is trite to take a view of Freetown from the developmental vantage point. The anthropologist James Ferguson notes ‘Africa is understood in relentlessly negative terms’, accounts that can contribute to under-investment. Graham Greene counters this view best by acknowledging Sierra Leone’s exuberance as his ‘soup-sweet land’. A view that encapsulates Freetown’s joie de vivre and, despite much of its urban pessimism, one that prevails in the city’s rich 19th- and 20th-century architectural heritage.

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‘Home to 1.2 million people, Freetown today is burdened by intractable urban growth’

Freetown’s timber-board homes were built by ex-slave families and, adopting the Western vernacular they inherited from parts of the USA and Canada, they were powerful symbols of status and a declaration of freedom and property rights. They are striking emblems of the Krio culture.

The prefabricated British colonial homes were born as much out of a desire for a bucolic enclave on Freetown’s outskirts, as they were for overt racial segregation. These large timber bungalows, raised on steel pilotis to foster cooling and ventilation, display a deep awareness of the basic principles of environmental design. Sadly, within the current urban entropy that blights Freetown, much of this heritage is in danger of disappearing.

Freetown and its seemingly insurmountable urban challenges go far beyond the role of architecture, and lie within fundamental matters of governance. Yet the tenacity of Freetown’s citizens and their inextricable bond to its built heritage amid a long war are a testament to the nature of endurance, and one which may hopefully once again liberate the city in other ways.

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