Digging up the future

In Hollywood “romcom” movies, you’ll sometimes see the male lead whisk away his lady in a blindfold for a surprise holiday. When they arrive, he removes her blindfold and she gushes in delight. Maybe that was an episode of The Bachelor, but I think you know what I’m talking about.

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

If such a thing were ever to happen to you, and you were brought to Bureh Beach, you would almost certainly think you were in the Caribbean. Along Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsula, below Freetown, there are a dozen-or-so beaches like this. The beach known as River Number 2 was used in a classic Bounty chocolate bar ad.

Tokeh Beach, south of Freetown

Tokeh Beach, south of Freetown

Some of these beaches are just 30 minutes from the capital. For a country as poor as Sierra Leone, the potential benefits from tourism are huge. But before that can happen, the country needs to improve its infrastructure. Freetown’s international airport is currently in Lungi, at the opposite side of a wide estuary. It’s a $40, 40-minute ferry ride to Freetown (cheaper ferries take longer). Getting to a beach from the airport is a long and cumbersome affair.

The government recently announced plans to build a new airport south of Freetown, quite close to the beaches. A new road is also under construction to bypass central Freetown, giving even quicker access to the beaches. Sierra Leone is a six-hour flight from Europe, the same as the Caribbean. It would seem as though all the pieces will soon be in place for a tourism boom. One obstacle remains. Sand Mining.

Legal sand miners on their way back from John Obey Beach

Sand miners on their way back from John Obey Beach – where mining is allowed on a limited basis.

The recent economic growth in Sierra Leone has seen a jump in the number of public and private construction projects. Sand is an important ingredient in this building industry, and free sand is just sitting on the beaches near Freetown. For years, trucks would head to the beaches and teams of men with their shovels would spend the day filling them up. Back-breaking work, but work nonetheless. Recently, this practice has been mostly outlawed. The government now only allows mining during daylight hours at one beach at a time. But the sand mining still happens on most beaches at night time.

A guest house owner told us that these rocks were once covered in sand.

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts told us that these rocks were once covered in flat sand.

Radio Democracy Journalist Keziah Gbondo and I headed down to Lakka Beach to find out more about the effect of the mining, and the extent to which it still continues. Guest house owner Marcus Roberts took us on a tour of the beach and showed us how the landscape had changed over the past decade. He told us how visitors now complain of sprained ankles because of the unnaturally sharp slope on the beach.

Around the corner he took us on a tour of a swanky seaside house, abandoned by its Lebanese owner about a decade ago. Its pool now half-collapsed into the sea. Other residents nearby told us they now fear for the future of their own houses, large and small.

Keziah Gbondo interviews Marcus Roberts by an abandoned house in Lakka

Keziah Gbondo interviews Marcus Roberts by an abandoned house in Lakka

Later that night, we walked the beach, looking for miners. For hours, all we could see were flash lights in the distance, but when walked on we saw no one, just some tell-tale trenches feshly-dug in the beach. Eventually, at 1:30 a.m. we found one miner, filling a bag and lifting it off the beach

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts finds a freshly-dug sand pit

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts finds a freshly-dug sand pit

He looked petrified, but agreed to speak to us if we kept his identity secret. He was in his mid-twenties and had a weak-looking right leg – an injury picked up during his days as a child soldier in the civil war. He told us he had no education, so this is the only way he can earn a living. He gets two or three dollars a night. He says police sometimes catch miners like him. They ask for a bribe rather than issuing an official fine.

A sand miner with a bag of sand on Lakka Beach

A sand miner with a bag of sand on Lakka Beach

The local police unit commander blamed a lack of resources for not being able to stop the miners. The Executive Director of the EPA told us how she values the beaches as a vital part of the country’s environment. But for now, the mining continues, and locals dig up their future, to feed themselves today.

Inside an abandoned house near Lakka Beach

Inside an abandoned house near Lakka Beach

Keziah Gbondo’s story aired this month on Good Morning Salone on Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. The producer said it had a remarkably high response from listeners, in support of protecting Sierra Leone’s “Taste of Paradise”.

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