FREETOWN (Reuters) - Scattered across Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown stand ageing wooden houses, some of which look more like they belong on the east coast of 18th century America than in a steamy West African city.
Others look like they may have been built hundreds of years ago in the islands of the Caribbean, another reflection of Sierra Leone’s history as a colony established for freed slaves.
For Lucy Senessie, a 24-year-old who lives in one of the West Indies-influenced board houses in Freetown - known as ‘bode ose’ in the krio vernacular - the city’s unique architecture is a living link to its past.
“It is very important for people to see what has been there before,” she said, standing outside her wooden house in Freetown’s Murray Town neighbourhood. “The time when they colonise this country, there is only board houses in this country, but now things have changed.”
Isa Blyden, a documentary producer who has researched Freetown architecture, sees the origin of the houses in the arrival of the ‘Nova Scotians’ to Sierra Leone.
These former American slaves and free blacks sought refuge with the British during the American Revolutionary War. After the British defeat they were evacuated to Nova Scotia in Eastern Canada, and in 1792 a contingent came to Sierra Leone.
Blyden sees the original single-storey Freetown Board House as a reconstruction of the cabin-like structures built a little earlier on the American eastern seaboard.
“The style of house was being built in America in 1776,” Blyden said.
There were some modifications though, notably a three-foot base layer of porous local stone that helped anchor the house down during Sierra Leone’s torrential wet season.
The later West Indian influence is apparent in more elaborate board houses. One surviving multi-storey structure is Lucy Senessie’s home at 18 High Broad Street.
Situated opposite a Methodist Church, its wooden walls begin at first floor level. Latticework covers the stairs at the rear of the structure, and further lattice panels are inset above interior doors.
Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist, traces the West Indian influence to the arrival of a contingent of Jamaican ‘Maroons’ in Sierra Leone.
These escaped slaves and their descendants came to the country in 1800. Later on in the 19th century a West Indian regiment was also stationed in Sierra Leone.
“The general understanding is it’s simple, plain and simple West Indian architecture from that period,” said Opala, who has spent much of his adult life in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone was once largely forested, but Manilius Garber, vice president of the Sierra Leone Institute of Architects, says some board houses were also constructed using timber carried as ballast in ships bound for Freetown.
“Some of the wood is old pine from Canada, or Europe, or somewhere,” he said.
The surviving board houses are thought to be around 100 years old. In 1940 a British colonial ordinance forbade the construction of thatched dwellings - as the original board houses were - due to fire hazard.
By that stage though the style was already in decline, as stone and later concrete became more fashionable.
In the Congo Town neighbourhood of Freetown, No. 7 Grey Lane is an example of a surviving simple, single-story Board House. On the porch a metal panel is painted green, white and blue, the national colours of Sierra Leone.
“I met this house when I was born, so it was built before I was born,” says resident 54-year-old Ezekiel Thomas, who works as a teacher. “It’s like an antique to us.”
It is hard to assess the surviving number of Board Houses in Sierra Leone, some of which were destroyed in the country’s devastating 1991-2002 civil war.
Isa Blyden says there is an increasing appreciation for the structures, but acknowledges that wood for repairs is expensive to come by.
Mohamed Bakarr Jalloh, resident of a dilapidated Board House at 1 Macauley Street in Murray Town, admits he has been mocked for his accommodation.
“Some of the neighbours, they laugh at us, because of the wood condition,” explained the 26-year-old, who has a poster of a skimpily clad Janet Jackson in his first floor bedroom.
“It isn’t strong; when the breeze blow, not good.”
Alongside the Krio Board Houses, the Hill Station area of Freetown is home to another set of striking timber dwellings with a different history.
After research in Freetown indicated that mosquitoes brought malaria, around 100 years ago the British colonial authorities relocated their settlement from the stifling coastal flats to higher ground.
The funicular railway that once served Hill Station is long gone, though the station name sign remains at the abandoned upper terminus. Nearby, large wooden dwellings stand on metal stilts driven into concrete piles. Covered porches descend to ground level.
It is often said in Freetown that these houses, which were built for British colonial administrators, came to West Africa flat-packed from the London department store Harrods.
British writer Graham Greene, who visited Freetown in the 1930s and later lived in the city during World War Two, once referred to “bright electric Hill Station.”
The current inhabitants of Hill Station, Sierra Leonean civil servants and their families, say they do sometimes still get electricity. Pipe-borne water is now non-existent though.
Matilda Senessie, a 23-year-old who lives at No. 8 Hill Station, says they sometimes beg for water from bowsers going to a smart hotel nearby.
“I love the houses. they are comfortable, spacious,” she said. “The only thing is the water here. We don’t have water.”