Sunday, 17 April 2016

Adventures in Sierra Leone



Sometimes the best adventures lie firmly off the beaten track, where you don't know quite what to expect but you stride out regardless, armed with nothing but a backpack and full of excitement and anticipation for all that may lie ahead.

I have spent much of the last decade staring at incredible pictures from across the continent of Africa, completely transfixed by the beauty, the rich tapestry of cultures and the stunning scenery and wildlife. However despite all this I have never made a trip happen and those dreams have remained firmly on the page.

So when my work decided to send me off to Sierra Leone to visit local organisations undertaking some brilliant women's empowerment work I was practically bouncing off the walls. True, Sierra Leone doesn't tend to feature on most people's list of must-see travel destinations. For many outside West Africa, it is associated with the brutal decade-long civil war, fuelled by child soldiers and blood diamonds. More recently it has featured on global news because of the devastation of the Ebola epidemic (the country was officially declared Ebola free at the start of this year). The result was that the response I got from some family and friends was somewhere between "Is it safe?" and "Are you crazy?!?" when I told them of the trip. However the truth is that beyond the headlines there lies a wonderful country, full of colour and life, where you are far more likely to be surrounded by locals rather than hoards of tourists and where adventure awaits.

The adventure begins from the moment you arrive into Lungi International Airport which is separated from the capital, Freetown by a river. This means that quickest way to get across is either helicopter or speedboat -  a first for me, which makes the Heathrow Express feel truly dull in comparison

Brimming with energy and optimism Freetown is a great introduction to the country. The language here is Krio (an English based creole language). You will regularly be greeted by "Owdibody?" ("How's the body?" or essentially "How are you?"), the only bit of Krio I managed to retain throughout my visit and which I used liberally.

Most of my time in Freetown was spent working, but in the evenings there was nothing to beat sitting with a cold Star beer and plate of jollof rice and freshly caught fish watching the sun go down at one of the many restaurants that line Lumley beach.




Determined to see a little of country I hired a driver for half a day and headed off to visit one of Sierra Leone's famous beaches. Due to a lack of time I picked the closest beach (No.2 Beach) which to me looked like an unspoilt paradise.











However if you have the time to go a little further afield I have been reliably informed that an overnight stay on Banana Island is an absolute must, where as well as the pure white sand and clear blue sea, you can enjoy snorkelling, scuba diving and forest walks and spend the evenings eating incredible seafood on the beach, listening to the sea gently lap the shore and staring at the moon.

Next stop was Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Forget ideas of cradling baby chimps in your arms, this is a very different but no less wonderful experience. Tacugama is home to chimps that have been rescued from the bushmeat trade and those who were made homeless after they were bought as pets when they were young but became less appealing and more dangerous as they grew in size and strength. The focus here is on rehabilitation for release back into the wild, so each stage of this process involves a bigger enclosure for the chimps and human contact is mininised to the point that, in the final enclosure, the chimps are tiny figures far up in the trees in the distance. I loved it so much that I ended up 'adopting' one of the chimps, Chica after learning that he was so thin and frail when he first arrived that he had to be dressed in pyjamas just to keep warm.








I also had a chance for a tiny bit of shopping. Big Market near Government Wharf has everything your heart could desire and plenty of traders very keen to sell you their wares - a fun but exhausting experience. Never accept the first price. As I quickly learnt its expected here that you will barter and that the asking price is just a starting point for further negotiation.

If I had the time there is much more I would have loved to see including Bunce Island (a landmark to Freetown's history and links to the slave trade) and Tiwai Island, a beautiful nature reserve up country which is admittedly quite a trek to get to but rewards you with the highest concentration and diversity of primates in the world and cute little pygmy hippos.

However I was in Sierra Leone for work and it was time to head out East. A couple of hours out of Freetown and the roads start getting seriously bumpy so it's time to hold on tight and 'enjoy' the ride. Our destination was Kailahun, a district which borders Liberia and Guinea and is one of the poorest regions in the country.












There we met women's groups who are becoming powerful change-makers in their communities. These incredible women had already been through so much (many had lost their husbands in the civil war) but despite this their spirit hadn't dampened and they were fighting hard to become local councillors and lobbying for essential changes. Incredibly they had got the traditional leaders on side and were making great progress tackling big issues like early marriage, FGM and  violence against women and girls.

The whole experience had quite an impression on me but since this post is already getting very long I thought I would share just a couple of thoughts -
* Round the corner from the guesthouse I was staying in was a deserted shack (which I later found out was a torture house in the civil war). It was a chilling reminder that the war only ended a couple of decades ago, and yet this feels like one of the most peaceful and safest places I have visited, because Sierra Leoneans have made the conscious decision to forgive and move forward. An incredible lesson for us all.
* On our first night the women's group and the local partner organistions hosted a mini-celebration where the women pulled us onto the dance-floor and taught us to dance West African style and whooped and cheered at our truly terrible efforts. It was so much fun and typical of the warmth of the people.
* We also had the chance to go to see some work in rural villages to help poor men and women set up small businesses. As we exited the cars the entire village came out to welcome us and the little children bounced up and down eager to see the strange looking visitors. Hearing these men and women talk their pride in what they achieved and the difference they were able to make for their families was palpable. It wasn't about handouts but helping people to help themselves. One women stood up and said how incredible it was that people on the other side of the world would come and visit and that it gave her so much strength to know that there was people out there who cared so much.  I left with tears in my eyes but feeling truly inspired.


And so, as I boarded the plane back to London after my whistle-stop tour of Sierra Leone, I knew one thing for sure.......that a love affair with this incredible continent had only just begun.

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