Since the war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) ended, the small West African nation rarely grabs the attention of the world media.
The fact that a young woman, author and photographer Genia Boustany, who is not Sierra Leonean but Lebanese has published a book on Freetown, the country’s capital, is therefore quite remarkable. It is even more so for the fact that this is the first book published on Freetown in 25 years. This was a one-woman project: Genia Boustany self-edited this, her first book, A FREEtown of Mine…, organized the layout, and oversaw the entire publishing process.
A few African-born Lebanese or Lebanese of mixed raced, referred to as Afro-Lebanese, have gained considerable fame. There was Roda Antar, for example, a Freetown-born midfielder. There was also John Joseph Akar (1927-1975) who was an entertainer, writer and diplomat. Born to a Lebanese father and a Sierra Leonean mother he wrote Sierra Leone’s national anthem.
Boustany herself spent six years of her early childhood in Sierra Leone. Upon finishing university she decided to revisit Freetown.
Boustany was enchanted by Sierra Leone’s colors. The country felt familiar while being also new and unknown to her, returning as an adult with childhood memories. The photographs she took in 2010 and a subsequent trip this year led to the publication of her book. “I visited Freetown and I fell in love with it,” Boustany writes in her introduction.
The war was raging at the time she left Freetown in 1995. While her father and uncles went back once the war was over, Boustany would not return for 15 years. When she did return in 2010, after studies in cinematography and creative management, she brought back many impressions: 7000 photographs. “When I went and visited the place it felt familiar but at the same time it was new and unknown to me,” Boustany tells NOW. “The thing that affected me the most were the colors, you find similar tones and hues in Lebanon and Europe but the colors there made a huge impact on me being a photographer.”
Showing her friends back in Lebanon her photographs, ranging from gorgeous tropical beaches – Bureh and Maroon Island are her favorite spots in Freetown – to busy markets and amputee soccer players, they were surprised by what they saw and felt she needed to do something with what she had captured. Slowly the idea of a book materialized. Launched in July, A FREEtown of Mine… is a labor of love, full of vibrant images – portraits and landscapes. It also includes information (people, history, religion culture and economy) on a country that has become synonymous with war, child soldiers and blood diamonds and is ranked 177 of 187 on the 2012 Human Development Index.
In the absence of official bodies or institutions that could have facilitated the process or issued permits (to take pictures), her family in Freetown assisted her and gave her vital access to a 4×4 and driver. “Especially as a woman with a camera, you can’t really leave the house on your own,” she explained.
Asked about the lack of Lebanese-African creative collaborations, Boustany argued that there were not many artistic productions, no publishing houses or even media outlets in Sierra Leone. “It’s a very poor country – these things make people express themselves at a personal level, but it’s not easy to make such a connection, to share art. You have to gain trust to collaborate, especially with photography – people didn’t like my camera. Partly they were afraid of it (a big, professional camera,) or they thought it was devilish. After a while you get a feeling, whether someone consents to you taking a photo or not,” she added.
Aliah her driver, who was a tourist guide and was enthusiastic about her project, negotiated on her behalf, often helping her gain peoples’ trust. Through her family’s connections, she also had unique access to various companies and even mines, of which the book features a number of astonishing shots. “Few people could make such a book, most Lebanese have not been there,” she emphasized.
Her book was also motivated by her wish to change certain perceptions. “When people hear you’re from Lebanon they assume you come from a war-torn country. Freetown or Beirut, they know us for our wars and negative facts instead of positive ones. There used to be tourism in Sierra Leone before the war but now all the hotels have been destroyed and the situation is worst than it was. There are no hotels and nobody to take you around. The roads are bad… the movie Blood Diamond had a bad impact.”
The book underlines how Sierra Leone, like Lebanon, has great potential. It had a significant impact on those Lebanese who’d lived in Sierra Leone. After seeing her book some families have apparently even been toying with the idea of going back. Those who have never visited the country will be surprised at what they discover. Above all Boustany hopes that it will make Sierra Leoneans proud.
“The book didn’t change me, being there did.”
‘A FREEtown of Mine…’ is available at: Librairie Antoine, Virgin Megastore, Wonders of the Sea Museum in Jdeideh.