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Sierra Leonean Chronicles

I took my cue from Ali for my Sunday Scribbling post this week by deciding to look back at one of the only prolific journals I’ve kept in my life — the three months I was living and working in a small, remote town in Sierra Leone. It was in between my first and second years of grad school, and I was there to coordinate a post-survey of a community-based HIV/AIDS intervention project for an international refugee organization. It was certainly the most intense and lonely and fulfilling summer of my life. Anyway, on with the chronicles.

May 22, 2003

Port Loko
Port Loko

How am I? I am covered in mosquito bites. My room is filled with bugs attracted by the fluorescent light, so I’m sitting in the dark writing this by the glow of my battery-operated alarm clock. I can’t find the baseline data for the survey anywhere. Instead of just the simple follow-up survey, they want to add in two other projects. I think I have a mosquito bite on my nostril. I just smashed a bug who somehow penetrated my mosquito net. At least it’s not as bloody hot as it was last night.

May 31, 2003

Last night it rained again, and today is not so terribly hot. I was sitting peacefully in the back porch, listening to my water boiling on the stove, drinking my coffee and eying three large round beetles that have managed to turn themselves on their backs and wiggle their legs in the air frantically. I’m hoping they don’t manage to turn over and run away. If I can see them, then at least I know where they are. One, two, three, then four large vultures just landed in the yard. Big, with long sharp beaks ready to poke your eyes out with! I’m watching carefully, crossing my fingers that they know enough to stay away from me.

June 1, 2003

My room  in Port Loko
My room in Port Loko

Port Loko is a very small town. I stay in a room at the office. Both monotonous and easy. The staff here are amazing and do fantastic work. I have a toilet of my own — though I have to fill the toilet tank manually with a bucket of water every time I need to flush. Quite honestly, a pit latrine would be easier. But everyone else has adjusted to the leftover vestiges of life before the war, so I do too.

My shower: A bucket, a shell, and two canisters of water from the UN
My shower: A bucket, a shell, and two canisters of water from the UN

Always covered in a thin film of sweat and red dirt, which no bucket bath is ever going to rid me of in this weather. I find myself comparing life in Sierra Leone more with life in Uganda than with life in the US — a true sign I was ready to be back on the continent.

The office has a generator to power our computers during the day and my lights until I go to sleep. I spend a lot of time working — there is a lot to be done in my 12 weeks and I don’t want to disappoint.

June 5, 2003

Interviewer Training
Interviewer Training

Training training training. I dreamt about the goddamn survey all night last night. I’m sure once I start analyzing the data I’ll have nightmares about t-tests and ANOVAs too. Our first day of the training was yesterday, and I think it went well. All the staff were so proud that they stuck to the timetable and finished on time — an accomplishment in Africa that I’m sure would be undervalued anywhere else.

June 8, 2003

Spent this Sunday morning washing my undies and explored a part of the neighborhood I haven’t been to before. I’m glad I did, because I found some exciting things: big onions! tomato paste! spaghetti noodles! I was so happy, you’d have thought I’d hit the jackpot. There is so little food available here, it makes me want to cry.

June 12, 2003

Freetown
Freetown

I’m looking forward to my weekend in Freetown, to visit my friend Bahar. There’s plenty I want to do there, and I’m really looking forward to checking my e-mail! A little A/C and running water will be nice too.

June 19, 2003

I made a phone call from the single operating phone in Port Loko. You have to stand in line and wait to use it –when it’s working. The connection was terrible. Bahar sounded so small and far away. I could barely hear her over the static, but she could hear me, so I told her when I’d be in town tomorrow for my birthday. I think she said Susan was there too, but I’m not sure.

June 25, 2003

Rainstorm
Rainstorm

It’s been hot and stale all afternoon and just now the sky has become furiously dark. Looks like we’re in for an angry rainstorm.

I saw two shooting stars last night. The first one was so perfect and so bright. I could see the trail of fire it left as it burned through the atmosphere.

I’ve finally started the data analysis! I imagine I’ll be working like a madwoman for awhile. But I’m pretty anxious to get all the final numbers and then move forward with the report.

July 2, 2003

Only You Can Stop AIDS
Only You Can Stop AIDS

I love it that I’m here. I love it that I pass goats and chickens and naked children on the dirt road up to the market. How many people have this experience? Here in Sierra Leone for the summer? In such a beautiful place in such a beautiful culture doing work that is meaningful and that I love.

July 10, 2003

I feel like I’ve developed a more solid sense of myself here. Of who I am, minus the big city facades and pretenses. Minus everything else almost — except for myself and the work and a brand new culture. I also feel a greater sense of confidence: in knowing myself better; in knowing I’m capable of this work.

July 17, 2003

On the way to Port Loko
On the way to Port Loko

I saw the bread-selling guys at the front gate and I made a run for it. I need food to take my Malarone in the morning, but it’s been raining and I haven’t been looking forward to tromping through the mud for my bread. I probably looked foolish, but at least I have my buns! I should have another cup of coffee — it’s a bit chilly today.

July 24, 2003

Reading Blood Diamonds has convinced me even more than before that the diamond trade is frought with corruption and shadiness. Too much death has occurred in this country for me to ever be able to wear a diamond with a clean conscience.

July 31, 2003

The beach in Freetown
The beach in Freetown

I’m still deeply moved to be present in a country during a process of reconciliation, justice and forgiveness. How to move on and rebuild your country after such horrible atrocities? It’s a process I know very little about.

August 5, 2003

Mmmm. I could mangoes all day and all night.

How much do you want to bet that all the UN convoys and helicopters moving back and forth in Port Loko today are transporting Nigerian troops to Liberia? Without a doubt. How insane to have such a major world event affecting day to day life.

I headed back to New York not too long after that last entry. Just in time for the massive power outage along the Northeastern corridor (aka: “the Northeast blackout of 2003“) — again no A/C, no lights, and no flushing toilets for a day and a half. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony, given how I’d just spent my summer. Just goes to show you.

Anyway, be sure to read more chronicles here.

4 comments

  1. Ali la Loca says:

    Wow, I loved these little chronicles. Funny details I really identify with – the mosquitoes and bugs somehow under the net, the manually filled toilets, the mangoes. I wish I’d been keeping a better journal here in Moz…

    I am curious – what did you think of the film “Blood Diamond”? It was filmed here in Maputo, though they passed it off as Sierra Leone and changed some of the scenery digitally. I was really disappointed. Thought it could have been such a compelling story, but that it didn’t even come close despite the waves being felt in Hollywood now…

  2. Traci says:

    Ah, memories of…naked babies, delicious fruit, free-roaming animals, washing clothes and myself in a bucket of water, checking my bed every night for critters, rainstorms with no warning, red mud everywhere, sounds of mosquitos flying around my head at night, bright stars, bright green tea fields, mastering sqatting and aiming into a hole the size of my head, flushing toilets with a bucket of rain water….one of the best experiences of my life. Thanks for sparking these memories.

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