An Ecotourism Report From the Beaches of Sierra Leone
Editor's Note: Tribewanted is bringing ecotourism to Sierra Leone, a country in the midst of healing from an 11-year civil war. Together with the local beach community of John Obey, tribe members from around the world can come to Sierra Leone to experience the peaceful, beautiful and vibrant country while helping to support sustainable development.
By Filippo Bozotti
Tribewanted John Obey. October 20, 2010. Two weeks and change have passed since we officially launched. It has been a remarkable success, filled with experiences to last a lifetime as well as major headaches that tested one's resolve. After a major push to have the compost toilets, the bucket showers, and the kitchen ready, and after one final push to clear the container from customs, our first 11 tribemembers finally arrived on October 1, in the middle of the night.
The weather was forgiving, and we were able to pitch the first tents under the stars. The following day, we had our official launch. The whole village as well as neighboring chiefs and many journalists were present. We sacrificed a sheep for libation on the site of our first earthbag bungalow and made lots of speeches. Pojo (local palm wine), local dishes, a lot of local music, dancing, and even glass eaters followed the speeches. At dusk we played football on the beach. Later, the tribemembers dined on our newly completed dinner table under acacia trees, before a bonfire. It was a fully immersive local celebration for all, unlike anything I have ever seen.
Work resumed on the following days, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better group of first footers, ranging from a 16-year-old American girl to a 62-year-old retired Brit. Together with the tireless local staff of John Obey, we worked to build the first earthbag bungalow, to install the solar panels and to begin work on our permaculture garden. We visited the John Obey school, went shopping in the local markets, went to a local baptism celebration at the village, pulled enormous fishing nets full of fish with 50 fishermen, took krio classes, celebrated Ben’s 31st birthday the local way, played more football, and cooked many, many meals together. We have commenced work on five toilets for the community and put together a procurement list for the school (walls, benches and blackboards to start). Every day I learn something new: how to skin a small bush deer, how to lay an earthbag, how to manage a solar system. It feels like what we are doing is truly unique here. All issues, even touchy ones, are discussed openly in our morning meetings with the entire staff, and we all learn from one another a great deal.
After two weeks, some of the tribemembers departed, during an impromptu musical farewell by the community, all quite emotional. Some said it was the best experience of their lives; others, including the 62-year-old retired Brit, extended their stay.
Outside John Obey, the problems begin. In the past two weeks, after getting the run around for months from various ministries giving us empty promises that we would receive duty-free concessions, I’ve had to pay $3,500 to clear customs on a container of donated solar panels meant for community development. I even had to pay a couple hundred extra dollars in storage charges while we attempted to receive duty free…
On another occasion, the police stopped my pickup truck in the middle of Kissy Road (the only paved road to enter and exit Freetown), causing it to be hit by a bus. A mob gathered, as often happens here. We stayed put in our vehicle. Fortunately, an army official who witnessed the accident took our side. The police officers who caused the accident scattered, and we drove away with only the front right side of our truck missing…
Three days later, at the local gas station, “dirty diesel,” what is usually used to grease engines, was put in my tank instead of normal diesel, leaving me stranded with a damaged engine.
Recently, Immigration thought it useful to change its tune on allowing our tribemembers to receive visas upon landing, effective immediately. So after two weeks of clearing our tribemembers at customs without a glitch, we had less than 12 hours to secure a visa for our incoming 16-year-old tribemember, who would not have been allowed to board the plane otherwise.
On the same day, after six weeks of drilling eight dry holes (we’ve had to fetch water at a nearby stream up to now), the contractor in charge of building us a fresh-water well, a counselor in some distant district, the only person we made the mistake of hiring outside of John Obey (and paying up front), caused an accident when his team, while traveling at night, lost control of their well rig, which crashed into a local home, causing an injury for which we had to pay. When, finally, they had almost completed a functioning well, the same team disappeared without cleaning the well with chlorine. We confronted the contractor about his team's incompetence. He lost his temper and accused us in front of the whole community of being drug dealers! I found this very amusing, but we are nevertheless taking actions against him.
To add injury to insult, while the chlorine solution was being mixed in a water tank prior to being poured in the water well, Issa, one of our staff members, took a shower with it at night, causing temporary damage to his eyesight. Despite all the setbacks, we should be 24 hours away from having clean, fresh water on site.
In other news, I’ve had a crab enter my tent at 3 a.m. and been shat on by bats while sleeping on the hammock. Yesterday, as our generator (a.k.a. Necessary Evil) broke down, we officially turned on our solar tower, powering LED and CFL lights, a refrigerator, various cell phones and computers totaling over 1 Kw/h of energy. All very exciting.
The process has been a test of tenacity—like heaven and hell simultaneously. Enough experiences in two weeks to fill a book. At times, work has been more gruesome than it was back in New York, but we do have a virgin beach all to ourselves and I still bathe in the currents where the river meets the ocean at sunset. Most importantly, we have formed a real family with the John Obey community… and so we endure.
After six weeks of work, I took my first day off at a nearby beach resort and slept in a real bed, where I passed out for 14 hours…
Earthbag building is a construction method designed by CalEarth to build sustainable adobe buildings. Local earth and water are mixed, placed in rice bags, and pounded to create a paste that is cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and more insulating than normal building materials. We built a couple of schools like this in Sierra Leone and are hoping that the technique will spread to the community once we complete our bungalows.
About Filippo Bozotti: Filippo Bozotti is the co-founder of the ecotourism community, Tribewanted Sierra Leone. Bozotti is also a socially conscious documentary producer and has been working with Shine on Sierra Leone to bring education and microfinance opportunities to the once war-torn country.
More about Tribewanted Sierra Leone: All profits generated from Tribewanted Sierra Leone will be reinvested in the local John Obey community, in education and microfinance through Shine on Sierra Leone.