First thoughts and impressions:
Sitting in the AMNet office, sweating, tired. It’s been a long first week here in Sierra Leone and adjusting to the climate and the culture has been quite an extraordinary experience. My skin is perpetually sticky and my body feels consistently drained by the oppressive mixture of smog, pollution, heat and humidity. My lungs struggle for a fresh breath of air in Freetown. Jonah and I are trying to run on the beach on a daily basis in efforts to gain a bit of energy against these odds.
The cacophony of noise and unruly activity in Freetown overwhelm my ability to comprehend the way this city manages to function day in and day out. I have yet to see a public trash bin or even an attempt at organized waste management. Trash and sewage are everywhere on the streets, beaches and in rivers…the same streets, beaches and rivers that are playgrounds and bathtubs for thousands of shoeless and hungry children who don’t know the meaning of sanitation. The waste is so overwhelming that the government must have long-ago given up on trying to get a handle on the situation.
I’m actually quite amazed at how the traffic moves in Freetown. Shared taxis, motorbikes, poda-podas (mini-vans stuffed with sweaty passengers) and SUVs with notable NGO logos plastered on the sides frantically weave their way around pedestrians, school children and street vendors. Women effortlessly maneuver the constant gridlock with buckets of water gracefully balanced atop their heads. I, on the other hand, need to keep a vigilant eye on my surroundings in order to avoid a side swipe from one of the many reckless taxi drivers. It’s good fun, walking in Freetown.
On top of the all the insanity that is Freetown, I do find it quite an endearing place. You cannot walk more than 5 meters without a handshake or “how di day?!” from a kind stranger. People remember your name and greet you with a big toothy grin each time you pass by, morning, afternoon, and night. Conversations often turn to development and what we, as Americans, think of Africa. Sierra Leoneans listen, and genuinely care about other perceptions of their beloved country. It is well understood that much needs to be done to ease the suffering of so many Sierra Leoneans. They do not deny the mountain of reform that must take place both within the government and through the people themselves – there is cautious optimism that the Koroma regime is taking the right steps for the future of the country.
Where to begin? This is the question that consumes me every morning when we leave the gates of our apartment building and descend the rocky dirt road in our neighborhood of Babadorie. What comes first? Just steps from our home are some of the poorest people on earth. The type of poverty that has engulfed this tiny country is unimaginable to most people in America. No human being should have to live like this. Today we came home with loaf of bread and wished we had a way to conceal it from hungry children’s eyes.
It is impossible not to notice that the majority of the many, many children in Babadorie don’t leave for school in the morning. Instead, they stay and play in the trash lined streets or walk with buckets of peanuts on their heads hoping sell a few thousand Leones worth. Their parents can’t afford to send them to school (even public school costs money) so they put them to work. Forced child labor is rampant here and the consequence of such limited education manifests itself by perpetuating the cycle of poverty and dysfunction in Sierra Leone.
All that to say, I like it here. I am eager to get to work up in Kambia…lots to do!
Will write again soon.
The hypodermic needle count today was a measly 2 compared to yesterday’s 10. Explanation: Since the greatly-anticipated arrival of my baggage (a fresh pair of socks and underwear, the first in 6 days…yes!), Ashley and I have been able to go on a few runs on Lumley Beach, a several mile long shoreline on the Western side of Freetown’s peninsula. The beach would be amazingly beautiful were it not for the tremendous amount of garbage that creeps up the sand with each wave. Tennis shoes, plastic containers of every shape and size, metal rods, clothing, and sticky chunks of unknown substances form a jagged line of trash that matches the ever-changing seascape. I have yet to see a single public garbage can in Freetown; the amount of waste is truly mind-boggling and it is hard to think that such pollution can ever be truly remedied.
Yesterday AMnet’s driver, Mohmoh, took us to register at the US Embassy. Clouds began to assemble and the air began to cool, a little, as we drove up into the mountains to the great monolith that is the US Embassy. With every place I’ve ever traveled, I never fail to be struck by the fantastic disparity between US’s Embassy and its immediate surroundings. Just below the embassy barefoot men stood on huge slabs of granite and chipped pieces off with rudimentary axes. Children not waist high walked up the steep hill leading to the embassy with baskets full of coal on their head. An old man picked his teeth with a piece of metal wiring while shooing away mangy dogs.
Upon arrival, we had to check our camera equipment and were directed through huge security doors into a courtyard that could have been an upscale hotel in Florida or something. Beautiful, symmetrical palm trees lined the walkways and slabs of rock with purposeful imperfections guided our way to another set of doors where, upon opening, we heard “America, The Beautiful” and a series of voices coming from a television saying, “I am American:” first a Muslim woman with full headscarf, then a red-haired guy, then a native American girl with corresponding traditional clothing, then a pudgy woman who looked perhaps Fillipino, then a large black man who laughed heartily after affirming that yes, he too, is American. It was a bit cheesy, the video, but the thing that got me was that all 25-30 Sierra Leoneans in the room were transfixed on the television. It was hard not to be mesmorized. It then occurred to me that those few hours in the embassy may be the most organized and efficient those Sierra Leoneans had ever experienced in their entire lives. Ten minutes later we were bouncing our way down the hill back to Freetown and it was a Quantum Leap type situation where all the sudden everything was madness, confusion, and much much much harder than in should be, especially for people just trying to stay alive that day. It’s truly so unfair, in the most perfect definition of the word; it is hard to comprehend.
More later….with hopeful internet connection,