Return of Tourism to Sierra Leone
Two miles of white sand stretch out in front of me, sun sparkles on the Atlantic Ocean to my right and music drifts from a small bar. Boys play frantic football up and down the sand, to wry commentary from older men under a tree. Two women walk slowly in the water.
Further up the peninsula is River No 2 which readers of a certain age will recognise from the 1970s Bounty Bar ads. Sounds like any beach paradise but you might not think of Lumley Beach in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
The vicious civil war here which ended 11 years ago still dominates our thinking about this small West African nation. And sure, Sierra Leoneans still talk about it but they’re trying to heal the scars and open for business again.
And once you get the hang of answering: “How de body?” with a smile and “De body fine” along with a complex hand-shake, who would want to go back to the mundane: “How are you today?”.
Miles of rain-forest, Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary with eco-lodges, or Mount Bintumani all compete for attention. And you will eat – barracuda, fiery stews and heaped plates of rice.
A plastic bag filled with cassava bread, fish stew and grilled red snapper makes the perfect roadside snack on long trips – washed down with fresh coconut water.
This may seem strange in a country where malnutrition is endemic, but it’s all about money. Poverty is at the root of the challenges everyone here faces.
The airport for example sits on the far side of the Sierra Leone River but a long-promised bridge to Freetown has never been built.
Arriving in darkness, it took two hours in a mini-van, the ferry and a jeep to get to my hotel. An adventure to do once, but as locals said regular commuting is tough.
Even in the capital, many streets are unpaved, so when it rains travel grinds to a muddy halt. Most people drive Mazdas, bumping along and stalling in giant pot-holes. Travelling ‘up-country’ means jeeps and a cushion wouldn’t go amiss.
Electricity is erratic – there is no national power company. But every building has at least one back-up generator, and hotels promote the promise of all-day power.
Before the war, tourism was a main industry. And while I met far more foreign aid workers and volunteers than tourists, they are trickling in.
If you want to feel your money will make a difference, and really get off the beaten track Sierra Leone should be next on your list.