Working in Sierra Leone

A few months ago, I was given a fantastic opportunity to travel back to my motherland; Sierra Leone and work at the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC) to support the terrible Ebola endemic in the country.  I wanted to go for two main reasons; 1) I had always wanted to work in Africa and 2) I wanted to help my birth country.  It so happens that this sparked the beginning of my work and travel life on the continent 🙂

Although I had been thinking about working back home for a long time, it happened quite suddenly as I only had a week to prepare, pack my bags and say goodbye to my family and friends.  First thing I had to do was get a visa from the Sierra Leone High Commission in Holborn, London.  The cost of a visa had doubled since the Ebola epidemic began, which could be to deter people from travelling there or to make up for a decline in revenue due to the drop in numbers of travellers, either way I was extremely annoyed my Sierra Leonean passport had expired! (NB. I blame my parents for forgetting to remind me to get it renewed)

I had trouble packing my clothes as my wardrobe was full of dark colours, heavy jumpers and jackets that were not fitting for the 30+ degrees I would encounter in Freetown.  I shopped the whole week for bright coloured clothes, shoes, handbags and jewellery and it still wasn’t enough, however I was very excited at the prospect of designing and making dresses when I arrived.

The Transport and Aviation sector has been particularly tough for Sierra Leone as well as Liberia and Guinea who are also suffering from the aftermath of Ebola the past year.  A well known travel agent and airline servicing Sierra Leone had gone bust and worst of all British Airways stopped all flights to the country!  A direct flight from London to Freetown was only 6/7 hours. Now it takes between 12-14 hours on Brussels Airlines (but we thank God they are still flying there), as the flight stops at Brussels then Conakry (to change flight attendants) and then Freetown.

As we walked through immigration, I noticed the newly built airport, which was spacious, clean organised. The atmosphere was different to my previous visits, no one was begging to carry your luggage or asking ‘wetin you sen for me?’ .  The airport was crowded with medical students, thermometers and hand washing buckets.  Everyone who entered the country had to complete forms, wash hands and have their temperature taken twice before exiting the airport.

There were a few options to get from Lungi airport to the mainland Freetown.  You can 1) drive through Port Loko, which takes about 2 hours, 2) get a taxi to board the ferry, which takes approximately 40mins.  This only runs twice a day, so if you miss the last one at 9pm you will have to sleep over and wait for the next one in the morning or 3) get a speed boat.  It was less than a 30min ride to the city, it has a more regular schedule…BUT it costs $40.00 and it can be quite scary in the dark as the lights are turned off and the waves are quite rough, getting you soaked along the journey.

I loved working in Freetown, the people were friendly, fun and caring.  The team shared food at lunch time, bought presents for colleagues who left and attended each others’ weddings and social gatherings.  We worked long hours over 6 days a week, with only Sunday to . I stayed at Hill Station, next door to the President’s Lodge and a 10min drive to my temporary office at the Special Court.  I only realised how significant the Special Court was after I left the country.  This court was built to try the leaders and rebels of the civil war (1991-2002) and  I was pleased to have worked in such an historic building for another historic event.

Sierra Leone’s economy had been on the rise in recent years and now business has severely disrupted and the economy has consequently declined.  Development to the road infrastructure came to a halt as the Chinese companies that were contracted fled the country in wake of the disease.  Local bye-laws were put in place to stop people from moving between borders and trading after 6pm and all day on Sundays until the disease was eradicated.  This made it very difficult for some businesses as there are many bars, restaurants and nightclubs that were put out of business.  The question now is, what will the government do to support these organisations get back into business?

The streets were scarce with no soul in sight at Lumley beach, which was a shocking contrast to the night life the city is well-known for.  I did manage to get to No.2 and Tokeh beaches that were still open to public until 6pm.  The beaches are still beautiful and very well-kept.  The markets were busy during the day and the traffic in town was horrendous during peak hours due to the millions of okada’s (motorcycles) and big jeeps driving through the city.  The President’s entourage was 19 cars in total, which added to the traffic!  I was lucky enough to have met His Excellency Ernest Bai Koroma twice during my stay in Freetown and Kailahun to speak about the future of the country and the long bumpy road to zero Ebola cases in our beloved country.

Things I loved:

  • Hair – I was able to get my hair braided every 2 weeks! It costs between SLL 30,000 – SLL 150,000 (£5 – £15) depending on the style
  • Food – Fresh food and fruits for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The lobster at Lakah beach is very tasty!
  • Beaches – All the beaches serve drinks and food.  No.2 beach charges and entry fee of  SLL 5,000 to enter.  New chalets are being built on Tokeh beach and The Place will reopen once Ebola has been eradicated.
  • Clothes – I had a designated tailor who made me dresses, tops, skirts, shorts and blazers.  You are spoilt for choice of materials in the market, all brightly coloured, patterned or plain laces and cottons.

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