'How di bodi?' - Welcome to Freetown
3 March 2000
MaryBeth McKenzie is an information officer for the Candian office of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), currently visiting the MSF projects in Sierra Leone. These accounts are from her journal reports of her experiences in the field.
Sierra Leone, West Africa
'Welcome', is how I am constantly greeted by the people of Sierra
After seven shots for various tropical diseases, two travel visas and 18
hours in transit that have included cars, trains, planes and a helicopter;
I have arrived in Freetown.
The flight in brought me over the many backwaters between Guinea and Sierra
Leone. From a few hundred feet in the air, the entire world seemed to be
made of green plants, trees and water. When I looked to the west, I saw
the never ending Atlantic. The sun was brilliant and direct, being so close
to the equator.
My team mate (from Holland) and I were met by Abraham, part of the local
team, upon landing early morning this morning. At the MSF office - a
converted house in Aberdeen - I met members of the MSF expatriate team,
comprised of people from Europe, North America and Africa and the Sierra
Leonese team. Everyone is nice and the Sierra Leonese staff are
the warmest people I have ever met. I feel very welcome.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) considers Freetown a post-conflict
capital city and Sierra Leone, is still viewed as a country in conflict.
Security of all team members is of utmost importance. Immediately upon my
arrival at the MSF office, I received a security briefing that included
radio use, curfew, where I am permitted to go in Freetown and plans for my
evacuation - should it be necessary. As well, I was informed about keeping
doors locked and checking in with the MSF office to inform them of my
whereabouts at all times.
The offices and houses in Freetown are walled in, with broken glass bottles
or even barbed wire embedded atop the walls. Since the uprising, looting
has been a problem as many, many people have few means to restart their
lives. For me, the number of locks, security guards and restriction in
movement is difficult. For someone from Toronto, who is used to moving
about almost without worry, the entire scenario of locks, radios, security
guards and curfews makes me feel a little like a prisoner.
Freetown is squeezed between the Atlantic ocean in the east and large hills
in the west. The city is congested, polluted and dirty. Red dust is
everywhere. Today the temperature reached almost 40°C plus
humidity - an environment shock for this Canadian who left Toronto as
spring was just beginning.
Street life is amazing - WOW!!! Immensely crowed,
narrow streets filled with people selling everything from towels to
chewing gum to newspapers - right in the middle of the road to the few cars
passing by. There are many roadside stalls, constructed from iron sheeting,
cardboard, discarded wood - anything - and they sell anything from food,
shoes, clothes to hubcaps. You constantly hear Creole as the language of
Despite the appearance that Freetown is open for business, the vast
majority of people are extremely poor - in fact the poorest I have every
seen. As I passed through certain parts of town, especially the western
area, - the epicentre of the conflict, children were wearing only ragged
underwear for clothing. And, although not exactly starving, people are very
I was told that, since the invasion of last year, the
people of Freetown have not had a
large variety of food. Most eat rice with potato or cassava leaves as their
staple food. Nor are they able to purchase extra food. A 50kg bag
of rice costs one third of a decent, monthly full-time salary.
There are some signs of life getting back to 'normal'. Part of a main road
downtown is being expanded due to
increased vehicle traffic. In the Eastern part of the town - there are
many buildings filled with bullet shots or that have been burnt down.
Construction is, however, underway and many buildings are being repaired
Overall, the greatest first impression I have is of the people of Freetown.
People are so, extraordinarily friendly, with big, open, incredible,
genuine smiles. And when I think of the atrocities that happened in
Freetown only one year ago - these people seem all the stronger and more
strong, resilient. I am blown away.
As I mentioned earlier, the heat was incredible when I arrived with
temperatures topping 40°C. They told me later that March 23 and 24 are
often the hottest days of the year. Reggae is hugely popular here. I have
already heard Bob Marley's Legend album ... in its entirety ... twice.
When I slept that night, one of my feet escaped the security of the
mosquito net and now I have nine beautiful, plump new bites. Malaria
medication is very yucky.
Vultures fly overhead. There are lizards and gekos throughout the city.
Large black ones with red tails and they stare at you moving their heads up
ad down. You see mango tress here the size of old chestnut trees. There are some advantages to being in a city with not much electricity. You get to
see the stars at night.