Tag Archives: life in Sierra Leone

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.




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.


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..?