Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Peace Corps Volunteers on Sierre Leone

I never did follow up on my Everybody Reads experience in February. I did finish A Long Way Gone in time for my book group. Things are different for different people. I had a hard time reading about the violence, while others in the group thought it pulled back, and that they'd read worse. One person was a student who needed to write a paper on themes found in the book. As a group we then tended to notice a theme when it cropped up, and that helped me like the book more, because it drew my attention to elements that were not about the violence. Themes we mentioned besides war and anger: storytelling; love; family; finding family; trust; surviving with the help of Shakespeare and rap music.

I managed to attend one other Everybody Reads event, a panel of Peace Corps volunteers that had served in Sierra Leone. A college student sitting next to me (this last event was saturated with students fulfilling assignments) had studied African storytelling. He said the book was steeped in that tradition.

Three volunteers showed us slides and spoke about their experience in Sierra Leone. The Peace Corps pulled out due to the violence in 1994; these three had all served before that. There are 3 main objectives for the Peace Corps volunteer: to provide development work; to provide info about the US; to learn about another country. The presenters were doing just what is asked of them...telling us about their experience. They said coming back to the US is much harder than first going to another country. The busy-ness and the materialism here is overwhelming.

Here's what I learned:

  • Sierra Leone is about the size of South Carolina.
  • It has the 3rd largest harbor in the world.
  • It was a big slavery port.
  • Men have a life expectancy of 38, women of 42
  • High infant mortality rate
  • Krio is the lingua franca; English is a primary language
  • There are 12 tribes, and multiple dialects
  • There are few paved roads, most "roads" little more than footpaths
  • Every village has a chief; a group of villages has a section chief
  • "The parcel post was a rat-infested hell-hole"
  • Gara fabric: famed tie-dye fabric
  • "Why do chickens cross the street?" is not a joke: The protocol when you kill a chicken by running over it is to go to the owner and ask, "How much do I owe you?"
  • Careful, they will eat your cat

One speaker said the hardest thing about living there was the lack of soft chairs. Any chairs were wooden. The kitchen is outside, a little shelter made of sticks and palm fronds. They got good at cooking with the efficient campfire cooking: 3 stones arranged with a pot on top, and you push in or pull out a log to regulate the heat.

They've grown rice for hundreds of years: slash, burn, and rotate. Groundnuts (peanuts) are the important source of protein. For green stuff, they eat leaf sauce, which is made from the leaves of cassavas, potatoes, and such. Everybody helps each other harvest the rice. They get their alcohol from the top of certain palm trees. Palm wine is naturally fermented, and they tap it like we do a maple tree.

They make and mend houses with palm fronds in the dry season. They use chaff to make mattresses. They have second little houses out in the fields. They wash their clothes in the river, and then iron them. They have to iron the clothes to kill the larvae of the tumba fly. The tumba fly will lay eggs in the clothes, and the maggots will crawl into human skin. The flies can cause something called river blindness.

One of the speakers was a teacher there. There were 4 teachers in a room, one in each corner. They had no paper, and the kids learned through memorization. One shared a photo of Junior, who made a little car with a sardine tin and unripened oranges for wheels.

One speaker was first a math teacher, then was transferred to the capital city where he worked on an AIDS/HIV project. People ask him what he learned. He said, "Connection with other people, community, and resourcefulness."

Sayings or proverbs:
  • Take time when you kill ants so you will see their guts
  • Q: What can you do? A: Well, you endure it.
  • Only God will save me, or It's up to God
  • Q: How are you? A: I fall down and I get back up
  • Insult: Your mother is ugly as a baboon
  • Nothing is permanent

About the conflict:

Drawing from anthropologist Joe Opala, they said it is not appropriate to call the conflict in Sierra Leone a civil war. There was no functioning government, there were incursions from Liberia, diamonds fueled conflict, and there was nothing to keep rebels from marauding. A Charles Manson-like man instigated conflict. It wasn't coming out of inequalities or racism. Also, this speaker sees fatalism as an after-effect of colonialism. The British filled bureaucratic roles, and didn't train anyone to fill them when they left.

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