OLPCorps Tulane University & UC Davis – Sierra Leone


This is Sierra Leone by Katie McCarthy
July 20, 2009, 10:30 am
Filed under: Rants and Raves, Team Info

This is Sierra Leone…

This is Sierra Leone.

It’s remarkable how much one sentence can say. It’s even more amazing how the emphasis of words can change the meaning of a sentence. Four small words convey an important message.

More often than not, it’s the first sentence we hear. “This is Sierra Leone…” followed by a shoulder shrug and averted eyes. We’ve heard it most notably twice. The first was during our customs exchange. In brief, it was implied to mean that in order to get our shipment through customs, bribery was necessary. This is Sierra Leone… if you want to get things done quickly, you need to pay someone. Corruption is a way of life, especially in a country where government jobs are highly prized but it takes months or years to get a paycheck. “This is Sierra Leone…” followed by a shoulder shrug and averted eyes. The second time we heard the phrase was when we were talking to DCI about volunteers to teach the class. We were told that people would not volunteer their time without some financial incentive. We should pay travel expenses; give them food; something to get them to help ease the burden of volunteering. Now, it would not cost our program much to pay travel expenses: a Honda (motorbike) costs Le 1000 (approximately thirty American cents). If we paid each volunteer to come each day for the duration of the program (about four weeks), we would spend about 60USD. Less than what most people in the US make in a day… but that’s not the point. We are looking for people to volunteer their time and talents to benefit their children. We’re bringing so many other resources and providing a program that will help their children (and we’re already supplementing the salary for some), that it is a little frustrating that people can’t pay for transportation. That they can’t invest in a project for a few hours each day to help kids learn to use the computers. Luckily, the last example was reversed when we said we were planning to give the volunteers we trained certificates presented at a big ceremony.

That mindset seems prevalent in many parts of Africa. I’ve heard many a seasoned traveler use its parent: This is Africa, TIA. It’s the same mentality. Africa is some heart of darkness, only to be penetrated by the brave of heart and the tough of stomach. It’s not some place regular people want to go. It’s exotic, a place of mystery; it’s scary, a place to be fearful of. It’s a place where the do-gooders or the do-badders go to fulfill their mission. It’s a place to be developed; it’s a place to be exploited. It’s extreme. It’s not some place regular people want to go.

But it’s not that simple, that dichotomous. No country… no CONTINENT should be brushed off so easily. Africa, and speaking from my experience in Sierra Leone, is a complex place of unique traditions, cultures, histories, and peoples. Imagine how absurd it would sound to say, “This is Asia” or “This is North America.” I’m sure some Canadians would be very offended by the latter statement. So, let’s look at the other statement I began with: This is Sierra Leone.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. A young man reads about genetics from an old biology textbook for fun. Little kids use their free time to learn to use a computer. Young adults spending their nights reading all they can on chemistry, literature, and physics on Wikipedia. Teachers at a workshop proudly display their books. Small girls confidently sing “Education is good for the girl child, for the family and also for the nation” in front of beaming parents. Sierra Leoneans value education, thirsting for information and knowledge; they do not take it for granted.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. People give us the special food, reserved only for select occasions, possibly leaving themselves hungry. Bikers, many of whom are ex-combatants, explain the new helmet law to me and point out where I can buy one. A stranger greets us in the street, laughing when we reply in Mende, and then teaching us new words, becoming a friend. Sierra Leoneans are incredibly friendly and hospitable.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. Fruit and bread vendors pick the perfect pieces to sell to us. They usually tell us the correct price, despite our lack of knowledge. Most people don’t try to take advantage of us. They search for foods we are looking for. Sierra Leoneans are honest and fair.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. LUCOWODA, the Lumbebu women’s organization, supports local women and runs a school focusing on vulnerable children and girl children (see the link for a video clip). Action Plus, an NGO, supports victims of domestic violence, advocates for better laws and justice, and sensitizes communities against domestic violence. Defence for Children International advocates and supports children, and diligently supports our program. Sierra Leoneans, who may have had other options, decide to serve their people.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. The fruit and vegetables are amazing, fresh and delicious. The countryside is beautiful. The rain bursts make the air smell clean and new. The torrential rain at night on the corrugated metal roof is a better way to go to sleep than any sleep machine I’ve ever heard. Sierra Leone, and its productions, is beautiful.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. Children of both of the major religions, Christian and Muslim, play and live together. Children of various tribes know and respect each others’ languages. Sierra Leoneans respect many differences that have divided other countries.

There are problems in Sierra Leone. But the problems should not eclipse the virtues the country and her people possess. At a conference we attended this week, I was inspired by a returned Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, and Salone advocate. He was running the workshop where teachers created their own teaching materials, books. “Some people say Sierra Leone is poor and they cite the statistics. But if you look at your books, Sierra Leone is NOT poor. There is so much knowledge and beauty and so much worthwhile. How are you going to share this? What’s next?”

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