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After a decade of peace, Sierra Leone votes for prosperity

After a decade of peace, Sierra Leone votes for prosperity
Frretown:  After a decade of peace following one of Africa's bloodiest wars, Nancy Bameh is ready for more development, clean water and better education for her grandchildren in Sierra Leone.

"It's difficult, difficult!" says the 54-year-old, sitting in front of a coal stove preparing a traditional lunch of potato leaves as tiny chicks scrub in the dirt around her feet.

Red Pump where she lives is at the foot of a steep hillside in the capital, where houses and shacks teeter above each other, accessible only on hazardous rocky paths.

A river gushes in between the houses into the valley below, parts choked by rubbish. Oblivious, smiling children soap themselves in the water.

"Red Pump is a very difficult community, there is so much illiteracy here. That is why I woke up at 3 am to vote for changes. Look at my children, my grandchildren. No money, no food. So we need changes," she says.

Many in the community agree. They want their local school upgraded and better roads.

Red Pump is a traditional stronghold of the ruling party.

But Nancy has decided to throw her lot in with youthful opposition candidate Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) in Saturday's presidential election.

Freetown was devastated by fighting during the war. Wedged in between verdant mountains rolling onto one of Africa's most beautiful coastlines, the tropical capital remains dilapidated, but construction is evident on nearly every corner.

Electricity is more dependable, new buildings have popped up, big-name hotels are moving in and investors have flooded into the country.

However poverty and unemployment still blight the nation of six million people, and voters are hungry for better education and healthcare in a country where life expectancy is just 47.

Red Pump has no access to pipeborne water or toilets, and was one of many affected by a recent cholera outbreak that left nearly 400 dead.

"That river is our toilet," says Bameh.

Her cousin Cole Kayodie, 33, stands in the doorway. He believes Maada Bio is the best candidate to deal with a massive windfall from iron-ore mining and possible oil production expected in coming years.

"I know that Sierra Leone is the richest country but our leaders are weakened. If this money comes to the opposition they will put it to good use."

It is the third time the west African nation has voted since the end of the 11-year conflict in 2002. Feared rebel leaders armed with money from "blood diamonds" are long gone and voters want more benefits from their resources.

At a polling station in Goderich in the west of the capital, Femi Turner, 62, waits to vote in the cloying heat. Children selling sachets of water and biscuits balanced on their heads weave through the long line of patient voters.

Turner, a building contractor is pleased with development under Koroma, and wants to give him a second term to do more.

"As you see this road, before it would take me an hour to do this drive" from the other side of the city, he tells AFP, pointing at the smooth, paved road leading up to the polling station, one of many to be resurfaced in recent years.

"Before, I know very well the way Sierra Leone looked like. Now Sierra Leone is a better place for me and the development is right on track.

Koroma "has to do more, it doesn't take (only) five years to change a whole country. I would like to see more development... good healthcare, good education."

Theodora Kamara, a 40-year-old banker, looks towards her two children sitting in the sun waiting for her to vote.

"My dream for them is to become responsible citizens, to become educated, to be employed," she says.

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Story First Published: November 17, 2012 21:32 IST

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