May 10

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My Journey to Sierra Leone, West Africa and to Belonging

There’s a difference between… 

Like and love

Satisfied and full

Happiness and joyfulness 

Understanding and being understood 

Being tolerated and being appreciated 

Being welcomed and being wanted 

Being there and belonging there 

After over 6-months living and working in Sierra Leone, I came to know these differences well. In Krio, the most widely spoken language in Sierra Leone, people talk about “going to your mountain,” and, well, during my time in the country, I did just that. Despite living a good life before this journey, I cannot imagine going back. Here is the story why.   This is a glimpse into my experience on what turns out to be my native soil. I hope this stirs up feelings of belonging and inspires you. 

How it all started 

After working in Corporate America for over 30 years, I fell IN-love with my employer, a $39 billion global pharmaceutical company which provided this experience. In 2018, I was one of several hundred who applied, but only amongst the 67 selected to volunteer with full pay for an NGO (non-government organization/non-profit), for 6 months, either away or close to home. My employer matched me with three international NGO’s, but my first choice was Partners In Health (PIH), Sierra Leone. I knew a little about PIH from the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” an inspiring story about PIH founders’ desire to change the world and especially the conditions of the underserved and poor. Traveling to Africa was top on my bucket list, since after 20+ years of international work and travels, I had yet to travel to the Motherland. I said yes please, before I knew anything about Sierra Leone. 

After a quick read, I learned that Sierra Leone is a country in West Africa bordered by Guinea, Liberia and the Atlantic Ocean. In 2019, the estimated population of Sierra Leone is 7.88 million. Sierra Leone is a mixture of beaches, low-lying land, mountains, and timber. The country has a unique history in that enslaved people, who fought for the British in the American War of Independence in return for their freedom and later settled in Nova Scotia, Canada, sailed back across the Atlantic to found Freetown in 1792. Later colonized, Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain April 27, 1961.   Freetown is the Capital and the largest city with a population of just over 800,000. Throughout my six months in Sierra Leone, I spent most of my time living in Freetown, while occasionally traveling to Kono for work. Kono is the legendary diamond district in the Eastern Providence, an area made famous by the movie and book “Blood Diamond.”  Imagine living in a country where the narrative of slavery is about overcoming it or either never knowing it…where you might not have a lot of money, but no one would stop you, search you or shoot you for the color of your skin? The pride is evident in the strong lean dark brown bodies with erect posture that walked the streets and villages throughout Sierra Leone. 

Though rich in natural resources Sierra Leone is considered the one of the poorest countries in the world (53 percent of the population live on less than $2.00 per day) and is ranked 184 out of 189 countries in the 2018 Human Development Index (HDI), which assesses the development of a country based on people and capabilities, not just economic growth. Sadly, Sierra Leone’s wealth of natural resources – gold, iron ore, bauxite and rutile – has not translated into better living conditions for the majority of those living there. Further you would be hard pressed not to find an article beginning with the fact that Sierra Leone is still recovering from the 11-year civil war that destroyed the national infrastructure and basic social services, compounded by Ebola in 2014 which claimed the lives of 4,000 people and caused many others to flee before ending in 2016, which is the reason many NGOs—including the one I volunteered with are in Sierra Leone. But all I could feel was a place that felt like home and one that was hard for me to leave. I still get home sick when I play one of the songs that I recorded during my stay. 

What I couldn’t read about or even predict was the profound impact going home would have for me. Thanks to AfricanAncestry.com it was confirmed just one month before departing, that my maternal ancestor with 99.7% certainty shared the same DNA as today’s Temne people (one of 16 ethnic groups each with its own language) in Sierra Leone.   What happened for me when I stepped foot on the ground June 22, 2018 was the beginning of a truly transformative experience. It was after 7:30pm on a Saturday, when I landed in a place that didn’t look like anything I had seen before, but somehow immediately felt familiar. I was whisked through immigration by a former Sierra Leonean diplomat I met on the plane, one of many who would welcome me with open arms and an open heart. Once outside hands were grabbing for my 6 pieces of luggage, voices where shouting sounds that, at times, I could not make out, and the ground was uneven and muddy thanks to the torrential rain that would occur daily during the 6-month rainy season of May to November. But like they say about Chicago wait a minute and the weather will change, only this weather changed daily from rain to sunshine, as the water dissipated almost as quickly as it landed. A PIH employee, who would—like the other 400 employees—become my family, met me at the airport, traveled with me on the Ferry which connects the airport to Freetown, and drove me my weekend home, a modest hotel facing the beach. Once escorted to my room, I closed a door that had gaps that let light and everything else in, took a cool shower that dripped water and slept under a mosquito net. I awoke in the morning to a clear sunny sky, sounds and smells that would enchant me for the months to come.  This video captures what most feel “Freetown We All Belong” https://youtu.be/Qu1Vd_0GPOc

Living in Sierra Leone 

After a couple of days, I moved into a top floor 3-bedroom, 3.5 bath flat, which I would share with two colleagues also volunteering in Sierra Leone. The sparsely furnished, 3,000+ square feet flat had two balconies one featuring a gorgeous view of the Atlantic Ocean and Lumley Beach, one of several of Sierra Leone’s pristine treasures. Between my flat and the beach, large luxurious homes towered over neighboring small homes with tin-roofs and without electricity or running water. This was the first, but not the last, time I would feel a little guilty living a rather privileged life, even by U.S. standards, in a Country where many others did not have access to those luxuries. What I didn’t feel was pity, as I observed daily living for most Sierra Leoneans which entailed fetching water, feeding chickens, sweeping, bathing (and eliminating human waste) outdoors or in an outhouse structure, and heading to market to sell their wares balanced on their heads. The children played football (soccer), went to school, and helped their families with daily chores. 

Our second balcony was off the kitchen and faced Wilkerson Road, a busy street on the West Side of Freetown where most affluent Sierra Leoneans and Internationals (those born outside Sierra Leone) live. Twice daily a military entourage escorts political dignitary between their homes and the downtown area. The multiple vehicles, with armed police leading and following the President’s car, felt ostentatious and unnecessary in a town that is one of the safest, if not the safest country in Africa. If someone was caught stealing, vigilantes who witnessed the act would likely beat him (not likely a her) up before any police could arrive. Walking around the cities at night is hazardous not for fear of crime, but rather because the lack of lighting can cause a fall, or a speed-loving driver might not see you in the road. 

Our cooking, which we rarely did, was similar to barbequing, you open the propane tank valve, light a match, guess which knob belonged to the burner since the labels were scrubbed away, pray, and stand back. You learn early on to expect things not to happen and to delight when they do. Those who earn a modest living or more have a similar stove with oven. But many create the daily dishes on an outdoor cook stove. It’s low to the ground and the women bend down from the hip or sit on low stools to prepare and cook meals. All of my friends employ several domestics to clean, do laundry, shop, drive, and cook daily for 800 to 1 million Leones (less than $100) per month. 

Aww the Beaches! 

As soon as Friday arrived, most Internationals would head to the one of many unique pristine beaches along the 212 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline. What each beach has in common is that they are breathtaking, with white sands, blue-green water and mountains that lull you into relaxation and a sense of calm. Many say Sierra Leone has the most beautiful in the world with a recent article comparing Sierra Leone’s beaches to Hawaii, my response is “even better.” There’s a renewed emphasis on tourism, thanks in part to the new Government, so the sooner you get there, the better. Sierra Leone would make a wonderful fulltime or part-time retirement destination, which is now my near-term goal. Here’s a link to what many consider the top 5 beaches in Sierra Leone https://www.bradtguides.com/articles/best- beaches-sierra-leone-west-africa. For more about the plans to further develop Sierra Leone, the current government just released Sierra Leone’s Medium-Term National Development Plan 2019-2023. It isn’t light reading, but it is interesting and suggests many opportunities for bringing your talents to your native soil. 

Number 2 River is my favorite beach and the place I hope to retire to. Another wonderful beach, and especially loved by surfers, is Bureh Beach. There we enjoyed the unique beauty and dined on a meal caught and prepared by our personal cook. We also visited the neighboring village of Kent, a half hour boat ride from Banana Island. During the 17th and 18th centuries Kent was a center for the slave trade. It is possible that my ancestor{s} were amongst those captured by the Portuguese, shipped from Kent to the Banana Islands, then to Bunce Island before landing in the West Indies and/or Americas. A historian calls Bunce Island “the most important historic site in Africa for the United States… It is estimated that between a quarter and a fifth of all of the men, women and children who sailed from Bunce Island in the 18th Century ended up in either what are today the American states of South Carolina or Georgia…No other West African slave fort sent as many people directly to North America… slaves were brought out from what was then known as Africa’s ‘rice coast’ which reached from Senegal to Liberia. Bunce Island fell right in the middle of that stretch” (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18613200). Because of its historical significance the President of the soon to be opened International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, visited Sierra Leone to discuss Charleston and Freetown becoming “twin cities.” As you might imagine the visit to Kent was deeply personal. I reflected on the fact that my 4th Great- grandmother, could have been one of the captured heroines, separated from her family, forced on a ship, to survive unthinkable cruelty, so that I could live an unimaginable life today. 

Rather than hanging out with other Internationals, I spent much of my time with Local Sierra Leoneans who remain some of my closest friends today, doing more local things such as going to Balmaya, my favorite hangout (a Cheers-type establishment where there is more conversation than drinking or eating), attending home gatherings, eating at restaurants most Sierra Leoneans couldn’t afford, going to the gym across the street equipped with personal trainers, or catching up with family and friends via WhatsApp. We had a better-than-mine-in-the-U.S. television thanks to our LG shop owning landlord with a bazillion cable channels, which we barely watched. 

One typical Saturday 

My mobile internet device wasn’t working, (lack of connectivity and intermittent electricity are a daily norm, but this time it’s likely because my 3G technology was too antiquated and the internet guy failed to show for the 8th time)…So, I stepped out for Saturday shopping, a combination of going to the Lebanese owned grocery store for over-priced, sometimes past-the-due-date staples and fresh produce from the Locals with make-shift markets along the road or carrying goods in tubs balanced on their heads. The cucumbers, limes, bananas, pineapples and fresh coconut milk were the best tasting and recently picked, yet pennies to purchase. 

I didn’t bother to shower as I walked a little over one mile on the busy Wilkerson Road. Transport in busy urban Freetown is either via poda poda (crowded minibus), ke ke (three wheeled motorized cart), motor bike (without a helmet), or private car with a driver. I walked and navigated uneven dirt covered sidewalks where everything including cars and stray dogs had the right of way over me. Since there were no street lights or speed limits or orderly plans for the road, you would literally take your life in your hands as you dashed across the street or stepped off the curb to navigate around a car boldly parked on the side walk. You would have to look up and down, since sidewalks had holes intended for draining, but were clogged with debris so rain would collect, and muddy water would soak your shoes and anything else. Things are changing since the current government implemented cleaning days on the first Saturday of each month. On cleaning day, stores are closed, and you can’t be on the streets unless you are participating in this “everyone come out and help clean day.” During my walk, I reflected on the fact that Sierra Leone is a county of contradiction and contrast. With its natural resources – diamonds, gold, granite, other minerals, deepest port, pristine beaches, 1/2 year of rain yielding lush and fertile land, strong welcoming people whose descendants provided 400 years of free labor to build other parts of the world — this should be the richest and most opulent place on the planet, yet somehow it remains one of the poorest. 

Thanksgiving Tuesday 

I gave up the chance to attend my Sierra-Leonean-married-to-a-Frenchman champagne supplier’s birthday and wedding anniversary celebration on the beach, to travel the 5 hours by cramped van to Kono with my PIHFamily. We celebrated ThanksgivingTuesday on 20th November a National public holiday commemorating the birth of the Prophet Mohammad. Sierra Leone is known for its religious tolerance where Muslims and Christians live side by side, share each other’s traditions, and intermarry. The partner of one of our colleagues brought carry-on luggage packed with Thanksgiving essentials: cranberry relish, gluten-free stuffing, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, sour cream (she somehow managed to keep cold), herbs, spices and other things you would never find in the markets in Sierra Leone. I wanted to make collard greens and sweet potatoes (food I thought came from our African Ancestors) but had to settle for making scalloped potatoes. The local greens, Cassava, Potato Leaves and Crain Crain, wouldn’t work for my recipe and I couldn’t fine sweet yams. I did find white potatoes in the grocery store closing in 15 minutes, which was all you needed to scan the one room Lebanese owned and run market with dusty canned goods, rice, alcoholic beverages, juices and two freezers. 

It was also known as the best place in town to exchange Dollars for Leones. When you asked the store owner for her rate, she would respond “what you want”, to which you would say “8.5.” She would count, and I would just trust her as the large stacks of bills were just too much for me to comprehend, further if it was off it would not likely be for no more than $1.00 and not worth the tedious and dirty process of counting. Many of the bills are so old and dirty you just quickly put them in the African cloth envelop wallets you can purchase on the beach or in open markets. I wondered about the journey of these bills, where 10,000 Leones brought an enthusiastic smile and extreme gratitude to many Sierra Leoneans and reduced my wallet the equivalent of less than $1.00. 

Before leaving the market, we opened the freezers (which homeowners in the U.S. would use as the second freezer often stored in the basement or mud room), fished out two frozen rock-solid chickens with plans to turn them into Thanksgiving guests of honor the next day. We looked up defrosting techniques and the food-angel from the U.S. (my colleagues’ partner) mentioned she also brought brining spices. Back at the group housing next to the office, and where many of my PIH colleagues lived, a Ugandan doctor who also grew the best spinach I had ever tasted, was busy sorting beans for peanut and bean stew. One colleague a doctor from Spain, who everyone calls an Angel for her selfless bravery and lives saved during Ebola, shared her wine, cheese and meat stash from her recent trip back home. Another Spanish doctor asked about “this U.S. custom of Thanksgiving,” to which I said, “It’s the day we celebrate the Spanish sending someone to U.S. who slaughtered the indigenous people.” When she looked sad and others grunted, I added “Don’t worry, it turned out all right and now we use the day to spend time with people who matter the most to us.” This is how food happens in Sierra Leone. The locals live with what they can grow, catch, kill, or purchase in the open markets, while the privileged, can feast on imported items and treasures from travels. 

Christmas and New Years in Sierra Leone 

My Sierra Leonean Friends-now-Family, who still write me almost daily, convinced me to extend by stay past the December 22nd planned departure. Everyone said, “Christmas and New Year’s is the best time to be in Sierra Leone” and they didn’t exaggerate. It falls during dry season so you can wear shoes that aren’t rubber, put the umbrella away and enjoy the many festivals and parties. This is peak season in Sierra Leone, so the airline prices are even higher as Sierra Leoneans living in the UK, US and other parts of the world return home to spend time with family. Easter is another popular time. Christmas Day was much like what I experience in the U.S, if not more family-oriented. After church services, we visited multiple homes and ate each time. Gifts are few and less important since it’s the company people value most. New Year’s Eve started with one of my favorite traditions, Watch Night Services. What made it special was we were celebrating in a church I felt more connected to than many I’ve attended in the United States. Just after mid-night we headed over to party that didn’t end until noon New Year’s Day. The only way to stay to awake was to continuously dance, which I gladly did. I can still feel the joy and hear the laughter as we danced to Bubu music, the traditional music played by the Temne people. 

About the work – Building Systems, Side by Side

Partners in Health is working side-by-side with the government to rebuild the healthcare system in Sierra Leone. This includes bringing on new staff, so PIH asked me to help strengthen their on-boarding and off- boarding practices. But this was just the start of my assignment. By the end of 6 months we had also embed PIH Values and improved Recruiting, Performance Management and Professional Development practices. We strengthened the leadership team and improved the capacity and capability of a multi-site HR team. We were able to accomplish so much in such a little time. Moreover, this experience taught me about appreciating the small wins and being patient, while also reinforcing my belief that working with and through others creates sustainable change. The impact on me personally was even more profound, I felt valued and leveraged, like the work I was doing really mattered. Having an impact on others who are having an impact on this world left me feeling professionally and personally fulfilled.  This video “The Only Psychiatric Hospital in Sierra Leone” describes just one of the ways PIH is building health systems in Sierra Leone and around the world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xk_SfS5UTVs

Never can say goodbye 

The morning of January 2nd I cried realizing I was leaving a place and people that captured my heart. I arrived close to 7 months earlier as Yvonne-volunteering-with-Partners-In-Health and left as Yateneh (name given to me)-Sister-of-the-SoiI. I boarded a flight which after a connection in Amsterdam put me in Washington D.C. on the 3rd. Upon walking into the place, I used to call home, was immediately struck by how much stuff I have. After several months I still long for the place that really feels like home…Sweet Salone. 

Final reflections

People say I’m different, which they mean in a positive way. There’s a glow and stillness that people are noticing. Maybe that’s what “going to your mountain” is all about? Once you know and feel a deep sense of connectedness and belonging, we become our best self, and we like her.