There is a certain sense of anarchy that shapes the experience of driving in Freetown. I have been driving around town more than usual lately for a variety of reasons, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve said “this is crazy” or one of my passengers has uttered the same (“its madness!” “this is insane!”) Normally these mutterings come with the laughter of disbelief, but sometimes the anarchy gives way to collisions and more serious accidents. While driving to and from St. Mark’s in Calaba town on Sunday, we saw two separate motorcycle accidents and a very near miss between two poda-poda’s, with one van almost swerving into a crowd of people waiting for transport by the side of the road . Prayers for safe journeys are always appropriate here!
The best way I can describe the experience of driving in Freetown is to say that it is like navigating through an obstacle course in a maze, all the while playing chicken with other cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians. Narrow streets and too many cars equals congestion and chaos.
Typical congestion on Kissy Road, Freetown's primary east-west thoroughfare. At any given moment, hundreds of motorcycles navigate in both directions down the middle of the two lanes of traffic on this road. Bicycles, wheelbarrows and large, two-wheeled wagons are also common on this street.
Another typical driving challenge. Broken down vehicles, like this truck, are mostly fixed where they stop. The lane my driver wants to turn into - left off Kissy Road at Eastern Police -- is occupied as shown here, and by a white car i(if you look closely), first in a line of vehicles coming around the broken green truck.
There are a few streets in Freetown which are simply overrun with traders and pedestrians, and vehicles are forced to thread through the crowds, sometimes banging people with side mirrors and sometimes running over goods for sale on the ground. ( It is my fervent hope to avoid that driving fate as I have thus far.) In some cases, parked cars obstruct traffic on the narrowest of streets. Public transport drivers also cause many of the problems in a reckless pursuit of speed which equals more money. Additionally, poda-poda drivers and taxis will stop anywhere at anytime to pick up or discharge passengers: beware! Some taxi and poda poda drivers will use hand signals to let others know their intentions, and while I get some of the signals, some gestures remain a mystery to me after two and a half years.
Streets in some neighborhoods are exceptionally narrow. Many are one way, at least in theory. One particular challenge inherent in driving in Freetown is the existence of open drainage gutters at the edge of these narrow roads. Miscalculations (especially when turning, backing up or trying to squeeze past other cars) means going over the edge.
The ongoing road construction in Freetown adds to the chaos. Early progress on a couple of main roadways halted in the rainy season, and significant problems with new drainage systems have reversed early achievements.
The recent addition of new median street dividers has meant that some drivers take a shortcut, or try to by-pass traffic, by driving on the wrong side of the road. It is not uncommon these days to be driving along and meet oncoming traffic against all normal expectations or rules of the road.
In recent weeks we have seen a flurry of activity to regain ground on the road construction projects and to complete the work at hand. The traffic intersection known here as Congo Cross is of particular note. This is a traffic roundabout where multiple lanes come together, and the roundabout is often congested with traffic backing up in a number of directions. The work that has been done on the roundabout in the past month baffles and befuddles most people I know. We look at the design and can see that the lanes are much too narrow, while the decorative design for the middle of the roundabout is much too big. We all say “this is crazy!” On Saturday night I sat in traffic at Congo Cross for well over one hour, watching vehicles zip past on the other side of the median, going the wrong way, ignoring the law, and trying to squeeze into the lines merging into the roundabout ahead.
Poda podas are the vans used for public transport. They run set routes throughout the city. I have heard two translations or meanings for poda poda: "hither and thither," which does describe how these vehicles move (when not sitting in traffic), and "bit by bit" which is how they collect passengers along the way.
Having said all this, it is really quite remarkable that the vehicular anarchy in Freetown generally works for the common good of movement. There is a certain ebb and flow and etiquette which most drivers understand and follow. Adults go out of their way to help children across busy streets, and drivers will stop to allow pedestrians to cross the road, especially when carrying heavy loads. Freetown residents are remarkably patient and adaptable, and everyone understands when someone arrives late because of “traffic.”