It’s midday in Crab Town, Aberdeen, in the west end of Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.
Sitting outside his apartment, Mohamed Sankoh, a mason, looks worried; as his wife prepares the afternoon meal nearby and their children play hide-and-seek, oblivious of any problem.
The family of seven faces eviction.
In the past three weeks, over a thousand dwellings and business structures have been demolished in nearby communities, in a controversial operation government officials say is aimed at reviving the tourism sector.
The Aberdeen Creek, on which Crab Town stands, is one of Sierra Leone’s environmental landmarks, with it’s mangrove. It is situated a stone’s throw from the popular, Aberdeen Beach.
The Ministry of Tourism says the slum serves as a hideout for “criminals” who attack tourists and engage in other illegal acts, while environmentalists are concerned about the rapid disappearance of the swamp vegetation.
Poverty and joblessness, a severe housing shortage and pressing domestic energy needs have pushed many city dwellers into marginal lifestyles.
Vast swathes of wetlands have been reclaimed, destroying irreplaceable biodiversity hotspots. Dozens of slums have cropped up around the city, mostly on beachfronts, constituting a cesspool of poverty and disease.
Rural-urban migration, which peaked during the 1991-2002 civil war, saw the city of originally a few thousands people grow to over a million people.
Freetown is renowned for its mountainous terrain, from which the country derived its name – Sierra Lyoa, Portuguese for “Lion Mountains.” Some people build their houses on dangerous hilltops and even under bridges and in gorges, where little or no money is required for a piece of land.
Crab Town, like many other communities living in such unsafe environments, has long been earmarked for demolition.
The recent brutal murder of a teenager may have provided the perfect opportunity. The 17-year-old girl was reportedly gang-raped and her body dumped on the Aberdeen Beach.
The Tourism Ministry, playing on the ensuing public anger, swiftly warned owners of uncompleted buildings lining the highway, including one belonging to football legend Mohamed Kallon, to throw out “criminal” squatters.
A few days later the demolitions began.
The bulldozers are yet to reach Ghana Compound, Sankoh’s community, which is mostly inhabited by youths whose houses are almost entirely made of corroded corrugated iron sheets known as “pan bodi.” Yet these youths are in no doubt that the push to evict them from the place they have called home for over a decade, has more to do with economics than environmental considerations.
There is talk of a plan to lease a part of the area to some Chinese investors. Government officials are reluctant to talk about it.
“We also want development, but not to our detriment,” laments Sankoh. He has not been going to work for the past few days, keeping vigil at home to be ready to save his family and belongings when the demolitions begin.
The authorities are adamant on “cleansing” Aberdeen of criminals and illegal squatters.
But the sight of overcrowded, unfinished buildings housing displaced families with nowhere to go has raised other questions in a country struggling to overcome a 16-month old Ebola epidemic.
“As people in government, we should be bold enough to take actions for the betterment of the people,” says the characteristically blunt former defence minister, Major (rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh, the head of the National Ebola Response Centre, when asked about the implications of the demolition for an already difficult fight against the disease.
Hundreds of families left homeless have been crammed into buildings with no sanitation facilities, heightening the risk of an outbreak of a contagious disease.
Conteh believes that the poor should live in poor neighbourhoods and the rich in rich neighbourhoods.
“Everywhere is pan bodi. This doesn’t happen anywhere in the world,” he said at a press briefing.
“In life, we are not all the same. We have to accept that. A slum is a slum and is for slum dwellers.”
In Tambakula Wharf, also in the west of the city, where a substantial amount of the fish consumed by Freetown residents comes from, over 1,000 fishmongers lost their livelihoods when the bulldozers first rolled in, late last month.
The wharf is situated a few metres from Sierra Leone’s first and only five-star hotel, Radisson Blu, inaugurated only weeks before the Ebola outbreak.
Tambakula was among the areas worst hit by the epidemic and was quarantined twice, once for 42 consecutive days.
“After its demolition, the area looks beautiful around the hotel,” said Conteh. “And that’s what a tourism area should look like.”