I've arrived from the chimpanzee sanctuary. Kenema is the centre for the alluvial diamond mining industry in Sierra Leone, a dusty frontier style town. The mines played a key part in the civil war here, with gems, known as blood diamonds, being used to finance the conflict.
Kenema is the third alert city in Sierra Leone and the first place to report Ebola. As we enter the town a fleet of trucks carrying tee shirted women on their way to a wedding party career past. There are several alternative churches, such as the Church of the Latter-Day Saints and most of the other buildings are businesses, mainly run by folk of Lebanese origin. Mattress shops proliferate, and there are carpenters and dry good stores. But nearly every alternate sign advertises a diamond office. These are mainly empty, with large settees, but some house stacks of small machines used for polishing and grinding. Sadly, there are no diamonds on display.
However, the cavalry comes to the rescue in the form of a local chief, Patrick Shandy, beautifully kitted out in white suit and panama hat, who persuades his friend, Ali to talk to me. Ali is a little sceptical about meeting and only agrees when he knows I’m European. Guide Alfred says that this is because the Lebanese believe Africans can make the diamonds disappear using Voodoo. And he stays out of the way while Ali and his henchman show me a three-carat uncut diamond and a 50-gram nugget of gold. The diamond looks like a piece of rough glass and the gold is bean shaped. I’m allowed to touch these, and I’m even offered coffee. I must look safe.
Patrick also wants us to visit the trade fair, - a series of small booths set up in a large showground with local produce: cocoa, coffee, rice, manioc. I’m draped in jewellery and blackmailed into buying a string of beads I don’t need.
The south of Sierra Leone is undulating countryside, draped in palm trees, bisected by numerous rivers and dotted with villages of thatched cuboid houses. There are thousands of small mining areas around Kenema - the gravel loaded with small precious stones.
Patrick obtains permission for me to visit and takes me on a trek through the rainforest, where I’m attacked by a tree stump, a colony of red ants (vicious stings) and a thorn bush in turn. Activities are not yet really underway this season yet. They can only mine when it’s dry, the rainy season is not long over, and most families are waiting until after Christmas to begin in earnest. But a couple of men are standing thigh high in the river, sieving large pans and swooshing water around to wash the gravel. They check for a promising twinkle, before piling the grit to one side. I’m told there are plenty of diamonds, but most are small. It’s the tantalising search for the life-changing large gems that drives the men on.
The children call out ‘pumui’ (white person in the local Mende language), stare, wave and group for snaps, though some of the smaller ones howl. Patrick says they’ve never seen a pumui before. That’s an exaggeration I think, but tourists are a rare event. We make stately progress. Patrick stops to converse gravely with his many acquaintances, and everyone wants to shake hands with their strange visitor. A few are hopeful of making a sale, proffering sacking bags, but I’m not in the market for an investment I know little about.
Diamonds generate a considerable amount of revenue for Sierra Leone but there is a general belief that mining should be producing much more income. Too much money has historically gone to private individuals or companies and a large proportion of diamonds have been smuggled. So called blood diamonds were used to finance the opposition during the civil war. (As told in the film Blood Diamond). The largest diamond found in Sierra Leone, and the third largest diamond in the world, was a 969.8 carat (194 g) rough diamond. It was found in 1972 and named the An-al of Sierra Leone.
Next stop the coast and Liberia.
Around Freetown islands beckon: Bunce (infamous as a centre for the slave trade) Tasso (birds and beaches) and the Banana Islands (named for shape not vegetation). There are also some incredible silvery beaches.
Bunce Island is a short boat crossing from Lunghi, near the airport where I've stayed over night after crossing the border from Guinea. The island was the centre of the slave trade in this part of West Africa. The old slave quarters here are in ruins and currently being restored, there are piles of stones and men up ladders. But the male and female living halls, the separation chamber and the door of no return are all clearly discernible. It’s hard to know what to say in these places except to reflect yet again on man’s inhumanity to man.
There are gravestones too. The only legible epitaphs belong to Danish sea captains who specialised in slave cargo. Alfred Dory is lauded as an upright and honourable man beloved of his companions. ‘Fuck Alfred Dory', an American has written in the visitors’ book.
It’s incredibly humid and my clothes are uncomfortably sticky. I’m glad to take to the sea again.
Next stop, Tasso Island, where there’s a pretty golden beach and a small resort run by an English guy. Peter is currently hosting a conference on the conservation of migratory birds. Nine of the participants are sharing a dormitory. Others have pitched tents. They must be keen.
The boat takes an hour and a half to bob across to Freetown. The port area is a pall of smoke overhanging a sea of chimneys. The traffic into the centre of the city is nose-to-tail with a melee of calling street vendors winding their way through the gaps.
In Sierra Leone, as one might expect from the name, the mountains run into the sea. Freetown is a multitude of slopes and the roads surrounding it mini dippers. The place names are nearly all British - though guides Alfred and Alusine are surprised when I explain this - the story of Waterloo, in particular, is a revelation.
We stop at the ethnography museum - every African capital has one of these filled with wood carvings and masks. There’s an entertaining tour given by a cheery soul who ends up by singing the national anthem. Finally, the Freetown Big Market which is mainly souvenirs and jewellery stalls manned by some lethargic vendors who moan about the heat and humidity. It makes me feel better if the locals are complaining -I don’t feel such a wimp.
It’s a slow journey. Like many of the West African capitals, Freetown is built on a peninsula and my hotel is at the far end, so we have to negotiate the narrow traffic filled centre of town again. I’m having to translate all the directions for driver Maladho, who is protesting in French that it’s mad to go through town, as there is another better route. Guide Alfred insists that this is the faster route at this time of day. I have to translate all this too. The arrangements are certainly mad. I’ve finally gathered the courage to ban Bob Marley on the sound system. So, we’re back to techno. And the rear-view mirror has just dropped off. It seems to have been secured with araldite. Maladho is a tad concerned. It’s definitely illegal to drive without one of those.
The Banana Islands are so named because as a group they form the shape of a banana. It’s not because they grow bananas there. Apparently, they’ve tried, but not very successfully.
All is well. The mirror’s been glued back on. And Idris Elba has just checked into town, to be made a citizen of the country. Or it was, but the crossing to the main island, Dublin, is choppy. Alfred doesn’t swim and isn’t very happy. He shuts his eyes. It’s another resort visit with more small beautiful sandy bays. There are tempting batik covered double bed size loungers, but I’m not allowed to indulge until I’ve done a village tour and inspected the cannons and fortress. These were put in place by the Portuguese in this instance, trying to evade the abolition of slavery laws, until the British finally evicted them. There’s a very pretty view of more small and frilly islets, fishing boats in the foreground.
Papaya salad, shrimps and sweet potato chips on the menu. It’s a shame to leave. Alfred must think so too. He’s asleep in a hammock.
The whole coast between the Banana Islands and Freetown is a string of gorgeous stretches of silvery sand. We stop at Number 2 River Beach, which is an amazing turquoise inlet with silvery sand banks and a beach bar. There are ample sunbeds, the sea is soothingly warm and there’s gentle surf. I divide my time between the water and the sunbed, Maladho and Alusine wave-dive, giggling hysterically and Alfred snoozes sedately under the canopy of the bar. It’s a peaceful couple of hours, until the bartenders turn up the volume of the music and start to gear up for sunset revels.
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