World Insights: Long-lasting China-Sierra Leone friendship sees renewed vigor

World Insights: Long-lasting China-Sierra Leone friendship sees renewed vigor

This photo taken on Feb. 20, 2024 shows a street view of Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Photo by Seth/Xinhua)

China and Sierra Leone are far apart. Yet in Freetown, the capital and largest city of this western African country, there are many landmarks that are associated with China, standing as testaments to the long-lasting friendship of the two countries.

FREETOWN, Feb. 29 (Xinhua) — China and Sierra Leone are far apart. Yet in Freetown, the capital and largest city of this western African country, there are many landmarks that are associated with China, standing as testaments to the long-lasting friendship of the two countries.

Julius Maada Bio, president of the Republic of Sierra Leone, is on a state visit to China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Bio, during his meeting with the Chinese leader on Wednesday in Beijing, hailed China as a trustworthy and reliable friend, and thanked Beijing’s support for his nation’s economic and social development.

A TRUE FRIENDSHIP

One may wonder why many local residents in Freetown can easily pronounce “youyi,” the Chinese word for friendship.

China and Sierra Leone established their diplomatic ties in 1971. And in the 1970s, China helped the country build the Youyi Building in the center of Freetown. It now still serves as Sierra Leone’s government office building.

“Our generation witnessed the beginning of Sierra Leone-China cooperation. Without China’s help, Freetown won’t look as it does today,” Francis Odwyer, a 53-year-old motorcycle driver, told Xinhua.

Apart from the Youyi Building, there are many other China-aided projects that now stand out as hallmarks of 53 years of bilateral cooperation.

The renovation of the Sierra Leone National Stadium, funded by the Chinese side, started in 2022 and it is expected to be handed over in this November.

In southeastern Freetown, the China-Sierra Leone Friendship Road connects the villages of Regent and Kossoh, serving as an artery for people living near the capital city.

Chinese Ambassador to Sierra Leone Wang Qing said the two countries are time-bonded friends. Since establishing diplomatic relations, the two countries have supported each other and cooperated sincerely, serving as a model for China-Africa cooperation.

In recent years, with the guidance of the leaders of both countries, political mutual trust has been raised, practical cooperation has been strengthened, and international collaboration has become closer. This has injected new energy into the long-standing friendship between the two nations, said Wang.

In a recent interview with Xinhua, Chernor Bah, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Information and Civic Education, said the friendship between Sierra Leone and China is indestructible. Cooperation between the two countries has changed the lives of the Sierra Leonean people and the face of the country. “We are deeply grateful for it, which is the true friendship,” Bah said.

A Chinese doctor checks on a local patient at the Sierra Leone-China Friendship Hospital in Jui, a town in the suburb of Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Feb. 22, 2024. (Xinhua/Xu Zheng)

HELPING HAND

When the Ebola epidemic broke out in May 2014, the coastal nation was cloaked in great fear. China was among the first to provide medical assistance and send groups of public health experts.

Huang Yan is director of the Department of Infectious Diseases of Xiangya Hospital, one of China’s top medical institutions. She headed the fifth batch of Chinese medical workers to fight Ebola in May 2015.

It was her first trip to Africa. “The hospital told me they needed experienced epidemic experts there, and I decided to go without a second thought. That’s my commitment,” she recalled.

When she and her teammates arrived at the Sino-Sierra Leone Friendship Hospital in Freetown, the biggest local hospital, the situation was dire: rising confirmed cases and scarce medical resources.

“There were no local doctors but a few temporary nurses at the hospital,” Huang said. The Chinese medical team was just there when the locals urgently needed its help.

The Chinese medics took turns on 24-hour duty. Despite the heat, they wore protective suits, N95 masks, many layers of gloves and waterproof boots. “Every time we walked out of the quarantine area, we could squeeze sweat out of our suits,” Huang recalled.

Besides sending groups of medical professionals, China also set up an advanced mobile biosafety laboratory, an in-patient medical center, a treatment center and a fixed biosafety level-3 laboratory. The two countries fought hand in hand through difficulties to finally declare Sierra Leone Ebola-free.

When COVID-19 broke out in the country in 2020, China was also the first to rush to help by providing medical supplies, sharing experience and sending expert teams. Chinese medical teams also organized training sessions to help local professionals better treat their patients.

Describing China as a friend in need, Bah said China had always been among the countries that provided the fastest medical assistance when Sierra Leone was confronted with emergencies.

“We are very proud of that friendship, and we are proud of the ways we continue to go,” he added.

China dispatched its first medical team to Sierra Leone in 1973 and has since sent 24 teams, contributing to improving the health sector in the country.

“I expressed our deep gratitude to the Chinese medical team for their commitment to improving the country’s healthcare service delivery,” President Bio posted on social media X in December 2023.

Representatives attend a signing ceremony at the Sierra Leone-China Friendship Hospital in Jui, a town in the suburb of Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Feb. 22, 2024.  (Xinhua/Shi Yu)  

FLOURISHING EXCHANGES

Amidst the burgeoning cultural exchanges between China and Sierra Leone, the African country is also witnessing growing interest in Chinese culture. From language learning to martial arts, the allure of Chinese traditional culture is captivating Sierra Leonean youth.

Early in the morning, the courtyard of the Confucius Institute at the University of Sierra Leone teems with energy as hundreds of young people fervently engage in martial arts practice under the expert guidance of Chinese instructors.

Chen Xuebin, the Chinese director of the Confucius Institute at the university, observed the keen interest among Sierra Leoneans in sports and Chinese martial arts films.

“Martial arts courses are offered in many primary and secondary schools now, and every Saturday sees many children coming to the Confucius Institute to practice Tai Chi,” Chen said.

For Lamin Kargbo, a young Sierra Leonean, the journey into Chinese martial arts began at the Confucius Institute in 2017, leading him on two trips to China to further his studies. Today, he is a respected martial arts instructor within his local community.

“I love Chinese martial arts and culture. I want to bring Chinese culture back to Sierra Leone and share it with my brothers and sisters,” said Kargbo.

Like Kargbo, numerous Sierra Leonean youths have expanded their horizons and seized newfound opportunities for personal growth through exploring the Chinese language.

Chen said there is a growing demand for Sierra Leonean graduates proficient in Chinese as economic ties between the two nations shift closer.

The Confucius Institute has established 22 branches across the country to meet the growing demand for Chinese language education within local communities, Chen said.

After Wednesday’s talks between Xi and Bio, the two heads of state witnessed the signing of bilateral cooperation documents on the Belt and Road Initiative, agriculture, economic development and implementing the Global Development Initiative.

Bio said China’s experience inspires developing countries to bolster their development.

He said Sierra Leone is willing to learn from China’s experience, strengthen Belt and Road cooperation with China, and tap the potential for cooperation on infrastructure, trade, education and public services.

“We want our country to develop, accelerate industrialization and transform infrastructure, and have the scientific and technological power to achieve these goals,” said Bah, the Sierra Leonean minister.

He also pointed out that as a member of the Global South, China’s contribution to promoting African and global development is evident.

“We consider China to be an important partner to help us realize our dreams,” Bah said. “We want to see our continued and enhanced relationship with China.” 

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