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Page last updated at 00:36 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 01:36 UK

Sierra Leone's ghetto taxpayers

Washing lines in Cline Town, Freetown.

By Katrina Manson
BBC News, Freetown

It is everything you might expect of a ghetto: tumbledown shacks, listless young men, the fug of marijuana hanging in the air, graffiti sprayed on crumbling walls.

But this is a ghetto with a difference.

The chains that dangle around the necks of the handful of local loiterers are not the customary gangsta dog tags, but plastic holders displaying nothing less than tax receipts.

For the first time in generations, people have been flocking to pay their local council tax of 5,000 leones (about $1.5, 90 UK pence) in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown.

"I don't have a job, but I have paid my tax," said Mohamed Bangura, 38, at the crumbling steps of what was once sub-Saharan Africa's first university - the wreck of the old Fourah Bay College.

"This is the first time I've done this: I want to improve my country, I want it to develop."

Tax-payers in Cline Town
Locals carry tax receipts in holders around their necks

The area in Cline Town near the docks of the capital's deprived east end is locally referred to as a ghetto, and panbody (corrugated zinc) shacks around the perimeter sell sweet fermenting poyo (palm wine) to the young people gathered around.

Sierra Leone is struggling to rebuild following its 1991-2002 civil war, in which more than 50,000 were killed and infrastructure and businesses devastated.

Erratic supplies of water and light, bad roads and poor access to health and education are among the problems faced by more than a million people in the capital of this former British colony, which is ranked the least developed country in the world by the United Nations.

Death rates for children under five and mothers giving birth are higher than anywhere else on the globe, and 70% of the population lives below the poverty line.

"To see unemployed people paying taxes has surprised a lot of people," said Herbert George-Williams, the new mayor.

"But the people are desirous for a change. We were able to talk with the unemployed and convince them they should pay their taxes to show their patriotism."

Symbol of decline

The red brick ruins of the once-elegant Fourah Bay College stand as a testament to how far Freetown has fallen, a snapshot of faded prestige and modern poverty side by side.

Established in 1827, a link-up with Durham University in 1876 meant Freetown graduates were awarded UK degrees.

The university became the intellectual cornerstone of Sierra Leone, earning the country its long-lost moniker as the "Athens of West Africa".

I paid the tax because I want to rehabilitate the country
Salu Koroma, 28

The 1860 census showed levels of education surpassing some European countries.

This was attributed to the zeal of missionary societies, combined with the enthusiasm shown by the Krio families descended from freed slaves who founded Freetown in 1787.

But standards have dropped precipitously since then.

At 31%, Sierra Leone's current adult literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world, and the gender divide is marked - only 18% of women can read.

Today, the former bastion of academia's gutted shell is something of a ghost.

During the civil war, it became a shelter for displaced people fleeing attackers who amputated limbs with machetes and child soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs, until one day a fire burnt through the wooden floors.

"We have no work; nothing to do, no sleeping place," said Salu Koroma, 28, at the entrance to the old university, whose modern campuses have since moved elsewhere in the capital.

"But I want to make my country develop. I paid the tax because I want to rehabilitate the country."

Record revenue

Mr George-Williams is all too aware that improvements are needed to help secure stability and improved standards of living.

"We are worried about unemployment because these were some of the symptoms before the war," he said.

Two-thirds of Sierra Leone's youth are estimated to be unemployed or under-employed, though some of those in Cline Town manage to raise money through casual work or jobs on the black market.

Renewed fervour to banish the city's degradation is reaching beyond one ghetto, however.

Ruins of the old Fourah Bay College, Freetown
The old Fourah Bay College building is now a gutted ruin

Elsewhere in Freetown, loudspeakers encourage people to pay up and tax-collectors go door-to-door, while queues of tax-payers have been seen to form at the city council.

The council has so far collected a bumper 3bn leones (about $880,000, 500,000) in six months - surpassing the old record of 1bn leones (about $317,000, 180,000) in a whole year.

"This year we have a record payment here for the past four or five generations. It's an ongoing process, but we have actually exceeded our target," said Mr George-Williams.

"Everything rises and falls on leadership," he said of the country, ranked 150 on Transparency International's corruption perceptions index.

So far, the city council has started building public toilets, supplying piped water to marketplaces and fixing up some of the roads, employing up to 800 casual labourers at a time.

The mayor said he also wanted to spend the taxes - which also come from small shopkeepers and businesses charged as much as 500,000 leones (about $160, 91) each - on building schools, cleaning the city and repairing roads.

If he does not deliver on his glut of proposals, he has promised to resign.


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