There’s a lot more to Sierra Leone for tourists than the beaches of the Freetown peninsula. Rotifunk, seat of Bumpeh Chiefdom, is only 55 miles southeast of Freetown. But the chiefdom is a world away in terms of scenic beauty and traditional culture.
Bumpeh Chiefdom lies in lowland tropical rain forest with traditional villages and has its share of Sierra Leone’s rich natural resources. The chiefdom is ripe for agricultural expansion like mechanized rice growing, palm oil, rubber, citrus, coconut and mango plantations. Like the rest of Sierra Leone, only 20% of the rich agricultural land is cultivated. The Bumpeh River runs the length of the chiefdom and flows to the coast, creating rich flood plains for agriculture and wild life. As Sierra Leone’s rice bowl, mile after mile of rice swamps line the Bumpeh River from Rotifunk to the sea, and upland rice farms extend into the interior. Village farms supply much of Freetown’s fruit and vegetables.
Rotifunk is a small town that’s long on history. As the seat of Bumpeh Chiefdom, it’s the homeland of the Sherbro people, one of Sierra Leone’s oldest tribes, and the ancestral home of a branch of the Caulker family, one of the country’s oldest ruling families dating back to the 1600s. The Caulkers trace their family origins to the union of an early British trading company chief agent and a local Sherbro princess. They have been prominent in the chiefdom and country history and politics ever since. Bumpeh Chiefdom today sits at the crossroads of several tribal areas and is a blend of Sherbro, Loko, Temne, Mende, Fullah and Susu.
Once a bustling town, Rotifunk was occupied by rebels during the long civil war and completely destroyed. Back on its feet, it’s rebuilt itself to once again serve as the center of trade, education and health care for the area. Rotifunk is known for its lively Saturday market, where farmers and small traders from across the chiefdom sell their wares. Fish from local rivers are plentiful, as well as locally grown fruit and vegetables. The name Rotifunk is a Temne word for “the farmhouse.”
Rotifunk is a focal point for education, with four secondary schools that have been rebuilt or newly started since the end of the war, and now account for nearly one thousand students. Prosperity Girls High School is the first all-girls’ school in the area. It’s tripled in size after four years of operation. Parents, including those from surrounding villages, now want to educate their daughters at PGHS recognizing the opportunity for a quality all-girls secondary education in a rural setting.
Education has long been valued in Rotifunk. Early Caulkers and other leading chiefdom families sent their children to be educated in England dating back to their British trader ancestors of the 1700s. American missionaries from Otterbein College in Ohio set up a mission and their first school in Rotifunk in 1877.
Health care has long been a draw for Rotifunk, with a historic hospital started by United Brethren in Christ missionaries over 100 years ago. You’ll still see the plaques and markers recognizing early missionaries and those killed during the 1898 hut tax war, including two female doctors. Dr. Marietta Hatfield and Dr. Mary Archer were no doubt better accepted as women physicians in 19th-century Rotifunk than at home in Ohio. But they found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when upcountry chiefs and their people objected vehemently to the British colonial regime assigning a tax on all dwellings, leading to the hut tax war. Plaques honoring these martyrs and other UBC missionaries on the walls of the gothic-windowed Martyrs Memorial Church on Rotifunk’s main street attest to the enduring relationship with the now United Methodist Church and Otterbein College.
Once one of the country’s best hospitals, the Rotifunk UMC hospital was sadly destroyed by rebels during the war. Structures have been rebuilt by generous donors in Norway, with a UMC-sponsored daily clinic and women’s health services. Rebuilt wards and staff quarters now await funding for full-time doctors and nurses.
A true attraction for visitors to Rotifunk is a trip down the scenic Bumpeh River. This is a chance to see the “real” Sierra Leone, with villages too small to be marked on most maps. In all, 208 villages make up the chiefdom. For some of these villages, river travel is still the most practical (or only) means of transportation. Traditional life goes on as it has for hundreds of years. It’s also the Sierra Leone of the future, ripe for development and seeking means of sustainable development that protect the land and natural resources for future generations.
The Bumpeh River runs the length of the chiefdom, leaving Rotifunk as a narrow waterway thickly lined with overgrowth. Tributaries connect until the river forms a wide mouth and enters the sea. Ocean tides naturally flood the rice fields and mangrove swamps lining the river. Tides can be felt all the way back 30 miles to the wharf of Rotifunk. Dugout canoes can time their trips to Rotifunk and let the tides do much of their work paddling upstream.
Sierra Leone is a land of rivers, and the Bumpeh River is one of a network that drains this small country’s tropical rainforest of the 100 to 120 inches of rain it receives each year. They flow to the sea, joined by lesser rivers to become estuaries that are important nurseries for abundant fish and other wildlife found there. Yawri Bay, where the Bumpeh River empties to the sea, is an area of wetlands and waterways significant for their natural habitat and scenic beauty. Birdwatchers will see flocks of ducks, geese, herons and other wetland birds. Shoreline trees and snags add African kingfishers, bee-eaters, hornbills and sunbirds to your world bird list. Manatees were known to frequent the waterways, and may still be seen in the rainy season when the newly transplanted rice is bright green.
As the rainy season peaks in July and August, it’s rice planting time. Miles of village riverbanks are filled with rice nurseries, brilliant emerald green of newly germinated rice plants. It’s the color green of life itself. Planting is still the heavy labor of past days, with men turning over thick, mucky soil with hand-held hoes to prepare for the new crop. Women and teen-agers can be seen cutting and tying the germinated rice into bundles. These are carried to big rice swamps to be separated and transplanted as evenly spaced rice plugs. It’s hard work initially. But with the Bumpeh River flooding in the rainy season and providing natural irrigation, little is needed again until harvest time in November-December. By March-April, it’s time to cut back rice stalks and prepare again for the next planting season. This is traditional agriculture as it’s been practiced for hundreds of years.
To reach Bumpeh River villages like Moyeamoh, Mobainda and Samu, you need to first pass through the rice swamps on foot paths built on small levees until you reach higher ground. The villages are obvious with majestic tropical hardwood trees soaring in the distance. A tall cotton tree often announces a village entrance. It means good water is there if it supports a tree of this size. The stunning cotton tree in Samu – easily 80 feet or more — dwarfs a 6-foot man, rendering him barely visible among the gigantic buttress roots. The tree appears bigger than the landmark Cotton Tree of central Freetown, estimated to be at least 200 years old.
Pass a couple of hours walking village lanes of thatch-roofed mud houses. You’ll hear the thump-thump-thump of women pounding poles into deep wooden mortors before you see them husking rice, and then winnowing on flat woven raffia fanners. Cooking is still done on three stones with tree limbs as fuel. You might see country cloth being woven in narrow strips on four-inch string looms running the length of a front porch.
Repairing nets is a routine chore for fishermen. Huge tree trunks become dugout canoes as men patiently shave the wood with handmade planes into a graceful shape that will cut through the water. Watch for local sailboats with sails a colorful patchwork quilt of printed cloth now recycled for a second life and hoisted up with bamboo poles. Their catch may include shrimp and crab together with river fish.
Relax while you wait for your rice chop lunch with a cup of palm wine – somewhat milky, lightly alcoholic and effervescent, and very refreshing. It’s tapped directly from a palm tree usually in the morning by someone skilled in shinnying barefoot up the tree, and best drunk within a few hours. Later, when chores are done, the Sherbro women may grace you with their traditional songs. The stars on a clear night go on forever. You will escape cell phones here (no signal) and once again know the meaning of rest and relaxation.