Flights of Fancy

Posted on Nov 13, 2013

“Even after a decade of democracy, Sierra Leone’s reputation is still blighted by the civil war. Yet it is one of the safest countries in West Africa with breathtaking beaches, rich natural resources and a vibrant culture. Book your trip now before the rest of the world catches up”.

Sounds enticing doesn’t it? It’s the introduction to an article on Sierra Leone in the August 2013 edition of British Airway’s inflight magazine high life. If you want to fly direct from the UK to Sierra Leone BA from Heathrow is your only choice. So it’s not surprising they want to publicise the joys of the place and fill those planes. Nothing wrong with that, they’ve got a business to run. Except for how they do it.

high life reminds us that back in the 1980’s, before the terrible civil war, Sierra Leone was a ‘playboy paradise’ for the glitterati. The awfulness of the conflict ended all that. Today the unspoilt, tourist-free, long sandy beaches and delightful islands are a visitors’ dream. BA will fly you to this heaven on earth to luxuriate in its natural beauty and chat with the warm, friendly locals. The enduring image they portray is of the famous Bounty bar ‘taste of paradise ’ads that were filmed here.

And it’s true. I have experienced it. The beaches on the south coast, a short drive from Freetown, are indeed glorious and empty. The people are generally very friendly. But this area is only a tiny part of the whole country and the Bounty image is a miniscule part of Sierra Leone’s reality.

After ten years of political stability and democracy the broader economic signs are mildly encouraging. But Sierra Leone remains rooted at the bottom end of the United Nations Human Development Index, ranked 179 out of 187 countries. International aid still makes up about 40% of the Government budget, money for education and health is woefully scarce, 70% of the population live below the poverty line, life expectancy is less than 50 years, the literacy level is one of the lowest in the world and infant mortality is one of the highest. Maternal mortality is seventy four times higher than in the UK and is the third highest in the world. Female Genital Mutilation is still widely practised.

These facts are the reality of life for most Sierra Leoneans. They give a sour taste to high life’s description of this lovely dinner

A couple of hours later, we sit down to an open-air, five-course banquet complete with softly poached eggs, perfect hollandaise and tender roast quail. Bottles of chilled white wine appear as candlelight flickers over little vases of artfully arranged flowers.

And images of Freetown’s appalling slums fight in my mind with their description of charming accommodation

There are half a dozen beautiful traditional-style chalets here, and the standard is really very good. Pristine white bedding, a private terrace where a breakfast of fruits and local breads appears magically in the morning, your own lazy hammock.

It’s not that high life is wrong. What they describe exists. It’s that the picture they paint is so incredibly partial. Where is the other, bigger, Sierra Leone , the land of the ninety nine percent? Not just the enormity of the problems, but the work of many dedicated people seeking to overcome them. They are in schools, hospitals, farms, fishing communities and small businesses, not on golden beaches or idyllic islands.

Of course high life’s is a travel piece not a report from the United Nations. Its job is to sell seats. But they have a duty to inform as they titillate for profit. I drew a sharp intake of breath reading this brief account of village life

A trip here is an eye-opening journey into villages where elegant women still pound maize and cook over open fires, children play football amid bleating goats, and village chiefs drink palm wine and ruminate at length on the state of the world

The romantic implication here is quite irresponsible. I have been to such villages and seen these scenes. This is rural poverty being written about and it is not endearing. Chiefs get drunk, children covered more by sores than clothes scramble in the dirt, women sweat doing everything while men sit around doing nothing. This is no rural idyll in the Shire. It is too easy to glorify life pounding maize when you can go home to the Magimix.

Should you go? Yes. Buy a BA ticket and visit Sierra Leone. But keep your eyes and mind wide open. And go beyond the Bounty ads.

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