In 2004, just three years after a peace accord ended Sierra Leone’s decade of nightmares, I was walking along Freetown’s Lumley Beach toward the Bintumani Hotel. War and neglect had destroyed everything: Freetown, the capital, had no reliable power grid and only a handful of paved roads. Its already struggling population was swelling with those displaced by the fighting. It was a tropical destination whose only visitors were foreign relief workers. And yet, standing there in front of me was a luxury hotel, glowing with the light of its own generators.
Inside, I found a lobby serviced by a Chinese-only staff, decorated with large red lanterns, and completely rebuilt from floor to ceiling with Chinese materials and technology. The hotel was deserted. They could not have been turning a profit. Were they crazy to be here?
“Chinese believe high risk can bring high benefit,” the hotel’s manager, Yang Zhao, would say.
And Chernor Jalloh, Sierra Leone’s Tourism Minister,, “The early bird catches the worm.”