Saturday, July 9, 2011


Many friends have inquired about the climate in Sierra Leone. What was it like? How did you adjust? How different is the climate from where you now live? Of course, in 1968 when I began reading about Sierra Leone, the country that I was to be a volunteer in, the books described a climate that bred malaria containing mosquitoes, a huge amount of rain, and a high sun that could burn a sensitive skin such as I had. As I read I thought why do they want to scare me? Surely there is a large population of folks living just where I'd be. If the climate was impossible would anyone really live there? Was the climate something I could adjust to? And the mosquitoes (and other tropical maladies) - would they finish me off the way the books warned?
Arrival at the height of the rain season (July 4 - 5, 1968) was a wake up call. The night we arrived had been laced with intermittent but heavy rains as we waited on the tarmac at Lungi Airport, for permission to enter the country (our landing rights had been refused but our pilot landed anyway). Eventually whisked up the mountain to Fourah Bay College we were rushed to our dormitory housing office, given our two sheets and two towels, and then directed to our Spartan dormitory rooms. I retain little glimpses of this first arrival - of the dark streets and strange smells, and of how very humid it seemed. By the time of arrival at Fourah Bay the rain had ceased - but the rain did not clear the air the way it did occasionally at home. The sheets we were given had a moist feel to them, the dorm rooms had a somewhat musty feeling. Yet we were all excited - after the Atlantic crossing, after seeing the coast of West Africa for the first time, and after being greeted at Lungi by heavily armed, but non-threatening Sierra Leone Army soldiers. I remember thinking, "we have finally arrived. " That next morning we woke to astonishing sun and heat, and its accompanying humidity. A few steps from the dorm to the dining hall and my pants were soaked from sweat. Outside our dining hall caretakers for the college were scurrying about taking care of the grounds and readying their work day. I do remember thoughts flying by as I marveled at how the sweat pored off me, how hard the men were working on the school grounds, and how very exotic views of Freetown seemed from the mountain top where Fourah Bay College was. Freetown was smokey, noisy (although what we heard that first morning was sounds of Freetown from far away), and as we looked down to Freetown, we all had a yearning to get going and see what Freetown would throw at us, and see what it was like. Yes - my clothes were soaked by sweat but despite this oddity on our first day I remember being much more excited and interested in what Sierra Leoneans had to say to us. Our very first meeting was with representatives from the Ministry of Education - and despite the quixotic soldier greeting of the night before (with machines guns in hand, and their snooping about on our plane) the men who first spoke to us greeted us with warmth and were quite welcoming. I remember that I was so very struck by Sierra Leone English. Sure my Boston English had amused many of my friends when I spoke, but the somewhat sing-songy speech that was part of our very first introduction to Sierra Leone was wonderful. I immediately warmed to the way they spoke. The minister of education spoke of the history of the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, and of teaching going on in hard to reach areas in the remote interior. He also spoke of John Kennedy in glowing and flowery terms. Hadn't it been Kennedy who had called for young Americans like myself to become volunteers? Hadn't been the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone that provided teachers in under-served area of Sierra Leone? Sierra Leone's Peace Corps program had been one of the first (1961). Although Sierra Leone had a rich understanding of the importance of education it had experience difficulty encouraging its teachers in rural areas. Our assignment as the minister saw it was to provide the teaching force in these remote areas until such time as Sierra Leoneans would become available to take over these positions. So here we were, young American college graduates, meeting West Africa and West Africans for the very first time, and it all seemed so right.

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