When people think Sierra Leone, most people don’t think fashion or style. I know I certainly didn’t.
But Jo Dunlop is on a mission to change that. Jo is an Aussie living in Freetown, Sierra Leone and is the brains and camera lens behind the style blog Freetown Fashpack. Like many expats she came to Sierra Leone for one project, but has stuck around to work on something entirely different. Her amazing blog Freetown Fashpack has started to gather a serious following, and has been featured in The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, and frankie mag just to name a few.
Dave actually got to meet Jo during a trip to Sierra Leone last year, and we’ve been big fans of her blog ever since. I wanted to find out a bit more about her story and the Freetown Fashpack journey and I thought you guys would be interested in it too! Check out our chat below and some of Jo’s incredible photos too!
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I’m from Sydney. I’ve been living in Freetown since September 2011. I’ve been dipping in and out of development and humanitarian work for the past 12 years in Africa and Asia. I’m not always convinced by this work but I’m occasionally very inspired. I like living in challenging places and meeting the people who live in them. But equally, I like being in Australia. I feel like my worlds are very split.
How did you find yourself living in Sierra Leone?
I moved to Sierra Leone to work on a maternal health project but soon found there were lots of other interesting things going on. Probably what’s kept me here is the other stuff.
What inspired you to start your blog, Freetown Fashpack?
People on the streets of Freetown and their wonderful fashions inspired me to start taking photos. Sierra Leoneans often don’t have much money to spend on clothes but they take an enormous amount of pride in their appearance and manage to leave their house each day looking a million bucks. I soon had a collection of snaps and started a secret blog which I revealed to friends and family. It was a nice antidote to some of the more sobering stuff I was dealing with at work. It’s also a fun way to meet people on the street. Sierra Leoneans generally love having their photo taken and they are usually up for a chat.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found about living and working in Freetown?
When I arrived I was surprised that so many people in the nation’s capital still have no access to running water and power (me included), these are obviously very basic services we all take for granted.
I’m continually shocked by the lack of access to proper health care. The alarming statistics you become aware on paper come to life when you get to know Sierra Leoneans whose sister/mother/friend died for no good reason during child birth, or lost their baby at 6 months and don’t really know why. It’s heartbreaking.
I was also surprised that Dolly Parton has an African audience and that despite there being a big Lebanese population in Sierra Leone and several Lebanese restaurants, you still can’t find a decent donor kebab.
Are there any myths or misconceptions about Freetown/Sierra Leone/Africa you want to debunk?
The obvious one – Sierra Leone is not a grubby war zone ruled by child soldiers and blood diamonds. It’s a vibrant, peaceful country that is now 12 years out of civil war. It’s people are resilient, inspiring and fun and not one bit interested in violence or fighting.
Having lived in several African countries I can also confirm that not all black people can dance.
Who has been your favourite person to photograph?
I really like Samuella (above, right), the model from Fourah Bay College. She has loads of style and killer attitude. She’s intimidating. I saw her parading around after church one Sunday with her boyfriend who apparently chose her entire outfit. She really stands out in a crowd; her weave that day was a spectacular red and she’s also really tall particularly when wearing towering stilettos. It was also stinking hot and she barely broke a sweat in her full faced makeup and polyester jacket.
There’s also a guy called ‘Great Hero’ (above, left). He is a people’s preacher and walks the streets holding very animated prayer sessions. His style is incredible and often dresses in uniforms and military garb. He is basically the most popular person in Freetown and I’ve had some hilarious experiences photographing him. He always gathers a big crowd of people screaming “HERO, GREAT HERO” and then he likes to walk around introducing me to his fans on the street. It makes me feel like I’m hanging out with Justin Bieber.
What’s next for you?
I would love to keep blogging for a bit. I have a dream of gathering all my favourite Freetown Fashpack models and staging a giant cat walk at Freetown’s National Stadium in front of 100,000 fashion forward Sierra Leoneans. The front row would be lined with A-List celebrities, fashion editors and big-name fashion bloggers going nuts on their iphones, taking selfies with the ‘Great Hero’ and ‘Samuella’ and causing twitter and instagram to crash. There would be a live broadcast on Fashion TV.
Big thanks to Jo for taking the time to chat to us, and for sharing these stunning images too! Be sure to check out her amazing blog, Freetown Fashpack for more insights into the colourful, creative and seriously stylish side of Sierra Leone.