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First impressions of what to expect in Sierra Leone were not encouraging. The Sierra Leone High Commission in the UK, where tourists are required to apply for visas, is on a narrow street in central London. The reception area was dark and shabby. Visa applicants were directed along a gloomy passage to an official sitting in a small room behind a desk piled high with a clutter of papers and forms. Fortunately, the process proved to be less arduous than feared and the official who issued the visa was courteous and amiable.
The journey to Sierra Leone began well. We flew business class on Brussels Airlines from London to Brussels, then on to Freetown, the capital. The flight attendants were attentive and the food was excellent in comparison with standard airline fare. Before we left the aircraft we were each handed a large box of Belgian chocolates, a welcome gesture.
It was late evening when we landed at Freetown International Airport in Lungi. The airport was noisy and chaotic. It had evidently rained heavily and we dodged puddles as we were led in the semi-darkness to a vast empty room. A few chairs were brought for us as we waited for our baggage, which turned up splattered with mud. From the airport we were driven to the hoverport by coach, shaken about like pebbles in a tin as the vehicle careered along a rough and bumpy road. Travelling by hovercraft is the most practical way to cross the Sierra Leone River to Freetown – a journey that can take several hours by road. Freetown is situated on a peninsula on the south bank of the estuary of the river and has one of the best natural harbours in Africa. The cool sea breeze and glittering city lights as we approached the shore made up for the rude shock of arriving in a country still struggling to recover economically from the ravages of a brutal 11-year war.
We were booked in the Barmoi, not necessarily the grandest hotel in town though it boasts of having had David Beckham as a guest – a badge of honour in a football-mad nation. The hotel was founded in 1999 and originally named Cape Guest House. It was extended and officially re-opened as Hotel Barmoi in 2004 and now has 36 rooms, most of which have private balconies overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The rooms are clean, cool and comfortable. The hotel’s two swimming pools are a bonus in a country where default weather conditions tend to be hot and sticky. The much larger Chinese-run Bintumani Hotel offers a broader range of facilities for conferences and corporate events but it is more impersonal and appeals to those visiting the country strictly for business. The Chinese food at the hotel is highly rated.
We soon became aware that wherever one goes in Sierra Leone the staple items on any menu are chicken or fish, grilled or fried with rice or chips, which soon gets monotonous. The Barmoi offers a varied selection including international and local dishes such as beef or fish cooked with cassava leaves. It is also noted for its snapper, swordfish and lobster. A restaurant which is a popular meeting point for expatriates is the Crown Bakery. Here those missing familiar western food can indulge their yearning for steak with all the trimmings, pizza, croissants, rock cakes, cappuccino and espresso coffee – relatively rare treats in Sierra Leone. The owner of the restaurant is Lebanese, a community which plays a dominant role in business in this part of the world.
Since we were in Sierra Leone for work there was little time for sight-seeing. For dedicated tourists there is much to discover including many landmarks which can be traced back to the country’s past as a British colony and a refuge for freed slaves. One local institution with a long history is Fourah Bay College. Established in 1827 it is said to be the oldest university in West Africa and earned Freetown its reputation as the ‘Athens of Africa.’ Many illustrious African figures, including Sierra Leone’s current President, were educated at the college which is now part of the University of Freetown.
A long-term British resident described one of his favourite places in the city, “The Hill Station Club provides a glimpse of colonial life. It counted Graham Greene among its members and the sporting trophies of the era still adorn the bar. Inside, the building feels like an English cricket pavilion, two billiard tables have fallen into disrepair and a darts board keeps the punters entertained when Manchester United are not on the television. Outside there is a terrace with spectacular views down to the sea, and a band plays on Friday nights. It’s a great spot for sundowners.”
Increased road traffic and changes in government policy led to the closure of Sierra Leone’s public railway system in 1974. However, remnants of the narrow gauge railway that climbed the hill from the centre of town up to the rarefied airs of Hill Station have been lovingly collected under one roof at the Railway Museum in the east end of Freetown. Hill Station is worth a wander on foot to marvel at the stilted houses, rumoured to have been flat-packed and exported from Harrods. The buildings, erected originally for members of the British Colonial Service, are today occupied by the families of Sierra Leonean civil servants. Other places which merit a visit are the Sierra Leone museum and Cape Sierra Leone Lighthouse. Bunce Island is of special interest to African Americans who visit the forts from where countless numbers of their ancestors were sent as captured slaves to the United States.
Hoping to pick up a few souvenirs, we ventured into a market in central Freetown on a busy Saturday afternoon and were immediately hit by a deafening wall of sound blasting out from rows of stalls selling CDs. Since tourists are not a common sight we were besieged by tenacious hawkers competing noisily for our attention as we fought our way past a warren of shops displaying traditional clothes, superb fabric in dazzling colours, necklaces, carvings and other local handicraft..
Sierra Leone has a long way to go before it becomes a tourist hub but the potential is there. The beautiful beaches, bays and coves along the peninsula would have been packed with holidaymakers in most other countries. Here many of the beaches are bare except for the occasional sight of children playing football or other games. Some of the beaches are difficult to find because of the poor state of the roads and the lack of adequate sign-posting. Pauline Welsh, visiting from Jamaica, shared her first impressions of the city, “ Freetown needs more development and the roads are a challenge. The natural beauty is unquestionable. I can’t get over the state of the roads, can't believe how a country with so many resources can have such bad infrastructure.”
The setting of Freetown is picturesque. The vegetation is abundant and the thickly forested hills descending to the sea form an attractive backdrop. A few hotels and a handful of rundown bars and restaurants are dotted along the waterfront. There is, however, a pervading sense of neglect and wasted potential. The main obstacles to the development of tourism are the lack of a reliable supply of water and electricity. Internet connections are erratic. The quality of buildings in Freetown is poor. Everywhere one looks there are unpainted, unfinished structures crumbling through lack of attention. At the same time, new hotels and offices are being built haphazardly with little evidence of formal planning. The city authorities appear to be fighting a losing battle in dealing with sewage disposal and raising general standards of hygiene.
The six-hour drive from Freetown to the eastern city of Kenema came as an agreeable surprise. Kenema is the third largest city in Sierra Leone and relatively close to the Liberian border. The 240 kilometre stretch of highway is tarmaced, smooth and straight and free of the deep pot-holes which were a feature of many roads in Freetown. The scenery along the way was stunning with the landscape changing from grassland and jungle to dense forests made up of palm, fruit trees, mahogany and teak. Sierra Leone is home to numerous small animals such as bush pigs, chimpanzees, monkeys, and porcupines. Crocodiles and hippopotamuses are often found in the rivers. With prudent investment many more areas of the country could be turned into money-earners if they were developed as protected natural parks for tourists.
The city of Kenema is busy and sprawling without any particularly outstanding features. There were a few street lights and the usual jumble of stalls lined the roads. One would not think that the city was at the centre of a thriving trade in diamonds. Buildings along main roads were plastered with signs declaring that diamonds were bought and sold there. The plain, unadorned office fronts were in marked contrast to the elegant, plush showrooms in big western cities where diamonds, polished and skilfully crafted into exquisite pieces of jewellery, are sold at eye-watering prices.
Apart from diamonds Sierra Leone has chrome, bauxite and iron ore, small amounts of gold and platinum are also mined. A question that plagued me throughout my brief visit to Sierra Leone was why a country blessed with so many natural resources should be languishing as one of the poorest countries in the world. According to local people this was largely because all the profits were being siphoned out of the country by large international corporations while corrupt officials lined their pockets.
What gives one hope is the growing number of enterprising Sierra Leoneans who are making a mark. Louisa and Solomon Musa, both originally from Sierra Leone, run the comfortable and popular, Ericson guest house in Kenema which they set up after returning from the United States three years ago. Louisa is a dynamic and determined woman, a former nurse, who overcame daunting challenges to get her project off the ground. She cleared numerous bureaucratic hurdles to obtain water from a dam and arrange for it to be filtered and delivered to the guest house. Electricity is a constant problem with lights and air-conditioning needing to be turned off during the day to conserve power. Despite these challenges, the guest house is always full. Most clients are there on assignment for the UN, European Union and other international agencies. Louisa, the main force behind the venture, also owns guest houses in Freetown and Bo. She has an ambitious plan to build a 50-room luxury hotel in Kenema. With her drive and energy there is little reason to doubt that she will attain this goal. Her husband, Solomon, offers support behind the scenes though his heart is set on entering the diamond mining business.
Finding good hotels outside Freetown can be hit or miss. Two other recommended hotels in Kenema city are Paloma, owned by a Lebanese family, and Capital. Paloma serves Lebanese, Italian and Chinese cuisine for its mainly western guests. Colleagues who travelled to Bo in a neighbouring district were unlucky and ended up in a hotel which had run out of towels and toilet paper; they were even advised by the management to buy soap and other basic items in the market... There was no electricity, air-conditioning or running hot water. One required a strong constitution to survive the food. Others who visited Makeni in the north were more fortunate and stayed at the Wusum hotel, another product of Sierra Leonean entrepreneurship. According to some write-ups it is the best hotel in the country, however, our colleagues felt it was in need of maintenance and complained that the service could have been better.
Although, Sierra Leone may languish at the bottom of the poverty index all the young people we met were highly motivated and eager to prove what they could do. We came across, Emma, in Freetown who said she was sixteen and forced to drop out of school because she could no longer afford to pay her fees. Her mother died when Emma was young and her father had five other children to support and could not afford to fund her schooling. Emma said she was looking very any odd jobs she could find to raise enough money to be able to return to school. Before we left Freetown we heard that Emma’s father had died just days after we had spoken to her. We could not help worrying about what future lay ahead for her.
On the even of Sierra Leone’s general election on November 17, we met an enterprising young woman called Bintu, in Kenema. She was so excited she said didn't expect to sleep that night because she wanted to be the first in the queue to vote as soon as polls opened. When we bumped into her again the following day she was elated, because after having cast her vote she had earned good money selling rice and beef stew to other voters.
Amadu, our guide, 22, softly-spoken and extremely bright, was hoping to go to university if he could find a way to pay the fees. His father had died soon after the civil war officially ended in 2002; his mother, a subsistence farmer who had struggled to bring up six children on her own, had no spare cash.
The large number of amputees one sees in the country is a stark reminder of the horrific war that engulfed the country from 1991 to 2001 when the limbs of young and old, even babies were hacked off by murderous rebels. On the day of the election we stopped to speak to a middle-aged man and a younger woman, each of whom had lost a leg during the fighting. They had walked with crutches for a kilometre or more to reach their nearest polling centre. Like so many people we encountered, they were adamant that they never wished to see fighting again and prayed for a peaceful election.
One area where Sierra Leone can serve as a role model for many troubled parts of the world is religious tolerance. Muslims and Christians intermarry and churches and mosques are sited next to each other in most towns and cities. What can be done to move Sierra Leone forward? Forty per cent of the unemployed are under thirty-five and a large proportion illiterate – a potentially explosive combination since the youth can easily be manipulated by political parties and other powerful forces. As a youth worker put it, the young are desperate for a secure environment, they crave for a state free from hunger and poverty and opportunities to improve their lives.
At the end it is the young who, with education and training, will be able to lift Sierra Leone out of poverty and help it to shake off the grim legacy of the war. The country has been blessed by nature with fertile soil, water, forests, diamonds and other precious minerals. Its citizens deserve an enlightened government and international support to ensure that everyone benefits from the vast profits generated by the country’s resources not just a few.