Thursday, August 18, 2011

Two Years - that's all

In April 1968 I got a phone call telling me that we were accepted as Peace Corps volunteers in secondary education in Sierra Leone. I had turned down a similar program in Micronesia because Africa was where I wanted to go. A friend had spent two years in Abeokuta in Nigeria, and another couple that I knew had spent their time in Niger. I was determined to go to Africa. I knew little about Sierra Leone, but was encouraged by what I read about it. This was the country that we were going to spend our two volunteer years.
As I have posted many times now we staged in Philadelphia getting our dental stuff in order, our last few papers signed, and getting final advice from Peace Corps Washington. Early on July 4, 1968 Susan and I went down to Liberty Hall to listen to a speech given by v.p Hubert Humphrey. I have little memory of what he said, but I do remember glimpses of security on the roofs of buildings lining the mall as he spoke, men with high powered rifles. It was late that day that we, as Peace Corps Sierra Leone 1968-70, got on a World Airways plane. My other memories of Philadelphia that July were of how hot and how humid it was, and how there was so little air movement. Our hotel room had no air conditioning. The heat in Philadelphia was unbearable...little did I know. So on July 4th, 1968 our World Airways plane took off out of Philadelphia, heading out over the Atlantic. On the plane we all partied. About 150 Americans, heading out over the Atlantic to Africa. The flight was uneventful, that is until we approached the coast of West Africa. Looking out of the window the next day, there were loads of palm trees, loads of mangrove swamps, and low flying clouds with intermittent rain. What seemed peculiar was how low we were flying and although I thought this was odd I never gave it much thought. That is, until the pilot got on the loudspeaker and informed us that the airport in Freetown (Lungi Airport) had refused us landing privileges there. After attempting negotiations with the landing officials and failing, the pilot had made the decision to land anyway. His fuel was limited (that is, our fuel was limited), the weather was tropical rain and low slung clouds, there was no place to land otherwise (Guinea was out of the question. Sekou Turey was a socialist and the US had no relations with Guinea as a result; Roberts Field in Liberia was reportedly too far). And land we did on a quiet Lungi runway, in heavy rain with thunder and lightening. And as soon as we stopped the plane became surrounded by soldiers who pointed their machine guns at us. And there we sat, unperturbed by it all since our thinking was, "welcome to West Africa."We, as new volunteers, had not a clue as to what was going on behind the scenes. The pilot, and Joe Kennedy, the director of the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone were also unperturbed even though they both knew much more. Joe had been director in Freetown for a couple of years - he knew the politics of the country and was little worried by this all. Soldiers would come on the plane, carrying their weaponry as they walked down the isles. None of us seemed interested in their presence. We just were excited to be there - the soldiers were only a minor distraction. Some 4-6 hours later, as darkness fell, public transport came out of nowhere, to the tarmac to pick us all up and transport us up the mountain roads just surrounding Freetown to Fourah Bay College where we were to be housed for several weeks.The humidity was intense, the heat not far behind, and our two years were underway.

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