Sierra Leone trip report

 

Sierra Leone



"Your visa will be ready in 1 week". "I can't take a day off next week, can I not have it sooner?" I asked. "Ok, come back after lunch". As far as visa applications go, the Sierra Leone embassy is one of the most easy going.
Sierra Leone is one of those unique destinations you can't even begin to formulate expectations for. This tiny corner of West Africa usually known for blood diamonds, a brutal civil war, and savaged by the Ebola crisis, understandably isn't swarmed with tourists.

When I landed in Freetown, the airport being on an estuary, I had to take a small "Water Taxi" boat to get to the city. With choppy waters and the boat spewing stifling fumes, the ride was far from enjoyable. My friend Suleyman had arranged me a super cheap "authentic" hotel, which meant a rundown room with a fan, a cockroach, and 30 mins of electricity before the generator broke down, leaving me in the darkness like most of the city.

 

Gold & diamond mines

We started the day with a 5 hours drive to a village where they mine for gold and diamonds. It was a smooth road until Magburaka, then the pavement was cast away into the rear-view mirror as we went through massive dirt hills and several passes through the forest. It seemed inconceivable that we were actually heading toward something.


 

When we reached the village, I was introduced to the chief. "Many people come here for our gold and we need to make sure you aren't here to do business" after a lengthy discussion, he allowed me to take a look at the mines. The mines were basically large pits manually dug out. Machines were not employed, just shovels, picks, buckets, sieves and bare hands.


 

Drenched in sweat and mud, workers were taking gravel and dirt to the river so they could sift through it to look for gold and diamonds. Over time, the iron-rich soil (iron is red) had turned the river completely red. One of the workers offered me some kola nuts which were incredibly bitter. They were not eating them for the taste, but to suppress hunger.

When gold is found, the proceeds are shared equally amongst the workers. This ensured no one would hide it and try to sell it on their own. They were also unaware of the actual price of gold on the international markets. The hard hitting reality is that six days a week under the punishing sun, these men and women plunge their aching bodies and shovels in seemingly bottomless pits of earth with complete disregard for health & safety, making a pittance for something whose purpose is merely to make a woman in another world gush, or to decorate some pompous person's bathroom.

The miners asked me to try panning for gold in the river, and I actually found a few tiny nuggets on my first attempt. Everyone started calling me "lucky guy" after that. Back in the village, everyone had heard, all the pregnant women asked to kiss their bellies hoping my "good luck" would rub off on their future offspring.


 

Rural Sierra Leone

We then went to a nearby village, where I was welcomed by kids screaming "Opoto! Opoto!" the local word for white man, even though I tried to explain I'm Moroccan, not so much an opoto. This village was virtually unchanged over the centuries, with no running water, no electricity, no telephones and little contact with the outside world. The villagers were mostly rice farmers.

Everyone was enthusiastic and excited at the opportunity to befriend a foreign stranger, they were very curious about Morocco and asking many questions. I was also invited to a gathering between the chief and the village representatives. After a while the chief was looking at me and said they would like me to say something too.
I spent the night in a mud brick house, but was kept awake by monkeys running amok on the straw roof.


 

Makeni

On the way back to Freetown, we stopped at Makeni for lunch. I was perplexed by the unexpectedly high number of shops with Arab names. "These are Lebanese diamond traders". When the Lebanese fled their country during the civil war, some came to West Africa for new opportunities. Just as the diamond business flourished, they found themselves in the right place at the right time, which means that today they control a lot of the trade of rough diamonds in Sierra Leone. So in the grand scheme of things, the miners do all the donkey work finding diamonds, the Lebanese pay them peanuts, before selling the diamonds to Jewish business people in Antwerp/New York/Tel Aviv, who then cut and polish them before they usually end up under the monopoly of DeBeers, the company which sells them all over the world.


 

Sierra Leone drivers

No one beats Sierra Leone drivers for originality, many decorate their cars with their own personalised tag lines.


 

Freetown

The capital city, Freetown, is a frenetic and crazy place that has no electricity at night. Traffic is a nightmare because just like in Morocco, there's no such thing as staying in your lane. Suleyman took me to his house to meet his family and neighbours. In Freetown, the lack of electricity means that on most evenings, people hang out with their neighbours since there are no TVs.

Once we were alone, I asked Suleyman about the civil war as it directly affected the village where he grew up.
"Those people had no mercy". "Every night we would hear the gunfire. Sometimes we would leave, but we always went back to our village. The rebels would come there looking for food, women, or children {to train as child soldiers}. They would take what they could find, destroy some things and then disappear into the bush again. I was very scared. Once, a rebel chased me but I escaped into the bush."
"One day, we were cooking close to the village. You have to be careful cooking because the rebels can see the smoke. Then some men came with guns. They made my dad walk up a hill. They had no ammo to shoot him, so they brutally murdered him with a fence post. I was captured but I managed to escape."

With no money, he set off for Freetown. He found a garage willing to take him on as an apprentice so he could learn to be a mechanic. But in Sierra Leone apprentices don't get paid, they have to pay the garage owner a cut.
"It was hard to get food. I would wash vehicles for people and they would give me just enough for a basic meal." This hand-to-mouth existence continued for several years until the day someone brought in a car that was very badly damaged. The garage said it was beyond repair. But Suleyman not only fixed the car - he did such a good job that it led to work as a driver. Roads in Sierra Leone are in bad shape, so someone who can drive and fix cars is very much in demand. He then landed a job driving for a government institution.
"My only desire now is to educate my children." He sees a different dilemma brewing "I want a European woman, but I don't want to lie and tell her I am not married. But she may not want me if I already have a wife. I only want a European woman so she can take my son to a university in Europe."


 

As I looked back on my way to the airport, it was hard to believe that just 10 years earlier, a bloody war took place along the same roads I was on, that the very same people who were running to me with big smiles on their faces were probably running in fear from murderers and rapists carrying guns and machetes. I'd be hard pressed to find anyone more resilient.

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