Tag Archives: Freetown

Missing Salone + What’s Next?

Merry Christmas everyone!

I arrived home 2.5 weeks ago, welcomed at the airport by my cheerful dad on a cool December afternoon. As we headed home (with the heater on full blast, of course), I looked at the hazy sky and San Francisco skyline, thinking, “Wow, nothing has changed. I feel like I left yesterday.” That sentiment has more or less stuck during these last few weeks at home, as I’ve attempted to settle back in and get back to a familiar routine. In the process, however, I’ve hit a few unexpected bumps and realizations (surprise, surprise 😉 ) that I’d like to share..

1)  Isolation by familiarity
Those of you who have spent a decent amount of time in a country with a distinctive collective culture might have encountered this upon your return home (especially if home for you is the suburbs). Going directly from a very social, energetic/chaotic  and people-oriented culture (where you form friendships on your way to work, at the store, or see a handful of friends every day) to a more isolated, individualistic environment where people keep to themselves and resort to the comforts of their homes, favorite coffee shops, or cars (hello, suburbs of CA),  causes a dramatic isolation “culture” shock. I felt extreme loneliness, lethargy, and overall blueness my first week/week and a half. Although I was super excited to have visiting family over (cousins and their kids, who hit 10 on the cuteness Richter scale), there was something about being in one place constantly, almost having too much familiarity, that made me feel super anxious and down. It was weird. Anyway, the sentiment has not totally faded, and probably won’t for a while, but it was surely a strange surprise.

2) Blessing realization: We can make choices!
Something that occurred to me while in Sierra Leone was that we (generally speaking of course, like those of us who have the luxury of reading this from home/the office/a cafe) are incredibly privileged for not only the circumstances we’re born into or the opportunities made available to us, but also the action to make choices. We can choose where we want to drive, work, go to college, have for dinner, the right doctor to treat the right symptoms, movies we want to watch on Netflix instant stream, who we want to marry, etc.. We are given a ridiculous amount of choices, that, in retrospect and in comparison, is almost sickening. Now, not to generalize for all of Sierra Leone, but there are very limited choices due to the way of living, per capita GDP, societal roles, traditions, employment opportunities (or lack thereof), and so on and so forth. We can make choices because we have a vast selection to choose from! It’s crazy, amazing, and excessive, but we can *choose* what we want to do with ourselves, with our lives. For Pete’s sake, we even have a “Self-help” section in book stores we can visit if we ever choose we want to learn how to improve our lives and enrich our spirits. It’s a beautiful thing that I really hope I don’t take for granted again. Never forget you have more control than you think over the choices you make and the life you lead..

3) Love affair with SL
Among the chaos, confusion, difficulty with the fellowship, I came to love the life in SL. Maybe it was the novelty of everything, and learning something new every day (wow, so I only jump onto okadas with CM on the license plate? Good to know! There has been a new case of robberies reported in the neighborhood and this is what/who I need to look out for? Yeaaah, good to know!), but every day felt like a new day. There was a basic routine of getting up, getting dressed, heading to the office, coming home, and making evening plans, but each day felt like a new day, a new adventure. I attribute a lot of that to of course the environment, but also part of it to the mentality of being new to a place, seeing something with fresh eyes. I haven’t tried to adopt that mentality at home.. maybe it will force me to become fascinated with things that I tend to take for granted, but  it’s definitely easier and more mind-blowing when you’re actually new to a place. 😉 Anyway, I really fell in love with the way of life, regardless of the challenges, and hope I take up the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time in a new place again.

4) There is no money tree
Dammit! Wait, so money doesn’t grow on trees? It doesn’t grow out of the leather in my wallet or the plastic in my credit card? Wamp wamp. This was more of a personal revelation, since I’m not the most conservative spender. Although I’ve always saved with each paycheck, I would never take a second glance at the cash register bill or small print. Something about living in an expensive city like Freetown, however (yes, it is SUPER expensive, even compared to SF) reminded me how to tighten the wallet a bit and look out for spending. There is a way to strike a balance between spending in a smart way and having fun, and thankfully, my experience in Freetown trained me how to be a smarter spender and watch my finances.

A few people have asked how much the fellowship in total cost. Here’s a loose breakdown:

Flight: $2200
2 nights hotel stay: $220 (no kidding)
First month’s rent: $300
First month’s cleaning/laundry: $35
Monthly rent thereafter (at the new apartment): $500/mo.
Cleaning: $30 for the last 3 weeks
A sushi dinner at Mamba point (expensive treat): $25-$30
Lunch at the office: $1/day
Taxi ride to the beach (1 hour away): $25 (usually split 3-4 ways)
A beer (usually Heineken, Carlsberg, or Star beer, the local draft): $1.50-$2.50
Dinner at a restaurant (there’s either eating local off a cart or at restaurants): $15
One-way taxi ride: $0.25
Bottle of 1.5L of water: $3.50

In total, I spent about $1000/month, which, including flight, amounts to about $5,800. Although it required a little dip into the savings pool, every penny (and leone) was worth it.


What’s next? I really have no idea, to be honest. As much as I loved being out in the field, working alongside BRAC, the world’s largest NGO representing Kiva, an amazing organization, I don’t know where I stand now. Before the fellowship, my thoughts were: fellowship, office job to pay the bills and save for b school, apply for b school, go from there. No idea really now. Do I go back into the non-profit world, or try something different? Do I apply to business school, or travel for a few more years? Do I go back to Salone, another part of Africa, spend time in India? Do I move to a new state just for the heck of it? Or do I stay at home and take the time to figure out what I want out of life? Who knows, but this experience has helped me develop all types of insights that I am so fortunate for.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading about my journey, supporting me and cheering me on, staying in touch while I’ve been away, and inspiring me to keep going. You and your support mean more to me than you know, and you’ve helped make this experience forever memorable.




Heading Home

I’ve been so wrapped up with life here that I cannot believe I haven’t written here in over a month! My apologies. For those of you following my updates on Facebook, November was a crazy month (most of it fun). Things really picked up a BRAC: my colleague and I trained new branches in Bo and Kenema (provincial cities in Sierra Leone), we completed a few deliverables, did some training and review of our own, and finished our Borrower Verification (the Kiva-type of audit). I’ve also been spending more time hanging out with friends and colleagues in Freetown, making weekend trips to beaches, running around and making visits to different parts of Freetown. I attribute this MIA-ness to taking advantage of having a social calendar and really taking advantage of every moment.

I’m leaving this week, and am both sad and excited to be finishing my fellowship. In many respects, it was not what I had imagined. I felt like I was climbing up a slippery slope for about my first 10 weeks, no feeling productive or too helpful at my placement, not fitting into the “ways” of doing things here. It’s definitely been a lesson in patience, humility and adaptation.

Additionally, I’ve been lucky to meet so many wonderful people in Freetown. Both the national and expat community have been amazingly welcoming and have really helped me stay afloat when things got rough.

A big lesson I’ve learned while here is: you never quite can figure things  out. The more you think you know, the less you realize you actually do. Does that make sense? I’ve learned that about myself as well. As much as I thought I knew myself coming in here — about my skills, capabilities, habits — situations manifested here that forced me to rethink my own ways of thinking and behaving. Some of it has been hurtful, disappointing, some of it enlightening, but overall, enriching.

Below, I’ve pasted my latest blog post reflecting back on the fellowship. Hope you enjoy it.


Malaria Dreams: The True Kiva Fellowship Experience

As my Kiva fellowship winds down, I reflect on the memorable journey I’ve been privileged to experience through the Kiva Fellows Program as a member of its 16thclass. Through personal revelations and humbling lessons in adaptation, microfinance work, cultural differences (and a unique incidence of malaria), I’ve grown attached to beautiful Sierra Leone. Throughout the fellowship, I’ve found my journey paralleling that of a character in a humorous novel, Malaria Dreams by Stuart Stevens, in which a man travels through the Central African Republic in one mission in mind: to find a friend’s Land Rover and drive it back to Europe — only to find that his 3-month journey has a lot more in store for him than he anticipated, and nothing goes exactly as planned. My fellowship similarly followed suit with its own surprises, bumps in the road, and memorable moments.

This journey started with a phone call. Much like the experience of my KF 16 friend,DJ Forza, this call arrived out of the blue, and was received with some degree of hesitation. As I was daydreaming about my placement relocation (first placement was planned for the Philippines) to the South Pacific gem, Samoa, two weeks before Kiva Fellows training, Kiva Fellows Program staff informed me that there was an urgent matter we needed to discuss.

A ball of tension immediately struck me in the gut. As the conversation progressed, I learned that, due to unforeseen circumstances, I wouldn’t be going to Samoa… and I wouldn’t be going to the Philippines. I would be going somewhere for this fellowship, but the location was yet to be determined, and I would find out in a few days.

Three days later, KFP informed me that Sierra Leone was the most available placement, and that I would have to make the decision and shift gears as soon as possible. I think my response at that moment was, “Wow. Ok. Can I think about it?”

My family started to wonder what I had gotten myself into, what I signed up for. There was a lot of head shaking and concerned looks shared amongst my family and friends, and a lot of pity faces that conveyed, “Oh jeez, Tejal, you’re nuts. What ARE you doing?” I recalled images and scenes from the movie “Blood Diamond,” reports in the news about corruption, documentaries about civil war, and tried to push them far out of my mind. Kiva Fellow alum assured me to relax and do more research, and shared their overwhelmingly-positive experiences in “Swit Salone.” Shortly after, at KF16 training, I met over 20 amazing individuals who signed up for the same experience of spending almost 4 months in unfamiliar surroundings, and realized that if I’m crazy, I have many crazy friends right by my side to help me through this exhilarating journey. And so it began…

A warm welcome

With the BRAC SEP staff in Kenema.

Salone undoubtedly welcomed me with open arms, with its people being some of the warmest and most accommodating I’ve ever met, and its weather being comparable to a rainforest sauna. On my first day at BRAC, I was pleasantly shocked at how quickly the  staff took me under their wing, instructing me how to take public transit around the city, taking me to beaches and local football matches, and planning weekend outings.

Additionally, the Kiva Coordinator, Mbalu, and I found ourselves inseparable: we stuck side by side on field visits, trainings, even for fun weekend cooking sessions. And when I wasn’t at the office, I found new friends in local business owners, school kids in the neighborhood, and families that religiously welcomed guests with a friendly, “How de body?” (Krio for “How is your health?”).

The rainy and humid weather forecast made for exciting adventures navigating through Freetown on the back of motorbikes and cramming into poda-podas to jet across town to complete Kiva deliverables with Mbalu. There really is nothing quite like taking a motorbike ride through a torrential storm in Freetown!

Speed bumps, pot holes, and the trough of disillusionment

Like every journey, mine hit quite a few bumps and pot holes along the way. In Kiva Fellows training, we were told to expect a trough as we progressed through our Fellowship workplan. My “fall” into the trough occurred slightly early, around week two, while I was starting a large project that would help take BRAC Sierra Leone from Pilot to Active status in their partnership with Kiva. A few of the catalysts that induced my “falling” into the trough were a combination of understanding cultural differences, adjusting to a new work environment, and finding a groove to personal productivity.

At first, I tried absorb and observe as much as possible in the new work environment: work culture, policies, traditions, best practices, hierarchy, field work, microfinance products and programs – without passing judgment on what could be “better” or more efficient. But little did I know that my KF-powered brain was already in go-mode, looking for ways to improve things and not actually taking the time to understand how systems worked, and more importantly, why they were the way they were. This resulted in major frustration, miscommunication, misunderstandings, and many hand-on-forehead moments.

Those six weeks in the trough, although very difficult, proved to be some of the most eye-opening of the entire fellowship, and brought to light a very humbling and important lesson: modifying my definition of success and using different benchmarks to measure productivity will in turn change the way I viewed efficiency. As soon as I realized this (thanks to the help of family and friends who gave the golden advice!), everything seemed more manageable, clear, and sensible.

A third struggle I encountered, and unfortunately have never quite overcome, was understanding the weight of poverty and economic conditions in Sierra Leone, and realizing as a Kiva Fellow, as a foreigner, and as an individual, there were few things I could change on my own and had control over, but many more that I could not change. This has by far been the hardest reality to digest. And although microfinance work does help hundreds of thousands of people in Sierra Leone, the reality is that microfinance alone won’t solve all problems, it won’t heal an entire nation.

Swit Salone, it’s been real.


Despite these challenges, the growth, knowledge and friendships I’ve gained in Sierra Leone have made this fellowship a memorable and life-altering experience I won’t forget. The wonderful people I’ve met, the warmth of the people, the food, the natural beauty, and of course the work I’ve done at BRAC Sierra Leone will always remain fondly with me.

I think back to that memorable day in August when Kiva called me to introduce me to this opportunity, and have never been more thankful to have given the chance to find a home in Sierra Leone during my fellowship. I’m very sad to leave, but know that soon enough, I will find myself back in the embrace of Swit Salone.

Tejal Desai is a Kiva Fellow finishing her fellowship in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She has been working at BRAC Sierra Leone, and has been grateful for the hospitality and support the BRAC Staff has shown her during her time in Freetown. She encourages you to support sustainability in Sierra Leone by joining BRAC Sierra Leone’s lending team and loaning to a BRAC borrower.

Read Tejal’s additional Kiva Fellows blog posts here.

The Most List: Halfway Edition

The last few weeks, I’ve struggled with writing an informative post on Sierra Leone. I didn’t want to another “ah, I’m in a rut, not in a rut, going to the beach, eating good food,” rant about life here, so here’s a list: most enjoyable, most surprising, most difficult aspects of my time here so far (I think I passed the halfway mark over a week ago, but we’ll call it the halfway point anyway). Enjoy, and keeping asking great questions!

Most delicious meal:

Aminata’s dinner: My colleague Aminata had me over at her house for dinner in September. What she cooked was an amazing, traditional meal of – you guessed it – fish, rice, and stew. I can’t quite put my finger on what was so enchanting about this meal, but I remember not being able to stop eating. She and her fiancé got a kick out of it!

Close runner-up: Meal at Mbalus place, Chicken Biryani from my auntie and uncle’s (Indian couple who adopted me as their Guju –Sierra Leone family member and had me over for dinner, mmmm homemade Indian food), and Sushi at this restaurant called Mamba Point. It’s some of the best sushi I’ve ever tried, and coming from the Bay Area, I think that says a lot (we’re spoiled by amazing international cuisine). J

Most generous company:
Mbalu: This speaks for itself. She’s done a ton for me, and we’re like 2 peas in a pod. I’m so thankful to have met someone like her, and work alongside her every day.
Indian couple in the supermarket: The uncle and auntie mentioned above. They invite me over for dinner, to other events and functions, and treat me like their own family. They even let me come over to bum on their couch and watch English and Hindi television. Wow.
Wissam: My first friend in Sierra Leone, he took me under his wing since day one and has introduced me to the coolest expats I know! Not to mention, he was my major source or transportation in my first month, always going out of his way to pick me up and take me around with him to places like Bureh Beach and dinner on Wilkinson Road.

Most memorable experience:
Frisbee on the beach: 2 weeks ago, some colleagues and I went to Tokeh beach. After an adventurous journey getting there (more below), we arrived at the beautiful beach. The place was empty with visitors but packed with kids from the local village. We took a short swim, walked around a bit, had some fresh coconut.. the kids kept running up to use like local salesmen, asking what we needed, if we wanted to buy any more coconut, seashells, drinks.. It was sweet, but man, they were hustling. A bit too much. So we busted out the Frisbee, and played an intense game of ultimate Frisbee on the beach (modified of course, since none of us know the exact rules.. I was trying my hardest to channel my brother’s UF superpowers). It was about 5 of us adults and 25 kids. Sooo much fun. Intense. Sandy. Rowdy. Energetic. And the most exercise I’ve had in 3 months, easily.

Borrower Verification: This was the biggest project on my workplan, and the most fulfilling. Similar to an audit, this project involved visiting a random sample of 10 borrowers and interviewing them, verifying their loan details with the MFI’s management information system and Kiva’s records. I think the most rewarding part of my fellowship has been any opportunity to meet and speak with clients.

Most awesome/economical mode of transportation:
Poda Poda: A taxi-bus that resembles a minivan? 1,000 leones (less than $0.25) each way, blaring music, 4-5 packed in each row of seats? Sign me up! These are difficult to squeeze into (you always have to watch your bag and usually chase on down and beat the other passengers in for a seat), but it’s entertaining, and most economical means of transport in SL. I’ve mostly taken these with Mbalu, but earliest this week, took one myself. Or at least I think it was a poda-poda.

Most idiotic decision:
Not stocking up on water: I have finally caught on and learned to stock up on water daily. But in the beginning, I found myself waterless on some nights, borrowing water from my roommate and restocking his supply the next. You can purchase drinking water in bundles of small plastic bags (factory-packaged so it’s legit), about 20 for 3,000 leons ($0.75) or a large bottle of water for the same price. They sell it everywhere, the most challenging part of buying a large supply is of course transport (how much you can carry on foot). However, if it’s the rare case that someone’s driving to the grocery store and offers a ride, it’s water bundles FTW.

Runner up: Not wearing a helmet while riding okada. I know, totally crazy and idiotic, this should be number one. But when it’s about to downpour, and you can’t find an okada with a helmet, and you’re just down the hill from home and on a safe, well-paved road, you just got to. I am looking into buying a helmet, though. Other alternatives = walking or taking taxi. The latter is difficult, since drivers will usually charge you 15,000 for a short ride somewhere in the city where commercial taxis (the ones that function like buses) won’t go. The Guju in me resists to paying that much. And the former is fine in daytime, although I start sweating through my clothes after 5 minutes. And one time on the walk back from work, I think an old woman tried to mug me. It was weird.

Most awesome song:
Chop my money – By Nigerian duo P-squared. It’s paying as I write this. It plays at work, when I sleep, in the taxi, everywhere! Here’s the youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZslcTuKYeDk

The lyrics are a bit strange (I think the dudes singing it are saying.. they’re so rich, they just need a girl to spend their money because they’re OK with it and they don’t care), but it’s super addictive.

Most difficult work project:
The Borrower Verification: This project has been as difficult as it’s been fulfilling. Getting data from each branch, making appointments with generous credit officers (everything is phone-based since they don’t use email – no internet in branch offices). Aggregating all the data, following up on discrepancies, sending it to our directors, receiving feedback, and researching again. It’s all fascinating, but no easy walk in the park.

Runner up: Writing posts on the Kiva Fellows blog. It’s hard enough writing on a personal blog, so knowing that hundreds of folks who support Kiva are reading my blog, learning about my experiences, maybe even judging my statements makes me crazy nervous. Also, planning next steps. We do a lot, I’ve discovered, on an ad-hoc basis. This has done wonders for my OCD and obsession with doing this according to plan.

Most beautiful beach:
River No. 2, but it’s really a hard decision. The standards of beach-beauty is really high here. Someone told me the “crappiest” beach is near Goderich, which I’ve only driven by. But um, this beach would probably put Stinson beach to shame. It’s stunning, but clearly, the other beaches here are picturesque and look like paradise, so it’s a difficult comparison.

Most fascinating/shocking aspects of SL life:
Everything. The kindness of the people, the high cost of living, the heavy dependency on aid, the stories of war, the amount of unemployment, the lack of agriculture, the political system. First, with aid – there is a ridiculous amount of aid that comes into SL, and though it is making positive change here, I can’t tell whether it’s helping people make strides forward. I have a total outsider’s perspective here, and in the 2 months I’ve been here, what can I tell about change, but there is a very high dependency on imports. Fruits/veggies, chickens, eggs, meat, are mostly imported from European countries and neighboring West African countries, like Guinea, and second-hand items – items like clothes and shoes donated from the states, are available for people to purchase (it’s a very popular business venture for entrepreneurs who take loans: buying second-hand items to resell).

Cost of living: The average per capita income in around $909/year, taxi rides (one-way) are around $0.25, water to last 4-5 days is $1, bananas are $1.00 per pound, peanut butter is $6, 16 oz of frozen spinach is $8, movie theater tickets are $5 each, a Star beer around $2, a small pizza around $12. Ok – not the most comprehensive sample of data, but you can probably see the inconsistency here. Additionally, rent for nicer apartments (usually rented by expats) starts at $1,000. It’s difficult to find anything nice below $1300 (nice = guards, gate, electricity and generator, hot water). I majorly lucked out because I lived with a local the first month, then moved in with an expat who lets me pay $500 + utilities, but man, this place is super expensive, especially when earning leones.

War also carries deep wounds everywhere in the country – from the people’s homes to the provinces. Various coworkers told me about their experiences escaping to neighboring countries with their families, hiding in the basement of their home, seeing their house burned to the ground and town destroyed, parents killed.. it’s insane how much the people of Sierra Leone suffered in a decade-long civil war, and manage to keep a very positive, and friendly demeanor every day. I haven’t seen this degree of kindness anywhere, and it speaks volumes knowing how much this country suffered not too long ago.

Additionally, after the war ended and the land was uprooted and destroyed, people fled to Freetown, where there was some existence of running water, electricity, and a growing city life with restaurants, nightclubs, tourism, and expats. Thus, Freetown is filled with many people that hail from the provinces, who are looking for better opportunity in the city. There is, however, a major unemployment problem among the youth, and the influx of SL population in Freetown has led to strained resources, higher unemployment, and less development in the provinces. What I’d love to do is visit the provinces and see firsthand why agriculture isn’t being developed: what the major barriers are, what is being done here, where the government’s spending is. I am just an outsider, but feel that promoting agriculture in the provinces has major potential to create jobs, sustainability, and grow the economy… bring people back to their homes in the provinces, help them rebuild their lives, reestablish roots, create strong roads, create industry, establish families businesses.. But again, this is my idealist, novice perspective. I haven’t been to the provinces, just have spoken with many locals who are part of both populations. (Peep this interesting report: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/publisher,UNPRESS,,SLE,4c9c63fd1a,0.html)”

There are 2 major political parties here, the APC (All People’s Congress) and the SLPP (Sierra Leone People’s Party). Although there are several others, these 2 dominate the political landscape in SL. Everyone’s buzzing with excitement about the 2012 elections, and campaigning is in full swing. I’ve had a few conversations with colleagues about political platforms, candidates, propositions, etc. to gauge how people select who to vote for and their stance on political agenda. To my surprise, candidates are favored not by their political background, beliefs, promises, or proposed changes. Rather, they are favored based on where they are from (geographically) in Sierra Leone, and how that aligns with voters. So the poll results, I’ve learned from a few discussions with colleagues and business owners, are determined by: (1) where the candidate is from, (2) where the candidate’s party has heavily dominated/campaigned (so which villages/provinces they have heavily visited in the past and convinced to mark as that party’s territory), and (3) the amount of people who can vote in each of these provinces. The current president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is part of the APC, so there is current a big push from the opposition part, SLPP. The majority of folks I’ve spoken with, though, side with the APC and plan to vote for APC once again.

Sorry – I realize this is the longest sub-post ever, and not super factual. But I hope it gives you a glimpse into the interesting social-economic-political landscape in SL.

Most valuable gift (that keeps giving)
Keychain flashlight – “No Dad, really,” I recall saying while sitting on my last suitcase, struggling to zip it shut, “I’m not going to need that.” Pause. “Ok fine, I’ll put it in my carry on.” This keychain flashlight has saved me many a time: nights where the power cuts, and I need to run to the bathroom, or walk to my house in the dark on the tumultuous dirt road, or find money in my purse while riding in a taxi. This thing has saved me. I never part with it. Thanks Dad for convincing me to take this little miracle gadget!

USB modem: A friend gave me a usb modem to use during my time here, and it has been a LIFESAVER. At first, the one I was using was super slow (12kpbs, whaat) and I could barely manage to post photos on skype. But this newer version has allowed me to post pictures, write emails, skype call with my family and friends. Such a gift. High-speed internet here is close to non-existent, so I’m very thankful to have this wonderful piece of technology by my side. There’s no better way to fight homesickness than video chatting with your family.

Most hilarious moment:
Gosh. So many. One notable “ahh, Africa!” moment was on the way to Tokeh beach. We took 2 cars, both SUVs, and were going through deep puddles and potholes. As we laughed through the bumpy ride, we heard a coughing from the engine, and the car went silent. “Oh, shit.” There we were, in the world’s largest puddle (or world’s smallest lake), engine stalled. “What happened?” our friends in the car behind us yelled. Turns out that the water crept into the engine. We spent 30 minutes trying to figure out the problem ourselves, taking pictures, waiting for cars to stop at offer help, and then decided screw it: we need to push this water out of the car, and tow it. Another car gave us their tow rope and contact information, so 3 of our friends pushed the car out of the water, we connected to tow rope, and dragged the stalled car about 20 minutes to the next village, where a mechanic took a good look. He eventually found that the problem wasn’t the engine, but in fact, was the fuse, and we all had a good laugh and long photoshoot in the village. The car was fine the rest of the way home, but to this day, remains the most hilarious afternoon I’ve had here.

Anyway, please continue to send wonderful questions my way. 🙂 Thanks for reading!


Family and a few friends have asked what a typically day looks like here. I didn’t really develop a “pattern” or routine until recently, so here’s a glimpse into a day in Freetown.

Taking last Thursday: wake up at 7am. The neighborhood roosters, goats, and dogs that sing the praises of the morning usually start their show around 6am, but I’ve adapted to sleeping through them for an hour. I have breakfast, which consists of a bowl of granola from Trader Joe’s (bought enough from home to last me a good 3-4 weeks) and a few “Digestive” brand (local sweet) biscuits. Wash up, iron my clothes, fill my backpack, and walk down the street, where I meet my okada (motorbike) driver, Emma (whose name at first I thought was Amara), at 8:15. Hope on the back of his bike (with helmet, of course), and he takes me to the nearest junction, where I walk about 7 minutes to catch a taxi. The taxis here function like buses, shuttling from one destination to another, and for relatively short distances, charge 1000 leones a head. They don’t indicate where they’re going or willing to take you, so you have to yell out where you’re going. Thursday, I went to the country office, so I knew exactly where my taxi would be waiting (luckily, ones that go in direction are parked on the side of the street, so no running/yelling involved). The taxi waits for 1-2 minutes until all 4 seats are filled (sometimes we squeeze in 5) and we head to the next junction, which is about a 10 minute walk to my office. Door to door, it takes about 35 minutes to get to the office.

Once I arrive at the country office, I sign the lunch roster and pay 3,500 leones to the cook. This is an optional perk for all staff and persons working in the BRAC country office; pay a small fee in the morning, and have lunch prepared. I then hang out for a bit as people trickle in, and we head up to our desks around 9. Mbalu, the Kiva Coordinator, and I review the priorities of that day and week, which include visiting the area office (about 15 min away) and planning upcoming borrower visits. The internet is usually slow like molasses, if not almost entirely absent, so every day is different mix of online and offline work and finding a way to get things done. If I’m offline, I usually update my work plan, call credit officers to plan borrower visits, or prepare files for an upcoming project. Or, like I’m doing now, write a blog post. 🙂

Lunch time rolls around at 1pm and most folks head downstairs to the dining room. We dine on a plate of rice (aka a mountain of white, or sometimes “jallof” rice) with stew and fish or chicken. Rice is kind of a big deal here. No traditional “Salone” meal is complete without a large portion of it. Hang out until the end of lunch hour, 2pm, then head back upstairs. The rest of the afternoon flies by rather quickly (got to love late lunches!), and every now and then, a few colleagues and I will stand on the balcony to watch the passerbys or downpours, catch up on each others lives, etc. Usually when the power cuts out.

By 5pm, everyone’s clearing out and starting to head home. I walk back to the main junction, about 5-7 minutes uphill, and shout out my destination to the trail of taxis. One nods, indicating he’s going my way. Squeeze in, ride to the next junction, and pay 1000 leones. I have a 5-7 walk here, and usually drop by the local Lebanese-owned grocery store (there are many of these in Freetown). I check out the spice aisle and stock up on red chili flakes and Italian seasoning, then make sure to grab some olive oil and any last minute necessities. Once I leave the store, I give Emma call to see whether he’s at the junction, ready to take me home.

I walk to the area where Emma and I usually meet at, and am approached by 5-8 other okadas, usually men in their late teens/early 20’s, that yell: “white woman! Psssst! White woman, come here. Seat open. I take you.” They come up, circle me sometimes, get too close to my space bubble. Yeah. You get used to it, but it doesn’t stop being annoying (my Asian/Caucasian/European female friends all agree). Best reply is “My okada is coming, lef (leave) me.” Then I usually give a cold look and wave them away. I know, not super friendly, but if you aren’t firm, the okadas will just keeping bugging you. It’s an interesting mix – knowing where, when, and to whom you can be warm and friendly with, vs. cold and firm. Finally, Emma arrives, and we catch up on how our days went. He drops me at my apartment, and I head upstairs to my room.

That evening, I clean my room (it’s like India here, you have to sweep your space every day otherwise things get dirty very quickly), and get ready for a shower by putting a large pot of water on the stove. Shower (bucket style, yayuh), change, organize my backpack for the next day, and walk to a cross-street about 15 min away (the road I live off of is terribly rocky/underdeveloped; cars rarely come down this way). My friend comes to pick me up around 7:45p, and we head to a pub about 10 minutes away for trivia night!

There, a few BRAC colleagues and I form a team, pay 5,000 leones to join in, have a round of Heineken, and start the pub trivia extravaganza. It usually consists of 6 different “quizzes” – each team has to fill the answers to the game host’s questions, and after 2 rounds, each team rotates papers to “grade” one another’s quizzes. By the end of each pair of rounds, the host announces the standing of each group, and we continue with the rest of the game. By 11, the game is over, and the host announces where each team stands (we placed 5th among 10 teams. We’re fired up to take it next week!). This is part of a 4-week series, and the top 4 winners by the 4th week will receive prizes in the forms of bottles of wine and gift credit for the pub. We all head home, and my colleagues kindly offer a ride home (thank goodness, otherwise I’d have to resort to an okada, not fun or safe at night).

I come home, turn up the fan, change into PJs, tuck my mosquito net into the mattress, and if I have enough energy, read a few pages of a kindle novel. Call it a night, and set my alarm for the next day. Usually get woken up a few times at night from the neighborhood dogs (they like to pick fights into the wee hours of the morning) or the sporadic, freak thunder and lightning storms that send flashes of bright light and curtains blowing into my room.

That’s my Thursday! Once I meet more borrowers, train branches, visit new parts of SL, I’ll share what the experience is like. Now, what do you want to learn more about..?

This small world

Yesterday, I finally went into the field to meet borrowers, and was reminded of how funny and small this world really is!

My day started when I met a branch officer (and new friend), Aminata, at her office to start our borrower visits. We visited two BRAC clients, both hard-working, impressive women featured on Kiva, Marie and Ethleem. First stop was Marie, who owns a pharmacy business and is using her loan to expand her business and stock up on high-demand products (malaria medicine and blood tonic fly off her shelves). She’s been in business for a few years, and has managed to earn enough to send her eldest child to college! The second client we met with was Ethleem, a passionate and charismatic borrower who is using her loan to expand her stationary business. She supplies local schools with text books, notebooks, and paper, and was inspired to start this business after seeing how severely schools is Freetown lacked these educational necessities. She also shared her goals to someday start an orphanage and build schools in Freetown. Call her another hometown hero.

Wait, speaking of which..

While waiting downtown for a taxi to head back to the branch office, I saw a familiar face flash by in a white SUV. “Wait, who…?” my mind drifted. Then click! Guess who it was? The hometown hero himself from my first day in Freetown! I ran to catch up with the car, which pulled over to the side of the street. The hometown hero hopped out, greeted us all, and asked how I was enjoying Freetown. It was a funny, warm moment that reminded me how small this city – and world – really is.

Once we arrived to the branch office, my colleague, Aminata, told me she was planning to interview a client for Kiva, and ask whether I’d like to sit in on it. Sounded great, so I sat tight, and in rolled in a woman who had “topped up” my internet SIM card last week. She owns a small store in my neighborhood, and a week ago, of all the top-up joint in all of Murray Town, I walked into hers. 😉 I remember her well: after giving her my usb modem and SIM card, she gave me a puzzled look and went running across the street to consult with more folks on “topping up,” or adding credit, to my internet SIM card. She then returned with a topped-up card in hand, and insisted to come back immediately if it didn’t work­. I was so excited to see a familiar face join the Kiva family, and look forward to experiencing more small-world moments in this new city.

Oh, it’s a small, small world.

Testing the waters

Last week and this weekend involved a fun medley of intense, eye-opening organizational experiences, socially active engagements, and beach adventures.

Oh hi, hierarchy!

The organization I’m working with, BRAC, is pretty awesome so far. I’ve written a Kiva blog post on BRAC and the main objectives of my work plan (will post soon), and there’s a lot off the work plan I’m observing and learning about at a rapid rate, mainly about the hierarchy and dynamics of a large, global NGO.

Some background on BRAC: it was established in 1972 in Bangladesh, and has since expanded to serve 9 countries. BRAC has over 30 branches in Sierra Leone alone, and employs local professionals as staff. The executive staff hails from Bangladesh, where they are recruited and trained. You see the interesting mix we have here: Bangla upper management, and local junior staff.

With this separation  naturally comes hierarchy and a different pattern of making requests and getting things done. This is currently the biggest challenge for me, and will hopefully turn into the greatest personal lesson in patience, since I practically have efficiency and multitasking locked into my DNA (and totally to my detriment here). Here’s an example: let’s say you want to get something printed. You ask a colleague to print a document, he kindly agrees and offers you his computer. Plug in your thumb drive (called a “stick”), open the doc, hit print – but wait, no paper. “Ah yes,” your colleague response, “I don’t have paper, we have to go ask for some.” You head downstairs to request paper from the accountant, who is out of the office, and then visit your colleague’s manager to ask. The two engage in a little back-and-forth chatter of something along the lines of, “She needs paper” and “I supply you with enough, allot your resources properly. I can’t help you today.”  A colleague standing nearby hears the paper debate, and kindly offered to supply  some. Problem solved! We run upstairs, print the document, and my colleague returns to his work. This was a minor example experienced last week that illustrates the layers of communication necessary to go through in order to achieve something I have always taken for granted, a task I mindlessly take care of without considering who else my action will impact, or how it will effect the budget and organization’s paper supply. The same applies for requesting reports from other teams and staff that Mbalu collaborates with for Kiva. There’s a whole line of people I’m going to have to learn to talk to in order to understand who handles what, who I run to when there’s a report or we’re hitting a hard deadline (like now). Should be eye-opening, especially since my only professional experience has involved working at a very flat, non-bureaucratic nonprofit, where everyone was encouraged to direct a problem/question to the person(s) it directly pertained to.  Eye opening for sure!

This week, I have two major projects creeping up: repayment reporting (reporting on Kiva loans), and borrower verification (sort of like an audit for a sample of ten Kiva BRAC borrowers). Both are super critical to the partnership, and highly depend on other teams and navigating the hierarchy. So please think positive thoughts for me. I think I’ll greatly need them . :-/

New friends and the search for stability

In other updates, BRAC colleagues invited me to trivia night at a local Irish pub Thursday night. I formed a team with my colleagues and their nice friends. Trivia night was AWESOME – each team had several pieces of lined, numbered paper, and were given questions about pop culture, TV/movies, food/beverage, current events, geography, and music. We’d swap answers with another team to correct each others quizzes (bring me back to 8th grade!), and were scored accordingly. My team, called Clueless, placed 7th among 14, and are ready to get together again and kick some major trivia butt next week!

Friday night, a nice friend of a previous Kiva fellow invited me out to a restaurant on the beach called Independence. I kid you not, it’s ON the beach. They were playing 90’s R&B (Tevin Campbell! LL Cool J and Boyz II Men! SWV! My head almost exploded) and I met his friends who all had come to Freetown over the last 9 months to 2 years ago for work, hailing from the UK, Lebanon and India. They were super nice, social and cool – we chatted for a bit, then headed to a dive bar called Atlantic, closer to Lumley beach, open-air, and also along the water (beach level). I met more expats, some now from the UN, British High Commission, financial institutions, and more, from Egypt, Italy, Belgium, and Greece. We danced, had a few drinks, chatted, and played some foosball. Before I knew it, it was 5am and my body was ready to call it a night.

Overall, I was excited and relieved to finally go out and meet folks, make some friends. I’ve never been a part of an expat community, and am new to the dynamics of creating new relationships that lack a specific context, other than “we’ve all moved to this country from somewhere more familiar.” It takes me back to first days living in Davis and London, except in college, you’re more or less sharing the same context with someone else. You know what I mean? You feel this desire to connect with someone, to create a friendship and close bond to share and find a sense of stability, and hope it happens quickly, which of course, doesn’t, since good bonds take time to form. I’ve always been pretty bad at maintaining acquaintance-based connections that don’t share any common thread. I guess it depends on context to a certain extent, but given my relatively short tenure, a part of my worries that I won’t find something stable. Agh. Alright, I’m making myself nauseas writing this because, let’s be real, a person could (and does) have more serious issues to worry about in life than the prospect of not forming a strong bond for the duration of a 4-month long fellowship, so thanks for continuing to bear with me (seriously, if you’re still reading now, I am touched and think you are really, really wonderful).

Anyway, as I explore this new side of developing relationships, understanding permanence and the lack thereof, hopefully reaching some enlightenment and revelation, I will continue to write about it, and very much welcome your own perspective on developing quality relationships in a mixed-context setting.

Life’s a beach, ride the waves IF you have a board

The next morning, friends invited me on a trip to Bureh beach (one of Western Area’s loveliest beaches), and it was amazing. We drove for 2 hours on crazy bumpy, washed out roads (Indian Jones Disneyland ride status), passing by waterfalls, lush hills and valleys, refugee-camps-turned-villages, shantytowns, more hills and narrow roads. Once in Bureh town, my friends Wissam, Suzanne and Fulvio hit the waves with their surfboard/boogie boards, and I spent some time hanging out on the beach. One of their friends who works in Bureh town, Tommy, prepared lady fish (which he caught that day) for us, with a side of cassava chips, tomato/onion gravy, and enough rice to fill your recommended weekly carb intake. Best meal I’ve had so far in Sierra Leone! Shortly after, we all jumped in the water, and I tried boogie boarding for the first time. Fulvio gave me step-by-step instructions and lent me his board for a while to enjoy. After 45 minutes of boogie boarding fun, I decided to try it without the board (funny when we think we can challenge nature, call me Ishmael), and definitely got devoured by the waves (dived too early and I felt like a t-shirt in a washing machine on spin cycle). After this happening twice, consecutively (final reality check), I chilled along the beach and dried off. Overall, it was a wonderful experience, and I am so thankful to have met kind people who were just as excited to have me experience Bureh for the first time as they were to be there themselves.

Alright well, I should get ready for bed. I’ve finished a rather satisfactory dinner (flat noodles, sautéed with fresh garlic, onion, soy sauce, and a touch of red chili) and should get ready for the day tomorrow and long week ahead. I’ll try to post pictures and video here as soon as I find faster internet connection (pushing 12.5 kbps right now, whaaaat), but check them out on facebook if you have the time.