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Sierra Leone beach resort is village's ticket to better life

River No. 2, a popular getaway built with money from the U.S. Embassy, is an entrepreneurial marvel in a poor nation. It employs about 30 in a village of 300 and pays school fees and medical bills.

August 25, 2009|Scott Kraft

RIVER NO. 2, SIERRA LEONE — The dawn rose over lushly carpeted mountains and broke gently along the miles of powdery white beach in the village improbably named River No. 2. It was Sunday and, for most of Sierra Leone, a day of rest.

But for this community, it was a workday -- the busiest of the week.

Patrick Bendu met the fishing boats that bobbed in the Atlantic surf. A chef and a tough bargainer, he selected two handsome, silvery barracuda, each measuring more than 4 feet long, and handed over 160,000 leones, about $50. A fire was being stoked to cook the fish for the visitors who would soon arrive, having decamped from the urban cacophony of Freetown, a rugged hour's drive away.

River No. 2 is an entrepreneurial marvel in one of the world's poorest nations. Its success story began in 1998, in the midst of a decade-long civil war, when the U.S. Embassy gave the village $2,500 and encouraged it to take advantage of a providential location on one of West Africa's most beautiful, unspoiled beaches.

The village leaders didn't disappoint. They built an unpretentious little resort that today employs about 30 -- half the adults in a village of 300 -- and pays school fees for the children and medical bills for everyone. They've plowed some of the $13,000 annual profit into the resort, maintaining a rustic charm that has made it a favorite weekend getaway for Sierra Leoneans as well as foreign ambassadors and aid workers.

The village itself is tucked out of sight in woods near the northernmost part of the beach. Sprinkled along the mile-plus stretch of the southern crescent are the resort facilities -- thatched grass huts for daily rental, beach chairs and umbrellas, nine small guest cottages, a restaurant and bar, and several long wooden boats that ferry visitors up the river to spot crocodiles or out to the Banana Islands, once a staging point for the slave trade.

On a recent weekend, several dozen visitors parked their SUVs in the packed-sand lot and strolled through tropical stands of palm trees to the beach. Young village workers, some barefoot and others in sandals, took food and drink orders from bathers relaxing on the beach. In the restaurant's open-air kitchen, Bendu and his crew chopped tomatoes, onions and garlic for the fish marinade and placed skewers of barracuda and shrimp on the grill. A large pot of freshly cut potatoes bubbled in oil over a wood fire. The restaurant serves whatever the fishermen catch -- for less than $10 a plate, including fries or rice.

Among the day-trippers that Sunday was the U.N. secretary-general's special representative and his son, a Canadian journalist teaching in Sierra Leone, Dutch relief workers and half a dozen seminary students from Nigeria, Guinea, Indonesia and Ghana.

"It just makes you feel good to support the initiative of this little community," said Elena Drozdik, a U.N. official who arrived in the country just a few months ago and is already a River No. 2 regular.

The mission of the River No. 2 Assn., the village's business entity, hasn't changed much since its launch, according to Ibrahim Kamara, who manages the open-air bar and restaurant, a collection of plastic tables and chairs beneath a grass roof.

"We're trying to improve the village for our kids, so they won't have to struggle to find work when they grow up," said Kamara, 29, a father of three.

During the early years of British colonial rule in Sierra Leone, the village was named Faulkner. But, according to local legend, that changed a century or so ago, soon after the arrival of two battalions of British soldiers. The soldiers were determined to conduct military exercises on the banks of the river that winds down from the mountains and spills into the ocean next to the village beach.

Locals had warned the battalion commanders not to attempt to cross the river because of the danger of quicksand. But the soldiers forged ahead at low tide, and hundreds, stuck in the soft sand, drowned when the tide rose.

"From then on," said Peter Abu Manserey, 42, a member of the association's board, "we called it River No. 2, because it was the river where the two battalions died."

After the nation's independence in 1961, the beach became a tranquil weekend hideaway. Enterprising youngsters met new arrivals, offering to watch over their cars, or prepare a fish meal, for a few coins.

Village elders recall that it was John Hirsch, the U.S. ambassador from 1995 to 1998, who provided the financial boost they needed to become a business. Hirsch, now senior advisor at the International Peace Institute in New York, doesn't remember that grant, but he does remember pleasant afternoons at the River No. 2 beach.

"I went out there at least every other weekend," he said. "And it was very quiet, peaceful. But there was really nothing there in those days."

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