Sierra Leone: How to speak chimpanzee

Intrepidly preparing to disembark in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has a lot of problems, but language barriers preventing communication between people and chimpanzees isn’t one of them. There are plenty of lessons available on how to speak chimpanzee, you just need to know where to look.

We went to a chimpanzee sanctuary near Freetown, where chimpanzees who have been removed from private homes are gradually ‘rewilded’ before being returned to the jungle. The sanctuary staff told us that although it’s illegal to keep chimps as pets, and it’s punishable by a fine and a prison sentence, people do it anyway. Some people send their chimps to the market to go shopping, and even allow them to smoke and drink at home. I wondered how the staff knew this, but then I realised that as they speak fluent chimp, the animals probably told them … and very possibly complained bitterly about no longer being allowed a cigar and a brandy after dinner.

If you’d like to start learning to speak chimpanzee, I’m delighted to be able to share Lesson One with you:

The locals here have a tradition of eating bushmeat, and there’s strong evidence that infected forest animals started the terrible ebola outbreak in 2014-2016. So there’s now a campaign to stop people from eating these creatures.

Sierra Leone has a challenging back story. Before ebola there was a terrible civil war, and now there’s a crisis caused by kush, an illegal psychoactive drug made in part from human bones. I saw warning signs all over Freetown:

The fine looks hefty, but 50,000 leones is only about £2. (And quarrelling seems very good value indeed at only 40 pence.)

Unemployed young men appear to be the main victims, as kush is cheap and smoking it helps them forget their problems. Cemeteries are now having to employ armed guards to stop these men from digging up skeletons to make the drug. The Government has declared this a national emergency, as the number of addicts is rising so fast. The psychiatric hospital in Freetown has seen cases increase by almost 4,000% since 2020, and our guide told us that up to 200 young people are dying every day from kush.

On a more positive note, as a former British colony, the Royal Family has left its mark on Sierra Leone. We visited the railway museum, where we saw the carriage that was specially built for Queen Elizabeth for her visit to the country – although she never actually used it in the end. And in the church, in pride of place, is the visitors’ book, permanently open at the page with the Queen’s signature.

We visited the Peace Momument dedicated to the war dead, erected after the civil war which raged for eleven years until 2002, killing about 70,000 people and displacing 2.5 million. And in several places I saw a copy of the National Pledge, created after the war, prominently displayed. But what this country really needs now is prosperity, to enable its citizens to have the luxury of putting their country first, rather than focusing all their attention on a desperate hand-to-mouth existence.