18 September 2010

Walkabout

Since we have all been patiently waiting for school to start many of us decided to get a little R&r by the beach before we hit the classroom. We headed to a hotspot in Sierra Leone called River Number 2 or a.k.a Paradise. It’s where a River, presumably Number 2, meets the Atlantic creating a lagoon. White sandy ocean beach with thatched roofed palva huts, brightly colored long narrow fishing boats resting peacefully on the shore, rolling jungle hills who were often engulfed by low misting clouds to as a backdrop…beautiful. West African Wins Again. We enjoyed a weekend of hanging out on the beach, swimming in the ocean and sitting by a bonfire. The place was pretty quiet probably in part that it’s the wet season and our only enemy was the rain. The down pouring forced Welsh and I to head to Freetown for a day of browsing cassettes and junks. Bur the real story has yet to begin. The events of note came on our journey back to Moyamba.



From Freetown, we took a bush taxi on the spectacularly paved highway to a place called Moyamba Junction. This is a bustling pit stop for most cars head either west or east on the highway. Vendors are selling food, cold drinks and there is usually a ton of people around, especially if your whiteness is impossible to hide. You basically get swarmed but we are used to it by now. At the Junction, Meg and I needed to switch cares and head south on our bumpy jungle road to Moyamba. We approached the drivers inquiring who was heading south. They all jumped when we walked up telling us that it was going to cost 40,000 leones for a trip that is usually around 5,000 leones. They were trying to take advantage and make a few extra leones off the white girls. Fair enough and understandable but I wasn’t going to give in. Well, we were not particularly happy and tried our best to negiotate wit them, always smiling of course. They didn’t budge. So we said fine an din a stubborn, angered defiance and self preservation, we decided to walk. It was early in the day, we had water and bananas, so we headed down the road.


Side note: It’s 22 miles and everyone we passed reminded us of this fact.


Our walkabout turned out to be on big cultural exchange on many levels. Wasn’t it Forrest Gump who ran across America and met a bunch of interesting characters along the way. The first was a bicycle riding guy we have affectionately named Reggae Charles. He is a singer/songwriter who was inspired by our desire to walk and said he wanted to write a reggae song about the “walking white girls”.


As is the nature of news, its travels fast and in our case, it traveled faster then we could walk. The okada drivers (motorcycle taxis) thought there was no way we were going to make to Moyamba. I have a sneaky feeling the told everyone they came across. As we walked into village after village, all the children would be waiting alone the edge of the road for us. They were enthusiastic fans and often walked with us for a few miles out of each villages. We would greet and wave to all the elderly sitting on their verandas. Getting out of the village left us with the mahogany dirt road canopied by the brilliant green palms and jungle foliage. Sometimes, I can’t believe this is my life right now and the utter beauty of Sierra Leone is something that never ceases to amaze me.


Somewhere between our fifth or sixth village, we came across a group of ladies literally singing and dancing their way down the road. And, of course, when they saw Welsh and I, they only sang louder and danced quicker. Naturally, the only thing to do was dance back at them. The group of 15 and our group of two danced towards each other, merged to have a short dance off in the middle of the road, both groups smiled and departed their respected was, leaving with smiles and not many words exchanged.


We enjoyed the peaceful nature of the walk, with the silence only interrupted by the sounds of birds, frogs and monkeys. Yep, saw some wild monkeys jumping and playing in a near by tree along the road. Sadly, several miles before we had seen a dead one strapped to a man’s bicycle. Depressing but the circle of life, I guess. The silence wasn’t always broken by things we were expecting. The sound of children swimming in a stream was something not entirely rare and we were anticipating to be swarmed by excited naked children. However, when we came to the stream, we were awkwardly shocked to find a group of naked full grown men. Meg and I tried our best to hide the surprise in our faces and politely waved and quickly vacated the scene.


Our walk wouldn’t have been complete without a couple drenching rains, again it is the rainy season. My body welcomed the clear water as I really hadn’t properly bathed in about three days or washed my beach hair for five. At about mile 14 or 15, a taxi stopped along the road where we were walking. The nice driver had heard we were walking and saved us two seats in his car and only charged us 4000 leones to take us the last miles to Moyamba. The generosity and welcoming nature of Sierra Leoneans still sometimes catches me off guard. My feet were especially happy for the ride and we made it to Moyamba safe and sound.


When I think back on our walkabout, I feel it was an incredible way to see the region in which I will be living for two years, greet those in surrounding villages and of course a little physical activity doesn’t hurt either. So I think I owe a thank you to the drivers who made me mad because one amazing journey came out of it. When you don’t have wheels, go ahead and walka, walka.

Bloom Where You are Planted

I don’t take any credit for the title of this post…quoted from the one and only Dr. Phil which I read in an O Magazine that was sent to my friend Brandon in a motherly care package. Thanks Brandon’s mom. Now on with the post….


I arrived back at the Harford compound at quite a late hour ( well according to African standards, not too much outside activity after dark).I passed through the gate, greeted the guard and quickly proceeded into the campus. The ambience of the old boarding school at night is till something I am trying to get used to. It’s gorgeous in the light of day but for many reasons it seems rather spooky at night. So I was walking fast. My house is in the back of the compound and after passing the boarding halls, it opens up to a clearing with a path running to the staff quarters and of course, there is no “city light”, it’s pitch black. However, I stopped abruptly, not because I was scared or couldn’t see where I was walking but realized I was passing within thousands of fireflies twinkling in the darkness like the way stars flicker in the sky. The only thing I could think of was WAWA. West Africa Wins Again. Beautiful beyond words.

My first few weeks at site have produced countless WAWA moments whether from beauty, confusion, laughter, frustration or utter shock. Welsh and I have encountered an unbelievable amount of random run-ins which are worth sharing. I hope you laugh or maybe many were just had to be there moment but all’s I know is that we have laughed a lot in Moyamba.


If you are a frequent Dispatch reader you have noticed that Meghan and I do a trunk ton of cooking which evidently means lots of market trips and as the only two white girls in town, we often attract a crowd and some attention. While, I will never have time to relay all the market stories with you, one vividly stands out. We just had an amazing trip to the ‘junks’ clothing stand, I found my most favorite style of H&M jeans, so this girl was exceedingly happy. Junks shopping could be compared to Goodwill shopping on steroids. I am under the impression that all used clothing that is not wanted in America or Europe, ends up in Africa. There is some fantastic stuff…Anyway, we walked into the market only to be bombarded by this older lady who was talking in rapid fire Mende that I didn’t’ understand. I was trying my best but I could not figure out what she was saying, but in a blur she grabbed me and literally attempted to ‘suckle’ my breast. This all happened to quickly and to be quite frank I am still not sure what happened…WAWA. Rest assured we still went on our merry way and found all the things we needed for another cooking session. The lady is one of the happiest and friendliest in the market and I have not had any other incidents with my boobs or any other body parts for that matter.


It’s been interesting trying to adjust to the facet that in Moyamba there is only Meghan and I, instead of 35 other pumuys as we were in Bo. Consequently, we have been attracting all sorts of curious attention from the community. Moyamba has been wonderfully welcoming and everyone is ecstatic to show us the town. We constantly hear (usually shouted from a distance by a small pikin) Wetin na yu nem? A wan you for padi!! (What is your name; I want you for a friend). Basically, think of “friending” on facebook. Man, I would have a crap ton of Facebooksque friends if West Africa was wired with the ‘book’.


Meg and I could also potentially do a little construction work. Because two girls with English degrees are brilliant in building things? This house between Harford and St. Joseph’s (Welsh’s school) had an issue keeping two of its mud walls up. Our curiosity led us to have an quizzical conversation with the guy rebuilding the walls and he said we can come help pack the dirt. Heck yes….I will let you know how are walls look.


One day, I was sitting with the ten “pikin dem” on my porch, playing some sort of game, when we were distracted by a noise of an airplane which is not a frequent occurrence. All the children and I dashed out to the clearing behind my house just as a large while helicopter flew overhead with the large black block letters of the U.N. Just a moment that reiterates the fact that I am very much living in the developing world and that SL is still recovering from many years of conflict. This is the third poorest country in the world; there is incredible amount of need here.


Ok, sorry, that was a little sad, just was the moment but on a ‘lighter’ moment. Meghan and I saw two dogs with their butts stuck together. And if once isn’t confusing enough our Moyamba sighting was the second of our West Africa life, yes, we had seen this once before in Bo. Not entirely sure, why, when, or how…but it happened.


But I haven’t been this content in one place for a long time, even under rather new and challenging living conditions. I don’t have electricity or running water. Rely on the ‘double holiness” bright candles and a kerosene lamp to get anything accomplished (well anything that isn’t sleep) after 7:30pm. My water source is a pump that’s only a few minutes from my house and hopefully with some luck I can return to SD with some muscles from mastering the pump. I am more than ecstatic to see by my dim light at night and to trek for water for my bucket bath.


Mende has proven unlike any other language I have learned before. I am struggling and struggling with the pressure from my community to learn it. Learning to control my frustration when people just yell at me in Mende and expect me to know it. While Krio was challenging it’s so close to English you can figure out what a person want, Mende new ball game. I can greet, say my name is Fatmata, ask for mangos, say I am a Peace Corps teacher and I am from America. That’s the extent of my vocab, I will be getting a teacher asap.


Meghan Welsh has been creating quite a stir within the male population of Moyamba. All the guys seem to love her and enjoy expressing this love through letters. There is one in particular that sticks out. Meghan has a king who is a poet with his words. Here is a fine piece of literature to Wuya from the King: It starts with a ‘leisure moment’ from 6 to 6:30 am....

Hi Wuyatta,


Ado, thus thou art so much luv for thee, really your luv turns me on. Sweet, sweet luv makes I bright, jolly, the happiest day to day. I’m in luv, same also, no hypocrisy, always, why fear? No Fear! Just in reverence for the Lord. You luv brightens my emotions, actually. Ire, ire luv, show me luv.


Let your luv come down like rain drops ‘en flourishes forever in luv for thy loved one King. Let the beautiful face of the beauty of thy flows ‘en shone upon you and I. When I call come into my heart, lovely. A glance of your lovely looks made me glad with joy full of roses. Luv smiles, happy happy the happiest.


How long will I send thee luv lyrics, my most prettiest cupid of luv? For the Lord had made it so, so let luv be so. Just an appointment, a visit, day schedule ignites our luv ever than before, higher than lower, yep, yep, yep, my luv for u is so deep in the air. So much storytelling. You are so much dear to me. How can King get to Wuyatta Alpha ‘en get the best of she. My sweet, sweetiest luv taboo, cherry cherry.


Please communicate…let’s discuss love,


With loves of luv,


King
To be honest, the letters are very heartfelt and I would never be able to give a complete stranger a love letter…
In our free time…which as been abundant since we are waiting for school to reopen we have three favorite past times. One is listening to cassettes on our tape players, second is the search classic gems on tape, like Ace of Base, Phil Collins, Hip Hop mixes, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton and a ton of Reggae. We also have a small obsession with the Capitol Radio which is the big station coming out of Freetown, we listen to it so much we have all the commercials memorized and know most of all the words to pretty much all the mainstream music it plays. But to be honest it’s kind of like an awesome ipod on shuffle mode, they play some great music from what they call the “crucial decades”. The radio has really been my link to outside world. As many of you know, I was a news junkie before I left and the BBC has been feeding my craving for world updates. It’s particularly awesome to listen to Focus on Africa at night when they are recapping all the big news from the continent.
As you can tell, Meg and I are thoroughly enjoying PCV life in Moyamba, I hope you laughed as much as we have and I am sure once school starts there will be more experiences that will leave us scratching our heads, smiling, laughing hysterically, confused or just plain ecstatic to be in Sierra Leone.
Here’s to the crazy ones.

The misfits,
The rebels,
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of the rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent,
They explore,
They create,
They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
Or gaze at a red plant and see a laboratory on wheels?
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

-Jack Keroauc

You Did What with the Pepe?

For all my female readers and those males whose female companions force them to watch chick flicks…Lately I am feeling a lot like Julie from the movie Julie and Julia but instead of cooking my way through Julia Child’s cookbook, I find myself selecting dishes from a little recipe bible called Where There is No Restaurant, the condensed Sierra Leonean Edition. Meghan Welsh and I have been cooking up a storm in Moyamba and yes, I can say we are pretty much culinary geniuses (well maybe not geniuses, just wicked good at following instructions). For those who know me well, know that my kitchen adventures haven’t always been the most pleasant or gratifying. But for a girl who though I could never cultivate any real “foodie” like traits, I guess I just needed to move to West Africa. Peace Corps can be one strange personality change agent. So here are a few highlights from the hot plate or kerosene stove of two PCVs.

Check conquer or massacre pumpkin off the list of ‘To Do’ which takes more manpower then we thought. Sierra Leoneans wanted to know what sort of sauce and rice combo we were going to create with our squashy friend; little did they know squash potato stew and an Asian stir-fry were going to come out of it. (By the way the orangeness of our brilliant stew reminded us mildly of cheese, we were sad from about two minutes with a dairy dream then we got over it).


Also have a small obsession with garlic; it’s fresh, cheap and delightful in all things. Our obsession has lead to pasta sauces that Meg and I agreed. We would definitely be worth paying for in America. Oh, add to our obsession list, eggplants. Fried, beer battered, fresh, chopped in pasta sauce, stir fry, or with rice. Purple dreaming, not to mention, it’s just pretty. (Yes, Mom I have a new respect for the ‘colorful’ plate). We also had a revolution that fries and tortillas in American grocery stores are literally overrated. So much tastier if created and made yourself. Maybe that’s just our excitement of actually eating these things and clouding our judgment.


Welsh and I have had to get creative about our protein intake. First, bush meant just doesn’t tickle my fancy….monkey and other random animal parts, not my thing just yet. Second, chicken is too much work. Even though I am an experience chicken killer now after the 4th of July, taking a chicken’s life every few days is too much and quite morbid. Third and lastly, I am not ready to brooch the fish subject yet, after eating bony fish three times a day with the host family, I just can’t stomach it yet and even some days have a hard time dealing with the fish section of the market. But not to fear friends and family, SL has a ton of beans and nuts that pretty much rock. Rice/bean burgers; definitely don’t knock them until you try them.


At the end of the day, I have found spam or a.k.a canned ‘luncheon’ meat is bomb with mayonnaise (or mayonnaise with anything rocks). Eggs made or eat a million ways makes me splendidly happy. It’s not a great idea to head to the market after having several drinks (Linds, Frosty Jacks to be more specific) because you may come home with a trunk ton of cabbage. Meg Welsh is Irish so, of course, corn beef and cabbage stew happened to our some what drunken mistake as well as coleslaw ( yep, she is southern as well and a wicked coleslaw constructor).


Most of our mean have been cooked, fried, baked or boiled from fresh ingredients we find in the local market which is an adventure all itself and a story for another time. But our daily trips to the market has shown our community we are actively participating and what to be apart of it. We are present and not hiding. But more often then not many Moyambians are confused about what we are actually cooking. They don’t understand that we are not making rice or sauce. For the future we want to cook more Sierra Leonean food but for right now we will cook on in our American way. Yes, we are going to chop the pepe (pepper in krio) instead of pound it. However, it needs to be noted that you should never underestimate the African pepe, unless you like to sweat into your curry dish.

The Volunteer

Way back almost two years ago, when applying for the Peace Corps ( yes again thinking about my long journey to this point), I often wondered what it meant to actually be a Volunteer and it has been hard for me to nail down one particular reason why I am serving. My reasons keep morphing, changing and in a way “transforming”. I completely understand my responsibility as a PCV but often ask myself if there is a deeper obligation. What is the nature of the Volunteer? The day before our swearing in, a PC Staff member read us an excerpt from the book Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, a chapter called Strange Transformations (pages 152-155). Thought a few paragraphs were worth sharing….

The author talks about a review written by Norman Cousins in the Saturday Review about the opportunities the Peace Corps had in shaping or ‘transforming’ the personalities of Americans. He goes on to give examples of outstanding volunteers and talks about why they were successful.


“These volunteers comprehended the simplest truths of human nature: everyone laughs, everyone hurts. Everyone has a sense of worth, of value, and of beauty. Everyone has a culture. These are the volunteers who have, in the words of an Indian journalist, “a psychological affinity with a strange new people who may be illiterate and yet not lack the wisdom, who may live in hovels and yet dwell in spiritual splendor, who may be poor in worldly wealth and yet enjoy…a capacity to be happy. These have been the exceptional volunteers, instinctively able to hear, feel, and sense the life around them, and to join it.” (pages 153-54)

 “It is not easy to be a Peace Corps volunteer, to negotiate the winding, hilly path from one culture to another. Until Peace Corps masters the secret of igniting in volunteers a sense of cultural curiosity, the best that it can do is to assure the volunteer a legitimate place in the host society. The volunteer who has a job worth doing and the skill to do it is the volunteer likely to find the people he is helping deserving of the effort. He will not lie awake nights, ridiculing them to the walls. He will be exploring the meaning of life- in their terms and in their company.” (pages 154-55)

 Disclaimer: I want to make it clear that the italicized parts of this post is not of my own writing but taken from the book Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, chapter Strange Transformations, pgs 152-155. I am not looking to plagiarize or take any credit for writing that is not my own. The above was awesome and needed to be shared, hope I properly cited everything….Also, the above post and all other posts on this blog are strictly my own views and not that of the United States government or the Peace Corps.

The Fishbowl

In preparing for the Peace Corps, naturally I tried my best to do as much research about the experience and envisioned what it would be like to be a Volunteer. I vividly remember story after story of Volunteer’s describing being dumped off at site and iconically watching the Peace Corps white land rover pull out of the village with a sense of overwhelming dread. Looking back, while sitting in the comforts of Starbucks or Barnes & Nobles, I remember thinking that there is no way this is that bad and that if in the situation, I would be exceedingly ecstatic. Yep, I speculated wrong…again. As the Peace Corps car pulled out of Moyamba, I stood there awkwardly thinking crap, I am overwhelmed (yet, ecstatic), have small ache in my stomach for the security of my fellow PCV friends and the staff and now what???

The journey to site was nothing short of interesting. After taking the oath, giving a thank you speech in Krio and spending our last night in Bo, we departed for our respected villages scattered throughout the Salone countryside. Once again, I packed up my African life and jammed it all into the Peace Corps land rover. The trip was short compared to many of my other fellow Volunteers who had to depart very early for the north. Staying in Mende land has its perks. Meghan, Brandon and I, PCVs of Moyamba district, made the trip together. Our two hour trip included, tin water bottle projectile launching from the cargo into the back of my head, Meghan’s nausea only to be exasperated by our Program Manager’s desire to add bush meat to the car (that’s always a must on a road trip). Don’t we all like to see a bowl of monkey legs and random animal parts when you are hung-over? Oh, we had a puppy jammed under the front seat and a driver who love to ramp the holes on the red dirt bush road heading from the main highway to Moyamba. I had a blast….yes, seriously, a blast!

Moyamba has been pegged as a “quiet sleepy jungle town”. It’s beautiful to say the least. You come off the main highway to 35 kilometers of dirt bush road and flash in and out of tiny villages with thatched roofs and mud walls. The trip into the interior countryside is laden with palms and tropical foliage. Then you round a bend and three out of place cell phone company/telecommunications towers come into view connecting the area to the rest of the country. When you see the towers you know you have hit Moyamba, which is the regional capital for the chiefdom.

Changing gears from having a life of PST planned to every last minute to having ‘beacoup free tem” has been rather daunting. I live in a duplex style house within the walls of Harford School for Girls. I share a yard, porch and lots of laughs with the small troupe of children who live next door. It’s weird for the first time, I am by myself or at least that’s what I thought. Running around in my apprehensive state when first arriving at my house, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, I was officially a Peace Corps Volunteer and now at site, this had been a moment I thought of for literally years. So I frantically ran around thinking of the things I needed to get done to sleep tonight, get my water filter set up so I would dehydrate, put my mosquito net up to ward off those malaria carrying insects, you get the idea. Confused and doing a million things at once, I didn’t notice the ten sets of eyes peering through my window. Welcome to the Fishbowl. All my neighbor kids have been interested in my life since day one and I realized something that first day as they curiously looked in my window. This is as much of a learning experience for them as it is for me. I immediately stopped my packing, deciding that I have time for that later and went out on my porch to sit with the kids. We played simon says, I got my cassette player out and they danced and we laughed…a lot. Even after a month, they still stand in my doorway to watch me even if I am just sitting their reading a book. I live in a Fishbowl but at least maybe I can teach these young kids that just because I am white doesn’t mean I am that much different from them.

My days have been filled with visiting the market, stumbling through Mende, unpacking (finally after living out of a suitcase for the summer), controlling my anxiety of starting real life classes, writing and reading to candlelight, listening to awesome Freetown radio which I finally get reception after inventively creating an antenna from a Fanta can or jamming out to cassettes (yes, like in 1987), fetching water from the pump well, learning how to cook over coals and attempting to reinvent my identity once again in a new Salone town. While I am living alone and my Peace Corps experience is uniquely my own, I am never alone and as the Peace Corp car pulled out of town, I shouldn’t have been so filled with unease. In the welcoming culture of Sierra Leoneans, alone is not in their vocabulary and I will never feel like it as long as I integrate into the community, get out there and integrate which is easier said than done but in a way it’s already happening through my small children spectators, like everything in West Africa, I just need to execute some patience.