In Foreign Parts: Sierra Leone

The battle-weary village that wants to swap guns for the tourist dollar

Declan Walsh
Saturday 02 February 2002 01:00

The last tourists to visit Number Two River, on the coast south of Freetown, did not bring much business. They did, however, bring guns. "Thousands of them, all over the beach. All you can see is black," said Eddie T Bell, recalling the day when a line of rebels, their wives and children tramped up the sparkling white sands, guns slung over their shoulders.

His friend, Francis K Kappia, added: "If you have food cooking, they take it. If you have money, they shoot you. Luckily we had buried our generator in the beach."

These days, the villagers of Number Two River – named after a river that spills into the sea near by – are trying to attract an altogether better class of visitor.

Prompted by the end of Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, the community has come together in an unusual venture that aims to help to rebuild one small corner of the world's poorest country, with the help of tourist dollars.

The setting is classic paradise. A long line of white sand so fine it squeaks underfoot, waving palm trees and a vast expanse of warm azure waters. This is the Atlantic, but it's not cold. With the help of $5,000 (£3,500) seed capital from a departed American ambassador, the villagers have established what is in some ways a typical resort. There is cold beer at the bar, a restaurant with delicious barracuda and lobster and a bungalow for overnight stays.

The big difference is that the money pays the school fees of the villagers' children, and not the shareholders of a Western holiday company. "We need to develop," said Isaac Hope. "When the tourists come, there will be more money."

So far, the only tourists are the professional kind – UN peace-keepers, aid workers, diplomats and some local Lebanese business families.

Sierra Leone has never been a tourist hot-spot – years of corruption kept it a hidden secret, and the men in power saw bigger money in diamonds.

But gemstones have proved to be the curse of the nation. They sustained the RUF rebels through their most brutal periods and sucked in the nefarious President Charles Taylor of Liberia, who is said to have profited enormously from illegal trafficking of stones.

The country is still off limits to mass tourism, for much the same reason as thousands of British troops were sent there.

But peace is in the offing, and the future spells tourism, according to the village entrepreneurs at Number Two River. Bookings are taken through a Freetown house, jobs have been assigned.

Francis is the purchasing manager, Sheku the bartender and Eddie takes care of maintenance. On weekends, thatched beach huts are rented out and about a dozen waiters offer fish, cold drinks and coconuts. It seems as if half the villagers are involved. They probably are.

Before the war, the only employment was in a small hotel up the beach called the Africana Tokeh Village.

It became the hide-out of France's jet set. They came from Freetown, sometimes with writers from Marie Claire or Madame Figaro. Eddie, who speaks good French, can list the names – the singers Johnny Halliday and Carlos ("very fat"), the businessman Bernard Tapie and advisers to President Mitterrand.

But although big money was spent, the locals saw little of it. They could only make money by selling canoe rides up the Number Two River to see the monkeys and crocodiles.

Otherwise a handful of young men became the lovers of French women and left for France. If they were paid lovers, nobody's saying so.

The manager, Jean-Pierre, was particularly disliked. "He never gave lights or water to the village. Sometimes he brought the police to keep us away," said Eddie. "We used to call him Zengelewa. It means, 'He who walks around a lot'."

The locals got wry satisfaction when they learnt that some clients, such as Tapie and a politician, had ben jailed for corruption. "He came here then after we hear he under key!" laughed Eddie.

Jean-Pierre left fast with the coming of war, and guards from the Sierra Leone army, who had not received their last wages, looted the hotel. They called it "Operation Pay Yourself." Now the Hotel Africana is an empty shell, and any trace of Halliday and his chums is long gone.

The jungle is slowly crawling over the crumbling walls, which are black with mould. A couple of Nigerian peace-keeping troops sit in the shade on the beach outside, sweltering in their flak jackets and training a machine-gun on the calm, opal waters. "Just in case the RUF try to smuggle arms," they explain.

It must be one of the most beautiful lookouts in the world. Nevertheless the soldiers complain of being "stuck" here while other soldiers are having fun in Freetown. Maybe so, but if the peace holds in Sierra Leone, there might be many other international beach bums to take their place.

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