In a pocket of paradise

The dawn rose over lushly carpeted mountains and broke gently along the miles of powdery white beach in the village improbably named River No. 2. It was Sunday and, for most of Sierra Leone, a day of rest.

But for this community, it was a workday -- the busiest of the week.

Patrick Bendu met the fishing boats that bobbed in the Atlantic surf. A chef and a tough bargainer, he selected two handsome, silvery barracuda, each measuring more than 4 feet long, and handed over 160,000 leones, about $50. A fire was being stoked to cook the fish for the visitors who would soon arrive, having decamped from the urban cacophony of Freetown, a rugged hour's drive away.

River No. 2 is an entrepreneurial marvel in one of the world's poorest nations. Its success story began in 1998, in the midst of a decade-long civil war, when the U.S. Embassy gave the village $2,500 and encouraged it to take advantage of a providential location on one of West Africa's most beautiful, unspoiled beaches.

The village leaders didn't disappoint. They built an unpretentious little resort that today employs about 30 -- half the adults in a village of 300 -- and pays school fees for the children and medical bills for everyone. They've plowed some of the $13,000 annual profit into the resort, maintaining a rustic charm that has made it a favorite weekend getaway for Sierra Leoneans as well as foreign ambassadors and aid workers.

The village itself is tucked out of sight in woods near the northernmost part of the beach. Sprinkled along the mile-plus stretch of the southern crescent are the resort facilities -- thatched grass huts for daily rental, beach chairs and umbrellas, nine small guest cottages, a restaurant and bar, and several long wooden boats that ferry visitors up the river to spot crocodiles or out to the Banana Islands, once a staging point for the slave trade.

On a recent weekend, several dozen visitors parked their SUVs in the packed-sand lot and strolled through tropical stands of palm trees to the beach. Young village workers, some barefoot and others in sandals, took food and drink orders from bathers relaxing on the beach. In the restaurant's open-air kitchen, Bendu and his crew chopped tomatoes, onions and garlic for the fish marinade and placed skewers of barracuda and shrimp on the grill. A large pot of freshly cut potatoes bubbled in oil over a wood fire. The restaurant serves whatever the fishermen catch -- for less than $10 a plate, including fries or rice.

Among the day-trippers that Sunday was the U.N. secretary-general's special representative and his son, a Canadian journalist teaching in Sierra Leone, Dutch relief workers and half a dozen seminary students from Nigeria, Guinea, Indonesia and Ghana.

"It just makes you feel good to support the initiative of this little community," said Elena Drozdik, a U.N. official who arrived in the country just a few months ago and is already a River No. 2 regular.

The mission of the River No. 2 Assn., the village's business entity, hasn't changed much since its launch, according to Ibrahim Kamara, who manages the open-air bar and restaurant, a collection of plastic tables and chairs beneath a grass roof.

"We're trying to improve the village for our kids, so they won't have to struggle to find work when they grow up," said Kamara, 29, a father of three.

During the early years of British colonial rule in Sierra Leone, the village was named Faulkner. But, according to local legend, that changed a century or so ago, soon after the arrival of two battalions of British soldiers. The soldiers were determined to conduct military exercises on the banks of the river that winds down from the mountains and spills into the ocean next to the village beach.

Locals had warned the battalion commanders not to attempt to cross the river because of the danger of quicksand. But the soldiers forged ahead at low tide, and hundreds, stuck in the soft sand, drowned when the tide rose.

"From then on," said Peter Abu Manserey, 42, a member of the association's board, "we called it River No. 2, because it was the river where the two battalions died."

After the nation's independence in 1961, the beach became a tranquil weekend hideaway. Enterprising youngsters met new arrivals, offering to watch over their cars, or prepare a fish meal, for a few coins.

Village elders recall that it was John Hirsch, the U.S. ambassador from 1995 to 1998, who provided the financial boost they needed to become a business. Hirsch, now senior advisor at the International Peace Institute in New York, doesn't remember that grant, but he does remember pleasant afternoons at the River No. 2 beach.

"I went out there at least every other weekend," he said. "And it was very quiet, peaceful. But there was really nothing there in those days."

During the late 1990s, as civil war in the countryside spread to the capital, Freetown, the restaurant staff buried 250 pieces of cutlery in the sand to hide them from looters. Fortunately, the rebels bypassed River No. 2. But when the association went to retrieve the forks, knives and spoons, all but 80 had been lost to the surf.

Though the war is over, Sierra Leone remains a troubled land, kept afloat by massive injections of foreign aid. But in River No. 2, the thorny reality of daily life is tomorrow's concern. People come to this beach -- which the London Observer said "rivals anywhere on Earth for breathtaking coastal grandeur" -- to forget their troubles.

The resort plays host to about 1,500 people a year, but regulars say it feels like a hidden treasure even on the busiest days of the high season, from December to March, when much of Sierra Leone's diaspora returns from overseas and occasionally drives the Sunday crowd as high as 80.

The association's 10-member board dreams of much bigger numbers and of Sierra Leone as a tourist destination. Until then, though, they are living within their means. The employees divvy up 10% of the proceeds among themselves; no one receives a salary. But the enterprise pays for free day care for the workers' children and generator-powered electricity for the entire community.

The board is reinvesting carefully. Another restaurant and a small one-family guesthouse are under construction.

A few miles north, on Sussex beach, a fancy guesthouse and restaurant owned by a transplanted foreigner does a brisk business. But Manserey said the board wasn't worried.

"We need the competition," he said. "It makes us realize how important it is to keep growing."

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scott.kraft@latimes.com

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