Wednesday, October 3, 2012

HELP! School Library Refurbishment Project!


I am trying to raise money to refurbish my school's library.  We want to build new shelves, buy new books, cement the floor, and install windows and locks.  Here is a little write-up about the project:

Over a decade ago, the library at our local secondary school served as a quiet room for students to study and for teachers to plan lessons. The library was well-equipped with the needed reference materials, globes and other useful educational resources. Sadly, during the Sierra Leonean civil war, members of the rebel army pillaged the library leaving the once fully stocked room in ruins. Today, our school wants the memory of that library to become a reality. Although we are grateful for the donated books we have recently received, the students are in great need of the local comprehensive books specific to their respective subject areas. Many students are not able to afford these books that teachers use in class and are therefore ill-prepared for their examinations. Earlier this year, the donated books were being arranged on the current shelves when the wood suddenly broke under their weight. Also, during an attempt to renovate the library, laborers were placing a layer of cement on the floor to smooth the uneven surface, were replacing the locks, and were fixing the broken glass on the windows and doors. Funds did not suffice to complete the project and currently the school does not have the financial means to completely resolve these problems. With the help of the Peace Corps Partnership Program, the library will be refurbished in a short amount of time and will again serve its full purpose as it did before the war.

If you are willing to donate, please go to the following website:

Every little bit helps.  Thanks everyone!! : )

Welcome to the world Rachel Conteh

 Hello All,

Life is good back in my usual stomping grounds!  When I got back from my summer shenanigans, I had to do some major cleaning in my house, which meant I checked for rats and swept away the cobwebs. 

Not sure if I’ve mentioned before, but I got a new neighbor from this batch of Salone 3 Volunteers.  Of course, we had to throw a party for him to welcome him to the best district, Kambia United.  A bunch of friends were able to make it to Madina for the festivities.  We bought a couple gallons of palm wine, because you know it isn’t a party until you do.  Just disregard the bugs floating at the top of the sweet white liquid – they’re extra protein!  We fired up the coal pot and made some burritos and corn on the cob, yummy!  And you really know it isn’t a Peace Corps party until you stay up ‘til three in the morning discussing moral dilemmas and developmental issues.  Also, on the agenda for that evening was to “force” our new friend to get some traditional tribal markings.  (You might be wondering, “Traditional tribal markings, huh?”  Stay tuned.)  I talked to a woman about getting the marks who then talked to a man who talked to another man to arrange the work.

Unfortunately, our man, Unisa, didn’t show… until the next afternoon.  We bought our own razors and Unisa came with the medicine.  He said he had to get the medicine from the bush.  I’m not entirely sure, but I think the medicine was charcoal dust.  (Activated charcoal actually has medicinal purposes, which I learned while reading the “Where There Is No Doctor” book.)  Anyways, our man, Unisa, takes the razor and makes slits in your skin and then jams the medicine into the fresh wounds.  I affectionately call the marks Limba Lines, but they’re not specific to the Limba tribe.  If you get the marks above your waist, they will protect you from dying from something called a witch gun.  If you get them below your waist, they will protect you from dying from a snakebite.  The marks exemplify how traditional beliefs in witchcraft are heavily rooted in Sierra Leonean culture.  Unisa sliced me up on my back and my ankles.  When he was doing the ankles, it legitimately felt like he was carving into my bone.  OUCH!  There’s a nice video of Unisa marking my one ankle and let’s just say I’m not speaking like a true lady so I won’t be showing that to any of you. : )  After I told my parents about my marks, Subby reminded me of my nationality, “Just don’t forget you are an American, not an African.”  But they call me Yainkain, Mom!

After church one day, I headed into town to have a semi-cold pop.  I was sitting there enjoying some pleasant conversation with the one Indian man in town when all of a sudden, I hear a lot of commotion from the center of town.  Guys were zooming around on their motorcycles with megaphones blaring gibberish and horns honking strange melodies.  People decked out in green from head to toe were dancing in the street.  Once I saw the green I knew exactly what was going on.  We are in the heat of the political season as the presidential election is quickly approaching.  One of the main political parties, Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), is associated with the color green.  It was very strange to see a SLPP demonstration in my northern town, which is predominately comprised of All People’s Congress (APC) followers.  I quickly learned that the SLPP flag bearer and president-wanna-be was rolling through town.  It isn’t a true Sierra Leonean extravaganza unless you have a traditional devil make an appearance.  This particular devil was on stilts and I was very nervous one of the men with a megaphone in one hand and a plastic gin packet in the other was going to bump him.  As I was sitting there observing the crowd, people kept on telling to me, “I like your color” or “You support SLPP.”  I was a little confused at first because the dress I was wearing was blue, but then I realized the hand fan I was using was green.  Of course...  I kept on saying, “I’m not a part of your political party, I’m just hot.”  After about ten of these exchanges, I figured it was my time to go home.  Later on in the day, I wanted to go for a run, so I asked my neighbor where the crowd would be and assured me they would be at the Court Barrie.  Well, I ended up running right into the middle of the crowd and stopped to ask one of my students where this SLPP dude was.  She told me he still hadn’t come (this was 6 hours later).  Turns out he never showed up that day; thus, the green people did not go to bed pleased that night.  Nonetheless, it seemed to me that they still had a good time with their megaphones and their dancing devils.

Despite all of this fun, I swear I’ve been working too!  Before the school year began, we had a staff meeting, which turned out to be pretty productive.  The principal assigned everyone their classes.  I told him a couple of weeks ago I want to move up with my classes.  I will be teaching JSS 3 (9th grade) Integrated Science and SSS 2 (11th grade) Biology.  To spice things up this year I’ve added SSS 1 (10th grade) Mathematics.  I will also be the “Form Mistress” a.k.a. the homeroom teacher for one of the SSS 1 classes.  We also discussed the cholera epidemic in Sierra Leone.  My principal decided that the first day of school was going to be devoted to cholera sensitization.   Nothing like talking about some of the runs to start off the school year!  But in all seriousness, it’s a huge problem here in Sierra Leone.  And by huge problem I mean it’s an epidemic that has wreaked havoc in every district and unfortunately hasn’t reached its peak yet.

After my cholera talk on the first day of school, I tried to catch up with my students after our three month separation.  I asked them what they had done over the holiday.  One of my best SSS 2 students said, “I went to Freetown over the holiday, but I had a bad experience there.  I was accused of impregnating a girl.”  Hmm… I had to ask, “Well ___, is it true?”  “Yes.”  Welcome back Ms. Rachel!

Likewise, I learned that the president for my girls club got pregnant over the break and won’t be coming back to school.  On top of that, the secretary failed, so she’s transferring schools.  Just in case you are wondering, my student did not impregnate the girls club president… at least I don’t think so.  I am really disappointed in my students.  Although I know mistakes happen and sometimes the students want to get pregnant, they completely disregard how important their education is.  I think this year I am going to devote some more time to sexual reproductive health.  This pregnancy business has got to stop!
The other day after school I was doing my afternoon chores when I heard several people in the compound laughing.  I go to the back to find a bunch of neighborhood kids surrounding a monkey on a leash.  One of them looks at me and says, “Luk Rachel, i de timap lek mortal man.” (“Look, he stands like a human being.”)  Poor little guy was being tortured.  I tried to feed him some of my spaghetti, but he wouldn’t agree.  I asked the young owner what his name is – Bingo.  Hopefully if Bingo sticks around, we can become buds.

The last weekend I headed to Makeni to celebrate one of my friend’s birthdays.  It was a great time and best of all, no one got thiefed, woohoo!!  Aaand the most recent good news, my namesake, Rachel Conteh, was born last week!!  My old neighbor and tailor gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and with some (small) provocation from me decided to name her Rachel.  We had a small Pul-Na-Do (naming ceremony) a couple of days ago.  The chief and some village elders came to perform the ceremony, which consisted of Islamic prayers, whispering into the babies ears, sharing of bread and kola nuts, and shaving little Rachel’s head.  Later in the evening, I came back to pierce her ears.  Boy oh boy, we got a tough cookie on our hands – she didn’t even cry!  Here are some pictures from that wonderful day:

Thanks for reading as always!  I’m sure this school year will be nothing short of interesting.  Take care meow.

‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson



Sunday, September 2, 2012

Epic Trip #2

Hello World,
How are you today?  Great?!  I sure do hope so!  So let me see, when did we last chat?  I think I left off at the wedding.  After that spectacular event, I stayed a little while in the Peace Corps Hostel in Freetown for a very specific cause.  I locked myself in a dimly lit room to think about the future... DUN DUN.  I did some research on the internets and the verdict is in… DUN DUN.  I am going to follow my childhood dreams to become a bus driver.  Some might say, “why?”  And I might say, “So I can drink pop whenever I want.”  (Sabrina and Michael restricted my pop intake as a child for obvious reasons if you knew me in my youth.)
Anyways, that mambo jambo doesn’t have anything to do with me being in the Peace Corps or Sierra Leone or finding the meaning of life while I hang out with African people, because I assume one of those subjects is what brings you to this blog.  After some contemplation time, I went to visit a friend in his village.  He lives in one of the smallest villages in our group and it was cool to see how he lives compared to how I live in Madina.  His village is right along a river and has beautiful swamps where everyone does their farming.  He even has his own peanut farm!  After that I headed to a small village outside a larger town in the north, Port Loko, to volunteer at a summer school for primary school kids with two of my girlfriends.  We did some simple activities with them, but a formal school wasn’t really happening and the girls had a lot of chores to do throughout the day.  One the cute little girls said (and I quote), “Look at the louse.  It goes waka wake (walk) on wi head.”  Nothing like a little lice to spice up your hairstyle.  : ) We, the Pisko ticha dem, always have our expectations low, so we still ended up having a blast despite the lice and downtime.

Tough girls from the school

Some of our new friends
After that shindig, I headed BACK to Bo for another week of being a Resource for Salone 3’s training.  I liked that I had another chance to get to know the newbee’s and to see how pumped they were to move to their communities and start teaching.  The Peace Corps had a formal ceremony for the new volunteers to swear them into service, but the real fun came after the ceremony.  The Salone 3ers had their little dinner than us Salone 2ers met up with them for the dancing part.  There was also a special appearance by DJ Ray a.k.a. I stole the microphone from the club’s DJ booth and broadcasted my feelings about the new volunteers… for the entire night.  I also won the Hat Trick competition (that’s an inside joke that I will fill only my closest of friends in on when I’m stateside again).  Good times! 
During the last couple weeks, I’ve had to say good-bye to most of the Salone 1 volunteers.  Those guys were a bunch of characters doing some amazing work in this country and it was a big hit to have them go.  I know they’re going to do well back in the land of cheeseburgers and apple pie.  Cheers to you Salone 1 and the path you paved for us and future volunteers in Sweet Salone!
After Bo we headed to the third largest city, Makeni, where we had our training a mere one year ago.  I stopped by my host family’s house to greet them and present them with some Bo gari (pounded cassava root).  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the happiest of reunions.  My papa told me that everyone was at the funeral of the 2 year old boy, Raymond, we lived with.  He had just died that day and no one knew what happened.  He was such a cute little boy who was always smiling.  Again, I found myself in a situation where I didn’t know what to say or what to do and sadly not due to any cultural differences.  My heart goes out to Raymond’s family and all of the other families who can relate to their pain.
Abi and her son, Raymond

Raymond with a : )

We checked into our guesthouse, which some might describe as a crack den.  I’m pretty sure it was one of those classy places that charge by hour.  But times are rough and the living ain’t always easy, so we ignored the odor of urine on the pillows, the toilet bowl full of used condoms, and the small luggage locks that were used to protect our valuables and cozied in. 
Today happened to be a big Islamic holiday called Eid-Ul-Fitr also commonly known as “pray day.”  For those of you not too well-versed in Islamic traditions, there is an entire month devoted to fasting, praying, and you know, trying to be a better Muslim called Ramadan.  It takes place through most of August and during this time, Muslims cannot eat, drink (including water, ah!), have sex, curse, be violent, or have impure thoughts during daylight hours.  I’m pretty sure the violence and cursing is supposed to be all day long, but you get the point.  Obviously people aren’t eating or drinking all day, so they can get a little cranky.  Anyways, the best part about Ramadan (in my opinion) is the end, pray day, because after everyone has a big ol’ pray session in the morning they party all day long.  There’s lots of food, lots of soccer, and lots of bluffing, which defines having a good time in this culture, which is definitely A-OK by me. 
Anywho, after the experience with my host family and the fact that we were staying in what could also be described as a condemned ghetto tenement, we should’ve known that this night was not going to be the best of times.  In fact, it turned out to be the exact opposite, the worst of times.  WithOUT that in mind, we headed out to some social establishments to celebrate the Muslim holiday.  While outside in a crowded area in a matter of about three minutes five people were robbed or as we say here, thiefed (pronounced “teefed”).  Alas, I happened to be one of the victims.  I was standing on the street trying to message someone and three guys ran up behind me, snatched my phone for my hand and ran across the street into the darkness.  Cool.  Along with my phone (that had a really cool blue cover and said “Hail to Pitt” on the main screen), a purse, money, a wallet, and a pack of cigarettes were accounted for our losses.  We decided to hightail it out of there and went to another social establishment.  The new place seemed a little bit less risky, but we were all in bad moods and decided to go back to the crack den. 
Before we went back, we HAD to get some street meat sandwiches and as I’m watching by candlelight my mysterious meat being grilled, a couple of guys run up to me, rip my purse off my body, and run off into the darkness.  It was the one of those passport purses that you’re supposed to wear under your clothes, but I was wearing a dress and that would be awkward.  However, it was over my shoulder and right in front of my waist.  Needless-to-say, I was stunned that I got thiefed not once but twice in about one hour.  I was also a little upset that I didn’t use better decision-making skills and go right back to the crack den after the first round of thiefing.  A couple of my friends did have the sense to go back a little earlier and informed us that they had been standing outside the gate in the rain for 45 minutes screaming at the sleeping guesthouse employees to let them in.  Instead of an employee, they were saved by a Guinean man who only spoke French and wasn’t too pleased that he was awoken from his sound stupor in the crack den.  As they’re telling us how they managed to get inside the den, I realized that my key for the luggage lock on our door was inside my purse… you know the one that just got thiefed?  Soooo, we had to break down the door and when I say “we” I really mean my man friend who is pretty strong but he didn’t really need to be.  To top off the night, our street meat sandwiches tasted like swamp…
The ferry to Kamakwie

And I saw this monkey!

From Makeni, we headed to two of my friends’ town, Kamakwie, which was only a short little eight hour poda poda ride on one of the worst roads in the country.  Yay! I really liked their town – mostly because there’s a lot of Limbas.  The highlight of that trip was the boys vs. girls Cranium competition and by no surprise, the girls won three rounds with no hindrance.  Although one of my nerdy friends said it wasn’t statistically significant until we beat them at least five times in a row I am still going to boast that girls are better than boys at Cranium – amongst other things.  Boo ya!  We had a great time and I was happy that the crew was going to be joining me on my way back to Madina.  In fact, my friend planned this little expedition and appropriately named it “Epic Trip #2.”  Epic Trip #1 didn’t actually happen, but we still called it #2.  We all made it to Madina safely.  I loved introducing my Peace Corps friends to some of my African peeps and showing them my town.  I started not feeling well that night, so it was difficult to play hostess but I still managed to make some dishes with food I brought back from America in May (that I was saving for an appropriate American time).
The next day I got them into a rugged-looking vehicle and literally pushed the car out of my town.  They were on their way to other parts of Kambia for a little Kambia United tour.  It was nice to have a couple of days in my town before I had to head back to Freetown for our Peace Corps Mid-Service Conference.  I also had to have my annual medical and dental check-ups.  Let me just say that seeing a dentist in the third world was not a pleasant experience – there might have been some violent banging involved.  Then, we had our conference, which served as both a reflection on the last year and a goal-setting time for the year to come.  As always, I got a lot of great ideas from my peers and can’t wait to see how they work out back in Madina.  Since we were altogether, we had to have some kind of function that involved drinking Star beers, wearing ridiculous clothes, and having a S.N.A.C.K. meeting (again, that last one’s an inside joke that I will fill only my closest of friends in on when I’m stateside).  My friend who also invented Epic Trip #2 came with the idea of a prom.  Some of us took prom more seriously than others liiiiiike me. : )  I asked one friend while he was in America via Facebook.  Then, I realized that we have more boys than girls in our group, so I was ever so kind to ask another friend to be my second date.  DRAMZ ensued.  My first date wasn’t too happy so he had the audacity to dump ME.  Let me just say, that the Rachel Ann Murray does not get dumped.  ROAR, so I asked another one of my friends and he agreed to be my second first date. 
School’s scheduled to start back up again September 10th and I’m looking forward to another year of being called Ms. Rachel.  This school break has been a lot of fun, but I’m a little exhausted from travelling and not being able to sleep in my own bed (and getting thiefed).  I also miss my neighbors, the teachers at my school, my students, people from church, and some other random people in my town I greet every day and sometimes eat rice with (a.k.a. friends).  It will be good to go back and get back into the ol’ routine for a little while.  Also, something I am sort of looking forward to is the upcoming parliamentary, counsellorship, and presidential election on November 17th, which Insha'Allah (“God willing” in Arabic) will be peaceful and diplomatic. : )
Well folks, that’s all I got for you.  I hoped you enjoyed reading about the Peace Corps, Sierra Leone, and finding the meaning of life while I hang out with African people.  As tradition holds, I am going to leave you with the words of someone more inspirational than yours truly…


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Normalcy of It All

Wali wali!  (A little Limba for ya!)
As the months pass, I find myself struggling to write these blogs.  I didn’t think I was getting lazier and I didn’t think people stopped reading my blog.  After some thought, I realized the problem was that life had become ordinary for me in Sierra Leone.  Although the awe-factor of “Rachel living in Africa” might still exist to many of you over there in the developed world, the life of malara-transmitting mosquito bites, poda-podas, and rooster wake up calls are not just a reality but are all normal to me now.  I struggle to write in this blog or even to talk to my parents on weekly phone calls, because now everything seems (to me) mundane and boring.  Speaking of my chats with my parents, I was telling them this problem a couple of weeks when shortly after we switched topics they asked me if I ever see monkeys.  I told them I see monkeys sometimes, but usually just in the market when people are trying to sell them to me so I can put them in my dinner.  They both started laughing and said that’s exactly the kind of stuff you can write about in your blog because that’s not normal… at least to us!  Long story short, I’ll continue to write, but I think it will be interesting to look at my attitude and reactions towards Sierra Leone when I first started writing compared to now, after being here for a year.  Life is still exciting here, but I’m finally fully comfortable in my home here and like to think of myself as half Sierra Leonean (a.k.a. Yainkain Murray).
Now that I’ve told you about my life being normal here, I can tell you about my life as a bug exterminator.  I think I’ve mentioned before about these repulsive cockroaches that have found their home in my latrine, but because of the rainy season they have multiplied!!  I had to tip-toe around them any time I walked into to go the bathroom.  Cockroaches really aren’t that bad until you’re trying to do business in the office (if you know what I’m saying) and they tickle your behind with their antennas – then they’re bad!  When I was getting way too much tickling in all the wrong places, I knew I had to put an end to it or rather put an end to them.  I bought some insect killer in the market and sprayed down the latrine.  All of sudden in swarms, like something out of a scary movie, the cockroaches came crawling out the latrine ready to destroy whoever was wreaking havoc on their home.  I hurriedly sprayed around the latrine area and shut the door.  Did you know cockroaches can fly?  Well, they can and good thing I was equipped with my newly American purchased fly swatter.  After several minutes of pure massacre, I opened the latrine door to kill off the rest.  Also, did you know that there are albino cockroaches?  Sick creepy crawlies.  I swept up about 50 cockroaches (not counting those that fell to their very stinky death).  What a great way to spend an afternoon!
Now that I’ve talked about some bug/animal, I’m sure you’re wondering about my health grievances.  Oh, you weren’t?  Well, I’m going to share anyways.  I had a little case of a sty a couple of weeks ago, but once that baby came to a head it was a walk in the park.  I had a little rash thingie on my arm, but that cleared up fine!  I took my splint off my wrist after wearing it for a month – had a bit of muscle atrophy, but nothing some wrist pumping can’t cure.  My ankle’s also doing better.  Actually, my ankle is doing so good that I started running again!
This brings me to something I want clarified.  The last time I went running was probably back in September, so about 10 months ago.  How much time has to lapse before you switch from saying “started running again” and “just started running”?  I think a year, which means I’m in the clear to say, “again.”  Alrighty, now that we’re on the same page, I want to illustrate what running is like in Sierra Leone.  I’ve gone running at some of my other friends’ villages, so I have a pretty good idea what it’s like everywhere.  I try to run in modest clothing, i.e. loose t-shirt and shorts that go pass my knees, especially in my town.  Everyone stares because they don’t understand why you would be using that energy to run to nowhere in particular when you could be using that energy to work on a farm.  No matter where you are, Freetown or a small village with the population of 30, people will yell random things at you and expect you to respond.  The latter is a little difficult for me to get a grasp on.  Like I said I just started running AGAIN, I’m a little more concerned about my failing leg muscles and my heavy mouth breathing than trying to respond to whatever this little lady with the saggy tatas is saying to me from her veranda.  Never-the-less, I try to be polite and give the universal five-finger greeting.  Some of the things that people say are pretty hysterical – here are some of the most common:
“Can I help you to exercise?”
“Thank you for jogging.”
“You look fresh.”
“Run faster!”
“How is your body?”
“Where are you going?”
“Can I come with you?”
“Oh white girl, you are so beautiful.”
And one of my favorites, “Come and eat!”

I’m sure I’ll have some interesting running stories as time goes on (and I keep running).  Like I said before, I’ve been visiting some of my friends since its school break and I have some more downtime.  I was in Kambia a few weeks back and my friend there is volunteering in the Government Hospital.  She gave me a short tour and we also had the opportunity to sit in and observe a nurse’s training.  It reminded me a lot of the hospital I worked in in Tanzania and brought back memories of the doctors and nurses I connected with there.

A few days later I headed to Bo for a cultural celebration for the fourth of July.  It was great to see the trainees again and see how much they’ve learned in their first month here.  We enjoyed some All-American cuisine as we were being entertained by local dancers and drummers.  The Sierra Leonean staff played a soccer game against the American trainees. – unfortunately, America lost. : (
I came back to Madina to take a break from travelling and relax.  I got caught up on my rain storm watching and reading!  When I’m in my town, my favorite time of day is in the late evening.  When I was working on the world map painting at my school, at this time the bats would start flying out of the classroom ceilings and I knew it was time to clean up.  Before the map project and presently, I usually take a walk or ride my bike around the town.  I like to do some serious people watching at this time. Families are gathered on their front porches distressing from the day.  Fathers are typically listening to B.B.C. or enjoying a cup of sweet palm wine.  Mothers are cleaning up from what activity they engaged in that day as the children are running around with their neighborhood friends laughing and making up games.  After my evening exercise, I try to take advantage of the last moments of daylight to take a bucket bath.  I then sit on my porch listening to the sounds of the Islamic prayers in the mosque.  My neighbor, Alhassan, usually comes over and we discuss our days.  After some time, I read and fall asleep to crickets chirping.  Sometimes I can hear the drumming and singing of the secret societies in the nearby bush or coming through the town.  Everything seems peaceful in the late evenings.  No matter what happened that day, people in Madina just want to relax before they sleep and start a new day of trading, farming, or however they spend their days.  I think many Americans forget what it’s like to sit in silence with your family or friends.  At the end of the day, it can be extremely calming to surrender yourself to the noises and distractions we are constantly experiencing and reflect on what happened that day and think about what is going to come the following day.
In other news, I am in Freetown now.  Before coming here, I went to Bo to represent the Peace Corps in a national science and mathematics education conference.  It was great to openly discuss some of the problems and brainstorm solutions regarding the education system here with the Ministry of Education people, exam council representatives, university officials, principals, and teachers from around the country.  That was all fine and dandy, but let me clue you in on my journey from Madina to Bo.  I boarded a poda-poda first thing in the morning (around 8 AM) in Madina.  I was the lucky one in the back in the seat that pulls out from the metal bench.  The journey to Kambia took 4 hours… we travelled 25 miles in 4 hours!!  The road is a lot worse due to the heavy rains.  Then we were also stalled because we had to make several stops in various villages along the way to pick up people and cargo.  Sometimes cargo can include live animals, like goats.  The apprentice heaved seven goats on top of the poda-poda and tied them down.  During our journey, I’m sitting there in my small space by the window enjoying some crackers when all of a sudden I feel some wetness on my head.  I look up and there is a flood of fluid coming out of a hole in the ceiling right above my head.  I hear the woman yelling, “Goat piss! Goat piss!”  Since we were (like always) packed like sardines I couldn’t move out of the stream of goat urine.  Just when I think my life can’t get any worse at the moment, what seems like rain starts spraying through the window into my face.  Goat urine all over me……..  This was a definitely an FML moment in Africa.  To make matters worse I didn’t arrive to Bo until 8 PM that night.  Yep, a nice 12 hour journey smelling like goat pee.  Such is life, right??
I also had another FML moment the other day in Freetown.  I was shopping downtown, walking down a very, very crowded street.  I go to take a step off the street onto the sidewalk when all of a sudden my foot and ankle sink into what I can only describe as sludge.  My dear friends, this was not the sidewalk, but a one-foot deep drain that was completely filled and clogged up with all the filth of the street.  Then, my flip-flop got sucked into the vortex of the sludge and I had to reach down… almost elbow deep to remove the shoe.  At this time, all the Sierra Leonean observers are staring and making sounds like, “Ehhhhh.”  Smooth, oh so smooth.
And last but not least, we had a very momentous occasion occur.  Two Peace Corps Volunteers in my group got married last Saturday.  Almost everyone from Salone 1 and 2 were there dressed to impress in Africana-wear.  It was a beautiful ceremony and we all had a great time dancing the night away to the beats of a local Reggae band.

Me, Lansana (my Limba teacher), and Christina (my Limba buddy)
That’s all I have for you meow!
Hope everyone is enjoying summer over there in that ol’ U.S.A.
I’m going to leave you with two messages today.  One I received from a Dove chocolate.  The other is from a classic movie I hope you all recognize.
“Smiling is free.” – Dove Chocolate
Cute girls from the neighborhood!

“My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.’” – Forrest Gump

Monday, June 25, 2012

Welcome to the good life

Kushe-o friends and foes!
I have found myself in Freetown again a little sooner than I had anticipated.  I had to get another X-ray on my wrist today.  It is officially broken, womp womp.
Since I wrote, 45 new volunteers have arrived.  YAY WELCOME!!  I spent a week and half with them helping with training.  The first couple of days were spent doing orientation at the National Stadium.  I even got to weasel my way in to meet the president, His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma.  After the visit to the president, the Ministry of Education hosted a dinner for the new volunteers and that night ended up being really fun – full of good food and dancing!  We then travelled to Bo where they are going to have their Pre-Service Training.  As we all were, Salone 3 was warmly welcomed by their host families.  The newbee’s were eager to explore the city and try out their Krio.
It was great to be a part of their training.  As I answered their never-ending questions about the Peace Corps and Sierra Leone and told them about my experiences, it was an truly affirmation of why I’m here.  I was invigorated when I was surrounded by these fresh, new perspectives - they were eager to learn everything possible about this wonderful country.  I kept reassuring them that they will learn so much in their own time and they didn’t need to know everything in the first couple of days, but hey, I was the same way!  As I look back on my last year here, I realize that I actually have been accomplishing something.  Although the something might be small and difficult to put into words sometimes, I realized as I was talking to the new volunteers how much knowledge I’ve gained about the world and myself.  Now if I can keep this positive attitude up for the year, I’ll be golden!
After Bo, I headed back to Madina to finish up the third and final term.  My school’s exams ended on Wednesday and I speedily graded my students’ final exams and turned in their final grades before I came to Freetown.  On my final exams, for bonus I had the students draw a picture of me.  Here is a picture from one of my best students in JSS 2.  I think it’s a picture of me teaching at least that’s what I’ve gathered by the drawn blackboard (with actual notes from one of my classes on balancing chemical equations, boo ya!) and the labeled chalk:

It’s been a relaxing and productive weekend in the capital.  I officially turned in two grant proposals that I’ve been working on for the last couple of months.  The one is for a national girls conference that a bunch of my friends and I are planning for December.  The other is a project to refurbish my school’s library.  The second one I need donations from people back home.  When the proposal is approved, I’ll post more details about the project if you’re interested in helping out my school!
I’m headed back to Madina tomorrow morning.  Hopefully my peeps haven’t forgotten about me since I’ve had to travel so much lately.  Then in two weeks I am headed back to Bo for a 4th of July cultural celebration that the Peace Corps is planning.  Hopefully all injuries will be avoided for this next Bo adventure (fingers crossed!).  As far as the rest of the summer break, I’m going to try to take advantage of the free time and visit some of my friends around the country and explore some other parts of Sierra Leone.  There is still sooo much to see.
I hope you all are doing splendidly where ever you find yourself as you read this.
All my love and hey.. even a little more than that. <3
Today I’m going to leave with a quote that my dear friend Dado sent me.  I think I mentioned her before – she’s just full of wisdom, this gal!

Monday, June 4, 2012

To America and Beyond!

Yo yo yo whut up??? DJ RAY IN DA HOUSE!

We have lots and lots to catch up on friends, so let’s dive right in: Way back in April, I had a two week break from school and choose to use it traveling around a bit. My journey started off out East in Kono District, where I met up with eight other boys at a friend’s village. It took me two days of travelling and seven different vehicles, including a taxi car, a poda poda, and a 12-wheeler shipping truck (still trying to figure out how that last one happened). Kono District is considered to be one of the roughest areas in the country. This area was where most of the diamonds were and is close to Liberia, both reasons causing it to be hit pretty badly by the Rebel Army during the civil war. While driving through the district capital, this was evident by the number of destroyed buildings and the conditions of the road. We did some major hiking and had a great time exploring another part of Sierra Leone. I’ll leave some details out just for my mother’s sanity. : ) Here’s a picture from that trip though:

After the expedition through the wild, wild East, we headed to Freetown, where unsurprisingly I ended falling a little ill. When my friend was purifying unfiltered stream water, he might have read the directions incorrectly for the aqua tabs. Apparently after you put the tabs in the water, you’re supposed to wait 30 minutes not 5 minutes. Who would’ve thought?? Anyways, after a little rest in the Peace Corps hostel, I was feeling just well enough to still carry on with my break plans and head to the beach, River No. 2. After taking in the picturesque view of white sand, swaying palm trees, and a background of forested mountains, a couple of us decided to try out one of their overly priced excursions called the “Waterfall Tour.” We hopped in a canoe… well, more so gingerly climbed aboard a canoe and paddled down the river – that is to say, River No. 2. Didn’t really spot any wildlife unfortunately, but eventually we came to a large gathering of rocks and our “tour guide” says, “Here’s the waterfall!” The thing is I’ve seen a couple of waterfalls in my lifetime and this was not a waterfall by any means. Then our “tour guide” explains that water comes over these rocks in the rainy season. There was no drop though, so I’m sure in the rainy season there is a “waterflow”, but now in the dry season we were just staring at a bunch of rocks. Such is advertising in Salone! There was a fresh water stream on the other side of the rocks where we were able to swim around and of course I thought this was the perfect opportunity to take some photos of my male friends modeling (See Facebook pictures if you dare). Despite the manager’s disapproval, we slept 12 people in one room the first night (“But sir, we’re poor, poor Peace Corps teachers. We no get money.”). The second day most people bolted back to Freetown mostly because of financial struggles, but I stayed with two friends and slept in a low-budget tent on the beach. : ) I woke up, took a shower in the ocean, and ate some fresh lobster for lunch. Ah, vacation in Africa.

I headed back to Freetown to meet up with the rest of those goons just in time for a Peace Corps conference. The conference was about life skills – how to teach the youth in our community the skills necessary to lead a healthy, successful life, like decision-making, communication, relationship, and goal-setting skills. We had about 20 volunteers come with a person from their community who they invited. I invited the vice principal of my school to the conference mostly because he reminds of Santa Claus… well, that is to say a black Santa Claus. He’s round and jolly and heck, who wouldn’t want to spend more time with blank Santa Claus. We even lead a session on why it’s important to delay sex. As practice, we gathered all the senior girls at our school and taught them the lesson. They’re constantly being told don’t have sex or use condoms, but they never are taught why it’s important, what are the long term consequences, and what are some of the strategies young people can use to delay sex. Fortunately, they were pretty perceptive to the lesson… that might have also been because they were getting out of the school’s cleaning day. Whatever! It was good they heard it and I enjoyed presenting the information again to my peers and their counterparts. I enjoyed the conference and got a lot of great ideas for my girls club and some other activities I want to do at my school.

The rest of my break was spent in Freetown on the beach, “junking”, and participating in a beach bar crawl. I don’t think I’ve explained junking to you yet. Basically there are vendors on the streets with piles and piles and piles of clothes that come mostly from the USA and European countries. Typically the clothes are rejects from thrift stores and let me tell you, you people are rejecting some great clothes! There’s also a bunch of factory rejects and clothes that were made for various sports teams who lost championships. If you thought Forever 21 is overwhelming, watch out! Junking takes a great deal of patience for shopping, which is something I unfortunately never acquired with my XX genetic make-up. I’ll go junking with some girl friends who inspire me to keep looking through the pile of 50+ shirts on the ground for the right one. All in all, break was filled with both business and pleasure, which in my opinion made it well spent. You know that feeling you get on Sunday night after recovering from your weekend hangover on the couch watching football and eating pizza when you suddenly remember you have to wake up early the next morning and go back to work. Take that feeling and multiply it by a billion and that’s how I feel when I have to go back to Madina after a great break with my Peace Corps friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love my town, but sometimes it’s difficult to switch from American 22 year old having fun with other American 20-something year olds to American role-model/outsider in Sierra Leone. Such is life as a whitey in Africa.

My school was starting the third and final term of the academic year. The first week consisted of final exams leftover from the second term. My school does this in order to get the students to come back to school on time. I tell you those kids are sneaky. Would you believe that all of the 1,000+ students can connive on what day they’re not going to show up to school? Believe it, because I’ve witnessed it. Darn the cell phone revolution across Africa. Anyways, I just had a week of that and then... and then... and then… I WENT TO AMERICA!!!

Now brace yourself for this village girl’s realizations about the States. First of all, did it get colder?? I swear it was never that cold in May in the 21 years I lived in Pennsylvania. Also, why does everyone have an iPhone?? It seems like they are the hot pocket item of 2012. My mother was telling me about all of the various applications and I felt like a 70-year-old immigrant grandmother in the ‘90s as her tech-savvy granddaughter told her about a Personal Computer. I haven’t been gone that long have I? Anyway, the food definitely got better – this I am sure about. My first sign of this observation: my first morning, I was with my parents in a hotel in New Hope, PA and they told me to get ready because we’re going to go get breakfast. I exclaimed, “Woohoo!” They reassured me that it wasn’t anything special, just the hotel’s continental breakfast with cereal, bagels, waffles, etc. Again, I exclaimed, “Woohoo!” A continental breakfast is something that I have reoccurring dreams about in Sierra Leone. Needless-to-say, I was not counting calories and did not care about others’ judgments of my overeating for my week in America.

Why did I venture to America at this particular time, specifically May 5, 2012? Oh yes, it was my dear brother Ryan’s wedding and boy oh boy was it a hoedown!Everything was absolutely perfect from the rehearsal dinner to the ceremony to the church to the reception. The bride and groom also looked pretty great! Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling very well that day. Can you believe that?? I’ve been eating this…

....for the last year and I get sick eating the most delicious food in the world. Such is life! It was wonderful to see family and friends and to witness the auspicious occasion. After that wedding business, I headed to my favorite place in the world – LATROBE! Shortly after arriving home, I was greeted with Dino’s wings and Jioio’s pizza carried by none other than my best girlfriends. The rest of the trip was mostly spent out to eat at restaurants, relaxing at home, and walking around Walmart with my mouth wide open gawking at all the shelves. My entire checked bag was full of food. : ) The trip home was everything I wanted and more. It was refreshing to know that people didn’t forget about me and that I haven’t missed tooooo much – pretty much just propaganda for the presidential hopefuls. I was ready to go back to my current home and get back into my now “normal” life. Oh, but before I leave this America talk, let me say THANK YOU to everyone! So many people told me how they have been keeping up with this blog, which definitely gives me incentive to keep writing and makes me a little nervous that people are actually reading these ramblings. Good to hear though!

Back to Africa for this gal! My friends in my district, Kambia, refer to our little family as “Kambia United” or “KU” for short. Upon my return to Madina I was in luck and ran into a KU party on the way! Obviously, I had to stay for this:

I eventually made in back to my town. My first night back I was sitting outside on my veranda reading when a sudden downpour started to come down. This was the first big rainstorm I’ve seen since uh… November maybe. I looked out and saw all of the neighborhood kids stripping off all of their clothes and running out into the rain. They were chasing each other, jumping in puddles, and making up games. It made me happy to see them happy. On my way back to Madina, I drove by a couple of children riding down a piece of metal down a dirt hill, what I like to call “dirt riding.” I always see kids running around with sticks while they push an old bike tire around. It’s amazing what these kids find to play with. For that day though, all they had was the rain, but the rain was enough… the rain was all they really needed. I understand that there is a higher rate of malnourishment and pediatric health problems that have easy fixes in developed countries. But as I watched those children playing in the rain, I wasn’t thinking about that, I was thinking about how wonderful it is to be a child… when life seems so simple, when your parents have all the answers, and when the first big rainfall of the year comes it’s the greatest day ever. I think people underestimate how much you can learn from children and that day I learned it’s okay to take your clothes off in public and dance around. Okay, sorry sorry I was trying to be serious. Let me rewind, I learned that when you get bogged down with computers, televisions, video games and all the like you forget how exciting the changing of the weather can be and how far your imagination can really take you on a rainy day. Those kids are crazy, but they’re wise without even knowing it.


I stayed in Tonko Limba chiefdom for a couple of weeks and finally visited my closest neighbor, Alex, in Kamasasa (about 13 miles away from Madina). Our tribe is well-known as the elbow benders in Sierra Leone and his small village struck true for that repetition. He was showing me around and most of the people who we greeted invited to share some palm wine with them. Probably wasn’t the best idea to ride home, but I lived despite the heat cramps that followed. I eventually made it through another Peace Corps milestone – I taught my last class of my first academic year! My students even commented on how happy I seemed that day. After I brushed all the white chalk off my body, I headed to Bo for a short training to be a resource (mentor) for the upcoming training for the new volunteers coming to this wonderful African oasis. We, the female volunteers, also had another reason to come together and that was a bachelorette party and our one year anniversary for coming to Salone. Two of the volunteers in Salone-2 (my group) are getting married in Freetown in July, but we had to stay true to some American traditions. It actually happened to be my first bachelorette party and it was a doosey until I fell into a ditch and fractured my wrist and sprained my ankle. Whoops! Now I’m in Freetown recovering and getting ready for the new group to come. On Thursday, I’ll be going to the airport to welcome them and be with them through their first week and a half of training. I hope they like me and all my other personalities!

Alright folks, I got some work to do, so I’ll be leaving you meow. In light of my one year anniversary for my arrival to Sierra Leone, I’m going to leave a quote my dear friend, Janis, sent me: “Don’t let the fear of time it will take to accomplish something stand in your way of doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might as well put the passing time to the best possible use.” – Earl Nightingale

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"What is the meaning of love in America?"

I’m on the internet in Madina courtesy of the catholic missionaries, crazy!

After my last blog post, it surely got wahala (Krio for “sh*t hit the fan”) over here. A few days after I returned from Freetown, I was walking home from school and as part of my daily ritual, l I walked past my principal’s house to hold his 8 month old daughter, Fatima, and do some serious de-stressing for the day. When I went to see Fatima, her eyes seemed glazed over and her skin was looking pale and yellow. Her mother informed me that she had vomited earlier in the day and had diarrhea. I didn’t think much of the sickness knowing my own bowel habits in this country (crap, TMI... again). The next day I was awoken early in the morning by one of my fellow teacher’s informing me that Fatima had passed away in the night. At first I was in disbelief – I had just seen her hours ago – this was just a minor sickness that was supposed to pass. I don’t have much experience with death and frankly, I never know what to say to the family. Their pain becomes my pain and I just become numb, but I knew that I had to find the courage to go and see the family.

I walked over to their house and immediately felt the numbness coming over my body. There were a lot of friends, family members, and people from the community that came to give their sympathies. I walked straight up to my principal’s wife, Mrs. Turay, whom I’ve become close to these past seven months. I went to hug her not even hesitating to think if this was a culturally appropriate gesture. After the embrace, I stammered that I was so sorry for her loss. She looked me straight in the eyes and in perfect English said, “Rachel, Fatima was taken from me.” It took every ounce of my being to find the confidence to tell her everything was going to be okay. With this short exchange, I continued on my way before people could see me cry. (I’m still traumatized about crying in public seeing as I’m STILL known as the white girl who cried over a dead dog.)

Little Fatima and myself

The child mortality rate in Sierra Leone is one of the worst in the world. I am constantly hearing about a child dying in my town. Even though I hear about these deaths, I still felt detached from these morbid statistics. When I saw Mrs. Turay in so much pain over her lost daughter, this child mortality rate became a reality for me and made me so sad. In America, if you know a family who has lost a child, you can easily say that it is one of the most traumatic things that affects not only the family but the whole community. I know families in Madina that have lost up to 3 children. The pain these families bear is unremarkable, particularly the grief of the mothers.

In Sierra Leone, distinct gender roles are evident in the rural areas. The women stay home cook, clean, take care of the children, and usually engage in some kind of trading of goods. I’ll refrain from what I see men doing most of the time, because I’ll end up going on a big ol’ venting session. But in a society where men and women are not exactly treated as equals, I was surprised by the amount of respect I adopted for the women I interact with daily. They are so strong, physically and emotionally. Although men might underestimate the work they do, I would like to see ONE man try to do anything a woman does day in and day out. It’s truly unbelievable and this realization was further reinforced when I witnessed Mrs. Turay’s behavior after Fatima’s death. Although I could tell she was still upset, the next day I saw her continue to take care of her other 6 children and do the cooking. Now that’s the kind of woman I look up to – a woman who can be the strength for her family no matter the circumstances.

Mrs. Turay and I

SO, unfortunately the wahala-ness (?) did not end with Fatima’s death. The next day I noticed that my new beloved pup, Rocky, was walking strangely – his two front legs were going bow legged. He started to get aggressive which I thought was from being in pain and not wanting anyone to touch him. He bit me on my leg- don’t worry, not a serious injury thanks to my thick jeans. : ) I woke up in the middle of the night and his legs were completely bent causing him to only be able to walk on his front joints. Rocky would be running around like crazy and then run right into a wall and fall asleep when he hit the wall. Then, when he woke up he would go crazy, growling and barking. It was the strangest behavior I have ever seen from an animal. I locked him out of my room and in the morning I locked him in a back room. After a couple of discussions with people from back home and our Peace Corps doctor, I concluded that it was rabies. He had a very ugly and tragic death. I felt so bad for him – you could hear in his bark how much pain he was in. After he died, the boys in my compound helped me bury him next to Shady Baby. I left first thing in the morning for rabies post-exposure treatment, yippee! The treatment was only two shots, so it wasn’t a big deal. Turns out a bunch of volunteers ended up being in Freetown and we had a good time despite some current challenges we’re all going through. Well, two dogs later I might try a cat!

RIP Rocky (He was even a Stillers fan!)

When I came back to Madina, sports were in full swing! Like I talked about in my last post, the whole school separates into four houses. Not only does the whole school get into the sports, but the whole community makes into a big extravaganza. Although I was frustrated school had completely stopped, it’s fun to joke around with my students about who is going to win and help them train for their events. My house (blue) won the soccer tournament, which put them in the lead right off the bat. Although I think we may have been a bit overconfident coming into the main events. We kicked off the first day of the sports event with a cross country race and a bicycle race starting from villages outside of Madina. Unfortunately, the bicycles aren’t in the best condition and our best female bicyclist ran into mechanical error – basically, her chain fell off her bike. We also kicked off with a little rumble between my house and red house when “allegedly” there was some sabotage on the racing road.

The two days consisted of 100 m, 200 m, 400 m sprints and relays, long and high jump, climbing a greased pole, an eating race, the “tug of peace”, and rice sack races. I know what you’re thinking… those all don’t seem like sports. I think the competitive nature of the activities is what brought them to our sports agenda. My favorite part of sports was watching the baton exchanges – the best approach was throwing it like an American football to the next runner. I also enjoyed the running attire of the participants. Some of the girls would run in clothes that they would wear out in town (aka no bra) and heavy wool socks. Ohh my. Another entertaining aspect was the amount of drama. I have never witnessed so much drama over high school sports in my life – maybe on MTV but not in real life. I saw every combination of students, teachers, officials, and spectators arguing over rules, event parameters, and points awarded.

This was a special time in the town too, so everyone was trying to “bluff” aka look their finest; therefore, I saw mounds and mounds of fake head twisted in the most intricate braids on the girls and boys walking around with their pimped out sunglasses even when the sun was going down. With all the time away from school and a lot of twiddling my thumbs, I ended up getting sports fever. I painted all my nails blue and had my neighbor braid blue ribbons all through my hair. Stylin! Now I officially have two reputations in my town – the white girl who cried over her dead dog and “Yainkain of Blue House.” I prefer the second and will respond to the latter over the first. At the end of the second day, the winners were announced and *drum roll please* blue house came in second. I was anxious for a riot that I was sure would follow, but everyone went about their business peacefully. Luckily, there’s always next year for blue house!


After all of this mayhem, there was a jam of course. I went to the jam at about midnight, because that’s when things really get bumpin’. I was amazed at the scene when I first arrived. There were people everywhere! It was easily everyone in Madina and every surrounding village making an appearance at this jam. When I was trying to desperately enter the town hall to get to the dancing (didn’t need to get closer to the music because the volume could even be considered excessive from the outside), I was reminded of my days in Makeni when I would try to get to a bank teller. I miss organized lines in America! After a few elbow jabs and some toe tapping, I managed to get inside to the madness. Luckily it was dark inside and I wasn’t too embarrassed to show off my American dance moves to my entire school. It was interesting dancing with my students and hearing “Ms. Rachel sabi dance.” According to these reliable sources, I know how to dance despite some haters’ opinions in Pittsburgh. I left at 3 AM when I was too exhausted to stand, but things were still kickin’ and they probably didn’t stop until the sun met the sky again in the early morning hours.

Since sports, school has luckily re-opened. We’ve had a few day of hiccups due to the voting registration dates being extended and school being closed so almost every student can register (even if they aren’t even close to the voting age, 18 years old). Oh, third world politics! I went away for a weekend to Pujehun District (in the very south of the country) to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We celebrated this American holiday the African way, in other words, we didn’t play beer Olympics but we did play poyo (palm wine) olympics. It sounded like a good idea in theory, but poyo is filling. After drinking an excessive amount, I’m sure you can imagine how it ended… the only winner was the poyo. Well, life’s about learning, right? : )

Soon it will be the end of second term and we will have spring break. Cancun hear I come in my best Africana garb! OK, I might not be boozing it up with slammin’ hunnies (as my pal Julia would refer to that youth), but I have big plans in Salone. I’m going to meet up with some of my friends in Kono District and then we’re going to head to Mount Bintumani. Yes, you guessed it – the highest mountain in West Africa! And we’re not just going to look at it, we’re going to climb that mother of a peak. After that excursion, we’re going to head to one of the slices of heaven, Banana Island. I’ve heard some whispers of scuba diving, but no promises on that one. Then, I’ll make my way to Freetown for some 1st world luxuries (ice, internet, and cheeseburgers). I’m also attending a Peace Corps conference at that time. The main aims of the gathering are to talk about different life skills that are particularly useful to youth and how we can implement them in our respective communities. I’ll be leading a session with my counterpart, the vice principal of my school, about decision making skills involving delaying sex. It should be interesting, so I’ll keep you posted.

Today I will leave you with two quotes from my students…

One day the students were reminded that in school they should only speak in English. When I went to one of my JSS 2 classes, I noticed all of the students were speaking in English and not chit-chatting in Krio and Limba like they usually do. They kept on asking me questions of how to say things in English. This question was my favorite, “Ms. Rachel, how does one laugh in English?” To that I laughed and the student immediately received his answer.

Another day I had a double period of Biology with my SSS 1 class and we were getting a little off topic. The students were asking me about life in America and were wondering about the differences with dating in America and Sierra Leone. My student then asked, “Ms. Rachel, what is the meaning of love in America?” To that I laughed and the student did not receive her answer.