In Freetown, inflation puts its feet in the dish of street food

Jariatu Kargbo dips an arm-long wooden spoon into a large bowl of rice in front of which his customers wait to be served on a busy Freetown street.

The 38-year-old widow runs one of the street canteens that offer many Sierra Leoneans the cheapest option for what is often their only meal of the day.

These meals everywhere present and locally called “cookeries” are an institution. They too suffer from the inflation that weighs on all of Sierra Leone.

“The price of the main staples, rice, cooking oil, onions, sugar and flour, has quadrupled,” laments Jariatu Kargbo in the vapors of boiled beans.

The consumer fills his stomach here for a fraction of what he would pay in a restaurant.

The people who run these stalls, “mostly women, are like the backbone of the city, they feed it, because a lot of people don’t have what it takes to cook at home,” says the researcher Jamie Hitchen.

But the raw material, transported from the provinces or from abroad to the overpopulated metropolis, is becoming more and more expensive.

In November, the latest statistics available, prices had increased by 35% over one year.

– Ordinary week –

“In 2021, we paid 1,500 leones ($0.08) for a bowl of rice. Now it’s 3,500 leones”, grumbles Jariatu Kargbo, who opened her small business to feed her six children after the death of her husband from Ebola fever in 2014.

A market in Freetown, December 4, 2022 in Sierra Leone (AFP – Saidu BAH)

Like many, it sets prices according to the old denomination of leone, which the government divided by a thousand in July.

Despite a subsoil full of diamonds, Sierra Leone is one of the least developed countries in the world. It is very vulnerable to external shocks.

The former British colony and its 7.5 million people were recovering from the 1991-2002 civil war and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic when they were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and then by the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

The high cost of living contributed to clashes in August that officially claimed 31 lives in various cities and the capital, including in the Shell Old Road Junction neighborhood where Jariatu Kargbo lives.

The canteen of Jariatu Kargbo mainly sustains motorcycle taxi drivers, street vendors and a certain number of office workers with portions of rice topped with more or less fish or chicken depending on the amount.

“My family and I depend on the cookery to eat on weekday evenings. We only cook at home on weekends, because of the prices,” says Francis Koroma, a teacher. came to fill two bowls for the five members of the family.

A street canteen in a busy area of ​​Freetown on December 20, 2022 in Sierra Leone (AFP - Saidu BAH)
A street canteen in a busy area of ​​Freetown on December 20, 2022 in Sierra Leone (AFP – Saidu BAH)

Jariatu Kargbo had, like the others, to increase his prices. A dish of rice with potato leaf cost her 5,000 leones in 2021 and 8,000 leones (0.43 dollar) today.

In the more affluent Hill Cot Road area, Fatmata Bangura, 48, sits on a wooden bench, chopping up a cow’s tail, or “cow kanda”, while her daughter Isata and the four cookery workers bring back the onions, the plantain, the cabbage and the beans in large metal containers over a wood and charcoal fire.

– Gasoline too –

They have been up since 3:30 a.m., when Fatmata Bangura, 32, goes to the market to stock up.

A market in Freetown, December 4, 2022 in Sierra Leone (AFP - Saidu BAH)
A market in Freetown, December 4, 2022 in Sierra Leone (AFP – Saidu BAH)

Before 6 a.m., she starts cooking cassava leaves, beans and “tola” stew for breakfast and the lunch dish, commonly “crain crain”, made from okra.

Without collapsing, business took a hit.

“Rice, before, we bought it 280,000, now it is 550,000”, notes Isata Bangura.

Picking from a plate of stew in front of the stand where he eats at least once a day, Hassan Mohamed Vamboi, a 29-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, gives insight into why cookery bosses cannot pass on all the hikes on their customers.

He himself has to deal with the increase in the price of gasoline. He no longer works 12, but 16 hours a day.

He moved his wife and their two children to his village because his “means do not allow (him) to keep them” in Freetown.

A vendor cuts fruit at a market in Freetown on December 20, 2022 in Sierra Leone (AFP - Saidu BAH)
A vendor cuts fruit at a market in Freetown on December 20, 2022 in Sierra Leone (AFP – Saidu BAH)

“It’s very difficult right now in the country,” he said.

For now, he continues to eat at Isata Bangura and she cooks for customers like him.

“If people come and eat at my place and say: + you cook well +, that motivates me”, she says.

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