Monday, April 27, 2009


Several folks who have followed this site have commented that I must have had an extensive labeling system in order for me to have remembered so much (I did not). My kids actually have accused me of making most of it up.   From time to time even I impress myself with how I am able to retrieve names and places and what we did - it has been almost 40 years.  One thing is for certain - our two years in West Africa were intense and exciting.  Perhaps this is why to this day I am able to retrieve so much and if pushed - even speak Krio and get by with a little Mende.  In those years we were young, naive, and driven by the daily newness that confronted us. The challenges of climate and the newness of the culture were our early hurdles - but the climate was a given that we adjusted to, and the culture was very open and welcoming and not really a hurdle at all.  We were sent to Sierra Leone to teach secondary school (Susan English and History, I was assigned to teach Math and General Science).  Our posting was in Kenema at the Holy Rosary Secondary School which in those days was a new school.  The school was run by the Holy Rosary Sisters - a dedicated group of sisters from Ireland who taught throughout West Africa.  I think the sisters were somewhat puzzled by having a non-Catholic male on campus but much to their credit they figured out how to use me.  Susan was a great teacher - I was not (even though I tried hard to improve my teaching skills).  Many of the sisters had been in Africa during the Colonial years - some had adjusted to Independence.  Their schools were some of the best in the country in those years. They even had a well-equipped hospital in nearby Panguma run by sister-doctors. There was another hospital that I remember they ran in Serabu.  A few of the sisters - such as Sister Mary Ibar came to Africa at the same time we arrived.  Our school was small - one form in the 1st year and 2 forms in our second year.   Since we had no religious responsibilities we got used to the school quickly.  What we provided in those two years was upcountry teaching. The Sierra Leone board of education had been finding it increasingly difficult to get teachers to take jobs upcountry. Most teachers wanted jobs near Freetown the capital city.  So we provided Sierra Leone with the cushion of upcountry teachers. Peace Corps volunteers went to any and everyplace upcountry - to some very rural villages - to provide teachers for both primary and secondary schools. Some of the posts were very rural. The aim eventually was to have Sierra Leone teachers in our positions, but the pay was not what it should have been, life in rural areas was not as exciting as in the big cities, and so getting Sierra Leoneans to commit to upcountry teaching was a huge challenge.  So in essence we provided the country with a teaching force that they would not otherwise have had. So off we all went - sometimes to posts unreachable between May and October due to the heavy rains and the effect of this rain on marginal roads. Our impact on students was variable - whether I had much influence on students in my two years is questionable.  We did make friends - Sierra Leoneans are very open and friendly - they were easy to get to know.  And once they learned that we wanted to know as much about their culture as possible, they jumped at the chance to show us their world. My friends taught me so much because this is the role I wanted - to be a student of their culture. Colonialism had done a job on West Africans - and Independence had to some degree made the learning curve all that more acute.  It was obvious that not only had they survived with their culture intact (that is not to say that there weren't a number of significant blemishes from the Colonial Period).  They loved America in theory - although we as Peace Corps Volunteers were their only contact with America. They knew that America was a rich country - some really did think that the streets were paved with gold - and at the same time puzzled by why Americans such as us Volunteers would come to Africa to teach. The more naive of them would joke (somewhat seriously) that we were "spies" out here to learn the secrets of Sierra Leone. There were few young people I met in those days who wouldn't have jumped at the chance to go to America if given the opportunity (and of course the money).  Why America?  I am sure it was the reputation of being a land of promise - a man could become rich there.  As volunteers some of us talked about the many negatives - the history of slavery, of segregation, of what this period had done to America.  I wondered in those days about all the inequities. In America we took for granted how much we were given. In Sierra Leone, just like anywhere, people longed for a better life - the challenge was how to do this there.  
I am often asked if our Peace Corps experience was a good thing.  Yes in the sense that we provided the teaching force that was needed.  I suppose to some degree we were ambassadors for America in the country. This was indirect since the majority of us found so much to appreciate in what we experienced in Sierra Leone.  Many of us on return home became ambassadors for Sierra Leone which I am to this day in my own way.  If there were negatives personally it may have been in my whiteness - teaching Africans. There was a subtle discomfort in this role - yet I rationalized that although this was my assignment - I was also learning so much from my fellow Sierra Leoneans - that perhaps we were both benefittiing from the experience - at least I hope so. 

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