WHe's up here on the "Coconut Terrace" at the Country Lodge Hotel. The noise of the streets, the honking, the permanent traffic jam, the confusion of voices, in short: the sensory overload that stings on the newcomer who has been slightly deranged from the flight – she has not penetrated so far.
The air high above the stuffy million metropolis Freetown is pleasantly fresh, the drinks are iced, mosquitoes rarely get lost here. The members of the "National Dance Troupe" dance to drum rolls and marimba sounds. For many, who want to discover the West African Sierra Leone, this is the first opportunity to take a deep breath – 261 meters above sea level, where the light of the setting sun breaks shimmering in the mild evening light.
The capital of the country of the Lion Mountains, so the translation of the Spanish name, shows itself at its best in this place. And that is something she needs sorely because Sierra Leone is still associated with civil war, blood diamonds and Ebola.
President Julius Maada Bio, who was re-elected a year ago, wants to convince the world that the little country on Africa's west coast has the potential to become a tourist gem. Not an easy task.
Freetown is a capital with empty beaches
The traces of history, visible and invisible, continue to shape Sierra Leone today. Next door to the hotel, the colonial glory gnawed by the ravages of time, the building of the once noble Hill Station Club, until the departure of the British in 1961, a meeting place of blasé European gentlemen.
The British writer Graham Greene, who first lodged in Freetown on a special mission for British intelligence in the 1930s and later in World War II, is said to have drunk pink gin variations up here with friends. Against the malaria. And against homesickness.
"If I write now from Freetown, how unnaturally rosy my picture would be, because I remember especially the sunsets …", Greene wrote in the preface of his Africa novel "Journey Without Maps", when he was already back in the cold kingdom was.
The sunsets have stayed, on the "River Number Two Beach" for example. Most traces of the "colonial glory," which was in truth mostly scary, are eradicated in Freetown, however. There may not be many millions of cities worldwide that have kilometers of almost empty sandy beaches.
Beach life means having a good time: mini-restaurants serve freshly prepared lobster or barracuda, while your feet are buried in the white sand under umbrellas. Around the bay of Yawri, where Freetown is also located, there are many such beaches, some of them ideal for snorkelling and diving.
What holds Sierra Leone together
The beach life is so relaxed, so time-consuming are the paths as soon as you leave the capital. They lead over roads that Chinese companies are currently pulling across the country. But rental cars in Sierra Leone are conveniently rented out with driver, mini-buses or larger intercity buses are consistently cheap and safe.
And the farther one moves away from the somewhat chaotic capital, the happier one will embrace a small country. Seven million inhabitants, 15 ethnic groups, 25 languages - what is the bond holding Sierra Leone together?
First and foremost history, marked by the pursuit of freedom and self-determination. Even the name of the capital Freetown testifies to it.
Most notably, this stretch of land on Africa's west coast, now Sierra Leone, was once a giant railroad yard of robbed and enslaved people shipped from here to the so-called New World, particularly to South Carolina and Georgia in today's USA.
Bunce Island became hell for tens of thousands
Ruins are reminiscent of this, for example on Bunce Island, an island in the estuary of the rivers Bankasoka and Rokel. The remains of a fortress built in 1670, armed with mighty cannons, represent a national heritage threatened with disappearance.
50,000 Africans passed through this place of hell, most likely the ancestors of the former First Lady of the USA, Michelle Obama. They were, said historians, shipped from here directly to the plantations of South Carolina. But for many Africans it was already the final destination. Because they were too weak to travel across the Atlantic, they were "disposed of" in pits.
Bunce Island, these are today a few fragile walls that continue to weather in the sun and sea air. But the memory does not need a polished historical spectacle. Here stones, holes and trees tell stories. Or people like the 28-year-old Francis Musa Memo, who leads tourists across the island.
"Above all, black Americans are looking for clues," says Francis, "many visitors cry". Does it make a difference for him today to lead white Europeans whose ancestors were once responsible for this misery? "Even Europeans were once victims of slavery," says Francis.
And then in principle: "We Africans have to get out of this slave trap, away with this victim. African history is more diverse than this chapter of slavery. We have to look ahead and draw strength from the past. "
In the US, judges released the slaves
Powerful are episodes like those of the slave ship "La Amistad", which started from Bunce Island. Off the coast of America, the Africans succeeded in overpowering the crew and getting rid of their chains.
They took over the ship, but then went to the Coast Guard in the catches. The Supreme Court of the still young United States released the Africans because the British had already banned the Atlantic slave trade in 1807.
The case sparked a fierce controversy within the United States that culminated in civil war, at least that's what Steven Spielberg's 1997 movie "Amistad" portrays. Many Africans succeeded in emerging from the "New World," which for them was a world of bondage to return to Africa – the "Black Loyalists" for example, black volunteers who had fought on the British side in the War of Independence against the Americans.
From the sea, the returnees saw the mighty "Cotton Tree", which today stands in the center of Freetown. The 700-year-old tree in the heart of the "City of Liberty" is one of its landmarks, countless bats hang on it. The descendants of the returnees, in Sierra Leone Krio With two percent of the population, today they are a small but very powerful ethnic group.
Tourists can visit the chimpanzees
It was also the urge for freedom, albeit under completely different circumstances, that moved another being and made him a folk hero: Bruno.
The story of this chimpanzee begins in 1989. The couple Bala and Sharmila Amarasekaran saw in a small village 150 kilometers north of Freetown a young chimpanzee, which was offered for sale. "He looked pathetic, his eyes seemed to be saying, get me out of here," says Bala, who had come to Sierra Leone with his parents just a few years earlier from the East Asian civil war country of Sri Lanka. He called the primate Bruno and raised him in his house.
The couple bought another pet, Julie. After the government had provided him with an area in the Western Area Forest Reserve near the capital in 1995, Bala became the initiator of the Sierra Leonean Chimpanzee Protection Program.
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The Tacugama project, supported and often visited by the world's most famous chimpanzee protector, Jane Goodall, became one of the rare success stories in West Africa: within two years, the center housed 24 apes. Today, about 100 sick or orphaned chimpanzees are nurtured in the station, their goal is their release.
Thousands of tourists visit every year and the camp also offers accommodation. In 2016, the chimpanzee was declared national animal of the country. In Sierra Leone's dense rainforests, more than 5,000 of the endangered primates now live again.
"King Bruno" became a kind of national myth
For example, on Tiwai Island, the country's most famous wildlife sanctuary, located in the Moa River, 330 kilometers southeast of Freetown. Eleven primate species live here on an area of only twelve square kilometers in size.
But the chimpanzees are not the only stars. If you take the arduous road to Tiwai Island, you come for the acutely endangered and therefore extremely rare pygmy hippos.
Such as Diede van Delft and Erik Wehrens, two young Dutchmen who work in the country as doctors and spend a free weekend here. "But we probably will not see hippos," says Erik. "Three days are not enough. But it does not matter. It's just great to be in the middle of the rainforest. "
And Bruno? Was the uncrowned king of the Tacugama project – until that fatal April 23, 2006, when all of Sierra Leone was reminded that not only people are striving for freedom. Together with 30 other chimpanzees Bruno broke out.
A taxi driver who got in the way of the animals lost his life. Over the next few weeks, 27 of the orphaned chimpanzees returned – not so Bruno. He was seen several times, he was in photo-traps, but his track was lost years ago.
"I think he still lives somewhere out there," Bala Amarasekaran is convinced. Even after 13 years, he believes in a reunion with his offspring. Meanwhile, several books and documentary films about "King Bruno" have appeared, he has become in Sierra Leone to a kind of national myth.
Something is missing somewhere in the country – be it that in the village lacks a chicken or in the budget of the government gapes a financial hole – then it is often said: King Bruno was it.
Tips and information
Getting there: Brussels Airlines flies from several German airports via Brussels to Freetown, Air France flies via Paris, Royal Air Maroc connects Frankfurt via Casablanca with Freetown.
Accommodation: "The Place Resort" is located on the Tokeh Beach just outside Freetown, double room from 140 Euro (stayattheplace.com).
The Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel in Freetown is located in the north of the city, double rooms from 140 Euros (radissonhotels.com). Cheap and good is the "Swiss Hotel", double room from 82 Euro (theswisshotelsl.com).
The Chimpanzee Protection Project Spends Overnight at Rainforest Eco Lodges, Double Bed & Breakfast from 87 Euros (tacugama.com).
Information desk: sierraleonenationaltouristboard.com
Participation in the trip was supported by Sierra Leone Tourist Board. Our standards of transparency and journalistic independence can be found at axelspringer.de/unabhaengigkeit.
Sierra Leone (t) Country Portraits (t) Freetown (t) Chimpanzees (t) Chimpanzees (t) Beach Vacations (t) Slavery (t) Atlantic (t) Sun (t) Rainforest (t) Sierra Leone Krio (t ) Swiss Hotel (t) Travel (t) National Dance Troupe (t) Bunce Island (t) Sierra Leones (t) Freetown (t) Country Lodge Hotel (t) Julius Maada Bio (t) History (t) South Carolina (t ) Mosquito (t) New World (t) Sierra Leone (t) Africa (t) USA