Sunday, October 2, 2011

In a New Land

So here I was, a white man living in a community of Sierra Leone and although I felt somewhat in a fishbowl , it didn’t take long before I began to see striking similarities between folks I was meeting, and making connections between these folks and people from my past and from my home. And in the same breath, I began seeing striking physical features in my new found Sierra Leone friends that seemed peculiarly similar to either friends or family members that I had left behind. Here I was, in a community so far from my origins, and yet here I was making repeated connections with my home in America. It was not unusual to, from time to time, blurt out how much a new friend was like, say, my aunt, or how much one of our students was like someone I had gone to school with. And these connections repeated themselves, over and over, as we got to know our neighbors and as we expanded the folks we connected with. Certainly, our comfort level improved dramatically during our first few months in the Kenema area. And certainly – as we became a common and daily presence in our neighborhood folks became more comfortable with us and let down their guard. And when that all took place and people knew our names, we became part of the neighborhood. Sure we were white and folks knew this meant that we were different. But with time and increasing comfort with our presence we managed to fit in…and although we stuck out like a sore thumb when we walked about – stares turned to welcomes, and we became a fitting neighbor for our Dama Road area.  When a German showed up in Town, traveling through the area and despite his inability to speak English, we were informed that our “brother” had come to the area. This might additionally involved a group of our neighbors leading the German to our house and considerable amusement when folks would stare at us in disbelief when they observed two white men trying to talk to each other. Their puzzle related to the understanding that all white men were educated (which meant that all white men spoke English). Here was a German, with no English, and a Peace Corps with no German, having a very difficult time trying to make even small talk with no success. How could this possibly be they wondered. The answer as they saw it was that somehow the German was uneducated – that is, my “brother” was not educated. Try as I might to excuse our inability to communicate my neighbors just marveled at this – never quite seeing the similarities to language barriers that might exist between two African ethnic groups. For them – this was an African issue – white men did not have this “problem.” Anyway the German stayed the night, and we communicated as best as we could with sign language of sorts – and my neighbors marveled at my uneducated brother. There was a comparable amusement that Africans had with us white men – and they called us on this often. It had to do with how very brusk we could be with each other. Two white men passing each other in the street might not stop to greet each other. Instead there might be a wave, or a “hi,” or sometimes a hand shake – but Africans made fun of us for how brief these interchanges might be, and how little we seemed interested in anything more. By their standards this was rude. No Sierra Leonean behaved in such a manner. Greetings were extended when two Sierra Leoeans came across each other, with a whole litany of questions and answers about family, about the home, and about each other. This could go on for minutes and be accompanied by additional conversation. In closing goodbyes were extended as well. So when, in Kenema Town, I’d pass a Peace Corps on my way somewhere, my friends would make fun of our lack of interest and intensity with greeting each other. We might pass each other, and say “hi,” as we passed and that would be it. My Sierra Leone friends would make a point of stopping me to ask how we could be so rude to “your brothers.” And as we lived longer we too became uncomfortable with our bruskness with each other. I did not know all Peace Corps in country. But the habits that we brought with us – although hard to break – at least became less routine. Certainly, when we came across Sierra Leoneans that we knew such behavior could be borderline insulting. We knew this and acted accordingly. Certainly, in those days all volunteers were not white. Our African-American Peace Corps members were many in our group, and although I can not definitively speak to their experience there were several times when my observations were amusing. One of our group, a volunteer named Ed and I were walking down Pademba Road in Freetown on our way to shop downtown. It was not uncommon, on occasion for us volunteers to be accosted by young kids, asking us to unload some of our change. I remember one incident when Ed, walking ahead of me, was accosted by a young lad who stopped Ed on the sidewalk, turning to him and saying, “White man – ge mi penny no.” [white man – give me a penny now]. I looked to Ed to see his reaction, and Ed guffawed as this all came about. Here Ed was, a man out of the neighborhoods of Philadelphia being called white man just like I was. Whether it was his typical western clothing, or his manner – Ed had the laugh of the day retelling the story to other volunteers when we all met downtown.

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