Sierra Leone & Liberia


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Africa » Sierra Leone
April 28th 2018
Published: May 1st 2018
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“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous

Traveling through Africa takes some getting used to. It’s like all the elements come together nicely to make it almost unbearable to think let along travel. From the heat, humidity, rain to the more cultural blocks like language, customs and one of the big ones for me: African time.

From previous blogs I have noted that time here beats to a different drum. A bus leaves when full not at a set time; this bugged me. As a westerner time is a strict constraint, one that sits outside of me that’s objective, measureable and linear. To a degree it’s a savior because we all follow it but in a sense we are also a slave to it. To exist and function I need to observe its ironclad rules. I create and stick to my calendar, calling out those whom are not on-time and getting my own back when I am not, gosh I even have to schedule in rest time! Because of this I have to move within the rigors of time, I cannot exist without it. This creates a unresolved conflict between man and time, one that I will never win. In the end time always wins and I will run out of it eventually.

Now the African approaches time differently. For them it is a much looser, more open concept; it is man whom influences time. Time is manifest through events and whether it takes place or not depends, after all on man. It appears as a result of our actions and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. In other words it’s subservient. This means practically that if you show up for a meeting at the appointed time, it will begin when people come not at the time stated on the invite. They believe things will happen when the actors are set, otherwise you wait; any other behavior is delusional. So wait I do.... for everything. At first this killed me as I was always in a hurry. Now it is just part of life and to be honest I am enjoying the lack of rigidity. It is to a degree freeing and not being a slave to what I need to schedule in because yes, time will always win.

Sierra Leone

After crossing the ridiculously bad road from Guinea the instant I hit Sierra Leone we are on smooth tarmac. As soon as I cross that border the demands for bribes disappear, people are speaking English and a look of friendliness appears on their faces (previously it was more about give me money).

Sierra Leone was a former British colony. The capital Freetown was the main British command post for its slave operations up this coast. When slavery was outlawed Britain made moves to relocate freed slaves from North America to here; hence the name Free-town. This seemed like a good idea at the time however the freed slaves called Krios took on air of superiority over the other indigenous tribes throughout the area. Discrimating against them and treating them as 2nd class citizens even though they look the same and had similar ancestry. This led to conflicts that continues to this day and continues to divide rather than unite the country.

Firstly Freetown is stunning. It is like a African version of Rio. Tall high sided mountains with shantytowns hanging on for dear life. I book into an Airbnb run by an Englishman overlooking the sea and relax. Running along the beautiful Lumley beach in the morning, having fresh seafood on the water and shopping at actual supermarkets. It’s a time to really recharge the batteries. I even visit one of the most beautiful beaches in the world - River #2. It was the scene for a Bounty bar tropical commercial from 1987, before the war came.

Sierra Leone was once a prosperous country, it had genuine material wealth in the ground (diamonds/gold), the oldest university in West Africa and a thriving expat and tourism industry. However this all came tumbling down when the continuous oppression of the indigenous people reached boiling point. During the 80s there were continuous coups; 3 in one year even (an African record). Different rebel groups from different originating tribes started to seize large swathes of land. Come the 1990s and the civil war really started. One of the most brutal parties the Revolution United Front captured vast tracts of land including the diamond and gold fields with looting, robbery, mutilation and summary execution. For those whom have not seen the movie Blood diamond, it paints a brutal picture of this time period. For me this is still real when you see the victims of the mutilations (google short or long sleeves Sierra Leone) walking the markets, begging for food. In all 50,000 people perished in the war and 1million people were displaced from 1991-2005. Then barely having time to recoverfrom the war Ebola hit in 2014 ravaging this already impoverished nation. This country once a prosperous country reduced to ashes.

After my time in Freetown I head to the stunning Banana islands. They are just off the coast and a mere 1hr from the capital. I have been lucky enough to be the guest of the owner of the Bafa Resort. Through random luck the wife of one of my cousins is related to the owner and through this coincidence I find myself on a 30min boat to paradise. The resort is a glamping spot and I spend my days in a hammock and sleeping in a luxury tent, travel does have its perks. Fresh fish and lobster. Ok so this is no joke, some French people started complaining because they had only lobster for lunch for the last 3 days; whoa what a great problem to have! This was a wonderful reset for me, swimming, yoga on the beach and being forced to slow down was a godsend, thanks Bafa and Banana islands!

With the islands behind me I begin my long traverse of the country. Along my way I stop at a transit town called Waterloo and spend the night with the famous Sierra Leone musician Ayodele Scott. Ayo is a local whom through music trained in London and traveled the world. He is a Sierra Leonian at heart and has decided to move back to his country to begin its rebuild. Since arriving in here I have found it hard not to get caught up in the sadness of its past. However with people like Ayo coming back there is hope. Ayo is someone whom could live anywhere he chooses to rebuild his country. With a new president being elected whom is a champion for the poor and champion for one nation together I see hope returning to this determined people.

My next transit stop across the country is at the diamond town of Bo. If you want diamonds or want to see what they are truly worth, come to Sierra Leone. Everyone has them but can’t really do anything with them other than sell them for a pittance to the local buyers. They are mostly uncut large rocks of questionable value but they are everywhere and reinforce how great a job the diamond corporate mafia do at controlling flow so westerners pay top dollar. As a tourist you can buy them but you need a license, interesting none the less.

”It’s not down in any map; true places never are. Herman Melville”

Last stop for me in Sierra Leone is the stunning Tiwai Island. I practice my waiting skills at the mini van station for the taxi to fill up. Three hours later and only one passenger. That’s no good so I charter a motorbike taxi for the same price and 2 hours later am there; so am practicing patience but only for so long! Tiwai is one of the last great tracts virgin rainforest in West Africa. It is a large island in the middle of the Moa river and abounds in wildlife with the highest concentration of primates in the world. Here again I spend my days laying by the water in a hammock amongst few spurts of hiking to see the monkeys. The life is easy here and like other places I have been to I am the only traveller staying where there is capacity for many more.

From Tiwai to the border the roads become really horrible, it goes right through the jungle. This is a possible future trade route linking with Liberia and again I see the Chinese investing and building roads in Africa. This international road is immense and once completed in 2020 will enable heavy trucks to link the two partnering countries. However until that day it takes 4 hours on the back of a motorbike to get to the border. It is a tough ride and I’m not even driving. I see cars attempting the road, it will take them twice as long that’s if they even make it.

So that brings my journey through Sierra Leone to a close. Upon delving into the history of this place it was hard to see a good side, just the destruction the wars caused. It destroyed numerous people’s lives and it only happened very recently in the 1990s. The gunshots and machete slashing is still ringing in people’s ears. I am however heartened and blown away by the people’s perseverance and tenacity to rebuild. What I saw wasn’t a people just wallowing but one where hope was growing. With a new president, new agenda, expats/locals and tourists flocking back the mood is buoyant. It has a stunning landscape and the people are some of the nicest I have ever met. I think after going through a tragedy like that you either shut down or stand up, and the 2nd option is exactly what they are doing.

Liberia

When I mention to people that I am going to Liberia the answer is always the same: Why? Even the Liberians themselves seem to get confused as to why a tourist would want to visit their shores. I kept getting asked “what is your mission in Liberia?” and when I answer tourism it is like it was an inadequate response; it’s like no sane person would choose to travel here!

“Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.“ - Kurt Vonnegut

Liberia is a country that has a strange history. It is unlike anything else out there and it is unbelievable that it even exists. Liberia as a nation was formed in the early 1800’s by returning freed slaves from America. The US under the guise of wanting to send its slaves back home chose a slice of West Africa to do it. They migrated a large population of former slaves to this land for them to setup and established their own country; the name Liberia (named after Liberty). There are many irony’s in the first part of this story The main one was that to establish a colony the ethnic Africans of the area were subdued and pushed into the interior (not unlike the Middle East) and secondly that the former slaves took slaves from the indigenous groups. They are of the same color and same founding race however the freed slaves (called Krios as well) had again an air of superiority about them, they were the more enlightened version. As time went on and the apparent irony of this became clear the slavery of the indigenous population was outlawed however in its place a early form of “same-color” apartheid was established. Krios were the only ones whom could become citizens and vote the indigenous could not. Krios where the only ones whom could attend school and receive benefits from the state. It just seems it’s human nature no matter what color they are is to rule and conquer. This led to growing discontentment by the indigenous people and set the nation on a crash course that took shape in the 80s-2000s in the form of civil war.

I enter Liberia and instantly recognize the American twang of English. In my shared taxi from the border I share it with locals and a well known pastor. Everyone here wants to let me know about the history of the country and also wants to hear about New Zealand. They are very interested in our new prime minister being a young female leader whom is pregnant however they feel I should be carrying a photo of her in my wallet; ok weird! I also get the modern version of subsequent Liberian events. In the 1980s/90s the first of two brutal civil wars took place where the leader of the indigenous rebel army, the now infamous Charles Taylor ripped through the country on a killing rampage. This country that was extremely prosperous at the time descended into anarchy overnight. The Indigenous army started killing the Krios and then their own on a mass scale, figures put it at over 500,000 were killed in the 1st civil war alone between 1989-97. Many Krios fled the country as did foreign expats as the group succeeded in ousting the former military dictator. The execution and torture video of the former president Samuel Doe is online and my friends in the taxi comment “You must check it out they say, it is particularly brutal when they cut off his ears”; ummm pass! After peace, fighting resumed in 1999-2003 where more struggles for power meant a further 250,000 were killed. Staggering numbers and after this Ebola hit.

Arriving in Monrovia is an experience, it’s a big mess. Everywhere there are decaying shells of buildings. I check into my Airbnb and am recommend to not walk outside after dark so I chat to the owner a Krio called Annette. She stayed in Liberia through the war while others fled and reminisces about how prosperous the country was prior to it. This fact comes to a crashing realization when I visit the famous 5 Star Ducor hotel that sits on the highest point in the capital. It was built in the 1960s and was the most luxurious hotel in all West Africa. It had everything, pool, tennis court, French restaurant and even full air conditioning. Famous leaders from around Africa came to marvel at this place and became a symbol of the prosperity of the country. Now it is a derelict bombsite (see more here https://www.efe.com/efe/english/life/the-ducor-hotel-former-5-star-in-liberia-lies-rack-and-ruin/50000263-3399723). It was used during the war as a sniper post and since been completely looted. However for me visiting this place really showed how far Liberia had fallen. Liberia once was great however the suddenness of its fall from grace really was awakening to me. This place for me wasn’t just a cool abandoned space it was an insight into how things change. It makes you realize that situations you take for granted in your home country cpuld change instantly and for the worse, so what are you doing to preserve it.

Now I really only have one mission here (instead of travel) and that is to get my Ghana visa. This is quick and painless so I move Airbnb’s and head to one of the nicest mansions in the embassy district and hang out with Mike and his family. Mike is a Krio from North Carolina and his father was the former head of the Liberian police in the 70s/80s. Through Mike I manage to swindle a appointment with the mayor of the city the following day. So at a fixed time a car comes and collects me from the mansion. I wear my best clothes that I had been saving and try to clean all the dirt out of my shoes from the motorbike border crossing. We travel to the mayors office and I am introduced to the right honorable Pam Taylor. We had a deeply engaging conversation about Liberia’s past but also it’s future and she was very interested in NZs path. She was generous enough to give up 45mins of her time for the meeting in which I took some real heart around the future for Liberia. With a new president whom came from the poor the future agenda looks promising. Liberia has all the wealth under the ground anyone would need in the form of gold, diamonds, ore and above the ground in rich forests and fresh water. Trick is how do you leverage these for the better of the country. The new agenda for Liberia I am told is about creating nationhood rather than tribe-hood. The official press photographer is there taking pages of notes that I sign off and after photos I am whisked back home, what a cool experience.

Before I leave Liberia I head to the remote and crazy place that is Monkey island. Here chimps that were infected with deadly diseases for testing purposes roam a island in the jungle. Their story is crazy in that these animals helped find a cure for Hep A before being sent to this island to live out their days.. For more info check out this doco here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=69LDbyl4Xjs. From the capital I head out on a motorbike to the village of Marshal and arrange a boat for the journey. We load up on fruit from the market (we buy every piece of fruit they had!) and head out to see them. After an hour or so we see the island and come face to face with these great creatures. They look realitively healthy however they have scars and sores all over their body from the testing. Visiting these animals bought a tinge of sadness however the fact that they are now thriving gives me some hope.

When I think about Sierra Leone and Liberia they were always two destinations that stood apart from the rest. Like other west African counties they started as slave stations however they both took severe turns dissimilar from the rest. True many were brutalized by wars, corruption and fighting over precious resources but that’s where the similarity normally stops. Unlike the rest they had succeeded in creating a bar that was set high to start. There are a lot of never were’s In West’s Africa however these two were thriving coming into the modern era. This fact alone is what made the fall from grace more alarming than I have come across before. It is a distinct wake up call that this could happen anywhere no matter how stable ones country appears and it’s up to me, the individual to ensure it stays that way and no one else.

With all the atrocities to the side however I can see that the fighting spirit of the people is showing through. With both countries having new leaders and on their agenda is improving the lives of the poor, unifying the nation rather than tribalism and working out how to turn the wealth that they hold in the ground into prosperity for all. This gives me hope for these two countries as they have some real unique value to give the world. They are both visually and culturally stunning and some of the nicest people in the world live here. When asked previously why I chose to travel these countries I was unsure of my answer. Now with the benefit of hindsight I can reply with 100% confidence a resounding - Why not.... they are pretty special. Just goes to show that sometimes the most bizarre plans work out to be the absolute best ones.

Thanks for reading. Next stop I take my first flight in 2mths to fly over the impenetrable jungle of Liberia to Ivory Coast and it’s capital Abidjan.



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1st May 2018

Enjoying the history lesson
Gosh it's a real history lesson for me Sean, reading your blogs. This is fascinating stuff and great you're getting to know so much about the countries you're passing through. It's a pity you don't have a film crew following you on this trip! Stay safe and I look forward to reading about the Ivory Coast! Cheers, Lisa
2nd May 2018
The monkey island apes, incredible story

Planet of the Apes
This island is such a perfect literal and metaphorical representation of all the brutal realities you've discussed in this blog. If the other primates were to unite and rise up against humans, I think I'd have to take their side...we've been pretty crap guardians of earth :/
2nd May 2018

It just seems it’s human nature no matter what colour they are is to rule and conquer.
Fascinating and informative blog Shaun. That former slaves from the Americas (Krios) can be shipped into Sierra Leone and Liberia and suppress the indigenous locals is a bizarre backflip in fortunes. Reminds me of the diary of Mungo Park who was one of the first westerner explorers (he was Scottish) in West Africa and his observations of slavery and servitude for debts in black cultures. Your blog has made me sit and think of the sometimes cruel foibles of the human nature.
3rd May 2018

Follow you around Western Africa
Glad we've discovered your blogs. I'll have to go back and read some of the older ones. Well written balance of history and adventures. Looks like you are having a great time and enjoying the hammocks.

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