<%-- Page Title--%> Impressions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 108 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

June 6, 2003

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Letter from Sierra Leone

In Greene's Freetown HopeTriumphs

Parvez Khan

Fifty-four years after he presented readers his oft-referred novel, I took a long flight from New York and headed for the place that I never thought I would ever find myself in. After stopovers and switching flights in Paris, the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, and a very romantic-sounding Conakry, the capital of Guinea, I finally boarded a giant helicopter that flew me into Freetown. It's been more than a year now; I am in Graham Greene's Sierra Leone.
The country's decade-long civil war was declared over in January 2002. The once-feared Revolutionary United Front rebels metamorphosed themselves into a political entity, and after much suspense, opted to participate in the nation's first post-war elections. Their performance was decisively poor, and not surprisingly, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah won a handsome second term. Slowly, things have started shaping up.

Freetown still has an eerie resemblance to what Greene described in his Heart of the Matter. Foun-ded in 1787 as a colony for the freed slaves and finally granted independence in 1961 by the British, a colonial aura still hangs over Sierra Leone's capital city. You walk down the narrow lanes and notice their English names. Small hamlets surrounding Freetown would make you think as though you were crisscrossing England: Leicester, Gloucester, Sussex, York, Kent and so on. Right at the city-centre there is a huge 500-year-old cotton tree. The earliest settlers who came to Freetown are said to have spent their first night under the tree. Recently some people wanted to cut it down, as they considered it to have brought misfortune to the country. A few yards from the cotton tree is the Law Courts building which houses Sierra Leone's higher judiciary. You meet Chief Justice Abdulai Timbo in his small, almost non-descript chambers and come out admiring him for running the show with barely any resources. And Freetown boasts having Fourah Bay College, West Africa's oldest university founded in 1827.
Rebels invaded and destroyed part of Freetown in 1999. People were lined up and killed. And yet, astonishingly, when you meet people, their disarming smile will make you appreciate the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. They would unfailingly greet you saying “how di body”, meaning how are you, as if they knew you fairly well. Officials, mercifully, do not suffer from typical third world protocol syndrome. I just had to call State Chief of Protocol Suley Daramy to be able to greet the President at his modest hill top lodge on the Eid day. Ministers are willing to meet you at short notice. I was quite surprised when Ernest Bai Koroma who is leading the Opposition in Parliament gladly joined me for a lunch over a telephone request. All of them are genuinely warm, willing to talk about their struggle and aspirations, and somehow you develop an instant personal rapport.
Freetown is slowly shedding off its war-torn look. Bazaars are again full of bustle and noise. Packed minibuses with colourful philosophical slogans like "the gate of hell is money" or "no success without labour" literally crawl on city streets. Along the beach one now has the luxury of a few makeshift restaurants and bars. A few mini supermarkets have cropped up, all owned by Lebanese. A newcomer would be surprised to see that almost all the cars on the streets are Mercedes: five thousand dollars would fetch a decent used one, imported from Europe.

Pundits from the outside world are often sceptical about Sierra Leone's future. True, despite its rich mineral resources the country is the poorest in the world. Yes, its diamonds are a curse, as they have fuelled conflict in the past. But then the war has wasted a generation that is almost lost and cannot be expected to quickly match the pace. One has to accept it-- development will take some time. The other day, I saw a girl with her little brother in front of my house. Electricity, as usual, was gone and the generator was on. I walked close to her and had found her doing homework in the dim light coming out of a hole in the gate. And I knew instantly Sierra Leone has a future.


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