By Mohamed Gibril Sesay
It has been so easy to blame Abacha traders for the traffic and other ills of the city of Freetown. So easy that it has become almost the vogue, a sort of hallowed wisdom amongst the literocrats, that is: the members of the literocracy, that is: rule of the literate as mandated by the constitution and bureaucratic customs, that is: the literate rule and galvanize opposition to rule, from the judiciary to the legislature, executive, civil service, local government and the other handmaiden of rule, that is: journalists, teachers, lecturers, guys like us, pundits and other motley sorts. You hear these birds of similar feathers crow: get the Abacha traders off that street, those rude women, illiterate people, what is petty trading anyway, little matches box and mints, what is that doing for them. For the literocrats, Abacha traders have become ‘the Immoral Other;’ they are all that which the literocrats are not: uncouth, disorderly bla bla bla ad nauseum.
Not that traders have not moved from many streets; not that their stalls have not been removed from scores of streets, including Siaka Steven Street and some others; not that they have not pushed back in some other streets; not that the traders and those who empathize with them do not want flowers on the street-islands of Freetown, or free flowing traffic, or law and order; not that the traders do not want situations where the harassment and larceny by unlawful confiscation would stop.
The matter also is that the opposition to the Abacha people feeds on deep-seated biases in Freetown culture. These love-hate biases are the bias against petty traders and petty trading, the bias against women, the bias against the illiterate, and the bias against the JC, not the JC from the West but the local JC, those who just came to the city from up(railway)line, from the ‘ros’ and ‘huns,’ especially the illiterate amongst them, blamed for all manner of things, from the despoliations of graveyards to the mongrelizing of the lingua franca, the pan-bodi-zation of the city, and uh, hoof, the upline-ization of the morals of Governor Clarkson’s followers. Hence they should be pushed back (Operation Push Back) or swept away (Operation Sweep) or weeded out (Operation WID), that there would be Free Flow (Operation Free Flow) of vehicle and traffic.
In the speech of many of Freetown literocrats from all ethnicities and political parties, petty trading is the ultimate disdainful occupation. You hear them repeat, like I am repeating now, what, just matches box, mints, needles, what will that do for them, these people must be idlers, let them go back up-line to the farms. Well, dear sirs/madams, the livelihood of many families depends on selling those matches, mints and needles. These are extended family businesses split into little trays to target different buyers in different places, with the five or six thousand Leones profit of each individual going into the family pot for the day to feed the household. You wonder how many people in Freetown’s underclass meet survival needs, especially those who would not beg, who would not steal. Well, that is how. That is how they do the Houdini of survival.
And could someone please stop this nonsense talk of hordes of urban dwellers returning to the soil again, to farm the land. First, profitable agriculture don’t need those thousands upon thousands to return to the land. Agricultural activities may be picking up again after the devastation of the war, but many people are turning their backs against farming. It has been too subsistent for too long time, so too backbreaking for too little for too long that even farmers push their children to try out other things to do. Surveys upon studies upon findings reveal that farmers are the poorest of Africans and persons in rural areas have the least access to most services. Not that urban dwellers have all these, but the possibilities and hopes of accessing them are stronger in urban areas. And man/woman lives not by bread alone, but also by hope, and the feelings of hope are stronger in today’s African cities than its villages. These are some of the reasons why urbanization has been so irreversible in Africa, and shouts of ‘get traders back to the land’ is nothing but an indicator of shallow understanding of the ‘hope’ profiles and demographic trends in Africa.
Abacha women are also so easy to blame because they are very visible and independent women. This visibility, this their reluctance to relocate to the invisibility of Sewa Grounds raises objections in the sub-conscious of many: ‘women should not be so noisy, they should not be so independent.’ That is reason why beyond the street trading façade, discussions relating to these women almost always refer to this, this quickness of Abacha women to protect their turf, to be assertive, to stand their ground. In uppity discussions about the rude, Abacha women have replaced that other category of assertive females called the fish-woman as the rudest social group. Some would expect women’s groups to have intervened in the Abacha situation and sought out a just and fairer solution. But it seems as if the leadership of many of our ‘queen’s language’ women groups care more about increasing representations of female literocrats in national institutions than about giving representational boosters to illiterate women. Of course, I support that, I firmly believe that more women in national institutions will bring about better everything for everyone in this nation. But the Abacha situation shows both the possibilities and limitations of Women equity advocacy in the country. Here is a group of women with skills to put off waves and waves of attempts to remove them by successive regimes, including the NPRC and the SLPP. But they have been doing this almost without support from groups on the literate end of the gender equity phenomena. A unity of interest between these groups would have yielded far greater impact for gender justice in this country. And I pray for that unity to quicken the pace of gender equity in our beloved country.
And the Abacha people are also so easy to blame because they are illiterate and/or perceived by many as such. And amongst the literocrats, the word ‘illiterate’ not only denotes inability to read and write, it is also used as a term of abuse, another name for persons regarded as uncivilized, uncouth, unworthy. Many discussions relating to Abacha street and petty traders refer to them as such, and talks of their unsanitary existence loom large in these discourses.
And now that the attention of the country is being drawn to the vexations of lawlessness, we see the ideologues of this hate for traders denoting the actions of traders as the prime examples of lawlessness in the country. And added unto this, rational discussions of the issue get obfuscated by charges of political chicanery – that they are not being moved because of politics, because they are supporters of the governing party, because of fears of losing their votes, because, well, they are up-line JCs, from the Mabantas of this world, strangers unto the aristo ways of the wards of William Wilberforce and their more numerous sankamarus, grainja-people or bonga-literocrats with provincial parentage. Nostalgia comes in about the times when the Hyde Park for these unruly activities of the munkus and mabantas was Ashoebi Corner; when Sunday was the day of rest for man and God in the CMS inspired parishes of Freetown. Democracy is to blame for this godless indiscipline of the city that schooled Bishop Crowther; majoritarian politics is to blame for this ‘massification’ of the city after our hearts; these supporters of the governing party are using politics to pee on the bye-laws of the beloved city.
But every law, let me hazard, is political, made in a political process, interpreted as such, and implemented as such. The balance of the interpretation and implementation of law need not disadvantage one group. But now they want the balance of implementation of the law to disfavor the traders, leaving aside the shopkeepers violating the 1973 laws, leaving aside so many other violations relating to agreements with the traders. And when the traders seek relief from this obvious and very unjust imbalance of enforcement, they are accused of using politics. But let me say this: Political life in Sierra Leone is to a large extent also defined by abilities to provide relief in times of the big challenge – they who master this master the electoral terrain. The traders are seeking relief from the biggest challenge to their livelihood. Political masters are paying heed to that. The present governing party has been able to claim the label of party for the common man and woman because its partisans pay greater attention to providing relief during big challenges for ordinary persons, and they are better at communicating this to the trader, the illiterate, and the so called munku.
But hey, what about the phenomena of office trading? Of the sale of everything to office people in their offices, from fry-fry to junk-knickers? No, that is not lawlessness; that does not disturb free-flow of office work. The subsistent habits of Sierra Leoneans run deep everywhere. So many of the occupations look like subsistent ones, subsistent teachers, subsistent secretaries, subsistent police, subsistent office workers, subsistent consultants, subsistent governing, opposition and ‘third farce’ politicians, a culture of hand to mouth, and culture of subsistent shopping, buying small-small and paying small-small. And added unto this, everybody wants to go home with something everyday, with a little extra, almost akin to people living in a forest environment, they must come home with the fruits from the forest everyday, with mass mass, mami coker, for that is the way they would justify that they are working. This ingrained cultural habit is a source of our corruption as a society, of mendicancy in the land. The traders sweat it out without recourse to these banes of the land. Yes, many of them are subsistent traders, but they sweat it out in ways more upstanding than most other persons in the land. And this why this inversion of the moral hierarchy when referring to them galls.
But let me at this juncture ask this question again: are the Abacha traders the determining cause of traffic in the city of Freetown, particularly as it relates to movement between the east and west of the city? Will their removal from Abacha Street speed up traffic to and from Eastend? Is traffic not also the result of the many funereal marches along Kissy Road to cemeteries at Upgun? Is it not also the result of so many people walking along Kissy Road, particularly between Bombay Street and East-end Police, multitudes that years back one only saw on the day before Christmas and Prayday? Is it not also because so many thousands are embarking and disembarking on poda podas and taxis around East-end Police, Mountain Cut and Bombay Street? Is it not because taxis and podas are doing the necessary turning around to head back to Kissy, Portee, Calaba Town and Waterloo?
But that which, to the larger than large extent, is responsible for the slow and sweltering East West traffic may well be that historic inability to overcome a particular geographical challenge that divides the two halves of the city: this is the Bambara Stream, with sources along the botanical gardens at FBC and running under what FBC students called Solidarity Bridge down through Red Pump, and forming a divide between Bambara Town and Foullah Tong along Odokoko and unto the back of East-end Police and emptying at Big Wharf. This gorge of a stream cuts off many streets from central Freetown joining up with streets on the other side in East-end. Sithorpe Street, Regent Street and Frederick Street could not go over the stream to join streets on the side branching off mountain cut, including Hadurudeen Street, Rowe street, First Street, Second Street and unto streets linked to Adams Street that would have also ensured motorable link-ups with streets along upper Bombay, Patton and Easton streets. Bridges along Bambara Stream and the reconstruction of a lot of streets running parallel and across it would ensure faster traffic flows between East and West and bring about the revitalization of communities and appreciation of properties from Bambara Tong through Foulah Tong, Fire Stone Mount Aureol, Ginger Hall and unto the Manfred Lane Areas, Kossoh Tong, Mende Tong, Coconut Farm and Fourah Bay. This revitalization would also be greatly aided by linking some of these streets with the Hillside road being constructed from Pademba Road to Coconut Farm.
In the interim, let us be aware that Abacha Street will still be the most walked – on street in Freetown even where the removal of traders is effected. It will still have those busy shops and their delivery trucks that prevent free flow of traffic. And traders will return to it, not because they want to break the law, but because that is where thousands walk through everyday, and these are the people whose impulse-buying habits the traders feed into to eke out their living. It is part of shopping habits in this land that people only buy the little things – paste, mints, oranges, ad infinitum- only when they see them; they are reminded of these things only when they are held onto them, and that is what the traders are doing in that most walked upon streets in the whole of Sierra Leone. And God knows they depend so much on these impulse customers for their survival, and survival cannot be suspended until the promised markets are built, or until the roads are reconstructed.
That is the reason why, in the interim, a fairer solution, one that would bring the Abacha Street traders within the ambit of the law and ensure their livelihood, may be to pedestrianize that street, to block it off to motor traffic between agreed upon times. Meanwhile, actions should be taken to build the markets, construct the bridges along Bambara Stream, and effect the quick win and other infrastructural development that will forever change the places and nature of trading and vehicular traffic in Freetown.
Free-flowing traffic in Freetown takes more planning and thinking out of the box than the worn-out cries of ‘remove the traders.’ And it belongs to those who love this city, this city that gave us great men like Wallace Johnson and Davidson Nicol, and more and more; it belongs to all those whose education has put them in pole positions to use their learning justly, to assert excellence through empathic enlightenment of the challenges and possibilities of our situation.