Sierra Leone is known by tourists for astonishing beaches, Freetown madness and tropical islands. But there is much more to Sierra Leone than just the coast; the provinces, also called up line and up country, are a great place to visit and explore. One of the cities that is both easy and interesting to visit is Makeni, the place where the yearly Street Child Marathon kicks off.
City of Light
Makeni is a medium sized town in the Bombali district in central Sierra Leone that is mainly inhabited by the Temne tribe. Many students live in the city as they attend the University of Makeni.
When visiting Makeni you can see the potential of how every city could be. Streets are orderly, there is no traffic and barely any litter and there’s electricity almost 24/7. As it is located in the centre of the country it has more of a land climate. Meaning that it is less humid but hotter than in Freetown.
Go second-hand shopping, hike to the Kunshu river
In terms of official activities there’s not much to do in Makeni. There are no organized tours or set hiking trails. That does not mean that you’ll be bored though. You can visit the local market and go second-hand shopping. If you’re lucky you can find the store with the fake buttocks. Or you can buy locally made gara and get an outfit made by one of the tailors, or simply observe and be awed by bags filled with different grains, rice varieties and little heaps of fresh tomatoes, cassava and yams. The market is next to the clocktower, which is in the centre of town. There’s enough to see and experience by walking around, smelling the air and letting your eyes feast on the daily sights.
Another recommendation is to visit the Kunshu river that is about 10km from the centre of town. It costs 5.000le (<1$) to take a motorbike taxi, but you can also take a regular cab. On the way towards the river you will pass by a number of tiny villages, some filled with mud houses with straw roofs, some entirely filled with brand new large houses. If you are even a bit lighter skinned than the average Sierra Leonean, children will shout, “Opoto!” to you, meaning ‘white’ in Temne. Interestingly, this word is derived of Portuguese, presumably the first ‘white’ people to have arrived in Sierra Leone.
Once there you can visit the water filtering plant that filters and transports the water from the river to the city. You can hike along the river (make sure you turn on Google maps) or sit by the shore, enjoying the vista of a tropical river. Just beware that at some spots people bathe in the river. It is obvious that it’s not appreciated if you sit and stare. Just saying.
For those whose interest is mainly of nutritional value, Makeni has some great options. You can go to the Clubhouse, which is the official spot for the Street Child Marathon in Makeni (held in May every year). They offer a good variety of Sierra Leonean and international dishes (if available, try their cassava leaves, e fine!) and a Star Beer for 5.000le.
Also check out any local restaurant that sells traditional dishes such as groundnut soup, okro, plasas (green vegetable stew) and peppersoup for prices ranging from 3.000- 15.000le.
You can also find many ataya bases in Makeni. Ataya is strongly brewed green tea mixed with sugar that is mainly consumed by the Fula people. In the ataya base, (mainly) men gather around low chairs, drink ataya from a tiny cup and have a chat and a relax.
Where to stay
MJ Motel is a good quality ‘motel’ to stay in. You pay 250.000 for a double or 200.000 for a single room, and it comes with a very basic breakfast. You can enjoy wifi, hot water and A/C, which is certainly a luxury in the burning hot Makeni. Other popular choices include Wusum Hotel, Makama Lodge and Hotel Conteh U. You can book your stay through VSL, or try your luck and hope that they have vacancies upon arrival.
How to get there
Got an appetite for Makeni? You can hire a private vehicle, or ‘hitchhike’ along with a car. Most people offer rides in their car, which costs 20.000 or 25.000le. Beware that they aim for maximum capacity, meaning that they will put two people on the front seat and four on the back row.
It takes about 2 to 3 hours from Freetown to get to Makeni with a private vehicle. If you want, you can also take a government bus to Makeni. The bus leaves at 6 am from Wallace Johnson street, opposite of the Sierratel head office.