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THE MIDWEST AFRICAN SERIES, DAY 12, 13 & 14

FREETOWN – BANANA ISLAND – CONAKRY

The West Side Boys, Freetown & Conakry. I suppose out of all the West African cities, I have most been looking forward to Freetown. It’s English speaking, got plenty of beaches and I hear the locals are great!

NEVER EXPECTED TO GET INVOLVED IN A SHOUTING MATCH ON BANANA ISLAND!

There is certainly more western tourists/expats here than I have seen in the previous two countries so will be interesting to see what it offers.

WHERE IS FREETOWN?

Freetown

COTTON TREE

The Cotton Tree is known to be one of Sierra Leone’s most important landmarks for over a century. It was here in 1972 that a group of slaves recently freed made their way down the freedom steps and sat beneath this tree and prayed to show their appreciation of a new life.

Unfortunately a storm last year caused the tree to collapse but you can still appreciate the size it once was.

DAILY INFO….

  • HOTEL –
    Sierra Palms Resort (8.5)
    Noom Hotel (8.5)
  • ATTRACTIONS –
    Cotton Tree
    Sierra Leone Museum
    St George’s Cathedral
    Banana Island
    The Drive to Conakry

FALL OUT

Museums are never really my thing but I decided to give the museum of Sierra Leone a chance and wish I didn’t. After hearing the guide was going to be another few minutes, we made our way through the museum and it was exactly as I had expected; artefacts, pottery and swords…

After almost getting to the point of asking to leave we were approached by the guide who gave us a bit of a telling off as the museum only opens at 10 – it was now 10:10. So upon hearing her bickering I mentioned I was keen to leave anyway – good start to the city I was most looking forward to.

The West Side Boys, Freetown & Conakry

  FACTS ABOUT FREETOWN:
  • At the heart of Freetown stands the majestic Cotton Tree. Early settlers gathered around this tree to express gratitude upon their arrival. Major streets, buildings, and landmarks can all be geolocated in relation to the Cotton Tree.
  • In April and May, Freetown comes alive with mangoes. These juicy fruits are sold individually or in heaps by roving vendors on street pavements.
  • While English is Sierra Leone’s official language, Krio is the heart and soul of Freetown. Speaking Krio “smɔl-smɔl” (just a little) will earn you smiles and appreciation from Freetonians.

KENT

After a bit of car trouble we made it to Kent, the small town just south of Freetown. Here we were taken around the various buildings used during the slave trade including the basement where the slaves were kept and the negotiating room to buy and sell.

The West Side Boys, Freetown & Conakry

FLAG….

  • GREEN – Alludes to the country’s natural resources – specifically agriculture and its mountains.
  • WHITE – Epitomizes “unity and justice”.
  • BLUE – Evokes the “natural harbour” of Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, as well as the hope of “contributing to world peace” through its usage.

BANANA ISLAND

From here we made the 20 min boat trip across the water to Banana Island. This place was effectively chosen as a prison, as there was no means of escape. Here the prisoners/slaves would be put to work digging wells and constructing buildings such as the church and homes for their captors.

As conditions were incredibly poor, it was not uncommon for some of the slaves to become ill to a point they became useless in the trade. Those that were considered too sick were taken (alive) to one of the disused wells and thrown in and left to die.

The West Side Boys, Freetown & Conakry

SCUFFLE

There are several settlements on the island that are occupied by locals who now call this island their home. As we made our way across the island we were approached by a local chief of one of the settlements and thrust into a confrontation.

The issue was that it was agreed if tourists access the island then each community would be due some fee rather than the village at the point of access. This means everyone can benefit and is on board when it comes to having tourists walking around their villages.

  ABOUT THE COUNTRY:
  • LANGUAGE – English is the de facto official language, and Krio is the most widely spoken.
  • HELLO – Kushɛ or Kushɛ-o
  • HOW TO CHEERS – Živeli!
  • BEVERAGE OF CHOICE – Palm wine
  • POPULAR SPORT – Football
  • STAPLE DIET – Rice

RESORT

It is strange to think what this place used to be and now there is a – albeit small – resort where tourists come, drink cocktails and top up their tan lines, bizarre.

DAY 13 – ROAD TO CONAKRY

I know I keep saying this but this is the beginning of the real journey, from Freetown to Guinea Bissau! I have heard tons of stories that the roads are poor and the police are corrupt. So far we have paid over $50 in bribes most of which were not essential but makes life easier for my guides who pass these checkpoints fairly often.

THE WEST SIDE BOYS

Ever since I was bought Operation Barras, the book about the famous SAS mission in Sierra Leone it became engraved in my brain and I knew when visiting this country I had to try and visit.

I was initially expecting this to be a short trip down to an old village with very little sign of what had happened back in September 2000. How wrong I was. After driving off the main road we switched onto bikes to make our way across what had to be the worst roads I have ever seen. After 30mins on the bike we arrived at Magbeni, the main base of the West Side Boys. Once we had a chat with an elder who was here when the West Side Boys arrived we found a boat and made our way across the creek to Gberi Bana, the secondary base where the British Soldiers were imprisoned.

GBERI BANA

Once we arrived we were greeted by another elder who in no uncertain terms asked us to leave. He has had a few groups visit this place who had promised to help the community in some way but it turns out once they visit the sites they gave nothing in return.

After carefully negotiating by my guide we were good to go and were taken around the village. I was surprised that the building that held the hostages was still there, fully intact besides a few bullet holes. But the hole that Musa, the Sierra Leonian translator was filled in. I think this was to spite some of the tourists that came here before.

MUSA

It was Musa that was treated the worst out of the group, spending his time in the toilet pit and going through punishment beatings daily. Although he survived it was good to be here and pay my respects.

LZ

Just beside the house where the hostages were kept is now the local football pitch and the site of the landing zones for the chinooks to drop off the troops and to collect the prisoners. It’s all incredibly surreal to be here.

CHILD SOLDIERS

Like a lot of the rebels, the leader of the West Side boys, Foday Kallay knew recruiting child soldiers would give him the best chance of complete control. Often kids who were taken from their family and friends would look up to their leader as a father figure, something Kallay was keen to take advantage of. To solidify this, the kids were often forced to begin their killing spree by shooting their parents.

CORRUPT

On our way through Conakry we were stopped at every checkpoint going but one was particularly interesting as we were taken out of the car and asked to open our bags.

WELCOME TO COUNTRY NUMBER 166

We knew what the score was when they pointed at some of the vehicle paperwork and said that it’s not permitted to have more than one person in it – you couldn’t make this shit up! Of course it was nothing a little African Tax couldn’t fix.

NOOM

Our hotel in Guinea was for sure a great surprise. Not only was it the best of the trip so far but also had the Guinean team staying there after their effort in the African Cup of Nations. Naby Keita, dressed head to toe in Gucci walked past me at check in and had to literally fight his way to the car.

DAY 14 – CONAKRY

Apart from sitting in the traffic there aren’t a million things to do in Conakry besides visit the islands and check out the market. I have no doubt that the traffic in this city is the worst in West Africa, it’s painful!

CONAKRY PORT

After getting our Guinea Bissau visa ($100) we headed to the port for the islands. The port was complete chaos, West Africa in a nutshell. Trawlers coming and going, people selling fish, sorting out their fishing nets and generally making a racket.

FOTOBA

In fairness, even visiting the island isn’t exciting. There was a bit of history between the Portuguese, English and French but besides that, a village, more rubbish and a prison we couldn’t get to there wasn’t much to see. So we dandered about then headed back to Conakry via the island of Iles de Los for a look at the beach. This was nice even if we did find a syringe.

NOOM

Tomorrow I meet another driver so I said cherrio to Sannoh, Manuel and the driver. They’ve been great, I threw them a few curveballs and they were always keen to sort it out. Time to eat a ton of good food before it’s back to chicken, rice and boiled eggs.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I did not think I would have ever visited the old base of the West Side Boys back when I read the book. It was a great story, what the SAS managed in terms of observation, recce and assault was mind blowing, I don’t think many other special forces units at the time could have pulled it off.

NEXT UP

The 3 day drive to Bissau!! Click to read.

SAFE TRAVELS, DS x
166/229

This post is part of The Midwest African Series, for the entire series click here or for episode 1, click here.

To watch the video of my trip, head to my highlights on my go Instagram.

Question Time

  • Would you like to overland across West Africa?
  • Which country would you most like to visit here?

Let me know in the comments below . . .

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DIAMOND & GOLD MINES OF SIERRA LEONE
WEST AFRICA’S BROTHEL HOTEL

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