12 July 2012

PC is People

Isatu Peacock
“Look trouble!!” she says, sarcasm streaked within her voice. It’s my daily visit to the Peacocks’ enclosed veranda which is always buzzing with activity.  I have never had a big sister but found one in Isatu. “Little sister no kam humbug mi” she would say but hold her arms out for a hug. She is my mentor who is constantly fielding my questions about school, SL culture, friendships, the future and even love.  An ample African woman with impeccable style and signature red lipstick, she is a strict but kind disciplinarian who knows how to shape and mold troublesome teens into ladies. I hope our connection will be everlasting and know she will always be a dependent ally in for all my future endeavors.  And did I mention she is a fantastic dancer!!!

Chief Gulama
A Paramount Chief is the highest ranking traditional elder in chiefdom and a position of high respect, so when you first meet Chief Gulama bopping around town with his Volcum cap hiding a white afro in casual jeans, he appears unassuming.  He persevered through a five year battle with his cousin for his staff and right to become paramount chief. Walking in the footsteps of his honorable aunt, Chief is constantly looking to push Kaiyamba forward and consequently looking to keep me around Moyamba. “Once we get a project going, you can stay here forever!” he continually says. But I believe him to be a strong partner in development of the area. You traditionally greet a Chief with a hand shake and placing your free hand to support the shaking hands elbow, but I greet PC Gulama with a hug.

Julius Jongopie “JP”
The first time I met JP, I haggled and argued with him about 5,000 leones ($1) for a hammer. As I settled into life in Moyamba, I found myself more and more at Julius’s hardware shop; getting nails, buying wire, looking for paint. Over time it just became a habit, in the afternoon I sit with JP in the shop which was fun because it’s like the whole town will eventually come in and go out. Julius is a contagious person; you just want to be around him. His cool demeanor and patience makes him good with people and a successful business person. I found the hardware store to be more like a therapist’s office, he would advise me on cultural problems, issues in the classroom. We spent many hours on his roof overlooking the town center. JP’s story is one typical of SL. A bright young man whose family didn’t have enough money to send him to university, so he found refuge and success working for an India man who has now become his mentor.

Christian Squire
Peace Corps isn’t necessarily the easiest experience and often there can be moments of extreme loneliness. But that’s why you have good friends. Crying on the floor of my house alone, I knew I need someone and quick. My call went to Christian Squire and in ten minutes he was in my parlor giving me the best hug. Christian started out as that friend you called when you wanted to a fun night at Moyamba’s one bar/enjoyment location. We would drink Stars and mull over the problems with development in Sierra Leone. Monitoring and evaluating all District Council projects, his insight is truthful and telling. A man with a slim, lanky stature, bold black glasses and a contagious laugh, Christian has a bright future. We had our Sunday afternoon walkas with palm wine in surrounding villages and spaghetti feasts. Christian is the only one in Moyamba or Sierra Leone who calls me “Alli”.

Mrs. L.M. Shereef
“I am not going to be your mother, but your boss,” was first sentence out of Principal Shereef on our initial meeting. And she was, for most of it. She in turn has turned from Principal Shereef to Mama Lulu. A formidable woman with an aggressive, strict leadership style, Mama Lulu has dedicated her life and more than 30 years to Harford School. As a powerful Sierra Leonean woman, she is not only a mother to all Harford girls but a role model empowering them to study and work hard at achieving their goals. This “Black Mamie” has an intimidating character and a flawless sense of style. She carries herself with dignity and integrity. After all her years, she is finally leaving campus going to a comfortable retirement which I wish her all the best.

 Christiana Bangura & the Girls
My last day in the classroom one of my girls raises her hand and asks, “Miss Allison, are you taking Christiana Bangura to America with you?” It’s bad to have favorites but it was hard for me not to become attached to Christiana.  Everyone calls Christiana my “black little sister who is always on the radio”.  Chris B, I sometimes call her, is an extremely hard worker with an enthusiasm and mind for journalism. Chief Editor of the Harford news club, I have instilled a love for current events and news in her. We often found ourselves listening to the BBC for hours in the library discussing the world’s problems. I admire Christiana’s ability to get on the radio and talk boldly and intelligently about serious issues affecting her life and the life of her peers. She has the potential to be an extraordinary leader and change maker. I hope to one day meet her as a successful adult.

Teenage girls are similar worldwide, focused on what they are wearing, the latest music and of course boys; my girls were no different. We had our ups and downs. They made me so mad I would make them kneel in the sun and so happy we would talk about gender equality, girl’s issues, what America is like and most had a mild obsession on my little brother. I have never had so many little sisters and all girls will all be tremendously missed.
HSG Staff
I have always told PC that I am the luckiest volunteer because I was fortunate to get two villages, Moyamba and Harford School for Girls. The HSG is a self contained village of its own, it’s a community and it’s a family. The staff and girls are my neighborhood. The other teachers have been with me through the struggle of teaching adolescent, post war children. Their resolve is steadfast; many of them have not been paid for there teaching work in two years. They still come to the classroom everyday and teach the girls with little to not materials. Some have been teaching for decades and are champions for attempting the broken SL education system. Harford is my family and we have grown together inside its walls.

“When I was little I used to dress up like General Custer and wanted to be in the Seventh Cavalry. My mom devastated me when I found out they didn’t exist, like when you realize Santa isn’t real,” he confesses on our first meeting as the latest techno beats blast in my ears and people push me softly in the crowded bar. Tim resembles my father without the mustache, tall, lean and deeply passionate about the crown, union jack and his britishness. He was my link to the Western world, let me hide in ‘Little Britain’ when SL got too much and always provided a safe haven to recharge my batteries. Over morning tea, (or afternoon tea or evening tea), we would discuss SL’s challenges, what the international community’s role in its development and our on going debate about the comparisons between the special relationship between the UK and the USA. He has moved on from Salone and now off somewhere in the world keeping people safe.

Mama Kanu
At age 25, my mother walked me to my first day of school and made sure I found my classroom literally holding my hand on the way into my first training day.  The day I became “Fatmata Kanu” was the same day I officially entered the Kanu Family forever. Mama Mary Kanu is a slight, slender but strong Temne woman with a big smile and caring demeanor.  Like Salay, she was completely responsible for teaching me to not only survive but thrive in Sierra Leone from cooking, washing to mentoring on how to deal with cultural situations. Mama Kanu cares for me like I am her own child. And strangely, I kind of look like her.

“Fatmata! Wetin yu dae du, sidom na ya and eat!” Not hesitating, I sit and try to concentrate on my fourth meal in the row of fish gravy as host sister Salay proudly watches me eat every bit of it. While the first days in SL were hard to adjust, Salamatu Kanu single handedly taught me almost everything on how to not only survive but to thrive in Sierra Leone. From how to launder my clothes, cooking potato leaves and bathing with a bucket to fighting off undesirable, persistent men, she sent me to Moyamba with the know how to feel comfortable in my new environment. She is stout, commanding young Sierra Leonean woman with a sharp tongue and a gift in the kitchen. Salay is an aspiring caterer and the best cook ever! She truly manifested my love for SL food! I always leave Bo with a random plastic container (could be a butter dish, old shampoo bottle or sweets bowl) of chicken gravy. The fastest way to a person’s heart is through their stomach and Salay captured mine quick!

“Fuck off na ya!”, he would inappropriately scream at the other neighbor kids. “She is my sister not yours, right Fatmata?”  My host little brother was always “mature” beyond his years. After falling down the treacherous back step, spraining my ankle, leaving me unable to walk, Amadu become my guardian and protector from any form of harassment (even if it was unintentional). Small for his age, he makes up for it in brains. At the kindergarten level, this little brain was double promoted and the head of his class. All the other kids were old then him by two years. I admire Salay and her encouragement! Amadu is my pepper pounder when we cook while he has ask challenging questions about America. With my ankle ballooned to the size of a softball, Amadu would get out my world map and we would sit on the ground in the front veranda identifying the continents. Smart kid!

“I go broke you neck!” followed by a shower of softly thrown stones. For Eddie, this is love. Over two years, I watched Eddie grow up from a screaming baby to a curious little boy. Eddie and I have a close relationship; maybe it has something to do with that our Mende language abilities are about the same. “Alicessee, Buwaa,” he would say every morning for a year until he gave up to solely rely on Krio. He is not particular big, short for his age with wide bright eyes, Eddie and I spent at lot of time sitting together in my parlor or what I like to call “brainstorming.” Not necessarily talking with each other but just together until the words began to come. Two years older, he likes to sing the alphabet, recite the colors and travel in his ‘motokars’.  I know Eddie’s memories of me will be vague  and he might throw rocks at me but it’s forgivable when he follows it with “Aliceseee, I love you.”

Rev. Mammah
“Kulo kulo mia nja vei,” small drops of water make a mighty ocean. Mothers always have words of advice. Rev. Alice Mammah is a caretaker for eight kids, a sick husband and still manages to watch after me with the thoughtfulness of a mother. She is a calculated woman who is careful with her actions and words.  Rev.’s burden is big with her husband’s illness and large family, she is the sole breadwinner but meets her challenges softly and determined. She is not talkative and busy running the household, teaching and preaching but her presents is always calming.

Fonnie, Mianee, Jabu & Satte
By a flip of a switch, I can go from relative peacefulness to dance party. Fonnie, Mianee, Jabu, Satte and lastly, trailing is Eddie, they come and liven up the house with there own dancing style. They are my little brothers and sisters who are hard working and always willing to help me out when I need anything. “Yes, Allison!” Fonnie instantly replies when called like he is waiting outside my door. Fonnie has a soft spoken perseverance and unrelenting work ethic; Mianee is serious and mature making sure everyone is doing what that they need to get done; Jabu is shy, polite and inquisitive; and Satte has big curious troublesome eyes that are eager and enthusiastic. There are a million moments with these kids from working in the backyard, helping with homework, drawing in my parlor or just hanging out.

“Why is 6 afraid of 7?”  I shake my head knowing there is something clever coming. He laughs and says, “Because 7 ‘ate’ 9!!” Khodor is my funny man and the only person in Salone that bring my tears of loneliness or frustration to tears of hilarity. He has a knack for making everyone around him smile.  He is a suave sturdily built, dark Lebanese guy with a quick tongue and lighthearted spirit. Khodor a.k.a “Mr. Green” (if you are like me and can’t roll your tongue) was there for me when I was down bringing jokes, words of wisdom and support. He has shown me the beauty of the SL capitol will cruising along the beach and has taught me many things about the Arab world, Islam and Middle Eastern politics. Khodor showed me a new side of Sierra Leone!

Of course, there are others who I haven’t mentioned. Vice Principal Jenneh Daramy who tells me everyday I look like Princess Diana; Abubakkar the shoe seller who has calls me his “African Queen” and constantly trying to convert me to Islam; Papa Joe, my Mende tutor who wears his ski cap even in the dry season; Francis from the Special Court who opened my eyes to the tragedies of SL’s rebel war; Mama Dambo one of my African moms who kept me well feed, Alpha Lalauba, MODCAR’s fearless leader who cultivated my love for community radio; the Marcos, the commune of artists with extraordinary talent that’s renovating our town center and promoting the arts to our society; Kiney my tailor who transformed me aesthetically into an Salone woman; the PC staff and family who were my support system and constantly pushed me to continue working hard and of course and most importantly, Meg, my best friend and partner in crime (you all know our stories)!

To me, Peace Corps isn’t about building things, how much materials your bring from abroad or how much money you can bring to your town; it was about people. These are the people who shaped my service and experience in Sierra Leone. They are the people who will stay in my heart when I leave. PC is about people and these are MY PEOPLE!


Anonymous said...

THX for the blog update! We have heard you speak of these people over the past 25 months, but I feel I know them alittle better after reading your thoughts. THX for the pictures-beautiful people! Give them a HUG from US for being there for YOU!

Anonymous said...

i love it al! now just get home already!
love ya!

Anonymous said...

Alli - thanks so much for sharing your experiences with all of us. These are beautiful people and I have been blessed through your work. Looking forward to seeing you soon!!

Denise and Larry

Shellie Delaney said...

Your blog is great. Your people look and sound wonderful. What an experience you have had!! Your people have been so blessed to have you in their lives also!!

Looking forward to hearing your stories when you get home. Have save travels.

Shellie & Ralph

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to hear more of your stories. Safe travels coming home!
Sandy & Gary

sl 68-70 said...

Your postings and blog site have been wonderful to follow. You have reminded me of so many of my own Sierra Leone experiences of nearly 45 years ago. You will never forget your Sierra Leone friends - never. Your writing is very special - thanks.

Chad Finer
RPCV Sierra Leone 1968-70

Anonymous said...

Ali, you have embraced SL and everyone @ SL has embraced you. Thanks for your blog about the life. Of people, culture, and living in SL. Your amazing! Take care Lov ya my favorite niece , see ya you get home!!!!!!!

Susan said...

Thanks for writing such a wonderful blog. I really enjoyed reading about all your experiences--it brought back memories of my own time as a PCV in Moyamba District. I wish you the best in your future!

Anonymous said...

Alli, it truly doesn't matter to me with respects to distance whether you are in Africa or in the U.S. - you are always "too far away". Nevertheless, today I read your blog again and I felt alittle bit closer to you. Take care and lot's of hugs to you, chicken ;-). Caro