A few days in Sierra Leone

I knew as we flew into Freetown that I was going to like Sierra Leone. The country seemed from the air to be a combination of tropical forest, rivers, and white sandy beaches, and then Freetown itself – unlike the flat capitals along the rest of this coast – seems to be a mass of colourful ramshackle buildings clinging to the sides of numerous very steep hills.

Lungi airport is the other side of a big river mouth from the city, so on arrival you are faced with a choice between a 45-minute ferry trip or a 7-minute flight in an old Russian military helicopter. The ferry has a bit of a reputation for being overcrowded and therefore unsafe, so despite the loss of a helicopter earlier this year (it crashed into the ground and burst into flames killing all 21 people on board) most people still recommend the flight.

Apparently they have no Operating Certificate – or alternatively the International Civil Aviation Authority had evaluated them a few weeks prior to the crash, and came up with a long list of things that needed to be fixed before they were safe to continue flying, but the helicopter company bribed officials shortly afterward to get permission to resume flying – depending on who you believe.

Sierra Leone is well-known for its corruption (one of the worst countries in the world), and it is certainly something that has made the operations of my own NGO very difficult here. But I took the helicopter, and as you are reading this you know that I made it across in one piece! It wasn’t my first time on a helicopter, as I took one in Australia to get from the mainland to Heron Island, but this was a rather different experience, with six or seven passengers seated along either side of its grey, military interior and the pilots in a cabin at the front. There were seatbelts but nobody told us to use them… along the side were portholes, several of them open, from where we had some lovely views of the coast. It was over all too quickly.

I wish I had longer here to actually see the place, and maybe to experience a little of the night life. There is laughter everywhere, and lots of music, and altogether it seems like a happy, fun place. Apparently the reaction for a lot of people, as the country recovers from a long and brutal civil war, is to party (although maybe not the double amputee begging at the airport). Next time I will stay for longer.

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