I went out to Waterloo city this weekend with an Awoko colleague, John Baimba Sesay, to interview candidates for the city chairman or mayor. It was my first time going outside of Freetown since I arrived in Sierra Leone.
More notably, it was also my first time riding in a poda-poda.
Before I left for Africa, I met with last year’s American intern at Awoko, Michael Carter (many of you may remember him as “The White Guy”), and he told me his stories about riding in these poda-podas.
“They’ll pack, like, 15 people in these tiny vans,” Mike said. “It’s pretty crazy.”
A small part of me didn’t believe ‘The White Guy’. Even in a big vehicle or SUV, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a car that fit more than eight or nine passengers.
“Really?” I thought to myself. “No way. There’s no way you can fit 15 people in one car… Ten, maybe; but 15? Mike must be exaggerating.”
So I knew then that the “poda-poda experience” was one in which I would have to partake, myself. It’s like the old saying goes: Seeing is believing.
So John Baimba and I began our little quest by first taking a couple of taxis out of the city center and we made our way to the outskirts of Freetown.
After several failed attempts to track down another taxi to get us to Waterloo, there it was: a packed poda-poda with an apprentice hanging on the side of the van, slowing down to collect us and take us to our destination.
I was, admittedly, a bit intimidated as I leaned into the seemingly stuffed bus. The amazing part, at least to me, is that the poda-poda wasn’t even considered full. There were 12 people in the poda-poda after we first boarded, but by the time we were about halfway to Waterloo, we had picked up another five passengers.
Once the van was “full” and we were all snuggled together like a cozy family on a long and strenuous road trip, John Baimba turned to me and smiled, as if he knew exactly what was going through my mind.
“This is a poda-poda,” he said.
Still rather amazed, all I could do to reply was smile back. I remembered what Mike told me and shook my head as I whispered to myself, “The White Guy wasn’t kidding.”
If anything, Mike’s statement of how many people fit in a poda-poda was an underestimate: The poda-poda in which John Baimba and I rode on our way to Waterloo stuffed a good 17 people in it, not including the driver and apprentice. On our way back to Freetown, we took another poda-poda which filled up with 16 passengers and some cargo which took up about two seats.
After we got back to Awoko, my colleagues would ask me, “How was Waterloo?”
And while the city of Waterloo was beautiful and an entirely different experience from Freetown, itself, all I wanted to talk about was my first time riding in a poda-poda.
One thing is for sure: Even in the unlikely event that I don’t ride in another poda-poda during my time in Sierra Leone, I’ll never look at vans and SUVs the same way when I go back to America. By Yu Nakayama