There is something odd about the leone. At first, you might be impressed by the sheer volume of the currency. A 50 dollar note buys you a packet of bills that barely fit a wallet. And once you find out a taxi ride is 1,500 leones (20 cents), it seems like you’ve hit the jackpot. This is going to be so cheap. You marvel, ready to hit the beaches and indulge in fancy cocktails and lobsters.
And then you’re broke. Leones fly away like mouldy butterflies, leaving no trail whatsoever for you to find out what you’ve actually spent all your money on. Especially after December, with the parties and the outings and the trips and family members who suddenly need a new phone, the new year can start with sad wallets and a resolution to not leave the house until payday.
Fear not; we are here to help. It is actually quite easy to be on a budget in Sierra Leone, you just need to know the right hacks.
Choose your transport wisely
That does not mean cheaply. The more you pay for transport, the more comfortable it becomes. Thus, if you want to economise, prepare yourself for sweaty rides in cramped poda poda’s.
In order of price…
The Poda Poda: the cheapest, the roughest, the hottest. In Spanish there is a saying that goes como sardinas en lata, (canned sardines), but then in a vehicle that falls apart with benches worse than those in church and countless stops.
The shared taxi : If you’re lucky you might take the front seat in a neat car nex to a sober-minded driver. If you’re unlucky, you’re in the back seat that smells of fish whilst a big aunty is eating parched groundnuts and spilling everywhere.
The keke/ tuk tuk/ tricycle: A badboy with a nice breeze and proper manoeuvrability. Generally comfortable, unless three big boned people occupy the seats. Perhaps keke weren’t designed for this continent.
The okada: fast & furious. You pay the price to avoid traffic jams and travel door-to-door with no hassle. But spare helmets are rare and driving styles punky, not an ideal combination.
The chartered taxi: It multiplies the price of a shared taxi fare royally, but gives you the liberty to have the car to yourself. If a shared ride would be 1,500 leones, it would cost you about 10,000 leones to charter.
The rented vehicle: A/C? Yes. Professional driver who doesn’t smoke in the car? Yes. Venture onto poor roads without losing the contents of your stomach somewhere in the bush? Yes. Costly? Oh yes, but the comfort… And the A/C…
Eat in locally, eat out smartly
Restaurants with international (read western/Lebanese) dishes can be very expensive. A pizza costs about 10$, whilst a plate of rice with cassava leaves less than 1$. Problem is that sometimes local restaurants do not prepare food western stomachs can – stomach. Having someone prepare Sierra Leonean food at home, or cook it yourself, saves a lot of money.
If you want to eat out, know that most restaurants serve royal portions and that it is common to take your leftovers home. In this article, we have listen a couple of budget food options as well.
Lastly, when buying food, here are a couple of smart swaps that can save costs as well.
- Buy at a local grocery store instead of a supermarket. Although they have a limited offer of products, they do sell quite a lot of basic stuff for a low price.
- Get fruits at the local markets instead of those selling next to supermarkets. Local markets offer seasonal foods, and it’s chaotic and messy, but the prices are low and the produce fresh.
- Stock up in the provinces instead of in Freetown. Travelling out? Try and stock up on groceries on your way back. Big bags of fruits, vegetables and tubers are sold by the side of the road for a bargain. Maybe not relevant if you’re here on a short stay, but certainly worth it if you’re here on a longer term.
Drinking is an expensive hobby. Especially if you like bars with massive LCD screens, leather sofa’s and 5$ per whiskey shot. The locally brewed omolay, a hardcore gin, costs you a tenth of that. With ten times the hangover as a bonus. You can buy your packets of whiskey and mix them in a red cup with a soft drink, in the free bar called Lumley beach, and feel like a real Freetonian. Of course, we are not stimulating you to drink alcohol, just showing you the cheap way.
It’s also possible to spend less with non-alcoholic drinks. A can of Fanta at a bar is 1,50$, a bottle of Sierra Leone-produced Top Cherry sold by street vendors about 0,50$. And of course, packet water (0,50$ for 20l) beats a 1,5l bottle with the same price. It just tastes like plastic.
All in all, life in Sierra Leone can be as cheap and expensive as you want to make it. A rule of thumb is that local, uncomfortable and seasonal is cheap, and foreign, fast, luxurious is expensive. The choice is yours.
Esther Kamara is a Dutch-Sierra Leonean that was born and raised in Amsterdam. After finishing her bachelor Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam she moved to Freetown, where she now works as a freelance writer and artist manager. Her brainchildren are otherworldly short stories and peculiar drawings of non-existing characters.