Everyone passes through Freetown temporarily but never leaves’

This is what you hear in the broadcast publicity as you board the boats which transport you to the mainland in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is the special country in the West African sub – region that is known for the slaves who were freed in the 18th century. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone was founded for free people who came first from England and then from North America and the Caribbean. It became very famous for its rich natural resources especially diamonds. The world knows about the long fought civil war that ravaged the country in the 90s. Images of amputees and people in despair flashed across the media all through the decade. It was bloody. But the resilient Sierra Leoneans pulled through.

The country began a path of recovery and the world was happy. Truth and reconciliation commenced and some of the guilty were punished even though this did not in any way appease the lives lost or soothe the grieving and the deprived. It didn’t bring back limbs or erase the nightmares of the violated. But Sierra Leone was going to move on and be healed.

Fast forward to March 2014 and a mysterious illness begins to ravage Africa. This is one that nobody seems to comprehend. Scientists are looking for a cure and there is world - wide panic. . It only took a couple of months for it to spread to Sierra Leone. The country is at the centre of the Ebola crisis. That this beautiful country of the free could once again be devastated was scary to the inhabitants. Scary to the region. And the world was frightened.

Sierra Leone is a resilient country. The good people were able to curtail the scourge of Ebola and were back to good health.

This month, Sierra Leone is once again in the news. This time with mudslides that resulted from the rains. There are hundreds dead and many more hundreds missing.

How many lives can one country have? This is what I am thinking as we spend a most turbulent 30 minutes on a boat ride going into Freetown after landing in Sierra Leone. The sea was so rough, it seemed like it was mourning and very angry about the losses. This month of August is the month with the highest amount of rainfall in Sierra Leone and the mudslides had come as a result of heavy rainfall.

The UBA Group chairman, Tony O. Elumelu had decided he must visit the country after reading and watching the plight of the Sierra Leoneans. On the way there he kept saying: ‘How about the women and their children? We must help the people of Sierra Leone’.

And help was indeed on the way. It was very reassuring to see the Nigerian troops on ground as we landed in Freetown. Nigeria is the big brother of Africa, always ready to offer support wherever it is needed.

We go straight to the Connaught hospital where victims of the disaster were being treated.  We met the President of Sierra Leone, H.E Koroma and former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo. The reality of the disaster was shocking. Seeing so many people lying in hospital beds with bandages and drips, desolate and in despair. It is indescribable. These were the ones who had survived. Hundreds were still missing and over 600 had been counted dead at this point. We meet a woman whose two children are amongst the dead. She is lying very sick in the hospital bed. No home; No family; No hope.

It is the type of scenario that one often sees in the media but may never actually witness in one’s lifetime. Sierra Leone is definitely in a crisis situation, but the people of Sierra Leone are resilient.

President Koroma invites us back to the State house after the most depressing visit. The mood altogether was dour. The Group Chairman of UBA didn’t waste any time and let the President know why we were there: ‘I come on behalf of the board and management of the United Bank for Africa, UBA Group  and also on behalf of the Tony Elumelu Foundation. We heard what happened to your country and we deeply sympathise with your people. This is the third tragedy for Sierra Leone. The war, the Ebola break out.’

"After the war what Sierra Leone needed was massive reconstruction and development and we felt that bringing business to Sierra Leone would help the process of developing the country. UBA brought this and during the Ebola crises also, both personally and also on behalf of the management and board of UBA Foundation we were very moved to support our brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone.

This has touched the deepest part of our heart and writing a letter is not enough to convey the feelings of our people and hence this trip.’

Elumelu donated U$D250,000 on behalf of the UBA Group and another U$D250,000also on behalf of his foundation, the Tony Elumelu Foundation.

"Having seen the level of devastation and the impact it is having on your people, I would like on behalf of UBA to support the effort in rehabilitating the men and women in the affected areas with the sum of $250,000. On behalf of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, I would also like to donate $250,000.  The $500,000 is little and symbolic and can only be a bit of help because the victims need much more than financial support. They need people to rally round them. We pray that God will bring fortitude to them. That your people are very resilient and you also provide good leadership. From the deepest part of my heart, we deeply commiserate with you for what has happened’

President Koroma seemed moved by this gesture. ‘Let me say that I am very much encouraged by the letter you earlier sent to us with the sentiments expressed and also very impressed that it didn’t end there. You continue to be of support to the people of Sierra Leone. Your institution, UBA came after the war to provide services required to support our rebuilding effort. During our fight against Ebola you were here as a bank and also as a foundation to give us great support. It is such support that enabled us win the fight against Ebola. We have just concluded the 24 month recovery programme after Ebola when the mud slide occurred. We are very grateful as a nation and know that in you, we have a brother and this has been demonstrated over the years’

Koroma says that the recovery effort for survivors is ongoing and that the government is providing food shelter for survivors. Providing construction of permanent settlements where those directly affected by the disaster will be moved as well as those in disaster prone locations in hilltops and sea fronts. ‘It will be a big exercise for the government over the next couple of years but something sustainable has to be put in place. In all of this I must say that people have been supportive’ he said.

Sierra Leone has a lot of work to do to recover yet again. But the country has beat disaster and misfortune before and they will most likely do so again.

Driving back to the airport I couldn’t help but notice just how beautiful Freetown was. It is surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. God’s own country nestled in the warmest part of the continent.

The people of Sierra Leone will come up again for air after the clouds have blown over. They will rebuild and recover and they will again be free to live in peace. How can they not?

For more information about the disaster and to make donations, contact: The Office of National Security(ONS), Freetown
Africell: +232 99 258 926
Airtel local Emergency Number: 119

Sierratel Emergency Number: 119

By Bola Atta
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