Saturday, November 26, 2011

Rainbows are promises from God

Time is really flying in this corner of the world! I started teaching my SSS 1 classes two weeks ago, so I have a full load at school now. I am currently teaching 17 classes a week and approximately 420 young minds waiting to be molded by me MWUhahaha. I am really enjoying my SSS 1 classes thus far. The kids are older than my JSS 2 students (uh.. some older than myself) with the ages ranging from 14-24. Luckily, with age comes maturity and a greater appreciation for me being their teacher. Oh, and they also get my sense of humor… more so than the youngins. They don’t TRULY understand it, but they have figured out when they should smile and laugh with the reason why remaining a mystery. I’m trying to find the right words to explain my teaching strategies. Let me say that the students sit in the same room all day with the teachers coming to them, so just like any other child they lose focus easily. I have often just stopped in a middle of a sentence and started doing “karate” up and down the aisles grunting “hu ha hu ha.” Another way I get their attention is writing on the board and when I turn around I break out into song and dance. Acting like a monkey and tickling their armpits are also good strategies to get their minds back and focused on me. Ah, the freedoms of the classroom are oh so wonderful if you take advantage of them. : )
Besides just providing entertainment to my students, I have been going into other classrooms to introduce myself, talk about America, and just have random Q & A sessions. Teacher attendance is a little bit of a problem at my school, so when I’m walking around campus I’ll often walk by a class full of kids running amok. Here are some questions that were posed to me this week during my random classes:

“Do whites like to marry blacks?” – I think there was a hidden motive behind this question.
“What is the name of your best friend?” – I said Emily Fedor for the record, but added that I have lots of best friends. : )
“Are you married and do you have children?” – I said I don’t want either of those for another (at least!) 6 years. To that response they were a bit surprised, maybe because a number of the students already have a child(ren).
“How many religions are there in America?” – There are 2 here, Islam and Christianity, and ONLY those two.
“Do whites and blacks go to the same school?” – We talked about politically correct terms for “whites” and “blacks.” We also talked about the fact that everyone is equal in America and about diversity.

On Thursday, we had a talent show, which was uhh… very interesting. The “talents” mostly consisted of 12 year olds “rapping” in Krio and shaking their booty. I witnessed a little girl screaming “f*** the n******s” – I think she learned that from 50 cent who is quite popular in Salone as well as a bunch of other African American rappers. Besides the little Lil’ Waynes, there was one boy who “spoke” Chinese. He pretty much stood up and just said “ching chong” and another kid translated, “Good afternoon to you all.” After that performance, I thought it was an appropriate time to talk about being sensitive to other cultures. This is how I put it, “You’re proud of your indigenous language (Limba, Temne, Susu), right? You wouldn’t want someone to come and make fun of it would you? Then don’t poke fun at a language that someone else speaks.” I’m unsure if they really understood, but we’re slowly working on the golden rule – treat others the way that you would like to be treated.
This month I gave my first exam, which makes me a REAL teacher. The results were pretty good by Sierra Leonean standards. In two classes, the majority passed (around 42 passes and 39 failures). A failure is anything below a 50%. I told them that I purposefully made the test easy, because they’re still getting used to me and my English. We’ll see how the final exams go, eek! Grading 240 exams is a little exhausting, but fortunately I can have some giggles in the kids’ responses. One of my favorites was:

Q: What is the scientific explanation of a rainbow?
A: Rainbows are promises from God.
I gave a point for creativity on that one.

Also going on at school next week is World AIDS Day, so I’m going around to all 1,000+ students to teach a lesson on HIV/AIDS. I even made a poster! Then on Thursday I’ve organized a quiz competition with the questions coming from my lesson. I’ll let you know how the whole shindig goes!

In other news, I’ve discovered that I have bats in my latrine pit. Hopefully they won’t want to come up to say hello while I’m doing business in the office, if you know what I’m saying…

Thanksgiving has come and gone. For the holiday I feasted on… rice… but it had pumpkin on top of it so it was somewhat festive. I’m in Freetown this weekend with the other guys from my district and we’re going to have a pseudo-holiday dinner. We might even attempt pumpkin pies, wish us luck!
Christmas is quickly approaching, which makes me think of a funny Madina anecdote. I was talking about the holiday with one of my neighbors the other day. He told me that he had a teacher that went to America one time. The teacher informed his students that there are traditions in America that are very similar to that of Sierra Leone. While he was in Maryland, the traveler witnessed a man dressed as a devil dancing around with little children laughing and chasing him. I guess in Sierra Leone they have the children dress up as devils and they go around the town singing seeking money from onlookers. I told him that we usually call this devil “Santa Claus” and his magic is very mysterious!

Alright things are about to get REAL up in hurr…

I’m actually really excited for Christmas this year! Most of my peace corps friends will be getting together for the holidays, but I think I’m going to spend it in my village. I hear it’s a wonderful time of year with lots of festivities. I won’t have a Christmas tree and holiday ham (Emster - remember that time you shook my leg and said those words to me in Moss’s basement… still don’t find that funny…). I won’t have a stocking and I won’t be hearing “Jingle Bells.” I won’t be rolling my eyes with my brothers when my mom pulls out the video camera on Christmas morning like she does every. single. year. I don’t anticipate to be getting any presents this year. Thanks to my Uncle Tony and his students as well as my family and friends have been sending me a lot of wonderful items that I can give to people. No, Christmas won’t be the same this year, but I’m actually really okay with it. I think this year I’m happy to be giving and not getting -the true meaning of Christmas, right? So as you read this, I encourage you to think about how you can give back to someone this holiday season. With the mounds and mounds of wrapping paper that usually invade the living rooms of so many American families, I think we all lose sight of the magic of this day. Think about those less fortunate around you and remember to appreciate everything that has truly blessed your life. *Crossing my fingers that your first thought isn’t you new iPad* Give your brother or sister a hug that’s a little longer than usual when they walk in the door and say “Merry Christmas.” And when your mom pulls out the video camera smile for her sake and play along because she just wants her babies to stay her babies. And when your dad starts singing along with the Christmas carols try not to be too embarrassed. I hope you appreciate these small blessings this holiday season, because these are the things I will truly be missing.

Happy Thanksgiving and I’ll wait on the Merry Christmas because I’ll probably get to a computer before December 25th.

So the quote I’m leaving you today is in correlation with something I saw in Madina the other night. I was sitting on my neighbor’s porch watching as everyone poured into the mosque and the kids played in the light that’s only on for the 20 minutes of prayers. All of a sudden, I see a couple walking toward me and notice a strange light in the woman’s hand. As she approaches I notice that it is a light saber. Yes, a freakin’ Star Wars light saber that actually lights up!!! I offered her a couple of leons for it, but she needed the light to get home. I can now leave Africa a happy girl.

"Do, or do not. There is no 'try'." - Yoda

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hooked on Temne

The last month has certainly had its ups and downs. The biggest challenge I have faced so far has been losing my four-legged companion, Shady Baby. Whether he was serving as my guard dog or my playmate, he brought a unique joy to my life here in Salone. His death was completely sudden. On a Wednesday night he vomited, and then the next morning he was out of it. When I returned from school that day, Shady didn't greet me at the door as usual. As the hours passed that evening, I watched as my puppy's life drained out of him. I've never felt so helpless in my life. There was no one I could call, there was nothing I could give him and there was nowhere we could go. He died after a series of violent seizures in my arms.

While holding my dead dog, an epiphany came over me - these are the realities of living in one of the poorest nations in the world. I cried for Shady. I cried for all the mothers who would be finding themselves in the same situation that night, but instead of an animal they were holding their deceased child. I cried for the comforts of home and the warmth of my family and friends who would've been surrounding me. And finally I cried for the people I share this would world with who have never known what "the comforts of home" truly mean.

It was certainly a sad day and unfortunately the next day wasn't any better. I went to school in an attempt to get my mind off my sorrows. I told my principal what happened who then made an announcement to the whole school. Before first period had even began, the whole town had heard that "the white girl's dog died." The unwanted attention made me more upset, which was quite unusual for everyone because they had never witnessed a person crying over an animal.. until then. I wasn't able to teach, so I went home feeling very much alone and misunderstood. The next couple of days I had to deal with people asking me where Shady was and would start snickering. They knew that he had died, but laughed because I cried. Luckily that has all faded but it definitely was not fun times. On the brightside, it seemed to be an interesting cultural lesson for the people of Madina!

In other news, teaching has proven to be a very slow process. The level of competency of my students as well as their understanding of the English language have proven to be big hurdles in the beginning of my two year teaching career. A lack of resources and effectively discliplining (without flogging which is the most popular/only form of punishment at my school) have also been challenges. As difficult as this job may be sometimes.. er, all the time, it's definitely worth it when I see faces light up in my class when they comprehend what this dramatic, white girl is trying to explain.

I've gotten my hands into a couple other projects/activities. I started tutoring my neighbor who is in the 5th grade and essentially illiterate. He lives with his uncle (one of the other teachers at my school) and his family. His uncle told me that the boy was attending a small village primary school and was not receiving much of an education. He told the boy to move in with him and has been sending him to a better school. The only issue is he far behind his classmates. My friend calls him a "temne-addicted boy" (Temne being his tribe and language he speaks), which means he does not speak English or even Krio well. In our sessions, a lot of patience is required.. and of course well-versed acting skills from actressextreme89. : )

Besides tutoring my neighbor, I have also started holding tutoring/study sessions for the students at my school. The Catholic Missionaries have a perfect space that they permit me to use twice a week. I've also started working on my school library and trying to get it up and running. The library consisted of a building with empty bookshelves and tables. The librarian (another teacher) showed me the boxes and boxes of books just sitting in storage. This past week we started sorting and cleaning all of the books. Although it was very generous for whoever donated the books - many of them are in poor condition or inappropriate/inapplicable for the students. Some examples, "Jobs in an Airport," "Research on Protozoology," and countless "American History" books. Although these kids living in rural Africa would read these books, it would be nice to get books that are more at their level and that they could relate to. I'm currently contacting some organizations to get some donations, so hopefully I'll get a bite.

So that's life in Madina. I was waiting for transport to Freetown this morning in my town and witnessed something very interesting. There was a boy, maybe around 5, wearing only his underwear and covered in a white substance with one adult and a bunch of kids following him banging on plastics. He was crying while leading the crowd through the streets. I asked my friend what was happening and he said they make children do this when they do something "bad." He said this particular child took something from the Central Mosque, but usually this punishment is used for children who urinate in their bed. It is supposed to embarrass them to teach them a lesson. Lord only knows, I would've been walking around the streets of Latrobe more than I was in school when I was younger.. and had bed wetting issues. Ah, TMI...

Anyways, so I'm in Freetown for a couple days which is a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the Northern Province. Today I am going to leave you with a quote from one of my best friends. She wrote this in an essay her freshamn year at Penn State (we'll forgive her for that one). I like to read this quote sometimes when I'm feeling homesick. My best friends have been giving me amazing encouragement and support and I'm already looking forward to being united with them in 21 months.

Until next time folks.

"Finally, consider your best friends. Whether you have one close friend or ten, the people you choose to spend your time with shows a lot about who you are. I consider my closest friends to be some of the greatest people I have ever met. We can look at each other and laugh for no reason, and when one of them is upset I feel pain right along with her. Their families are my family, and I love having extra moms, dads, brothers and sisters through my friends. If I've learned anything in the past 18 years, it's that truly good friends are hard to find. When I tell peole that my best friends are members of my family, I really mean it." - Nicole Dado (aka da TOE)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Spiders Bites and Witches... Spider Bites caused by Witches?

Yo America,

Things have been going fairly well in Madina. School started two weeks ago, but the first week was dedicated to cleaning and then we spent the second week getting organized. I have 3 classes in JSS II - each consisting of around 80 students. I also have 2 SSS I classes, but I think I will only have 40-50 students in each. Wait, did I just say "only"? Oh my. It will be good when school really kicks off though.

Speaking of school, I was sitting through a 5-hour staff meeting yesterday when in the middle of the meeting I hear a bunch of commotion outside. One of my fellow teachers looks out the window and says, "We got trouble." Uh.. trouble like a stampede of animals or a gang of zombies? Well, actually maybe what I witnessed was not to far off from either of those ideas. I see a woman being excorted by a crowd of people past the school. I was told that someone has accused her of being a witch and she was being taken to gather all her witch-friends (?). I cannot tell you what the outcome was, but the short experience was quite strange for me.

Shady Baby has been going through some rough times. I knew it was getting time for him to get fixed when he started humping a towel on a regular basis. So I set up the date for the big C-day (Castration-day) with the chiefdom vet. He came over to my house for the procedure. When he arrived, he told me to go gather two boys to hold the little pup down. I ended holding him with a 10-year-old boy, probably very experienced. Shady was given an injection of... something and the whole procedure was done with a bare blade. The whole thing took a couple of minutes and then before I knew it Shady's goods were just lying on my front porch. The vet left and Shady and I were left just looking at them waiting for someone to make the first move to clean them up.

My health has been fairly well. Unfortunately, I joined the "Boil Club" and got an abscess on my armpit. Some warm compresses and intense washing helped with that problem. I also received a spider bite on my eyelid. My eye swelled up, so it looked like I had a nasty black eye (which I was pretty excited about as I'm sure some of you expected).

Since my last post, the only trip I've made has been to Kukuna (9 miles away from Madina) to visit my friend Tammie. It was cool to see her village, see her school, and meet her principal's family, her neighbors, and the local chief. I am also now in Freetown for a short weekend trip. I ate some REAL pizza last night, ah it was amazing. We're going to head to the beach soon, woohoo!

I probably won't be back on until Halloween weekend. I need to find a good costume that's appropriate for Sierra Leoneans. I'm guessing I shouldn't dress up as a witch?

Till next time ladies and gents.

"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." -Aesop

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Shady Baby, Shady Baby!

Howdy boys and gals!

Hope life has been a big bundle of sunshine. Well for me, Madina life has been spectacular. Since I've been in town, I've only made a couple of children cry. The best was when I was walking down the street giving my little cutesy dog, Shady Baby (named after one of the most popular music artists in Salone), some exercise and I hear this 4 year old boy screaming and wailing. I look over and this woman is dragging the small child to the street while yelling "Fada, Fada!". Shady and I enjoyed the free entertainment, so we stood there. The two of them approach me and the woman is yelling at her son to bow down to the ground and touch my feet. Then she instructs him to say "I love the cross" and tells me that he uses "abusive language." Uhh...is this an exorcism ma'am because I left my holy water back at the house? I guess you just never know what you're going to stumble upon on strolls around the village!

I've also come to the conclusion that my dog is more popular than I am in my community. We'll be walking around and everyone will ask about the name of my dog. I tell them and then awkwardly stand there and say, "And... um...if you were wondering, my name's Rachel." Shady Baby has been proven to be a friend magnet though, woohoo! Now when we walk around town everyone yells his name over and over again. Also, a lot of people will yell, "Give me that dog," and my response is always, "No, this is my child!" Everyone gets a kick out of that, mostly because most people don't really have pets here.

Besides going on walks with Shady Baby, I've also been running and biking a decent amount. I usually run down this dirt road... well, they're all dirt roads so I don't really get a choice in that matter... but I run on the road that leads to my closest volunteer's village. I usually run to the next village and I always seem to pick up some kids along the way. Just like my buddy Forrest Gump! I'm sure it is a sight seeing me jogging in all my Pitt gear and 7 kids in their torn and tattered clothes and shoes trailing behind me. The one day a child was wearing an old Michael Jordan jersey and all I kept thinking was, "Here I am in Sub-Saharan Africa running faster than MJ himself!" Suck on that all those coaches that cut me from those sport teams in Junior High - look what you missed out on, ha!

My days are also filled with working on my house - it is going to be my home for the next two years. One of the first days I went around sweeping and wiping down the walls. Basically it turned into World War III - America vs. Arachniland. The spiders were vicious and had a lot of troops, but I ended up with the victory in the end. Cleaning has just been one of the domestic skills I've picked up. I started my first coalpot fire by myself and brooked (laundry). Everything just takes a lot of time, especially when you're an inexperienced American in Africa.

Also, since I've been in Madina, I've been going to the carpenter, the tailor, market day (on Fridays), and going to a Catholic church. I've also been on some adventures to pass the time. My two closest volunteers and myself had to go to a town about 70 miles away to go to the bank the one day. We got there no problem, but then we couldn't find transportation back. So, what did we do? Well, we just started walking in the African sun. After a couple miles, a member of Parliament stopped and gave us a ride in the direction we were going. We were back on our own two feet again before we knew it. I eventually got home, but it sure was an experience! Another day I biked 25 miles on this dirt road to my district capital. I really thought at one point I wasn't going to make it from being hot and tired, but I looked up above and threw up some prayerful words and made it safe and sound.

This month was Ramadan, so a lot of people in my town were fasting all day long. The last day is Pray Day, which was really fun! We had a little soccer match, The Bread Sellers v. the F.C. Banguras. It was raining cats and dogs - it was pretty entertaining to watch all the boys slipping and sliding in their gel (athletic?) shoes.

As I write this I am in air conditioned room at the Peace Corps compound in Freetown, which is just marvelous darlin! School starts next week - can't wait!!

"Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and help them become what they are capable of being." - Goethe

Monday, August 8, 2011

I'm a Big Girl Now!

In the words of the principal at my summer school, "All things must come to an end." Coincidentally, this past week happens to be the beginning of many endings.

Summer school has come and gone. It was a wonderful experience and introduction to what I will be spending the next two years doing. I hope my students learned as much as I did! We had finals on the second to last day, so on the last we could play games and have fun. My students taught me a game, "Touch," which despite the simplicity of the name actually requires a good bit of strategy. We also got together ONE GIANT game of.. yep, you guessed it - Red Rover!! It was great to put the books aside and have some fun with the kids (I'll be sure to have this philosophy during the school year as well). My dream is to be THAT cool teacher. Time will tell my friends!... Or I can just tell you all that I am that cool teacher and you'll just have to take my word for it. Mwuhaha! : ) We also had an awards ceremony to give the top 3 students certificates and textbook prizes in each class. It was a really great way to show our appreciation for our students' effort and cooperation while we (sometimes) struggled to figure out how to be a teacher.

With the ending of summer school also came the ending of week 9 of pre-service training, which is both exciting and nerve raking. This past weekend we took a trip to Freetown. It's this magical place where you can find everything you can possibly want in life... or so we've been told for the last 2 months. I would ask, "Where can we find good American/Americanized food?" Response: "Freetown." I would ask, "Where can you buy a Biology textbook in this country?" Response: "Freetown." Literally, anything that we would ask about during training, "Freetown" was always the response. So needless to say, we were pretty stoked to be going to the foreigners' heaven of Salone.

We arrived on Saturday and received a tour of the many lorry parks where we will be getting transportation out of Freetown when we come to visit. We then received a tour of the Peace Corps office compound. All the buildings were really nice on top of this hill overlooking the city and the ocean. YES, the Atlantic Ocean -- I waved to all of you on the other side! We then headed to our country directors' apartment for some delicious dinner and mingling time. After the meal, I almost had a heart attack when a tray of brownies started floating around. Just imagine vultures on a dead antelope, where there are dozens of vultures and one small carcass. The same image can be said for the SL Peace Corps trainees and these ohhh soo gooooood chocolatey brownies. OK, I need to change topics.

Sunday, I headed to the beach with some of my padi dem (friends). I enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of the nearly empty beach. I then headed into town with one of my friends, Amy, to hunt down a gas stove. Unfortunately, all the stores with stoves were closed, but we wandered around just for the fun of it. Getting around a big city in a foreign country without a clue to where we were going/doing was surprising pretty easy! Well, let me clarify, it was easy because we were assisted by fellow Sierra Leoneans who would approach us when our faces were scrunched up in confusion. People were so friendly not only giving us directions to places, but would walk with us the entire way somewhere and would pay for our poda-poda rides. Now that's hospitality I can get used to!

We managed to get a mini-van ride on the way back to Makeni. 11 people snug in the van made for an interesting 4 hour ride. We shared stories, sipped on some gin that we bought on the side of the road, and laughed about how ridiculous it was that an African woman was pretty much sitting on Drew's lap. Ohhh such is Africa! As our director of programming and training said in the beginning of training, "Some of your best times and some of your worst times during your service will be with transportation." So true.

This week is our last week of training, ah! Not going to freak. Not going to freak out. Not going to freak out. It's hard to believe that I will be all by my lonesome in my village at this time next week. I will be desperately trying to make friends, figuring out how to cook in this country, and preparing for teaching (wish me luck!). It's a little overwhelming to think I will be losing the crutch of my companions, but also exciting that I will becoming a volunteer, meeting some of what I'm sure will be wonderful people, and living out the mission of the Peace Corps.

I swear in on Friday (KaitB's birthday-yay!) then all of the trainees are going to have ONE HUGE celebration. One, because we'll officially be volunteers and two, because we won't have a curfew. Time to go cRaZy!

I don't have internet in my village and I'm not sure where the closest internet cafe is, so this might be my last post for a while. :( Don't cry though and have no fear, because I still have paper and pen... and will have A LOT of downtime. So you peeps better be checking your mailboxes and sending me some of the PA gossip train! Well, that's all she wrote.

"Big gulps, eh? Welp, see ya later!" - Dumb and Dumber

Just kidding! I have a quote that's a tiny bit more profound than that - not by much...

"I can do no great things in life, only small things with great love." - Mother Theresa

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Grooving under the African Moonight

The past two weeks have been GREAT in Salone! When life is “great” in Africa, it usually means that the highs have been outweighing the lows. Let me break it down for ya…

One recent high was receiving my first package full of Latrobe Bullentins, peanut butter, and toilet paper. Now I ask you, what more can a girl ask for? (Thanks Ma and Pa!) Another high was having fun food day twice last week. We usually have one day a week at training when we are not served rice and plasas; therefore, those days are appropriately named “fun food days.” We also had a talent show on Friday of that week with all of the trainees and the staff. Some examples of the “talent” that was demonstrated by my peers were “magic” tricks, impressions and someone even made a pterodactyl noise (what a weirdo!).

Summer school also began last week. This experience has been a combination of highs and lows. I actually feel like a teacher, which is great, because that’s kind of why I’m here – uhh I think. I feel most like a teacher when I hear my students calling me “Ms. Rachel” or when I have to kick kids out of the class for mocking my American accent. I was never a teacher in the States, but I’m just going to go out on the limb here and say that teaching in Salone is very different than teaching in America. My classes for summer school are fairly small compared to the standard African classes (I have about 30 students now and will probably have about 70 students in each class in Madina – God Help ME!). I have to speak very slowly as most of my students know English as their third language and also no one can understand my darn Pittsburghuese.

Another issue with teaching in Salone is the structure of the classes. Usually a class consists of the teacher writing notes on the board, the students copying the notes into their notebooks (sidenote: hardly anyone has textbooks, so these notebooks are their textbooks and they go CRAZY about making their “textbooks” perfect – very frustrating as a teacher), the students memorize the notes and then regurgitate random bits of information on their 2 exams on the term. And voila, they get a grade based off those 2 tests. The students are not accustomed to homework, group work, in class activities/games, or actually critical thinking in any way. I guess I was feeling a bit ambitious the first day and thought I could get away with straying away from this system. I split my classes up into groups of two. We were going to be learning about the classification of matter, so I wanted each student to ask their partner three simple questions to demonstrate how we classify different people. After I explained the activity, I got the blank stares of doom that every teacher dreads. It was if I asked the students to explain Quantum Theory and that their final grade for my class depended on their response. Let’s just say I have my work cut out for me when the school year begins. The whole purpose of summer school is to help us figure out what the hell we’re doing, so this kind of experimentation is a little necessary. I already think I am starting to improve even after two weeks – uh, hopefully!

I’m going a little out of order, but let me tell you about this past weekend before I get to the biggest high of them all! We had a girls night on Friday night. We pigged out, gossiped, and the current volunteers even gave us all these traditional tribal waist beads that are suppose to give us dat African booty we’re all working towards. After we had our gal time, we met up with all of the guys at this club. African clubs are the bomb diggity! Yesterday we had a wine and cheese party, so obviously my bowels were going all kinds of crazy! Today I conquered Wusum Hill again, but still had some small little buggers guide me up and carry me done. So it goes…

I’ll briefly describe some of the lows: baby cockroaches invading my bed sheets, 75% of my students trying to cheat on my first exam, and developing a funky skin rash on my arm. The source is still unknown, but I don’t have to get my arm amputated so knowing the source doesn’t really matter. : )

Okay, okay let me try to hold back my excitement as I tell you about the best night in Salone (so far..)! My bumpin’ birthday jam was off the hookizzle!!! So back in the States, I liked to do things BIG – I think that’s a quality I get from Subby. I guess I just wanted to show Sierra Leone what “doing it big” really means for me.

The date was set, the location was identified, and the invitations were extended. My host family did most of the preparations with the help of some of my suggestions. I awoke last Saturday a little earlier than usual (5 AM instead of 5:30 AM) to the sounds of my host mother running around the compound barking out cooking and cleaning chores to everyone. As the day went on and the time was coming closer to the kickoff of the party, I was getting pretty anxious and realizing how big of a deal this was becoming. Also, after seeing the written agenda for the party, I realized these people do not mess around with birthday parties. A circle of chairs and benches were set around a middle table. The table was for me and the two chairmen for the evening’s events – and yes, there were chairmen for my birthday party. Guests started arriving when a truck pulled up with DJs from a local radio show and all of their equipment. The program naturally began with Christian and Muslim prayers, speeches followed, and then there was the offering of the gifts. We enjoyed gin drinks, ginger beer, Salone Star beer, and my favorite, palm wine. We also ate delicious African food prepared by my family – fried rice, acheke, and rice bread. The rest of the evening consisted of dancing with my new Peace Corps friends and my new friends and family of Salone. We played both Sierra Leonean and American music in order to fully appreciate both cultures. I’m pretty sure the whole neighborhood, if not all of Makeni was in attendance. It truly was a wonderful evening in which I will never ever forget!

I opened my gifts the next day and the most popular items were soap, crackers, and these framed happy birthday prayers. Practicality, I like that! I was so touched by the generosity of my new friends and by the effort my family put in to making the day special for me. Many of the Sierra Leoneans I have met go above and beyond to make me feel welcome and included. I often hear “you are not American, you are a Sierra Leonean now.” Granted I usually hear this when I’m wearing the traditional, multi-colored lappa suit and sporting a fresh new plant (braids). People always say, “You be bluffing,” which means you’re trying to look fresh. Another statement I often hear is when people put their arms up against mine and say, “Look there’s no difference!” The thought is very much appreciated, but I know this is an exaggeration. I’ve already been in Africa for 2 months now and have not even developed a slight tan. +17 points for being one of the whitest of the limited white people here!

That’s all I got for you for now folks! Thanks for stopping by!! This time I’m going to leave you with a quote from my favorite stuffed animal – Winnie the Pooh. : )

“If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together, there is something you must always remember - you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart I'll always be with you.”

I love and miss all of you crazy Americans!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My village is cooler than yours!

This week has been very exciting, because all of the trainees went to visit their respective towns and villages where we’ll be serving for the next 2 years. Before we made our journeys across the country, we had a supervisor’s workshop. All of the principals at the schools we’ll be teaching at came to the training center. We had a bunch of sessions about the Peace Corps and our roles in the communities.

I traveled by poda poda to Madina with the principal of my JSS school. We had a paved road most of the way, but the last 25 miles was a rough, dirt road. I got to see the house I’ll be living – it’s really nice! It’s blue on the outside with pretty white flowers by the front porch. There are 3 bedrooms, a living room, a private courtyard, an indoor latrine, and a kitchen area. Perfect for me and my new little puppy (it was just born 3 weeks ago and will be ready to leave it’s mama by the time I leave for Madina)!

The principal of my SSS school was proctoring exams in the regional capital, but I did get to meet his family. His wife cooked for me while I was there on visit and boy, was it fine chop! The first night there I got to experience my first African soap opera (the principal’s family has a generator). The show was kind of like Young and the Restless and General Hospital… but just Africanized with kings, princes, and witches. In the show, the prince was going away to America for medical school. I found his one quote to be very ironic, “I’m leaving for America soon. You have no idea how hard it will be. I’ll be leaving everything I am familiar with. I’m leaving the hospitality of everyone I know. I’ll have to eat strange food.” Alright bucco, cheeseburgers and French fries aren’t that strange, so I don’t want to hear it!!

I walked around with the JSS principal and saw most of the town. Everyone kept yelling “welcome” and everyone seemed pretty eager to meet the new “Peace Corps.” The children didn’t yell “apoto” as I walked by them, but “fada.” There are catholic missionaries in the area and I guess they associate all white people with them. Yes, I am not only a man now, but a Catholic priest. How interesting Africa can be sometimes!

I met the head honcho himself – the paramount chief of the whole Thonko Limba chiefdom. He was really nice and told me how he had been to Philly before when he worked for and traveled around with the president (woohoo PA pride!). I also got a nice tour of my school. It’s pretty large with several classrooms, a hall (which is not functioning due to a leaky roof), and boarding rooms that some students live in during the school year. They have a building for the library, but the rebels stole all of the books during the war so now there are just boxes of some donations sitting in a room. They also had a nice house very close to the school for the Peace Corp volunteers that served before the war, but it was also destroyed during the war. Also, there are 30 teachers at the school and I’ll be serving as the only female teacher, woohoo represent!

I miss everyone so much! If you’re thinking about sending a package my way, I sent an email to my mom (SaMurray5@hotmail.com) with some ideas. I also heard a rumor that it only costs a dollar to send me a letter, so you should definitely do that. I’m homesick and want to know what I’m missing out in the States!

My address is:
Rachel Murray, Peace Corps Volunteer
c/o Peace Corps
P.O. Box 905
Freetown, Sierra Leone

Hope to hear from you soon!

This is what the vice principal of my school said to me when I met him on site visit, “I have to tell you that I am so happy to see, because it confirms to me that our country is truly and finally at peace.” : )

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Dysentery Blues

The laws of nature have wrecked havoc on my health. Dun dun dun… I got dysentery last week. I know – who would of thunk that you could get dysentery while not en route of the Oregon Trail. But atlas, my body officially experienced dysentery. Gruesome details aside – I am A-OK now and back in proper working order.

Onto other news, I found out where I am spending the next two years!!! I am going to Kambia District, where there are no current volunteers. I will be going to a medium-sized village with an estimated population of 5,000. No idea where that number came from, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt. The district is on the Guinea border in northwest Sierra Leone. I am living 9 miles of a paved road from one volunteer and 12 miles of an unpaved road from other. I was excited about that, so I can get me some American-fix once in a while. I am an hourish poda-poda ride away from the regional capital (Kambia), where I will do my banking and *cross fingers* hopefully use one of these dang machines once in a while.

I will be teaching in a Senior Secondary School (SSS), which is equivalent to our high school in the States. I’m still unsure which science I will be teaching (Biology, Chemistry, or Physics). I will probably talk with the principal to find a balance between what is needed the most and what I feel comfortable teaching.

So one of my favorite holidays has come and fast. Forth of July wasn’t the same this year. No parade down the streets of Latrobe. No party in my Aunt Jackie’s backyard. And no fireworks. : ( So sad! Okay, I’m done being dramatic. We made the 4th pretty fun considering our circumstances. We had a big party at a restaurant on Sunday and then had a big celebration at training on Monday. I ate a hotdog and watched a great game of soccer between my fellow trainees and Sierra Leonean PC staff (USA won, of course). Can’t complain too much with that combination!

I can’t believe it is Week 5 of training already. Time is surely flying in good ol’ Salone. There are a lot of things I’m looking forward to:

1. This weekend, we meet the principals of our schools and go with them to our villages. I will see my new house and the school I’ll be teaching in.
2. Summer school starts in 2 weeks, where I’ll put my big bad teaching skills to work.
3. My 22nd birthday is in 22 days… or as I choose to refer to this birthday – my 1st anniversary of my 21st birthday.
4. And on August 12, I will officially be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Trying to think of a good quote. Uh uh uh... "Keep it real USA." - The Rachel Murray

Monday, June 27, 2011

Why is my apoto skin sweating so much, yo?

I was looking back in my journal the other day and came across my last entry from when I was in Tanzania. The last line read, “God willing I will return to Africa someday.” Well, nearly two years later I have found myself in that very situation.

So, I am wondering where I should begin with my story? Most great writers start from the beginning, so I shall follow in their footsteps:

My adventure began in Chicago where I met the 48 (now 47 – miss you Jaci!) other Americans who I would share this once in a lifetime experience with. We boarded the plane as recent college grads and workers from every stretch of the imagination, and we landed in Sierra Leone as “Salone 2 (Sierra Leone in Krio and 2 for being the second group of volunteers since the civil war).” Plane, bus, and ferry rides later we found ourselves in the nation’s capital, Freetown. Driving through the dark streets, there were people everywhere, motorbikes swerving through the masses, and garbage cans filled with open fires… in other words, pure and utter chaos.

The next couple of days were spent in orientation. Unfortunately, we were isolated to the hostel and the adjoining National Football Stadium, so we weren’t able to see much of the city. We were given the opportunity to visit the Vice President, which was a great honor. We were also exposed to our first traditional Salone dish – plasas with rice. The plasas is chopped leaves and peppers cooked in palm oil. Sometimes the dish is prepared with chicken, fish, or beef. The word “beef” is in essence mystery meat and I’m not talking about the high school cafeteria’s meatloaf. Beef could be cow, goat, monkey, bushmeat, or even…cat.

After a few days in Freeton, we headed to Makeni, the third largest city in Salone. As soon as we arrived, we had our adoption ceremony. I Was greeted by my host mama and my host sister who is about my age. After the ceremony, I walked hand in hand with my new family to gather my luggage. I knew I was in Africa when my sister effortlessly heaved my 45 lb. suitcase onto her head and smiled at me like this was normal for me to see.

Our home is modest with no running water and electricity, but comfortable nonetheless. There is a large veranda where the family spends most of their day. In Sierra Leone, it is common to live with many members of your extended family and my home situation struck true to this tradition. There are several rooms in the house, but only myself and the grandmother get our own rooms. The kitchen is a shed-like area, where meals are made over open fire pits.

I have an outdoor latrine, which has served as a major obstacle in my adjustment. The problem is that no one uses toilet paper here – seriously hardly anyone! For number 2 situations, a technique called “kettling” is utilized where there is a pot of water and uh… well, I still haven’t quite figured it out yet. I managed to find some toilet paper in the market and splurged until I master these kettling ways. Another issue with the latrine is the family of 2 inch long cockroaches that have inhabited it. We’ve been amicable thus far, but I refuse to let my guard down.

My latrine is adjacent to my bathing area, where yes I take bucket baths. Water can be found in the water well in our backyard. Walking to my latrine/bathing area has served as an interesting part of my day. Here’s the thing, in Sierra Leone, greetings are HUGE! So as I walk the couple yards to my latrine in the morning I hear “Anchurno (my African name) aw yu slip? Aw di bodi? Aw di monin?” at least 6 times. Also, when walking the streets of Makeni, all I can hear is “apoto! Apoto!” coming from swarms of children that try to follow and touch me and from men and women from their porches trying to get me to come and talk to them. “Apoto” means white person, which usually is a term used more for curiosity and excitement than something to be offended of.

I have come to realize that I am my neighborhood’s evening entertainment. Heck, on my first night with my family, they put me in a chair in front of the porch and before I knew it there were about 30 pairs of eyes gather around me checking out the new apoto. Everyone laughs at everything I do from fetching water to brooking (laundry by hand) to cooking to attempting Krio and Temne (the local language here).

My family and neighbors also laugh when I sing and dance. I reassured them that everyone in America dances like this and that I am actually the best dancer from my country. No one spoil the truth! I taught the children two songs, “Do you believe in Magic?” (which probably isn’t culturally appropriate since most people believe in witchcraft… more about that later) and “Jingle Bells.” I have also played some interesting games with the children like “Catch the Apoto” and “Hit the Apoto with the Makeshift Ball.”

Besides the ridiculous amount of children.. everywhere, there also a great deal of animals (cats, chickens, and the occasional African dog) that roam in and out of my home. There really aren’t pets here, but rather dinner or animals that just hang around. My family laughs when I try to pet the cats. They asked me to name one, so naturally I named her “Latrobe” and told my family that is the name of my village in America.

My family Muslim, but it was no problem when I told them I am a Christian. Religion is also very big here – they don’t believe that there are atheists. Asking about my religion was the second question my family asked me. Luckily, there is an overwhelming religious tolerance here.

I’ve been to the market quite a few times. The way I like to describe the market is New York City during rush hour where there are no traffic laws and the cars are actually bodies. There’s also a variety of odors and usually gets really dusty so it’s hard to see. Basically, I look like a chicken with it’s head cutoff.. oh, headless chicken – that’s aisle 5. I have been having trouble eating the food mostly due to the spiciness, the unknown meats, and the fact that locals eat it everyday for every meal. In spite of this, a couple of weeks ago I walked very, very far for a small pack of oreos. And guess what, I don’t even like oreos that much in America – ha! So it goes in Africa.

Training has been going fairly well. Our days are filled from 8 am – 5 pm with language classes, cross-cultural training, and learning on how to teach exactly in Salone. I taught my first lesson in a JSS (middle school) Muslim school. It was basically practice for us, so I taught the little kiddies the Organization of Life (going from cells to organisms). They seemed pretty responsive to my lesson, and yes I made up a catchy jingle to help them remember the order (but unfortunately ran out of time!). It got me really excited to teach and I’m glad summer school is quickly approaching. I’ll write more later about the differences between schools here and in America, but that will probably be its own blog.

I’m running out of time on the computer, so I’ll just make a list of some other fun things I’ve been doing/experiencing:
1. Playing basketball = whites vs. blacks. We won!
2. going to church with my friend = I have no rhythm
3. walking up a nearby mountain = turned into rock climbing basically = had 6 children essentially carrying me down
4. my aunt gave a “money witch” 50,000 leons because she said she could turn it into 50,000,000 leons… we never saw the witch again
5. 10,000 leons = highest form of currency = $2.50
6. learned a lot about the cause of the war and the major events, but haven’t talked about people’s personal experiences yet
7. fat = fine
8. eeeee boooo = sorry (in Krio – it’s really fun to say, try it.. now!)
9. around 900 of the 10,000 roads are actually paved here = the roads the dare devils of Western Pennsylvania wouldn’t even “off road” their quads on

Okay, so I know there’s a bunch of typos and parts that don’t make that much sense, but I’m out of time!

Here’s my first parting quote from Salone:

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” – I think this sufficiently defines why I am sitting in the middle of the Sub-Saharan Africa… and I’ve come to terms that I am crazy for signing up for this.

Miss and love you soooooo much! : )

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Busy May: Graduation and European Adventures

On May 1, 2011, I officially became an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh.  I joined the masses and stepped bright-eyed into the "real world."  With significant plans ahead, I was feeling anxious for the new chapter in my life to begin (and admittedly, a little scared of what was about to come).  My time at Pitt was everything a student could ask for in college.  I met a lot of wonderful people; however, what was more important to me was that a few number of all those wonderful people will remain to be my friend for years to come (no matter what country I will be calling home).  I took interesting classes taught by world-renowned professors.  I got involved and remained committed to the organizations that truly sparked my interest.  I was able to familiarize myself to Pittsburgh and grew to love it.  I will miss college and everyone that I associate with Pitt.  I'll miss getting ready for nights out with my girlfriends (and will never forget their generosity for letting me borrow ALL of their clothes), the countless hours spent in the library, struggling to wake up early on Saturday mornings to volunteer for Habitat, working at the Children's Hospital, and everything that came in between.  I survived college with only a few minor battle wounds and enough stories to last me a lifetime.  I'm grateful for all of my experiences at Pitt and will treasure them in times of loneliness in Sierra Leone.  I got the degree that I truly worked very hard for and now I can move on with confidence in who I am and who I am about to become.

After college was all said and done, what's the best way to celebrate breaching this momentous milestone? Well, a trip of course!  Merely a week after I put that cap and gown on, I was suited up with a backpack twice my size and boarding a flight to Europe with five of my best friends from college.  I couldn't have picked a better crew: Brian (the leader), Julia (the breakfast sandwich lover), Mary Ann (the spirit angel), KDKA (the itchy one), and Smoof (the competition).  In two and half weeks, we visited some of the most beautiful cities in the world: Paris, Barcelona, Vienna, Bratislava, Venice, Florence and Rome.  While each city supplied a countless amount of historical landmarks, stunning displays of art and architecture, and yes, tourist-filled streets, the experiences (the good, the bad, and the crazy) are what will stay with me from this trip.  We were fortunate enough to meet some great (and interesting) people from all over the world.  I could go into all the wild details, but you'll just have to wait until my memoirs are published.  From pickpockets to the Jersey Shore to everyone's ONE mistake, we had a blast and can all honestly say it was a trip of a lifetime!

On an unrelated note, I'm leaving for Sierra Leone in 4 days.  Am I ready?  No.  I'm hoping to have a post in the very near future about expectations and preparations before I take the big trip, so keep your eyes peeled for that one.

I shall leave you all with one of my favorite quotes from my European backpacking trip.  I suppose this shall be my signature closing - quotes.  Doesn't every great blogger has a signature closing?

French basketball player: "What do you do in the United States?"
Mary Ann Murphy: "Oh, born and raised - 22 years."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

First Post Ever!!!

Kushe Pady! : )

That's Krio and is spoken by 97% of Sierra Leoneans.  It means "hello friend."  And Sierra Leone, well that's where I'm headed to in 45 days.

WOW! 45 days... that's quickly approaching.  Welp, this is my first blog post EVER.  I wanted to write a post now, so I could comment on preparing to leave, expectations, and all that wishy washy stuff.

I could start with why I'm going?  That's a good start, right?  Welllll, there's this American volunteer program run by the U.S. government (err, hence my disclaimer up yonder^^^) called the Peace Corps.  The program is 27 months and the government sends volunteers all over the world to work in a variety of sectors (governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in education, hunger, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment).

I've known for a very, very long time that this program was something I wanted to be apart of.  I applied in June of 2010, received my nomination in September of 2010 and then finally just received my invitation to serve in Sierra Leone a couple of weeks ago.  Needless to say, I AM SOOO EXCITED!!!  I will be a secondary education science teacher.  Science meaning Biology, Chemistry, and Physics (ew).


So, I guess another bit of background we need to get out of the way is why the Peace Corps??  Well, I've been asked more times than I count and it has been difficult to put into words.  Here goes nothing I s'pose!  I grew up in a wonderful, loving family in a small town in Western Pennsylvania, Latrobe (also known as the best (technically) city in the world).  I loved my life and felt so fortunate with the opportunities that I had.  I followed my two older brothers, Ryan and Sean, to the University of Pittsburgh, which is only 45 minutes away from my lovely Latrobean home.  It was amazing to meet people from all over country and to hear about their experiences.  I loved these conversations and took this interest into my studies with deciding to pursue a Global Health certificate along with a Neuroscience major, Chemistry minor, and two other certificates, African Studies and Conceptual Foundations of Medicine.  I was so glad that Pitt had these types of classes, but I wanted something more.  I didn't just want to learn about other cultures - I wanted to experience them.  Not moving so far away from my sheltered life in Latrobe, I felt as if I was living in a bubble and as if I was the only one who could pop that bubble.  I thought the first step to popping this bubble was studying abroad.  I walked into the study abroad office and decided to go to Tanzania (pretty much because it sounded SO different).  I got accepted into the program and did research in a rural Tanzanian hospital.  I think that's when my traveling spark truly began.  My experiences in East Africa opened up my eyes to whole new world.  After living in a third world country, I didn't just want to talk to my friends about the problems in the world -  I wanted to do something about it.  I wanted to be a voice for people that didn't think they have a voice.  I wanted to be that person that hugged someone when the rest of the world turned their backs.  I wanted to be that lending hand where ever, whenever and for whoever needed it!


I knew in my heart that my life was to be a life of service.  In high school, I was constantly volunteering for something - Relay for Life, CropWalk, the Rockdown.  I started to shy away from volunteering a little in my freshman year.  I was still volunteering, but just not as much.  I went on a Alternative Spring Break to Tennessee to build trails freshman year and wanted to go on another one sophomore year.  My roommate, Kat, was doing a Habitat for Humanity trip and asked if I wanted to join.  It might sound cliche, but I don't care - that trip changed my life.  I loved everything about it.  I loved the people I had the pleasure to work with in Georgia, the friends I made, the fact that we built a house for a family in great need in a week, and the mission behind Habitat.  After that trip, I became extremely involved in Habitat and went on 2 more spring break trips and travelled to El Salvador for a Global Village trip.  It was through Habitat for Humanity that fully confirmed to me that I was put on this Earth to help others.


So, that answer was a little long winded, but I hope you understand that I'm not crazy for picking up and leaving for 2 years.  I love my life and I love all my amazing friends and family.  I thank God everyday not for the things that I have (those are nice though!), but for the people that are in my life that are truly beautiful inside and out.  The most difficult part about leaving is saying good-bye.  I am reassured when I think of the love in my heart for these people (you know who you are) and believe that they also have that love for me.


My first post EVER is getting so long already.  I'm done rambling for now, but before I head out I'd like to put a quote from Milliard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity.  This quote is how I want and plan to live for today and for the rest of my life.


"We must put faith and love into action to make them real, to make them come alive for people." - Milliard Fuller