Here's a simple map of West Africa.
Sierra Leone is west of Ghana past Ivory Coast and Liberia
A very brief history: Like other West African countries, Sierra Leone has multiple chiefdoms dating from before European trading influence which began in the 15th century. The European presence was significant after that, as various countries established "forts" to facilitate trading, which at first focused on gold (this region of Africa is called the Gold Coast), but soon turned to slaves.
During the American Revolution thousands of slaves gained freedom by fighting for the British. Many made their way to England and Canada after the war. But unemployment and poverty plagued these newly freed people. In 1787, a group of philanthropists purchased 52 square miles in present day Sierra Leone, and founded a 'Province of Freedom' in Africa for ex-slaves. This became Freetown. The philanthropists paid to send ex-slaves and some 'less desirable' whites there. After early difficulties with internal fighting, disease, and local tribes, the settlement stabilized. However, to the chargin of the philanthropists, the white and black settlers joined in the slave trade.
In 1808, the British took over Freetown and declared it a British colony. It became a dropoff depot for thousands of 'recaptives' from all over West Africa as British ships patroled the waters trying to stop the slave trade. These nonindiginious blacks became known a Krios. They tended to be favored by the British and in post colonial Sierra Leone often tipped the balance of power to the political party they supported.
Sierra Leone became an independent country in 1961, but political instability has been a continuous problem. Military coups and internal rebellion have been a way of life. Corruption in government and illicit diamond mining have sapped the economic strength from the country.
In 2002, thanks to significant UN intervention, some stability returned to the nation after 11 years of active civil war. This was not always a classic war between two political sides. It had several factions with volatile alliances, often driven by desire for control of the diamond mining wealth.
When we started talking about visiting the three LDS Church Districts in Sierra Leone, Sister Markham read the following from a West Africa guide book we had brought with us. The book was published in late 2002.
"After 10 years of almost constant warfare and uncertainty, much of Sierra Leone is now calm. The watershed event of 2002 was the destruction by the UN of more than 25,000 firearms, the symbolic end to the destabilization brought about by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels that began in 1991. Despite these positive developments, Sierra Leone is still not a place for independent travelers. While the government controls major towns, rebel factions still maintain a presence in some areas in the east and north and the overall security situation remains tenuous. Should the situation stabilize, Sierra Leone will be a terrific place to visit as it holds plenty of attractions, including beautiful beaches, lush and varied tropical landscapes, a dynamic culture and friendly people."
The following piece on diamond mining caught Elder Markham's attention.
"One of the many ironies of Sierra Leone is that while it’s one of the poorest countries on earth – it comes in last on the UN Human Development Index – it is one of the best sources of wealth in the world. Hundreds of thousands of carats of diamonds wait under the jungle carpet to be mined, cut, polished and set into jewelry that will be worn by people the world over.
When the RUF began its war in 1991, its sole aim was to control the country’s diamond mines. It used forced labor to extract the wealth, and the receptive government of Charles Taylor in Liberia and ask-no-questions Western diamond dealers to launder the gems and put them on the world market. These gems were then sold as talismans of love, honor and commitment. The money that the RUF reaped from this enterprise – estimated at between US $25 million and US $125 million per year – was used to buy weapons to continue their war. The RUF was a brutal and undisciplined force, who often resorted to the brutal tactic of amputating the limbs of innocent civilians in order to terrorize the population and ensure continued control over the diamond mines. It’s estimated that over 75,000 people were killed during the war and another 20,000 were mutilated.
In 1999, non-governmental organizations brought the issue of ‘conflict diamonds’ to international attention and introduced measures to combat the trade. Even then, however, Sierra Leonean diamonds were easily smuggled into legitimate buying channels, with some governments and diamond dealers choosing to continue to turn a blind eye. Diamonds are the most portable form of wealth known to man -- 30g of gem-quality diamonds are equal in value to 18,000kg of iron ore -– and smuggling them into another country to avoid either export taxes or their pedigree as ‘conflict diamonds’ barely slowed. In fact, it’s believed that Osama bin Laden’s Al-Queda terrorist network bought millions of dollars’ worth of Sierra Leone diamonds prior to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA because they’re easily resold into the world market and practically impossible to trace.
Since the end of the war in February 2002, many legitimate miners have gone back to work in places such as Kenema, Bo and Koidu. Even DiamondWorks, a large Canadian exploration company, has resumed operations in Kono district after a five-year hiatus. It’s hoped that, with the help of the World Diamond Council, for the first time since independence, Sierra Leone will be able to harness the wealth of the diamond areas for the benefit of its citizens, who badly need medical, educational and career opportunities in the wake of one of the worst and most brutal wars of the 1990's."
Lonely Planet, West Africa, October 2002
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