Sunday, December 18, 2011
in lunsar, a village about 45 minutes away from makeni moving toward
freetown. i arrived first after having retrieved a moneygram transfer
(for the staff quarters construction). i found joey and mike, our
hosts, and their fabulous residence, much nicer than my own, their
cooler full of cold drinks.. let me repeat that.. COLD drinks.. other
volunteers began to arrive, and we migrated over to joey's school (two
floors high, layered in tile and lights, a modern kitchen, obedient
and motivated students (students have to pass entrance exams to
attend her school) and began to make cupcakes. we finished this task
awhile later, myself still in awe of the school, and we moved back to
her house, relaxing before heading out. although late in the season, a
huge storm was soon upon us, forcing us to take shelter under an
overhang. the rain eventually subsided and we moved to a small
restaurant where i had a beef schwarma (the restaurant only had 8
hamburgers ready and ran out of beer and potatoes while we were
there). we wandered over to a nighclub afterwards at which the DJ was
perhaps the worst i've ever heard. we did not stay long, moving back to
the school campus where we had rooms at the school's guest house.
the next morning broke hot and early, and after organizing
ourselves, we moved over to the kitchen again, myself taking a detour
to gather debbie, the timap volunteer i had befriended in my village
over the previous months. our task? sweet potato casserole. the other
volunteers had their own dishes and, hours later (and plenty of music
from different laptops later), our dishes were complete. we moved back
to the guest house where candles lit a table that would rival any in
america. there was sweet potato casserole, sangria, stuffing, corn,
baked chicken, a sort of split pea soup, and cupcakes for dessert. it
was amazing. i made a playlist of music, which gave us the great
moment of 'carry on my wayward son' playing behind us. we enjoyed the
evening, watching 'the devil wears prada' before sleeping, cleaning up
in the morning, and heading home. my first thanksgiving left something
to be desired, and my second and last thanksgiving in sierra leone
more than made up for that. thank you again, joey and mike, and
everyone else who made the event special. i love and miss you all :)
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Friday, October 21, 2011
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Monday, October 10, 2011
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
1. a 15-year-old boy saying "Love without sex is like going to school without your uniform"
2. me crammed into a space the size of a small coffin (the africans got a huge kick out of this, and so did i.. i love waving with half an arm out of the poda-poda at students in neighboring villages, :)
3. a 15-year-old boy saying "Love without sex is like going to university and not getting your degree"
4. me and a good sierra leonean running to my house just as a huge storm comes in, cut to us laughing and soaking wet because we didn't quite make it
5. two dead dogs in the street
6. getting a ride with a friend ive made in freetown (she remembered me and took me almost all the way to my doorstep and i didnt have to squeeze into a space the size of a small coffin!
7. a taxi on the side of the road that had been in such a horrific accident that it was hard to tell which part of the car had once been the front and which had once been the trunk
8. a beautiful sunset over the atlantic ocean from the east side's perspective
9. a man going into a shop and literally ordering a hunk of meat, which then sat on the dashboard of our taxi for the remainder of the ride, looking all meaty and stuff
10. me smiling and getting dinner with a friend at the junction here near the hostel and her amazing chicken sauce and rice (and a warm star beer from hawa, my 'i made it to freetown alive' beer)
see? fun right? i love and miss you all.
Monday, September 19, 2011
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Friday, August 12, 2011
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Monday, August 8, 2011
Sunday, August 7, 2011
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Friday, July 15, 2011
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
>> after i've taught for the day, graded my papers, and settled into being home and not on display, i usually settle down to read for awhile. i'm not there for hours, but i loved reading growing up and lost that with the high school / facebook / college. this is a list of the books i've read since arrival in sierra leone one year ago. books denoted with blue were my favorites and you should go read them :)
- Inferno by Dante
- Purgatorio by Dante
- Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston
- Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler
- Thunder Over the Ochoco by Gale Ontko
- The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley
- Me Speak Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
- Dress Your Family in Curdoroy and Denim by David Sedaris
- Nimitz Class by Patrick Robinson
- Kilo Class by Patrick Robinson
- H.M.S. Unseen by Patrick Robinson
- U.S.S. Seawolf by Patrick Robinson
- Ghost Force by Patrick Robinson
- Language and Faith by John Hutchinson
- The Art of Prayer by Kenneth Hagin
- Black Man's Grave by Gary Stewart and John Amman
- Blood Diamonds by Greg Campbell
- Classroom Management (Peace Corps Publication)
- Greaseless by Loretta Graziano Breuing
- Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
- Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
- Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
- Ford County Stories by John Grisham
- Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz
- Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton
- Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
- Don't Look Behind You by Peter Wilson
- Whatever You Do, Don't Run by Peter Wilson
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- America's Best Science & Nature Writing 2010 Edited by Freeman Dyson
- Hannibal by Thomas Harris
- Blood Safari by Deon Meyer
- Breathless by Dean Koontz
- Twistor by John Cramer
- Einstein's Bridge by John Cramer
- Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
- Confessions by St. Augustine
- Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
- Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier
- A Woman Trapped in a Woman's Body by Lauren Weedman
- Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
- The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
- Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- House Rules by Jodi Picoult
Some of these books were terrible. Some are books that I'll eventually be buying when I return home. I have donated all of these to our library at the Peace Corps compound for others to enjoy. i love and miss you all.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Saturday, June 4, 2011
Friday, June 3, 2011
Monday, May 23, 2011
Advice for the next group of volunteers for Sierra Leone
This is some advice for the next group of volunteers that will be useful to you immediately.
1. It is best if you wait a while before reacting / judging. If you, for example, become angry quickly, it will send the wrong message, especially since usually you're misinterpreting something. I am quick to anger and have made this mistake. Later, someone clarified that it had been a casual joke and not meant seriously. If I had waited instead of getting upset, I would have done better.
2. Be honest with yourself. There are many volunteers that take the Peace Corps to be a time to reinvent themselves. If you want to try, fine. However, it's best if you act the same way in PST as you did the week before. For some volunteers, they have begun to show some 'cracks' where we see their real personality. I feel I did well at this. Other people tried too hard.
3. Stop thinking as quickly as you can in dollars. It will be useful at first to think, 'how many dollars is that?' but if you continue to do that, you'll end up hurting yourself. The dollar is very strong compared to the Leone. You may think, 'Oh, that's only five dollars. That's nothing!' but in reality that's a LOT (~23,000Le). It is better to think in terms of food prices. A bag of rice is about 150,000Le and should feed a family for a month. Most people's salaries (teachers) are around 200,000 or 250,000Le. At first, dollars will help. But try to get out of the habit quickly.
4. There are no awkward silences. The culture just doesn't have them. For a good chunk of PST, after dinner at my house and after it was dark, we simply sat in silence in the parlor. We'd talk a little, but there would be long LONG moments of just nothing. In America, you might twitch or be thinking, 'UGH...' and you still might here, but understand that it is not awkward for Sierra Leoneans.
5. Defer to Staff / Host Families / Resources. The staff knows more than you. The host families will expect you to be obedient and like their own children. Being a smartass with them will not go over well. Being difficult will not help anyone. It is best if you act like you need assistance. Sierra Leoneans will appreciate being able to help you, instead of getting upset with you. Also, and this is not ego boosting, but we, the first group, know more than you too. Please ask us for help. There is nothing embarrassing about asking for help. You may wish later you'd just simply asked. We have probably gone through your problem in the past year and know how to best handle the situation.
6. You are NOT alone. Never feel that you are alone. Call someone on the staff. Call someone in SL2. Call someone in SL1. If all else fails, call me. It is easy, once you get started, to feel very alone and isolated. For some people, they find a strength in this, kind of a 'yeah. I can do this on my own.' but for others that isolation can be too much. You are NOT alone. There are 34 volunteers here now that are also living in Sierra Leone, also struggling and succeeding. Once you arrive, we will be 84. You are never alone. (ducks fly together. quack. quack. quack.)
7. Pack some USD$. Let me explain. You will have plenty of money during training and during your service. Those of us that suck at budgeting money are sometimes low on money at times, but you'll never run out. The reason I suggest packing some money is for your mental health. It can sometimes change a day / week to cash your American money somewhere (usually men on the street who are looking for whites looking for men on the street to change money) and splurge. I can mention a couple of details. I went to Makeni and splurged on chocolate ice cream. (I LOST MY MIND). In Freetown, I cashed a $50 I had been saving and was able to treat myself and some friends to a night out at The Atlantic. It was the perfect release. You should not bring bills smaller than $50 and bring the new bills that have the larger president’s head. You should bring around $250, that's what I brought, five $50s. More than this is too much. You will be able to live OK on your Peace Corps salary. The money you bring from home is for emergencies and for an occasional splurge. You shouldn't be living on Pringles and chocolate ice cream alone, but you'll definitely be happy you have a $50 to cash in sometime down the road.)
8. You will have the time of your life. Don't go crazy packing (you can always have stuff sent later. Relax. Learn. Experience. Do NOT hide in your house. You will always remember the moment the aircraft door opens and you step out into the Sierra Leone air for the first time. I love and miss you all.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Sunday, May 15, 2011
I love and miss you all.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Thursday, May 5, 2011
16. How do the Sierra Leoneans see the USA?
America is seen as a beacon of excellence and the land of milk and petete leaf, as it were. No one in America struggles to find a job. No one in America has any problems. Every American has a car. Every American has a huge house and endless money. Now you're saying, "They don't believe that. You're exaggerating." I've heard these said. When I sat down with a calculator to show my wages at my last job, rent, fuel, food, etc. and showed the limited amount left for anything else, they were shocked. When I talked about poverty in America, Katrina, ghettos, Welfare, food stamps, they were shocked. When I said that my parents worked for thirty years so that we could enjoy the quality of life we did, that it didn't just *happen*, they were shocked. I know that for some people, it is the glittering castle in the sky that keeps you going, so I've tried not to be too negative but only to correct the more preposterous beliefs. Many people have asked me how they can get into the country, where the easy jobs are, etc. (The problem is that a minimum wage job, figure $8 an hour, and a dirt-cheap apartment, spending frugally, would amount to little money, but even $20 saved each week is 80,000Le and 320,000Le a month, a huge amount for most people.)
I know that it's the wrong mindset, but I want to be more extravagant in some areas. I miss driving. I miss staying up late at night with no reason to be awake. I would love to be correct and say that I'll use electricity less, drive less, etc. but from evidence (whenever I come to Freetown and me and other volunteers are up until the wee hours BECAUSE WE CAN, I'm skeptical at my own resolve.) However, I will never look at money the same way again. For the amount I used to spend to get some McDoubles, fries, and an Oreo McFlurry, I could have bought a bag of cement for someone to fix their foundation. I could have send a child to school for two terms. I could have purchased fuel for a generator to run so children could study into the night. Etc.
I will continue to and even-more-so enjoy my freedoms. I can be who I am in America, with relative ease. I have enough money to drive where I want to. I have electricity and water and internet, and the things I used to complain about seem devastatingly shallow (although I believe I wasn't that bad, honestly) but still, I remember being upset when my gas stove wouldn't light. In the bedroom my computer was on, music playing, an apartment with a solid roof, air conditioning, heat, wooden and tile floors, a plethora of food to cook, a fridge to keep my food cold, mail service that worked, my car outside with fuel, etc. Was it really so bad that my stove wouldn't light? As stated before, I will always look at money differently now. Going to Chicago and staying at the Hilton Suites for $135 a night? 135x4300Le = a ridiculous amount of money. I'm not saying that I'll stop. I've (and my parents) have worked hard to enjoy such luxuries, but I'll always have a voice in the back of my head saying, 'this is a LOT of money if you converted it to leones...'
Absolutely not. When I left, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school after my Peace Corps experience. This may change. I knew for sure that I would only stay for 2 and not the optional 3 years. I don't know. I thought I wanted to teach, or be involved with biology or public health. I don't know. The Foreign Service Exam is in February, and I've really enjoyed the lifestyles and attitudes of those I've met in the State Department here. Could I take that exam, pass it (lol right), and be an attache to a country on behalf of America for the rest of my life in different places? Yes. Could I see myself teaching biology to high school students? Yes. Could I see myself getting involved with conservation? Yes. If anything, sitting at The Atlantic with a crowd full of mostly NGO workers and Embassy officials, enjoying delicious food and a sunset and knowing my work is helping improve the lives of many people has made my future plans all the more complicated.
21. What next?
After this weekend, I'm going to Moyamba in a few weeks to visit Megan and Allison. Then, I'll go back to my site until late May. Charles has mentioned plans to visit. But he lies a lot. (kidding). At the end of May, I'm hoping to organize a party for us. June 1, 2010 was when we went off to Washington, D.C. and on June 3, 2011 the next group of trainees arrives. This event in late May will be our last hurrah as Salone-1 and only Salone-1. I'm not against Salone-2, but the dynamic of our group will undoubtedly change. I love us. I'll probably love all of us when we're here. After that party in May, I have nothing planned besides to teach my students, love my life, and begin the inevitable freak-out toward my trip home in July 2011. Tonight? I'm going to the Atlantic to watch the sunset and enjoy a night out before people begin to move back to their villages. We'll probably buy some beer across the street and dance for awhile, then collapse into hot sweaty sleep (the a/c isn't in the bedrooms :)
I love and miss you all.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
I enjoy a morning of reading on my porch, taking a bucket bath, teaching my students, drinking palm wine with Foday, eating a good dinner, lighting a candle and talking with my friends until they go home. I've had countless variations on this theme, and it keeps me here.
12. How much interaction do you get with the other volunteers?
Yes. I feel that teaching in a classroom with now windows, complete ceiling, proper desks, scarce chalk, erasers made out of foam, bats and rats running around above me, corporal punishment, ridiculous heat, students in uniforms full of dreams and hormones has adequately prepared me for future teaching. We'll see. (laughs)
Good question. It is very interesting to see America from a far-off viewpoint. I hear about it on the BBC and when I get to internet, but it's almost like an illusion. Sometimes it's hard to remember that life continues on just as it did while I was there. The USA is loved by Sierra Leoneans. Many have asked me how they can get there. How they can hide from the INS. Where the cheap and easy jobs are. The Peace Corps is highly respected here, and the relationship is usually great. However, America loses points for it's appearance as a war-monger. The name "George W. Bush" will get you an angry tirade and disgust. The name "Barack Obama" will bring smiles and hope. Deserved? You decide. The conflict now ongoing in Libya has led to some heated arguments at my school, where these same Obama supporters were now upset, "Does America LOVE war, or WHAT?!" and I have to shrug and say that I don't know enough about the situation to comment. Such is life.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Sunday, April 24, 2011
6. How much do you incorporate the Sierra Leone traditions into your life?
I have learned a great deal about patience. For example, arrival in Makeni at noon (good time for me from Freetown!) still means waiting for the vehicle to fill up from Makeni to my village. For the first while, I grew frustrated when it took an hour to fill up. Now, I've waited more than four hours, with nothing to occupy myself but my own thoughts and humming music and eating food. More than four hours? For Bryan XP, that would have been a nightmare. For Bryan 7, it's no problem at all. As for other traditions, I am now the consummate palm wine drinker and enjoy many of the more social / friendly / we're all in this together attitudes, although my friends will (probably) mention that I was like that before.
I would. Every experience is different and every experience is unique to the volunteer's attitude. Volunteers with a poor attitude or a dependence on Facebook will likely fail. Volunteers in a village not conducive to volunteers or a school with a poor administration will likely fail. This has been an amazing experience, and if I do indeed have children someday, I would recommend for them to apply. Their experience will be nothing like mine, or maybe exactly the same.
Leaving home. I hated hugging my friends goodbye, hated knowing that everything was changing, hated acknowledging that when I returned in July 2011 and then in July 2012 that everything would be different. I hated leaving my parents at O'Hare International Airport in tears. I've had some bad days, really frustrating moments when I've been forced to listen to an m5 mix to find myself again, but the hardest part of the experience was leaving home, without a doubt in my mind.
Friday, April 22, 2011
A very close friend of mine asked some questions. Here are my witty replies:
1. What's the food like? Are you genuinely "used to it" ?
The food is almost always a sauce over rice. Unfortunately, the variety is admittedly small. There are about seven main meals, (petete leaf, cassava leaf, cren cren, groundnut soup, fish soup, gravy, beans). And spin the wheel and that's what we're making! I enjoy the food a great deal. It's delicious. I'm just beginning to have boredom with it, kinda like those families that make spaghetti and chicken and beef and then spaghetti and beef and THEN chicken. So, my solution has been to make it taste different, obviously. I bought some salt and pepper, which I hadn't used for the first many months, some different spices, splurged on a bottle of French salad dressing, my parents sent a shaker of jerk seasoning and one of garlic salt. This has given all of these meals a much wider variety of flavor possiblities. I am definitely used to the food. I know that I will be having some form of petete leaf the rest of my life (my favorite).
2. How do you feel mentally after having been there a year?
This is a complex question. There are many things now, occurrences, that don't faze me at all anymore, or hardly. Difficulties with travel, with corporal punishment, with cultural differences, some of those have faded by the wayside. Hearing a child getting beaten no longer makes me ache terribly inside in sadness. It probably should. But it doesn't anymore to that extent. I'm still bothered by a great many things, but one can either focus on the negatives or the positives, and I find that if I keep my mind on the positives, that the negatives suddenly seem temporary. Relaxing with Foday, laughing with someone in a different language, my students asking for help and saying I've inspired them, those are good. I focus on them. I'm concerned about the culture shock of coming home to America, I'll admit that now. The statistics are against me. 50% of volunteers that go home in the middle of their service early-terminate and quit. We shall see. I enjoy my life 85% of the time, and spent the other 15% of the time convincing myself to take a deep breath and keep going. (this is commonly referred to as my 85/15 rule)
3. How do you feel spiritually? Refreshed? Rejuvenated? Optimistic?
I'm not an especially spiritual man, and it's been difficult with the omnipresence of Christianity and Islam here. I have emphasized when confronted (I have NEVER brought it up. It is always brought to me.) that there are many Americans, far more religious than I, who did not apply to the Peace Corps. This argument helps a little. I continue to believe in the ideas of peace, love, unity, and respect, and whenever I am truly taxed, I think about those ideas, the people I love, the purpose of what I'm doing, and I feel better. Some volunteers are religious and have found themselves more grounded in their communities and others have exaggerated their religious beliefs to fit in better. I did this at the beginning and felt shallow and pathetic for lying. I've told the truth since the arrival in my village and while it has caused some arguments and some problems, I know I'm being true to myself.
4. How are people different in the US vs. in Sierra Leone?
This is also a complex question. At the core, we are all very much the same, ruled by passions (and hormones), dedicated to family, to love, to a desire to achieve and improve our lives. Differences are mostly cultural. From what I understand, the status of the woman is lower than the man. I have seen this proved to me countless times, and while discouraging and while improving, it is ever present. In my class of 58 students (SS2 Arts/Science), there are maybe 7 girls. The other girls are either pregnant, a wife, or taking care of household chores. Also, possibly as a result of the recent conflict, the people here are 'quick to anger.' While relaxing outside the hostel today, a fight broke out at the nearby junction. People throwing fists, finding sticks to beat others, and it escalated quite quickly. The argument was over respect. One man felt he had not been shown the correct amount of respect.
5. Have you gotten to travel much?
Travel is expensive. I try to stay in my village as much as possible (I can't say as much for some of my colleagues SHHHH) but for me to go to Freetown is at least 50,000Le round trip. Then, prices in Freetown are expensive. A Star Beer in Gbendembu is 3,000Le, in Freetown it's at least 6,000Le or more. I also travel to Makeni to visit the bank, but I am, as I said, trying not to travel much. Some volunteers don't recognize that travelling a lot gives the impression to your village that you're not really interested in being there. Just my two leones.
I love and miss you all.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
me and a decision
me and goodbyes
me and chicago
me and washington, d.c.
me and new friends
me and sierra leone
me and a new life
me and the rainy season
me and dj'ing sierra leone nightclubs
me and gbendembu
me and cockroachs / termites / mosquitos
me and insect killer
me and palm wine
me and new friends
me and gbendembu baptist secondary school
me and a chalkboard
me and blank faces
me and speaking slower
me and m5 dance parties
me and a new puppy named Queen
me and my birthday
me and belonging :)
me and the holidays
me and resolutions
me and frustrations
me and more palm wine
me and my parents
me and the dry season
me and planning / packing
me and an airplane (wtf is an airplane?)
me and chicago
me and you
Friday, April 15, 2011
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Monday, April 11, 2011
Ok- first of all- this is not Bryan speaking but rather his Dad. My wife and I recently visited Bryan and Sierra Leone and I thought I would put down my reflections.
As soon as Bryan got accepted into the Peace Corps and had been assigned to teach biology in Sierra Leone, Africa, Mariana and I thought about a visit- ideally halfway through Bryan’s service. We figured that beginning the real planning around the first of the year would give us plenty of time to get all the necessary shots, forms, permissions so we would be ready to go in March. Little did we realize the amount of paperwork, money, and red-tape there actually is in going to Africa. Traveling to Europe had always been so easy- just get a flight and book a room on the Internet. When we began to investigate a trip to Sierra Leone, we knew that there were many shots to be arranged, many not easily found in New Lenox (like a yellow fever shot). To make a long story short, we finally got all of our shots done- often paying full cost (hundreds of dollars each) due to our lousy insurance program and the state of Illinois poor record of making payments. Next item to figure out- getting a Visa from the Sierra Leone Embassy in Washington to permits us to travel to Sierra Leone. $140 times two and mailing our passports to Washington took care of that.
The best most efficient way to get to Freetown (Capital of Sierra Leone) is to fly though London. We decided to stop in London a few days and get over jet lag before heading off to Freetown. There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Freetown. All possible flights go through Europe – many making many stops. We flew nonstop to London, toured London for a couple days the flew nonstop to Sierra Leone – or at least that is what my ticket said- I was somewhat surprised when the pilot said that we would be stopping in Malaga, Spain for gas. Not bad really- but during the stop, we were unable to de-plane, or even use the bathrooms.
A number of hours later, we arrived in Freetown, the plane parking on the tarmac. When the door opened, we were hit by a wave of warm tropic humid air- quite nice for us as we had just gone through a bad winter in Chicago. As we left Chicago, a few days earlier, we left in a snowstorm and had to have our wings de-iced. So, that blast of warmth was welcomed.
Bryan arranged to have a friend of his guide us through some of the red tape at the airport (Lungi International) so after gathering our bags, we met Bryan then quickly headed off to catch the ferry to Freetown. The airport serving Sierra Leone is across a bay from the capital Freetown and must be crossed either by a 5 hour drive, an expensive helicopter ride or by taking a ferry across the bay. This ancient ferry also transports cars as well. One of Bryan’s friends drove like a madman through darkened streets trying to catch the last ferry for the night. It was a scary ride but soon we were in line to board the ferry and cross the bay to Freetown. I don’t remember much about the voyage but it was a break from the wild ride to get there. Maybe 45 minutes later, we were on the outskirts of Freetown heading to Hill Valley Inn, a hotel near the Peace Corps compound in Freetown. We finally arrived at our hotel and we were finally able actually talk with Bryan. Up to this point, it was a blur. It was amazing and wonderful to see him after all these months. The hotel was ok- maybe Super 8 quality but it was fine- at least until I realized there was no water in our room. But we were in Africa!! In Sierra Leone!! With Bryan!!
Time to write about transportation in Sierra Leone. Or lack thereof. Bryan spent a considerable amount of time arranging rides for us during the trip. Why? There is no scheduled transportation in the country. Private cars are a luxury not available to us or to the general public. We had the luxury of riding in some of Bryan’s friends cars during the trip but in many cases, we had to arrange rides along the way. Individual towns have established what I called ‘transportation centers’ or lorry parks where people with cars/busses meet and arrange rides charging whatever the market will bear that day. It is a totally chaotic system where travelers are often passed from one vehicle to another a number of times. Bryan ‘bought’ the entire back seat of a car for us then had to make sure no one else was added to our seat between those stops. Oh yes. Your normal car (Toyota, Nissan) has seats for 7. Two passengers with the driver in the front seat and four in the back seat. Depending on the size of the people, this arrangement varied from jammed to just crazy. You buy as many seats as you would like to pay for. Bryan paid for 4 seats for the three of us to travel comfortably in the back seat of one car. Another option is the poda-podas- more on those later.
The next morning we met with some Peace Corps administration and then headed off to meet with Bryan’s host family in Bo, the second biggest city in Sierra Leone. Bryan stayed with his African family for 10 weeks when he first arrived in Sierra Leone. They treated him like royalty and could not say enough wonderful stuff about Bryan. I was pleased that Bryan had made such a good impression on his African family and it was nice to hear what great parents Mariana and I are and that we raised such a wonderful son.
We were served my first real African food- all made from scratch and I mean from scratch. The vast majority of food we had here and elsewhere is a rice dish with a sauce made from vegetables or perhaps some meat, usually fish. Mariana helped to make palm oil by pounding a large stick into seeds gathered from the nearby trees. Of course, mangoes were everywhere- you could just reach up and grab one off a tree. At the house, we first experienced living without electricity. Bryan’s family’s house was wired for electricity, but only for a few hours a night was their generator turned on to create light and power for a dvd player. Gas to power the generator is very expensive. I had my first taste of palm wine- created in a similar fashion as maple syrup is created here- trees are tapped. It has a slightly fruity taste but not sweet, somewhat milky in color with a nice dry finish. Nothing at all like grape wine. I was unsure what to expect from this as far as alcohol is concerned but quickly learned that this is a very lightly alcoholic drink – less alcohol than beer- so you would really have to work to get drunk on this. Bryan tells me that people actually ferment this- to create a stronger drink. Palm wine is brought out with some ceremony after dinner as we all sat in the back yard. African portions mean a cup filled right to the brim to signify generosity – a nice idea but getting that first drink from a full cup can be a problem. The next day, Bryan took us to his Peace Corps training center when he was in Bo and then to his neighborhood hangout (called Graceland) where he and his Peace Corps friends would go after hours for a warm Star beer. Very nice. I can imagine fun times taking place there.
Bryan could not have found a better, more loving couple that he found in Bo. They were extremely flattered that we came to see them. We did our best to thank them for being so wonderful and generous to our son. They were again flattered that we wanted to take a number of ‘family’ photos – the five of us together.
The next day we began the long trek to Gbendembu. We began the trip by trading vehicles a number of times- each time Bryan bargaining what the ‘fare’ might be and what he had already paid the previous driver. An amazing system- but you have to be careful and know what you are doing. Mariana and I would have been lost without Bryan during this part of the trip. Again, Bryan ‘bought’ us larger space in cars for our comfort- something we really appreciated. When we got to Makeni, the closest ‘large’ town to Gbendembu, Bryan decided that we should experience the last part of the trip as the locals and the peace corps volunteers do by riding in a poda-poda, perhaps the closest we saw to a public bus in Sierra Leone. It is also important to know that at Makeni, paved roads end and you ride on a dirt, rut and stone strewed road. The poda-poda looks like a mini-bus or small van and ours looked to be about 50 years old and looked very abused. Like all of the transportation we encountered, there is no schedule, no system, and no organization to the poda-podas. They left when they were full- not before. So, you may have to wait an hour or so or longer for the vehicle to fill before moving on. Bryan had discussed these before so I know we would be crowded but when all the seats were filled, I was quite sure we would be leaving shortly. My mistake. The drivers make money by packing as many people into these vehicles as possible- so after all the ‘seats’ were filled, more people were loaded in to crouch at my feet. Babies were passed in and found places in stranger’s laps. When I was SURE we could not take any additional riders, still more people packed in. Finally, a mother with 3 kids jammed into the space between my knees and the seat in front of me. She had a small infant who was not happy with the seating arrangements so the mother calmly and without concern or embarrassment proceeded to breastfeed the infant in front of me- as natural as anything you could see. Soon, with his stomach full, the infant went off to sleep. The ride was slow and very bumpy as the driver wandered across the road from left to right to avoid bumps and ruts. It was an amazing experience- one I will not forget.
Finally we made it to Gbendembu. I took a picture of the poda-poda and was unaware until arriving that many many people had made the trip on the top of the bus with the luggage. You have to assume honesty as your luggage and everyone else’s luggage is tied down on the roof. We headed off quickly to Bryan’s house- after greeting it seemed like everyone in the village. Mariana and I were pretty exhausted and were glad to get to Bryan’s home. After washing (bucket bath), we got some dinner (food made by Bryan’s neighbor under a deal Bryan made with her upon arriving). Bryan pays her an amount every week to provide meals. We got another chance to have a glass of palm wine. Again- fresh, delicious, yet different from the other palm wine I had. As a homemade natural product of individual trees, each glass is different. It was wonderful to finally be at Gbendembu in Bryan’s house.
A bit about washing- Bryan’s home and all of the homes in Bo and Gbendembu have no running water. Just access to a well. In the morning, water is pulled from the well in a large bucket and taken to the bathroom/toilet. You soap up and rinse off using this water. Fortunately, the well water is not bitter cold but maybe 70 degrees of so- invigorating but not really freezing cold. With the heat and humidity in Sierra Leone, this coolish bath/shower felt really good. Many people take two bucket baths a day- once in the morning before getting started for the day and another after the sun has gone down before dinner. Very refreshing.
Lights- Bryan’s house is not wired for electricity so you really need to be mindful of the status of the sun. After dinner, which we ate outside in Bryan’s hut, we headed in to house and amazingly enough- it was pitch dark in his house. A scramble for flashlights took place. Bryan has devised a system of candles in his house so you can find you way around. We are real spoiled in being able to flick a switch for light.
The next day we met just about everyone in the village. Bryan, being white, is a novelty in his village. Having three white people in village is unheard of. One of the more amazing aspects of Bryan’s village is that there are about 8 different tribes in his village- each speaking a different language!! So, Bryan has had to learn at least a passing knowledge of at least 8 languages. Just amazing. Bryan tried to get us to greet people- but we could never seem to get the right language with the right people. We toured Bryan’s village, saw some damage done to buildings done during the civil war and was amazed that there were four Christian churches and two mosques in town. One of the pastors of one of the churches was a good friend of Bryan’s and wanted to meet us so we had lunch with her- a porrage (not like an oatmeal) that has fish, chicken, potatoes, cassava, onions, salt, peppers, spices, bananas, and other ingredients.
After lunch we moved to the school where Mariana addressed the gathered students. There are two groups of students at Bryan’s school- SS2 and SS3- like junior high and high school. Mariana spoke of the value of education and how this education is the road to success in life. Neither Mariana nor I had planned to address the entire school. I thought it wise to have a woman make the speech to reinforce the idea that women can be educated, go to university and be a success.
Bryan has set up a program with one of his Lincoln-Way Central biology teachers whereby Bryan’s students write letters and communicate with the students in a U.S. high school biology class. The program is called the World-Wise Schools program. Mariana and I hauled letters to Gbendembu and back to New Lenox to move this program along.
After this, we headed back to Bryan’s place to relax. We had dinner at his principal’s house then visited another friend before calling it a day.
The next day, at the next opening assembly, I addressed the students- knowing that the majority of daily assemblies like this are dull and boring and what could this white man have to say that would mean anything. I stressed that the way to get ahead is to begin now to focus on your education- saying that education is more important than sports or anything else. I was brief- to the point and maybe, just maybe, I got through to a few of the kids. Mariana echoed my points and again- I felt that a culturally sophisticated educated women speaking is perhaps more important and symbolically more valuable than having a man speak. All of the teachers in Bryan’s school are male. In any case, the school’s principal was very pleased with these speeches and reinforced our points himself.
After school, we had a trip planned to a nearby river- a pleasant place where locals go to relax, picnic and wash clothes. It was just beautiful - like something you would see around here in the states. We were driven to the river by yet another friend of Bryan’s. To my total amazement Bryan’s friend was a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana- Bryan’s school!! We brought along some Star beer and relaxed at the river side. Then I was convinced that I need to have a boat ride. There were two canoe-like boats there for anyone to use. No paddles though. So, we fiddled around in the canoe for a while- having another of Bryan’s friends push us through the shallow water. Very nice. It is unfortunate that the river is too far to walk from Bryan’s village- but rather is a 40 minute car ride down a dirt road. Probably only 8-10 miles distance but travel on this road is slow. I was told that town celebrations are often held at this location.
After the river, we returned back to the village and went back to the pastor’s house for lunch. The rest of the day was to be spent cooking. I was told that my wife, a giver of life, was not to take life so it fell to me to kill our lunch- a nice looking chicken. On the menu was a ‘salad’ that included my killed chicken, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, ketchup, onions, and luncheon meat all made into a salad. Later we learned how to make canya , a desert like treat that is made from peanuts, rice flour and sugar. Like everything here, everything is made from scratch. We began by de-shelling peanuts, grinding the peanuts in a hand grinder, then pounding the rice flower and sugar into the peanuts mixture then regrinding the whole mixture again. Very good. Like the insides of a Reece’s Peanut butter cup!! I managed to get some of this home in a water bottle.
Just a wonderful day! Perhaps my favorite day of the trip. A visit to Bryan’s school, a river visit then the experience of making food. A perfect day- topped off by a glass of palm wine back at Bryan’s house.
The next day began our trip back to Freetown where we would again spend the night at Hill Valley. Bryan had arranged a car ride to Makeni then he would hire a car to drive us to Hill Valley. Plans changed- but finally the higher ups at Bryan’s school intervened and asked the Paramount Chief if his driver would drive us to Hill Valley- It was very pleasant to be in a car with only 4 people in it. The driver, Bryan, Mariana and myself. It was a long journey but pleasant as we did not have to stop.
Hill Valley seemed like a 5 star hotel to us when we arrived. A private air-conditioned room, a nice hot shower and wireless Internet. WOW!
Bryan had one more surprise for us for diner that night. Freetown is right on the Atlantic Ocean and I had yet to see it. When Bryan recommended taking us out to a restaurant called the Atlantic- I thought that maybe I would get to see the ocean. Much to my amazement, the Atlantic was right on the beach and looked like a nightclub/bar/restaurant from the states. A bit run down in places but an ocean front restaurant!! I had my first cold beer of the trip- ice cold draft Star beer and a great dinner. Steak au poivre- - an actual steak dinner- very rare in Sierra Leone. It was excellent. We watched the sun set over the ocean. It was the perfect conclusion to the trip. I could see spending some time at the Atlantic!!
The next morning we were headed back to London. Before leaving we visited one more Peace Corps staff person- the chief medical officer who had helped Bryan though many ailments over the past months. We visited her in her personal apartment- WAY different from Bryan’s house in Gbendembu – air conditioned, massive HD TV’s on the wall and real furniture. I suggested to Bryan that he needs to apply for her job!!
After this visit, we had to fight our way from Hill Valley to Lungi- which is a multi-ride nightmare. You need to get a ride to the ferry, get a ticket for the ferry, then get a ride from the ferry to the airport. After some confusion and changes of plan, we made it to the airport. Getting to and from the airport using the ferry was one of the most frustrating, infuriating parts of our trip. There appears to be is no official rules for this ferry and people on the ‘inside’ eagerly accepted bribes and extort money from potential passengers just to get on the boat. We were forced to buy first class tickets to get on the ferry- this let us sit in an un-air conditioned overcrowded sweatbox for the trip over to Lungi. Lungi, the airlines, Freetown and perhaps even the Government of Sierra Leone need to clean up this mess. You will never get a tourist trade established with this ferry system the way it is.
Finally at the airport, we encouraged Bryan to head back as he had to re-do the ferry nightmare to get back to the Peace Corps compound then figure out how to get back to Gbendembu the next day. I tried to tell Bryan at the airport how proud I was of him and how much I loved him – but tears got in the way.
The trip of a lifetime – one that I will never forget.