The transport system in Freetown – as much as it’s an annoyance a lot of the time, it’s one of the things that really defines the experience of this city! Getting transport can be so notoriously difficult that it’s a regular conversation starter in meetings, with friends, and even with complete strangers. To get a basic grasp of the transport system’s inner workings and rules took me a good week, and even now I’m constantly adding to my knowledge about it, after more than five weeks spent here. When I first arrived in Freetown, next to nothing about the transport system made sense to me, being used to the European system with buses with fixed stops and individual taxis. Traffic and getting transport were this big mystery to me, seemingly completely crazy and anarchic, yet I knew there had to be an underlying system and rules.
The main means of transport in Freetown used by ACIPP interns and staff are shared taxis and poda-podas (minibuses), but there are also okadas (motorbikes) and some bigger buses. I’ll try and explain each means of transport’s rules and workings, so new interns have an easier time here. Because it’s really only once you figured out the basics and have learned to move around on your own that you’ll properly feel at home in this city, and all the funny and fun experiences that come with getting transport will start!
The taxis are usually shared and operate by reference points. To stop a taxi, stand on the side of the road and give a hand sign. Once the taxi slows down, you shout your destination at the driver. If he doesn’t react or makes a ‘go away’ hand sign, he doesn’t want to take you (mind you, even if you think he didn’t hear you, he probably did). If he stops, or waves for you to come, you’re lucky! Another thing to keep in mind is that you will be more likely to find a taxi if you shout the next reference point on your route, and not your final destination. Once you managed to get inside a taxi, you can ask the driver if he’s willing to take you further than that, and sometimes they will agree. If not, it’s still faster to change taxis three or four times to get into the city! Also, if you say a faraway destination, a taxi driver will assume that you want to charter his taxi (meaning you would be the only passenger in it), and will ask for a far higher price.
‘One way’ in a taxi usually costs 1000 Leones, about 0.25$. What exactly ‘one way’ is, will depend on the driver you get – some are cheaper than others. From the ACIPP Sierra Leone house to the city center it’s about 4-5 way. Additionally, it’s a common strategy during rush hour to pay 2000 Le for one way, taxi drivers will be more likely to pick you. You will hear a lot of people shout a destination and then ‘two way’, to indicate they’re willing to pay more because they’re in a hurry.
If you feel you’re being overcharged, stay calm but tell the driver he’s not being fair to you- if you’ll say this in a friendly voice, usually the other passengers will be on your side and tell the driver to charge you less. That has happened to me a couple of times! Generally speaking, people will often start conversations with you in taxis; they will ask you where you’re from and what you are doing in their country. Taxis are a great way to make new friends or to just have a friendly conversation with someone!
Another thing that needs to be said somewhere in this post, as it surprised me quite a bit at first: It is completely normal for people to offer you a ride in their private car, and the country is safe enough that people trust each other to accept this offer. Of course it is entirely up to you and to the specific situation if you’re willing to do this, but I started accepting these offers of help after denying them at first, and I must say I never regretted it! It is one of the myriad ways that this country will make you feel welcome, safe, and in good hands, thanks to the genuine warmth and friendliness of its people.
The other main means of transport in Freetown are poda-podas, minibuses that have four metal benches instead of the old interior, and usually fit up to 17 or 18 people! You will take these a lot between the ACIPP house in Goderich and Lumley, one of the intermediary stations on the way to town, so brace yourselves for a crammed ride every once in a while. Poda-podas are more straightforward to take: As long as there is space available in the poda-poda, the ‘apprentice’ (the driver’s helper) will shout out its destination, and the destination is usually also painted on the front of the minibus. All poda-podas have a fixed route, and a ride, no matter how far you go, is 1000 Le. To stop one, just flag it down on the side of the road and it will stop to take you in. Pretty much the same goes for big busses – they cost 1000 Le, and are sometimes a good means of transport to get from the City back to Lumley, close to where we live.
To round up the madness of Freetown traffic, there are about a million okadas (motorbikes) on the streets, honking and finding their way through the cars stuck in traffic! We don’t advise you to take them, as they take a lot of risks in traffic and are quite dangerous. In the few weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve already seen too many accidents involving okadas to ever feel the desire to take one of them. But, like anything else described here, they are an essential piece to the puzzle of Freetown traffic. And as you cann see on the picture, the police is making an effort to get the situation under control – the situation has markedly improved in the eastern part of the city in the last weeks.
Author: Imma Mäder, Director of Media and Recruitment ACIPP West Africa. She came to Sierra Leone in early January to manage and promote ACIPP’s local programmes.