Monday, May 23, 2011

Advice for the new 'guys'

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.

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