By Jheri St. James

This photo is a view of Freetown taken by Brenda Soya of the American Embassy there, the Common Ground 191 collector. The location is “Leicester Peak, one of the highest peaks in the Freetown area, with its stunning view of the city and ocean below.”

The Republic of Sierra Leone is located in West Africa, bordered by Guinea north and Liberia south, with the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The name Sierra Leone was adapted from the Portuguese name of the country, Serra Leoa, (Lion Mountain). During the 1700s Sierra Leone was an important center of the transatlantic slave trade. The capital Freetown was founded in 1792 by the Sierra Leone Company as a home for Black Britons who had fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War.

In 1808, Freetown became a British Crown Colony, and in 1896, the interior of the country became a British Protectorate. The Crown Colony and Protectorate joined and gained independence in 1961. From 1991 to 2002, the country suffered greatly under a devastating civil war. To end the civil war, UN and British forces disarmed 17,000 militia and rebels, in the largest UN peacekeeping act of the decade. The average life span of a Sierra Leonean is 38 years for men and 42 years for women.

Roughly circular in shape, Sierra Leone has an area of almost 30,000 sq. miles. Three topographical regions run northwest to southwest, roughly parallel to the coast: a belt of mangrove swamps and white sand beaches; an area of low plains covered with secondary forest and cultivated land; and a region of high plateaus and mountains to the east. The mountainous peninsula on which Freetown is located makes up the fourth distinct geographical region. Sierra Leone has an average year-round temperature of 80 degrees. The famous Harmattan, a gentle wind flowing down from the Sahara Desert affords Freetown its coolest period of the year, November through February.

Unlike many other countries, the religious and tribal mix of Muslims, Christians and indigenous people, as well as the 18 ethnic groups, each with its own language and customs rarely causes religious or tribal conflict—it is civil war which is the major conflict in the country. Football (soccer) is by far the most popular sport in Sierra Leone, followed by cricket. The Sierra Leone cricket team is among the best in South Africa. Basketball, volleyball, tennis, boxing and track are other popular sports activities in this country.

Anthony, writing on has this to say about his trip to Sierra Leone: “. . . A 12 hours and 350km journey brought us from Conakry to Freetown by the end of the afternoon. Checkpoints and the omnipresent corruption took the major and most painful part of our day and of our stress. Cops of the two countries are really shady. I wonder who would win the Oscar. Some of them are very direct in their approach; others are more conservative and prefer to create an unhealthy atmosphere without asking directly for their Christmas gift. The last attitude is more time consuming and painful than the direct one. The ‘good’ thing is that we have the feeling that they don’t see us as walking moneyboxes coming through. Most of the time, local passengers are on the same level and suffer the same aggressiveness as we do. Solidarity links are created between us and the other fellow passengers. Another positive point is that with a couple of smiles, we have always succeeded quite easily to negotiate our bribe debt and reduce it to some cigarettes or some small and insignificant notes . . .

“Freetown is quite a big melting pot of countries I’ve visited. It reminds me a little of Colombia and its small fishing villages; but also of the port of Aden in Yemen, with its swarming markets and its non-stop singing mosques; or also the seven hills of Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar; but it is probably more similar to Rio de Janeiro, with its green hills and favelas.

“Crossing the city, I try to go 2-3 years backwards and remember the attack of the rebels on Freetown. ‘No living thing’ was their motto. Trying to picture this bloody slaughter is a very painful exercise. How can we imagine that just a couple of months ago, Freetown has been the scene of 6000 brutal deaths, and that some other thousands were tortured, raped, etc…? And all this for nothing, except some precious stones worn by the wealthiest of this planet.

“. . . I see rebels everywhere, and my head imagines fields of battles on the gardens that edge the hotel. I have pain in my head and the anger is unbearable. It is very difficult to describe our first impressions of Sierra Leone, as we saw only a luxuriant vegetation, paradise environment, hot delicious food, and charming people. How can we imagine there was war only 2-3 years ago? How to believe the awful stories that one tells you with a thin voice? How could the people forgive the rapes, murders, torture from their neighbours? How to trust the taxi driver, the waiter or the street seller? How not to imagine some some of them took part in the atrocities? How to presume that rancour does not exist in this country?

“. . . It hurts me to write on the atrocities that have been committed. There are so many stories. I cannot translate them in words and spread the emotions of people without travestying them. Others would have more talent to do it. We worked with the UNICEF in an Islamic school inland in a small city called Makeni, eastern Sierra Leone. We observe that there is still a huge job to realize in Education. The level of instruction is low. For teens it is often also their first years of schools. After spending the morning in the school working on the poetry, drawing and pictures, we trained the local UNICEF staff on digital photography.

“A sinewy lady, dressed of yellow, brings back the water of the well. She hisses at me, seems to shout at me. A hen and some black pigs run behind her. With her words of English and my first words of Creole English, I now understand that she asks me to take her in photo in order to show at home how the African women suffer at work, but also explain their good will. I grant her wish and continue my way under this vivid sun into the small humid village…

“As a last image, I can say that Sierra Leone is a marvelous country by its beauty and its invigorating nature. A country that would have been rich thanks to its minerals, earths of agriculture, its beaches and tourism. I wish it for the future. I want to believe they are taking the good path. The United Nations made an outstanding job here!”

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Doug Brooks
Freetown street: It's all happening here - business, taxis, law and order...

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”‘Diamonds are forever,’ it is often said. But lives are not.
We must spare people the ordeal of war, mutilations and death
for the sake of conflict diamonds.

“Conflict diamonds are those that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council. Rough diamond caches have often been used by rebel forces to finance arms purchases and other illegal activities. Neighboring and other countries can be used as trading and transit grounds for illicit diamonds. Once diamonds are brought to market, their origin is difficult to trace and once polished, they can no longer be identified. The horrific atrocities in Sierra Leone and the long suffering of the people of Angola have heightened the international community’s awareness of the need to cut off sources of funding for rebels in order to promote lasting peace in those countries.” (UN Dept. of Public Information in cooperation with Sanctions Branch, Security Council Affairs Division, Department of Political Affairs.)

“It has been said that war is the price of peace . . .
Angola and Sierra Leone have already paid too much.
Let them live a better life.”

(Ambassador Juan Larrain, Chairman of the Monitoring Mechanism
on sanctions against UNITA)

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Doug Brooks

Freetown Survivor: Giant Cotton Tree in the center of town.
Even the RUF couldn't kill this tree, says Brooks.

Djimon Honsou is one of the stars of the current film Blood Diamond, set in Sierra Leone. The story centers on a rare pink diamond discovered by Honsou’s character, a local fisherman forced by militants to work in the diamond fields. “The shoot was very physical and emotional—being chased, running left and right in the bush, day in and day out. There was nothing about it that was easy. Hopefully the movie’s message will come through; people who see it will have a better understanding of what went down and, in some places, is still going down . . . Africa is my continent. It is where I opened my eyes. The more awareness we can bring to an issue there, the more people will rally the leaders of developed countries to do something about it . . . It helps certain people in the industry to think the problem doesn’t exist anymore. Obviously, things have toned down in Sierra Leone, but people are still dying, and being displaced, over conflict diamonds in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s not enough to get it down to even one percent when the abuse and the use of child soldiers is continuing… I hope more people will ask diamond companies to continue changing the way they do business in Africa. They’ve done well mining in certain countries; now they can put more of the money back into those countries and do what’s right…it’s more like you’ll say, ‘I’d like to have a diamond but wear it comfortably. I want to make sure nobody died because of it.’”

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John Hyman writes from a different perspective (10/19/06): “The civil war was indeed extremely brutal, but was less about diamonds in themselves, rather, that diamonds were the key to political power. A point that must be stressed is that ‘blood’ diamonds only exist, as it were, during wars (and ones presently held in storage by DeBeers from times of conflict cannot be identified as such). Watch out for a dangerously misleading film out soon with Leonardo di Caprio, “Blood Diamond,” which is likely to have a deleterious effect on the diamond industries of various countries which have made great progress to clean up diamond operations. Diamonds make up 80% of SL’s exports, and any possible consumer boycott, well-meaning as it will no doubt be, will only retard the country’s development. (Comments on Normal Life in Sierra Leone -

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We conclude with the other photo from Brenda Soya, a picture of the U.S. Embassy staff in Freetown: Martin Dale, Brenda Soya, Elspeth Horton, and Francis Amara with the collection jar and a view of Freetown in the background. Our favorite pictures in the Common Ground 191 project are of people holding jars of soil, smiling broadly with a look of historical significance in their eyes. In the case of the soil from Sierra Leone, it is especially heartening that it will join our collection of soils on the 50’ x 50’ fresco, bringing all the soils of the world to one place, symbolizing the unity of mankind’s home ground—if not man, yet.

This is truly art at its greatest, a concept realizing itself in form and color and meaning. When the ‘H’ in EARTH is moved to the front, the word becomes ‘HEART’ and both words have the word ART in them, an interesting, simple anagram and symbol of Common Ground 191. The UN is sending people like Anthony to share art in Sierra Leone. Movies are being made depicting some of the issues existent there. Art can be more than just insignificant colors on the wall; it can be healing, instructive, inspiring, and deep. In the meantime, Mother Earth in Her stoic wisdom continues to hold all of us in Her lap, waiting for the vision of Common Ground 191 to manifest itself. The word for peace in Sierra Leone is the English word “peace.”

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