Until a few days ago, if you had asked me to tell you about Sierra Leone, I would have had to think long and hard to tell you much about this West African country. I could probably have explained roughly where country is located. I may have mentioned something about slave trade being connected to Sierra Leone. I could certainly have told you that they had experienced a brutal civil war. I might even have admitted that I wasn't entirely sure whether war was 100% over. And that's about it.
Slavery and war. A pretty negative view of what is in fact an exceptionally positive country. Today, I see Sierra Leone from an entirely different perspective.
It is difficult to ignore Sierra Leone's history and focus purely on present. Once a fertile area inhabited by dozens of tribes, it was settled by Portuguese in 1400's who built a fort as a trading post for gold, spices, ivory and slaves. A British protectorate in later years, Sierra Leone had dubious honour of becoming home to more than 40,000 freed slaves who gave Freetown its name. As a protectorate, Sierra Leone was exploited for its mineral and diamond wealth in 1900's and Sierra Leonean's fought against Germans in Cameroon in First World War, and alongside British in Second World War. In 1961, Sierra Leone achieved independence from Britain and governed itself peacefully for 30 years. The peace was not to last and was followed by a decade of brutal civil war that destroyed economy, brutalised people and left a country that is rich in resources as one of poorest in world.
The conflict was officially declared over in January 2002, and President Kabbah reelected in May 2002. Since then, people of Sierra Leone have been pulling together to repair, renew and regenerate.
Whilst doing research for a new website looking at travel and tourism in Sierra Leone, I came into contact with Sierra Leoneans from all manner of backgrounds living in both Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Their passion for country was infectious: they clearly wanted to get message across that Sierra Leone has far more to offer than a sad recent history and that reconstruction is moving ahead at a rapid pace. And indeed, proof of reconstruction is everywhere - new roads are being built, mines are being re-opened, dam projects started before war are once again underway, markets are once again thriving and humming with life. There is also a great deal of confidence in Sierra Leone's potential as a tourist destination: a Chinese company has recently invested a reputed US$270 million in hotel infrastructure; enterprising companies like Kevin McPhillips Travel (based in UK, USA and Netherlands) offer exclusive twice weekly flights to Sierra Leone; African Tour specialists are researching viable package holidays in region. The exciting thing about investment in Sierra Leone is that more is set to follow!
They have a right to be confident. The beaches along Sierra Leone's golden peninsula are said to be one of world's best kept secrets. Secluded, clean and stretching for miles on end, beach tourism is one of top items on government's tourism promotion agenda. Beaches with very British names like Kent, Lumley, Sussex and York mix with more African names like Bureh Town, Tokey and Mammah beach, and