Sierra Leone trip report, things to do and see in Sierra Leone

 

Sierra Leone



"Votre visa sera prêt dans 1 semaine". "Je ne peux pas prendre un jour de congé la semaine prochaine, ne puis-je pas l'avoir plus tôt?" J'ai demandé. "Ok, reviens après le déjeuner". En ce qui concerne les demandes de visa, l'ambassade de Sierra Leone est l'une des ambassades les plus accommodantes.
La Sierra Leone est l'une de ces destinations uniques dont vous ne pouvez même pas en exprimer des attentes. Ce petit coin de l'Afrique de l'Ouest est plus connu pour les diamants de sang, les enfants soldats, une guerre civile brutale, et plus récemment éreinté par la crise de l'Ébola, il n'est donc naturellement pas envahi par les touristes.

L'aéroport de Freetown est sur un estuaire, pour me rendre à la ville je devais prendre un petit bateau "Taxi aquatique" qui a coûté $40. Avec les eaux agitées et le bateau crachant des fumées suffocantes, la course était loin d'être agréable. Mon ami Suleyman m'avait arrangé un hôtel "authentique", ce qui signifiait une chambre exiguëe avec quelques cafards, et 30 minutes d'électricité avant que le générateur n'est tombé en panne.

 

Mines d'or et de diamants

Nous avons commencé la journée avec un traget de 5 heures dans un village où ils extraient de l'or et des diamants. C'était une route lisse jusqu'à Magburaka, puis la route goudronnée a été rejetée loin dans la réflexion du rétroviseur tandis que nous sommes allés à travers les collines de terre massives et plusieurs passages à travers la forêt. Il me semblait inconcevable que nous étions effectivement dirigés vers quelque chose.


 

Quand nous avons atteint le village, on m'a présenté au chef. "Beaucoup de gens viennent ici pour notre or et nous devons nous assurer que vous n'êtes pas ici pour faire des affaires". Après une longue discussion, il m'a permis de jeter un regard sur les mines.
Les mines étaient essentiellement de grandes fosses creusées manuellement. Les machines ne sont pas employés, seulement des pelles, des pioches, des seaux, tamis et mains nues.


 

Trempé de sueur et de boue, les travailleurs prenaient le gravier et la terre à la rivière afin qu'ils puissent passer au crible à la recherche de l'or et des diamants. Au fil du temps, le sol riche en fer (le fer est rouge) avait rendu la rivière complètement en rouge. Un des travailleurs m'a offert quelques noix de kola qui étaient incroyablement amer. Ils ne les mangeaient pas pour le goût, mais pour combattre la faim.

Quand de l'or est trouvé, les recettes sont partagées également entre les travailleurs. Celà garanti que personne ne serait cacher et essayera de le vendre par lui même. ils ne savaient pas également le prix de l'or sur les marchés internationaux.
Mais la réalité percutante est que durant six jours par semaine, sous le soleil punissant, ces hommes et femmes plongent leurs corps endoloris et leurs pelles dans des fosses apparemment inépuisables avec un mépris total pour la santé et la sécurité, pour en gagner une bouchée de pain pour quelque chose dont le but est simplement de faire une femme dans un autre monde jaillir, ou pour décorer la salon d'une personne vaniteuse.


 

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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