It’s difficult to think of Sierra Leone, and its capital Freetown, with whom Hull has a longstanding civic partnership without thinking of the troubles the country has been through; a history involving slavery, military coups, civil war, poverty and most recently, the horror of ebola.
And yet to see the country simply through its hardships fails to tell the whole story. The truth is that Sierra Leone is a strikingly beautiful nation with a rich cultural heritage, abundant in natural resources, populated by resilient, open people who offer the warmest of welcomes.
My first trip to Freetown was in 2006. Back then I was working as a journalist and I was invited by Arts Council organisation Creative Partnerships to get involved in a project working with young people in Hull and Freetown, exploring each others’ lives through film, photography and writing, with the aim of renewing the partnership between the two cities.
Since then, with my colleague Alan Jones, we’ve visited Freetown 14 times – and its fair to say we’ve fallen in love with the place. Freetown has a strange way of taking hold of your heart. It’s a stunning city. Located on the coast, it’s built on hills that rise sharply from the sea-line; when the country was first ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Cinta, he named it Serra Leoa, Lion Mountain, the view of the hills from his ship reminding him of the shape of a sleeping lion.
This is Africa. It’s Freetown. It’s thrilling. Coming from our tidy, organised, tightly controlled European way of life, Freetown is soaked in colour, noise, busy-ness. The sun and humidity are intense, there are palm trees, the yellow taxis constantly shout to each other in hoots and honks, the music blares, the traffic is insane, there are ‘petty traders’ everywhere selling everything from chewing gum to fresh mangoes, steering wheels to hand towels, books, jeans, CDs, peanuts, bags of cold water, muscled men strain to loaded hand carts, women carry baskets of charcoal piled high on their heads, kids dodge the cars, skipping into school in pristine uniforms.
All that might be true, but it sounds like a cliche of Africa. And it certainly doesn’t paint a complete picture – it’s not all hustle and bustle and market traders. Freetown is a busy port, a centre for government and business in West Africa, a university city, a place where Christians and Muslims live in harmony. After years of British colonial rule, followed by dictatorship, decline, war, poverty and disease, Sierra Leone is a young country (it only gained independence in 1961) where a new sense of patriotism, pride and potential is beginning to dissolve long-held tribal divisions and unite the people.
And just like back home in Hull, it’s the people who really embody the unique spirit of the place.
“This is Freetown, be free! You are welcome here” – it’s Freetown’s unofficial motto, every time we visit, someone says that to us. Of course, wherever you go there are dodgy characters, but the warmth and friendliness of Sierra Leoneans in general is remarkable. This is a busy crowded city, but walk down the street and everyone says hello; people you don’t know come up, shake your hand and welcome you; kids smile and wave and shout “Friend!”. And Sierra Leoneans love to laugh. One of our best friends in Freetown is a famous comedian known as Vamboi. When we’re with him it’s like being in a bubble of laughter – Sierra Leoneans only have to look at him and they’re in stitches. Don’t take yourself too seriously and you’ll make friends in Freetown.
But it’s not all laughter. Some of the poverty you see will make you cry. Most Sierra Leoneans still struggle to live on less that £1 a day. And you cannot – and should not – forget the impact that colonial rule had on Sierra Leone. The country was established by the British as a colony for freed slaves – great, well done William Wilberforce – but 150 years of colonial rule and protectionism meant Sierra Leone never really developed the infrastructure to cope after independence. If you’re white and British and visiting Sierra Leone then you have to ask yourself what role our country has played in Sierra Leone’s status as one of the poorest countries in the world. So we never forget that we’re guests, that we’re humble to be welcomed and that we have a duty to help if we can.
Our closest friend in Sierra Leone is Lansana Mansaray (aka Barmmy Boy). A film-maker, musician and youth activist, Barmmy is one of the most inspiring people you could ever meet. Like many Sierra Leoneans, he has seen more than anyone’s fair share of pain and yet – again, like many of the Sierra Leoneans we know – he has an incredible ability to rise above his background and put his country first. Barmmy works ceaselessly to keep his family and friends afloat, to create other opportunities for young Sierra Leoneans, and to promote and develop the country he loves.
So what gives these people their strength, their humour and their open hearts?
You can’t help but think it’s because of the struggles they’ve been through. When you’ve seen your friends killed by soldiers who were supposed to protect you, when your government has stolen from you, when law has broken down, when your little brother dies simply because he has diarrhoea, when you’ve had to eat rats because the shops were empty of food – well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Sierra Leoneans are all too familiar with death, and so they live life to the full. They live it now, they give thanks for it, and when they can they squeeze every last drop from it!
Do we do the same in this country? The majority of us live on regular incomes or benefits. We shop in supermarkets and online, we have electricity and running water, we have (so we’re told) an open and free democracy. We have the NHS and free education, we have motorways and the BBC, free museums, Brexit and City of Culture.
At the end of the day, what really makes us happy?
That’s the question behind a series of films Hull 2017 commissioned us to make in Freetown and in Hull. With our colleagues Barmmy Boy in Freetown, and Harriet Jones in Hull, we found counterparts in both cities, real people doing real jobs – the hairdresser in Hull, the hairdresser in Freetown, the boxer in Hull, the boxer in Freetown, the tailor, the taxi-driver, the cook, the drag act – we filmed them at work and we asked them the simple question: How do you have a happy life?
Telling the stories of regular people leading regular lives is a great way to get under the skin of two quite different cities. And whether you struggle for a living in tropical Freetown, or whether you make ends meet in a chilly January in Hull, it seems that what really matters to everyone, what unites us and makes us strong, is what we all have in common – we need money to survive, our work gives us a purpose, the people we love give us strength and our dreams give us hope.
We all have our burdens to bear – some are heavier than others. And whether we’re in Freetown, Hull, Washington or Aleppo the truth is that only way it gets better is when we help each other out.
That’s how you have a happy life.