Back in 2005, I had just started my first job in a non-profit organisation. To be perfectly honest I had stumbled there a bit by chance and knew very little about international development. Then one day I was told: "Do you have a passport? Good. Go get your shots, you're going to Freetown."

This is how I ended up at Lungi International Airport one June evening, first time on African soil, and how I fell deeply in love with Sierra Leone.

Before then, I knew very little about Sierra Leone, other than the news I had read online. The brutal civil war had just ended and left millions dead, maimed or displaced. The stories I read were of child soldiers, amputations and rape as a weapon of war.

"Do you have a passport? Good. Go get your shots, you're going to Freetown."

What I found was the friendliest and warmest people I ever met. Everywhere I went, people were eager to greet me and ensure I was having a fine stay. Handshakes were long and heartfelt. Smiles were genuine and full of hope, even with the ghosts of war still very very close.

Sylvia in front of the helicopter in Freetown 2005

Me, in front of the Paramount Airlines helicopter in 2005

But first I had to actually get to Freetown from the airport. And, for any of you who've made the journey, you know that it is no small feat. At the time, Paramount Airlines were still operating the helicopter service that made the journey from the airport to the city across Tagrin Bay in a mere 15 minutes. The longest 15 minutes of my life! Old Soviet era helicopters, operated by old Russian speaking pilots, who seemed to have a bit of trouble getting the blades in motion. Then, finally we were in the air... And not a single word was uttered by any passenger until we touched ground again. 

I remember looking out the tiny porthole and seeing absolutely nothing. Complete darkness. I knew the coast couldn't be far, but there was no public lighting at the time. Under our feet, an entire city of over 1 million that we could not see. 

I stayed at the Cape Sierra Hotel, one of the only remaining hotels from the pre-war era. It was prime location: at the very tip of the Aberdeen peninsula, right next to the long beautiful, white-sand Lumley Beach. And it had a nice "old-school" charm to it. Not very fancy, but it had soul. 

John with his students at the We Are the Future school

This is how I met John Donald Sandy. 15 years later, by twists of faith - and a bit of manoeuvering - I still have the honour of working with him. He is one of the hardest working people I ever met and he has rightly earned the trust and respect of his community.

And this is how, together, we established the We Are the Future center in Freetown. Today, it is a thriving primary school and youth training center. With the help of our wonderful supporters, we have established the Kids Kitchen Garden, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables to the 260 pupils, while surplus are being sold on the market to generate income. More recently, John's team of young "Master Gardeners" have started training other communities and schools on how to set up their own garden, complete with drip irrigation systems and greenhouses. Our goal is to reach 250 schools around the country so that more children and youth can learn about good nutrition and have at least one balanced meal per day, which is so essential to their development.

Group of Master Gardeners at the We Are the Future school garden in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Some of the Master Gardeners at the We Are the Future school garden

It wasn't easy: we had to fight a lot of red tape, political tensions and lack of funding. John has been leading that fight on the ground for 15 years now. There is never a dull moment: as soon as one battle is won, another one is emerging. But it is worth it. You just have to look around at the smiles of the children, at their plates full of food, at the laughter coming from the kitchen...

While I was visiting the school and talking to the staff, people told me how grateful they were about the programme. Parents, seeing their children grow healthy and being excited to go to school. Teachers, noticing better grades and increased attention in class. And kids themselves, unanimously answering the best thing about their school is "Lunch!". 

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Mr Sandy. And for you people."

Sauta Dauda, the school administrator, confided: "I was one of the first youths of the We Are the Future programme. You may not remember me, but I remember you. I was 16 when I started the WAF training programme. At that time, my mum died. I had nothing, I was lost. But Mr Sandy told me to persevere and finish the training. Thanks to him, I was able to get my certificate and get a stipend to help me support myself and my sister. Now, I'm training to become a primary school teacher. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Mr. Sandy. And for you people."

Sylvia planting seeds with students at the We Are the Future school in Freetown, February 2019

Literally planting seeds with the children at the We Are the Future school in February 2019

Who knew? Who of us back in 2005 knew that we were planting seeds that would eventually grow and thrive. That we'd see a second generation of children coming to the school, the children of the youths we once trusted with this programme.

You wouldn't recognise the area today: the entire beach front has now been built up. Sadly, the Cape Sierra Hotel has now been demolished to make way for the new Hilton. I'm glad to see tourism development in the country, although I'm sad this landmark is gone. But I really hope the country will benefit from the new investments: there are now good roads, road lights, and many new bars and restaurants to entertain visitors. The country is absolutely gorgeous: from the white sandy beaches to the green lush forest, Sierra Leone should be on any traveller's bucket list. But more than anything, it's the Sierra Leoneans and their warm smiles that will make you want to come back over and over again. 

View of a beach near Freetown Sierra Leone

Go for the beaches. Come back for the people.