By Samirah Siddiqui
I spent a month in Freetown, Sierra Leone, working with The Collective, a capacity building social enterprise, and Conscience International, a West African human rights NGO. Sierra Leone is one of West Africa’s true hidden gems – rich in natural resources, with a stunning coastline and brilliant people. For the uninitiated, the country’s name evokes images of blood diamonds and child soldiers. Just as it shrugged off this violent reputation, it was struck by the Ebola outbreak which has tarnished its image once again. For me, Sierra Leone is synonymous with unmatched beauty, hope and resilience. Here are some of the unforgettable highlights from my sojourn in Sierra Leone.
(Above): Freetown Harbour
Clouds hugging the rippling hills parted as our ferry drew closer to reveal the rumbling city rising from the murky ocean. The terracotta hills, inlayed with pastel shanties and topped with lush rainforest, came to life as I clambered over baskets of live chickens and mangoes to step in to Freetown. Legend has it, Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra named the hills enveloping the city’s stunning natural harbour Serra da Leoa, Portuguese for Lioness Mountain. The apt moniker stuck, and a lifetime of adaptation and misspelling became the country’s official name.
(Above): 3 Boys on a Bike
Locals have nicknamed their home “Swit Salone” in Krio, the melodious amalgam of English,indigenous African languages and Creole spoken by the Krios, descendants of returned slaves from the West Indies, United States and Britain. Sierra Leoneans eschew the need to complain and even their greetings reflect their sanguine, resilient nature. Popular responses to “Aw Di bodi?” (How are you?) were “Ah tel God tenki!” (I tell God thank you!) or “Ah de foh’on en grap” (I fell down but I got up).
I celebrated Eid al-Fitr in Freetown. A predominantly Muslim country (estimated 77 per cent Muslim, 21 per cent Christian and 2 per cent traditional African faiths), Sierra Leone is regarded a poster boy for religious tolerance as Muslims and Christians live together harmoniously. Eid was celebrated by the whole community with feasts attended by Muslims and Christians alike, including these mischievous twin boys.
This store front is an amusing example of religious harmony in Sierra Leone. The stores name “B.K. ENTERPRISES” is flanked by the Muslim proclamation of “ALLAH IS GREAT” and the biblical allusion and motto of the United States, “IN GOD WE TRUST”. The Ebola outbreak, which ravaged the country and took nearly 4000 lives between 2014 – 2016, tested cultural and religious sensitivities surrounding burial rites. Bereaved families had to be held back from the bodies of their deceased loved ones as Ebola victims are most infectious after death. As Muslims, Christians and indigenous beliefs each have specific burials, this strengthened inter-faith harmony even further as Sierra Leoneans supported each other through the crisis.
(Below): Conscience International – Adult Learning Programme
I was working with Conscience International, a human rights organization focusing on a community-led women’s adult literacy programme and environmental initiatives. Education was severely disrupted by the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991 – 2002) which displaced innumerable people and led to the destruction of thousands of schools across the country. I interviewed some of the beneficiaries of Conscience International and saw how the learning centres changed their lives irrevocably. You can read my interviews with these inspirational ladies here http://cisl.weebly.com/beneficiaries.html
(Above): Bureh Beach
On a grim, grey weekend, we drove to the outskirts of Freetown to the picturesque tropical village of Bureh Beach. Almost as if it was expecting us, the sun came out just as we arrived. Picture the verdant rainforest with a cusp of pristine, soft white sand greeting the rolling waves. Home to Bureh Beach Surf Club, Sierra Leones first and only surf club, Bureh adds to the growing eco-tourism industry by offering accommodation, some of the best food around and superb company. We camped under the stars and sampled red snapper grilled in banana leaf.
(Left): Bureh Beach:
Sleeping and waking to the sounds of the waves is a treasured memory. It was sad to hear that even the idyllic Bureh Beach wasn’t spared by the Ebola outbreak. The Surf Club depended on the steady trail of tourists as a vital source of income for the village. As the Ebola crisis worsened, this trail thinned and came to a halt. Now the crisis is over, intrepid travelers are beginning to explore its shores once again.
Everyone who heard of my love for wildlife recommended a visit to Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a rehabilitation facility for confiscated, orphaned and abandoned chimpanzees that aims to release them back in to their natural habitat. Chimpanzees are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and face a high risk of extinction in the wild. Despite a ban on hunting, capturing, trading or owning chimpanzees in Sierra Leone, these practices continue unheeded. Tacugama was established in 1995 by Bala and Sharmila Amarasekaran, who once rescued a weak and sick baby chimpanzee and realized the urgent need for a rehabilitation centre. The sanctuary now cares for around 85 chimpanzees in a number of forested enclosures. They focus on the protection and conservation of chimpanzees through education programmes, community sensitization, field research and legal reinforcement.
(Above): Agama lizard and 16 Orb Weaving Spider
Freetown was alive with all kinds of creatures. Besides the chimpanzees, other memorable wildlife encounters included the tumbu fly, a blow-fly parasitic of large mammals during its larval stage, that burrowed in to the subcutaneous fat on my unlucky housemates’ lower back. I had to spend the best part of an afternoon extracting them from her skin. I also met this terrifyingly stunning orb weaving spider from a safe distance and this remarkable male agama lizard that are known for showing off by flashing colourful hues from red, yellow and blue to attract females and ward of competitors.
Since I visited three years ago, Sierra Leone went through another chapter in its tumultuous history. Slowly, the pieces are being put back together. The World Bank reported developments in the socio-economic impact of Ebola with increased employment rates, more school-aged children returning to school and improvements in food security. The poor healthcare was shocked out of complacency and a robust system is now being developed to benefit the whole country and NGOs and aid workers are flooding back to provide expert assistance. I am still in touch with my old colleagues at Conscience International who are well and have been active in the battle against Ebola throughout. Despite its troubles, positive stories of perseverant, tough spirited Sierra Leoneans continue to emerge as the country moves past the crisis. In true Salonian fashion, Sierra Leone can safely say “Ah de foh’on en grap”. It fell down but it’s getting up again.
Samirah Siddiqui is Conservation Assistant for WWF-Pakistan and was previously working in Zambia for DFID’s International Citizens Service.