A couple of weeks ago I arrived back in London after visiting my final country for this year. It’s cold here in London but in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown the lowest temperature ever recorded is 19 degrees Celsius and how I wished I’d brought that weather back with me. Nestled between Guinea and Liberia on the Atlantic coast of West Africa and with a population of 5.5 million, Sierra Leone is a fairly small country by African standards. It’s also another example of an African country that I’ve visited this year which is currently enjoying peaceful times after recent upheaval.
The country was embroiled in a harrowing decade-long civil war which began in 1991 and was exacerbated by Sierra Leone’s notorious ‘blood diamonds’ which were used as currency by rebels in exchange for weapons and training from the then president of neighbouring Liberia, Charles Taylor. He has since been put on trial by the UN-supported Special Court for Sierra Leone and was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his involvement during the wars which swamped both countries. The atrocities of the civil war are brought home rather starkly in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a compelling account by Ishmael Beah who was recruited as a child soldier by rebels during the conflict. During my first visit to Freetown back in 2010 I remember seeing several of the victims from the war with missing limbs and other scars but on this visit I didn’t see any.
Sierra Leone is now considered one of the more stable and safest countries to visit in West Africa. Indeed, the general election which took place just two days prior to my visit in November went smoothly. There was no violence and after several days of recounting, the incumbent president, Ernest Bai Koroma, was re-elected. They even had posters pinned up around Freetown explaining how to go about voting on polling day – a far cry from 15 years ago.
The streets of the capital are in a rather sorry state, and during and after a storm many of the roads become impassable which can make for a rather hectic detour around one of the city’s many hills. The hotel where I stayed, the Country Lodge, is atop one of these hills and the surrounding views are great for putting the city into a geographical perspective, with the pristine beaches of the coast and the chaotic heart of downtown.
At least I didn’t have to travel by car from the airport though! Lungi international airport is only ten miles or so from the city as the crow flies but the road distance is a whopping 185 kilometres – and if they are like the roads in town then it would’ve taken a day or more. Instead, the interesting journey from the airport (usually in the middle of the night as that is when the European airlines arrive) requires a bus ride to a jetty and then a half hour ‘water taxi’ ride by boat (across one of the largest natural harbours in the world), followed by an hour long taxi drive. All was well when I arrived, though, and the views from the restaurant veranda at breakfast were rather satisfying. The Country Lodge also happens to be the number one restaurant and meeting place for expats in Freetown. Although difficult to get to, it’s worth it for the salubrious surroundings and dapper décor, not to mention the delicious pizza!
The Country Lodge doesn’t have much competition at the moment but with plans afoot for the opening of the country’s first two international luxury chain hotels (Hilton and Radisson) the expats will feel a little spoiled. The construction of these hotels is a sign of how much the country has changed since the end of the war and they are clearly looking forward to welcoming future tourists and economic investment which will help Sierra Leone on its way to becoming a success story. This is a volatile area of the world, though, where coups d’état are fairly common, so, for now, we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
Next week there will be another guest blog, this time from my fellow International Data Researcher, Hugh, shedding light on his visit to the world’s youngest country, South Sudan.