Muctaru's Blog

I am Muctaru Wurie from Freetown, Sierra Leone. I blog on a variety of subject from my homeland and most of my post feature well researched stories I do.

Freetown Planning Dilemma

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A View of Freetown's skyline

View of Freetown's skyline from above the hills of Signal Hill

It is no secret that Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown is currently in a planning dilemma. From the upscale suburb Hill Stations to the far eastern sections of Lumpa in Waterloo, there is a massive rise in construction of houses and new communities are sprouting up everywhere. There is also an unprecedented expansion in areas that are reserved for future development by government and areas once deemed as very unsafe to live, just at the back of Bishops Court on the wharf adjacent to Queen Elizabeth II Quay, there is a whole new community just about few years old. The small portion of beach that existed before has been covered by new houses banked against the flowing tide from the ocean. The roads that lead to many of the houses there are as dangerous as the position of the community itself, narrow footpath and rickety foot bridges. The houses, most of which are built of dirt clay and zinc are so crammed against each other, that in an event of a fire accident in a, there is very little chance that any of the houses could be spared. It is interesting to note that this was an area once slated for an expansion plan of Freetown harbour. In Lumpa, Waterloo, there are over two hundred new houses being built and the majority of the houses are being built in a scattered manner. Despite the vastness of the new communities, there are very few roads and there are little signs of gutters and sewage system is almost non-existent. Some of the houses do not even have toilets or bath rooms. Travel further west and even the upscale suburb of IMATT or Regent, the home of the magnificent US Embassy; there are new communities sprouting up around the beautifully built houses in the area, and in the midst of beautiful residential quarters there is a big building material store in what is suppose to be a purely residential community. Almost everywhere in Freetown, there is a clear evidence that the city is not planned to modern standards says Joe Doherty, a Sierra Leonean scholar at the Department of Geography, University of St Andrews. “Go up to the peninsula area and take a look downtown, you will hardly spot road networks in all the communities, spontaneous expansions are the order of the day. Everyone go about putting structures virtually everywhere without proper coordination and planning with the authorities. Something is definitely wrong.” He says. In a scholarly article published in the UK, he argues that the perpetuation of housing problems in Freetown and the failure to implement housing policies cannot be attributed merely to bureaucratic inadequacies and resource limitations. “They can only be fully understood by reference to the way the main agents of housing provision, the private market and the state, operate in the specific social and economic conditions of underdeveloped capitalism.” In an exclusive interview with Sierra Eye, Minister of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment, Dr Dennis Sandy acknowledged the huge planning problems faced by Freetown such as the rapid growth of structures and new communities everywhere. He expressed dismay about people blocking access roads in areas such as Waterloo and his main concern was people are consistently breaking and flouting building regulations and the Freetown Improvement Act. But he said that there are concrete plans by the incumbent government to change this scenario by expanding the current road networks and making the city a much better place to reside. Citing the current hill side road project in the eastern part of the city as one of the first move in that direction, he also revealed plans to expand other roads in the city such as Wilkinson Road to a four lane. “We are trying to see how best we can give a facelift to the city, and of course we are also trying to decongest Freetown and emphasising the planning aspect and the enforcement of the laws governing lands, housing and planning,” said Dr Sandy. The Minister angrily reacted to any thought that Freetown is becoming a slum, saying that view is a very insensitive one. “We are seriously working to improve the current state of the city despite moves to enforce the law in achieving this we expect people to heed the call of the president to accept altitudinal change and stop illegal act such as building structures in the SLRA right of way and the illegal occupation of government lands,” he concluded. However, further afield there are little signs of change as many developers struggle to put up variety of structures in the deforested areas of Juay, in the eastern part of the city. The houses most of which are not crammed together are being built in a scattered manner, and for Lamin Sesay who started building a one flat structure last year this is the dream of his life: “I have worked for over fifteen years now and now I am thankful to Allah for letting me achieve my dream of building a new house for my family. It’s really not easy for me, he said. Despite the virtual non-existence of basic infrastructures such as roads, electricity and water near his site; Lamin is visibly a happy man as he watched workers put his house together. When Sierra Eye put it to Lamin that he might not get the correct papers to build on that land or permission from the authorities to put up the type of structures he is putting up, Lamin reacted with utmost confidence showing series of papers which he claimed was given to him by survey and housing officials who parade through most of these communities. As Lamin tried to explain to us, some of these officials were approaching a nearby land where workers were unearthing the ground for a new foundation to be laid. Lamin pointed to us, these are the officials and they monitor all these new structures around here. We approached them and tried to talk to them but when they became aware that we were journalists, they backed off and quickly disappear from the area. They claimed they are not officially permitted to talk to the press and despite us trying to squeeze through a question why are they giving building permit to people even when the structural arrangements looked so shabby and disorganised? There was no response from them. A house owner in the area who prefers to be anonymous told us that these officials are clearly not interested in anything apart from the money that they collect from builders. “They only come so that they can get money from us,” he said. However, he claimed that house owners are trying to ensure that there are spaces for roads so that they don’t end up having a crammed up community. Another planning dilemma in Freetown has been the absence of an efficient waste disposal system; most gutters across the city are blocked throughout the year and as a result of this most streets become over flooded during the rainy season. In the east of the city, it is far worse, some inhabitants throw their waste at night in street corners when the gutters are filled. Although, the Freetown City Council provides waste disposal trucks and carts, the city is just too vast and some communities are off limit making the task of waste management a serious problem. Areas that once catered for waste disposal now have houses or other structures standing on them, almost all the waste disposal sites in the city have vanished. Most observers have in the past warned about the imminent dangers and over-congesting and rapid rise of structures in dangerous communities in the city, Councilor Mr. Mohamed Kargbo in a drive to save lives and property the Freetown City Council has been issuing warning notices to the people living in various dangerous communities in the city to quit those areas but they are not getting any cooperation. Of late there have even been fatalities in these communities especially during the rainy season. Last rainy season a huge rock at the edge of a ravine at Culvert along Bai Bureh Road, a few yards from the Bumeh dumping site in the  East end of Freetown collapsed killing four people and injuring nine. Inhabitants within the vicinity said the incident occurred at around 1:00 am during the torrential rain when almost everybody within the neighbourhood was asleep. The huge stone with a mass of loose earth crashed down upon a structure positioned underneath it burying all the occupants. Neighbours and security personnel rushed to the scene in a desperate bid to rescue them but the mudslides, torrential rains and lack of proper rescue equipment made it very difficult. The Member of Parliament representing Constituency 102 Hon. Eustace King said the Freetown City Council had already issued warning notices to the inhabitants to quit the area but they did not heed the advice. He referred to the situation as pathetic and heart-breaking taking into cognizance the catastrophic dimension and further stated that he was again warning those dwelling in such a deadly spot to move forthwith as the area is a hazardous zone. Some of the inhabitants of these areas are pointing the fingers on government. At the back of Prince of Wales in the Kroo Bay slum, Morlai Turay living at No 2 May Street who happens to be one of the unfortunate slum dwellers said he is living there not by his choice. “I knew living here is risky and dangerous for me and my family, but I clearly don’t have another option.” Morlai whose house is banked on the sea and having a rock hanging just above the cliff behind said he chose to live there rather getting back to his village where his three children might have had little chance of gaining education. Morlai said it is not their fault, but that of the government who has failed over the years to provide low cost housing estate for poor people like them. “When was the last time the government embarked upon a programme to build low cost houses in the city? We are being forced to live in these places even though there are dangers to us and our children because our leaders have no strategy to develop the city,” said an angry Morlai. When a city is overcrowded and lack efficeient housing, even the dead feel the effect of the pressure, many of the cemeteries in Freetown have been encroached by dwellers. Houses are not only being built on burial grounds from the Circular Road to Kissy Road Cemetery, but overcrowding means a clear interaction between the dead and alive. During the day, it is not uncommon for group of people sitting on top of graves at Kissy Road Cemetery, traders and women selling foodstuff can be seen right in the Cemetery selling their food items and cookeries. At Race Course Cemetery it is almost the same situation but made far worse because of it nearness to the Bomeh waste disposal site. Nonetheless, there are huge new building structures at the back of the Cemetery. And most inhabitants use the Cemetery as their route. Whilst the Freetown City Council has succeeded in closing the gates at Kissy Road Cemetery at nights, they are struggling to do the same at Race Course. Isatu Kamara one of those living at edge of Race Course Cemetery said that since the war brought them to Freetown they have struggled to find a place to live in the city. “We know this place is not safe for us and healthy for us, but my brother where can we go?” She asked. Living between the dead and the massive pile garbage of Bomeh is a way of life for many here. The situation is made worse by the usual smoke from the burning of garbage which hangs up like cloud in the air. But many of the children in the fog of the smoke joyfully kicking socks ball in the area are clearly symbolising the acceptance spirit of staying put in the area, despite the hazards. The UN-HABITAT, a UN body seeking improvement for people faced with dangerous housing conditions has called for the improvement of slum and informal settlements in Freetown. In offering a solution for the rising problems, they called for the proper identification and mapping of all slum and informal settlements in Freetown, carrying out of an extensive review of the literature on the housing situation in Freetown, and also the analysis of the housing, environmental sanitation and socio-economic situation in a selected slum/informal settlement in Freetown. But for the moment, housing, waste management, traffic and planning difficulties mean that even if appropriate measures are taken it is going to take time for Freetown to have a normal face-lift.


Written by Muctaru Wurie

October 31, 2010 at 11:53 am

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