In Foreign Parts: The Battle-Weary Village That Wants to Swap Guns for the Tourist Dollar

Article excerpt

THE LAST tourists to visit Number Two River, on the coast south of Freetown, did not bring much business. They did, however, bring guns. "Thousands of them, all over the beach. All you can see is black," said Eddie T Bell, recalling the day when a line of rebels, their wives and children tramped up the sparkling white sands, guns slung over their shoulders.

His friend, Francis K Kappia, added: "If you have food cooking, they take it. If you have money, they shoot you. Luckily we had buried our generator in the beach."

These days, the villagers of Number Two River - named after a river that spills into the sea near by - are trying to attract an altogether better class of visitor.

Prompted by the end of Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, the community has come together in an unusual venture that aims to help to rebuild one small corner of the world's poorest country, with the help of tourist dollars.

The setting is classic paradise. A long line of white sand so fine it squeaks underfoot, waving palm trees and a vast expanse of warm azure waters. This is the Atlantic, but it's not cold. With the help of $5,000 (pounds 3,500) seed capital from a departed American ambassador, the villagers have established what is in some ways a typical resort. There is cold beer at the bar, a restaurant with delicious barracuda and lobster and a bungalow for overnight stays.

The big difference is that the money pays the school fees of the villagers' children, and not the shareholders of a Western holiday company. "We need to develop," said Isaac Hope. "When the tourists come, there will be more money."

So far, the only tourists are the professional kind - UN peace- keepers, aid workers, diplomats and some local Lebanese business families.

Sierra Leone has never been a tourist hot-spot - years of corruption kept it a hidden secret, and the men in power saw bigger money in diamonds.

But gemstones have proved to be the curse of the nation. They sustained the RUF rebels through their most brutal periods and sucked in the nefarious President Charles Taylor of Liberia, who is said to have profited enormously from illegal trafficking of stones.

The country is still off limits to mass tourism, for much the same reason as thousands of British troops were sent there.

But peace is in the offing, and the future spells tourism, according to the village entrepreneurs at Number Two River. …