I lived in Sierra Leone from 1985 to 1987, taught at Harford School, a private, Methodist school for girls in Moyamba. Moyamba at that time was a pretty nice town of around 10,000 people and was the district headquarters for the Moyamba District. There were two law courts there, and it was up-country about a hundred twenty-five miles and a four or five hour drive from Freetown. I don't know what Moyamba looks like now since the war. Here is my reflection.
by Alma Cunningham
Jan 4, 1986
Transportation is very difficult here. I wanted to talk about it, have thought about it a lot. We have a government bus in Moyamba that usually takes a daily run to Freetown. It's an ordinary bus sometimes, and sometimes it's a medium sized Mercedes transport that holds some 30 to 40 people. The seats in the Mercedes are wooden, but the vehicles are new and in good repair. I don't think there are many breakdowns. The larger government bus is like a Greyhound or Trailways not so new but the time I caught one coming out of Freetown it traveled fast and safely. The price is reasonable and they leave on time.
If you want to go to any other town in the country, to Makeni, Bo, Kenema, you go out to the junction, just out the school gate, and catch one of the lorries. One's first impression of the lorries is how charming and raggle-taggle they are. The lorry is a pick-up truck which had been modified by putting a metal roof over the bed, bench running down each side, and the sides above the pick-up bed are open. Canvas curtains can be pulled down to keep out the rain or dust.
The charm of the lorry is the proverb, saying or name that is painted across the top part at the front, back or sides of the metal canopy. I spent over a month jotting them in my notebook when I first came. In September, I had nineteen by the end of the month, and then in October I had nine more. This morning I went out to the junction to see the lorries at the daily queue-up, and there were two new ones making their runs through the country. Coming up the hill was "Believe in God Shall Never Perish." As it passed by where I was standing by the clothes vendor stand, I saw it was empty and traveling light. There was an assistant; there's always one or maybe two, hanging off the back. It pulled into the filling station, although that station is the one that doesn't have petrol. After awhile I saw it pull over to the parking area at the junction triangle and pull up bumping the back left wheel over a curb. Later I looked over and the driver and his assistant were out looking at something under the truck bed. Looked like trouble.
"Tourist Man" was parked at the triangle this morning. It was empty except for a couple of 55 gallon drums strapped on the top. It pulled out of its place, swung wide around and went back to the place by the gas station. I think it was taking the drums to the NP station. They were pumping petrol over in the corner. A bobo, a young man, was pumping the fuel up to the tall glass measuring vessel about 6 or 7 feet off the pavement, then the fuel ran by hose into the drum, one of a couple of large containers waiting for filling there. FAO (that's the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization) got some. The kerosene is supposed to come in this afternoon.
"Enemy Shame" was ready to leave for Bo. You can see the backs of the passengers between the canopy and the side of the lorry bed. I counted ten backs on this side. One back was turned and its owner was talking to a companion standing on the pavement. There could have been 25 to 28 adults in the lorry. The front seat is a generous red plastic covered seat with head rests for one passenger and the driver. I rode back from Bo in "Enemy Shame," paid an extra 5 leones so I could sit in the front.
When I got to the lorry park in Bo that time, I was anxious to get out of town. I'd spent two miserable days at a Peace Corps conference. I walked down to the lorry park about 9 in the morning walked through the confusion of lorries, and found "Enemy Shame" almost half-full in the back and waiting beside a cigarette vendor and a woman peeling oranges. "Enemy Shame" is owned by the Black and White Store in Moyamba. From what I know, the Black and White people the Assad family own a lot in Moyamba. If you want to buy a case of beer or softs (soft drinks), you get it from Tony. Bottled gas, light bulbs and paint all come from him too. Gerald sells the canned goods and most of the exotic European foods that you can buy in town. Spaghetti, loose tea, cocoa, mayo, they're all obtainable at Gerald's. Magnus Assad drove the comfort bus that I took up to Bo.
Anyway, I negotiated my lorry ride from Bo that day and sat in the front seat. I've taken enough rides in the back of lorries to know what the experience is like. A lorry ride is uncomfortable, dangerous and probably unhealthy. It might sound funny, but it's not. It's sometimes the only way people have to travel from place to place here, so people rely on this lorry system for transport. The lorry can go fast on the straight paved stretches of road, and there are some. The driver might slip out of gear and coast down-hill to save fuel, and he might pass a slower moving truck to save time. The driver's decision to pass has never, in my experience, been based on what was coming from the opposite direction or whether he could see ahead. Dave came in from patrol a couple of weeks ago. The driver was drunk and belligerent. I think it's rare, but that happens too. I need to add here, that there is a comfort bus that augments the bus system in the country. Of all the buses in Moyamba the lorry covers most places, there's the government bus -- one round trip each day to Freetown; and there's the comfort bus that goes every-other day to Bo. All the rest are lorries. The roads are for the most part are in very bad condition; packed earth, gravel and pot holes can go on for miles.
Imagine yourself sitting in the back of a pickup on a wooden bench 10 inches off the floor and no more than a foot wide. Stick your luggage under the seat the wooden bench and it's likely to rest on the backs of your legs. Now, put people on either side of you, and if it's a man, he doesn't sit with his legs together. So he spreads out his legs, and your own knees may eventually be so tightly locked, you will raise one by arching one foot and resting your weight on the ball of your foot. The only time in my life that my crotch has gone to sleep was while riding on a lorry. A weird experience, that was. Now, after the driver's assistant has people on each bench facing each other, he puts in a narrow wooden bench the length of the lorry bed for more people. They sit facing either way. Knees compete for space. A couple of the men may smoke, and there's likely to be an infant or two. Maybe you can imagine it.
The vehicle probably doesn't have a complete exhaust system; more heat and fumes in the compartment. There might be several hundred-pound sacks of rice, goats, packed boxes, and petrol on the top of the canopy. If the compartment is full, male passengers may ride on the top or hang off the back.
Over at the repair place by the back gate, "Save Us Oh God City Boy" was getting some kind of major overhaul. Tonight when I was coming in from my walk, "Got Bless Allah" was heading out the road. "Baby Rose Power," it's another Assad bus, is parked down by the water works at night at Magnus's place. The first lorry on my list was "Take Care of My Back;" "Who the Cap Fit" was a beat up brown one the second on the list; "God Bless OFO" was around at the junction a lot, I almost listed it twice. "Sweetie Come Kiss Me," I've only seen a couple of times in town. "Professional Again;" "Boss Man;" "Simplicity Cool Cat;" "Correct Man Again;" and Road Master" come through town regularly bringing supplies as well as passengers. "KaMaRaDa;" "Surprise Dem" and "No True They Las #2" are partly in Krio. Sierra Leoneons are very religious. You can tell this when you see "God is Merciful" coming up the road, or "By God Power" or "The Lord is My Guide" stopped at the roadside."No Body Like Friend;" The Evil that Men Do;" and "No Condition is Permanent" or "Think Twice" are opinions that are probably shared by lots of people here.
Two young couples, Peace Corps and British volunteers, went to Shenge a week ago. Shenge is a beautiful beach, reportedly one of the loveliest in the world. I've yet to see it. The lorry ride down, according to the volunteers, sounded like what I don't want to experience. They sat on the top of the lorry and held on the luggage bar around the edge. Philip was yelling, "yahoo," as if he were on a bucking bronco. They had to watch for low branches and the pot holes that have torn up the road during the past rainy season. I've never seen women traveling the top and have only heard of these two women volunteers going on the top for their holiday in Shenge. I've been around Dave, the Peace Corps volunteer, a lot since we've left training in Songo. Dave is young, strong and energetic. He can get discouraged at times, but I've never seen him tired. When he and Kelly, his girlfriend, returned from the Shenge trip, he brought back the cot to my apartment. He was totally exhausted, Kelly was too, so much so that she didn't come to the apartment with him.
The only fortunate thing about the lorry trip is that the people usually accept the discomfort without complaint. There are some frank discussions about relief and room, but usually there are not arguments nor angry words. The price for the ride is negotiated before the passenger gets in and the money is collected near the end of the trip.
Edith and Lulu are Sierra Leonians who live in the apartments upstairs. They're permanent faculty; I'm here for just two years. I talked to Edith tonight. She just came back from holiday yesterday. Lulu came in today. Lulu got up at 3:30 this morning because the lorry left at 4:00 am. The driver needed to make his run back from Moyamba, so they needed to get to Moyamba in time to do the turnaround trip. I said to Edith how much I hated lorry rides and she said, "but that's the only way to get to anyplace." And I guess that's true.