November 2013:  Sierra Leone is like Liberia in that it was intended to be used for the relocation of freed African slaves from British Territories. My main motivation to visit was the movie Blood Diamond, one of my favorites and a huge inspiration for me to visit Sierra Leone and Liberia, the setting for the war taking place in the movie. The war in the 90’s that lasted until the early 2000s in both countries was one of the most brutal wars of the modern era and the tactics used by opposing warlords were plain and simple savage. Terror was used as a phycological weapon by warlords to control the population. Rape and mass murder were used to terrorize villagers and children were abducted and forced into becoming soldiers. It was a war largely fought over control of diamond fields and hundreds of thousands were killed. I visited Sierra Leone for 4days to learn more about the conflict, how the country has rebounded and to try and spot a pygmy hippo in the nature reserve of Tiwai Island.

 

My route

My flight from Senegal to Freetown, capitol of Sierra Leone was delayed because of a mechanical issue in the plane that caused me to have an unexpected layover for the night in the Gambia. When I finally did arrive in Freetown, it was early in the morning. To get into the city from the airport, which is on an island, a speed boat is required. The only other airport I can think of where a boat is needed to get into the city is in male, Maldives.  Once in Freetown, I booked a hotel on the beach where many of the beach bars featured in the movie, Blood Diamond are located. Then I hired a taxi to travel to the Liberia consulate to obtain a visa because Liberia would be my next destination after Siera Leone. From Freetown I traveled via public transportation bus and motor bike taxi to Tiwai island.

 

 

 

Police Corruption

I knew before coming to Sierra Leone that I would have to encounter corrupt police and I was expecting it. On my way to Tiwai, I had to change buses in kanema and while I was seated in the front of a shared taxi bus a plan clothed police officer approached me. he asked me some harmless questions pretending to be a curious local and then showed me a badge and demanded my passport. Suspecting corruption, I didnt give him my physical passport. Instead, I gave him a copy of my passport and visa. He looked at it and demanded my actual passport. I played dumb and stalled and tried to act confused and gave him another paper copy. The man become furious and was demanding my passport and accused me of smuggling diamonds.  He explained that I needed to go with him to jail but I refused to budge. There were other police officers in the area in uniform and they were not involved. When I asked him why he wasn’t in uniform, he responded I will be right back with a uniformed officer. When he turned away, I requested help from other passengers in the shared taxi and I quickly explained to them who I was. They jumped to my assistance and started arguing with the man when he came back. The man was becoming angrier, and I decided to compromise by showing him my passport without giving it to him. he agreed to this and now that I was equipped with a van full of supporters, his ruse to shake down money from me not successful, he moved on to the next victim. I continued on with the shared taxi van until I reached a point where I had to switch to a motor bike taxi to complete my journey to Tiwai village where I would need to make arrangements to go by boat to Tiwai island.

 

 

 

Traveling across country by bus

Tiwai Village

I spent a few hours at the Tiwai village meeting everyone and playing with the children. The chief was very friendly and explained tome the history of the village during the war. According to him the village was raided by the R.U.F rebels during the civil war and because of the village’s connection to the wildlife reserve at Tiwai island, the rebels demanded to know where as they put it, “the white people” keep their money.  The villagers of course didn’t know and as punishment, the rebels took children, forced them into becoming soldiers and amputated the hands of several villagers. Sadly, these villagers were then tossed into the river to drown. The rebels then occupied the village and wildlife reserve for over ten years. The rebels are gone now, the animals are rebounding, and the people have returned to their lives. The violence was primarily fueled by diamonds that were mined by slaves and then used to purchase weapons from Liberia. The good news is Sierra Leone has put this chapter behind them and is on a path of peace and forgiveness and hopefully these crimes of the past will not be repeated.

Typical village home

Chief of Tiwai Village

The telling face of an elder in a Sierra Leone Village.

School I visited where I taught the children about my home in San Diego and about  whales and surfing

friendly village kid

friendly village kid

Child with fetish around her nexk for good luck 

Tiwai Island

I negotiated prices for 2 nights of camping in Tiwai village in my own tent, for food , canoing and hiking. The motorboat they typically use to take tourists to the island was stolen and I had to travel by the more exotic dugout canoe, with a man standing on the back paddling. As we made our way to the island a snake swam by us in the river.

Snake swimming by us in river

Dugout canoe I used to get to the island

Fisherman

Tiwai island is a huge wild island covered in rainforest with no development. It is a community-based conservation program where the local villages all benefit from tourism money and can use its resources in a sustainable manner. The eco camp where I stayed was entirely run by villagers and by day, I was guided into the forest along miles of trails to look for wildlife and in the morning and afternoon by dugout canoe to look for crocodiles and pygmy hippos. Tiwai island is surrounded by forest reserves and is part of the giant Gola Forest ecosystem, one of the last remaining forests in western Africa.

Primates I saw on a hike

Primates I saw on a hike

The rainforest on Tiwai is vast and I hiked for hours on multiple occasions and observed lots of rare primates but I didn’t see the chimpanzees that also live on the island.

Primates I saw on a hike

Me in front of a large old growth tree

Looking for a Pygmy Hippo

Pygmy hippos are miniature cute sized versions of their much larger and meaner relatives the full-sized hippo, which I was almost killed by when one attacked by canoe in the Zambezi River of Zimbabwe. Pygmy hippos are highly elusive and rare and difficult to spot in the wild. They do live in the waters around Tiwai island but are almost impossible to spot and one national geographic team spent weeks searching for them day and night and finally spotted one at the end of their stay.  So, when I went out on a dugout canoe ride at sunset, I didn’t expect to see anything but only 30 minutes later as we were rounding a bend in the jungle in some rapids my guide and I spotted a mother and baby pygmy hippo in the water only a few feet away from us. They stayed still for a minute before disappearing underwater and both my guide and I were in disbelief. My guide confessed he has never seen a pygmy hippo before until now.

River at sunset

Canoeing down the river

Mother and baby pygmy hippo

Mother pygmy hippo

Sunset from Tiwaii island

The whole camp at Tiwai was excited that I saw a pygmy hippo and we celebrated and had some warm beers to celebrate at dinner under candlelight.

Camp at night

More Police Corruption

The next morning, I was paddled back across the river to the village, and I found a person willing to take me to the Liberian border via motor taxi. The voyage was long, difficult via horrific roads and I traveled on the back of a motor bike holding on for dear life as my driver drove for approx. 5 hours to get to the Liberian border. Most of the roads were nonexistent and were little more than jungle trails and one occasion a group of men who appeared to be bandits were ahead with a rope stretched out across the trail to stop our motor bike, but my motor bike driver caught it on time and detoured around them with no hesitation.  and I encountered multiple corrupt police checkpoints along the way. I was constantly brought into an office while a police officer attempted to convince me to give them a “present.” This process delayed me by hours. I will never forget the police chief who tried one last time to convince me to pay him money. He pleaded with me by saying,” do you know how hard it is to be a black man in Africa.” My response to him at the moment was well it isn’t easy being a white man either.

 

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