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Sierra Leone is a country of stark contrasts.
It is home to gorgeous beaches, verdant rainforests and rare creatures, including the endangered pygmy hippo. It also has the fastest growing tourism industry in the world. In fact, according to the Daily Mail, the number of visitors traveling to the country rose by 310% from 2015 to 2016, putting it ahead of Nepal, South Korea and Iceland. Sierra Leone was even included on the Rough Guide’s list of the Best Places to Visit in 2018.
However, it is also a country still recovering from a decade-long civil war and a devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Infamous for its diamonds – it is now the seventh largest producer of legal diamonds in Africa. Yet it remains one of the most impoverished countries in the world.
So which is the true Sierra Leone – the beautiful tourist destination or the country with a reputation for strife?
The answer unavoidably is: a combination of both.
The beaches and national parks of Sierra Leone are stunning. In fact, even before the civil war, Sierra Leone’s beaches were a popular draw for rich European tourists.
However, the legacy of that civil war which broke out on March 23, 1991 cannot be ignored.
The Revolutionary United Front, with support from rebels from Liberia, sought to overthrow the government led by Joseph Momoh. During the ensuing civil war, many reported atrocities were committed against Sierra Leone’s civilians, including rape and mutilation. And by the time the war ended in 2002, approximately 50,000 people had died and an estimated 20,000 civilians had suffered some form of physical mutilation, including the loss of limbs, lips and ears.
Today, Sierra Leone is a peaceful nation and a country on the mend – but with a journey still to travel. In a January 2018 Voice of America interview, Isata Kabia the Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “We have to help souls heal, because without individual souls healing, the nation will still be fragile. It is our responsibility and this, I think, was a missed opportunity after the war, but it’s never too late.”
Sierra Leone is also a very poor nation, according to the CIA World Factbook. In fact, Global Finance Magazine listed it as the 14th poorest country in the world. In addition, its literacy rate is 48 percent – set against a global literacy rate of more than 80 percent. The country’s recovery efforts were also dealt a massive blow in 2014 when the Ebola virus swept through the country, leaving approximately 12,000 children orphaned by the disease.
Sierra Leone understands that attracting travellers will be important for its economic growth. It currently has several properties on the tentative list of possible new UNESCO World Heritages sites, including the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary and Bunce Island, which was has thrown off it’s slave castle heritage. In addition, several major international hotel brands are expected to open properties in Sierra Leone.
All We Can has begun supporting The Methodist Church of Sierra Leone through its Church CAN initiative and in coming months will be exploring how it might work with other inspiring local organisations seeking change for communities in Sierra Leone.