After six months without any Western visitors, I have had a month full of them. My boss Sara came at the end of May, followed by my sister and two friends along with four summer interns, and finally OVP’s board chair along with 17 Blake students. Although I have enjoyed all their visits, it has definitely been a weird experience to have a bunch of pumois around. To break up the monotony of my own writing, I asked my friends to write out a few stories. Their stories are below. The trip with the Blake students has its own blog with stories and lots of pictures. Feel free to check it out at http://onevillagepartners.blogspot.com.
Sorry for the delay in posting Joe and Emily’s stories. I had what Sierra Leoneans call “walka fast” in Krio for the last few days. I fully understood the meaning of the phrase last night as I ran every twenty minutes between the makeshift bed I created on my front porch veranda to my latrine about ten feet away. Boy did I miss good old modern plumbing.
Storytelling – A Guest Blog by Joe Wax
For those following Kari’s blog who don’t know me, I am Joe Wax. I am friend of Kari’s from college and when she told me that she was moving to Sierra Leone for two years I promised I would visit her while she was there. I recently had a chance to fulfill that promise by spending two weeks there along with Kari’s sister Sarah, and my girlfriend Emily. This posting is an opportunity Kari gave me to share some of my experience.
It is currently about 7 pm central time on June 4 and I am waiting in the Chicago O’ Hare airport for a flight to Minneapolis. I have been traveling for around 30 hours. A short while ago I heard a chicken clucking from a nearby gate. This continued for a while. At one point I physically turned around and was about to yell at someone to shut the chicken up when it hit me. There are no chickens allowed in the Chicago O’ Hare airport! What I heard was in fact a very large, southern woman laughing (No insult intended for anyone who happens to be large, southern, and/or a woman). It was then that I really realized how far I had come from home…
One morning in Jokibu (the village Kari lives and works in), we were heading down to the school to do laundry at the well near there, and of course, to see the school. After being there a while, Emily and I decided to head back a little sooner than the rest of the group. Kari asked a little boy named Foday to show us the way back so that we wouldn’t get lost. As we walked down the road, Foday walked alongside us. I could tell that he was looking me up and down almost as if he was sizing me up. After a few seconds, I saw a flicker of decision in his eye, quickly followed his hand shooting up and latching onto mine. He didn’t let go the entire way home.
Over the following days in the village, Foday and I continued to hang out. We played Frisbee, kicked the soccer ball around with the other boys, planted a pineapple, and just hung out with him sitting on my lap while the other boys watched enviously. One day, out of just some natural materials he found in the woods, Foday constructed some stilts. As Foday’s neighbor Soa said, “Foday is a very clever boy!”
We were told that it isn’t a great idea to give things to the villagers as it can perpetuate the aid dependency problem they already face. However, with a few of the kids, we couldn’t resist. I had brought some hot wheel cars along and planned to give one to Foday on our last morning there. I carried the toy in the pocket all morning hoping to see Foday and give it to him but I never saw him. As we traveled away from the village, I felt a deep sadness setting. I later realized this sadness had less to do with the toy car and more to do with the fact that I didn’t get to say good bye. (Added note: I was told that Sarah tracked down Foday before she left and gave him a car telling him it was from me. Apparently he was falling over with excitement over it. Sarah- Thank you for your kindness.)
The Snake Story
We spent several nights camping out on a nature preserve called Tiwai Island. Nature was peaceful, wildlife was beautiful, and the river was majestic, but I will leave that for someone else to describe. I want to talk about snakes.
One evening, the girls were getting ready for bed and I was…well I was peeing. We were sleeping in tents on a concrete slab with a thigh-high concrete wall around it. I was being somewhat lazy and was just simply peeing over the wall at the back of it. While I was doing my business, I glanced down and realized there was a snake sitting on top of the wall. Let me say that again: THERE WAS A SNAKE ON THE WALL! Unfortunately for me, it somehow had maneuvered itself to only about 2 inches away from my….’cash and prizes.’ I naturally let out a yelp and jumped away from it. I managed to get away from it and finish doing my business, but my yelp attracted inquiries from Emily. In a moment of sheer stupidity, I told her it was a mosquito that had startled me. I am still not sure if she actually bought that, or if she just didn’t want to know what I had actually run into out there, but she didn’t question it.
Malaria – My experience/clearing misconceptions
Doxycycline. Check. Mosquito Nets. Check. Bug Spray. Check. Managing to still catch Malaria despite taking precautions. Check. I should note that I didn’t actually get diagnosed with Malaria. I came down with something. Lots of achiness, bad headaches, chills, an incredible fever, and some vomiting. The opinion the locals who have had it before was that I had malaria. For anyone worried about getting it, here’s my stance: It’s obviously not fun, but it isn’t that terrible. Kind of like getting the flu, you just feel like crap for a few days and then you are ok again.
The unfortunately common response I get when I tell people I got malaria: “O my god! You’re still alive? I could never go to Africa because I’d be too worried I would catch something like that.” For some reason people keep asking me if I thought I was going to die, but let me be clear: At no point did I feel like my life was threatened. While malaria can be fatal and shouldn’t be taken lightly, I am guessing most who die from it are very young, very old, and/or already have a weakened immune system. While I would strongly urge precautions being taken to prevent such things from happening, as well as just general safe behavior, I would recommend not letting something like this stop anyone from visiting Sierra Leone (or anywhere else for that matter).
One of my favorite things to do in Sierra Leone was ride around on the motos. Riding motos was probably not the safest thing we did there, but riding on a moto taxi is cheap, efficient, and flat out fun. These rides were also probably the only time during our 2 week stay when we managed to stop sweating. If there are any worried mothers out there, I would like to note that we never went terribly fast. If I had a Leone for every time I heard someone on a moto yell to their driver “Small Small!” (means go slower), I probably could afford to go visit Kari again.
Storytelling – A Guest Blog by Emily Flink
I’ve now been back in America for a little over a week since my trip to Sierra Leone and there are a few things that I know I will never forget about my trip:
Most importantly, I will never forget the people. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt so welcomed and impressed by Sierra Leoneans. Kari has some wonderful friends and co-workers who went out of their way to make my visit to Sierra Leone great. Just to mention a few: Jennah, Joseph, Joseph, Yusuf, Baindu, Abu Bakar, and Jesmy. Whether it w as helping to show us around, letting us stay at their homes, transporting us from one place to another, cooking food for us, or something else, these people helped to make my trip to Sierra Leone something I will always remember.
Of all the people I met, the kids were some of the most fun. It seemed like no matter where I went, I could hear “Pumoi, Pumoi” (white man) being shouted at me from some little boy or girl who just wanted a wave or a smile from me. It was amazing how just a little attention could go so far with the kids. One day we walked down to the school in Jokibu and kicked a soccer ball around with a group of children before school started and then watched them line up and sing songs. They were so excited to have the opportunity to spend some time with us.
Finally, the thing that impressed me the most about the people of Sierra Leone were the things they were capable of doing. I am still in awe of all the things people can carry on their heads, no matter how heavy or how far they’re walking. Or their resourcefulness: my flip flop broke while walking through the jungle, and my guide quickly found a vine from the jungle and easily fixed it in a matter of minutes. One woman who really impressed me was Baindu (Kari’s Mende mama): Baindu cooks and cleans for Kari just about every day, takes care of 4 children without any help, maintains a “small” farm (it was at least 2-3 acres), and sells goods at the market every Friday in Bunumbu.
The people of Sierra Leone lead very different lives from Americans and often times hold very different beliefs, but many Americans could learn a thing or two from Sierra Leoneans’ friendliness, resourcefulness, and ability to live in sometimes very difficult situations.
There was something Kari said to me at the very beginning of our trip that really stayed with me. She said “The trash here is more apparent, but in America we have a lot more and we put it in one HUGE pile.” Although it’s more typical to see old plastic packets of water (they don’t drink out of water bottles there), bags, and more strewn on the streets in Sierra Leone, the people there are MUCH less wasteful than Americans. And in a world where global warming is becoming ever more apparent, it’s sad the developed world leads such unsustainable lives. A few things that really stood out to me as key lifestyle differences that led to a much more sustainable environment in Sieraa Leone:
1. Sierra Leone has very limited electricity. Although the inability to just flip a light switch took some getting used to, in some ways, the lack of electricity was really nice. For example, you could see tons of stars in the sky every night and you slept more normal hours, getting up with the rising sun and going to sleep early into the night. Being in Sierra Leone really made me realize how much I take for granted the ability to do so many things like watch TV, use my computer, see in the dark, and many other things.
2. I was amazed at my ability to “shower” with only a bucket full of water and to feel just as clean as I would have had I showered in my bathroom at home. It took some getting used to: using a smaller cup to pour water over myself, but it made me realize how much water the typical American wastes in a day. Just think: a 10-15 minute shower in the morning which uses gallons of water per minute, numerous flushes of a toilet throughout the day, running water in the sink to wash our hands or do the dishes, and more. That’s not taking into account the water we use regularly in the washing machine and dishwasher. Or the wasted water used on our lawns to get perfectly green grass. I would venture a guess that a typical Sierra Leonean uses under 2 buckets of water a day. I don’t even want to guess how many I use in America in a day.
3. Another key difference I noticed was that in Sierra Leone, most people have to walk everywhere. Especially in the villages. For nearly every person in Sierra Leone, hopping in your car to go somewhere just isn’t an option. For one, they don’t have the roads to support this behavior. Secondly, most people can barely afford to feed their families, let alone pay for a car. So people walk two miles to the next village. This has always been a part of their life, so they don’t think anything of it. If people do manage to find a mode of transportation, it’s never a “comfortable” ride. They cram 3 people on a motorbike that can only fit two. Or 7 people in a car made for 5. Or 20 people in a van built for 10. As a result, each person’s carbon footprint is tiny.
Now, that’s not to say that Sierra Leone isn’t without its problems: Because they have no method of garbage disposal, the garbage that doesn’t naturally decompose is burned, releasing many harmful toxins into the atmosphere. And there’s no such thing as emission standards on vehicles there. It wasn’t uncommon to see huge clouds of exhaust coming out of a car and to breath in that exhaust while riding in one.
However, with the developing world striving to be like the developed world, countries like the US should lead the charge in taking up more sustainable practices, so that when a country like Sierra Leone starts to get more electricity, for example, their carbon footprint doesn’t grow exponentially. If we can pass clean energy practices onto the developing world, we would make the world a much cleaner place.
One thing you realize pretty quickly in Sierra Leone is this: transportation is not easy. There’s no such thing as jumping in your car to go somewhere. A paved road is rare to see. Flat tires occur very frequently. And it’s by no means comfortable.
I will never forget my trip from Bo to Tiwai Island in a small van. Kari, Sarah, Joe, and I took a compact car from Kenema to Bo, but we had to find a different ride from there to Tiwai Island, because the car couldn’t handle the off-roading. So we bought “two” spots each in a van. We agreed to pay 30,000 Leones each, or about $6. This was much cheaper than $50 or more each to hire a car.
I would say the van was about the size of an old VW camper van but with 5 or so rows in it, on which the driver squeezed 4-5 people. After sitting for over an hour waiting for the driver to fill all the seats, we were finally off. We had squeezed maybe 18 people in with bags of rice and other food and strapped on more bags and containers to the top. The van was covered in dirt and dust on the inside and out and the air smelled of sweat and food.
As we drove out of town and through villages, the driver would pull up to people and ask if they wanted a ride to our final destination. If yes, they would squeeze in. Joe and I lucked out and got the two seats in the front next to the driver, but it quickly became apparent that Kari and Sarah’s “two” seats were anything but. But we had no other option for the 2 ½ hour drive ahead of us so we all just rolled with the punches.
Wet season was just beginning, and just as we were leaving town, it started to pour with rain. Since all Sierra Leoneans are used to incredible heat, they all freeze with the slightest drop in temperature. So of course they closed all the windows, which naturally fogged up immediately now that we had over 20 people crammed into the tiny van.
Sitting in the front, I got the front row seat to the bumps, rocks, and puddles we were driving over. And the hydroplaning the van started to do. I grabbed Joe’s hand and pictured headlines about 4 Americans dying in a car accident in Sierra Leone while all the Sierra Leonean passengers shouted at the driver to slow down in Krio and Mende.
Miraculously we made it to Tiwai Island with no problems, except frustration at the driver for making us pay such a high price when we clearly did not get two seats each (even in Sierra Leonean terms). We got into a fight with the driver about this in the village, and ended up paying him the full price, but Kari scared him first:
In Sierra Leone, people believe that twins have special powers. As Sarah and Kari are both twins, everyone was amazed by them. So when Kari paid our driver, she left him with “You know, in America twins have special powers too, and you had better be careful tomorrow.” The look on his face was priceless.
Although it was a scary and uncomfortable ride, I just laugh about it now. I survived it, and I was able to see how a true African lives. There’s no such thing as buying a plane ticket or anything else for them.
Transportation in Sierra Leone is anything but easy. It definitely makes you realize that the ride in the back of your friend’s car with no leg room for 15 minutes is anything but uncomfortable.
By the way, we hired motorbikes to get back from Tiwai Island and avoided the same horrendous trip in a van again.