Sierra Leone Today
In 2013, things were on the up in Sierra Leone. Ernest Bai Koroma had just won a second term in power in an election hailed as a marker of the peaceful postwar era, and the country was poised for an iron ore boom, as well as increased interest in tourism. Then in 2014 the devastating Ebola epidemic hit, freezing much of the country's economy. This was swiftly followed by a crash in the world price of metals and the collapse of two of the country's biggest mining companies, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. The country had gone from one of Africa's fastest-growing economies in 2013 to the world's fastest-shrinking economy in 2015.
With Sierra Leone finally declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in March 2016, and the government implementing plans to expand agricultural growth, the country is slowly starting to rebuild itself – a revival that will hopefully be bolstered by much needed growth in the tourist industry now that the country is safe to visit once more.
The two largest of the 18 tribal groups, the Temnes of the north and Mendes of the south, each make up about one-third of the population. Krios, mostly living in Freetown, constitute about 1.5% of the population but a large percentage of the professional class.
About 70% of Sierra Leoneans are Muslim; around 20% Christian; and a further 10% or so are followers of traditional or animist faiths. The majority of Christians live in the south. Sierra Leoneans are very tolerant, and mixed marriages are common.
The Mendes and Temnes operate a system of secret societies responsible for maintaining culture and tradition. For example, if you see young girls with their faces painted white, you'll know that they're in the process of being initiated. They wear coloured beads when finished.
When Sierra Leoneans get together, talk always seems to turn to politics, development and corruption. The war did much to foster nationalism (everyone suffered together), but the elections showed that a significant north–south, Temne–Mende divide remains and it has become natural for the political parties to exploit it. Some people worry about how this will play out in coming years.
Sierra Leone is known for its fabrics, especially country cloth, a coarse, naturally dyed cotton material, and gara, a thin tie-dyed or batik-printed sheet. Distinctive Temne basketry also makes a good souvenir.
For a classic, there's Graham Greene's colonial-era The Heart of the Matter, set in Freetown. Aminatta Forna's The Memory of Love is a thrilling, poignant take on the effect of the conflict in Sierra Leone, and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah tells the story of the civil war through the eyes of a child soldier.
Sierra Leone's coast is lined with cracking beaches, mangrove swamps and many islands. The Freetown peninsula is one of the few places in West Africa where mountains rise near the sea. Inland are sweeping plains punctuated by random mountains, including Mt Bintumani (1945m), one of West Africa's highest peaks. About 30% of the country is forested and significant patches of primary rainforest remain in the south and east.
Outamba-Kilimi National Park (which still has elephants) in the north, and Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary (incredible for primates) in the south are worth a visit, but don't expect East African–style wildlife encounters.