Friday, July 20, 2012

Memories 42 Years Later

Taken in 1968 in Kenema at the HRSS Kenema school compound
photo by Susan Finer 
My Peace Corps memories are strange. The photographs that I took bring back so many thoughts about the at times intense years that we spent living and working in upcountry Sierra Leone. There were the weekday rituals involved with teaching at a new girl’s school in Kenema, this interspersed with the daily and usual interpersonal interactions that we had as we walked about our neighborhood and our town. Now, here it is some nearly 45 years from those days and many of the memories are still vivid. I can look at most of the pictures that I have posted and remember the very day that they were taken. I can almost remember the day of the week. I can definitely remember what the day was like when the picture was taken, what I was doing, how the picture came to be taken, and I can also remember specifics such as conversations, sayings, and many interactions that I had daily.  My neighborhood was what was known as the Dama Road section of Kenema. In those days this section of Kenema was “out of Town.”  I am told that it now has been enveloped in Kenema and that even the next village – Tokpombu – is now really part of Kenema. Kenema has expanded as pressures to urbanize have become great and as more and more people have moved in. Once a busy Town, Kenema’s population has easily doubled since we lived there. Certainly the War had something to do with this influx. But my memories are most vivid of the people I knew there – of our interactions. From travels with my friend Patrick, to wonderful advice and friendship from my friend Siaka (David) – the conversations are vivid and the memories everlasting. The Garlough family was perhaps our closest ties to local folks. Mama Sabina and her husband Pa Garlough took us on early in our days in Kenema, Mama Sabina providing us with ‘African chop’ and with friendship. Pa Garlough with advice. Then there was Elizabeth Garlough who came daily to get lessons in sewing and cooking from Susan, bringing her daughter Isetta with her. Occasionally Elizabeth’s sister Princess and her daughter Angela would also come along. Then there was Alfred – the teenager raised part-time in Freetown, and who , like young kids of his age anywhere was restless and a bit of a cowboy. Alfred was fun-loving, daring, and sometimes his behavior got him into hot water. He finished primary school while we were in Kenema and then went on to become a lorry boy for a while. I suspect that he went on to more important things after we left.  Patrick Garlough was about my age. Of all the Garlough family he was our closest friend. When I had questions about Mende society he would provide answers. When we walked in the bush, Patrick went along both to keep us from getting into trouble and to guide us. A portion of every day in Kenema was spent visiting. Patrick had finished primary school somewhere to our east (? Kailahun area) but when there was no money for secondary school, he moved to Kenema to live with his aunt and uncle (Mama Sabina and Pa Garlough). And when work was hard to come by I managed to get him work on our school compound as a laborer. He was a hard worker and a good friend.  As we traveled throughout the Kenema area he showed me objects of interest, introduced me to folks he knew on our road, showed me how local folks made items and taught me Mende. He had a secret quality to him – and this made for appropriate boundaries between us. He knew when to answer my questions, and he knew when to be evasive. Siaka David Kpaka came from the Pujehun area, had finished secondary school, and by the time I got to know him, he was a staff entomologist for The Forest Industries. I first met him in the mountains of the Northern Province where he was collecting insects and I was hiking. Our conversation led to the realization that we both lived in Kenema. On return to Kenema he got in touch with us and became a good friend. Friendly, Siaka possessed keen observations about his own life, about up-country life in general, about the Mende people, and to some degree about politics. Siaka introduced me to a number of Kenema folks including his wife Catherine Coker, and his friends Bankole Porter and teacher Andrew Zoker.  Traveling about on foot with Siaka was always a joy – he got along so well with people, he included me in his conversations, and made me feel at ease when we traveled about. Siaka somehow was able to come to the United States in the early 1970’s. Living in Brooklyn, and at first working as a night watchman while getting an education at CUNY, he eventually became an air condition engineer at a Manhattan hotel. In the 1980’s he became a U.S. citizen, this after seeing to it that his family was here in the States. His children all have been successful, all maintain their roots and connections. Siaka goes back periodically to Sierra Leone for holiday times. There was also Mama Hokey Kemoh who was a local Bundu leader and a very powerful woman in our area. Tall, to some degree regal in her being, she took us under her wing and when she was reassured that I was genuinely interested in Mende traditions she saw to it that when public Bundu activities were around us, that I was called to see them. Many a night was spent on her veranda listening to her and her Bundu women sing hauntingly beautiful traditional songs. A woman named Bonya lived in Mama Hokey’s home and some said she had the most beautiful singing voice in the area. Those nights – sitting on Mama Hokey’s veranda, listening to the beautiful Mende songs sung by women – the harmony was incredibly beautiful – the songs always led by Bonya with group responses by women who came by at night to sing – these nights stick with me as special and vivid. Here we were – far from our home – listening to song that was incredibly soothing. I will never forget these wonderful nights.

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