Sierra Leone hopes cricket can help heal war wounds

FREETOWN Fri Feb 1, 2013 6:20am EST

FREETOWN (Reuters) - It has no fence around it or any grass on its pitch but the Kingtom Oval cricket ground represents for many inhabitants of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown a reminder of happier times before the West African country's brutal civil war.

The only cricket ground to have survived the 11-year conflict, which killed some 50,000 people and devastated the impoverished country's infrastructure, the Oval is now the focus of an attempt to revive the sport.

Sierra Leone is one of the few nations in West Africa to play cricket. The game was introduced here by the Royal Artillery in 1898 as the British army battled to subdue an uprising in a turbulent trading outpost of its Empire.

For three decades after independence in 1961, the sport remained popular until civil conflict tore the country apart.

"Back then cricket was played pure British style," said 88-year-old Shubu Leopold, the oldest cricketer in Sierra Leone, remembering the "good old days of cricket" before independence.

"We had our tea breaks and you had such a big crowd going to watch cricket ... Everything was a high standard."

The 1991-2002 civil war made Sierra Leone a watchword for brutality, with the drug-crazed child soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels chopping off the hands and feet of civilians.

"Blood diamonds" mined illegally in Sierra Leone funded the conflict here and in neighboring Liberia, destabilizing the broader region.

Francis Samura, CEO of the Sierra Leone Cricket Association (SLCA), said its members have been working hard since then to revive the game and now even have a national team that competes across Africa.

In 2010, the SLCA won the African Cricket Association's award for the most improved standards on the continent. Samura sees cricket as a means of eventually attracting more tourists to the country, which is gradually winning a reputation for its pristine beaches and tropical forests.

"Tourism can generate income. Tourism can attract foreign investment. It can do a lot to help expand the game and our country," he said.

The SLCA knows it needs to raise its standards to attract foreigners: a fence is being built around the Oval. During the rainy season in July new grass will be laid on the dusty field.

Several British non-governmental organizations have made donations to help improve the facilities, including Christian charity A Call to Business which operates a micro-finance project in Freetown. It has donated 3,000 pounds ($4,800) to the SLCA for equipment.

Hugo Chance, international development advisor for the NGO, said cricket was a reminder of the strong historical ties between Britain and Sierra Leone.

"I see sport as an essential tool and platform for social change in Sierra Leone. Cricket is a great way of teaching team values to both young and old," said Chance.

Veteran cricketers like Shubu Leopold are just happy to see the sport starting to thrive again.

"I feel very happy because this is my game," he said with a smile. "I was a double international for Sierra Leone, both soccer and cricket, but give me cricket any day." ($1 = 0.6307 British pounds)

(Editing by Daniel Flynn)

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