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.