FREETOWN (Reuters) - Scarred by war and worn by time, the tumbledown wooden houses which dot Freetown are a vestige of the Krios, descendants of freed slaves who once made Sierra Leone a beacon of Western culture in Africa.
Patched with rusty scraps of corrugated iron, their broken windows covered by bits of cardboard, the old board dwellings -- “ole bod ose” in Krio -- are a fragile reminder of the former British colony’s rich but endangered heritage.
Freetown was colonized in waves by Black Poor from London, emancipated American slaves resettled from Nova Scotia, and Maroon rebels from Jamaica’s rugged interior. They merged to form a Creole ruling elite -- the Krios.
The Krios, who today number 100,000 of a population of 5.7 million, were more Western than African. For a century after its founding in 1827, Fourah Bay College was the region’s sole European style university, earning Freetown the title the Athens of West Africa.
“These houses are unique. They are a physical sign of the Krio culture,” said Tom Walsh, director of the British Council, which funded an exhibition on the colonial dwellings. “But it’s a fragile heritage given Sierra Leone’s economic problems.”
Many of the wooden houses have been gutted by fire, others torn down to make way for concrete as Sierra Leone struggles to recover from a brutal, diamond-fuelled civil war in 1991-2002.
“People don’t prize the old Creole buildings,” said historian Joe Alie. “Sierra Leone is a melting pot but most people here aren’t aware of their unique history and culture.”
Sierra Leone was founded in a burst of idealism by British abolitionists as the “Province of Freedom” in 1787. For half a century after Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British navy deposited captives freed from slaving vessels from along the length of the West African coast.
The ancient gateway through which they passed, inscribed to “British Valour and Philanthropy”, still stands near the waterfront. Mosques peppering the city testify to the Muslim faith they brought, at odds with the Krios’ devout Christianity.
Today, the original red-brick Fourah Bay College building lies in ruins, occupied by squatters. In recent times, with Sierra Leone holding this year its first elections since U.N. peacekeepers withdrew in 2005, the Krios’ sway has crumbled.
“The Krios are not as powerful as they used to be,” said waiter Saliou Diallo. “But we still speak their broken English.”
The Krio language, which has become a lingua franca for Sierra Leone’s Temne and Mende tribes of the interior, testifies to the country’s hybrid origins. Although its roots are English, its structure is influenced by African languages and its vocabulary is a mishmash of African and European words.
“Ow de body?” is a common greeting derived from English, but another, “Kushe-o”, was brought by freed Nigerian slaves from the Yoruba tongue. “Sabi”, to know, descends directly from Portuguese diction, as does “pikin” the word for a child, while “boku”, meaning a lot, is adulterated French.
When spoken correctly, the language is virtually unintelligible to an English speaker. But many Sierra Leoneans now fear their native tongue is being polluted by English.
“Krio is changing. The younger people don’t speak proper Krio,” said Joe Kay, curator of the national museum, home to a trove of dusty treasures. “Now they’re trying to teach Krio in school because people speak English at home ... because they think it helps their children.”
Prosperity has lagged peace in Sierra Leone. With most people surviving on less than a dollar a day, heritage is not a priority. There is no system for listing historic buildings and the Monuments and Relics Commission is composed of volunteers.
Freetown’s place-names tell a rich history. The Waterloo neighborhood was founded by Africans who fought for Britain in the Napoleonic wars, while Congo town is named for the freed African slaves who settled there.
Destruction Bay still conceals the ancient hulks of the captured slaving ships which were broken up there to prevent them falling back into the hands of slavers.
Further up the river Rokel, the crumbling ivy-clad fortress on Bunce island was a major slaving fort for more than a century, but unlike similar sites in Ghana and Senegal, it lies in ruins. Efforts to renovate it were scuppered by the civil war, but the British hope to revive them.
“Bunce island is not very well known given its historical significance, much less so than the slave forts in Ghana, and some would argue it has even greater significance,” said Walsh.
In the new Fourah Bay College, where dogs sleep in the stairwells, the national archives lie abandoned in two rooms.
Among the yellowing letters from colonial governors and the inventories of slaving ships lies the colony’s founding charter, listing the gifts paid to Temne chief King Tom for the land.
“These documents are of phenomenal national and international significance. It’s just tragic that they are being eaten by moths,” said Walsh. “It just needs a window to be broken and rain to get in and the records are gone.”