Sierra Leone – Kojo’s Story
For me one of the biggest joys of travelling is the interesting people you meet along the way. Someone who made a huge impression on me was named Kojo and I met him in Sierre Leone. We use the word ‘hero’ a lot these days but to me Kojo epitomised what that word really means. He is a big man and possesses a great strength of character but is also quiet, calm and unassuming. He is also one of the bravest people I have ever met.
Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of Kojo – he’s actually a shy man.
Kojo used to be in Sierre Leone’s equivalent of the CIA and had been responsible for capturing one of Sierre Leone’s most dangerous criminals. In 1991 the war in neighbouring Liberia spilled over into neighbouring Sierra Leone. It was extremely brutal and was to last for 11 years. Kojo was involved in spying and gathering and feeding back information about the rebel army.
He was captured, along with 300 others, when a huge rebel force came over the border from Liberia. At first the prisoners being held were treated well. This all changed when the camp commander was called away. The young man left in charge was extremely cruel and vicious. Prisoners were beaten and some of the women were used as ‘wives’.
One young woman became really ill at the camp and almost died. Kojo helped to nurse her and against all odds she survived, although she was still extremely ill. The young commandant decided she was the one he now wanted as his ‘wife’. Kojo pleaded with him, begged him to leave her alone, that she was too ill. He tried to stop her being taken and was rewarded with the butt of a gun in the head. The girl was taken away. She resisted, she fought the commandants advances, so he shot her.
Most of the prisoners were civilians and a lot were children. There were however, a few more soldiers and police officers. The number of rebels guarding the prisoners was relatively small.
Kojo decided to organise an uprising and overcome the rebels. He talked to some of the others. It was a gamble, if anyone had reported his conversations he would have been shot. Some were fearful for their lives and afraid of the viciousness of the commandant but others agreed to join him. Now they just had to wait for their opportunity.
Kojo had volunteered to be the one to tackle the commandant. The rebels were regularly drunk and high and one night more so now was the chance. Kojo gave the signal. He threw himself on the commandant and managed to relieve him of his weapon. The other prisoners rushed the rest of the guards and overpowered them. They took all the weapons and ammo and headed into the bush.
The Road to Freedom
Luckily Kojo knew the territory but they had an enormous distance to cover to get to safety. Kojo decided not to take the expected route but to skirt the main roads and towns.
The nightmare wasn’t over. There were informers everywhere and this led to the 1st gun battle between the escaped prisoners and rebel troops. 2 more gun battles followed and many were killed. The last one was the most bloody. Kojo was very badly injured and bleeding profusely. Only 6 men remained alive.
Kojo was the one who knew the territory and way to go. He had to lead the children to freedom. Somehow he managed to hold on and guide his rag tag band to safety. When he got to the end he collapsed.
Kojo spent 9 months in hospital recovering from his injuries. When he was released from hospital there was a big surprise awaiting him. All the children were there waiting for him. They held a big thank you ceremony in his honour. Kojo was a lovely man, very interesting, loyal and kind. Meeting him was one of the highlights of my trip to Sierra Leone.
The war in Sierra Leone began in March 1991. The Liberian rebels were led by Charles Taylor. They were named the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Added to the conflict was the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by a former army corporal who collaborated with the Liberian rebels. It was the start of a long and brutal civil war which lasted 11 years.
The atrocities were horrific, mutilations with limbs, ears and lips cut off. Rape, forced labour, many forced to fight, including many child soldiers.
The locals were all keen to talk to me about the war, it was so sad. I was told of people being rounded up and put in a building that was then set alight. If they tried to get out they were shot.
I visited the Banana Islands. A lot of refugees fled here during the war. At one time there were 16,000 on 2 small islands.
The war ended in 2002 with 50,000 dead and 2 million displaced. Charles Taylor was charged with war crimes and crimes against against humanity. He was tried at the Hague, found guilty and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
The RNLI in Sierra Leone
Another interesting character I met was Steve from the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. I didn’t realise they work around the world. In Africa and Asia they are training navies in boat rescues and running lifeguard training programmes. Drowning is the biggest cause of death in Africa, ahead of malaria and Aids – a fact I found astonishing.
Steve was very interesting and has a fantastic job, he gets to see a country from all perspectives. The previous night he was meeting ministers, staying in official residences. When I met him it was in a wooden hut on a local beach.
I went with Steve to meet village elders and surfers to see what problems there were. One of the problems is when outings happen. Outings are like big parties, when large groups of people come from the cities to the beaches, busloads full of beer, rum and music. There is normally at least 1 drowning. Not many swim here.
I also met a Danish man who was cycling from Denmark to South Africa – alone! Remarkably he still had his bike.
So one of the main drinks is Palm Wine. The locals insert a tube into the palm and the liquid runs into a plastic container. It’s already fermented and ready to drink. This is why the locals call it ‘from god to man’. I was given lots of palm wine on my travels.
I was invited to stay at a Limba village. The Limbs are the 3rd largest tribe in Sierra Leone. I was going with Kalimba who was going home for a visit. They were having a big party for him and I was invited. There was lots of drumming, dancing, singing and drinking of palm wine. I’d taken some food and rum as a present. I was given a present too – a gallon of palm wine!
The Chimpanzee Sanctuary
I stayed at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary which is an amazing place and does fantastic work. It had however, made the news for the wrong reasons in 2006 when 31 chimpanzees escaped. They were led by the huge and very intelligent alpha male, named Bruno.
He had figured out how to open 2 locks and unfortunately a cleaner had left another 2 doors unlocked. Outside they attacked the occupants of a car. 2 passengers managed to fend them off and escape, one heavily injured. The driver was mauled to death. A severe reminder that chimps are dangerous animals and should be kept in the wild and not as pets.
Within 2 weeks 19 chimps had returned, some coming back themselves. Today only 4 still remain at large, one of these being Bruno. Chimpanzees face massive problems in Sierra Leone due to deforestation but also being hunted for the bush meat trade.
One of the saddest things I saw were the bush meat markets. Dozens of dead chimps being sold by the side of the road. It’s a worldwide trade too, illegal bush meat even being found here in Nottingham, where I live. It’s so sad, chimpanzees share 98.8℅ of our DNA.
I met Bala who set up and runs the sanctuary. He estimated that for every chimp he saves, 10 more are slaughtered. The other problem is that there is nowhere for the chimps to be released safely back into the wild. Many of the chimps have been very traumatised, their first experience of humans was seeing their parents murdered, kept in tiny cages, some having their teeth smashed out or made to drink alcohol or perform tricks.
The sanctuary is large and after quarantine and the 5 stages of rehabilitation the chimps can live in semi-freedom and safety. Bruno was the first chimp Bala rescued, now there are about 100 at the sanctuary.
The staff really care about the chimps. During the 11 year war in Sierra Leone staff risked their lives, running the gauntlet of rebel armies to smuggle food to the chimps.
Tiwai National Park
A fuel shortage meant we were very late getting to Tiwai National Park. To get to the island requires a boat trip, there was a full moon and it was very beautiful. The boat engine had been stolen which resulted in all the staff being sacked. We were rowed across the river. There are 12 species of monkey and 145 bird species in the park. I did see lots of Red Colobus monkeys and a Diana monkey at a distance. The forest seemed remarkably quiet.
It was an interesting experience. I went on a jungle walk with a guide who kept blowing smoke over me and a boat trip with a boatmen who I realised, too late, was very drunk – too much palm wine. At one point he almost overturned the boat.
I enjoyed the night walk but again the forest was very quiet. I’d met a Brazilian traveller called Vince. He was travelling around West Africa alone, using local transport, not easy in countries like Guinea Bissau and Liberia.
An Early Morning Boat Trip
We were going on an early morning boat trip. It was very atmospheric and eerie, with swirling mist, still dark with the moon occasionally peeping out of the clouds. The rapids were also fun in a canoe. We were looking for pygmy hippos. We saw fresh tracks but no hippos. We had to paddle back up the rapids. Wow you have to be strong to do that!
The Magic Stone
I was invited to meet the village chief, Mendoah and his family. He was quite a character. Legend and magic plays a big part in local life. We were told about the Magic Stone. This stone only appears rarely, on it there is a face. You can take the stone to your house, if someone has been stealing from you you can ask the stone who it was. If the culprit doesn’t admit it, they will be struck dumb for a week. If you take the stone you must leave Malawi cigarettes in its place. The locals believe this legend, I think the legend was invented by a clever man with a penchant for Malawi cigarettes.
Mendoah’s grandfather moved the village because many people were falling sick and there was a prophecy that came to him saying that everyone would die unless they moved the village.
Mendoah is married to the chief of another village. They have a female chief because the river serpent told them if they had a female chief the village would be prosperous. Since then there has always been a female chief and the village has remained prosperous.
Bizarre Facts about Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone is a very friendly country, they speak English and have beautiful beaches. It is also however very expensive. When I was there the locals were obsessed with Tony Blair and Boney M!
More Photos from Sierra Leone