Finally getting around to posting about my trip to Sierra Leone, where I went for work in March.
The first thing you should know is that when you fly in to Freetown, you don’t actually fly in to Freetown. You fly in to an airport across the bay from the city.
Then you take a half hour speedboat ride across the water. It’s not super fun, especially if the wind is up and you’re coming off a few hours of flying.
Thankfully the waters were relatively calm on the way to Freetown. (The return trip was another story.)
My first view of Freetown, below. See that haze? Apparently the harmattan winds that blow into Dakar from the Sahara during the late winter months continue their journey all the way down to Sierra Leone.
I spent a day meeting with people in the Freetown office and then the next morning we headed out early to visit program sites.
We started out in the Bo area. The first day we ate lunch in Obama’s Bar & Restaurant.
I ate one of the specials, potato leaf and rice, which everyone assured me would not be spicy. Hahahahaha. I had to stop at several points to fan my mouth and wait for it to cool down. I don’t know what kind of pepper they put in this dish, but it is no joke – even if it barely registers on the Sierra Leonean spiciness meter.
During the four-day trip we traversed a large part of the country, visiting Pujehun in the south, Bo in the center, and Makeni farther north. Unfortunately I didn’t take many non-work-related photos during the journey, but I did peep some pretty scenery from the car…
Sierra Leone’s official language is English but the lingua franca is Krio (Creole). I found it to be a fascinating language. If I focused my brain, relaxed my ears (don’t ask me how), and fell into the rhythm of it, I could often get the gist of what people were saying. But if I didn’t really tune in deliberately, it sounded completely unintelligible to me – even though the language is based mostly on English. On paper, certain phrases almost seem like translation riddles that can be solved with a mixture of logic and creativity. For example, Welbodi Na Jentri in the poster below translates roughly to “health is wealth,” because welbodi (which I assume comes from well body) means health, and jentri (which I’m guessing comes from gentry) means rich. Here is a krio phrasebook, if you’re interested.
On the way back into Freetown I stayed overnight at the Tacugama chimpanzee sanctuary on the outskirts of the city. I hadn’t heard about it before; someone in the Sierra Leone office asked me if I wanted to visit it on my second to last night instead of staying at the fancy hotel in Freetown. I was like, “Chimps? Sure!”
Overnight guests stay in eco-lodge “treehouses” in the middle of the forest. It’s a little eerie to go to sleep alone in a hut in the middle of a pitch black jungle, but it was a joy to wake up in the low light to the hoots of the chimps talking to each other just past dawn. (They live in an enclosure that is a few hundred feet from the human sleeping quarters.)
After breakfast I joined the daily tour of the chimp sanctuary. Below is stage one, a quarantine area where chimps rescued from private homes, terrible zoos, traffickers, etc. go when they first arrive. Some of them have never lived in the wild before, so they need to be slowly re-acclimated not only to the environment but also to the social setting. These new chimps also need to be separated from the chimps who are already in Tacugama, for long enough to ensure they don’t introduce any diseases into the population.
The chimps have often had very bad experiences with humans so it’s not uncommon for them to hurl rocks up at the people watching them from the observation deck. Every time one of them threw a rock, it made me really sad.
Stage two is below. Individual chimps are put in a large cage and members of the stage three groups can come to visit in a supervised way.
If and when the chimp is welcomed by the group, he moves on to stage three, joining the group in the “wild.” I don’t have pictures of that stage because I only saw the chimps fleetingly in the clearing (when a staff member threw them some peanuts) before they scampered back into the trees. Stage three is a large swathe of forest enclosed by an electrified fence. Aside from the odd peanut toss, the chimps are on their own once they reach this stage. There is a theoretical stage four when the animals are released into the actual wild, but no chimps have done that yet and honestly I can’t remember exactly why.
Back in Freetown on my last day in the country, I was busy with work and didn’t have time to explore the historic center of the city or to get to River Number Two Beach, reputedly one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. But I did see some beautiful views nonetheless:
And that’s it for Sierra Leone, because it’s 1:30am and time for bed…