It was the late 90’s to the early side of the 2000’s, the era of faded jeans, the Walkman paving way for the disc man and the trend of jazzy youth “luxing” in Freetown. One of the features in hailing from a family filled with older brothers and cousins is their knack of grilling, teasing and being initiated into a rite of never ending stories.
In the rare times I was granted permission to be in -“The Stronghold” as my brothers called their bedroom, I sat on the floor with folded feet and stared at them in awe and drank in every details as they conversed. I was a very curious kid, let me don’t euphemize, I was a very “congosa pikin”, and so when I was barred entry I found ways to eavesdrop.
Boy, the stories I heard! Let me tell you about the Disco Bash.
My brother, let’s call him Max had been in party prepping mode for a month. Trips to the barbershop with him returning doo rag donned to protect his waves, brand new Reebok Pump sneakers straight from the box and my dad’s Hugo Boss cologne suddenly going missing.
Dash card, cash box and neighborhood Sunday cleaning, Max left no stone unturned to raise funds.
Finally, the D-Day dawned, from what I could piece together from the narrative, the party kicked off with a bang. DJ Sonny was on location at Rumors Night Club swinging and the ladies came through in droves.
Then, the generator made a rumbling noise and went out. It was no trouble, a mechanic was handy, he sorted the electrical issue in no time to rousing cheers from the crowd and went home, assured his work was done.
Freetown had many rival social club sects back the who vied for premier relevance. Apparently, one of these groups had been plotting and planning to topple my brother’s sect.
The generator which had been marked as the weak link was first smoothly disconnected, then a big boom box tape recorder had recorded it’s sound and put on a repeat loop, whilst the generator was carted away. So when the lights went out again, all assumed it was just another electrical issue, it was sheer shock as my brother and his friends arrived at the backyard to see an old beaten down boom box at top volume bleating out generator noise.
Bad luck, they say come in series never single.
The ECOMOG located around the vicinity had been notified by a tip off (probably from the rival group) or rather just by the aggrieved crowd loudly venting at their party being cut short. It was after curfew hours after all, so when the ECOMOG breezed in with their vehicles, it was fleeing time as the palpable fear and possibility of the notorious soldier dubbed Evil Spirit amongst the Nigeria officers sent many flying as if their feet were those of Hermes.
My brother was never known for his athleticism; he was amongst the few caught.
His best friend -Sugarmouth Joe was selected to be the speaker when the soldiers enquired why they were out. Joe was a celebrated smooth talker and a lady’s man. By now, it was almost dawn and as Joe went ahead to make sign language and writing on the dusty earth, my brother and his cohorts knew they were royally in the deep end, because if Joe took the deaf and dumb route, it sure was trouble.
They took the belting that came in stride, and they were all dropped off at their various points later on in the day.
Max of course told a different story why he stayed away so long from home.
I later knew the real story because of my eavesdropping exploits.
Of course I could not just let this go, I noticed Max was very slow in sitting down, and a slight spasm of pain flickered on his face whenever his bum touched a chair.
I chose those specific moments to go “Vroom, Vroom, Ecomog day kam, I am a Disco dancer” and he would chase me across the room, but I always fled from his grasp.
Max was never a good sprinter.
* Luxing was a slang in Krio in the 90’s that translates to define a well dressed individual.
*Congosa Pikin is a phrase in Krio that translates to an extremely inquisitive and stubborn kids.
If you are looking for an Uber in Sierra Leone, you won’t find any.
What you will find however, is a colourful history of a commercial vehicle industry that is prone to twists, turns and countless anecdotes.
Buses and Taxis share dominion in most countries around the world in the commercial transportation industry. In Sierra Leone the ‘Poda Poda’ challenged that hegemony. The motorbikes dubbed ‘Okada’ came next which was then followed by the quaint motor tricycle called the ‘Keke’.
Poda Poda’s generally come in the form of mini buses or vans with certain level of local customization work done on them to increase space for passengers inside. The vehicle’s seats are removed to be replaced by metal frames fitted with a thin layered cushioned seat. The driver is usually assisted by a conductor referred to as an apprentice. The experience of riding a poda poda is nothing short of priceless.
I was around 6 when I had my first Poda Poda experience. A family friend, one of the type that had become so close that you gave them the ‘Uncle’ title was tasked with ensuring me and my cousins board a taxi safely to visit our grandpa who lived in the East End of Freetown.
Uncle (let’s call him, Victor) had other plans. Poda Poda fare is relatively cheaper than taxi and uncle Victor had to foot the bills of a date he had planned with a dame the next day. Yes, yes of course don’t ask, we took the Poda Poda and boy was it an exhilarating experience. I was quite confused on what to make of the conductor known as the ‘Apprentice’, who was a pimpled face teen who switched emotions like the colours of a kaleidoscope.
One minute he would be smiling and regaling passengers with funny jokes and the next he would go livid with rage at someone who failed to pay and wanted to sneak out. He was quite skilled in creating very descriptive curse words, I was young then but reminiscing on that moment, I now saw in him one who with the right coaching would have made a great poet. I soon learned that an apprentice had to be vigilant as the driver would deduct the unpaid fares from their wages at the end of the day.
Poda Poda is the premier means for commuters in Freetown and those who live in the outskirts of the city. You’re bound to hear the latest gossip, stories and political bickering whilst in a poda poda as its passengers reflect the vast majority of ordinary Freetonians. The loud booming speakers with the latest hit songs has made poda podas quite popular with secondary school going children who carefully select which poda poda to board based on its stereo quality. In fact, in my secondary school years I looked on in envy as my colleagues arrived and left school with poda poda, the close proximity of my home to the Sierra Leone Grammar School meant I arrived to school by private vehicle, then boarded a taxi or sometimes walked back home.
I naturally had to find a way to break this deadlock, and as things tend to fall into place when we least expected it, some teachers started organizing after school lessons in the far end of town, I was amongst the first to sign up. Poda Poda took us to and fro, and of course my friends and I chose the one with the groovy bass and funky tunes.
The signature yellow of taxis in Sierra Leone feel almost as if they sprung up along with the iconic Cotton Tree at the center of Freetown. Taxi drivers are by far the most garrulous characters and they all share an unspoken code that makes it seem like they all belong to the same family. I used to think that all taxi drivers were related, until I witnessed a falling out over brought about by traffic jam and dangerous driving.
Growing up in the city of Freetown, reading the graffiti-like inscriptions on these vehicles was one of the high points of my day. Ranging from religious quotes, music lyrics and everyday proverbs on life, they had an allure of their own and sometimes, with it a penchant for throwing away the rules of spellings out of the window. As a staple of the city, they form an integral part of Freetown’s identity.
Taxis tend to be free roaming and sometimes territorial, in certain points around the city only taxis registered under a union are allowed to ply their trade along such routes.
The taxis of Wilberforce and Murraytown used to always be subject of jokes due to the derelict conditions they tend to be in, mostly the drivers had no keys to start the engines with and passengers stared on as the car is hot-wired manually with two cables. This experience is particularly unnerving for first timers as this process comes well under way after the vehicle had started moving. Thankfully, the conditions of taxis in those areas are far better than what they used to be.
Taxis are very popular with primary school children. The go to method for most kids to bypass paying the transport fare of two was termed “tote”. Basically what we did as kids that children still do was to have an older kid seated whilst another sat on their lap. Interestingly, this pyramid method can go up to a third kid at the apex just brushing the headliner upholstery of the taxi. Of course drivers had to put their foot down from time to time. Taxis enjoyed a long run on this demographic of clientele until the….wait I’ll touch on this later.
The Okada’s advent in Sierra Leone was not met with fanfare , it suffered from extremely negative P.R which in some cases wasn’t unfounded. Privately owned motorbikes had always existed but the idea of it being used as a method of commercial transportation was very alien to many Sierra Leoneans.
The city of Bo was the first to accept it, it wasn’t long before Okadas roamed the streets of Freetown.
Fast, efficient and able to weave between the spaces during extremely tight traffic jam, available late nights and able to meander through roads that taxis and poda podas couldn’t, okadas won the hearts of many people in quick succession.
It’s not a strange sight these days to see individuals park their private vehicles, disembark and wave down an okada bike to transport them to wherever they are going.
Zooming and zig zagging along the highways of the city has not made them pals with the traffic police who periodically declare okada no go areas. These rules are mostly flaunted and sometimes lead to Hollywood movie type chases and encounters between the cops and okada riders. Cops resort to methods like whips in hand which they lash riders with, barricades are sometimes used, or plain clothes tax force units who remove the keys from unsuspecting bike riders waiting to pick up passengers at stop points.
Okada riders are distinct in their appearance. Garbed in large top coats with several layers of clothes under and a distinct aura of menthol to safeguard against the breezey and cold winds when at top speed. The helmets or ‘He-lements’ as most call it comes in varying degrees of types, shapes and form that meet or do not meet the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC) standards.
Skateboarding, Construction worker, Formula One, Pilot, Skii, Firefighter and Cricket helmets can be seen on the heads of passengers who take okadas.
There was one time I was so fascinated with a NFL helmet I encountered that came with the logo of the Vikings and had the autograph of Brett Favre. How the rider came to have it is still a mystery, I offered to buy it but the rider refused, he needed the helmet for safety from the popos, and so a possible collectors item slipped by me.
Kekes came with a bang to Sierra Leone, with the novelty and allure from seeing it in the maiden movie, “Ong Bak’’ of now popular Thai actor Tony Jarr, the dainty and cuteness of the tricycle looking vehicle stole the hearts of most Sierra Leoneans.
They arrived in many colours with slight variations but all airy with window blinds and a touristic feel. My first Keke ride was fun, and a friend who saw me remarked to me later in Krio, ‘You bin sidom and relax some kind way insai the keke lek na you private jet’ – (You sat relaxed in the Keke as if you were in a private jet you owned’). A Keke ride for many first timers is documented by selfies, it is undoubtedly a transportationsystem that doubles as a euphoric experience.
The commercial transportation industry is a sector that has always flowed with the tides of inflation in our nation’s economy and global fluctuation of crude oil which influences the price of fuel that has a direct ripple effect on fare costs.
Most commercial vehicles are not owned by their drivers, the arrangement is a fixed amount that the driver must return to the vehicle owner at the end of the day known as the “Head Money”.
The amount is subject to the cost of fare and the type of commercial vehicle.
Poda Poda is based on the seat capacity; Four Row Seaters Le 200,000, Five Row Seaters Le 250,000 and Six Row Seaters Le 300,000 and the Coaster Le 400,000
Taxi- Le 70,000
Okada-Le 90,000 or Le 100,000
Keke-Le 100,000 and the larger 3 row seater Le 150,000
Presently, the standard fare rate for a fixed point to the next stands at;
A commercial driver is responsible for minor vehicular maintenances and care, an owner may only step in for serious issues. A major drawback for many drivers is the corrupt portion of the police force who harass them for money. During conversations with drivers they will bemoan on their run ins with cops, passengers who refuse to pay and owners who are never understanding of their plight on the streets.
Owners also tend to narrate their own negative experiences with drivers who treat the vehicles with abject disregard of its value because it was not purchased by their own money.
Depending to whom you want to believe, it is safe to say the dynamics of any business has its positive and shortcomings.
There is an intense rivalry amongst these commercial vehicles to win over passengers and popular opinion.
A friend’s sister once related to me a story on how one time she was hailed by a Keke driver but when she responded that she was heading to Dovecot market and thus her cheaper option was a poda poda.
The Keke rider hit her with a classic line, “Well you go dance reggae tay you reach’’ (You will dance the reggae moves until you arrive at your destination) indicating the swaying motion she would encounter on her trip due to potholes and the rickety poda poda she boarded.
Taxi drivers have no love lost for Keke and Okada rider who they perceive as usurpers and uncouth thugs with no respect for traffic rules. The importation of the three seater Keke has made many a taxi driver to curse and swear loudly of the of unsafety conditions of these keke hybrids.
The Keke and Okada riders on the other hand will tell you that the taxi riders are just bitter since keke/okada riders make double their wages.
Many companies in the nation have lately been making bonanzas and promotions which feature the Keke as a top prize.
Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora who came last December for the holidays were big patrons of the Keke. The Keke it seems is here to stay, but in an ever evolving world of ideas, innovations and new trends it will not be a surprise to see a new commercial class type vehicle dock on the quays of Freetown that will once more overhaul the status quo.
As was inscribed on my favourite taxi, “Only Time Will Tell’’.
There are millions of narratives online about people and their stories, mostly as strangers without meeting each other we connect with these experiences as we find ourselves relating to them. The intricate nature of human existence is the simple truth that in our differences we notice familiar things that brings us to the earthy truth that we are but just a singular race.
Every human has a story to tell and it’s no wonder in this day and age why blogging holds such a strong allure. Strangely the idea to create a blog to post my poems, articles and ramblings came not from me , but from my cousin, Ibrahim Jalloh (R I P).I had shared a piece via WhatsApp to him and after reading, he remarked that it would be a great idea to have a platform to air out my writings.
In his words he said, ”Kamanda, you have to save your writings and keep them so that they can be a moment in time when you had these thoughts. After all, even if no one reads them, they will always live”. These words rang true, Ibrahim always did have a penchant to say the rights things in a modest way.
Naturally I had some misgivings about the whole idea out of fear of internet trolls and another from the insecure idea that I thought my writings weren’t good enough. I slept on his advice. Several days later I set up a WordPress account and the rest as they say is history.
Blogging from Sierra Leone is not an easy feat. For starters, the internet penetration in the country is relatively low, and the data charges are somehow steep. Less than 10% of Sierra Leone’s approximately 7 million citizens utilize any social media tool and of that number the vast majority use Facebook and the cross platform app WhatsApp the most.
The reality is if you intend to tell the Sierra Leonean story via blogging, you come to terms with the stark truth that your countrymen will most likely not be a huge chunk of your audience. This realization alone is enough to deter many, I have known many fellow writers who started off writing on WordPress or Blogspot only to abandon it due to lack of instantaneous followers. Some chose to stick to Facebook blogging with the same recycled audience and recycled feedback.
I was tempted to take the easy route, but I did not. It dawned on me slowly that it would be better to grow an organic following from complete strangers and also from people I knew who would click my WordPress blog link to let my writing speak for itself. I held the firm belief that if I had to evolve from the cocoon of familiarity of the usual audience feedback that my Facebook posts garnered, I would be stuck in an endless loop, and what I craved was growth along with a bigger platform to tell my stories.
It has been almost two years now and I am approaching 500 followers. Through it all I have learnt some vital lessons. Blogging like any art form requires dedication. You have to put in the work to connect with your audience. The sooner you realise that the quality of your content will boost or reduce the feedback you get, the wiser you will become.
There is nothing I appreciate more than the feedback from readers and fellow bloggers, every comment or a like indicates that someone, somewhere took their time to read what I had to offer and leave a response. On some days as a dabbling writer that is the only thing we require, it’s less about a thirst for the spotlight and more about appreciation that comes with understanding. Blogging brings you closer with the art of others that gives you the necessary push that also stimulates the growth of your own art.
I can say without an iota of doubt that my writing has improved because I have encountered sound writers on this WordPress platform who have directly or indirectly influenced me with their brilliance and simplicity in tackling complex issues.
Blogging instills in you the confidence to air out what you have been stifling. The relief that such an outlet offers is priceless. To tackle the social ills of a nation on a broad expanse of issues and proffer solutions. Every complimentary feedback I receive motivates me to do more and tell our stories.
To every other Sierra Leonean blogger out there, keep doing you. Tell your story.
I will keep on blogging and sharing my experiences, as a voice from the western side of my continent, and let our stories be part of the album of the playlist of the myriad online stories written by people from around the globe.