Sierra Leone is blessed with some of the finest coastlines you’ll find on the continent. White and gold sand advance for a marriage with the blue sea accompanied by the beauty that the white frosh of the ocean leaves in its wake.
The other day a British friend of mine jokingly remarked that Freetown should be renamed after the beauty of its beaches. From Bureh Beach to River No. 2 and Hamilton and Lumley beach, the beauty of nature is hardly surpassed. But the problem begins with who run these beaches and how they are run. Where does the money go to and how does it benefit the community? I’m not sure of the answers to these questions, except that at River No 2, the youth are on top of the situation, at least relatively, with schemes that make the place look “this side of heaven” as our tourist board refers to Freetown.
But beneath the veneer of some of these shorelines belies acridity. Some poorly developed or long abandoned slums are dotted on some of these shrinking coastlines. Rubbish, faeces, shacks and ghettos are fast taking over what the creator intended to blossom. The nose knows what I am talking about. The poignant stench of unmentionables is probably best left unmentioned. The initial sparkle of sun, sand and sea quickly evaporates with the sight and scene of suffering and squalor. From Kroo Bay to Susan’s Bay and from Moa Wharf to Suppit awaits a bottomless pit. But probably I should have told my British friend that even the mountains after which the country derived its name, are a perfect example of how nature can be ruptured.
I visited the Moa Wharf Community some ten days ago. Lying somewhere at the back of the maternity hospital at Fourah Bay Road, this community unfit for human habitation is serving as the only home for more than five thousand people. At this artesanal fishing community, fish is the only saviour. Not only does it provide money for the people to be able to afford a day’s meal, it also serves as protein to neutralise the awful living condition that permeates the body and challenges the antibody.
Inhabitants here say they do not wish to live in this dingy dodgy settlement for a day longer; but they can only wish so. They have no alternative place to go to. Built on a rubbish dump with the shacks stuck and tucked with trash, life here is almost unbearable.
Barefooted half-nude children roam the place foraging for one thing or another they can manage to dig from the rubbish, while their colleagues in some other parts of town are in school. And there is stiff competition with pigs. Others defecate on the trash-ridden shores while sitting on someone else’s faeces barefooted.
Their mothers bathe in the open because they do not have somewhere to dignify themselves. A chairlady of the community, Titty Kamara tells me that the children use the shore as toilet, while the women, including Titty, use polyethylene plastic bags which they throw into the Atlantic Ocean. And the wave brings them back, while the rains bring upon the community more rubbish from the nearby hospital. Who knows how PCMH dispose of their used syringes, needles and other items, amid the rain which washes down in to Moa Wharf, whatever it comes into contact with?
The men use as toilet a wrecked vessel abandoned several years ago, which sits just some fifty metres from where the people cook, eat and sleep. And in a community where potable water is a luxury, the ramifications can only be imagined. There is only one place to fetch clean water from and children and adults struggle to scoop for it, stored in a brick quadrangle-shaped tank with source meters away.
It is scandalous that any government would allow its people to live in such conditions. History shows that it is difficult to remove these settlers, and the former government would tell you tried to but the people resisted and returned to the community. But they tell me that if only a settlement can be found for them, they are willing to leave “this very bad condition we don’t want to live in ourselves”, as the youth leader Alimamy Kamara refers to it.
Minister of Lands and Country Planning, Capt Benjamin Davies unveils to me a brilliant-sounding plan which he says should be accomplished “within 24 months”. In what may seem a tricky strategy, he says his government does not wish to allow its people to live in these slums for a day more and as a result will not provide any facilities for them for as long as they continue to live there. Not a school, not a health centre, nothing. If it works, it will snuff them out of the slum. But they have been living there without such for generations anyway; so difficult to determine its efficacy.
But the intention of removing them from the slums is perhaps long overdue. However, extracting them to no-man’s land is not the best thing to do. They may have come from the provinces, but it is not that easy to just take them back there. Quick and adequate housing provision should be made and those that have skill should have it put into use. Those without should be enhanced.
But there will be more and more slums if the issue of housing is not addressed speedily and efficiently. NASSIT may be doing a great job. But so far, it is not for the poor man.
But underlying all this life in slums is the exigency of time. It is scandalous that these communities should be allowed to exist any longer than they have. What happened at Kroo Bay when several people could have died was averted by nature’s change of mind? Not by the existence of any emergency or relief services. Somehow bizarrely all of this is happening despite the existence of a disaster management at the Office for National Security. If that department is not for a rapid reaction to a disaster, it is as good as disbanding it. Slum dwellers should not be left to slump. By Umaru Fofana