Tag Archives: life in Freetown

Up for air + day to day social interaction

Well, it’s been a while! I apologize for not writing sooner. First I had to pull myself out of the trough, then moved apartments, then went into deep-dive mode with a fellowship project, then celebrated my birthday, then.. fell back into the trough.

The greatest challenge of adapting here has been learning to accept not having a rhythm to things. I’ve had to hush the perfectionist in me many times, and will probably need a few more weeks until I’ve successfully adapted to the flow of things. Not having reliable internet is also another large hurdle. The power goes out frequently at work and home, and my usb modem averages about 15 kbps. It becomes a real challenge when something as simple as sending an email or skype chatting with a colleague becomes a 2-hour task, but people still get a lot done without it, so I think it’s all a matter of adaptation.

Anyway! What’s new here? I moved apartments. My first place was great, I mean the roommate, apartment, everything was pretty fine. But the commute became a drag after a while,  and I was getting super lonely after work. As lovely as Tony Soprano & co. were as company (I brought the HBO tv series with me here), I needed more human interaction. So I moved in with a nice Canadian woman who works for UNICEF. She’s since introduced me to her also awesome friends, and we’ve spent the last 2 weekends hanging out in the city, on the beach, and in our jammies at home. It’s been a nice change for sure. I also never thought I’d need A/C, but man. What a gift it is.

Aside from that, as I said, I’ve been visiting beaches, exploring town, making friends, celebrated my birthday. Some friends and I went to dinner at a restaurant called Montana (awesome pizza) and dancing later at a local bar called Aces. I’ve also been spending some time with a nice Indian couple who took me under their wing like a member of their own family, which has been really great. I feel so grateful to have met such kind, warm-hearted people here.

Speaking of people.. one of my friends asked what every day social interactions are like. Well, it definitely varies, but here’s a shot at a typical day:

Morning: walk to work, pass a few folks on the street from the neighborhood, starting with the construction guys on our street. “How ya morning!” they usually yell. “Fine, fine!” I yell back. Kids run up and wave a big HELLO! It’s seriously the cutest thing.

Anyway, once in a while, I’ll be approached by a young man who wants to get his flirt on and shout “Heyyyyyy, white girl! Hey girl, say hi to meeeee.” There are a lot of young men who I pass at work, many of who like to take the extra effort to approach me/other foreign women on the street or shout from afar. It’s usually harmless, and after a while, you sort of get used to it.

At the office, I greet the folks downstairs, some of the Bangla staff I pass on the staircase, and my colleagues on my floor. Once I settle into my desk, my friend Mohamed usually comes by to shake my hand. He always has this hilarious Rico-suave look on his face when he does it. “Hello, Tea-jaal,” he says. “How ya morning? How ya body.” “Great,” I reply, “How ya body?” “Ma body fine, health fine” he replies and grins. The Bangla staff are definitely more reserved that the local SL folks. Most of BRAC consists of men, so it’s interesting to see the difference between the two cultures and styles of communication: open, inquisitive, and relaxed vs. more reserved, quiet and disciplined. But this is just in the work context, and at BRAC. It could definitely be different elsewhere.

My colleague Mbalu and I sometimes act more like sisters than colleagues on our breaks or in the field (or when we’re going crazy once in a while, like when waiting for taxis in the heat) but get a lot done when we’re on the clock. I think it’s wonderful to have someone at work I can talk to about my life.. about weird stuff I saw on the street or ask honest questions about SL and the lifestyle. She reminds me so much of my cousins in that way. I feel at ease when I’m with her.

At lunch, if I pay earlier to eat at the office, I’ll usually dine with local or BRAC staff (usually mixed at tables) in the dining room, and chat about our weekends or plans after work. Nothing work-related. Lunch usually consists of a large portion of rice and stew, with a side of fried chicken. If I decide to eat out, I usually join one of BRAC’s staff on a 5-8 minute walk up the hill to someone we call the spaghetti lady. I need to find out how to spell her name, but this woman’s lunch spread is amazing. She has giant Tupperware set up on her cart, filled with: black-eyed peas, fried rice, spaghetti noodles (no sauce), lettuce, cucumbers, fried chicken, fried fish, stew, and couscous, acheke (local dish, processed cassava) and chili. You choose what items you want and she throws them into a nice aluminum dish. My regular order is usually bean salad (black eyed peas), fried chicken, couscous, chili pepper, veggies, and stew. Mmmm. The most random combination of foods, but delicious (and cheap! 7,000 leones, about $1.75).

The rest of the day flies by, and on my way home, I’ll usually stop to say hi to a few friends/business owners, like Mohamed, the Airtel (mobile phone company) guy who helps me add credit to my phone when I walk home from work, Magdalene, a woman who owns a small store that sells water, biscuits, soap, laundry detergent. Once I walk down my street, the neighbors will usually wave, or join and walk with me in my direction. One man today started walking with me once I passed his house. “Where you work?” he asked. “BRAC.” I said. “Ahhh ok,” he replied, “You stay here?” “Yes, you know such-and such person? In their house.” “Oh ok. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow when you walk home.” Haha. Once I pass the last store before my street, I’ll make small talk with the older man, the storeowner, and his niece/granddaughter, Janet, an 11-year old smart girl who helped me carry water one day. She told me how much she loves to read and write and do math. I think she’s going to run this country someday. Ok, it was only a 3-4 minute walk, but I’ve never met a young girl with so much confidence, positivity, and sass.

Once I’m home, my roommate Karen and I will usually talk about our days, any characters we encountered in our day, plans for the evening. Once in a while, we’ll plan to go somewhere on a weeknight.. quiz night, neighbor’s house for board games, but sometimes we both like to veg on the couch and chat or zone into our computers. On weekends, we’ll hang with other expat or local friends, head to the beach, go to a restaurant, the movies (there is one movie theater located in a Chinese casino, below a nightclub. Love it, and they serve the best popcorn). We have a running joke of a taxi driver, Eddie. Here, if you want a private taxi (not shared taxi, which functions like a bus), you need to pay a driver more to take you somewhere, and usually if you meet a decent driver, you can call him often to pick you up and drop you places for a negotiable rate. Eddie is a driver our friend Jo found, but he’s super unreliable and head over heels in love with her. He’s let us down quite a few times (arrived late, drove recklessly one afternoon and broke the gear in his car, drove recklessly at night chasing a friend’s car, to name a few), and Jo has “broken up” with him many times, but we seem to still call him when the weekend comes around and we’re in need of a ride somewhere. Ahhh, some relationships are just so hard to let go of. 🙂

Anyway, that’s all for now. Take care.

Click to view photos.
Link to my latest KF16 blog post.


Be Loved

This week was one of those weeks that I knew would be challenging. I expected I’d come home exhausted, feeling dirty, possibly a bit disheartened, which I did. But thankful and loved as well.

I have been waking up each morning feeling lethargic. A bit unmotivated. A bit annoyed. Frustrated. Overwhelmed. I sometimes think about the other fellows in my class and wonder how they’re doing, what adventures they’re chasing, wondering whether they have down days as well. How happy they are in their placements, with their respective MFIs, if they feel lonely too. I think about my loved ones, what they might be doing at this hour. I think about the other placements I might have had, whether I would be waking up in a different bed in a different country, if it weren’t for a change in circumstances. Really bad thinking. I tense up thinking about the local men I’d have to answer to on the street with the “I’m married, just leave me.” I stress about my workplan, about my responsibilities. Worrying that I won’t make an impact. That no matter what I do, Freetown will stay the same, poverty won’t change, people will still struggle. I let my shoulders droop when I check my email and don’t receive any new mail from my loved ones. I let myself sulk. It’s a really sad routine, I’m fully aware, and don’t take any pride in admitting how lame I let myself get on the down days. Before I moved here, I would have never let myself get this negative on a daily basis. Maybe in special cases (after facing some sort of rejection, going through heartbreak, being sick), but otherwise, my body would reject it.

Not anymore. Lately, there have been more down days than usual. The hub of negative energy makes its daily rounds. I encounter it every day, and sometimes let it persist for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours. Lately, I’ve allowed it to linger for longer than usual. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s the loneliness that makes me feel like sulking or complaining, thinking about the “could haves,” and less of, “wait, isn’t this what you wanted for years and years? Didn’t you light up talking about this opportunity?” I make more excuses, like I have the right to feel crappy because of reasons x, y, and z. I have these internal dialogues between the negative hub and my quiet optimism every day.

My day yesterday started per usual, taking okada and taxi to one of the branch office. On today’s agenda, Mbalu and I were supposed to visit one branch office in Waterloo, which is usually about an 1.5 hour drive by car. Since neither of us owns a car, we rely on public transit. So this is how our day went:

Morning: meet at the area office. Leave at 9:30 by poda-poda to Kissy, the east side of town (more poor, crowded, and full of pickpockets). Arrive there after an hour. We walk down Kissy road to catch another poda-poda to take us to Waterloo, another hour away. Except the routes are all messed up today (the recent downpours ruined one of the roads, making it difficult for poda-podas to navigate), so we spent about 20 minutes asking people where we could grab a ride to Waterloo. After finding the tucked-in alleyway, we saw three vans/poda-poda looking vehicles stopped, bumper to bumper. Apparently a small accident had taken place (no evident damage), and the drivers were off in a verbal fight. Eventually, two of the three vehicles left, and once the third car opened its doors, Mbalu, I, and about 20 other passengers pushed and shoved our way into the vehicle. “WATCH YOUR BAG!” shouted Mbalu from 3 feet in front of me. “SOME PEOPLE WILL JUST STEAL FROM YOU HERE!” I slipped into a space next to the window, holding my bag like it was my infant child, certain I’d damaged one of my “sitting” muscles/bones in the process of jumping onto a metal rail. The hot morning sun was just started to bear upon us, but luckily we jumped into a poda-poda in time to hide from it.

The poda-poda took us directly to Waterloo, where, after 2.5 hours, Mbalu and I met with 2 credit officers. We spent 3 hours going over my workplan, Kiva’s partnership with BRAC, and the pilot to active transition, and I faced the burning, common question from credit officers:

­­­­­”Why should we (credit officers) help Kiva? There is no extra incentive for us. We do so much work, get paid very little, with no promotions in sight, and no extra compensation. Why can’t you (Kiva) change this? We are struggling. We get no promotions, no upward mobility.”

Honestly, the system right now kind of sucks. No, it really sucks. You would lose sleep thinking about it. From what I’ve read, many officers get paid around $150 a month. Transportation usually costs $1/day, food about $4/day, so if you do the math, it’s virtually impossible to save or make the occasional splurge. Each employee’s experience is different, but what I’ve unanimously heard is that Sierra Leone does not have much opportunity for ­­career prospects, growth or promotion. BRAC operates on a different level which I’m slowly beginning to understand, and from what I’ve heard, moving up, or anywhere, within the organization, is very hard.

Now Kiva funds go only through the MFI to the borrower, and do not support operations. Kinda wish there was a way to bridge this. I really feel for the credit officers and Kiva coordinator. Freetown is a very expensive place to live. High costs of living, high unemployment, and low per capita income make for a difficult financial balance, and a hard hustle.

Afternoon: We had achecke (local food that consists of: couscous or rice, noodles, mayo, sometimes stew, and some sort of fish or meat) – Mbalu, the 2 credit officers, and I, and talked about life in Freetown, marriage, and religion (most frequent questions I’ve been asked so far: why aren’t I married/planning to get married soon, and what are my religious beliefs). After a nice lunch, Mbalu and I make our way back to Freetown, but hit a few hiccups on our way back. Apparently, due to the fluctuations in gas prices, taxis are on strike, thus less available. Poda-podas then become in higher demand and fill very quickly, especially over long distances. So Mbalu and I wait about 15 minutes for one to come by (thank goodness) and it takes us back to the east side of town, where the sun is ridiculously scorching. No taxis to be found for 10, 20 minutes. Water supply running low. Head throbbing. Feet failing. Then finally, Mbalu asks a young stranger in a blue Nissan if he could drop us closer to the center of town. He agrees, turns up his Bob Marley CD, and off we go.

The bumper-to-bumper traffic has us sauna-ing in the car for a good hour or so. I lay my head on the seat headrest, watch the pedestrians and salespeople walk by, with the Marley song “Be Loved” drowning out my thoughts like a nice pour of Jameson.

After reaching town, the driver, Michael, drops Mbalu at her evening class, and takes me to my junction further into the city. He pulls over and says, “Make sure you find a good okada here.” “Ah yes,” I respond, “I usually call my friend to take me home.” I pull out a little cash and gesture towards him to please accept. “No no,” he nods, “No.” I shake my head back, “Please, Michael, you’ve helped us so much, take this please.” He still doesn’t accept, and I slowly exit the car, speechless and touched by kindness. I don’t know where Michael was supposed to go that day, what was on his agenda, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t to detour through the east end of town, sit in traffic, bake in the sun, and take two people into town during rush hour.

I arrive home, and as expected, feel tired, dirty, and overwhelmed. I push the negative hub out of my system for the evening, a think of the kindness so many people like Michael have shown me. And I feel thankful and blessed. Whether it’s Mbalu yelling at a taxi driver for trying to rip me off, or taking me around to find a cell phone and cursing the young boy who tried to pick pocket me.. or the Indian couple who approached me in a grocery store, immediately invited me over for dinner, and treated me like their own daughter.. or new friends who goes out of their way to give me rides to social functions in Freetown and back home… I’ve been touched by the selflessness people have practiced here. It’s on an entirely different level than what I’ve experienced before, so still takes time to digest and fully understand, but hopefully I can remind myself of the kindness that people possess when I feel an ounce of negativity, and use it to replace the hub in my daily routine.