“Sierra Leone! Is it safe? Is there not some sort of terrible war going on? Hey , and was’nt that the place that had that Ebola thing?”.
It is a long story but I had the opportunity to return to Sierra Leone to lead a small group, looking to partner with the United Methodist Church of Sierra Leone (UMC). Bear in mind that Sierra Leone is country where the Government Tax Base can provide for very little of the infrastructure normally taken for granted. Thus, remarkably, the UMC endeavors to provide about a 1/3rd of all the Elementary Schools in the country of 6 million, several of the main (and better) hospitals, provide some of the only specializations such as limb fitting, orphanages, and so much more, whether it be teacher training or emergency relief.
Preparation, 3 Tips:
- Go ready to embrace people as they are and not be overwhelmed by the past and make notes, take photo’s so you can tell the story on your return
- Read a little about the colonisation of Sierra Leone and the immediate hand over period after independence
- Watch Blood Diamond movie to understand the role of large external bodies
Suggested Books: The State of Africa Martin Meredith (it actually covers all Africa) , Sierra Leone Inside the War
Arriving at Lungi
Now, most airports are somewhere near the town or city they serve. Not so Freetown Lungi (FNA). It is located across what is (a very beautiful) natural harbor and one of the largest natural harbors in the world. And so with my 4 lady companions (which included by daughter Shona) we eventually retreived our bags, got a shuttle bus down the first of many bumpy roads to the jetty. (Last time I came there was the excitement of going on a hovercraft across the harbor and being a transportation nut, I was fascinated that it had previously operated on the Isle of Wight, UK ferry service!). Our arrival into Freetown itself came at around 4am and even the rattle of the generator at the hotel we were staying at did not keep me or my very stoic ladies from sleeping.
Doing the very basics in Sierra Leone can often require massive patience, resilience and improvisation that people across Africa excel at. We saw this innovation at work throughout the stay.
Travelling in Sierra Leone
Building a School
If you look in the background of the photo adjacent, you can see a frame with a partial roof. This is in fact a school for 300-400 young children. After much investigation this was the place where our Team felt we could make a difference and at the time of writing (update Jan 18) we have raised 1/2 the funds needed to build a new, proper school on this site which is near the town of Kenema, located near the Guinea/Liberia border.
In the meantime of course the school had no roof – and it does rain, sometimes heavily, in this part of Africa! On driving away we determined to find tarps quickly. Much to my surprise as we drove towards a street market in Kenema center we saw the distinct blue tarps for sale. How come in a place where there is so little? Then it dawned – the Ebola crisis! Eventually many tarps were bought in to make Field Hospitals during the catastrophe and many were not used and now for sale. So we bought some and roofed the school for a little longer!
Ebola was a health disaster and an economic disaster. It killed people, destroyed communities, stopped business, isolated large parts of the country and led to fear of others and had a terrible stigma attached to it. I was able to see the Moyamba Ebola Treatment Unit, a remote town about 100 miles from Freetown.
Frankly, with its fences it felt more like a concentration camp to me; but these places were finally able to contain the tragic outbreak……eventually. Sierra Leone was doing well recovering from the decade of Civil War that finished in 2000 but Ebola set it back by several years and caused immense suffering and sadness.
The Cotton Tree
When in Freetown go to the National Museum, located near the ‘Cotton Tree’. The Cotton Tree is supposed to be the same one that the early freed slaves (it is Free-town) met under when first organizing the settlement. The National Museum is one of the rare Museums in the country but this does help you understand the 50+ years since independence. Whilst there we met a school group their who enthusiastically welcomed us to their country
I was invited to speak to various students. My introduction was always to talk about the UK’s Leicester City Football Club who where at the time on the verge of, remarkably, against all odds, winning the Premier Soccer League. All Sierra Leoneans love soccer and I was stunned about their knowlege of details and players – of my team!
My fellow travelers soon grasped this and rapidly became experts on Chelsea or Manchester Utd etc!
Sierra Leone has had a turbulent last 30 years. It used to be a regional center for West Africa and it is a beautiful, largely rural country. It has very green scenery, wide rivers, red soil, lively and noisy markets, incredibly welcoming people and some of the best coastal areas and beaches in the world. Yes, spend a few days on the peninsula south of Freetown, River No 2 is surely one of the most beautiful beaches in the world!