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Sierra Leone
October 1, 2014, 1:07 pm
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After years of vicious conflict, peace has broken out across Sierra Leone and the stunning beaches and wild national parks are waiting for the return of travelers.

Capital city: Freetown, Population: 6 Million, Area: 71000 SQ KM, Official Language: English

Landscape

Most of Sierra Leone is flat and low lying. However, the Freetown Peninsula is one of the few places in West Africa where peaks rise near the ocean, and the Loma Mountains in the northeast include Mt Bintumani (1945 metres), which is one of the highest mountains in West Africa. Rainforest is the natural vegetation for most of the country, though there are beaches and extensive mangrove swamps on the coast. Sierra Leone is one of West Africa's wettest and hottest places.

History in a Nutshell

Though Sierra Leone was named by the Portuguese, the British were the first to control the area: in the 18th century, it became an important outpost of their slave trade. Starting in 1787, British philanthropists sent ex-slaves, mostly from North America, to the area, called a 'Province of Freedom'. The British declared it a colony in 1808, and when they abolished slavery soon after, British warships plied the West African coast intercepting slave ships and resettling those on board in the country.

Independence came in 1961 and a tradition of coups and political violence followed. By 1991 the country had divided, with rebels exerting control in the east, where the richest diamond mines lie. Fighting grew increasingly vicious and indiscriminate, and in the resulting anarchy the rebels made hacking off people's limbs part of their strategy. Peace finally returned in 2001, with free and fair national elections the following year.

People

The two largest tribal groups in Sierra Leone are the Temnes, who live mostly in the north, and the Mendes, who are predominantly from the south. The Krios, the descendents of the rescued and returned slaves, account for less than two per cent of the population, but their influence is far greater. There are also about 4000 Lebanese, and the profusion of aid workers has made Freetown a very multicultural city. Though English is the official language, Krio, an amalgamation of English and various African languages, is the lingua franca.

Marketplace

Sierra Leone's economy has been improving, but it remains weak. The per capita GDP is just US$800 and the country ranked second to last in the United Nation's 2003 Human Development Index. Two thirds of the population live by subsistence farming. The annual government budget is US$351 million — a tenth of Ghana's and 0.00000037 per cent of the UK's — and 85 per cent of this comes from foreign aid. Diamond mining is the primary source of hard currency earnings.

Trademarks

Diamonds

Palm-fringed beaches

Chimpanzees

Freetown's cotton tree

Bunce Island

Gara cloth

End of the Road

Sulima, at the mouth of the Moa River by the Liberian border, was once a busy seaport. These days it's just an overgrown village of mud-and-thatch houses and a handful of crumbling colonial buildings sleeping in the shade of palm trees. There isn't really anything to do other than wander the many miles of empty beach, but it's a great place to chill a while — and it's a much-needed rest after roughing it over the roads that lead here.

Random Facts

The slaves who revolted on La Amistad had originally come from Sierra Leone.

Every Easter Monday families gather together to fly kites.

In October and November, humpback whale sightings off the Freetown Peninsula are common.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Tiwai Island, a pristine plot in the Moa River, has one of the highest concentrations of primates in the world. It's common to see half of the 11 species, including diana monkeys and chimpanzees, in a short morning stroll.

On Film

The war spawned films like the harrowing Cry Freetown (1999), which features first-hand footage of the bloody battle for the capital. The Refugee All  stars(2004) is an inspiring documentary of the eponymous band; and the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster The Blood Diamond is about a poor farmer who gets between a diamond smuggler (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and a diamond syndicate in Sierra Leone.

Essential Experiences

Beach-bumming for a while on the Freetown Peninsula

Primate watching at Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary

Tracking elephants and canoeing past hippos at Outamba-Kilimi National Park

Dancing and drinking in Freetown's anything-goes nightclubs

Bargaining in Freetown's many markets

Exploring the Banana Islands and Turtle Islands

Best Time to visit

November to April

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