One of the Peace Corps goals is to “help the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women.” Essentially, giving people the tools to better their well being. But for a Volunteer to be successful, first must understand the culture, learn how to effectively teach in a SL classroom and acquire the language skills to integrate into the community or basically participate in a wrapped up package with a Peace Corps ribbon known as PST- Pre-Service Training.
Basically, I am going to attempt to give a brief overview of what the heck I have been actually doing for the past ten weeks.
Obviously, language plays a key role in how successfully a Volunteer can mix and interact with his or her community. Volunteers are not in country to survive as tourists and only witness the warm fuzzy tropical beautiful locales that SL does offer; it’s a wonderful added bonus to being a Volunteer in West Africa. While we will always be foreigners- it’s hard to hide pumuyness- more respect and appreciation is given if you make a whole- hearted effort to learn the local language. Plus, you really can’t intimately understand or accept the culture without connecting through the language.
SL is a former British colony; English is one of the country’s official languages as well as a Creole language known as Krio, then thrown on top is this linguistic mix is several dozen regional local languages. So we hit the ground running with Krio, which is essentially a combination of coastal West African languages and English from sailors and traders moving in and out of Freetown. Our language classes are considered “community-based” facilitated by Sierra Leonean native speakers. In a nutshell, we go to class, they give us the words, expressions and phrases, and then we wander out into the community to test out our newly acquired skills. Since Krio is one of SL’s Lingua Franca, it’s spoken by just about everyone. It’s an interesting language to learn, as English’s cousin the structure is very similar however most words are pronounced differently. After two months, we were I guess considered Krio masters (scary and pretty much a lie) or at least they wanted to believe….so after getting our site assignments, we switched over to our regional languages. I can check “learn African indigenous language” off my bucket list. Since I am heading to what is considered the southern region of SL, I will deep into “Mende”land. Yep, just started back to square one with another language and a language which bares zero resemblance to any other language I have ever learned in the past. Oh and let’s mentioned it’s not often written. Let’s just say I am stumbling around in the dark when it comes to Mende.
So when we aren’t attempting to understand why “kp” actually makes a “b” sound in Mende, we do have to learn how to teach. Our technical portion of PST brought in SLeoneans teachers and professionals to prepare us for the challenges and rewards of the classroom. We started by teaching each other, then to small groups of SL children, then on to full classes at a summer school with, of course, constructive criticism along the way.
The last part of PST is focused on Cultural, Cross-Cultural and administrative information of the Peace Corps. We need to learn that it’s not polite to eat with your right hand while eating together our of one bowel with your hands, or that smell food is a no and that’ there is a lack of platonic relationships between men and women. Basically, preparing us for the mistakes that will be made and how we can understand and learn from them on a cultural level. We spend a lot of time talking about how we can living in an unique culture while maintaining our own identity. Americans we take great pride in keeping our individualism while Sierra Leone is a culture which is heavily networked in the family unit and identifying themselves as a whole rather then as individuals. How do we look at culture and what sort of ‘cultural glasses’ to we use to look at the world. It’s not about understanding everything about a culture but understanding where each party is coming from and why we view the world in different ways. How does culture shock work and do I have yet to hit the bottom of the culture shock U?