How hard can it be to buy a car in Sierra Leone? Simon Akam learns a few things about doing business in a poor, war-torn country ...


My Land Rover broke down twice on the first day. The first time—30-odd miles into the bush—the fan-belt snapped, the engine boiled over in a filthy froth, the brakes and steering seized up and the dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree. A young man vanished on a motorbike to a nearby village and came back with a replacement belt of the wrong size. As the tropical night came on fast and dark, a small mechanic from a nearby quarry upended himself in the engine cavity, only his legs visible. He built a bracket to stretch the oversized belt. We moved on.

An hour or so later, on a wretched road in clouds of dust, a front tire went down. The bolts on the spare were the wrong size for the wrench. More passers-by appeared, and by torchlight a local friend who had come to help chiselled notches in the bolts with a screwdriver till he could force them loose. I got home after midnight, filmed head to toe in laterite dust. It was fitting, somehow. Just another chapter in the saga of purchasing and owning a car in a post-conflict African state.

Last year I moved to Sierra Leone to work as a correspondent for Reuters. This desperately poor country is still recovering from the bloody civil war that took place in the 1990s. I was initially without private transport, and soon learned to cut about the muggy capital Freetown on the back of motorbike taxis called "Okadas". When "Upcountry"—the colonial-era phrase still used to describe all territory beyond the capital—I occasionally got around by UN helicopter, but more often by limping bush taxi or a hired geriatric jeep. Such vehicles can be relied on to consume the day’s rationed drinking water in their gurgling radiators.

Last December I was in a government bus, returning from a tense by-election in the east of the country, when a tire blew at 50-odd miles per hour. The jalopy swung wildly across the road. The driver expertly held the skid and brought the bus to a standstill before we rolled into the scrub. Afterwards I noted that the maximum passenger capacity hand-painted on the side of the Mercedes was approximately twice what its German designers would have suggested. I decided I needed my own wheels.

This was plausible enough because I had just inherited a sum of money from my grandfather, who died last year. He was someone I had long associated with an immaculately waxed car parked outside his genteel home in south-east England. To use this money to buy a car of my own seemed fitting.

But acquiring a vehicle in Sierra Leone would prove challenging. It is nearly impossible to conduct business transactions in an environment without trust. The task introduced me to areas of the beleaguered state that I had come to cover, a country that only recently lifted itself from last place on the UN human-development index. Gross National Income per capita in Sierra Leone stands at $340. One in eight women here will die in childbirth.

I knew I needed a four-wheel drive. For my work I regularly travel to the extremities of this diamond-shaped and diamond-rich little country. Beyond the regional capitals, linked to Freetown by ribbons of aid-project asphalt, the roads are medieval. Even Freetown is a city of yawning potholes, unfenced storm drains and alarming plank drawbridges.

In these conditions the thinking man’s car is a Toyota. Despite its recent embarrassments and recalls, the Japanese firm makes machines that can withstand not only Africa’s brutal roads but also the depredations of the continent’s mechanics. Bush-car doctors are men of extraordinary ingenuity (I soon discovered). They get vehicles moving with wire, string, tape and a mysteriously powerful compote of superglue and wood ash. But in the long term, such tinkering is disastrous. These quick-fixes leave cars ravaged.

The United Nations in Sierra Leone uses Toyotas, along with other far-eastern four-by-fours. The endemic NGO population drive Land Cruisers too. Locals favour the 4Runner, a roofed Toyota pickup that was only briefly on sale in Britain (perhaps because it looks like a scaled-up Tonka Toy). Toyotas are the car for Africa. But I did not want a Toyota. As with women and sex, for men the purchase of a four-wheel drive is often clouded with emotional baggage. As a child I once pined for a Land Rover, and a part of me still did. In Sierra Leone a Land Rover seemed to make sense. They looked better, they were different. I did not want a Toyota.

“If you want to go into the jungle you drive a Land Rover,” advised Nick Fieldhouse at Kankku, an off-road driving school in the Lake District. “If you want to come out again you drive a Toyota.” I had contacted him for advice. But then I closed my ears. The residual British army presence in Sierra Leone—a leftover from Tony Blair’s little war in 2000—reassuringly drive Land Rovers. I went looking for one.

cars in sierra leoneThe mercantile Lebanese who dominate commerce in Sierra Leone keep cars parked in rough compounds for sale. But their prices are spectacular. Nine years after the end of hostilities, Freetown still has a war economy. This makes one of the world’s poorest nations a pricey place to live. After one Lebanese-owned dealer quoted $27,000 for a ten-year-old vehicle, I knew I had to venture into the murky world of private car sales in Freetown.

For help, I called David Komba James Kpakiwa, a tall and striking man who hails from Kono in the east of Sierra Leone. He works as an intern at the United Nations Development Programme, but his calling is elsewhere. David is the man you find if you are an expat looking to buy a car in Freetown. I was given his number by another foreigner at a waterside bar. In time, David became a friend as well as a fixer.

Car ownership is a funny thing in Sierra Leone. Local petrol is still leaded and so destroys the catalytic convertors of vehicles imported from America or Europe. The country’s resourceful mechanics deal with this problem by drilling through the clogged devices and replacing the system with a simple pipe. Such a solution does not filter the exhaust fumes in the way a catalytic converter should, but there are no environmental regulations to prevent such a thing here. Locals also have an elegant solution to the ominous flicker of warning lights on dashboards: they remove the bulb.

After much searching I found the right car, parked by the roadside with a beckoning ‘For Sale’ sign under the windscreen. It was a 1999 Land Rover Discovery just off the boat from America. The owner assured me that I had first right of refusal for the two weeks it would take to get the cash. Cars in Sierra Leone, like anything substantial, are priced in dollars. To buy one I needed wads of dollars in cash, but getting it was not easy.

A third of the country’s educated population lives abroad, but transferring money back home is tough. Western Union and other transfer services charge a formidable commission. I decided to open a local dollar-denominated account, to which I would wire money from Britain. Expatriate friends recommended the Pan-African finance house Ecobank, so I signed on with them. With probate from my grandfather’s will not yet complete, my father advanced me $10,000 and sent it south.

The money vanished. It was meant to take three days to arrive. After five had passed, Ecobank explained that tracking down the funds had to be done by the transmitting bank. The process took weeks. Meanwhile $10,000 had apparently gone into the ether, and cars I wanted to buy were leaving the lot. Finally I received a British document stating that the money had arrived in Sierra Leone days after I had sent it. This necessitated a harrowing confrontation with the bank manager. By then, the car I had intended to buy had been sold to someone else.

Buying a car in Sierra Leone requires a lot of haggling. Such negotiating is one thing when the object in question is a carved curio (though such craftsmanship has become rare here; a decade of war blunted such artisanal skills). But haggling over a car, where thousands of dollars are at stake, is something different. It turns out that the disparity in price between the first offer and the final sum is pretty much the same for cars as it is for carvings—about 40%.

Finally I bought a car David found, a 2003 Land Rover Discovery with a diesel engine (to avoid the dirty local petrol). It cost $10,000, which I carried in large-denomination greenbacks to its Nigerian owner in a leather bag, not unlike a participant in some ill-fated narcotics transaction.

With the car in my possession, I hoped to enter an age of smooth driving. The local Land Rover dealership had checked over the car before I bought it. I looked forward to an end to turning up at interviews filthy and matted with dust from journeys on the back of motorbikes.

But everything still broke. The fan belt was the first of a host of problems, minor but many and expensive: an oil leak, a belt tensioner. Like the viral haemorrhagic fevers that stalk west and central Africa, my car slewed oil and innards from every orifice. Maybe I should have bought a Toyota.

A trip to the local garage ultimately revealed that my Land Rover was a 1999 model dressed up to look newer. This unnerving revelation managed to place my car’s problems in context. They were many, but they were relatively minor, and not unreasonable for a vehicle that was a dozen years old and with many miles on it. Still, when a Land Rover breaks in Africa, getting it going again is particularly difficult due to the scarcity of spare parts. I’ve grown accustomed to gleaning whatever advice I can from the odd sages who populate online Land Rover forums.

I've discovered that there are few things more humbling that the kind of rigmarole involved in getting something as simple as suspension springs for my car. Once that problem was solved, I enjoyed perhaps 45 minutes of trouble-free motoring before my key refused to turn in the ignition. As I write from a Lebanese restaurant in Freetown, a rare place with reliable electricity, my car is parked a mile or so away in yet another dirt road "garage". There two men are prodding its innards, after I realised this morning that the smell in the cabin was not a local simmering cabbage outside but rather the air conditioner compressor smoking in dissatisfaction.

And so it goes. But the lesson has been valuable. In a place like Sierra Leone, it is hubristic to believe even the most basic problem has an easy solution. The road is a long one, and it pays to not be in a hurry.


Simon Akam is a British journalist and photographer based in West Africa. His last article for Intelligent Life magazine was about the market for used books.

Picture credit: Brian Harrington Spier, stringer_bel (via Flickr)