Slideshow: Surprising beauty amidst struggle in Sierra Leone

Our final days in Sierra Leone were spent in the town of Bo, a few hours drive, down a remarkably good road, at least most of the way, from the capital Freetown. One evening after yet another dinner of chicken and rice, or potato, fried or not fried, the hotel desk clerk stopped by our table. She announced to us that we had just been served one of her chickens, raised apparently on her own property. She made it sound like we had just been honored. I honestly didn’t know what to say. It was one gracious gesture of many from the people here trying to make us feel welcomed. I saw a statistic in a Guide Book that said only 4000 tourists visit Sierra Leone each year. So, a lot of people, even in the big cities rarely meet foreigners, and certainly never get to serve them one of their personal chickens.

I will also always remember the woman who cooked and served the meal. As we were finishing up, we got to talking about how perhaps we’d all come back some day. She wanted us to write our names down so she would remember us, and I suspect show her friends she’d met a few foreigners. Not thinking, and perhaps looking up from a blackberry, someone said, “we’ll just email you the information”. Well, not only did she not have an email address. She had no real understanding of what the internet was, or what it can do. She had vaguely heard her son talking about it, but really not much. The moment was a stark reminder of where we were, and how different life is in the developing world.

A similar moment happened while we were visiting a hospital, covering the work of a team of volunteer American doctors from the Healing Hands Foundation, based in Baltimore. We took pictures, with permission, of a young mother and her child sitting on a bed. We asked her name through a translator. She responded. We couldn’t quite understand, so for some stupid reason, I asked if she could write it in my notebook. But she couldn’t. She like 70 percent of the people here don’t know how to read or write. The local doctor who spoke the native language and English helped us out. I’ve traveled enough to have known better. It was another moment I’ll remember when I think about Sierra Leone.

Overall, the trip was surprising. I’ve been to more than a dozen countries in Africa, usually covering something horrible. If you’ve heard anything about Sierra Leone, the term blood diamonds and images of amputee victims of the civil war come to mind. There’s still a vibrate diamond district. In fact, some say the country is shaped like a cut stone. And we certainly saw many people maimed by the war, or life’s hardships. But it wasn’t what I expected. Maybe that’s because it was one of the few trips where I was there to follow people doing good deeds.

I’ll remember the Cotton Tree in downtown Sierra Leone. I thought cotton grew low to the ground on shrubs and bushes. It does, but it also grows on massive trees with huge limbs that look like giant columns holding up the tree’s canopy.The Cotton Tree is a powerful symbol in Freetown, the capital. Legend says a group of African American slaves who fought for the British army, were freed in this place, near a huge Cotton tree, in the late 18th century.

I’ll remember how as we drove through the city, people would yell at our car, in their own language the words for “white man.” That, even though all four members of our team were of African decent. The people weren’t threatening. I think there was more amazement than anything else. Clearly, for them “white man,” had nothing to do with how you look, and everything to do with how you live.

I’ll also remember Sierra Leone’s beautiful white sandy beaches. The water was warm and clean. The beaches almost untouched. Not a tourist in sight. Few people living here have the time or inclination, I’ll bet, to lounge on a beach. What potential the place has. But just a few thousand foreigners visit each year. That’s the legacy of war.

I’ll also remember Sierra Leone’s Englishness. It’s a former British colony, about to celebrate 50 years of independence. That legacy dominates downtown Freetown. There’s a Johnson -Wallace street. A Gloucester Road, Williamson Road. Businesses have signs in English. A few cars even have right hand drive steering wheels. It reminded me of the challenge of driving my own left hand drive vehicle in London while living there in the nineties. Not easy. The roundabouts especially challenging.

But mostly, I’ll remember a place full of natural beauty, the ocean, the mountains, the clear night skies. And I’ll never forget the desperate poverty, and how by so many measures Sierra Leone struggles. High infant mortality rates, 40 percent of children not reaching age 5, most never finishing grade school, and many perhaps with little sense of the world beyond their own, like the woman who didn’t understand the internet, or the driver who was so amazed by the cruise control function on the car we rented.

Our stories from there are about American’s trying to make a difference. I’ll always remember how so many of them are motivated by the sense that even small successes, perhaps just making it possible for a child to go to school, or helping a few patients in the local hospital, or just being there and showing you care, can count for a lot.