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The day Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free, late last year, the seaside capital Freetown partied until dawn. The owners of Quincy’s, the latest name for Freetown’s iconic outdoor bar and nightclub Paddy’s, joke that they made their losses back after the 20-month epidemic that very evening.
“That night everyone went there to celebrate,” says Abdul Koroma, one of the shareholders in Quincy’s.
Freetown is, after all, a city that likes to party. In a country of only 6m people where average income is about $2 per person a day, the country’s wealthier and more well-to-do tend to mingle relatively easily with the less well-off at nightspots, partly because there are so few options. All-night dancing is de rigueur and the beach fills up with every man and his kite come Easter.
“You don’t have exclusive places in Sierra Leone; there’s no door policy as such and it’s not a complicated formula — there is a little VIP room but Paddy’s is a mixed bag,” Koroma says of the nightclub, which represents the ultimate in good-time free-for-alls. Come 2am the place fills up with local beauty queens, aid workers, ministers and miners. “On a good night we’ll have 1,000 people here — you can’t park for miles and we [stay] open until the last person goes home.”
It is a scene unthinkable just a few months ago. Sierra Leone’s wealthy are re-emerging in a country hit hard not only by the humbling, devastating impact of Ebola, but also by the brutal 1991-2002 civil war in which social structures were largely demolished and from which the country is yet to recover. Elsewhere, critics might point to a vibrant nightlife as a sign of excess in the face of such grinding poverty. But in Sierra Leone, it is also a coping mechanism and reveals a country returning to some semblance of normality.
The small west African nation has always been divided, not just between the rich and the poor. Many also point to the historic differences between ethnic groups in the country.
While the Krios formed the ranks of elite educated civil servants, lawyers and medics who made up the country’s bureaucratic and professional classes soon after it was founded by freed slaves in the 1780s, the more populous, indigenous Mende and Temne groups tend to dominate politics and government today.
That difference is also underlined in part by varying land rights, again a quirk of history, which influences how people park their assets. While individual land ownership is legal in the western area, which include beaches along the western peninsula and all of Freetown, where Krios historically settled, all territory beyond that is owned by the wider community.
“Where we say ‘elite’, the Krios go: ‘Yes, us’,” observes someone from a different ethnic group, explaining that for many the word is bound up less with wealth than history. Some groups, such as the Krio Descendants Union, are still going strong, but “people don’t like to be called elite here”, says one Krio businessman, who says “middle class” is a more accurate moniker.
Much of Freetown’s tiny but genuinely wealthy cohort, who get rich thanks to mining, contracting or sometimes corruption in government, tend to keep a lower profile and holiday outside the country. “There’s a small percentage of well-off people who just don’t go out because they don’t think anything’s good enough,” says one wealthy partygoer.
Partly because of the absence of widespread riches, an aspiration to wealth and beauty, and to display it, tends to be part of daily life on the streets. Some of the poorest people go by nicknames such as Money (“because he likes money”) and G-Money (“because he likes girls and money”), while minibus taxis are emblazoned with hopeful slogans such as “Moneyman” and “Success”.
But everyone knows appearance can be all too deceptive. One local rap doing the rounds from musician Block Jones, which schoolgirls know by heart, makes fun of women who claim everything they wear was made in France or that they are dressed in “Gucci Armani from head to toe”.
In his song “Chinese”, Block Jones raps that they are actually drenched in cheap Chinese rip-offs, from phone to clothes to bag to shoes. “China China: all designer/Gucci Prada all dem designer” goes his catchy line.
The worlds combine at 2 Guyz at O Bar, one of Freetown’s more upscale spots. Long blue fingernails, flouncy dresses, tresses and heels fill the packed dance floor with decadent fun and owner Walid Joseph says he regularly sells several $150 bottles of champagne a night. “At the end of the day people have been trapped for like a whole year,” he says of the impact of Ebola on today’s returning party scene. “Fridays is the busiest night for the whole country, trust me; people just want somewhere they can go and let loose.”
Across the capital, entire walls are still daubed in the hopes of a nation to rid itself permanently of Ebola: “Ebola e du so” (“Ebola, it’s enough” in the local Krio language) and “Wi go ‘was’ Ebola” (“We will get rid of Ebola”). While quarantine rules during the Ebola outbreak forced many bars to close at 6pm and, for a spell, shut down altogether, several in the city recall all-night lock-ins at some of the fancier hotel bars. “The bar at the Radisson hotel was meant to be guests-only, but guests signed in their friends and their friends’ friends, and the drinking sessions went on for hours,” says one attendee. Some even moved into the newly revamped hotel as guests.
That same underground, private vibe continues for the more wealthy going-out crowd. While they can mingle easily at beach bars, most save their more louche behaviour for private parties.
“Champagne popping is back,” says one attendee of a recent private party, adding the local scene has now eclipsed even the diaspora Sierra Leoneans who tend to return only once a year and are keen for their success abroad to make an impact at home.
Having fallen on hard times back in the UK or the US, diaspora Sierra Leoneans have now earned a reputation on Freetown’s streets as hagglers rather than all-star success stories. Sierra Leoneans who never left, or who have come back and permanently settled and done well for themselves, are stepping into theirs shoes.
“Even on a Sunday or a Monday, you have people popping champagne and spraying each other,” says a private party attendee.
“It’s slightly irresponsible for some to be spending this much but it’s a lifestyle choice.”