Mention visiting Sierra Leone to anyone and initial questions after “Is it safe?!” typically cover blood diamonds, civil war and Ebola. A reaction which reinforces the fact that Sierra Leone is indeed still far from the tourist trail.
A lack of information, infrastructure and fellow travellers; teamed with recent storms and mudslides partially destroying some tourist attractions, does make it a hard destination to explore. However beaches are plentiful, and in the 1980’s one of Sierra Leone’s featured in the Bounty chocolate bar “taste of paradise” advert. So perhaps one for the bucket list!
On my first day I managed to meet the President when I was caught in a cordoned off area alone with his security entourage. We stood together and watched him approach the airport terminal from the mainland in his private boat. Meanwhile a couple of people quickly laid a threadbare red carpet along the deck. When the president arrived there was myself and several armed soldiers all standing in line to salute and bid him good morning. Quite surreal…
A definite highlight was the chimpanzee sanctuary. It rescues orphaned or enslaved apes and educates them through a staged process to be able to live back in the wild. Sadly due to continued risk of being captured for a household pet, being poached for meat or killed for alleged medicinal purposes; these endangered chimpanzees remain here in the next best thing – an enormous enclosure with minimal human contact. Signage before you enter the sanctuary reads “beware of the chimpanzees throwing rocks, they have a very good aim”. How reassuring! Thankfully the juvenile chimpanzees were too busy chasing each other to work on their target practice. I loved watching these intriguing intelligent animals, who just sat contentedly and just watched me back. I wish I could have stayed longer…
Exasperation came with the money situation. The maximum ATM withdrawal amount was 400k Sierra Leonean Leone’s, which equates to 40 notes and just US$47. There are two issues with this; the first being that ATMs rarely have any cash in as everyone extracts the maximum 40 notes, and secondly the cost of daily living for tourists exceeds US$47. You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this situation is untenable.
So for those interested in the facts, and why Sierra Leone is indeed safe and worth a visit:
– The civil war started in 1991 and spanned 11 years leaving over 50,000 people dead and millions displaced, at a time when the population was approx. 7million. And yes, it was partly funded by the greed for diamonds though this is rarely spoken about.
– The Ebola outbreak is thought to have been initially contracted by a family in Guinea through their diet of bats in December 2013. It quickly spread across the border and left 2,536 dead in Guinea and 3,955 in Sierra Leone. The survival rate after international aid boosted local medical care was 64%. It was the most widespread Ebola epidemic ever recorded, and was declared eradicated by the World Health Organisation mid-2016.
– In August 2017 heavy rainfall lead to severe mudslides which killed 1,141 people and displaced a further 3,000 people in the capital, Freetown alone.