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Island hopping in Sierra Leone: "falling in love with Freetown requires a different way of seeing. Upcountry, men digging for diamonds in the riverbeds train their eyes to find the gems hidden in the mud. So it is with Freetown." Kate Eshelby went "island hopping" in Sierra Leone and brought us this report.

IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY, USE THE life jackets," the captain announces as the helicopter shudders and shakes noisily into the ink-black sky. "That always makes me laugh," shouts Ali, another passenger, above the din. "Because there aren't any." And there aren't any seatbelts either.

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The helicopter swirls into the hot air, the propeller a whirring white, like a glow-stick, its red beams the only visible light in the darkness. Muggy air pours in, with several of the helicopter windows flung open on their rusty hinges, devil-may-care style. It is exciting, a night-time flight into the unknown.

Helicopters are one of several unusual ways into Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone--where the airport's separation from the city by a river cuts out the simple option of a taxi. Ali is a wealthy Lebanese diamond dealer who was born and raised in Sierra Leone. As the country shot to fame with the film Blood Diamond it seems ironical that he is the first person I meet. He is a fascinating man, grey-haired, with a large mole on his nose, and kindly provides one of his drivers to take me to the Country Lodge Hotel, where I am booked in.

Sierra Leone is now stable after its 10-year civil war ended in 2002 and is desperate for tourism to begin again (tourism was thriving here in the 1980s and the country's powder-white beaches are where the Bounty chocolate ad was filmed). I had decided to come and see the country's potential in the aftermath of its brutal war, which left a shattered infrastructure and economy. Sierra Leone is now one of the world's poorest countries, and no longer holds its title as the Athens of Africa but it is trying to revive itself.

Driving to the hotel, the roads are potholed, and traders sit at the roadside in huddles around their flickering lamps or inside their little candle-lit street stalls. The hotel is up in the peaceful hills above the ragged, seething tumble of Freetown, in an old British hill station, with spectacular views of both the city and the ocean dipping below. Sierra Leone is a former British colony, and it is here that their administrators once lived.

"This used to be a whites-only area, with its own railway to bring the workers up each day," Mohamed, the driver, explains. The large wooden houses all teeter on high stilts, with shuttered windows and latticed stairwells. The sun-intensive years have taken their toll and some lie empty, others have local families living in them now.

Freetown was initially called the province of freedom, created as a home for emancipated slaves. In 1787, the area of land on which the city languishes was bought for slaves who had gained freedom by fighting for the British in the American War of Independence.

Krio, Sierra Leone's spoken language, is a hybrid--consisting of broken English and various African languages brought over by the slaves. Wherever I walk people greet me charismatically with it: "Ow di bodi?"

Freetown is a beguiling city to explore, with markets full of carved Picassoesque wooden masks and twisting hilly streets, offering a lucky dip of sea vistas or gatherings of colourfully painted Creole houses. And it makes a refreshing escape from the mundane multinational business chains increasingly familiar in most big cities (here the only one is Western Union).

As the writer, Aminatta Forna, wrote, "Falling in love with Freetown requires a different way of seeing. Upcountry, men digging for diamonds in the riverbeds train their eyes to find the gems hidden in the mud. So it is with Freetown."

As evening approaches, my guide Edward and I wander up Mount Aureol for views of the town, passing Fourah Bay College, West Africa's first university. "Tony Blair is our hero," Edward unexpectedly exclaims. "His father used to live here and taught at this university in the 1960s."

It was Britain and the UN's triumphant intervention that finally helped to end the war--for which Blair is venerated. There are still British soldiers here, training Sierra Leone's military.

Having spent the day wandering in the sweltering heat, we head for Alex's. Passing the two-mile stretch of Lumley Beach, it is hard to imagine that we are in a capital city as a line of fishermen haul in long nets, chanting as they work. Alex's is a romantic alfresco restaurant, candle-lit, and overlooking the lapping water of Man O' War bay. While we dine on fresh fish a man appears in the water, juggling and eating fire; Sierra Leone never ceases to surprise, it is a place where people will do anything in the hope of money.

The following morning we leave for Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone's largest, sitting off its coastline in the country's south. Sierra Leone has several small islands, and island hopping here is a wonderful exercise, the same as in places such as Greece.

The boat leaves from a tiny ramshackle village called Yagoi. To reach here we travel along roads of red soil, passing vivid green landscape, and the usual NGO signs encouraging HIV tests or the sending of girls to school. A gaggle of girls walk past, meticulously dressed in sailor-lookalike school uniforms, bright white and ironed.

On the journey, we skirt several intriguing home-woven fences made of grass. "These mark the boundaries of [areas of] sacred Poro bush. Walking near them is forbidden," Edward explains. "The Poro are secret societies, who are an influential part of Sierra Leone, and being in one protects you from fetishes and witches."

Throughout my stay I see several helmet-shaped Bundu devil masks--worn by members of the female secret societies. "Poro members have to spend weeks or months in the forest as part of their initiation," Edward continues. "No questions can be asked about their time spent there."

From Yagoi, the boat takes us to Bonthe, the capital of Sherbro. Approaching its crumbling wharf, there is still evidence of the town's former grandeur, when it was a vibrant, thriving port for the export of local produce, and many Britons used to live there. It was particularly well known for the trade of palm nuts and piassava, a palm fibre used to make brooms in the traditional way.

A man in a woollen hat unloads bundles of piassava from another boat on to a wooden cart and I follow behind him, up the town's main street. "This is one of the best-planned towns in Sierra Leone," Edward says. Bonthe reminds me of Zanzibar in its coastal tropical setting, with each street punctuated by impressive colonial buildings, steeped in history and in a state of ruin, adding to the mysterious beauty. "During the 1800s and 1900s it was a fascinating place, full of British missionaries and priests," Edward continues.

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There is unexpected luxury at the Bonthe Holiday Village, a hidden gem, and more enticing than the name suggests. I walk in and am instantly greeted by the manager, a welcoming Hungarian named Gabor. Although aimed at sports fishermen, it is a delightful, characterful place for anyone to stay, with just six very spacious rondavels to sleep in.

The central outdoor bar is surrounded by a tropical garden, overlooking the sea, and is ideal for barbecues--"if we had guests," Gabor adds with a grin. During my stay, there were no other tourists on the island, so this idyllic spot was all mine. We drank freshly-squeezed fruit juices together, while chatting about life on the island.

"The fish in these waters are amazing, guests can catch jacks, snappers, barracuda and grouper," Gabor boasts.

He shows me the hotel's enormous vegetable garden which he proudly began; the chef now uses the fresh produce in his cooking.

"There is no agriculture elsewhere on the island, everything has to come from Freetown," Gabor says. "And yet if more locals had the know-how, vegetables could be grown like here."

There is an authentic British telephone box in the hotel's entrance; very incongruous on this remote island.

Early the following morning, as the island wakes, I explore Bonthe. The locals live in a mixture of Creole and time-worn colonial houses of fading colours, although they seem to live their lives more outdoors: two men lift homemade weights, a family brush their teeth over some tropical flowers and women diligently sweep outside their homes. The town is peaceful and relaxed, there are no cats on the island and people go about on bikes. The town has many magnificent churches; one is particularly impressive with vibrant stained glass in its gothic windows, and the years have let nature in, with roots framing arches and ferns growing through the roof.

Nearby, fresh bread is sold under a cotton tree and then wrapped in newspaper, and one of the mud houses acts as a local cinema, with a handwritten sheet of paper advertising this evening's action video on the door. The streets are sandy; and the long main street is lined with rusting wrought-iron lampposts and the verandahs of its former commercial buildings.

I find the building which houses the island's radio station, having seen locals walking around with radios pressed to their ears. For an outlying and relatively small island, it seems incredible that they have their own radio station. "We were given the equipment by a Danish NGO," one of the presenters that I meet tells me.

I enter one of Bonthe's few bars, a small open-fronted room with a single umbrella for shade and chairs out on the sandy street. I start chatting to a man called Benjamin who was born on the island. Although he now lives in Freetown, he still has a house here and is back for a visit.

"I have been living for the past 30 years in the US but the president encouraged me to return to my home country," Benjamin explains. "I want to help develop my country and plan to invest in palm oil cultivation. Bonthe is a special place. Our first two presidents were from here, and we have the oldest hospital in Sierra Leone."

After a couple of days in Bonthe, I move on to the Turtle islands, an archipelago of unspoilt islands, barely touched by man, and four hours from Sherbro by boat. Throughout the journey we pass nothing bur the open sea. The islands are far-flung and when they finally appear, their appearance is breathtaking: a handful of tiny emerald-green islands in sparkling water.

The boat driver turns off the motor and we cruise past the island's mangrove fringes. One pirogue (a kind of flat-bottomed boat) skates across the water's surface like a graceful winged insect, from which a man and his young child fish. Another couple of pirogues have sails made ingeniously from plastic bags that billow like parachutes.

We moor the boat on a deserted beach on Bakie, one of the islands, with postcard white sand; and set up camp. Dinner is delicious fresh fish cooked over our campfire. The following morning, however, the bliss is broken. Waking early, I walk the short distance to the water's edge to watch the sunrise, and return just minutes later to discover my tent has been cut open. Being a journalist, my cameras are valuable and to my horror the whole bag of them has been stolen. It suddenly feels like Lord of the Flies.

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I run to the village to tell the chief, who is dressed in a long gown and embroidered hat, and ask for all boats leaving for Freetown to be stopped (a couple of boats depart each day laden with fish and baskets of lobsters for sale), and desperately seek out the island's only policeman. Together we jump on and off all boats searching all the bewildered-looking islanders' bags.

"This theft is terrible. We are trying to recover from war, and want tourists, so why is someone trying to stop us moving forward and having a better future?" one villager shouts, running up the beach in anger. That evening an all-night meeting begins to discuss the situation, and the community youth leaders gather together. The following morning, one of the islanders jubilantly walks up the beach, the camera bags slung on his back; they have suddenly been "found" in the bushes.

From then on I have a guard by my tent, and am able to freely explore the island. It is encircled by a wide hem of beach, with palm trees lolloping over the sand, and for miles nothing for company except scatterings of crabs. Returning to the chief's house, I find a wooden chair on his porch with the date 1961 carved on it. "Queen Elizabeth stayed here," he says proudly. Each morning, watching the fishermen is a restful pasttime. The pirogues shoot out to sea like arrows, and the men laboriously steer them over the tumultuous waves. Slowly the sea fills with boats, and the fishermen's silhouettes cut a shape in the early morning light.

Those who have returned are busy shaking out their nets, and silver fish fall on to the sand. Giant lobsters can be bought for just a couple of pounds and then cooked on the beach--it is delicious scooping out the succulent meat with my hands, and eating it with rice.

On my final day, we go out on our boat to explore one of the other islands, which is uninhabited, and is a popular nesting area for the archipelago's turtles. "The islands have recently launched a turtle project," says Edward. "Green turtles and olive ridley [turtles] live here."

The island is a mini paradise, a strip of white sand licked by bath-clear turquoise sea. I wander along the sand, contentedly collecting huge and beautiful shells.

Leaving the archipelago that evening, all I can see are a couple of the islanders' straw roofs poking out among the trees.

Back at Freetown, I meet up with Cecil Williams, head of Sierra Leone's National Tourism Board, to ask him about his country's plans for tourism. "The only good thing from the war is that we are now starting tourism afresh," he says. "We can look at other West African countries like The Gambia and learn from their mistakes. We want to do responsible, sustainable tourism and not mass-market tourism and big hotels," he continues.

I am thrilled to hear this. Still a relatively unexplored territory, Sierra Leone is full of adventure, glistening like the diamonds beneath its ground--if you are willing to look for it. The country still has a long way to go, but it is safe and recovering after being lacerated by war. "The people have learnt their lesson and will never let the same thing happen again," Edward says emphatically. Yes, Sierra Leone may not run like clockwork, but it shines brightly, and quickly weaves its magic, drawing you into its embrace.
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Title Annotation:SIERRA LEONE
Author:Eshelby, Kate
Publication:New African
Article Type:Country overview
Geographic Code:6SIER
Date:May 1, 2010
Words:2470
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