5 September, 2013
Is Sierra Leone safe? Ten years after British military intervention and almost 50 years since independence, Photojournalist and Flash Pack co-founder, Lee Thompson visits the once war-torn Sierra Leone and gets more than he bargained for.

Before I get to the part where one visit to Sublime Sierra Leone changed the course of my life forever, let’s clear up a few things. If you believe every word the world media tells you, then it’s about time I let you in on a little insider secret. Not everything is “as seen on TV”.

My work as a Photojournalist has taken me all over the world, but I’m still a little ashamed to admit that I hesitated, but only for a second, when model Tali Lennox asked me to accompany her to Sierra Leone in 2011. My mission, (if I chose to accept it…) was to document the amazing work Christian Aid was doing to alleviate poverty in West Africa. 2 minutes on Google later I realised that my idea of Sierra Leone was 12 years out of date and I humbly accepted. After a five hour flight from London we touched down at Freetown Airport and adventure was immediately afoot! Unlike other countries where you would hail a taxi, in Sierra Leone  you jump on a 30-minute “Love Boat” and cruise along the coastline listening to the Titanic theme and a quirky variety of other, even soppier, love songs.

We arrived in Freetown at twilight and I had the distinct impression that we had crashed some sort of Bob Marley festival. The streets were lined with smiling faces and everyone seemed genuinely happy to see us. In one of those slow motion moments when time seems to slow down, I heard old Bob singing “Everything gonna be alright” at the exact moment my feet sank into the powder soft beach sand. I felt my resistance melt away with the blazing sunset and knew that this trip was going to be special.

The aroma of chargrilled seafood and freshly baked bread led us through the bustling city centre to Alex’s Beach Bar and Restaurant where we refuelled on monster prawn and Star beer. We even had time for a quick game of pool before heading to our lodgings for the night. Little did I know that I would be staying in a proper treehouse in the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

After an early breakfast, we set off on a leisurely hike to Charlotte falls, which was magnificent, but nothing compared to spending time with some of the 5,500 endangered chimps that the sanctuary cares for. Hours became seconds and soon it was time to hit the bumpy road to Rogbonko Village for the “quintessential tribal village” experience.

As we walked into the small village we seemed to amass more smiling children with every step. The younger kids, obviously not used to seeing tourists, hid behind trees whilst the older kids shouted “Abutu” “Abutu” (white man, white man) with huge smiles. A little black boy wearing an ACDC T-shirt grabbed my hand and lead me to the chief’s hut. Like westerners do, I thought of piously knocking on the clay wall of his hut, but a craggy voice came thundering from inside. “How di bodi? No need to knock “snapper man, Mi casa es tu casa, please come in”.

There was something warm, disarming and profoundly playful in his voice so I decided to cross the threshold and enter. A lost sliver of sunlight streaming in from the makeshift roof revealed a leathery old man with penetrating eyes. “It’s Mi casa es SU casa”, I said as I sat down in front of the Chief of Gbap. With a big mischievous smile the chief retorted: “Botobata, snapper man, the correct Spanish is ‘TU casa’ because it refers to a friend and ‘SU casa’ is for strangers. I consider you a friend, stranger.” Like a cross between a thin black buddha and a teenage schoolgirl he started giggling uncontrollably and it completely slipped my mind to ask him how he knew I was a photographer.

I spent the next two days living their traditional way of life and learned everything from basket weaving and cooking Cassava on a bonfire to spotting dwarf crocodiles and Gray-necked Picathartes from a dug-out canoe. I developed a soft spot for the villagers and when it came time to say goodbye the chief gave us two guides and made me promise to return with more “friends”. With a strange mix of sadness and joy, we got into our dug-out canoes and headed down the Kilimi river to Outamba National Park. The sound of kids cheering us on from the banks gave way to a wild cacophony of exotic birds, but the splashes, grunts and unmistakable wheezing of hippos quickly took centre stage.

Notorious for their flaring tempers we cautiously made our way past the herd of pygmy hippos and headed to Banana Island; Sierra Leone’s answer to Robinson Crusoe with just enough shipwrecks, half-buried cannons and mystery to add a touch of Treasure Island.

We booked into a beach cabana and for a moment I was no longer in a developing country recovering from the devastation of war, I was in paradise. The conflict of the 80’s never reached Banana Island and I kept asking myself, why are there no tourists? Thoroughly refreshed (and tanned), we left Banana Island and travelled along the coast to River Number 2. Expecting nothing but exquisite beaches, lush jungle-clad mountains and crystal clear water, it was quite the sight to behold when “The Hamptons” suddenly materialised before my eyes.

Tokeh Place is a newly built 50-chalet luxury boutique resort set in 15 acres of tropical gardens. Naturally, there’s nothing like a bit of luxury after eco domes, tree houses and village huts, but I soon found out that there is more to “The Place” than mere grand lodgings and modern creature comforts. Since running water is still a luxury in some parts of the country, the owners of the Place built a dam in the local village so that both the local tribes and the hotel have clean, drinkable water running out of a tap! A first for Sierra Leone. After two glorious days at Tokeh beach we popped in at Alex’s in Freetown for lunch and hopped on a flight back home.

Today, Sierra Leone is safe, beautiful, cheap and best of all, not overrun by tourists. Yes, following years of war, the roads aren’t great, poverty is still widespread and there are only 4 ATMs in the capital, but Sweet Salone is by far the safest African country I have ever visited. It’s about time the rest of the world knows about Africa’s best kept secret.

Since my first trip, I have been back to Sierra Leone three times. The local government is stable, the people are friendly, the food is superb and the beaches deserted! What more could you ask for?


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