I stumbled on this strange relic of Sierra Leone’s civil war while walking along the stunning beach at Tokeh on the Freetown Peninsular. Entering the compound, two large, white, decaying buildings stretched away from me and, since nothing was stopping me going inside, I crunched around their empty rooms on a fine layer of gritty dust, trying to work out where I was.
There were small rooms with fans that looked like they’d never spun, hexagonal outhouses with red-tiled roofs and a giant hall with adjoining box-rooms, separated by one-way mirrors. A group of kids ran through at one point, not really paying me much attention. Then I saw a group of men sitting under a tree eating mangos in what must have been intended as a garden. One of them, Foday (pictured), was keen to show me around. He fetched keys for the locked areas, and told me the ghost resort’s history.
In the 1980s, Tokeh was a playground for the French elite. Super-rich holidaymakers would fly to Lungi Airport, then catch a helicopter to Tokeh’s grand Africana hotel and enjoy one of West Africa’s best beaches in pampered luxury. The resort became a meeting place for bankers from all over Africa and Europe. But that all stopped when civil war erupted in 1991.
During the conflict, AK-toting RUF rebels marched up the Freetown Peninsular, en route to the capital. They got as far as the river that bisects the beach at River Number Two, but didn’t dare cross, fearing quicksand in the shallow channel, so pulled back to the Africana. They stayed for a while, then left to find an alternative route north and burned the hotel to the ground.
The war ended in 2002. By 2007, peace was firmly established and the country was recovering, so in a bid to bring the wealthy back to Tokeh, the Central Bank of Sierra Leone built the conference resort I was exploring with Foday. They finished it to a high standard: en-suite bathrooms, breakout areas, tree-shaded gardens, ornamental walls and an archway leading to Tokeh’s world-class beach. But Sierra Leone’s name was now synonymous with drugged child soldiers, rape, mutilation and blood diamonds and no one wanted to come.
The centre has never been used. The toilets still have their cellophane wrappers on, the walls are crumbling, pieces of roof litter the ground and the bathroom fittings are slowly rusting in the sea air. Foday wishes it would wake up – a job serving bankers would pay orders of magnitude more than the pittance he and his friends get for guarding the site. With Sierra Leone shaking off its association with war, the economy booming and tourists returning to new hotels just along the beach, it all seemed possible. But that was in April. Now, tragically, Sierra Leone’s name is associated with another indiscriminate killer and Tokeh’s prospects as an elite paradise have been set back once again.
Rolleiflex SL35, Rollei Planar 50mm f1.8, Schneider Kreuznach 35mm f2.8, Kodak Tri X 400 developed in Kodak XTOL, 9 mins at 20 degrees