Village life is slow, languid, and yet can involve backbreaking labor. Most villagers work in farming, selling/trading goods, or mining – Sierra Leone is known for producing gold and diamonds. As I pass by the river, I see families washing clothes, bathing – and sifting sand for gold. I ask a woman if she’s found anything; she shows me her mug and I manage to spot several bright specks of gold. I wonder how long she spent in the river, risking getting parasites and diseases, to find those specks, and how much they are worth.
With much of the country lacking electricity, the village is plunged into darkness every evening at about 7:30 pm. In my town, people retire to their homes or spend time in the “junction.” The junction, a crossroads at the point of the road to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, is the place to be. At all hours, the junction is filled with people and small shops selling fried doughnuts, bread, packets of clean water to drink, sweet and cold yogurt in different flavours, groundnut sauce, kola nuts, and gari (a couscous-like dish). Okada [motorcycle] drivers constantly pass by, and some wait around at the junction to recruit potential passengers to Bo for 4,000 Leones (5,000 Leones for the ‘white’ people). In the night, the junction is lively. All the roadside shops light up candles, giving the town a ethereal, almost beautiful, glow. People mill around, chatting, buying supplies for the next day’s meal. Okada drivers have mostly finished their work for the day, so they head to the Bike Riders’ Association to relax (really, this is another roadside shack). Films play and you can watch for 500 Leones, and dance music is blasting from one stall or the other. Down the street, one of the local chiefs powers up his generator, blasts 90s American music, and drinks palm wine with his friends.
Life is slow, but this is not necessarily a positive thing. In this town, close enough to the more hectic and exciting pace of Bo city, youth are frustrated and tantalized by the opportunities. “We sit around all day, we sleep as much as we want, because we don’t have a job like you,” they tell me. “We don’t have anything to do all day, we don’t have enough work. We want to study further – maybe nursing – but we need money first.”
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Again and again, I encounter something I wish we had more of in the U.S.: community. In the U.S., I often find myself resorting to Twitter and social media because it is a way to connect and to feel connected; to feel part of a larger community where so often there is none. Here, there is still an immediacy to the connections, and they are all refreshingly physical. On my way to fetch water in the morning, I speak to neighbors and children who yell my name or call me poomoui [white person]. I greet them in Krio or Mende; How de morning? Or Be-ay-ee – asking how they slept. In turn, they laugh at the ‘white’ woman attempting to pump water and struggling in carrying the bucket back to her house, while even the little children here are experts on carrying huge buckets of water on their heads for long distances without dropping much. Walking to the junction should take 5 minutes but often takes more than 20, because of all the small greetings and conversations I must have along the way.
Throughout the day at work, I am surrounded by villagers, some of whom are acquaintances and others, whom I now call my friends. It is quite a strange sensation to help a client resolve his family law problem and discuss his child custody case in the office, and then later to count him as a friend and also my personal okada driver to and from Bo.
After work, I often head back to the junction and sit in one of the many small roadside shacks owned by my closest friend in town. Like most people in Sierra Leone, she does not know her age. Depending on the day, she could be 15 years old or 20. She is a member of the Fula tribe, originally from Guinea, and lives with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children. Her father died earlier this year, and her entire family has had to cut back drastically; all of her siblings have been forced to drop out of school. Like many other Sierra Leoneans, she is still completing secondary school (as is her supposedly 21-year old sister) at the age of 20, because of many interruptions year-to-year. Next year, she hopes they can all return to school. My heart especially softens and saddens when I meet her youngest niece, who has a serious heart problem and needs surgery that she cannot obtain in Sierra Leone, nor afford abroad. I feel especially drawn to the young girl, who looks like a 4-year old although she is over 7 years old; she hasn’t grown because of her heart problem. I am especially saddened because the girl reminds me of myself – I had a heart surgery as a child, and am lucky enough to be alive today only because my family could afford the expensive procedure in India.
I sit in my Fula friend’s shack every evening as she and her friends tell me stories, teach me Krio, play Sierra Leonean and Nigerian music, and as her tiny nieces dance for me. I also greet passerbys who come to buy food, many of whom sit down and introduce themselves, yell ‘Paddy!’ (‘friend’ in Krio) at me while passing by, or ask me to take them to America with me. Sometimes, I take walks with my newfound friends to the former Liberian refugee camp in town, or to the bustling and high-quality MSF hospital further down the street.
Day by day, the people of Sierra Leone have won me over completely – my heart stolen by their open smiles and warm hearts. Every day, I am bombarded with requests for money, or visas to America, or for food. At the same time, I have encountered such kindness despite the pervasive poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Young men give me free okada rides back to my room from the ‘junction’ or the local court when it is raining. A teenager gives me a pair of her pants when I get completely drenched in the rain. She shares her food with me and insists on transferring Sierra Leonean music to my phone. Sierra Leone is not a country for introverts – every moment from morning to night involves conversation, dancing, and friendship. These daily interactions with Sierra Leoneans, where I learn more about their daily lives and am integrated into the fabric of it, have made my short time here truly unforgettable.