Down the road from where I’m staying outside Bo, about 20 minutes walk towards town along road newly tarred by the Italians is a intersection. Turn left and you’re on the Freetown highway, recently completed by the might of the military sounding Chinese 7th Railway Engineering Division. Turn right and you’re on the road to Kenema, passing the half-built football stadium a new open air church and then hotels and compounds filled with Chinese contractors. Straight on takes you along the route of the old british railway line, past the steel shuttered welding shops, whitewashed churches with painted glass windows, a blue and white painted mosque and into Bo Town itself.
But this intersection, a flat concrete roundabout know as “Shell Mingo” is interesting for more than the eventual destinations of its offshoots. Every night Shell Mingo comes alive with market stalls, milling customers crowding both sides of the streets, perusing the offerings being lit by small kerosene flames or just passing on the day’s news with groups of friends. The most established stalls are wooden shacks, just large enough for a shopkeeper to stand between the laden shelves which line the walls, roofs made waterproof by white plastic sheeting bearing the faded blue logo of the UNHCR. The smaller stalls are simply wide concave trays, carried on the head through the busy Bo streets during the day, put down to rest atop stools at night, wherever a space can be found.
Mainly the smaller stalls sell food, small loaves of finger-like bread are stacked on end, cassava, corn cobs and chicken are grilled on sheets of punctured steel balanced on charcoal stoves, dried fish, pierced from mouth to tail with a wooden skewer are stacked in arcs surrounding the lamp. The larger establishments sell everything from strength pills and “protector” condoms to candles, cigarettes and penny sweets.
The mass of people wandering from stall to stall, parting every few seconds to let through a motorbike before engulfing the action again makes the scene appear like the post-impact shot of a disaster movie. The effect is enhanced by the light smoke from refuse fires that glows hazy in front of the kerosene lamps, barely illuminating the half-finished concrete buildings that surround the intersection, providing stoops for those wanting to finish the evening’s purchases in peace.
An astounding thing happens in Shell Mingo when it rains, almost before the first drop touches the tarred ground the meandering mass turns into a shoal, splitting in two and sweeping under the safety of the zinc eaves of the larger stalls. A few seconds later the smaller stalls are covered and replaced on the head of the proprietor, who then perches on the stool under their makeshift umbrella. By the time the raindrops have started beating on the dry ground Shell Mingo has all but disappeared, retreated to safety. Once the rains finish the entire shoal returns to its feeding ground and the choreography resumes.