Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The New Africa

In the eighties, all of this was forest, says Patrick Tommy, a community elder of perhaps 60, whose eyes are starting to fade to a pale blue with the onset of cataracts.

We’re hiking up to One House, a neighborhood so named after the era - not so long ago - when there was only a single human residence on this hillside. It’s hard to un-imagine the profusion of houses all around me, of laboriously etched-out earthen terraces colorful with drying laundry, of children in blue and yellow school uniforms toting water jugs, of men and women trekking up and down the slope with goods for sale. It seems extraordinary that, a mere 30 years ago, wild chimpanzees were probably living here.

Across Freetown, in another hillside neighborhood a bit farther from the central business district, people have not yet exhausted the local supply of wood. Plenty of residents there still eke out a living but cutting firewood, or by transforming it into charcoal, the two most common fuels for household cooking.  Is anyone here planting new trees to replace the ones they’re cutting? I asked a tribal chief we met during our initial visit.

No, no one, he replied.

So how will all of these people manage ten years from now? I persisted.

The chief shrugged. They will find something else to do.

In One House, nobody cuts firewood anymore, since they would have to trek far into the mountains to find any, a journey that wouldn’t make financial sense. So the wood traders here purchase their stock in town, off of boats that come to Freetown from “upline,” in the country’s increasingly rural countryside, and haul it up to One House.

High-speed urbanization isn't just a Freetown phenomenon. All over Africa, people are flocking to cities. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 60% of Africa's population will live in urban areas. 60% would be a moderate figure in the developed world; in countries like the U.S. and France, around 80% of the population lives in cities. But it's astounding in a continent where, half a century ago, almost the entire population was rural, surviving mostly on subsistence farming. 

Africans leave the countryside for a variety of reasons. Many seek economic and educational opportunities, or aspects of the modern world - media, technology, fashion, lifestyles - that rural areas simply can't offer. In many countries, Sierra Leone included, violent conflict has driven people from their relative vulnerability in rural regions to the relative safety of cities. Though the war here ended 10 years ago, few people want to go home. From what I understand, for many, the memories of suffering and flight are too horrific and heavy, the devastation wrought to their villages too complete, for them to care very much about rekindling their past lives. 

Personally, I often find Freetown completely overwhelming. The streets are so crammed with carts, vendors, soot-spewing autos and near misses with motorcycle taxis, that just getting to work in the morning can raise my blood pressure a few notches. Most of the people I've met work extremely long days - selling cigarettes, carrying loads, breaking rocks, filling boats with sand - only to earn barely enough to feed their families for the day, then wake up and repeat the next. If I had to choose between their lives and a quiet, peasant life raising animals and growing rice in the countryside, I'd almost certainly opt for the latter.

But while some folks I've met hope to someday move out of the slums, nobody talks about leaving Freetown. And so this city, home to a mere 65,000 residents in the 1950s, with a population of over a million today, will continue to grow. And all of those people will do whatever it takes to get by. 

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