I have now been in Sierra Leone for three months. I haven’t written a blog, or even really e-mail home, for over a month. The heat and the sun have made me slow and lazy; the disparity between this world and mine (and yours) makes it difficult to articulate the experience of being here. And I feel a real sense of overwhelm and disorientation – so very disconnected to the outside, developed world. I have been hesitant to commit in words (and on the web) what I don’t feel able to describe.
Instead, I can tell you small things – I can tell you that I live in a compound with barbed wire and broken-glass topped walls. I have day guards and night guards. We have two dogs for when the night guards sleep (something they can be fired for but do anyway). All the Lebanese homes around me are protected in the same way. We all have drivers that take us around town. We have a houseboy (a man) who does our laundry and dishes and cleans. Our lunch costs the same as what our guards get for a day’s shift – about $3. I spend in one day the equivalent of half the monthly salary of many workers here.
Yes, life is replete with inequality.. Sometimes we’ll go out at night in our Humvees and SUVs, listening to the stereo, tipsy and laughing with the rest of our white, NGO friends – and everything will seem normal. Then I’ll look out the window and see the children barefoot, dressed in our frayed third- or fourth-hand clothes (in shirts like “Seth’s Bar Mitvah was truly Classic! April 21, 1987”) selling chewing gum and cigarettes, or begging for our empty water bottles, or a polio victim hobbling down the road, and it’s like lightening has struck a great divide between the protective metal of our green Land Rover and the deep red-brown of the ground beside our massive tires.
Or a man like Moses will come shuffling into your life, forty-odd years old and raising two sons alone, knee socks pulled up only to the ankles, the rest of the sock dragging behind as he enters for a day-guard interview. Before I could tell him how he might correctly wear his socks, I discovered that he uses the excess material by rolling it up on top of his foot, and then slips another sock on over the first before putting on his shoes. This is how he manages to make them fit.
On Sundays we’ll head home from the beach – drunk with too much sun and the exhaustion of bodysurfing, the wind and dust blowing over us, a light covering of red-brown on our salty skin – it will feel like summer at home; those days after the beach as a kid or a teenager; the satisfaction of getting dark brown and the ecstasy that comes from lack of responsibility in the days to come; the sun setting that gorgeous muted golden-orange that you find in photographs from the 70s, setting the laterite road ahead on pinkish fire. Life can be so very good. And all the reminders of the horrors of the past of this country – and now, the more pressing weight of the 5 million here trying to make it each day with no money, no jobs, no hope for the future – are pushed deep into the backs of our minds, out of harms way. We’re here to do good, after all.
And this is how you live in a place like this.
And things become normal, in the end. I come to appreciate the rhythms of life and can stop feeling sorry for people – the men and women breaking big boulders into smaller and smaller pieces in the heat of the midday sun; a full village’s worth of people out on the beach hauling in the rope-chain fishing net full of the day’s barracuda; twelve-year-old Ragiatu selling fruit on the corner, claiming she’s a business woman, always hassling me to pay a higher price; the soldiers coming to get high behind my house in the morning so I awake to the sweet, earthy smell of marijuana.
When there’s a cool breeze and my head clears for a few hours, I feel positively high on life.