Sunday, 21 July 2013

Three Years in Lunsar - Sierra Leone

For a while 33 Portland Place London felt like my second home.  

Like the country it represented, it exuded a rumpled old world charm clearly in need of a makeover. Downstairs across a well-worn counter I accumulated numerous visas as I travelled to and from Sierra Leone. Sadly 33 Portland Place  was later acquired by another leaseholder under very questionable circumstances and as a High Commission it is no more.

Lunsar in the early 1990’s had already taken a battering from the fighting. Buildings still standing showed signs of gunfire.

Outside the town lay the rusting machinery that had once chipped away at Massaboin Hill, a mountain of iron ore which in the local dialect gave the town its name.
Lunsar was the base for a swamp rice rehabilitation programme in the surrounding countryside. Security could best be described as fluid as the fighting ebbed and flowed to and from the south and east of the country.

It was hard to believe that the Queen made a State visit here in 1961. Back then some up country towns had street lighting. 
One day I paid a visit to an old Paramount Chief, reduced to tears as he showed a framed black and white photo of his introduction to the Queen during her tour. Outside few buildings were left standing and the street lights had long since ceased to shine.
What makes Sierra Leone special are the people. They are some of the nicest you will find anywhere, despite one of the world’s worst mortality rates and the horrors of what the RUF rebels perpetrated.

The local blacksmith using hand bellows
By 1995 the RUF had reached close to Lunsar and in places were only 20 km from Freetown. This was the time of Executive Outcomes and their highly efficient campaign to secure the Freetown perimeter and push back the rebels. When their funding was stopped in 1997, the RUF inevitably overran the capital with appalling consequences, leading eventually to the intervention of  British Forces.
Now finally Freetown is again buzzing with new investment. A return visit to River Number Two and Lumley beach, Freetown's cotton tree and Lunsar are long overdue.

Boarding the Lungi ferry at Freetown