Idris Elba Poised to Re-brand Sierra Leone & Boost Tourism

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By Amin Kef Sesay

 Popular world class celebrity, Idris Elba, is now a new Brand Ambassador of Sierra Leone. He is all set and poised to rebrand the country’s image and boost tourism.  Just as the West African country was getting back on its feet after more than a decade of civil war, the virus struck, killing thousands over a period of two years.

Guided by Kai Saquee, an actor and winner of Sierra Leone’s Big Brother, Idris recently paid a nine-day visit to Sierra Leone, as UK tour-operators start showing interest again in its silky beaches, primate-rich rainforest and Krio (creole) culture. Revitalising the tourism sector is a key element of the nation’s development plan.

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The objective is to upgrade historic and cultural sites over the next three years and promote eco- and adventure tourism. A key part of that promotion will be played by Idris Elba. The actor and musician – whose father was born in Sierra Leone – was granted citizenship when he visited his father’s homeland in December 2019.

During the visit, he announced his intention to invest in the country’s developing tourist economy and on Christmas Eve, President Julius Maada Bio made Elba a Brand Ambassador for the nation, entrusting him to tell “the world a new narrative about a Sierra Leone that is ready to grow and a nation that is … looking forward.”

Spreading the wealth of diamond mining

“I have a taste of what’s in store when I visit Kono in Eastern District, the country’s diamond mining centre where in 1972 the 969-carat Star of Sierra Leone was found, the fourth-largest diamond ever. During wartime Kono was devastated as opposing factions sought the power that diamonds could buy,” Kai disclosed furthering that today, such dreams of wealth prevail at Bandefaye village community mine, where he says the diamonds are now a force for good.

The open-cast mine is half the size of a football pitch. Stepped terraces in the clay are being hand-dug by shovels and picks. The idea of a community mine, says its financial overseer, El-Hadj Marar, is the villagers’ share in any good fortune. He financially supports the workers until they make a find then pays them depending on the carats unearthed, taking a 25 per cent cut.

“We dig with prayers,” says Mohammed, shin-deep in water. “Finding a five-carat diamond could change my family’s fortune.”

The negative association with wartime “blood diamonds” has prompted Sierra Leone’s tourist board to plan to adopt a new emblem of a chimpanzee to replace its diamond logo. Near Kono, chimpanzees inhabit the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary situated on a river within the Upper Guinea forest ecosystem.

Tiwai is home to a stellar cast of primates, 11 species on one tiny island. The rainforest crackles with the whoops and howls of sooty mangabey and red colobus, although we don’t see chimpanzees.

Primate suspects

Yet poachers’ gunfire within the reserve reminds how bushmeat remains on the menu throughout Sierra Leone even despite an established link between eating primates and Ebola. This issue is highlighted outside the capital, Freetown, at Tacugama, a rescue reserve for 100 orphaned chimpanzees. “For every baby chimp taken for the pet trade or bushmeat, 10 others will be killed collaterally,” says Manager Aram Kazandjian.

His refuge gives chimps a second-chance in semi-wild conditions; they will never be released because the hand-reared youngsters lack survival skills  “ I fawn over the cuteness of cuddly seven-month-old Caesar, an orphaned baby chimp restored to health by a surrogate human mum,” he continued..

Close by, on Tokeh Beach, Kai said he spent a night at Sierra Leone’s only five-star resort, The Place, where the talc-fine sand arcs around a bay sheltering brightly painted fishing pirogues.

“The slavers traded men with African chiefs for guns and tobacco. Life wasn’t worth much,” says the island’s caretaker, Mohammed Sandey.

“They threw the dead slaves into the ocean,” Mohammed sighs.

Back in Freetown a gold-painted statue is dedicated to African American Thomas Peters near the Big Market where tourists can buy souvenirs. Peters not only escaped slavery and fought against his former “masters” but also persuaded the British to fund the return of 15 ships of ex-slaves from Nova Scotia to West Africa.

In 1792 Freetown was born when, led by Peters, they stepped ashore. It was a turning point for Sierra Leone. Hopefully, with civil war and Ebola now consigned to history, the nation has a bright future again.

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