'Athens of West Africa' Awaits a Better Day

Despite flies, rust, and mud, Freetown still beckons visitors with a Graham Greene aura

The sign greeting weary passengers leaving the crowded ferry at the gateway to Sierra Leone's capital has a curious message considering the surrounding misery: "Welcome to the Athens of West Africa."

A rundown town on Africa's west coast, Freetown saw better days in the last century, when its Fourah Bay College was a mecca for African intellectuals modeling themselves on Socrates.

Now after decades of neglect and four years of devastating civil war there is little inspiring to meet the eye. Unlike other African countries with civil wars, Sierra Leone has seen its conflict grind on with no peace efforts under way.

The capital is jammed with thousands of refugees living in ramshackle wood houses. Rusting hulks of ships jut out of the murky gray bay. The air is thick with haze, mosquitoes, and flies. Vultures pick at rubbish heaps.

"Freetown has changed a lot, for the worse," says a wistful John Karefa-Smart, a former defense minister who recently returned to Sierra Leone after many years in the United States.

The military government, in an attempt to beautify the city and establish order, has declared the last Saturday of every month "cleaning day." From dawn to 10 a.m., people are not allowed on the streets unless they are cleaning them.

The town takes its name from its founding by British philanthropists as a center for runaway and freed slaves. This gave birth to the Creole elite who speak a colorful patois, Krio, which is a blend of English and local languages.

The British writer Graham Greene, the master of depicting tropical moral decay and intrigue, was fascinated by Freetown. He drew inspiration from his experience here during World War II for his celebrated novel "The Heart of the Matter."

The cast of expatriate characters has changed somewhat but is still colorful. Instead of British colonial administrators, there are South African mercenaries and French aid workers. Nigerian and Guinean peacekeeping soldiers maintain the little order there is.

The Lebanese dominate the economy, offering diamonds and every conceivable kind of consumer goods, even risking ambushes to truck their wares into the dangerous interior.

The City Hotel where novelist Greene lived, not too far from the 500-year-old Cotton Tree that is the town's main landmark, has seen better days. But one can still sense what it was like when he wrote in Room 8 and sat on the veranda to seek inspiration.

The only building that has a sparkling, well-maintained air is the military headquarters overlooking the bay, where the young military rulers are based. There, decisions are made by men in their 20s who came to power in a 1992 coup.

The president, gentle-eyed Capt. Valentine Strasser, looks especially youthful. His photograph, which hangs everywhere in public buildings, seems more fitting for a college yearbook than a military commandant.

The defense spokesman completes the boyish picture. Dressed in immaculate green fatigues, Lt. Col. Karefa Kargbo presides behind a desk covered with toys, including a plastic miniature tank, a snow shaker with a teddy bear inside, and fluffy white stuffed animals with red ribbons.

A fake hand grenade has a warning label and a number printed on the pin: "Complaints department. Take a number."

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