Note: I feel that I should point out that we were only in Sierra Leone for 9 days, and spent all of our time on the Freetown peninsula. Naturally, I could never claim to be an expert on the place after such a brief and limited visit. But I hope that my impressions might count for something, especially for anyone who’s never had the chance to visit.
Visiting Sierra Leone
Despite its stunning natural beauty, Sierra Leone doesn’t seem to strike people as the perfect holiday destination. Mention the West African state’s name to anyone here at home (and we did, ad nauseam, until we left), and they’ll generally respond with vague knowledge of war, bloodshed, diamonds, cocaine and guns. This is understandable because Sierra Leone isn’t generally mentioned in the media in Europe except in those terms. Films like Blood Diamond and Lord Of War, the only recent Hollywood depictions of the country, help to promote this view. But that was then. The civil war officially ended 9 years ago and ever since, Sierra Leone has been putting itself back together.
But at the same time, people are sort-of right: Sierra Leone is not a perfect holiday destination. We were lucky enough to be visiting a friend who works for a foreign agency in the country. Pretty much all the non-local people we met work in similar jobs, for various NGOs or for the UN. The rest were visiting friends who worked there, or were returning for a holiday having already spent time working for an aid agency. As I understand it, very few ‘complete’ tourists (that is, people with no-one to show them around/provide accommodation) ever seem to make the journey. And to be honest, I struggle to recommend such a visit at the moment, unless it’s done through the TribeWanted eco tourism project.
Sierra Leone, you see, doesn’t just lack tourist infrastructure. It lacks infrastructure. There are relatively few major metalled roads in the capital, Freetown, and only a handful outside, making travel in 4×4 practically essential. Lungi airport, the only realistic way of arriving in the country, is the most basic international airport I’ve ever used (it apparently has no computers, so check in when you leave is an entirely manual pen and paper task). There are relatively few shops, so visitors and ex-pats tend to rely on a handful of expensive supermarkets and the market area in town, where availability of goods can never be guaranteed. There are hotels, but some of them are, according to what I’ve been told, pretty dodgy.
All that said, Sierra Leone is a beautiful, enchanting and wonderful country. The beaches and forests of the Freetown peninsula are about as gorgeous as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Freetown itself, for all the dust, is a great city: full of movement, work, fun and music. The Sierra Leonean people we met were quietly confident about the future of their wonderful country and far more open to talking about local issues and their aspirations than people in many other countries I’ve visited. The restaurant business seems to be picking up, and while I need to return to try more of the local food, visitors can eat well in plenty of locations in Freetown.