20 June 2010

Pumuy in West Africa

I slowly stroll down the red dirt road at a leisurely pace; the locals wouldn’t have it any other way. Trailing behind me and surrounding me on all sides is a swarm of dark faces and bright eyes. They are my daily escort to and from my home stay family’s house where I will call my home for the next three months. “Pumuy, Pumuy” they say, running to greet me every morning and every evening. Their small voices travel from far away from the road. I feel like a celebrity, everyone wants to say ‘hi’, shake my hand and send a greeting. But one should not be surprised, the Sierra Leoneans are known for their exalting hospitality and welcome. In fact, it’s rude in Sierra Leonean culture not to greet each other, especially new comers.
Our group of 39 has been in a sort of spotlight before we touched down on the African continent. The first days of my Peace Corps experience was spent getting to know the other 38 and getting to know the agency. The limelight was spread all over us the day before our departure at the Peace Corps Headquarters, where they held a ceremony commemorating it’s return to Sierra Leone after a 16 year absence. We heard from the Peace Corps Chief of Staff, the Africa Region Director, the leaders of Friends of Sierra Leone (a group who have been instrumental in getting our program restarted) and the Deputy Chief of Missions for the Sierra Leone’s U.S. Embassy whose touching speech including an introduction to his Peace Corps teacher who was apart of the very first group of volunteers to step foot in the country! All the speakers has a connecting theme, about how welcome we were in Sierra Leone and everyone was ecstatic we were coming.
Then we were off over the big blue towards Europe with a quick stop in Belgium to drink in the Euro air, until turning south with a stint in Dakar, Senegal before hitting the ground at Lungi International in Freetown. And chaos erupted into my senses. It was everything, I had imagined. Humidity hung in the air, the smell of flora, the rich, red dirt and Africans everywhere. We were the country’s newest celebrities and we were greeted by the SL media at the airport. From the airport, we loaded our luggage into jeeps and van and high speed chased it through the countryside to the ferry which would take us to the city of Freetown. Side Note: the airport and city are separated by an estuary. Once into the city, the trip was shadowed with a very different vibe. Freetown was the most intense city, I had ever encountered in my travels. Intimidating, chaotic and completely devoid of any organization. I really don’t think I could have handled it by myself. Thankfully, we were bought directly to the hostel where we would be having our orientation before heading to our PST site in Bo.
To be honest, PST which means pre service training, kind of feels like summer camp on steroids with malaria meds, rabies vaccinations and a foreign backdrop. We learned how to take a bucket bath, that diarrhea will not kill you and most importantly about life in Sierra Leone

I remember sitting at the Headquarters the day before we left as all the director big shots were taking about how excited Sierra Leoneans were to see the Peace Corps back in their country, and honestly, thinking oh they must just be saying that to make us feel special. Oh how I was wrong! Driving through the streets of Freetown, towards the Ambassador’s residence for a reception with embassy representatives, SLeoneans, young and old where coming up when we stopped at a stop sign. Waving intensely, yelling “Pumuy, Pumuy,” and always with an infectious smile. A lot of people have worked very hard to make this program possible. We met with the Sierra Leonean President at the State House in Freetown and thanks to strings that were pulled within the dept of finance, we were able to be decked out in traditional dresses. The dresses were in the style given to freed slave woman just off the boat in Freetown. They were called the Krios and the dresses where in traditional Krio style. (yep, photos will be coming soon!!!) Our Co-directors said that in their decade long commitment to Peace Corps that they have never met any heads of state with a group of volunteers.
After saying goodbye to the SL Pres, we were finally let out of our hostal cage. We were not allowed to leave the compound our entire stay in Freetown. But left and finally got to see part of the country. Off to Bo, where we would spend the next three months learning how to be rockstar, wicked PCVs!
When our Peace Corps logoed jeeps hit the streets of Bo, we again where overwhelmed with Sierra Leoneans greeting us in welcome. They say life as a volunteer is called a fishbowl, everyone will be looking in on you, tapping on the glass in hopes to figure out who you are, what you are doing, and why you have chosen to spend two years of your life in their country. I can already contest to that and I haven’t even been sworn in.
It’s hard to believe that I am actually here! It’s been such a long road to get to this point, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind and emotions around this experience. When we were at staging in DC, our county desk coordinator in told us something that I can’t seem to stop thinking about. He was talking about how many volunteers get so wrapped up in their work and projects they miss the small subtle moments of culture that can easily slip by. He encouraged us to just be, just be in Sierra Leone and realize how many amazing things happen daily in your Africa life. (yep, got a bit sappy in the end).
So from a pumuy in West Africa to other pumuys in the States, just be!

***pumuy means ‘white man’ in Krio.


Anonymous said...

Hey, Pumuy Girl Alli!
It was great to read your updates and talk to you this afternoon! We are living the adventure through you! Take Care--we love you!
Mom & Dad

Anonymous said...

Hey Pumuy Girl--The grandma's are here--Gramma Ida, Gramma Rene (DeNeui) and Gramma Carol-- to read your aventures. You can really write so that it's easy to see and taste and smell all that. We can't wait to see the pictures.
Terry had told Gramma Carol that you had an update so here we all are. I guess I'm the keeper of the news.
Take care and write often!

Susan said...

Kushe, Alli! I am reading your blog (and those of others in your group whom I know about) and it's great to hear you and all the new Peace Corps people are doing well. Bo was a great city when I was in country and I hope you enjoy your time there during your PST. I look forward to reading more about your experiences in Salone! (From Susan, Ag RPCV Sierra Leone '81-'83, Moyamba District)

Anonymous said...

I love it al! I wish i were there! live it up and love it because it flys by!
love ya girl!
linds :)

Anonymous said...

Hi honey,

I am relieved that you finally wrote something. I know you said that it might take some time, nevertheless I guess everybody was waiting. I can tell from your lines that the African spirit has already taken ahold of you. As I said, for me you are just as far away as always... However, I am thinking of you and hope you'll be fine until we meet again. Lots of love from Germany!!! Caro

steven said...

So ro and I were reading your blog the other day and we just want to say hello and have fun. We both enjoyed how descriptive your words were. Hope you are having a blast. Ro and I were also trying to get a hold of you the other day. Can you send me a email when you can of your contact info. Ro heads back July 5th to Germany so hopefully we can all chat one of these days. Miss ya. Have a blast

Amy said...

Oh! It sounds like its already an amazing experience! So have happy for you! Its great to hear about all your details! Take care!

So proud of you :)


Anonymous said...

Hey Alli! I love the update. It was great to chat with you the other day. Miss you like crazy...I always want to grab my phone on my drive home and call you. Take care hunny.

John and Amy Giorgio said...

Alli, My nameis John Giorgio and i judst met your cousin Harlan via my wife Amy who is an OT student at USD. He mentioned you being PCV in Salone and it was a blast fromthe past - i volunteered with Association for Rural Development (indigenous NGO) in 91-92. It was a powerful experience - not always fun but would not trade it.had many PCV friends.Bo town na fayn fayn plas o! Enjoy your training time and looking forward to hearing more of your adventures both external and internal. May God watch over you as closely as your host family does:)

Janelle said...

Guess this didn't work the first time I tried it. Glad to hear all is well with you. I understand you saw Bret? That is funny!! Be Happy and Safe. Janelle (and Bret)

nikiibu said...

Just enjoyed your entries. Hope you enjoy your stay in my homeland.
By the way, "pumuy" is the Mende word for "white person." Must be irritating, in whatever language it is said.

by Chad Finer said...

I have been looking at your wonderful site about your Sierra Leone Peace Corps experience. Many of your observations mimic the one's that I had in the late 1960's (1968-70 in Kenema). If you care to compare your own experiences with mine of so long ago then check out: http://sierraleoneii1968-70.blogspot.com/.
Best wishes - keep up the good work.
Chad Finer RPCV Kenema Sierra Leone 1968-70

Barbara RPCV '69-71 said...

Thanks for doing this. Many of the RPCV from Salone love reliving the experience through your eyes. When I was there, they did not call us pumuy but they did call us PicKor instead. If you were not peace corps then you were called pumuy. Of course it all had to do with being adopted and part of their world.

Anonymous said...

Hey Thanks a lot for the blog. My wife and I were in Kambia and Medina 89-91. A bit north of you but its still nice to have alink with someone there. kele kele catch spider.