A Trip to Sierra Leone

I pushed open my hotel window and looked out. It was near dusk, and the tranquil seaside scenery was refreshingly beautiful. My view could easily have rivaled those offered at a typical coastal tourist destination. I was at a hotel on a small hill in western Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The view I was enjoying “came at a cost”—160 U.S. dollars a day to be exact. How much money would this be to the average Sierra Leonean? I’d have to venture out of the hotel and look around the city to find out.

But first, why is Freetown named as it is? A little history lesson might be in order here.

After Sierra Leone was “discovered” by the Europeans during the great seafaring days in the mid-15th century, several countries set up trade there. Portuguese traders came first, followed by the Dutch, French, and English. The Europeans initially set their sights on the region’s rich natural resources, such as minerals and timber, but their interest shifted towards slaves as the demand for slaves in the Americas grew. Sierra Leone became an important center in the slave trade.

After the American War of Independence (1775-1783), some liberated slaves were returned to Sierra Leone. They settled in an area that was named “Free Town” to signify their newfound freedom. Since then, the town has developed from a resettlement area for freed slaves to a bustling city of more than a million people. This was how Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, got its name.

Hawkers with their wares on their heads

As I ambled through the downtown area of Freetown, I found every street and alley teeming with people and activity. Ambulatory vendors, with their wares on their heads, roamed the streets hawking their goods. They were selling a great number of things. It might be a few bananas, several bottles of soda, a handful of toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, a few pairs of old shoes, some pots and pans, or sundry other items. Everything you could think of, wanted, or needed could be found on top of their heads.

To a foreigner, these super-micro, on-the-top-of-the-head businesses are very eye-catching and have a strong exotic appeal. They make great subject matter for a photographer like me. But I started to wonder: What’s their impact on the economy of Sierra Leone? I know that many local people depend upon these super-micro businesses as their source of income, but how much do they make? How much do they contribute to the economy in Sierra Leone?

I asked a soda hawker how much he earned a day. He said about two U.S. dollars. That money was used to support his family, not for his own personal use. So how large are the families in Sierra Leone? Statistics show that women in Sierra Leone give birth to an average of five children; the mothers’ average age when they have their first child is 19. Using these numbers, you can get a rough idea of how big families are here. Needless to say, the money earned by these vendors doesn’t go far.

Knowing next to nothing about market economy, I can’t definitively answer the question of just what an impact these vendors might have. But intuitively, I can’t help feeling that it is not a very productive use of the country’s labor force. A large sector of the population has been forced to take up this means of livelihood, and with so many out and about, they must not make much money.

What’s more, with so many people making a living like this, the government is missing out on much needed tax income. This in turn affects the government’s ability to pay for things people need—including medical care, education, housing, and the maintenance and construction of new infrastructure.