Joseph Warungu: Free in Freetown
In our series of letters from African journalists, Joseph Warungu leaves the hubbub of Nairobi to finally make his maiden visit to Sierra Leone’s capital, where he finds people determined to overcome their history of civil war and Ebola.
I am in Freetown and I feel truly free.
Free from the pressures and pretensions of life in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, where the struggles of the middle class are over who drives the latest model of which car, and who lives in the poshest neighbourhood.
In Nairobi, many people, especially the young, are obsessed with the nauseating celebrity culture, whose lifestyle glitters so much it can blind you.
Landing from the heights of Nairobi’s razzle-dazzle, Freetown humbles you.
First, if your heart was in your mouth as the aeroplane shook and trembled in the rainy season, then your heart will be in your hand on the ground as you take the ferry from Lungi International Airport, to Freetown.
You can tell who is a foreigner by the strained look in their faces, as the small ferry dances and slices across the waves.
I have been waiting to get to Sierra Leone for the last 20 years. I reported on the country since the early 1990s, from the safety of London.
I played my favourite Sierra Leonean music on the BBC Network Africa breakfast show, but never made it to Freetown. So when an opportunity arose, to come and train young journalists at the Africa Young Voices TV station, I seized it with both hands and feet!
Alighting from the ferry at Freetown, you can immediately tell the state of unemployment in the country, by the vast number of baggage handlers employed by the ferry companies.
The drive through the streets immediately brings home the effects of more than a decade of civil war, and the tragedy that was Ebola.
The city is overcrowded, with lots of informal settlements, and the infrastructure is bursting at the seams.
There is a serious problem of waste management. The current government, which has put a lot of effort into infrastructure projects and stabilising the economy, has its work cut out.
The people of Freetown are desperate to be free from the threats of disease.
“As soon as we began to talk politics, my spirit was brought crashing down”
But it is in my interactions with people that lift my spirits. They do not call it “Sweet Salone” for no reason.
The people here are warm, friendly and generous. And whether it is as a result of trying to forget the pain of the past or not, it is clear they love to have a good time.
Everywhere you go, you will find clubs and social places where people gather to set themselves free from the struggles of the week through great music, dance, food and laughter.
So I have had more than my fair share of Jollof rice and cassava leaves. For an east African, the pepper in the food is on the side of plenty-oh, and so a glass of water is always at hand – much to the amusement of my hosts.
I run a national mentorship programme for young journalists in Kenya in the form of a TV programme called Top Story. So I became completely at home when I eventually began to train the young Sierra Leonean journalists and broadcasters.
Their hunger for knowledge and skills and enthusiasm sent me on a high. But as soon as we began to talk politics, my spirit was brought crashing down.
Like my own country and many others in Africa, corruption is a big threat to the people.
Like Kenya, here too society is divided into the two rival sides that will be seeking office in the next election. And the issues are exactly the same – a high cost of living, unemployment and demands for better governance.
After my first week here, I was ready to explore some of the key towns whose names have been on my lips as a broadcast journalist in the last 20 years – Bo, Makeni, Kabala, Kenema and Koidu…
Then I will perhaps be ready to re-engage with the rat-race of life and the paralysing traffic of Nairobi.
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