Thursday, June 07, 2007

Return to Sierra Leone

West African civil wars are not known for their box office appeal and it’s a measure of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil conflict that even Hollywood identified in it the raw material for profit. However, whatever the perceptions reinforced by ‘that bloody film’ the surprisingly positive reality is that Return to Sierra Leone should not just be a working title for Leo’s sequel to Blood Diamond but rather an act of faith by adventurous travellers everywhere.

A recent promotion from 177 (bottom place) to 176 in the UN’s Human Development rankings unfairly ignores the great progress - and even greater potential in Sierra Leone. Hostilities ceased six years ago following a notably successful intervention by British and UN troops. Realpolitik sees former combatants sharing political power, elsewhere international courts chart the course of justice for war criminals. Municipal elections have been held without major incident and the signs are positive for July’s first post war national elections.

In late March, after taking one of three direct flights from London, I stepped out into the night for that first breath of fertile Salone air. Heading to Freetown, the final journey from Lungi Airport entailed either a dubious-looking ferry or a piece of Russian aviation history – a classic Mil Mi-8 heli. This time the choice is made for me, a taxi is waiting and he’s blowing his horn, I make the ferry connection and arrive at my hotel only five minutes later than the airborne brigade.

As I’m checking in a 4WD with diplomatic plates pulls up and out from the rear door steps an elegant gentlemen carrying a black briefcase. He’s dressed in a remarkable tropical green suit featuring over its entirety a repeated prawn motif. Kansas this ain’t.

By 1990 over 28,000 palid Europeans a year, anticipating Bounty Bar beaches and bikinis, populated the justly famed white-sand beaches of the Freetown Peninsula. Sierra Leone was earning over $14 million in tourism per year and seemed set to become another Gambia with all the dubious associated benefits of mass tourism.

The war, as wars do, changed all that. Now it’s not a case of ‘Where you come from?’ rather, ‘Which agency you work for?’ There are no visible tourists, none, not even the inevitable lone Swiss attempting global circumnavigation by unicycle.

Today, walking the city one could easily forget the history though it’s obvious that Freetown’s infrastructure is creaking. The current population, in excess of 1 million, is partly the result of a wartime influx of rural refugees. Electricity is fitful, hotels and offices relying on their own generators. Water is trundled around by lorry, and down the supply line by boys with ingenious carts and hard-headed women with strong necks and yellow plastic jerries. However, here and there teams of labourers toil, shovelling piles of semi-fossilised refuse into state-of-the-art refuse trucks. Others chop back undergrowth surrounding boundary walls and road-sides, working to reclaim the streets.

Walking down the puddled red dirt of Signal Hill Road towards Congo Cross, Freetown feels safe and relaxed, its inhabitants proving amongst the friendliest city people around. Downtown, Siaka Stevens Street is filled with traffic that still manages to negotiate a steady if slow progress. Street vendors chance a few pitches for business. By no means hassle, their verbal advertising ranges from superior foreign currency exchange facilities ‘Chench, Chench Mister’, to high quality CDs and DVDs, ‘Awe yu do, Ha yu sin Idi Amin Dada?’, and afro hair extensions ‘Rill human hair’.

For a few moments sirens shriek above the street din but it’s no more than an embarrassingly self-important convoy of white land cruisers, lights blazing and headed by motorcycle outriders. The traffic parts, and they’re gone, their air-conditioned corridor closed seamlessly by solidly humid air.

Time for refreshment and the open-fronted Downtown Restaurant seems like my kind of establishment, providing a languid fan-cooled niche for low-key people-watching. A steady stream of family and visitors pass on news, conduct a little commerce, even occasionally ordering food. I suck down my Parrot-brand ginger beer before it evaporates and with wildlife on my mind decide to check out nearby Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary.

Feeding time, Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary

I find a Peugeot 504 taxi easily, sadly the other 8 passengers have no problems either. After squeezing into whatever space is available each new fare introduces themselves with a polite and considered ‘Good Afternoon’. The driver, seeing that even the Peugeot’s famously accommodating cabin has reached its elastic limit, sets off. At this point the 9th passenger announces its presence with a plaintive and sustained bleat. Our ascent to Hill Station is punctuated by a short fodder foraging stop to placate the goat before I extract myself for a connecting ride to Tacugama.

Bala Amarasekaran heads-up Tacugama’s pioneering project, home to around 90 rescued chimps, and has seen it through the worst of times. ‘We were attacked three times during the war but we had an obligation to save our chimps, so we stayed on.’ Throughout, the whole facility is well thought out and maintained to high standard, and far removed from an anthropomorphic tea party.

Here they teach chimps to be wild, and as if to emphasise the point a particularly rascally adolescent male lets rip in my direction with a fusillade of well-aimed rocks. ‘In the past conservation laws were side-lined by the human problem. Now I feel very confident for the future? During the war rebels disarmed hunters, and actually some chimp populations increased’ says Amarasekeran. The project provides employment for local people and encourages educational visits by parties of school children, both aspects reinforcing the positive links between conservation and tourism. However, this afternoon, my taxi driver David and I are the only visitors.

Next day I join Harry Gbetuwa one of a tranche of Sierra Leoneans recently returned from Iraq where they were lately employed by the US military keeping well fed GIs well fed. Harry is passionate about building a new Sierra Leone and is keen to show off a community eco-tourism project recently opened on the Banana Islands.

Heading out along the Freetown Peninsula, the town’s expansive Lumley Beach is filled with team after team of young men in colourful strips playing football. The beach games thin out and we divert a little way inland, the road soon becomes red, dusty and corrugated and after a few kilometres so do I.

Our rendezvous with lunch at Sussex is well timed. At Florence’s Resort, set breezily on the beach, Lydia, daughter in-law of the owner Franco Miari, is busy updating the wine list. I ask about her customers. ‘We don’t have tourists. Italians as it is an Italian restaurant. Lebanese, there are quite a few Lebanese, and better-off Sierra Leoneans. This week we have a wedding.’

I order barracuda, and while waiting luxuriate in a cold Star beer and deep breaths of fresh sea air. This is truly a splendid spot, I just need a pile of good books and about ten times as long as I have got to really appreciate it.

After lunch we call in at the stunningly beautiful River No 2 (there’s no River No 1) beach, rumoured in another time to have been the location for the original Bounty Bar adds. Here, under the trees are more white 4WDs bearing stencilled accreditation than you can throw a humanitarian aid budget at. Similarly coloured owners lounge in the shade of palms and splash through the waves. A dignified Sierra Leonean lady watches over an enclave of foreign children.

River No2 beach, rumoured to be the site for the original Bounty Bar ads

Kent is next, where else? Our boatman, Vidal Cole was the village headman during the civil war, a time when the islands’ population of 900 temporarily swelled with over 11,000 refugees. He waits patiently for us to scramble across the rocks and board for 15-minutes of lively water to the Banana Islands. ‘No vehicles, no pollution, no noise, no crime? no stress’ says the project’s handout and for once it’s all true.

On the beach the Youth Association’s thatched rondavals await guests for evenings of fresh lobster around the campfire. Unfortunately my schedule doesn’t allow for this obvious indulgence. Vidal leads Harry and I into nearby Dublin village, through trees heavy with avocados and mangoes and past Portuguese cannon from the early 1800s now slumbering atop earth ramparts. In a small courtyard former Paramount Chief, Moses Taylor gives us a short history of the islands from their settlement by freed slaves through to their roll as safe haven in the civil war. Walking further we encounter the 80th birthday celebrations for island resident Madam Mary Dundas.

Left to Right Madame Rosaline Campbell, Madame Mary Dundas, Madame Regina Campbell on the occasion of Madame Dundas 80th Birthday, Dublin village, Banana Island

I’m pressed to take pictures of the birthday girl and her two sisters before speaking to Elizabeth Wray, village headwoman and one of the instigators of the community project. Elizabeth acknowledges the direct benefits of carefully considered tourism. ‘In the future we are going to benefit from these things that people are coming to do in the islands.

We are improving, we have got the school, the hospital? the church and these chalets.’ Heading back, Harry and I wait for the boat, time enough to drink a couple of glasses of palm wine and talk of the future before the return voyage.

Large-scale sun and sand tourism is unlikely to revisit Sierra Leone anytime soon, and indeed such a deluge would probably cause as much damage as good. For now there’s an opportunity for local projects directly benefiting the immediate community to seed and take hold. What’s needed to fertilise this crop of initiative, is a gentle rain of enlightened travellers.

Link to Return to Sierra Leone -Life & Style-Travel-Destinations-Africa-TimesOnline