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Thursday, 24 November 2011

Responsible Travel in Sierra Leone - Peninsula, Provinces and Palm Wine (Part 2)

Following on from the first installment of his adventure, Thomas recounts his experiences on his journey through Sierra Leone to discover tourism projects which work towards implementing the responsible tourism concept of "making destinations better places to live in, and better places to visit"

Part 2: The provinces - Waterloo to Bo & Beyond

My next mission was to visit another community tourism project based around an Island of outstanding natural beauty and rich in biodiversity found on the Moa River, and on the fringes of the Gola Forest in the South-East of Sierra Leone. Tiwai Island is owned by 8 communities who live around it, and, in theory, they all benefit equally from tourism. I am planning on basing my MSc Responsible Tourism Management dissertation on how this can be done successfully.

To reach Tiwai, I was to take a 'Poda Poda' (local mini-bus) from Waterloo to Bo, then travel from Bo to Potoru from where I was told to catch an 'Okada' (motorbike taxi) to Kambama where you can take a speedboat to reach the Island.

One of the villages dotting the side of the highway

The journey from Waterloo to Bo went without any incidents. We stopped a few times to pick people up or drop them off and this gave me the opportunity to learn a bit more about the differences between the coast and the hinterland. At every stop, tradesmen/women would come to the vehicles windows selling plantain crisps, 'Benny Cake' (sesame seed and sugar), grilled meat, bananas, oranges, corn, water, etc... you could never go hungry. The road was perfect. No pot-holes anywhere. I later learnt that an Italian prospecting company had invested in tarmacking the road which has now made a big difference between a day-long journey and a 3-4 hour journey.

The image which says: "West Africa" to me.

Arriving at Bo, I noticed a lot of social campaigns which were going on. Billboards denouncing domestic violence, encouraging family planning, addressing the AIDS/HIV issue, promoting agriculture and community, and many more. It was also my first reminder that there had been a civil war not so long ago. Billboards promoting the 'Guns for Development' campaign where an NGO was buying guns off people (very successful), 'Social Integration' and 'Peace Development' were common words around the city, even Diamond re-sellers were called 'Peace & Love'. Bo and the Provinces were the hardest hit by the civil war and where the worst atrocities were committed.

Example of social development billboards (terriblyfabulous.wordpress.com)

From Bo to Potoru - a ‘junction town’ leading to several villages, one of which was my destination - the road was less favorable. The rainy season was just ending, so heavy rain showers were common place. Pot-holes and mega-puddles dotted the road, and our driver - who's name is William 'Bobo' Decker - expertly guided the 'Poda Poda' without even breaking a sweat. Orange vendors and Plantain Crisp sellers were everywhere. The smell of 'the bush' is something you never forget. The sweet scent of tropical flowers mixed with the damp earth smell, the odour of oranges and limes; this coupled with the landscape of lush green vegetation, small streams meandering across the dirt road, the bridges crossing over fast flowing mighty rivers; time seems to go slowly yet you don't see it fly by.

Road to Potoru. Notice the storm in the distance.

Potoru, which I later learnt was a rebel stronghold during the 1992 to 2002 war, was a quiet village which had a certain vibe about it. People were very friendly, respectful and eager to please. It was noticeably a trading hub too, being at the junction linking several villages together. We briefly stopped before we headed direction Kambama. Bobo Decker kindly offered to take me all the way as he had noticed that a tropical storm was brewing in the distance and knew that I would've gotten soaked if I had taken an 'Okada' (motorbike taxi).

The road was still dirt but was much better than the Bo to Potoru route. This was partly due to the small amount of vehicles that rode this way. We could see the storm approaching. Like a grey blanket, it covered the landscape, engulfed the forest, roads and villages. I thanked Bobo, as you can imagine. Finally, we arrived at Kambama. It was dusk and the distance rumble of thunder reminded us that we didn't have much time before another storm would unleash its wrath. I was guided down a path, from the village to the river bank and got on a speedboat captained by Ibrahim who told us a story about how crocodiles in the river and villagers had a mutual respect for each other.

Tiwai Island

Local guide from Kambama leading me into the jungle

When we set foot on the island, I felt like an explorer. This was the real jungle! Creepers were hanging from the forest canopy, the sound of insects was overwhelming, birds were nesting above us. We started walking towards the camp where I would stay the night, and suddenly I heard something moving in the branches above me. I looked up and saw a black and white blur. A double take revealed that it was a monkey, a Diana monkey to be more precise. Ibrahim said: "This is a good start, you have already been very lucky!" and he was right.

Can anyone identify this spider?

Red Colobus Monkey

The next morning, after a beautiful night's sleep, I went with a local guide on a 3 hour jungle trek where I saw a group of Red Colobus Monkeys, Black & White Colobus', Diana Monkeys, Suti Mangabe's, Hornbills, 'big-as-your-hand' spiders building their webs which shone golden-greenish hues when reflecting the sun’s rays, and the cream of the crop: 2 duikers; a very rare sighting according to my guide. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, we did not come across the elusive pygmy hippo. Maybe next time.

Solar power at Tiwai. Tent hut in the distance.

Traditional building where the food was prepared

During my stay, I also took a canoe onto the Moa River and learnt about traditional fishing techniques, wildlife, plants and pygmy hippo habits, as well as how to call monkeys by pinching your nose, mouth and emitting a cry so that they come to you thinking that you are a baby monkey in distress. The local language is Mende (from the Mende tribe) of which I learnt how to say:

'Hi Man/Old Man/Young Woman/Children' = 'Dake/Keke/Niande/Dupui Boaa'
'How are you?' = 'Ka hui ye na?'
'I am fine' = ' Ka ing goma'

The next morning, I took the speedboat at 4am in the morning to catch the local transport back from mainland. I will never forget speeding up the River Moa lit only by moonlight. That was definitely an experience.

In the next installment, Part 3: Back to the Peninsula - Coconut & Poyo Paradise, Thomas visits the communities located on the Western Peninsula to discover the tourism projects already put in place and the potential for implementing the responsible tourism concept.

To learn more about Responsible Tourism in West Africa, you can either visit the West Africa Discovery web portal, or join the growing community of West Africa passionate people here.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Travels in Sierra Leone: Peninsula, Provinces and Palm Wine #1

After coming back from Sierra Leone, and having had one of the most amazing times of my life, I decided to share my experience with others to hopefully inspire more people to go and explore this beautiful yet misunderstood part of the World. This is the first part of Travels in Sierra Leone: Peninsula, Provinces and Palm Wine.

When I first mentioned that I wanted to travel to Sierra Leone, I would have been a rich man if I was paid for every time someone either said: "Isn't there a civil war in Sierra Leone?" or "It's dangerous in Sierra Leone, are you crazy?". My answer to them was: "Sierra Leone has been at peace for 11 years" or "You're crazy for not going!". The misconceptions of Sierra Leone's current state are still rife, partly because of the 2006 film Blood Diamond, which wasn't even filmed in SL, and the lack of people willing to go there themselves to bring back true stories about a country struggling to change their image and grow in a positive way. Needless to say that I wanted to be one of those people: a bringer of news from a land which deserves to be viewed as a beacon for hope and World historical heritage rather than for a brutal civil war built around greed and deception.

I arrived at Lungi airport at 9:30pm. The first thing that you experience is the difference in climate (if you had come from the Northern Hemisphere). I went through passport check. No problems there. Collected my bags quick sharp. Outside was the usual bunch of porters, taxi drivers and name card brandishing guys. I was then directed to the Water Taxi ticket office -Lungi airport is on a different peninsula to Freetown, and to get to the other you need to either take a Water Taxi, Ferry, Speedboat or Helicopter. In not time, I was speeding towards Freetown. When we approached the Aberdeen port, I got a small insight into what to expect from Salone, little electricity, candle light, humidity, a slow pace of life and a community feel. I disembarked and changed my money (current rate: $1 = 4500 Leones) with a guy called Solomon, just in time for my ride to arrive to take me to my first destination, John Obey beach.

Part 1: John Obey - Community-exchange & Sustainable Living Tourism Project

When I arrived, I was greeted with a big plate of chop (food in Krio) and a Star beer (national beer of Sierra Leone) by Kat, a volunteer overseeing the project. We got along straight away and then I was introduced to the night security guards, Momo and Mister Alou Sene who is also the village Imam. I was shown to my accommodation and after debating about the differences and similarities of Islam and Christianity (SL is 50/50 and there are no conflicts) until 4am, I called it a night.

Mister Alou Sene & Momo, the security guards

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of waves crashing and birds twittering. I slowly rose from my mosquito net covered 'four-poster' bed and opened the door to my beach shack to discover Sierra Leone in the daytime. It was beautiful! Just outside my accommodation was a lagoon which rose and fell with the Ocean tide, multicoloured butterflies flew gracefully between the palm trees, a gentle breeze carried the smell of jasmine around the shack. Welcome to Sierra Leone!

The lagoon at low tide

My beach shack for 3 nights

After breakfast I was shown around the project. Solar tower, recycling area, compost toilets, earth bag 'honeydomes', permaculture garden, bucket showers, all the signs of a sustainable development project that works. The project also employs 30 people from the local community, 10 of them were working on a new structure using the skills they had learnt over the past year to build earth bag domes as accommodation for guests. I was told that this was the main project, so I lent a hand on the 'building site'. By the afternoon, after lunch, the structure was nearly finished. I was given the honor of laying the last earth bag on the top which we then celebrated by playing drums and singing. Such a good feeling!

From left to right: Solar tower, recycling center and compost toilets

Happy faces after the earth dome was completed

For the next couple of days at Tribewanted, I learnt how to cook 'special sauce', practiced yoga, went to visit the local school, cooked an amazing 'lime and spice mackerel wrapped in banana leaves and baked in the mud oven' dish, swam every morning and every night at sunset, went baby croc spotting, drank palm wine, visited the market at Waterloo, experienced tropical thunderstorms, visited the improvised turtle sanctuary on the beach, listened to local legends around the hot stove, learnt about the local communities' aspirations and positive ambitions. As you can imagine, it was hard to leave, but my feet were itching to walk other paths and discover more of hidden Salone (Sierra Leone).

John Obey School photo...

A John Obey sunset...

To be continued... next time: Part 2: The provinces - Waterloo to Bo & Beyond

To learn more about my project, visit www.westafricadiscovery.co.uk or join us on Facebook.