Lines on a map: Freetown, Sierra Leone

At sunset I am sitting down to dinner on a gorgeous beach, my table wiggled into the sand, a pile of seafood caught that morning waiting in front of me. Not bad, not bad at all.

Even better, I am not throwing down $100 a night at some vast, soulless Caribbean resort. $60 has gotten me three days of beachside bliss and all my meals just down the coast from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

It would be an understatement to say that Sierra Leone is not known in the West as a holiday destination. In the Anglophone world especially, West Africa does not occupy a lot of perceptual space. Within that little wedge of our perceptions labeled “Africa”, there is a tiny sliver filed under “Sierra Leone.” For most of us, this country only revives memories of the nightly news during the war that consumed Sierra Leone until 2003. Today, however, peace is the reality.

I went to Sierra Leone not to volunteer or to immerse myself in the still incredible suffering of the country, but simply to hang out. To sit at street side tables and drink beer with whoever stopped by. To wander around towns and climb beautiful hills, and chat endlessly with Sierra Leoneans. In short, I went to Sierra Leone as a tourist.

I did not have a lot of company. Six years after the war, genuine tourists are still pretty rare.
I found this a little bit baffling. Sierra Leone is, with no stretching of the truth, a fantastic place for a vacation.

So where are all the tourists? Part of this dearth is sheer location – Sierra Leone is far from everywhere. Not to mention, the neighbourhood is rough. As neither Guinea nor Liberia carry a reputation for stability.

Mostly though, you can blame the war. It is still the first thing people think of when they hear the name. People still think of the country itself as unsafe, even though you would be far more likely to be mugged on the streets of Rome or Paris.

What, though, are we to think about tourism in a place where people are still suffering and desperately poor?

When I wander around Sierra Leone, I think I am doing some good. Sometimes it is purely by spreading my money around to all the street food vendors and shops that I stop by. Sometimes, though, it is more intangible than that.

People in Sierra Leone continually thank me just for being there. Tourism represents some return to normality, a sense that the links with the rest of the world can go beyond charity. At its best, tourism can give a little bit of incentive to stability, since tourists scuttle quickly at the first sign of danger. Done right, it can spread money around to those who really need it.

When I showed up, unannounced, at the beach guesthouse, a whole team of people mustered to get it running for me. During my three days there, I was employing a cook, a night guard, a cleaning lady and a manager – though on $20 a day for all of it, which is a tragically small amount for each of them.

There is a line of argument that sees all tourism as inherently exploitative; I do not think it is entirely wrong. However, the question for a country like Sierra Leone is, unfortunately, which kind of exploitation it chooses.

I cannot help but feel that selling access to a nation’s treasures, as opposed to selling those treasures themselves, is the mix that might bring the most help with the least harm. Still, when I pass someone suffering on my way to buy a sandwich, I cannot help but feel more than a little callous.

I think, though, that that little sting of guilt means that you are in a place where your money will do the most good. If we, the privileged few, refuse to visit anywhere suffering persists, we only help make real our misconceptions.

So the next time you are thinking of a holiday, think a bit bigger – there are a lot of people who will thank you for it.

Josh Smyth is an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University. His column “Lines on a Map” will be a recurring feature in Cord International. It will document Josh’s travel adventures throughout Western Africa. In Sept. 2009, Josh Smyth was traveling in Sierra Leone and wrote this column.