Free City (AFP) – 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 cafeterias that offer many Sierra Leoneans the cheapest option for what is often their only meal of the day.
These meals present everywhere and locally called “kitchen” are an institution. They too are suffering from the inflation that weighs on all of Sierra Leone.
“The price of the main products, rice, cooking oil, onions, sugar and flour, has quadrupled,” laments Jariatu Kargbo amidst the steam of boiled beans.
The consumer here gets his stomach filled 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 make it eat, because a lot of people don’t have what it takes to cook at home,” says researcher Jamie Hitchen.
But the raw material, transported from the provinces or from abroad to overpopulated metropolises, is becoming more and more expensive.
In November, according to the latest statistics available, prices had increased by 35% in one year.
“In 2021, we paid 1,500 lions ($0.08) for a bowl of rice. Now it’s 3,500 lions,” grumbles Jariatu Kargbo, who opened her small business to feed her six children after her husband died of fever Ebola in 2014.
Like many, he sets his prices according to the old denomination of the lion, which the government divided by a thousand in July.
Despite a subsoil rich in 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 inhabitants were recovering from the 1991-2002 civil war and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic as they were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and then by the aftermath of the war in Ukraine .
The high cost of living contributed to the August clashes that officially claimed 31 lives in various cities and in the capital, including the Shell Old Road Junction neighborhood where Jariatu Kargbo lives.
Jariatu Kargbo’s canteen mainly supports motorbike taxi riders, street vendors and a number of office workers with portions of rice topped with more or less fish or chicken depending on the quantity.
“My family and I depend on the kitchen to eat weekday evenings. We cook at home only on weekends, because of the prices,” says Francis Koroma, a teacher, who came to fill two bowls for the five family members.
Jariatu Kargbo had, like the others, to raise his prices. A plate of potato leaf rice cost her 5,000 lions in 2021 and 8,000 lions ($0.43) today.
In the more affluent area of Hill Cot Road, Fatmata Bangura, 48, sits on a wooden bench, cutting off a cow’s tail, or “cow kanda”, while her daughter Isata and the four cooks bring back the onions, plantains, the cabbage and beans in large metal containers over a wood and charcoal fire.
They have been awake since 3:30 in the morning when Fatmata Bangura, 32, goes to the market to stock up.
Before 6 a.m. she starts cooking cassava leaves, beans, and stewed “tola” for breakfast and the lunch dish, commonly “crain crain,” made from okra.
Without collapsing, the business took a hit.
“We used to buy rice for 280,000, now it’s 550,000,” observes Isata Bangura.
Taking from a plate of stew in front of the kiosk where he eats at least once a day, Hassan Mohamed Vamboi, a 29-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, explains why the kitchen bosses can’t pass on all the excursions to their customers.
He himself has to deal with the rising price of petrol. He no longer works 12, but 16 hours a day.
He has moved his wife and their two children to his village because his “means do not permit him to keep” them in Freetown.
“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 to eat at my place and say: +you cook well+, that motivates me,” she says.
© 2023 AFP