Sierra Leone Is Building a Tourism Industry. Meet 3 People Paving the Way.

A chimp-saving conservationist, a child soldier turned tour guide, and a tradition-bucking fashion designer are helping to put sweet Salone on the travel map.

Tourism Is Life tour guide Peter Momoh Bassie walks on a beach in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is a mix of beaches, mountains, and rainforests, and its history dates back at least 2,500 years. Peter Momoh Bassie, a guide and part owner of Tourism Is Life, wants visitors to get to know all of it.

Photo by Yulia Denisyuk

To see how the man standing before me now—wearing a T-shirt with the word FORGIVE emblazoned across the chest—has transformed his life is nothing short of remarkable. Peter Momoh Bassie was 11 years old when a brutal civil war erupted in Sierra Leone. While some kids his age were kicking around a soccer ball, he was captured three times by rebel forces and served six years in their camps as a child soldier. He watched children barely older than him ransack villages armed with AK-47s; when he tried to escape, insurgents flogged him. His meager rations, like many war children at the time, were sometimes sprinkled with “brown-brown” (cocaine laced with smokeless gunpowder)—a potent combination designed to keep troops hot-tempered and cloudy-headed. Both of Bassie’s parents died in the war, which lasted from 1991 until 2002, as well as countless friends and neighbors. When he finally broke free, it was with the help of a Nigerian soldier named Africa—and a harrowing getaway that involved a high-stakes shootout and clever subterfuge.

Bassie is 39 now and a guide and part owner of Tourism Is Life Tours, one of Sierra Leone’s leading travel agencies. He’s quick to laugh and his smile could light a thousand candles. That plus his willingness to share his past pain are both part of what makes him such a compelling guide.

Tourism is a burgeoning industry in Sierra Leone (or “sweet Salone” as locals refer to it in the Krio language), and when I visit in late February 2023, part of a hosted press trip with four other journalists, I am eager to learn how a country that has faced so much adversity can build a vibrant tourism sector from scratch.

A new solar-powered airport—the first in West Africa—opened in early March in Freetown. The World Bank is supporting half a dozen tourism-centric infrastructure projects throughout the West African nation of 8.4 million people, and Dr. Memunatu B. Pratt, the former Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, implemented nationwide cleanup days to make Sierra Leone’s broad, sandy beaches a point of local pride. (Sierra Leone has more than 300 miles of coastline.)

International hotel chains such as Kempinski and Crowne Plaza are rumored to be sniffing out new opportunities in the capital of Freetown, a frenetic city with more than 1 million residents, while locally owned eco-camps are going up in far-flung corners of its splendidly biodiverse landscape. Part of the Upper Guinea rainforest ecosystem, the country is rich in Indigenous flora and fauna, including rare and threatened primates and marine species, such as turtles and manatees.

The country’s biggest draw, however, are Sierra Leoneans themselves: as friendly as can be and ready to turn the page on their recent past, the decade-long civil war, and the tragic Ebola outbreak. Their indomitable resiliency is helping to write a new chapter for the country they call home.

Guiding into the future

Tourism Is Life Tours, founded by Bassie’s mentor Alieya Alie Kargbo, arranges thoughtful tours of Freetown, as well as more intrepid expeditions to Gola Rainforest National Park, a hub for pygmy hippos, and trekking excursions to Mount Bintumani, the tallest peak in Sierra Leone. As my group loafed around the western and northern circuits on our weeklong tour, some locations evoke vivid memories for Bassie: a heavily forested demarcation line on the Freetown Peninsula where scores of fighters lost their lives, or a rebel camp upcountry where child soldiers slept in trenches, only to be awakened by guerrillas urinating on them. When Bassie, a father of three and a staunch Catholic, reflects on this period of his life, he does so with an almost Zen-like calm. “I was once a rebel, yes, but I never killed no one,” he says.

After completing a societal-reintegration program for child mercenaries, Bassie did odd jobs like fetching wood for his sister-in-law or baking cakes to sell in Freetown. He returned to secondary school and continued his education at Milton Margai Technical University, eventually landing a managerial position at Sierra Leone’s park-like Peace and Culture Monument in Freetown. Now most of his days are spent leading tours and sharing personal stories about his on-the-ground experiences before, during, and after the war. “There is no discrimination in tourism,” adds Bassie, who dreams of one day opening his own guide school and helping other former child soldiers build stable careers in the burgeoning travel industry. “[Sierra Leoneans] don’t focus on the past,” says Bassie. “We look toward the future.”

Designing differently

Fashion designer Maryann Kaikai, wearing red and orange tie-dyed dress

Fashion designer Maryann Kaikai is gaining attention inside and outside the country.

Photo by Yulia Denisyuk

Another such forward thinker is Maryann Kaikai. The Sierra Leonean founder of the clothing label Madam Wokie is forever dreaming up fresh ways to put Sierra Leone on the global fashion scene. Kaikai’s career in fashion started as a side hustle, when she made pieces for friends in college. Today she is a master of tie-dye, as evidenced by her colorful caftans, and loves incorporating local embroidery and hand-woven country cloth into her flowy dresses. Her line, which she launched in 2009 and includes garments made-to-order by local seamstresses, is named after her maternal great-grandmother, Madam Wokie Massaquoi, one of few female paramount chiefs in postcolonial Sierra Leone.

Coming from a family of academics, however, and working in a country where gravitas is reserved for fields such as medicine and law, she has struggled to be taken seriously as a creative. “[My parents] wanted me to go for a traditional job,” says Kaikai, who was born and raised in Freetown, the eldest of four children. “But I told them, ‘This is what I want to do and you guys can’t convince me otherwise.’” (Defying broader societal pressures, the entrepreneur also says marriage and kids are not for her. “I’m a nonconformist—like, deal with it,” she laughs.)

Five women outdoors wearing brightly colored Madam-Wokie caftans

Travelers can visit Kaikai’s fashion studio and make appointments for bespoke clothing.

Photo by Yulia Denisyuk

Kaikai has partnered with Naomi Campell on a Fashion For Relief campaign; rocked runway shows in Nigeria, South Africa, and New York; and seen her designs worn by Eva Mendes, Idris Elba, Finnegan Biden, and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. She also believes in using the creative industry as a force for good. During the Ebola crisis, she provided free toiletries and fabric to women in quarantine. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she transformed her family’s three-story home into a 24-hour factory staffed by 100 tailors producing as many as 120,000 waxed print face masks in a month. (The undertaking was so ambitious, even Sierra Leone’s president tweeted about it.) She also founded a skills-training program for women ages 18 to 37, which continues today with six- to eight-month classes covering everything from sewing to makeup application.

“I’m all about empowering and inspiring the next generation of girls,” says Kaikai, who strives to support other female creatives in ways she didn’t feel supported herself. “I always say to [my mentees], you have to learn to be selfish enough to put yourself first because everybody else is taken.”

Slowly but surely, local attitudes are changing. “People have started seeing that fashion is not a joke anymore—that it’s something you can earn a living at,” says Kaikai. She welcomes travelers to tour her studio in the Brookfields neighborhood of Freetown (email for an appointment) and order bespoke garments, some of which can be turned around before they fly home. “It’s not just about designing clothes; [fashion] has the power to change people’s lives.”

Envisioning a greener future

Wildlife conservationist Bala Amarasekaran stands in a jungle in Sierra Leone

Wildlife conservationist Bala Amarasekaran is the founder of a chimpanzee sanctuary and helps manage two national parks.

Photo by Yulia Denisyuk

It’s not just about creating change for the people of Sierra Leone—Bala Amarasekaran wants to protect the land and its flora and fauna for the long haul. The Sri Lanka–born, Sierra Leone–raised founder and director of Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Freetown has fought tirelessly to prevent animal trafficking since he and his wife, Sharmila, rescued their first chimp, Bruno, back in 1988. The rescue-and-rehabilitation center, which launched in 1995, now cares for more than 100 critically endangered western chimpanzees, the national animal of Sierra Leone and the mascot of its global tourism campaign.

Amarasekaran’s influence stretches far beyond the verdant grounds of the sanctuary he runs; he’s also a leader in hospitality, working to develop the country’s first circuit of eco-lodges and helping to manage two of Sierra Leone’s four national parks.

Tacugama currently operates six eco-lodges in Western Area Peninsula National Park and aims to open two more on Jaibui island in southern Sierra Leone next year. The sanctuary offers tented experiences in Loma Mountains National Park (LMNP) for birders and hikers interested in summiting Mount Bintumani—conservation projects that foster “a sense of accountability among community members to protect their immediate environment and natural resources,” says Amarasekaran.

LMNP has the highest concentration of chimps in West Africa. In five years’ time, Tacugama has hired and trained 21 “eco-guards” from the communities surrounding the park and planted nearly 85,000 trees. (That is part of a longer-term pilot reforestation project that aims to plant 25 million trees across the country by 2030.) As more Sierra Leoneans see the value in safeguarding these wildlife-rich environmental reserves, Amarasekaran trusts that citizens will do their part to act as “custodians” of the newly forested areas and enforce anti-poaching regulations.

An expansion of Tacugama itself is also in the works, breaking ground this December. Once complete, its new innovation center will be Sierra Leone’s first zero-carbon, EDGE-certified building, featuring a library, exhibition hall, screening room, and botanical garden. “Tacugama is now working towards 16 of [the United Nations’] 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” says Amarasekaran. “Everything it does starts with the chimps and transitions into wildlife conservation, research, climate change mitigation, environmental education, advocacy, law enforcement, community outreach, and livelihood support initiatives.”

Although Sierra Leone faces considerable challenges with regard to infrastructure, Amarasekaran believes its potential for sustainable tourism is enormous—and a chance to rebrand. “We can’t afford to rest and enjoy our achievements,” he says. “Conversation needs constant attention to be effective, and with all the impact we’ve had over the years, there remains a fair deal of work ahead of us.”

Know before you go

Getting there: Fly into the new Freetown International Airport (opened in March 2023), and then take the 40-minute Sea Coach Express ferry to the capital.

Where to stay: Toma in Freetown is a locally owned boutique hotel with more than a dozen thoughtfully appointed rooms and bungalows (plus a quartet of new suites in the works).

Book a trip: The team at Tourism Is Life Tours can map out your trip from start to finish, pairing you with expert guides like Bassie and ironing out all of the little details, from transportation to currency exchange.

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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