Banana Islands, Sierra Leone

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Banana Islands is a spectacularly beautiful place off the Freetown peninsula, at its eastern end. Taking off from Lakka Beach on a small motorized country boat early one Saturday morning, it took me about two hours through the choppy deep blue waters of the North Atlantic Ocean to reach the Banana Islands. With me was my boatman Abdul, my fisherman guide Sam, Sam’s teenage son and another young relative of theirs. The boys I understood were training to be guides in the future.

Banana Islands, which is a perfect idyllic get-away, comprises three islands in a row. Dublin is the biggest island and is connected to a smaller one called Ricketts to the west, joined by a natural bridge of rocks over a strip of sand. The smallest island which is cut off by the sea from the rest two is called Mes Mieux. The waters around Mes Mieux are ideal for snorkeling, spear fishing and harvesting oysters.

On reaching Banana Islands, it felt like arriving at Treasure Island. A little less than 1000 people inhabit the islands and they survive on a limited source of water supplied by fresh water springs. Dotted with old rickety houses made of wood, the lush green Islands are full of fruit trees – banana, lime, bitter orange, avocados, guava, papaya, star fruit, figs, pineapple, palm and kola nuts. The simple, friendly and hospitable inhabitants of the island live at the edge of poverty, yet are always ready with a welcoming smile and an extended hand of friendship.

Spectacularly beautiful with as many as five beaches and many more coves, Banana Islands however have a very tragic history. For around two centuries, it was the bastion for the thriving and unimaginably inhuman trans-Atlantic African slave trade. Thousands of slaves were captured from the hinterlands of Sierra Leone, chained and brought in caravans into these islands. It was from the spectacular beaches of these islands that these men, women and children were then shipped off to Europe and the Americas, in shackles – helpless, naked, terrified and bewildered and exhausted from hunger and thirst. Many of them died before the end of their journey across the Atlantic.

After Slave trade was legally abolished in Britain in 1807, the Royal Navy used the Banana Islands as a base, trying to stop further trafficking of slaves out of Sierra Leone. Tomb stones of officers of Royal Navy who died of coast fever can still be found, as can canons dated as early as 1813. The islands are also dotted with old street lamps that were made by the Portuguese.

Guided by Sam, I went around the island aware of its history and spellbound at its beauty, halting at places and talking briefly to the local inhabitants who were very welcoming.

I was in particular struck by a small beach, rather a cove that led to a series of steps past a couple of very old gigantic cotton trees. I paused for a few moments and was suddenly transported back into history. I could visualize thousands of slaves in shackles, driven like cattle down the steps to boats that will then carry them to the ships waiting to take them across the Atlantic to the plantations and mines of Europe, Cuba and America – the Portuguese street lamp and the cotton trees standing by as mute witnesses to the unfolding of a human saga – deeply shameful, immensely tragic and colossally inhuman in its proportions.

I was suddenly overwhelmed by a flood of mixed emotions. Amidst the breathtaking beauty, peace and charm of the place which a few moments earlier had my spirits soaring, I silently wept – in gratefulness to the freedom I enjoy, which I often take as granted and then in profound sadness – in the memory of people enslaved, those who had climbed down those cold steps heart broken, leaving behind their homeland for ever and snatched of their freedom for the rest of their lives.

I hope to take Minnie – my nine year old daughter to this Island, explaining to her about the history of the African slave trade, with the hope that she will get to appreciate the value of freedom even more.

I leave you with an album of photographs taken in Banana Islands.

One old, broken Portuguese street lamp still stands and so do the even older cotton trees – eager to tell a story to those who can hear and care to listen.

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