Most people know Sierra Leone, the West African mini nation for its brutal civil war and more recently the Leonardo di Caprio movie Blood Diamond. The reality today couldn’t be more different. 12 years after the end of the war, Sierra Leone is a very peaceful place and home to beautiful scenery and more impressively beautiful people. In fact I’d be safer walking through downtown Freetown than I would be walking down Talbot Street by day.
With curiosity in mind I asked the people on the streets about their lives, their stories and if they had heard of our sweet emerald Isle.
Moses Kroma, funfair and swimming pool attendant
I am originally from Bo, which is a 4-hour drive from Freetown towards the Liberian border. I love it here and I really enjoy working at a beautiful hotel resort.
I studied business administration in Freetown. I want to start my own business, but I don’t know in what yet. All I know is that I want to be an entrepreneur.
As for Ireland you say. Yes of course I know Ireland. I have heard lots of good things. You have a very good economy there. U2, Bono? No I don’t know who they are, but I hear the football team, ‘The Republic of Ireland’ football team is very good.
Do they drink much there? No, no they don’t drink there I don’t think. I think Ireland is very cold though. I would like to go there.
Santos, freelance jewelry salesman
Ireland. No I don’t really care about it. I like Germany. I think Germany will win the World Cup next year. It looks like a great place and I really want to go there.
I am looking forward to the Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. It’s very exciting. I don’t care who wins, but it could be Dortmund. I met some people from Ireland recently.
They were here in a really big Range Rover driving through Africa. I am an engineer and I hope someday to go to Germany. Ireland not so much.
Hussein Jawad, hotel owner
I was born here in Freetown, even though I am originally from Lebanon. Bar a few years in my youth, I have spent my entire life here. I never left during the civil war, which was brutal and relentless. Its my home, so why should I?
The Lebanese have been coming to Africa since the Ottoman reign, where they were recruited by the English and the French to fight for them. That’s how I ended up here- generations later of course.
I have a few businesses here and own a hotel, which I started building in 1996. We are extending it now with tennis courts. During the war we often had to halt building, as there was no more cement in the country.
We don’t get many tourists here, though I have had some very interesting guests stay at the hotel. The photographer and documentary maker Tim Hetherington stayed here for 6 weeks just before he went to Libya, where he was killed in a mortar attack.
He did a lot for the people of Sierra Leone and founded schools for the blind. He was a very kind man, who always said he was married to his camera. As for me – I was married and I have 4 children who live in the UK and the US.
I go there regularly. As for Ireland. Yes I’ll go there immediately. With you. On a jet of course.
Mike Rozanski, Global Outreach missioner, Buffalo New York
This is my third time in Sierra Leone. Every time I come, I regret not bringing more sweets with me. They love them here. I’m just back from a three-week stay in Macunji, which is in the east of the country. I was helping build schools and a Baptist church. In the last three years we have also built 70 wells here.
I’ve been amazed at how little violence there has been here. The people of Sierra Leone will never have violence here again. The war was so brutal, that people don’t want to see anything like it in their lifetimes. They are very peace loving after everything that happened.
The conditions are still poor though, with no electricity of running water in man places. I don’t mind a bit of rough and gruff. I work for the transport authority of the state of New York.
Ireland. Yeah I know Ireland. Is that not south of here?
Theresa Rozanski, Office Manager, Buffalo New York
I’m here with my husband who is working building wells. I came along to take photos and I’ve moved a few bricks too. It’s our 30th anniversary and as I have never been outside the US, I just thought I’d come along.
We ran away together when we were 18 and no one would thought it would last, but here we are, in the middle of Africa. Its certainly eye opening coming here for your first trip abroad.
I’m amazed how people, especially the women spend the entire week in what little they have to wear, but then dress up on Sundays for mass like African queens. It’s amazing. They thought there was something wrong with me when my mascara was running down my face.
Do I know Ireland? I don’t know much about it. The people are nice there and it’s really green. I think. I have friends who are from a big Irish family and 6 of the 7 siblings are alcoholics. Would that be right?
Brother Pious Conteh
Ireland. Yes I have been there. It’s cold. When was I there? July. I went to Waterford and Cork. Its nice, the people are nice, but I don’t think I could live there. I am a Christian Brother and I was born in Bo. It’s around 4 hours East of Freetown.
I decided to become a Christian Brother and studied for seven years. When I decided that that was what I wanted to do, my mother was not too happy. She has warmed to the idea now that she sees the work we do.
In this photograph I am visiting a junior school project that we are involved in just outside Freetown. We are part of the West Africa district of Brothers and are present in Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
We are part of the Edmund Rice Foundation, which has its base in Ireland and funds the projects here in Africa. The first Irish brothers came to Africa in 1867 and to Sierra Leone in 1985.
We are looking after 12 schools and youth projects. We advocate human rights and compassion and services to young people and children. We are seeing so much positive development in Sierra Leone now.
During the civil war, my father was captured and held by rebels for 9 months. When we went to visit him, we were captured for a week. They didn’t treat us badly, though we managed to keep cool. Life is about being happy, and doing whatever it is that makes you happy. I like to be funny too.
Jeremiah Komba Jimissa, computer expert
I would like to travel to Ireland. It looks amazing.
I was born in Mekene after spending two years in my mother’s womb. Yes its true. You don’t believe me? I will call my mother now. It’s a very crazy story and it is amazing. That’s why they call me Komba in my local area. I am a freak of nature [calls his mother] ‘hello mama. I just want you to tell these person that I was 2 years in the womb. I came out completely normal.’
I like Sierra Leone now. It is such a peaceful place and the people here never want to see violence like they did during the civil war again. It was so brutal; you have no idea what we saw. People were getting their hands and feet chopped of by rebels. There was such a readiness for violence and kidnapping.
Now though it is all over and people don’t ever want it back. We are peaceful people and the rebels either disappeared or were accepted back into society.
Africa Ruby, Musician from Freetown
I am a musician. I love music. You would never guess which type? No really I love reggae. I want to move to Holland to make music and get Irish producers interested in my music.
I’m sure they would like it. It sounds African Caribbean. My name is Africa in case you haven’t noticed. I love it. My heart is here. Do want to listen to my music? I don’t have a website, but you need to go to O’Casey’s bar. It’s an Irish bar in Freetown. I’m looking for someone to collaborate with in Holland.
Oh you mean Ireland. No I never heard of it.
Fatima, from Freetown
I am 20 years of age and I live in Freetown. I am hoping to move to Ireland to look after children. I would be very happy to live there and mind children.
I have a friend called Michael. Michael has another friend who is from Ghana. He is looking for a white Christian honest lady, that can be his partner, he has enough money to invest and looking for this lady to advise him how to undergo business. Please. He needs your assistance. I’ve been trying to call you, you haven’t responded! Thanks best regards.
Sierra Leone: What you need to know:
Flanked by Liberia and Guinea, Sierra Leone has a population of 5.5 million people, 1.2 million of whom live in Freetown, which is situated on the Atlantic coast. The Bulom people, followed by the Mende and Temne people in the 15th century were the first inhabitants of the country so they say.
Sierra Leone’s first European visitors were from Portugal and explorers gave it its name, Lion Mountain. Back in 1787 Freetown was founded as a home for repatriated former slaves from Britain.
By 1808 the coastal area became a British colony and by 1896 a British protectorate was proclaimed over the hinterland. Sierra Leone became an independent nation in 1961 and a republic in 1971.
The Sierra Leone Civil War began on 23 March 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the special forces of corrupt Liberian leader Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia intervened in an attempt to overthrow the then government.
The resulting civil war lasted 11 years, left over 50,000 dead, devastated the country and left and countless victims badly injured by perverse combatants.
Blood Diamonds are essentially diamonds traded and converted in a war zone. Often they are sold to finance the activity of crazed warlords.
As one of the biggest natural resources in Sierra Leone, the diamonds were to become the bloody curse of the nation. Originally a joint venture between the government and the famous DeBeers jewellers the trade only enriched the business elite, much to the chagrin of the ordinary Sierra Leonean.
When DeBeers, pulled out in 1984, the government lost direct control and they were traded illicitly. Lebanese traders and Israelis did much of the trading with Antwerp.
The easily extractable diamonds provided and incentive for violence and funds from the trade were used to purchase weapons by the RUF. Many of which came from neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.
The trade lead to the eventual expulsion of civilians from important economic centres where diamonds were mined. These were often tortured by having their hands and feet chopped of by rebels.
What’s Naomi Campbell got to do with it?
Ex Liberian leader Charles Taylor was responsible for giving Naomi Campbell a Blood Diamond at a star studded gala banquet hosted by Nelson Mandela, in 1997. His gift was critical in linking the Liberian warlord to crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone. The UN implied sanctions on the diamond trade in Liberia in 2001.
Appearing as a witness in August 2010 Campbell said that she had been given a gift of three ‘small, dirty-looking stones’ by some dodgy visitors who knocked on her room door when she was staying in a government chalet as a guest of the South African President. The next day, she allegedly informed Mia Farrow of the gift and gave them to Jeremy Radcliffe, the director of the Mandela Charity.
‘I’m used to seeing diamonds shiny and in a box,’ she said. Nonetheless this trivial encounter for Campbell exposed the trade in illegally mined diamonds that were siphoned off to arm the rebels and implicated Taylor, who began a 50-year sentence for war crimes against humanity in May 2012.
What about Sierra Leone today?
A decade after 17,000 foreign troops disarmed tens of thousands of rebels and militia fighters; the country has experienced substantial economic growth.
That said poverty and unemployment are still major challenges. Most families live in mud huts with thatched roofs and no running water. More women die in childbirth in Sierra Leone than anywhere else (21,000 deaths per 100,000 successful births).
That said it is rich in natural it is among the top 10 diamond producing nations in the world, as new mines that served as war chests are now at the heart of a remarkable turnaround that has lifted this nation to world-leading growth of 35 per year.
It is also the largest producers of titanium and bauxite and major producer of gold. Freetown has the third largest natural harbours on earth as well as untapped iron ore reserves.
Thus, the government is forging a growing economic and political relationship with China, which has tapped into these resources. Lets hope they don’t destroy the peace. Currently there is a happy equilibrium in the country as everyone is at the same pace.
Over 50 per cent of the people are above the poverty line. The country is lush with pineapples and mangoes and children look more nourished than you would expect. They are also expected to stay at school for 7 years, whereas their parents only stayed for an average of 3 years.