Tuesday, June 28, 2011

And more.........

Up-country Sierra Leone [or more specifically in Kenema in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone] was less humid (minimally so) then what we first experienced when we arrived in-country in Freetown. On July 5, 1968 our 1st day in Sierra Leone when we were hustled to Fourah Bay College in an atmosphere of artificially created xenophobia. As noted in a previous post, we had landed at Lungi Airport outside Freetown, this despite our pilot being told that we were not given permission to land for what were unclear reasons. For 3 hours we sat in the plane, on the tarmac, waiting to disembark. Periodically, heavily armed soldiers would board the plane and walk down the isle with their rifles or machine guns in hand, and occasionally snooping through our belongings. We were all so new to West Africa. None of us were either anxious or worried about what was going on around us. I think I just assumed that this was the way things happened here and left it at that. There were negotiations. The director of Peace Corps - Sierra Leone, Joe Kennedy (no relation to JFK) was on board with us and I suspect that he and other officers on board negotiated safe transit to Fourah Bay. After this prolonged delay, we were hustled from Lungi to Fourah Bay - a distance of perhaps 20 miles. I remember the intense humidity....it was not overly hot since our transport was accomplished at night. I do remember getting our bed sheets as we were assigned quarters in a dormitory. Everything was moist - the sheets, the towels, our clothes. The next day we awoke to beautiful views of Freetown from our windows - but we were warned not to venture down there as the local newspapers (The Daily Mail and other papers) were reporting government fed news stories that Freetown had been invaded by "white mercenaries." I think we all realized what was going on and although we heeded the warnings not to stray to Freetown (at least for the immediate period) - we all knew of the recent series of coups that had burdened the country, and that this spread of mercenary rumors was most likely meant to try and unify folks and also to create a smokescreen that would distract folks from some of the actual politics that were going on. While we began our training up above Freetown at Fourah Bay - the noise below of Freetown intrigued most of us. It was clear that this mercenary business was no threat to us. Prominent Sierra Leoneans from the ministry of education came to welcome us and talk to us. The warm greetings alleviated any minimal worries that any of us had. July was at the height of the Rain Season - and Freetown could get 200 inches of rain during this May to October period. When the sun was out it got very hot. Even when it was not raining the humidity was high - and when rain came - often twice daily - it came in buckets. Up at Fourah Bay sitting in the mountains surrounding Freetown you felt at times as if you were right in some of the storms. We all purchased wonderfully colored umbrellas both for the almost incessant rains but also to block out the hot sun. And we got on with our training in language - taught to us by Fourah Bay College students (Francis Baryoh and Clifford Roberts come to mind as our language instructors in those days). They taught us the lingua franca of Sierra Leone - Krio, and they taught us well using the Rassias method of language instruction. The repetitive nature of this technique was ideal for me - and I caught on quickly to Krio. After our move down to Freetown families (a week after arrival) we had numerous chances both to practice what we were learning and to be taught additional Krio expressions. Our family in Freetown (at #77 Pademba Road) was the Nelson-Williams family. Lottie Nelson-Williams was our host (her husband Claude was taken political prisoner during the April coup and we never met him). Our quarters with the family were spartan. Our house was a typical Freetown wooden structure in a crowded and wonderful neighborhood. Our room was on the 2nd floor (on the first floor below us was a photo store). The steep stairway from the street led to our hallway at the first landing, and on the right as you faced the street was our room that opened up both to the rear and an overview of the open kitchen and back, and a front door to our room that opened up onto a porch that looked out on the street. Mrs. Nelson-Williams was a wonderful host. Our 1st meals - she cooked them for us - were much too European in that she saw to it that we had food that we were used to. Our introduction to African chop was slow - and of course the last thing we wanted was to pick up something that might make us ill. So we worried in those days about what we ate and watched out for the uncooked foods and water that was from the tap. It took several months to become accustomed to the hot pepper and the various typically Sierra Leone dishes - and we eased into the local cuisine slowly but steadily. However it was not long before I became a fan of the food (and the pepper) and we only ate African chop. Our stay with the Nelson-Williams family was a meaningful introduction to city life in Freetown. The wonderful neighborhoods were crowded, at times noisy, with wonderful charcoal smells from the many outdoor kitchen fires. Form our veranda we looked out (and above) all the bustling of the busy Pademba Road. Diagonally across from us was a church where on occasion we would watch wedding celebrations out in the street. To our far right as we looked out was the mysterious Pademba Rd prison where our host's husband (Claude Nelson-Williams) was incarcerated. Lottie rarely spoke of him. In fact she rarely spoke politics - although from time to time I remember her letting us know that the reason for his incarceration was political and that he was a political prisoner. Each morning - from our Pademba Road home we would catch public transport to the special summer school created in Freetown by the ministry of education for our teacher's training. Here we met and discussed education on Sierra Leone and taught school kids. Our instructors were teachers and administrators from Sierra Leone in addition to Peace Corps volunteers who had already been teachers in-country. The schools were well-organized and helpful. For 4 weeks we taught 5 days a week - our afternoons spent each day in Krio language training. We went our free time seeing the sites. An especially popular site was Lumley Beach where there was a beautiful tropical beach and where you could conveniently swim in the Atlantic. At then end of 4 weeks with our Freetown families we said our goodbyes and headed on to Njala - several hours to the east for more training (again in language and in agriculture).

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