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Sunset after the rain. View from my office, Freetown, Sierra Leone

When I was in Thailand I met a woman from Zimbabwe who was trying to convince me to return to Africa. “It’s in your heart,” she said. “I can see it in the way you dance, the way you greet and interact with your African colleagues, the way you talk about it – you obviously know Africa well and should be there.” At the time I simply responded that I was happy to be in Asia now.

I thought about what she said for a long time. Everywhere you visit or live has an impact on who you are, the ways in which you see the world, your approach to people and cultures. I realized at the time that Africa taught me many things, as Asia was also teaching me.

Africa taught me about the nature of struggle; it taught me how to develop a thick skin and endure whatever life or people throw at you. It taught me to be strong and hard. It taught me the value of community, family, and how focus on this contributes greatly to the quality of life in general.

Asia taught me gentleness. I learned how to be soft in approach, to take responsibility for my emotions and presence and how to approach everything and everyone with compassion, even-tempered response to everything that comes, and the true value of friendship.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to learn now that I’m back on the “Mother Continent” and living in Sierra Leone.

Culture shock – been there, done that.

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Mom in Canmore Alberta

So far I’ve faced a massive culture shock – perhaps greater than I’ve ever felt or faced thus far.

I had five months in Canada before coming back to Africa which were incredible. I always enjoy going home as it gives me an opportunity to rest, recover from my journey and “lessons,” and work on a more spiritual side of myself. And as my mom says, “an opportunity to be taken care of” when my career and travels are so centred around taking care of others.

The culture shock has been mostly a result of the contrast between approaches to people. In Thailand (and Asia in general, it seems) you learn quickly to be soft and considerate at all times, but if and when pushed very far you can show a bit of your hard or firm side. Sierra Leone is the complete opposite: be tough and strong, and once you trust (if ever) you can show a softer side of yourself.

I have never been in a country with so much screaming and yelling. This is the first thing I noticed upon arrival. Men yell at women and at other men, women yell at their children, the children yell at each other and the dogs on the street, taxi drivers yell at everyone. It now seems like a weekly event – the woman across the street, sounding like a deeper-throated version of a chicken, screams at gawd-knows-whom every Saturday morning at around 8am and continues for at least 2 hours.

Good morning.

Additionally, as you can imagine, I’ve been thoroughly taken advantage of given my initial “soft” approach to people. Here, softness is considered a weakness – that you’re an easy target for constant harassment for money, Canadian citizenship (the most-desirable country of the year, I’ve heard via expats. Yippee.), sex, jobs, anything you may own or be wearing at the time. While I encountered a lot of this in the DRCongo, it is just simply more intense here. It all makes sense when you put it into context though.

Sierra Leone is third to last on the Human Development Index, meaning it is indeed amongst the poorest countries in the world. A colleague told me that there is a 60% unemployment rate, and the youth, while considered the future of the country, are so frustrated and disillusioned from lack of opportunity and sheer boredom that they end up going to the “dark side” in the end.

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The view from the airplane, somewhere over Sierra Leone

Nation-wide psychosocial disorders.

After a particularly frustrating day this week I came home and re-watched the movie Blood Diamond – mostly in efforts to make historical and psychosocial sense of what I was seeing and encountering. I’ve now come to the perhaps obvious conclusion that the whole country is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (in combination with other issues, I’m sure). Symptoms of this include:

  • re-experiencing original trauma(s), by means of flashbacks or nightmares;
  • avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma;
  • increased arousal, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep;
  • anger;
  • hyper-vigilance;
  • significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (e.g. problems with work and/or relationships).

With a whole country limping (literally – see tortures inflicted during the 11-year civil war) towards the possibility of a better life, it’s not difficult to see why everyone is yelling.

Housing Crisis 2009 – or how Naphiri got screwed without even a kiss.

When I arrived I stayed in a small guesthouse called the Solar Hotel. I realized early on that the $90/night fee would very quickly eat through my rapidly dwindling funds (see: constant harassment for money) if I were to stay there long. As a chunky white girl alone in Africa, you can naturally assume that you’ll end up paying four times the price as everyone else so paying “international prices” for a hotel was just not an option when I was already paying so much for basic necessities like food and water.

I asked all my colleagues and new friends if they knew of longer-term (cheaper) places to move to. I spoke to a particular driver at work who seemed friendly and helpful. We’ll call him Murray for now. He vowed to try and help me out by asking around to his contacts as well. My direct supervisor invited me to her house one day where I met a lovely Sierra Leonean landlord, let’s call her Trudy, who had a spare flat in a complex in a nice area. I called Murray to help me to see the place. My first mistake: I told him that I trusted his judgement given that this is his country and he knows what to keep an eye out for when looking at homes.

We saw the place and I instantly fell in love. A two-bedroom furnished apartment with good water, electricity, freshly painted and tiled walls and floors, and a very accommodating landlord – all for under US$5,000/year (a miracle in this country, I assure you!) plus utilities. Murray didn’t say much but just looked around and simply nodded to everything I said regarding the place.

The next day he said he’d thought about it more and felt that UN security would not approve of it for me. He cited missing barbed wire at the back of the building and convinced me that the neighbourhood was actually quite sketchy. Murray went on about how my security and safety is absolutely paramount (ironic in the end). He said that I should look at a place he found for me as well – to keep an open mind and have options in the end.

I liked the idea of comparison shopping and so went to this new proposed place. Huge. 3-bedroom mansion with a giant paved backyard (house parties, anyone?!), boys’ quarters (i.e. small maid’s room off the back of the house), a gazebo in the garden (where the DJ booth would go, of course), and absolutely no furniture (including fridge, cook stove, or anything beyond a concrete floor and walls for that matter – well, AND the DJ’s gazebo, of course). I told him that the house was way too large for me and that I had originally had no plans for getting a roommate, never mind investing what little money I had left – from having to pay an entire year in advance – into basics like a bed or fridge. Thank gawd I bought a portable gas stove before I left Canada or I would have gone hungry for the first week (or have paid for inflated-price restaurant meals at least twice a day).

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African plumbing made easy...

In the end I got caught up in Murray’s arguments that this was the best option I would ever find; the negotiations with the landlord that found me suddenly paying US$500 more than the original price for the year; and the whirlwind of bed shopping in a crowded market downtown (I’ve loathed public markets ever since getting mugged in one in Johannesburg).

Murray asked me at one point what I was doing with the boys’ quarters. I made a deal with him that if he dealt with the workmen who were required to repair the electricity, plumbing, doors, locks, etc, etc, etc ad nauseum issues that plagued this old mansion (with gawd knows what kind of history), he could have it for free. Besides, I told him, I would feel safer with the neighbours seeing that a man also lived on the premises. I trusted this guy so completely that I even lent him an expensive extra celphone I had when he said his was not working (don’t worry, I get it back in the end).

Trudy called one day, after a week of living in Hell Mansion, to ask why I didn’t call back to do a security assessment (requirement for UN staff) on her apartment. I told her the whole story and expressed my intense regret for not taking her lovely flat [insert sound of yelling workmen in my house in the background – here]. Then the truth came out. Apparently Murray returned to the flat the night we saw it to demand a commission for finding the place for me. Trudy basically told him to take a flying leap as it was my supervisor, a personal friend of Trudy’s, who had found the flat for me. My supervisor, who had been out of the country on business when all this was going on, was also told about Murray’s treachery.

I suddenly realized that I’d been taken for a ride – that Murray now had made a commission off of me, had a free place to stay, AND a free cellphone (which by this point he’d personalized and added new ring tones and photos – NOT standard practice for someone “borrowing” something).

Thank gawd I work with lawyers.

I managed to wiggle out of the existing lease for the mansion and am now fighting to get back some of the US$1000 deposit I put on it (am conceivably skeptical about its return). My flat at Trudy’s is spectacular and exactly what I wanted from the very beginning. I have a fridge, a soft comfy bed, gas cook stove, sofa set, and almost all the amenities of a flat in Canada. And no Murray or other roommates hanging around to figure out how to screw me further.

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A home-made ladder (no, you couldn't pay me enough to get up on it!), Freetown

I love my home now.

My supervisor suggested after the incident to make a formal complaint against Murray, as the drivers are expected to be the “ambassadors” for the organization – helping us out-of-sorts newbies get our grounding and all the basics we need to live. I have a hard time, despite getting screwed, putting a Sierra Leonean out of a job, no matter how dubious his motives may be. I vowed to base my decision on writing a complaint on his reaction to the news of me moving out. To my surprise, he came bouncing into the office after the weekend talking about how great it was that I moved into Trudy’s and how I would be much happier there. I’m thinking he figured out that he was caught. I scrapped the complaint letter and am watching him carefully now. He gave me back the phone.

The right decision?

Admittedly, I took the job here primarily based on the the focus and projects, as well as the compensation. I’m on a 3-month consultancy contract and the organization really wants me to stay on for an additional year. Unfortunately an extension can be offered only at a ¼ of my consultancy pay and comes with a “demotion” in title on the CV under a different contract. Hmmm… As always I’m reading the air and the surroundings while staying open to the new, but I also have a hard time breaking commitments already made. I also like the focus of the work I have planned for next year: more edutainment initiatives around justice and sexual and gender-based violence. I’m planning on a trip back to Thailand at Christmas to get a bit of R&R, pampering, and some of my stuff I left in storage there. I’m hoping that regular trips to “sanity” outside of the country will help with keeping that soft gentle and loving side I worked so hard to develop in Chiang Mai.

I think that the hardest part of all this is simply feeling that as much as you crave it, you could give Sierra Leone the earth, moon, sun, and all the money in the world and it still would seem to make little difference.

My hopes are that I’ll start seeing more of the “positives” in the country. I’ve begun meditating regularly during the day to keep my stress and anger levels low – especially when waiting hours for transportation or dealing with yet another person trying to get my attention for somethingorother.

Breeeeeathe deeply…

Will do.

And if all else fails, I’ll just put my head out the window and scream really really loudly.

Maybe that way I’ll blend in.