It is baffling that still, 16 years after the war ended, the most common response I get when I say I live in Sierra Leone is: “Sierra Leone? That must be intense, it is very dangerous, right?”
Having traveled extensively through Europe, Asia and Northern America, I can say with pride that Sierra Leone is one of the countries where I have felt the safest. As a solo female traveler the risk is always higher than when you are a man or travel in a group, and I have never experienced any assault here or felt threatened. Violent crime is very minimal in Sierra Leone, especially when compared to some other West African countries. Police, apart from the occasional bribe, are not to be feared as police brutality is a rarity.
Of course, there are differences in perception, and I do not claim to have the authority to label a country as safe. But I can provide some examples to give the more anxious traveler an idea about what it is like to travel through Sierra Leone security-wise.
I do not need bodyguards, I am not restricted to moving around in big cars and I can easily get lost in an unknown part of town and find my way out unscathed. The biggest hassle I might experience from walking the streets is people shouting, “white gyal” or saying “I love you.”
About that. As a woman you often get approached by men claiming to love you, want you, give you belleh, marry you or, if the aforementioned is a little too much, ask for your number. A kind, “no thanks,” or, “I am married,” will suffice, and rarely will a man continue his pursuit aggressively. Now, if you dress minimally, expect this type of attention to multiply by ten. This is the main reason I don’t wear short trousers or skirts.
Walking the streets at night is no problem at all, especially if you move around with a group. Still, there are some area’s to avoid just in case. In Freetown, these would be around the National Stadium during big events, Lumley Beach and some areas in the east. Some would say the entire east end is not safe at night, but as long as you don’t flash your expensive items there should be no issues.
I have never had a bad experience moving around these areas alone at night, save from some shady buggers trying to get attention by grabbing my arm. I do now of many who have had their phone(s) stolen at the stadium and at Lumley during club nights.
As for in the provinces, the smaller villages and towns in the provinces are poorly lit, but generally safe. There is a strong sense of community and guests are treated with respect and hospitality. However, caution should always be exercised.
Most crimes belong to the category annoying and petty. Pick pockets and bag snatchers will be your biggest concern. Of course, leaving valuables unattended is asking for trouble, but it has also happened to me that I was sloppy and someone came to return money to me I had dropped on the floor. Still, be careful. Especially when going into a crowded club, as pickpockets are notorious for snatching shiny iPhone’s and thick wallets. Lumley beach at night, especially in the weekends, has the worst reputation when it comes to theft. Most bars and clubs have security at their parking lot, but even then it has happened quite often that cars are broken into and emptied on a Friday night.
Traffic and traveling
There are stories of Lagos where you have to travel with an entourage of armed guards to protect you from kidnapping and violent robberies. These stories are a tad exaggerated, but one thing is certain: in Sierra Leone nothing of the sort happens. The biggest risk you face as a traveler are road accidents due to poorly constructed roads and motortaxi’s disobeying. This does not mean that violent assaults have never happened before, but they are quite unlikely.
Official travel advice for Sierra Leone
Want to know what the government institutions say? According to the Dutch government, Sierra Leone has ‘some safety issues’, referring mainly to petty crime and undeveloped roads outside of Freetown. The U.K. government website reports robberies in Freetown around Congo Cross, Wilkinson Road, Lumley Beach and Aberdeen. Note, however, that they also claim that, “most visits to Sierra Leone are incident free.” Both institutions warn for traveling at night in the provinces.
Link to the U.K. government website: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/sierra-leone.
So, is it safe?
Generally, yes. Common sense is always advised. Nowhere in the world would you want to enter a crowded bar with your phone sticking out your back pocket. And walking the streets alone at night after a few drinks puts you in a risky situation anywhere. Still, you can walk the streets relaxed and let your guard down every now and again. It will certainly make you stay a lot more pleasurable.