Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, is sprawled across a wide peninsula. At its tip, green hills roll down to a town beach, where the sand is dotted with plastic bottles and sleeping stray dogs. It is probably one of the least developed capitals in the world. There are no cinemas, no theatres, no sky scrapers, and a lot of potholed mud roads. Electricity and water supplies flow through the city erratically.
Its unreliable power supply is partly to blame for its even worse internet connection. Data roaming is slow and expensive, and reliable WiFi is found only in plush hotels, where you have to buy a £15 meal to justify your access. That’s why, the morning after my boyfriend and I installed WiFi at our house (for an absurdly high price) and shared the password with a couple of neighbours, there were seven people in our garden and another five propped up against the low wall that surrounds it. An irregular chorus of pings and chimes sung out, as our neighbours jabbed away furiously at their phone screens.
After a couple of days, the mounting online traffic had slowed our internet almost to a standstill, forcing us to change the password, and vow to be meaner with it in future. Morris, the 28-year-old night guard with a high-pitched laugh, was one of the few given access to the code. He has hardly looked up from his phone since.
One evening I found Morris – as usual – hunched over his phone. His face was lit up by the screen’s blue-white glow. I asked if he was messaging his girlfriend again and he looked up at me and blinked, as though slowly tuning back into reality. Then he smiled broadly and said he was actually texting his girlfriend in America.
It emerged that Morris, as well as having a real-life girlfriend in Sierra Leone, is engaged in a number of online relationships with foreign women. He adds between 40 and 50 (mostly American) women on Facebook daily. A handful might accept his friend requests, and those that do will receive a message with a standard Sierra Leonean greeting like, “Hi, how’s work?” Or “How is your family?”
He passed me his phone to show a conversation he’d been having with a middle-aged woman from Chicago. The chat had stopped abruptly when she’d sent over a winky face and said she was looking for a Facebook lover. “I’m not looking for an online lover,” Morris explained. “I want a wife to invite me to her country. A schoolmate of mine met a woman on Facebook and moved to Germany.”
Most people you meet in Sierra Leone will tell you they want to move to Europe or America. It’s not easy to make a living here – jobs are very scarce and 60% of the population survives on just $1.25 a day. I am regularly accosted by people in the streets asking me to take them back to my country.
It’s hardly surprising then that Morris trawls Facebook in the hope of finding a foreign wife. An endless pool of potential brides with desirable passports is just a few clicks away. I wondered if others shared his idea, and started to ask my neighbours about their online activity.
All but two of the seven people I spoke to said they used Facebook as a way to meet wealthy foreigners. A father of three, with no front teeth, admitted to spending two hours a day on the site, adding hundreds of foreign women in the hope they’d chat, and eventually invite him to their countries.
A 22-year-old girl told me in a quiet voice that she used to talk to two Canadian men, but cut ties with one after he asked her to send over a photo in her underwear. The other, a fat single father with a white goatee, was her last hope. “I don’t mind that he’s ugly,” she said generously. “If he invites me to live with him in Canada I’ll fly over there at once”.
You’d think that trawling Facebook for foreign spouses would ultimately be a source of bitter frustration. The glamorous and easy lifestyles that shine through these strangers’ profile pictures must feel so close, yet (in reality) are so hard to access. But Sierra Leoneans are madly optimistic, and though the Facebook trawling likely leads to nothing, it provides entertainment and a dash of hope. In a country in which most people are un- or under-employed, this newfangled hobby helps to fill empty days. People don’t seem to mind that much of it doesn’t end up going anywhere – it’s fun trying it out. I’ve watched a group of teenage boys crowding around a phone, composing a message to one of their new, foreign Facebook friends. They shrieked with laughter and jokingly fought each other trying to grab the phone.
The online love affairs, or attempts at them, don’t even cause friction between real-life couples. They’re not about sex, they’re about opportunity and everyone understands that. Morris knows that his (real) girlfriend talks to an American man online and it doesn’t bother him; if she actually gets invited to the US he says he’ll be pleased for her.
It’s not easy to find opportunities in Sierra Leone, but that doesn’t stop people from searching for them, and their friends or spouses are supportive of this. Life is tough but dreams make it easier. Knowing that for many of my neighbours getting online means tapping into an endless source of hope and amusement, I wonder if I should be more willing to dish out our WiFi code again.