White man gi mi penni no” or “Pumui bu ah” as we traveled about the country these were sometimes the greetings that you had to put up with. Begging was not commonplace but it was part of the undercurrent of things when we lived in Sierra Leone and although at times an annoyance, it also was a source for our attention and at times we gave up “our copper” to these road folks. Being a white man, or at least being a Peace Corps Volunteer we were very obvious as we walked about or traveled about the country. As white “men” relatively speaking despite Peace Corps efforts to keep us living humbly, we had more disposable money than many of our friends and neighbors. Our $75 per month went a long way in Sierra Leone (you could live easily and comfortably on $35 per month). My memory is that there were several types of begging that went on. One type was by folks who were severely physically handicapped most probably from burned out polio. These folks could only get about on their hands and by crawling, often times had deformed and withered legs. They sat where they knew moneyed people would pass such as the “Cold-Storage” in Kenema, or perhaps outside Barclays Bank. It was here that they would request handouts from anyone who would pass. I think, we, as Peace Corps Volunteers became major donors to their cause throughout the country. In those days there was little in the way of rehabilitation programs or occupational therapy programs to get these disabled folks back into the work force. And so – as you walked by these men there would be this banter between them and us (usually Susan did not get involved). It would run something like this:
man: Peace Corp – morning oh….ow u do? Cum gi mi penni no.
Peace Corps: moning…ow u do?
man: U no go gi mi penni? Wha tin do? Cun now – Peace Corps – gi mi penni!
Peace Corps: (sometimes) I no get coppo? Lef mi bro
man: eh Peace Corps cun now …gi me penni.
This banter could go on as long as I was willing to be a participant but usually resulted in whatever change I did have in my pocket at the time being distributed to who ever was asking. Then I went on.
There was another group who also saw Peace Corps as cash cows. These were kids, who might pass us on the street, and would request money straight out without any prodromal greetings. Many times these might be schoolboys just trying to annoy us. Perhaps even a boy who really had no intent on taking the money might even joke with us.
Certainly the biggest presence of these requests for money were in the big cities such as Kenema or Freetown. I never remember experiencing this in villages. Perhaps city life and its impersonalization was a part of the reason for this. I think there was also the discouragement of the expense and pressure of city life where crowding, anonymity of moving away from your village to the big city led to behaviors that you would never see in small towns, and a generalized poverty led to discouragement after discouragement and eventually turning to begging as the last hope. Certainly – outside Cold Storage in Kenema the men who hung there and asked me for money – got to know me well. It was not that we frequented the place often, but over time I did make effort to joke with them. At the end of our tour I did bring them a surprise of more change than they had seen in a long time – and this prompted lots of kidding on their part as they puzzled about why I was being so generous after so many months of stinginess.
One thing many of us did learn while traveling about is that we had to slow down. Sierra Leoneans would puzzle at how curt we were with each other. They observed that when we passed by or met one of our “brothers,” we often might say a quick hello and then go on. This was never true when Sierra Leoneans met. In fact the way we reacted with our “brothers,” was seen as rude. Sierra Leonean greetings were long – people stopped and spent time before passing no matter what the hurry. As Volunteers we soon learned that making a stop – asking how things were – spending the time – went a long way in breaking the ice. I was often greeted in my travels by strangers who when I responded in their language (if it was Mende), or in Krio and then spent the time – this would bring a big smile to their face, often times a big, deep laugh – and often surprise that a “white man” might be able to speak a modicum of Mende. This was the custom of meeting someone – and became part of expected behavior by volunteers as we learned to slow down, to be more civil, and to be respectful of Sierra Leone ways. To do otherwise would have been considered quite rude. So when someone might greet me with “Pumui (=white man) Bu ah (hello) bisyay. bebavigahun” There was a whole response and banter that went on showing acknowledgment of their presence and caring for them. Sometimes the greeting might be “mister”[kinnei] or "friend" [dahkbey] rather than “white man.” Many times this might be an attempt to see if we spoke Mende or Krio – an attempt to feel us out. But always it was part of the banter that was expected. This was also true when we said goodbye. Oftentimes a whole set of expressions would pass between people at this time. It was never enough just to say good-bye and then move along.