Developing a Heritage Trail in Sierra Leone, West Africa

A post from Thomas Armitt

When you have been working for some time on your ambition to create opportunities for poor communities in West Africa to benefit from tourism, it is an immense privilege to finally be able to work closely with local communities in rural Sierra Leone to put in place a tourism idea that can potentially have a positive impact on community members’ livelihood generation methods.

For the past 4 months I have been putting together a plan to create a Heritage Trail around a well known ecotourism attraction, called Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary , in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone.  Tiwai itself if a unique place where 11 species of monkeys (most of which are endangered or rare), two families of chimpanzees, the endemic Pygmy Hippo, the elusive Bongo, over 135 species of birds, 700+ species of plants, and many other animals coexist on a 12sq km island that lies in the middle of a tropical river called the Moa. The area itself displays some interesting geological faults, creating white water rapids that meander through about 100 islands of varying sizes until it hits the Atlantic Ocean, which offers ample opportunities to explore, discover and let loose the adventurer in you by dugout canoe, fiber glass kayak or speedboat.

But the natural features of this unique destination are not the only interesting and exciting features of the area, even though these have been the focus of the ever increasing number of visiting tourists since the end of the well publicized Civil War that ended in 2001.

The Eastern province of Sierra Leone is home to the vibrant and very friendly Mende tribe, a group of people who are native to the region throughout four districts (Kailahun, Kono, Kenema and Pujehun). Around Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, there are eight Mende communities that traditionally own the island, and that each display unique characteristics, interesting cultural and historical heritage, and hold true to their traditional values of hospitality and respect. These are the communities that are the focus of the Tiwai Heritage Trail that I have devised, with the support of the Environmental Foundation for Africa  and Welt Hunger Hilfe , and on the back of my Local Economic Development through Tourism Module as part of my MSc in Responsible Tourism Management on the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University.

The MSc module gave me an opportunity to put together a plan for a small scale tourism intervention that could provide net benefits to local community members that surround an existing tourism venture. At the same time, I was asked by the National Tourism Board of Sierra Leone to come up with a Small Grant Proposal for Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary. It couldn’t have happened at a better time! However, the process of going through the various channels to get grants takes time, and my time is limited, so I approached the Food Security and Economic Development program I work for as part of their Ecotourism Development project, and pitched the idea. They liked it and agreed to support the initial stages of the Heritage Trail development.

 Up until now, I have been using the knowledge I have gained through the MSc in terms of community participation and tourism development. I have been gaining insights into the communities’ perceptions of ‘tourism’ and of tourist expectations, understanding their current livelihood generation methods, creating sensitization activities to increase their understanding of tourism, helping them create tourist maps of their villages and their surrounding cultural heritage sites, mapping their seasonal agricultural activities so they can determine the best time for tourists to visit them, assessing their training needs for hospitality management and the possibility for roles and responsibilities to be created within the villages cultural context to deal with the incoming of tourists. I have also been mapping the Tiwai Heritage Trail with GPS by walking the bush trails that connect the villages, crossing the Moa River by dugout canoe, exploring the islands for possible tourism development such as bush camps, and training the guides up for tourist expectations and techniques to add value to the tourists’ experience.

The unique aspect to this idea is that the community members will manage the product so that they do not have to rely on outside support on a long-term basis. There are community members who live in the big cities, have influential jobs, and most importantly who are committed to providing benefits to their communities. It will be a tourism project that will be run by the communities, for the communities. Of course partnerships will have to be formed with various organizations and institutions (tour operators, government, etc…) however, the majority of the operations, from taking bookings, to organizing the communities, will solely be addressed by community members.

The work has been challenging, especially when it comes to managing community expectations to create a realistic perception about the development of tourism in their communities. No matter how many times I say that “I do not promise that this will happen” or “This will not solve all your problems”, whenever a ‘Pumui’ (white man in Mende Language) turns up in a community in Sierra Leone, automatically the perception is that he/she carries the answers to all woes, has unlimited amounts of money to throw around, and will solve health, financial and all other social problems. I am just speculating, but this may be a result of twenty plus years of International NGO focus in the country. The capital, Freetown, is home to 140+ NGOs, and a majority of the countries’ villages (even the most remote) have received at least some NGO aid in the past (a lot of which are malfunctioning wells that cost too much for the communities to repair themselves).

 Regardless, I am soldiering on with the idea, working around financial, logistical and communication limitations, and am currently in Freetown meeting with journalists, tour operators, National Tourism Board employees, potential product facilitators and partners, as well as building a website for the product, creating a visual training manual for community members, and meditating on a finely tuned management plan that can be sustainable, and grant ownership to the communities over this project.

 The deadline for the first pilot tour is November this year, and I am drumming up interest within the young Expat/NGO worker social scene for four people to join the tour. Hopefully one of them will be a free-lance journalist who could get us some coverage in a variety of newspapers and magazines, both National & International. If this project is successful (and I hope “When this project is successful), it will be a first in Sierra Leone, and could be replicated in other up and coming destinations around the country such as National Parks, Mountain Ranges, Beach areas, etc…

 All this on top of my MSc research project, marketing Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, creating an ecotourism plan for the future of the project, and experiencing the amazing potential of this unique and very beautiful country. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to fit all of this in…

For more information on Tiwai Island Wildife Sanctuary: www.tiwaiisland.org

To learn more about the Environmental Foundation for Africa activities: www.efasl.org.uk

To understand a bit about some of Welt Hunger Hilfe’s projects: www.welthungerhilfe.org

Or you can contact me on my email address: Thomas_armitt@hotmail.com.