Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I started this blog several years ago both to organize photographs and slides from my Peace Corps days in upcountry Sierra Leone, and to see if there was anyone out there who might be interested, and to see if there were any past friends out there from that era (1968-70). Many of my slides from that period were fading and the black and white negatives - although in better shape than the slides - were getting old too. However - with all this work - what has been surprising is how vivid my memory is of this period in my life. I went as a young man to West Africa and Sierra Leone. Fresh out of college, and just married (2 weeks before leaving for the two year Peace Corps duty). I was twenty-two. We took our responsibilities seriously - we were reps of the United States no matter how inane this sounded - and wanted to do a good job over there. Yes - perhaps at times I took the job too seriously , but this never was a problem. We took pride that our program was the first Peace Corps in-country training program - this made sense to us. Training by the side of Sierra Leone teachers was ideal, and our language training (Krio) went well after a week in which we understood nothing. Our Sierra Leone language instructors were both enthusiastic and wonderful. We learned how to negotiate the system, travel, pick the best foods, bargain at markets and for transport, and how to befriend our neighbors who rapidly became our friends. We even learned how to survive going to the bank! Many of these folks are mentioned throughout the pages of this site. I loved our neighborhood and neighbors - they were very kind to us and we listened to what they advised, what they had to say, and what they did. Most of our neighbors and friends were from the eastern province - most spoke Krio (2nd language) and most often spoke Mende. I could do well in Krio and less well in Mende - but I tried. Few of our neighbors spoke English - perhaps one or two. Actually some of our students who lived in the neighborhood did speak English well - and a few visitors from Kenema Town did (i.e. Siaka and Catherine Kpaka, Bankole and Gashin Porter; maybe even Mrs. Elizabeth Porter did on occasion) but for the most part we conversed in Krio. When I did try Mende (I made the effort often) people were appreciative yet realized how very difficult the language was for me. Yet folks would ask me in Mende if I understood it ("Bi humenga Mende?"). Although my Mende improved - it was never great despite how hard I tried. I was fine with simple interactions - but any more than that and I got into trouble. I became known by my Mende nickname "Shmoku-pipee" - a nickname that Mama Hokey Kemoh gave me. She was head of the local Bondo, a very powerful woman, and very outspoken. She had a wonderful sense of humor, yet was shown great respect if not at times fear, by others. She was our mentor in Kenema. When she learned how very much I wanted to learn about Mende ways, how much I loved Mende music and singing, and how much I wanted to take photos when permissible, she became my advisor. By that time I was giving away any black and white pictures that I took (I had a small, primitive dark room). There must be many of my photos still out there that I took in those days. It was - yes - a trade. People would allow me into their lives, allow me to take wonderful portraits of them and their families. And I could give them in return - pictures. Photography in those days was rare in upcountry Sierra Leone. One could get pictures taken at "studios" in Kenema Town (and in far away Freetown) but this was expensive and hard to organize. No one had personal cameras. I gave the photos away for nothing. My dark room was the result of buying the equipment from Mark and Margaret Davis who were Peace Corps volunteers a year ahead of us. When they left, I bought Mark's equipment. I was able to get developer and fix in Kenema Town - I had electricity off and on - and after using one of our rooms as a dark room (I darkened the window panes with black cloth but did most of my work at night) I was in business. People loved getting the pictures - and as things turned out - my neighbors would come by regularly to ask me to take their picture or come to their house or village for picture taking. What great fun this was.  

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