The one thing I really wanted to do when I went to Sierra Leone earlier this month was visit the giant cotton tree in the centre of Freetown. 

Back in 1792 freed slaves would gather here to take stock and pray before venturing out to small settlements start their new unshackled life.

In modern times it was the focal point of Independence Day celebrations and a place where hawkers sold fruit, office workers tucked into their lunch and amputees from the civil war begged for coins and crumpled notes from passersby.

For over 400 years it was the focal point of Freetown, a symbol of the city, a symbol of the nation. 

The day I visited the tree was commandeered as part of a pro-government rally.

The trunk of the tree was ringed by giant posters of the president and a gang of government-supporting motorcycle riders tore around the tree revving their engines loudly. 

The racket only succeeded in sending a huge colony of bats flying off in a panic, dropping guano on everyone below.

Exactly three weeks later, on May 23, a heavy rain storm felled the cotton tree.

Clearing up after a storm destroys Freetown's iconic cotton tree (Marion Sutton via Wikipedia)
Clearing up after a storm destroys Freetown’s iconic cotton tree (Marion Sutton via Wikipedia)

All that is left is the base of its mighty trunk.

The government has promised to commemorate the tree in a way worthy of its place in the country’s history.

Legend has it that a terrible tragedy will fall upon the nation now.

One fundamentalist pastor is already blaming witches and wizards who he says were using the roots of the tree for witchcraft.

But I think President Julius Maada Bio summed it up best when he said it was simply a “great loss to the nation”.

And I would add, to the world.

Main image: The cotton tree on the day of the government rally (Peter Moore)