Finding words to describe Freetown is not easy. A city ravaged by war and extreme poverty that refuses to succumb to the perilous situation of being the capital of the least developed nation in the world is one that defies simple description.
From the tops of the many undulating hills that constitute Freetown one can see the suffering in the ramshackle slums of Kroo Bay below. Slums which seem to be falling away into the ocean, but manage somehow to keep its dirty fingernails dug into ground, fighting against a slippery slope into oblivion.
Walking in the city confronts you with the contrast of hard faces fighting a daily battle for survival with smiling faces enjoying the moment, optimistic for the future of sweet Salone.
A crazy boy wearing a green bandanna, a torn strip of army issue cloth used to differentiate army from rebel, follows you along the street before being shooed away by a man selling tourist maps from a box on the sidewalk. Tourist maps that no longer exist because of the war. Maps saved from extinction by enterprising street sellers who are willing to give you one, but for a price.
An army of shared taxis weaves through chaotic, frustrated traffic, incessantly beeping their horns looking to fill available seats. They create a cacophony of noise and present danger for all who dare walk on the road.
Yell out where you want to go, and if it sounds good they'll stop. Ask how much and they triple the price. Sound like you know what you're doing and they'll only double it. Say "two-way" and they'll grumble in agreement. Get in and greet the other passengers. Move over as another person gets in. Hand over your money, get your change and jump out, but don't get hit by the speeding white UN pickup truck behind you.
Go to the ex-pat cafe owned by a Lebanese family and enjoy a croissant and Turkish coffee. While away the hours talking politics and people watching. Mining company executives and their families, NGO workers, journalists and foreign educated locals fill the seats and enjoy the atmosphere at Western prices. The Lebanese community are the business class in Freetown, owning many, if not most, of the businesses in the city. They are the merchants and middlemen, separate but not equal in this land of opportunity.
Wander by the bank and you'll be called by numerous young men on the street looking to exchange your money - Dollars, Euros, Pounds Sterling - into Leones at a better rate than the bank will offer you.
Have some dinner at a beach side shack, the best Red Snapper and chips in the city, at the aptly named Paradise. Drink cold Star beer and discuss the fallacy of development work. Suggest sending people to the West to learn in the same way you've been sent here - realize the numerous barriers to this happening - and then suggest hitting Paddy's for another round.
Go to the dirty club with a filthy reputation. Drink, dance and be merry. Watch the ladies of the night talk up the middle aged soldiers who are belly up at the bar. The fun doesn't start until at least 1AM. Sierra Leone likes to stay up late.
Get a ride from a friend with an SUV. Walk up the hill leading to your luxury apartment, replete with house boy, night time security guard, broken bottles cemented into the tops of the high surrounding walls, a gas generator to get you through the many nights of power outages, but no running water.
Go to sleep under your mosquito net and lay in the heavy, humid heat of the night while the fan spins and the generator cranks - you can rinse off the sweat in the morning during your bucket shower.
Find some rest despite the numerous and often conflicting radios that are still blasting throughout the neighborhood after midnight, wake up to the sounds of a new day and witness the ant trail of people carrying empty plastic yellow gas containers to be filled at the water tap at the bottom of the hill.
Do these things and realize that another day is starting, life is marching on despite such challenges, despite such inequality, because that's the life. We all just dig our dirty fingernails in and hope that today is not the day we slip into the murky waters of oblivion.