Almost four weeks in Freetown, so perhaps time for a few comparative thoughts. I won’t compare with my last place of residence, Dubai; I did spot ‘Freetown Mall’ here, but the only thing it has in common with Dubai Mall is the word ‘mall’.
A friend of mine used to have a photo of Abidjan’s Plateau district from the air on his computer, and he’d ask colleagues what city the photo showed. No-one guessed Abidjan, and in fact no-one thought the image was of an African city. I wouldn’t say you’d get the same reaction with photos of Freetown, but what is true is that like Abidjan, it is a city worth discovering because in a world of few undiscovered places, it is definitely worth putting on the map. There are plenty of cities I’ve never visited in the world – Barcelona, Rio, Moscow, Bangkok, Sydney, and yet I feel I know them from films, television, photos and literature. In a world that has become too familiar, African cities can still surprise. I already get the impression that this is normally a great city.
Like Abidjan, Freetown is on the coast, though the sea here is really part of the city’s landscape, in part because it is built on a bay, and secondly because of the steep hillsides that give incredible vistas. To an Ivorian, I would say it’s like Yopougon, built beside the sea like San Pedro, but on hills like Man. It’s not unusual here to have a stupendous view across the bay and ocean. I’ve only ventured out of the city once, but there are some amazing forested hills, deep ravines, and ocean views. Then there are the beaches and islands which are all to discover.
Some other comments compared with Abidjan. The French in Africa certainly did a good job of city planning – Baron Haussmann would have been proud. Freetown has small streets and clogs easily. But then again, it’s on a smaller scale (Abidjan’s population isn’t far off Sierra Leone’s) and has a stronger sense of history. Unlike the francophone cities’ Plateau commercial districts that grow ghostly at weekends, here the city centre feels much more lived in, and like old European cities has a stronger sense of being occupied for many centuries.
Rather different from Ivorian nostalgia, the pain is very raw here for the good times of just a few months back when the economy was growing a pace, development was perceptible and optimism was in the air. There seems to have been a real party spirit, with beach bars running till dawn. Ivorians are definitely a bit more ‘choco’ about celebrating too wildly. Spending time in Freetown, you also realise that Ivorians are a long way from being the continent’s most passionate football supporters. Here, Premiership football really does stop the city.