When I returned from my trip upcountry I received the following email from my mother:
Since I know that you will not be receiving email for quite awhile, I haven't written in quite awhile! Seriously, I keep having all these questions and wish that we could talk more...
Here is a stream of consciousness list of a few things I have been wondering about:
Tell me about the food
What are the sounds, smells, etc.like?
How do you get around Freetown?
Have you been to any UN things yet?
What clothes are you wearing the most?
Is the heat like Thailand?
How do you go about teaching?
Do you really not feel in danger?
Do you have any specific work hours?
When can I come that is sooner than November?
Going to bed now...will write again soon.
Here are some answers to your questions. They make for a nice blog!
1. Tell me about the food
When I was upcountry in Makeni and Kono, the only food we could get was traditional Sierra Leonean food, aka “chop”. We’d go into a small restaurant or roadside stand and ask “what for chop today?” There are usually only one or two choices, and it’s either cassava leaf over rice, potato leaf over rice, or groundnut soup over rice. Occasionally you can find pepper soup and sometimes couscous. The dishes served over rice look like green or brown mush (I think that’s a technical term) and tastes of the palm oil that everything – absolutely everything – is cooked in, plus tons of pepper. The palm oil is a thick, orange viscous liquid sold in old plastic bottles on the side of the road and in the markets. It’s easy to imagine it clogging my arteries daily or being used to lube a car.
I’m not yet a fan of traditional chop, but most of the time there’s no choice. Sometimes chicken and chips (aka fries) can be founf but these too are cooked in the palm oil. And by chicken they mean pigeon. And by pigeon they mean a grasshopper. Okay, maybe not a grasshopper but it sure is one tough skinny chicken.
If I just can’t handle it sometimes I just snack of bananas (that come in green here), oranges eaten African-style (peeled with a knife to the thin, white rind and then bitten into at one end and sucked while squeezing with both hands), rice cake (a thick banana bread substance), and sesame brittle.
In Freetown there is more selection because of the huge international presence — a few very nice restaurants, like Mamba Point, come replete with security guards, post-colonial colonialists, and New York prices.
Since there’s very little fresh food available when you eat at the chop shops, my teammates have been cooking veggie salads etc. And at the beach you can get amazing fish like barracuda and snapper cooked with a tomato sauce. It’s fantastic.
The merchant class here is Lebanese – they control almost all businesses - and so there’s lots of Middle Eastern influenced food like humus, schwarma, and falafel etc etc.
2. What are the sounds, smells, etc. like?
Sounds: dogs barking, howling, crying, and whimpering. Roosters in the morning. Chickens running scared. Babies crying everywhere. Children being beaten. Loud “African discussions” between enormous multi-generational families. The radio playing the BBC or reggae. Car horns. The hum of generators.
Smells: burning garbage of all sorts. Potent palm-oil sweat off the locals (and my teammate James). Open sewers. Citrus when you walk by an orange stand. Diesel. Marijuana.
3. How do you get around Freetown?
We have a car, a Nissan Patrol, and a driver to go with it (who also often acts as our translator, bargainer, and general guide). His name is Shaka and he was a refugee in Guinea during the war. When we got back to Freetown from the north, he found that his entire place had been burgled and the landlord had rented it to someone else. He could use some cheering up (and money and clothes).
I have also gotten my Sierra Leonean driver’s license and have just started to drive around town. The drivers here are crazier than NYC taxi drivers and there no rules of the road. The horn is used freely to communicate “we’re coming! We’re coming!” to pedestrians, dogs, chickens, and ducks. The roads are horrible – it’s the first place I’ve ever been where it makes sense to have an SUV.
Often on country roads we’ll be stopped by a few kids who have put up a makeshift blockade/security post (imitating the soldiers and rebels). They tell you they’re fixing the roads and ask for money before they’ll t lift the log bloackade. It’s really annoying but sad to see that this is what the kids have had to do to make a little money.
4. have you been to any UN things yet?
You can’t spit here without hitting something UN. It’s everywhere. But I haven’t yet been to any functions, if that’s what you’re wondering about.
Yesterday I went to the main UN base here at the Mammy Yoko Hotel to book some helicopter flights for my colleagues (since we’re partnered with them we can fly for free around the country). There are many UN peacekeeping battalions from a variety of nationalities, but most are Pakistanis, Nigerians, and Bangladeshi.
I’ve met a bunch of UN staff that have told me great stories about the cracker-jack operation they’re running. For example, up in the provinces locals are often finding UXO’s (unexploded ordinances) and selling them for scrap metal. Sometimes they bring them to the UNAMSIL gates. As the agency has no method in place to deal with bombs left hanging about in public, the UXO will sit there for days unattended.
The same office also left a bunch of grenades they didn’t know they had next to their garbage-burning pile, only to be discovered during a search for random and forgotten UXOs that locals may have secretly delivered.
Later I’ll post a fun true or false UN Incompetence Test.
Of course, I very well may end up working for them.
5. What clothes are you wearing the most?
I’m wearing anything that keeps me cool. Remember when you were helping me pack we decided I shouldn’t bring anything that would offend Muslim values. Um, big mistake. Here Islam comes in the ultra-light variety and women can wear anything. Upcountry they often walk around topless. Of course they’d be extremely surprised if a white woman did that, but it’s not too much of a problem to show some skin.
The only time I have been chastised here was once walking through a market in Makeni – my stomach was showing a bit and the women didn’t like it. They all tried to pull down my shirt or pull up my pants. Apparently breasts are fine but a bit of midriff is a no-no.
You can get clothes made here really cheaply with the beautiful gara material. I’m going to have some African outfits made up.
6. Is the heat like Thailand?
When we were up in Makeni in the North we were dying of heat -- sweat dripping down us all day, impossible to sleep, difficult to function. And there was a water shortage so we couldn’t even cool off with a shower – just one bucket shower per night where you scoop water over yourself with a cup.
Now that we’re back in Freetown it actually feels balmy in comparison. It gets hot during the day but not unbearable. And the nights are perfect – skin temperature, like spring.
In the rainy season I think it will get uncomfortably humid, but we’ll see.
7. how do you go about teaching?
Well, we don’t teach. My job here is to come up with ways to use our existing sport and play programs to inform people about HIV/AIDS. These programs are taught by local volunteer coaches, not us.
We haven’t actually begun real work yet because of some hold up on the side of the funder (which is basically USAID through a bunch of other agencies). In the meantime we’ve been doing in field research to figure out what HIV/AIDS education has already happened and how people feel about the issue. It’s been really interesting – it seems that many people have been “sensitized” (a word NGOs use ad nauseam here) to HIV/AIDS, but many people don’t believe it’s a real problem (they’ve never seen anyone with the disease, they’ve never had anyone close to them die from it). Many people believe AIDS stands for American Intention to Discourage Sex -- a conspiracy to keep the population down in Africa.
Also, life expectancy is about 39 here on average, so they’ve got lots of other shit to worry about that seems more pressing than AIDS.
8. Do you really not feel in danger?
Can you define danger for me?
9. Do you have any specific work hours?
Strangely enough, I’ve had to come halfway around the world to find myself with a 9-5 job.
10. when can I come that is sooner than November?
October, November, and December are the most beautiful months I’m told – before the Harmattan winds ruin the view and after the rainy season. If you want to come earlier, May might work – the rains will be just beginning.
Lots of love to you and everyone at home!