This picture sums of my experience of Sierra Leone. It has made substantial progress from the days when it was seen as one of the most dangerous places on earth and the future is at last looking more optimistic for the next generation.
I traveled there with my colleague Mark Doyle to cover the reaction to the Charles Taylor verdict and to gather material for a television and radio package on how the country has moved on from its bloody past.
Sierra Leone is not what you expect. When you tell people you’re planning a visit there, it’s not unusual to get comments like, “Is it safe?” Many people still associate it with war lords, child soldiers and blood diamonds.
The civil war ended 10 years ago and today it’s a very different place. In the capital, Freetown, buildings are going up all over the place, the main roads are in the process of being upgraded and the markets are teeming. It is living proof of what can happen when there is peace.
We also traveled to the east of the country, to the main diamond mining area, the source of so called blood diamonds and saw first hand how foreign investment is transforming the economy. It is not just the Chinese who are doing the investing. Among the people we met was Beny Steinbetz, one of the world’s wealthiest men, who is optimistic enough about the future to invest millions in a modern open cast diamond mine in Koidu.
Sierra Leone is not only blessed with valuable natural resources. It also has a stunning coastline, which once drew thousands of European visitors. One of the best beaches is called river no 2 beach and is a 45 minute drive south of the capital. If you ever go to Sierra Leone it is well worth a visit. The villagers have set up a community project to look after this stunning beach and lagoon. They also serve healthy portions of fresh seafood at very reasonable prices.
In the city itself, Lumley Beach is the best place to go. Here you will find a beautiful long beach, where the water is clean enough to swim thanks to its location on the western edge of Freetown. It is also a popular place to go for sundowners with a growing number of bars opening up along the seafront.
The tourist industry is slowly recovering, but it is still some way off from attracting the mainstream market. A new Hilton Hotel is being built which could provide the catalyst to help the country reclaim its status as a tourist destination.
Clearly it is not all rosy. The country still has a lot of problems and has a long way to go before it regains what it lost during the war. Unemployment and poverty are rife and it remains one of the poorest places in the world. But the economy is growing, investment is flowing in, the government is stable and key reforms are being undertaken.
Our report on Sierra Leone will be appearing on the BBC later this month. In the meantime, you can see more images from my trip below.