South of Freetown on the coast of Sierra Leone, high-end resorts offering private chalets and white-sand beaches, palm trees and cocktails, sit largely empty. Hopes of a tourism boom after more than a decade of peace following the end of the civil war were snuffed out by the Ebola epidemic in 2014.
The only time any of them were fully booked was during the outbreak when the British Army built a hospital in nearby Kerry Town. The soldiers and medical staff were given knock-down rates. Today a few tourists come, but the PR damage inflicted by a civil war and a deadly virus takes a long time to undo.
Further south, past coastal villages with oddly familiar names (Waterloo, York, Sussex, Kent), lies Bureh Beach. It is in the small village of around 300 people that 19-year-old Kadiatu Kamara – or 'KK' to her friends – lives. Kadiatu has the title of being Sierra Leone's only woman surfer.
Before Ebola, the village of Bureh catered for tourists looking for a secluded surf spot. In 2012, an Irishman working for UNICEF, Shane O'Connor, set up the Bureh Beach Surf Club with donated money and borrowed boards. Shane taught the locals how to surf and also how to run the club as a business for the benefit of the village. O'Connor gave ownership of the club to the new generation of surfers, and they began to offer classes to tourists looking for something outside of the Lonely Planet mainstream.
It was then that KK learned to surf – but just two years later two things happened: her father passed away, and the Ebola virus took hold of West Africa. The schools were closed during the outbreak, and the small but growing number of tourists cancelled their trips. It was a tough time for KK and the village, which relied heavily on tourism. "We do not have business, we do not have tourists... Ebola destroyed our country," remembers KK.
In one respect, Bureh was very lucky: the village never suffered a single case of Ebola. However, everybody knew someone who had. In nearby Tombo, a close friend of KK lost his father to the virus. She remembers travelling to console him, but was unable to touch him or come close to him because of fear of infection. During this time, surfing became a form of escape for KK: "When I have that kind of stress... I went in the water and all the stress goes away."
More than year after the epidemic was declared over in Sierra Leone, cautious travellers are beginning to return. There are also hopes of an international surfing competition, postponed because of Ebola, returning to Bureh. Eager to make up for the time spent away from school, KK knits hats and tote bags to sell to the tourists so she can afford the fees her father used to pay. KK is already looking towards higher education and has a potential offer of a scholarship since she was spotted by an American surf organisation. "Surfing changed my lifestyle," she says, "I feel happy, I feel free... I feel so different on the wave, like I am the real KK."
In this way, KK is emblematic of Sierra Leone's optimism despite the huge challenges it still has to fully overcome.