Trip to Bo

 

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A little over a week ago, I went on a trip with a colleague to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city, to do some reporting. It was fascinating to see another part of the country, and also a relaxing break from Freetown. The trip resulted in a few stories and a three-part column about my experiences, which you can read here:

Trip to Bo, part 1
Trip to Bo, part 2: All about recycling
Trip to Bo, part 3: Okada drivers
With water sachets flooding the market, Bo turns to recycling
Bo recycling plant transforms plastic water sachets into pavestones
Kakua Chiefdom struggles to collect local taxes and pay employees

It’s really striking how rural Sierra Leone becomes once you leave Freetown. Even though it’s the second largest city, Bo has basically no grid of streets. Venture just a little ways outside the city center and you’ll reach pothole-ridden dirt roads. There doesn’t seem to be any old colonial buildings, and the City Council building is a big house surrounded by trees and grass. And to get there, you pass through a simple community with no paved roads, where women wash and dry clothing outside.

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Outside the bus window on the way to Bo

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The bus ride from Freetown to Bo took about five hours. There were many several stops, and at each one there were people ready and waiting to sell their goods to the passengers: fruit, peanuts, cucumbers, biscuits, skewers of meat, whole roasted fish, water, soft drinks, bread. At one stop, a women held up three live chickens she was hoping to sell.

Our first stop when we got to Bo, after eating at a former Awoko staffer’s house and settling in, was the offices of Kakua Chiefdom, which contains Bo. Sierra Leone is divided into 149 Chiefdoms, each headed by a Paramount Chief. Though these leader are elected, candidates must come from one of the ruling families recorded at the time the British colonialists set up the system, and in some areas women cannot hold the position. The Chiefs have a lot of responsibilities in their local area, and also hold seats in Parliament. Kakua Chiefdom, which contains Bo, is having trouble collecting enough local taxes to pay employees, which is what my story was about. Despite the problem of not being able to raise enough taxes, for reasons I don’t quite understand the Paramount Chief said he would like to do away with these taxes altogether.

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Bo city center. Bo is not a diamond trading hub like Kenema in the east, but I saw several diamond shops

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Motorbike taxis, called okadas in Sierra Leone, are absolutely everywhere in Bo. The institution was popularized after the civil war. Many young people became child soldiers or victims of the war, and were left without job prospects. The okadas were a way for them to make a living

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The next day we went to the Bo Waste Management Department to learn about their recycling program. It turns out this program is one of, if not the only one in Sierra Leone. The the right infrastructure, education and attitudes toward recycling basically don’t exist in Sierra Leone right now. The recycling efforts in Bo include turning plastic, much of it from sachets of water people take as refreshments, into paving stones, which line the walkway to the Waste Management Department. There are other products made of plastic waste, like bags, and aluminium cans are melted down and poured into molds to make pots and pans.

At the Waste Management Department we learned that it’s hard to make a profit from these recycled products because they’re labor-intensive, and there’s so far no way to automate the production.

Later we got to see first hand how the products are produced at the recycling plant.

 

We also visited a shop that sells bags made of recycled plastics. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d see in a shop in the US that sells souvenirs from around the world, but it wasn’t geared toward tourists or anything like that.

We also saw the plant where they make the water sachets

Bo is famous for its gari (also spelled garri). What is this? It’s cassava (aka tapioca) that’s been grated, drained of its liquid and then fried in oil. The result looks like couscous but has the crunchy texture of fried onions. In my guidebook’s chapter on Bo, it says people in Sierra Leone are obsessed with gari, and will travel to Bo and bring back sacks of it. Judging by my colleague…this is completely true, as it’s exactly what she did. While riding motorbike taxis on the way to do some reporting, we made a detour to a gari shop, and she bought a huge sack of it.

There are a few ways to prepare gari. When we got back to the house of the former Awoko staffer who now lives in Bo, we made some the simple way: mixed with cold water, milk powder and sugar. It turned into a slightly crunchy porridge that reminded me a bit of shredded wheat or frosted cornflakes. It was enough to make me want to take some home with me, so I got three bags, which cost all of 90 cents:

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More photos from the trip:

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Aruna Kamara, a reporter with Radio Bo, helped us in our reporting. This station owes its existence in part to Andrew Kromah, who helped build a network of radio stations in Sierra Leone during and after the war. I interviewed Kromah for a story on journalism in Sierra Leone — look out for an upcoming post on that

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The entrance to the Bo hospital. The policy of washing hands before entering started during the Ebola crisis

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We interviewed these guys for a story on motorbike taxi riders in Bo

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Through the window on the way back

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