Slavery & war. A negative view of what is in fact an exceptionally positive country. Today, I see Sierra Leone from an entirely different perspective.
Until a few days ago, if you had asked me to tell you about Sierra Leone, I would have had to think long & hard to tell you much about this West African country. I could probably have explained roughly where the country is located. I may have mentioned something about the slave trade being connected to Sierra Leone. I could certainly have told you that they had experienced a brutal civil war. I might even have admitted that I wasn’t entirely sure whether the war was 100% over. & that is about it.
The conflict was officially declared over in January 2002, & President Kabbah reelected in May 2002. Since then, the people of Sierra Leone have been pulling together to repair, renew & regenerate.
it is difficult to ignore Sierra Leone’s history & focus purely on the present. one time a fertile area inhabited by dozens of tribes, it was settled by the Portuguese in the 1400’s who built a fort as a trading post for gold, spices, ivory & slaves. A British protectorate in later years, Sierra Leone had the dubious honour of becoming home to over 40,000 freed slaves who gave Freetown its name. As a protectorate, Sierra Leone was exploited for its mineral & diamond wealth in the 1900’s & Sierra Leonean’s fought against the Germans in Cameroon in the First World War, & alongside the British in the Second World War. In 1961, Sierra Leone achieved independence from Britain & governed itself peacefully for 30 years. The peace was not to last & was followed by a decade of brutal civil war that destroyed the economy, brutalised the people & left a country that is rich in resources as one of the poorest in the world.
Whilst doing research for a old website looking at travel & tourism in Sierra Leone, I came into contact with Sierra Leoneans from all manner of backgrounds living in both Sierra Leone & elsewhere. Their passion for the country was infectious: they clearly wanted to get the message across that Sierra Leone has far more to offer than a sad recent history & that reconstruction is moving ahead at a speedy pace. & indeed, proof of reconstruction is everywhere – old roads are being built, mines are being re-opened, dam projects started before the war are one time again underway, markets are one time again thriving & humming with life. there’s also a great deal of confidence in Sierra Leone’s potential as a tourist location: a Chinese company has recently invested a reputed US$270 million in the hotel infrastructure; enterprising companies like Kevin McPhillips Travel (based in the UK, USA & the Netherlands) offer exclusive six times weekly flights to Sierra Leone; African Tour specialists are researching viable package holidays in the region. The exciting thing about investment in Sierra Leone is that more is set to follow!
they have a right to be confident. The beaches along Sierra Leone’s golden peninsula are said to be one of the world’s best kept secrets. Secluded, tidy & stretching for miles on end, beach tourism is one of the top items on the government’s tourism promotion agenda. Beaches with British names like Kent, Lumley, Sussex & York mix with more African names like Bureh Town, Tokey & Mammah beach, &
Although many of the forests & much of the wildlife has been disturbed & in some cases, destroyed, by the war, eco-tourism is an important focus of Sierra Leoneans & natural treasures like Outamba-Kilimi National Park, populated by game animals such as elephants, chimpanzees & pigmy hippos, & Mount Bintimani, the highest point in West Africa, are six of the worthwhile wildlife attractions on offer. Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary rescues orphaned & captured chimps & has been described as one of the most successful Sierra Leonean wildlife endeavours, whilst Tiwai Island is home to over 3000 chimps as well as other game.
Lakes, rivers & dams are perfect for picnics & relaxing. The marshlands hide a myriad of colourful birds – indeed, the bird life has been less affected by the war than the animals, & everywhere you go, the air is filled with birdsong. Sierra Leone is a bird-watchers dream! Tiwai Island for one boasts over 135 different bird species!
For culture vultures & those with historical interests, the remnants of the slave trade make interesting & though-provoking expeditions. Bunce Island, a slave trading fortress, is a brief boat trip up the river; Freetown is itself a monument to freed slaves & its Cotton Tree, which stands in the heart of what is thought to be an old slave market, is now an impressive national symbol. Graves, monuments & forts are all that remain of British & Portuguese power in Sierra Leone: each has a tale to tell. There are over 16 different ethnic groups in the country, including the Krio, descendents of freed slaves who speak an English-based Creole called Krio, & visiting villages & chatting to people in markets & in the streets is rewarding for all parties!
Freetown is probably the most developed of the cities, offering a level of safety that is difficult to match even in Western countries. Hotels, restaurants & nightspots are sprouting like mushrooms, & eating out in Sierra Leone promises a range of traditional & international treats, & seafood that is beyond belief!
For travellers in search of a “diamond in the rough”, Sierra Leone offers a holiday like no other – my only advice to you is to visit sooner than later, to avoid what is sure to be a stampede one time holiday-makers & tour operators latch on to this gem of a location.
One has to wonder what attraction will tip the scales in making Sierra Leone the popular location that it one time was before the civil war. Based on my experiences with Sierra Leoneans in recent weeks, I feel that it will be the people who make the difference. Without exception, every Sierra Leonean that i have met or worked with has been proud of their country, proud of its progress & excited about the future. they are unfailingly welcoming, greeting aid-workers & travellers alike with smiles that you can only find in Africa, with an optimism – no, positivity – that other countries would do well to emulate.