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It’s not hard to love Sierra Leone. Yes, that Sierra Leone, the little country in West Africa best known for an ugly history of slavery, rebel child soldiers fighting a decade-long civil war (1991-2002), and the violent thriller Blood Diamond. Ten years removed from its dreadful war, the country, though still showing its scars and beset by poverty and poor infrastructure, boasts a freely elected government and relatively low crime rates. It is safe to visit. In fact, even in parts of the otherwise chaotic, crowded, pulsing capital, Freetown, it’s downright tranquil. You can see why locals call their home “Swit Salone,” or sweet Sierra Leone.
Move down toward the beaches, and you will think you’ve found paradise. Miles of sublime coastline, backed by jungle-covered hills and confoundingly devoid of tourists, are yours to enjoy. Fishing villages abound, to which you can show up, dine on local lobster, spend the night, and make new friends—Sierra Leoneans, warm by nature, speak English, making their culture all the more accessible to a wide range of visitors. Go deeper into the country to find charmingly dusty, laid-back towns; newly protected national parks; a gorgeous tropical inland island populated by primates, with a few cozy tents for guests.
It’s true that most foreigners come to Sierra Leone to work or volunteer. Some come to travel: to explore the superb scenery, meet the people, and experience the inherent adventure in just being here. Nobody comes for the food. But the local “chop,” as it’s known in Krio, is nothing to sniff at—in fact, it’s quite good as a whole, humble but spicy and hearty. Rice, groundnuts (peanuts), leafy greens, cassava, black-eyed beans, palm oil, and chile peppers figure prominently. Encouragingly, the best kitchens, all of them recommended on these pages, are already making important culinary decisions, employing the freshest ingredients from local markets and fishermen, choosing whole-grain “country” rice over cheaper imported white rice, cutting back a little on the loads of palm oil traditionally used (as well as Maggi stock cubes, a more recent addition to the cuisine). Like everywhere, Sierra Leoneans take pride in their food, and if you ask about finding good chop, you’ll be instantly rewarded with huge grins. “You like African food?” comes the incredulous reply. Why, yes—yes we do.
Note: For logistical information on getting to Sierra Leone, including easy online visa application, check out the helpful Visit Sierra Leone website.
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