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The New York Review of Books offers an excellent primer on Sierra Leone for Westerners — and not just about the current civil war there, which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and the temporary kidnapping of UN peacekeepers in April.

On top of all that, the tiny West-African country ranks dead last in “human development” (life expectancy, quality of life, etc.) according to the UN — behind Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Laos, Afghanistan, and even Haiti. To help lend context to the current chaos, author James Traub gives us a tour of the beautiful but decaying Freetown, and traces the history and consequences of 40 years of misguided English colonial rule, as well as the destructively naive local leadership that followed.

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