Shining examples

Surrounded by crime and unemployment, a group of young Sierra Leoneans manage to make a clean living. Ed Kargbo finds out how

We have a massive number of unemployed youth in Freetown, roaming the streets and wreaking havoc. Yet amid one crime-infested area, there’s a group of industrious young men—and one woman—who earn an honest living from soap, water and sweat.

One Saturday morning I set out to learn how they do it. The Government Wharf area houses several prominent institutions—the City Council, the headquarters of the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party, the Metropolitan Police and the auditing firm KPMG.

Thieves and prostitutes swarm over this illustrious neighbourhood and young boys and girls toil as labourers. But it’s also here that the Government Wharf Car Wash Association started.

In Wallace Johnson Street I meet a young man sitting in a small makeshift structure with a big ledger and pieces of paper in front of him. Alfred Charles is following his daily routine—checking the association’s accounts and scheduling the day’s operations.

Alfred tells me he’s the secretary of the association. Despite his executive position, he also controls the car wash pit and operates the jet spray equipment. He has a wife and three kids, and the cash he’s earned from years of cleaning cars has put food on the table, kept his kids in school and settled medical bills.

As I talk to Alfred, a tall, striking figure emerges from the back. Ebun Dowu Thomas is the chairman of the Government Wharf Car Wash Association and he’s been in this game for close to two decades.

He tells me the association brings young people together, makes use of their energies and rewards them at the end of the month. A good number of school dropouts cut their teeth here. It’s the only car wash centre in Freetown that pays its workers monthly salaries, contributes to the national social security scheme and pays taxes.

Through the efforts of its young employees the association has been able to secure a small piece of land on lease from the government and develop it into the only legal car wash operated by locals in Freetown.

A young woman walks towards us with a baby strapped to her back. At first I think she’s a kitchen woman. But no; she’s Harriet Harding, 25 years old and a member of the Government Wharf Car Wash. She washes cars herself and has regular customers who come looking for her. When she’s called to wash a car, she hands her baby to her husband, who is a senior member of the association. “I also own a little business across the road where I sell small items,” she says. Some of the women at the Government Wharf mock her for her occupation, she says, but “others admire me as I jump into the pit, scrub the tyres and display my skills.”

Alfred says business these days is not as good as before. With the local impact of the global financial crisis, competition has grown from illegal roadside car wash centres. As he speaks a Mercedes-Benz drives away, the owner unwilling to pay 20 000 leones (R52) for a “general cleaning” .

Na go e dae go so to dem borbor dem na trit” [“He’s going to those boys on the streets],” exclaims Yusuf in the lingua franca, Creole. Yusuf is one of the workers here and doesn’t hide his frustration that the Merc is going to a roadside wash, which will charge a pittance for the job. “We use a lot of water, soap and fuel for the jet spray equipment to do a general cleaning,” says a disappointed Alfred. “We also do the upholstery of the car and it all costs money.”

It’s not only the informal car washes these guys have to compete with. There’s also an established business known as Mr Wash. It’s run by a Lebanese national who seems to be part of the “connectocracy”; he’s attracted a lot of the affluent and the socialites, as well as government and NGOs, with his state-of-the-art equipment and prestige.

The Government Wharf Car Wash had its own taste of prestige, though, when the Prince of Norway visited their small operation during his trip to Sierra Leone—as Samuel, the association’s PR man, reminds me five times in our one-hour discussion.

Yusuf’s happy at the Government Wharf Car Wash. He’d like money every day, but appreciates the monthly salary and the social security scheme. “At least there is a small package to take home at the end of the month,” he says with a broad smile.

Edward Kargbo is a Sierra Leonean journalist based in Freetown

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