“This is my second favourite place on earth,” an expatriate miner announced from his bar stool. I beamed, delighted that Sierra Leone had finally found the admiration it deserves. Then, just as I reached for “Where’s your number one spot then?”, interested to find out what could possibly, in his well-travelled mind, trump the beautiful West African nation in which we were enjoying an evening drink, he smirked: “This is my second favourite place . . . after any place else.”
Admittedly, one of the world’s least developed countries is not an obvious choice of holiday destination. There is beauty and dysfunction perhaps in equal part. The beaches stretch out for miles, the water is the perfect swimmable temperature, the lobster is fresh-caught and the beer sparklingly cool. At the same time, the poverty is aching, the petty corruption ingrained and the infrastructure gasping for breath. It is an
uncomfortable sort of paradise. Few Sierra Leoneans ever reach its pristine coast or scale the region’s highest mountain, Bintumani; the pearl-drop Turtle Islands archipelago is a five-hour speedboat ride into the Atlantic, unthinkably expensive for all but a handful. When it rains, the water comes down with the force of metal bars; sun and sea combine to create such a sweaty torpor it can be hard to think or move.
Does it feel odd to travel somewhere so poor? Yes, it can do. But it’s never going to be safari tourism from behind the safety of a car window. In Sierra Leone you get involved, speak to people about their day, their lives: you can begin to find out what makes the place tick. The sense of forgiveness and calm – seven years after the end of a bloody 11-year civil war that destroyed lives, jobs, roads, power and much of society – is often overwhelming.
For me, it’s about the people I’ve met. It is a place of passion and bitterness – and hope. The young men who live in a graveyard, with skulls and palm wine for company, who speak eloquently about their yearning for the education they’ve missed out on. The father who lives with his family inside a hollow concrete bridge and paints its walls with slogans in the hope of promoting peace. The sassy American-Sierra Leonean returnee who left the wealth of the west in the hope of helping her homeland, and who is mistaken for a prostitute by snooty white women. The men and women who, when I pathetically pound the beach sands in an attempt at a jog, thank me for exercising, encourage my meagre efforts, spur me on.
In this painfully poor country, style matters above all else. Women put extraordinary time and expense into having their hair and nails done, men shimmer in metal necklaces, and together they gyrate with such simmering sexuality that the odd party has been known to spill over into orgy. Or so I’m told.
There is something intoxicating about Sierra Leone’s extraordinary contrasts. I have watched stand-up routines about racism, poverty and the war in the Krio national dialect and laughed till I nearly fell off my chair; I’ve clambered along the banks of rivers concealed by rainforest, and been delivered up to a perfect beach on the ocean; I’ve watched diamonds and gold emerge from a welter of soil in front of my eyes; I’ve eaten oysters fresh from the rocks, squeezed with lime straight from the tree; I’ve slept under the stars. I have also, in the middle of a rare riot in the country at election time, seen tear gas envelop a man in a wheelchair who could go nowhere and do nothing but succumb. I saw young men wearing bandanas affecting the bravado of fighters, smashing up furniture to brandish as weapons. But when, unbeknown to me, I dropped my pen in the fray, one of them abandoned his part in the riot, stooped to pick it up and gave it back to me with grace and a smile. And every day I have seen how hard it is to make ends meet despite people’s very best efforts, when things utterly beyond their control go wrong.
This is not a lawless country. It is some six million largely jobless and deeply divided people trying to become a nation after a horrendous and dislocating war. The northern, mostly Muslim, residents support the ruling APC (named after a headache pill); the southern, mostly Christian, residents support the recently ousted Sierra Leone People’s Party, whose government strived to see off rebel attacks during the civil war. Riots between the two main political parties earlier this year augured fresh worries about unhealed rifts, but all is calm and wholesome enough for now.
“Governance is as important as aid,” Tony Blair told me during his recent visit. Britain gives more money per person to Sierra Leone than any other country. Blair, whose father taught at the national university, and who himself sent in British troops that helped bring the war to an end, has a team of nine people assisting the government to establish “effective decision-making and working capacity”.
“Countries like this need progress in terms of living standards, otherwise people lose heart,” he said from Freetown, the capital founded at the end of the 18th century by three waves of freed slaves. “Already there is a lot of difference in terms of the way the government works: it’s a much more effective operation.”
There are now two UK tour operators offering trips to Sierra Leone. So far only a dozen Brits have dared to travel with the appropriately named Undiscovered Destinations, a tiny operation that was the first to brave adding Salone, as the country is affectionately known, to its books after the war.
“I wouldn’t say my customers are macabre – it’s not to go and look at other people’s misery,” says Jim Louth, the director. “They are curious, well-informed people, up-to-date with what’s going on in the world: they have a real interest.
“It sounds a bit cheesy but this is really why I started my business – there are so many out-of-the-way, off-the-beaten-track places, and they need the support of the tourist industry.”
Katrina Manson is co-author of the “Bradt Guide to Sierra Leone” (Bradt, £16.99)