According to local lore, a Portuguese explorer sailing down the sinuous West African coast in 1462 named the land just north of Liberia “Serra Lyoa,” or “mountains of lions.”
More than 550 years later— after the end of colonial rule, followed by a gruesome civil war, and a recent Ebola outbreak that has claimed more than 700 victims— I saw exactly what explorer Pedro da Cintra described from his boat. When you arrive at Freetown by boat, the mountains that greet you look like the mane of a lion, projecting an image of strength. But while the country is rich in natural resources, it soon becomes apparent to any visitor that the nation’s challenges are immense.
I arrived in the capital city of Freetown in July for a work assignment in the midst of the deadly Ebola outbreak. My mother, back home in Miami, seemed more concerned about the crisis than Sierra Leoneans themselves, who are accustomed to struggle.
Many in the developed world might find the locals’ casual reaction to Ebola difficult to comprehend. But it isn’t a question of carelessness or utter denial, as some argue, but rather the reality of living in a country that operates in constant survival mode.
Photo by Paola Ramos.
The nation’s critical infrastructure problems are apparent the moment you land at the tiny Lungi International Airport. Getting between Lungi and Freetown, a simple stride on the map, involves puttering across the ocean on a dilapidated ferry or an arduous four-hour car ride. The nation faces degraded, winding roads that create traffic congestion so eternal it feels like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Eternal and fatal: while I was in Freetown, I saw only one working traffic light. It’s no wonder road accidents are one of the leading causes of death in Sierra Leone.
It is almost as if the government or the faraway Gods purposefully staged such an arrival to Sierra Leone’s treasured capital, through a well-crafted, mystic marine route, forcing you to absorb all the natural beauty from afar — that overwhelming green, that beaming sunset, those grandiose lush, forested hills — in the hopes of charming you before you arrive and see the more complex realities on shore.
Once inside, I witnessed a country that is in the process of rebuilding and recovering from its past, tiptoeing into peace and stability. Sierra Leone just emerged from a decade-long civil war in 2002, and its first democratic elections without U.N. supervision took place only two years ago. While billboards along the roads subtly remind citizens to check for Ebola symptoms and get tested for HIV, they’re hardly the first thing visitors notice about Sierra Leone. Access to basic clean, potable water is extremely limited. Women walk miles by foot on chaotic highways carrying food for the night. The city is packed with Africell service ads—even though electricity reaches less than 10 percent of the population. Children show off their impeccable handstands and flips on Lumley Beach, with smiles so radiant they almost counter the realities of the country’s malnourishment and child labor statistics.
Photo by Paola Ramos.
In my time there, the sense of panic about Ebola was not generated by President Ernest Bai Koroma, who has been widely criticized for waiting until the end of July to declare a "state of emergency." The slow boiling concern was driven by the outcry of the Western media, an ocean away, reminding us of the threats we were facing. Koroma didn't declare a state of emergency until the death toll hit 672 in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone days after I left.
The people of Sierra Leone are accustomed to death in a way we can’t begin to imagine.
One afternoon, I visited the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, where a young local guided me around the rainforest as he pointed out endangered apes and recounted, with a hint of nostalgia, the death of Pinkie, the only albino chimpanzee ever recorded. This led me to inquire about the general lifespan of chimpanzees in Sierra Leone’s rainforest. “ On average…” he said very seriously as we made our way through the hills, “the animals here live more than we do. I’m a little jealous.”
Sierra Leoneans’ life expectancy is 45, one of the lowest in the world. As of 2012, more than 10 percent of live births result in death.
But there are some reasons for hope. I saw a country that is making significant efforts to empower their women and girls through education, to strive for gender equality and better governance. I saw a country full of hard-working people, breaking with the past by renouncing a way-too familiar violence. Sierra Leone is slowly awakening and, with it, the world is watching closely to see how Koroma leads his country through yet another deadly crisis.
Paola Ramos is a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the daughter of Jorge Ramos, the anchor of Fusion’s America.