Gaze out from the water’s edge at Kroo Bay and you see a typical West African seaside vista.
It’s not picture postcard exactly but attractive enough, with traditional wooden fishing vessels rounding a coastline punctuated by cotton trees and the odd leaning palm.
But this is no place for a picnic.
Turn 180 degrees and you’ll take in the rusting metal roofs of tiny slum dwellings that house somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people.
To get to that point means negotiating a warren of alleyways where cramped mud-brick homes, patched with tin, face each other at a distance of only a couple of feet.
Once you’ve ducked under washing lines, negotiated sodden mud pools with stepping stones, slalomed through leashed goats and chickens – and dozens of unleashed children – you arrive at the area used by the fishing community.
Their newly-constructed boats await a launch from a patch of filth where pigs rummage through the litter-strewn mud for nourishment.
It’s only when we reach this point that my guide, Isaac Balla Bangura, explains how the land we’re standing on is “reclaimed” from the sea. And it’s a far cry from the Norfolk Broads or Zuiderzee.
Rubbish from Freetown’s hillside communities runs through drains and culverts into the Crocodile River, which divides Kroo Bay, before being spewed into the Atlantic.
The ocean washes it back onto the slum, where mud and silt builds up and binds the plastic bags, lost flip-flops and “rubbers” – the Krio name for plastic containers – to form something akin to solid ground.
The newly-formed area is then built on and populated by fresh arrivals from upcountry, seeking a more prosperous life in the capital.
This, says Balla, is how the area has grown – tripling in population in a decade – since the first influx of new arrivals poured in from the provinces while fleeing the 1991-2002 civil war.
Balla, who lives in the bay, says there’s no real community or loyalty among the mish-mash of different ethnicities living cheek-by-jowl. He won’t leave his house at night for fear of being burgled. The pigs he kept were stolen; the place is a hotbed of drug-taking, violence and thievery.
Not that you’d know it on the sunny afternoon when I visit. It’s days before Christmas, and the kids are off school. That is to say the ones whose parents can afford to send them.
They take the usual delight in seeing a white man. “Oporto!” they shout, signifying they’re from northern Temne-speaking areas. They try out their English to ask how I am, showing off the cheeky grins I’ve encountered all around Sierra Leone.
In shaded crannies, men play the same animated games of drafts that you see anywhere, hawkers flog snacks from buckets balanced high on heads, and mothers order around their children as they wash and tidy.
In this way, it’s little different to other communities in Freetown. It just all happens much closer together. Wander down a particularly narrow lane and you might have to close a front door that’s been left ajar to squeeze by.
What amazes me is the laundry; laid out on hot tin roofs, draped over any available wall and strung on lines between buildings. I think back to rainy season, when it’d take days to get stuff dry in our spacious and airy home, and wonder how on earth people manage.
But manage they do. While some – young children in particular – wear little more than rags, most are as well turned out as the average Sierra Leonean, which means to a standard that puts my dishevelment to shame.
Meanwhile, dozens of young women indulge in the national pastime of braiding or extending hair into elaborate and colourful styles. It’s all a reminder, should it be needed, that the word “slum” applies to the dwellings and not those who live in them.
This isn’t an existence to be romanticised, however. At the top of the bay stands one block of three toilet cubicles, constructed a few years ago by Save the Children.
That’s one trap per several thousand people. Most people use bedpans, says Balla. They fling the contents into the river as the best way to get rid of it. Plenty more defecate directly into the water.
Once a year, the place floods and sends filth pouring into people’s homes. Heavy rain soaks the ground through July and August, then in September the neighbourhood braces itself for the inevitable.
This year, a particularly heavy overnight deluge sent a torrent of rubbish downriver. It built up against the stanchion of a bridge that link the two halves of the bay, sending the filthy water flowing into the upper reaches of the community.
Balla shows me the watermark in his own house, about six inches off the ground. Others weren’t so “lucky”. They spent the night on the roof, praying the house wouldn’t fall down.
The exteriors of some buildings show water damage at head height, where cement fascia has crumbled away and wooden window frames have bowed. In many cases painted tin patches over areas were mud bricks disintegrated completely.
Some buildings remain empty, and through remnants of demolished walls you can see the mud deposited waist-high by the torrent, then left to harden once the residents abandoned home.
It took Balla six hours to rid his home of the stinking mud. Meanwhile, volunteers set to work with shovels to help others in the community.
Next year, they’ll doubtless be called on to do the same again.
This was the first time I’d set foot in Kroo Bay. It’s not the sort of place your business takes you, unless you’re on a humanitarian mission. However, I was anxious not to leave Sierra Leone without gaining some understanding of the conditions in the slums.
I’d been invited on Balla’s “tour” by some friends who work for the Word Made Flesh (WMF) organisation, which works to lighten the lives of hundreds of children in Kroo Bay – and provide extensive support to a few dozen more.
I was keen to see the operation of this Christian organisation – an example of many such small religious groups working in Sierra Leone – as a contrast to the corporate-style operations of international NGOs.
While I retain a healthy scepticism about aid work that’s heavily focused on faith, I can appreciate the real and enduring benefit of a mission focused intently on one community.
And the walled compound of WMF’s Alé Alé House of Hope, on the edge of Kroo Bay, feels like a haven of peace amid the chaos.
It’s to this building that up to 50 youngsters, aged 12 to mid-20s, come once a week for an evening of classes, games, mentorship and a decent hot meal of rice and African greens.
Many of them will have come to WMF’s attention because they were missing school, often having been sent out by their parents to earn money selling charcoal, water or peanuts, or washing plates at a cookery.
“If we hear a child isn’t going to school, we try to make friends with the family and explain to them why education is important, and that we’re not trying to take their place but to help,” says executive director Alafia Cole, who describes himself more modestly as “general caretaker”.
It’s not always an easy argument to win. People might just about scrape a living selling cigarettes, or melting tin cans to mould into cooking pots for sale. Others resort to prostitution. School involves fees – for exams, report cards and certificates. Not all of these financial demands are legitimate.
So if a relative sends their child to find a “better future” in the city, some new guardians choose instead to send them straight out to earn.
When I ask Alafia what’s a successful outcome for these kids, he says finding them stability in life is the first step. But he points to graduates who have become carpenters and teachers as examples, having received help in the run-up to their vocational or school leavers exams.
A stepping stone for them, he says, is to lead sessions at the Good News Club, attended by up to 250 children every Saturday. It offers under 12s an hour of singing, bible reading and a chance to relax with other kids, while staff will also help with minor medical complaints.
Prayer is central to WMF’s activity and I should point out that I’m uncomfortable with evangelism. But when it’s the force that drives people to offer the support, kindness, guidance and hope that’s otherwise totally unavailable, I’d take it as a good thing.
It certainly beats alternatives, such as being told by your parents to go out and steal for a living, which I’m told isn’t such an outlandish idea around here.
Those who join the prayers at Good News club are given a hard-boiled egg. That might not sound much but such a protein-rich snack is a rarity. If nearly 30% of under-fives are chronically malnourished in Sierra Leone, what’s the rate in this poorest of poor areas?
Getting properly fed isn’t the only problem for many youngsters. Sexual abuse is rife, with over half of all girls believed to have fallen victim. When complaints are made, they’re often dealt with as “fambul business” behind closed doors or the perpetrators pay the family to keep quiet.
WMF’s workers support the victims with counselling and medical care, while trying to convince the family of the pain their child has suffered and to bring the case to the attention of police and the courts.
Too often, says women’s ministry coordinator Salome Dumbuya, they aren’t taken seriously and even when a case is followed up, it might never get to court without a bribe to oil the wheels of justice.
There wasn’t time for me to see the staff at work or speak to any of the children involved but those I saw seemed at ease, both respectful of others and treated with respect. There was an air of calm in Alé Alé House that you don’t experience that often in this country.
It’s the venue for a tutoring programme which takes in 35 kids, aged six to 13, three days a week for intensive help with maths and English to get them up to speed in time for secondary school. “It’s not uncommon to see eight or nine-year-olds who don’t know their A, B, C,” says tutor Kristin Yoder.
I’m struck by the dedication of these staff, who make life tough for themselves to be among those they serve. As I’ve spent the last nine months feeling uncomfortable as a (relatively) rich man in a poor country, I have tremendous respect for it. I’m not sure I could take that step – and I certainly won’t any time soon.
Balla argues that you can only truly understand people’s problems if you live among them. And it’s clear from walking with him that – as head of an outreach programme for families that offers microloans and business development alongside general advice and support – he’s held in high esteem.
Children yell “Alé Alé” in greeting, before clinging to his arm. For many, the Good News Club Christmas Party – which offered the rare chance to savour the taste of chicken – remains fresh in the mind.
A teenage girl listens as he ticks her off for missing an antenatal appointment and promises she’ll go back to the clinic. They are worried about her because she’s so slight. Expectant mothers die at a rate of nearly one in every 100 during childbirth in Sierra Leone.
Shortly afterwards, we meet one young mother with her tiny daughter and I am left with what will become my abiding memory of Kroo Bay.
It won’t be the hardened sludge underfoot, the stacked tyres that protect low-lying homes from flooding at high tide, or the rubbish piled high all around that stays with me.
Rather, it will be the sight of this little girl, toddling with the help of an older brother towards Balla. She reaches out for his hands, her eyes aflame with the simple joy of discovering the world around her.
And what sort of a world? She’s oblivious to the filth she’s had the misfortune to be born in to.
I can’t help wondering what her chances are of being among the 88% who scrape past their fifth birthday in this country.
Even then, what would her future hold? Poverty? Abuse? Sickness? Prostitution?
I can only hope that when she does reach out again for help then Balla – or someone like him – will still be there.
Merry Christmas everybody. Be thankful for the things you have and hold dear.
* If you’d like to support the work of Ale Ale House of Hope, you can make a donation via give.net. WMF is also keen to hear from people interested in donating their time and skills through an internship.
Unattributed photos: Copyright Word Made Flesh