In March of this year, I visited the Cape Sierra Leone Lighthouse located just outside Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, a country located on the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa bordering Liberia and Guinea. This was my second visit within the year, but I had to return because I wanted to find out why the lighthouse had been in such a state of neglect that was all too evident on my last visit. A time there was indeed, when a trip to the lighthouse was an occasion, but this time round, as I approached the cape point, I could think of several reasons why I should just turn around and go home. However, the urge to determine the cause or causes of the lighthouse’s deterioration was irresistible.
When we reached the site, we were accosted by an officious security detail which, it turned out, had nothing to do with the lighthouse itself; it had apparently been posted to guard a brand-new jetty that was being constructed on the south side of the cape point: another assault on what was once an outstanding national asset, I thought. But that is another story.
Looking north, across the dark gray granite boulders on which the lighthouse stands, I was pleasantly surprised. Surprised by the unexpected sight of scaffolding around the structure, and pleased by the prospect of something being done to restore the once-white surface that had contributed to the lighthouse’s appeal all those years ago.
After escaping from security, I was welcomed by a trio of affable attendants whose job it was to look after the lighthouse and its adjoining buildings. And, here, lies one of our continent’s enchantments. I had intended to interview only a lighthouse keeper so as to find out why his charge had declined to its wretched state. Instead, I had three for the price of one: Kuda Mansaray, the keeper himself, and Harry George, his assistant, were of the first and second parts. The third part of this triumvirate was Salieu Kamara. Mr. Kamara’s presence, at first glance, seemed superfluous to need. But it was he who initially took me in hand and led me off to his post which, it turned out, was a signals station of very attractive modern construction, from which he commanded an unrestricted view of the western approaches to Freetown port. Mr. Kamara explained that his job was to intercept vessels that were sailing into the port. I asked him how he did this, but before he could elaborate, he was interrupted by a crackle on the radio. This was from a ship updating its position as it sailed into the estuary of the Sierra Leone River. In the brief exchange that followed, the captain informed Salieu that his ship, registered in Antigua, was bringing in bulk cargo into Freetown.
After this practical introduction to modern sea-traffic control, I asked Salieu how what he did was different from the past, especially now that other modern technologies have intruded into the space once the preserve of old-time lighthouse keepers.
“Well,” he said, “for one thing, I can actually see who is coming and going, and if they don’t respond to my queries, I can have them stopped by the coast guard. And of course, knowing their position helps me to remind them of Carpenter Rock which is still there, five cables distance away.” Carpenter Rock, he explained, was a shoal that guarded the south side of the entrance into the estuary and was still a serious navigation hazard. I did not ask him what a cable was, but mentally noted that Mr. Salieu, in spite of the modern technological accessories, still had a few relics of an imperial age rattling somewhere within.
Salieu then handed me over to Messrs Mansaray and George, the definitive lighthouse keepers. Both had been in the job for years with knowledge enough to fill a book. But for me, there was a more urgent question: “What was the future of the lighthouse?” Mr. Mansaray stated that the lighthouse was being restored through funds made available by the American embassy in Freetown. Apparently, the embassy had stepped in when it was realized that, without a restoration effort, the national monument might well crumble and fall into the sea.
That was indeed good news, but I had to ask, why the American embassy? Had the Government of Sierra Leone itself, through its Ministries of Marine Resources or Tourism, for example, not found it necessary to do the job? Mr. Mansaray avoided answering my question.
Satisfied that the lighthouse might still enjoy a bright future, I then asked how it was that the lighthouse had been allowed to deteriorate to its present condition. Again, no real answer, except that funds for maintenance had been very short. In the general scheme of things, where funding for basic essentials such as health, sanitation, education and public safety had gone AWOL, providing for lighthouse maintenance was not likely to be a priority, especially since more modern navigation aids were now available. In any case, Mr. Mansaray revealed that the most important element of the lighthouse, the lamp itself, had been looted (for scrap, would you believe?) by unidentified individuals. Fortunately, however, the government at the time, a military one, had the requisite sense of national duty and, on a tip-off, retrieved the lamp from a container in the port of Freetown as it was being readied for illegal shipment, perhaps to find its way into some private collection. After its recovery, the lamp has been put on display at the National Museum in Freetown. It may be supposed that restoration of the lighthouse would include relocation of the lamp to where it rightfully belongs atop the 21 meter high tower.
“So, how,” I asked, “has the lighthouse been doing duty since the time when its heart had been torn out?” The response:“Well, no light had come out of it for at least two decades, except for the continuous red light that could be seen far out to sea -- about 14 miles.” This light, until fairly recently, had been fuelled by solar panels, which too had begun to crumble under the corrosive effects of the seafront environment. Prior to solar power, Mr. Mansaray informed me, the lighthouse had been powered by the technology current at the time. When the light was first built, it was gas, (probably acetylene). The cylinders that held the gas are still located on the third level of the lighthouse. Subsequently, power had come from the central electricity grid and when that source became unreliable, a diesel-powered generator was installed, but that too, gave way eventually to the now disintegrating solar panels.
“What is the future of the lighthouse as a navigation aid,” I wondered aloud. Neither of the attendants could answer. But the feeling I now had was one of optimism that, even though the lighthouse may no longer light the way for mariners, it will remain for more generations to come, firmly rooted on the spot from which it first sent out its light more than a century and a half ago.
This story appeared in the
September 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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