Monday, April 11, 2011

A Parent's visit to Sierra Leone

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.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very touching story, Mr. Meeker -- I'm glad I got to read this side of it, too. I keep telling Bryan this, but I really think he's doing something neat and selfless... I could learn some lessons from his work. That he was able to keep your schedules full and educational (e.g. not just have you sit around in his house all day) is also a testament to his resolve and resourcefulness.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences -- and for bringing my letter to Bryan, too, by the way!