In January 2016, Sierra Leone, a small West African country torn apart by war and ranked among the poorest in the world, created a sensation at the Miss Universe event. For the first time, a Miss Sierra Leone, Hawa Kamara, took part in the prestigious beauty contest. Now, the country wants to build on the new-found raised profile that that created to restore the country’s image and make it a flagship African tourist destination once more.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Sierra Leone, with its coconut trees and white sandy beaches, was a choice destination for French people who wanted to spend their holidays in West Africa. Celebrities like French rocker Johnny Hallyday made it their African base camp. But that was before the war broke out.
During the 11 years from 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was ravaged by civil war. 120,000 people were killed. The war also plunged the already fragile country into poverty. Today, in the annual rankings of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Sierra Leone comes in at only 180th out of 186 countries. The conflict brought the financial windfall of tourism to a sudden halt.
Today, although the scenery is postcard-perfect again, the country still scares off visitors. Since the end of the war, and with a recent Ebola epidemic, tourists have not returned.
So in order to improve Sierra Leone’s image and bring back visitors, the authorities plan to rely on what they consider to be one of the country's key assets: the beauty of its women. The idea emerged during the Miss Universe contest of 2016, in the Philippines. For the first time, Sierra Leone sent a representative, Hawa Kamara. The 25-year-old did not win a prize, but that did not matter: of all the African contestants, she attracted the most interest from the international media. Hawa Kamara provides new visibility to Sierra Leone and a glamorous image of the country. Above all, she embodies the hopes of a whole nation for a brighter future.