Story Snapshots from Sierra Leone

There are a number of brief moments that are funny or interesting experiences or stories from the trip, so I’ve collected them into another “story snapshots” post. Hope you enjoy!

* Instead of “casual Fridays,” office dress codes in Freetown on Friday become “African Friday.” During the earlier part of the week, everyone in the office was dressed business casual in the Western style, but on Friday everyone showed up wearing traditional African shirts and dresses.

* “African Friday” in the office inspired a conversation that taught us a little more about some of the traditions in Sierra Leone. One of the staff pointed out that many of the men were wearing what they called “wedding shirts.” According to this person, when a couple plans their wedding, they select a particular fabric pattern as the theme for the wedding. All the guests who are invited to the wedding then purchase that fabric and have an item of clothing made from it to wear to the wedding. Often, the men have beautiful shirts made, but we also saw men wearing brightly patterned pants that we were told were “wedding pants.” The women have beautiful dresses or blouses made out of the fabric. While I didn’t get a chance to attend a wedding or see a wedding party, I’m told that it is a lovely sight to see all the wedding guests turn up in coordinated outfits!

* As we drove throughout the villages and countryside of Sierra Leone, we saw lots of livestock roaming in the countryside and villages, as well as the yards and side roads of the city — there were many chickens, occasional cows, sheep, and lots and lots of pygmy goats in yards, fields, villages. Sometimes they wandered too close to the road. Though we were driving along at fairly high rates, the driver was always very careful to avoid the chickens and goats in the road, explaining that it was a very big deal to hit one and that drivers go out of their way to avoid hitting them. Not only would it be a big loss for the family to lose one of these animals, but it is bad luck for the driver! I asked the driver how families keep track of their animals and whether there were any concerns about loss or even stealing. He told me that generally the animals who wander come back at night, unless a male goat finds a lady goat he particularly wants to be with, and then the male goat would need to be located and brought back home. After thinking a minute, the driver then told me that sometimes bad people will pay a taxi to sit on the side of the road outside a village and wait for a goat to come by, grabbing the goat and taking off with it. But that doesn’t happen too frequently. I have to admit — I hadn’t been thinking of goat-theft-by-taxi when I wondered if animal loss was a problem!

IMG_0302* In many African countries, you will find women carrying large loads of goods on their heads. They put a basket or bucket on top of their heads — sometimes on top of a small cushion — that is piled full of fruits and vegetables, flip flops, bolts of fabric, bottles of water and soda, anything they are selling or taking home. It can be astounding how much can be carried this way, particularly the size and weight of it. But in Sierra Leone, we saw a rare sight — men were doing this too! In most places, carrying things on the head is considered a woman’s job, but it was fairly common to see men carrying things in this way. Lydia and I saw some other remarkable things as well. While it is by far the most common to see a woman carrying a small baby or child tied to her back, we occasionally saw a man who had a baby tied to his back the same way. The majority of caretaking is performed by women, but to see men publicly carrying babies and performing actions that are — in many other places — viewed as strictly a women’s role was fascinating and very encouraging. IMG_0382When we asked questions or pointed it out, the drivers and staff were proud, saying that “we have much gender here” in Sierra Leone  and giving us examples of the ways that they themselves encourage the sharing of work between men and women and talking about how this benefits the communities. It’s good to see this in action, and a great example of how important it is to understand how gender roles can vary across time and place — we can see changes happening, or we can see a clear example of a norm in one place that becomes quite different in another. One driver told us how he was taking staff to visit a village when they came upon a man walking down the road with his wife, on their way home. The wife was carrying a baby tied to her back, and she was also loaded up with a basket on her head and heavy bags of food in her hands. The man was carrying nothing, walking ahead of her. The driver stopped and spoke with the man, asking why he wasn’t carrying anything and saying he should help his wife. Startled, the man said that it was his wife’s job to carry the baby and the food, and our driver explained how a man should help his wife and share the burden, using examples from his own life and how he helps his own wife at home. The man immediately asked his wife to give him some of what she was carrying, and they proceeded home together. It turns out, the rest of the village saw this husband and wife walk into the village together, with him helping her carry the bags of food. The men questioned the husband, who explained the conversation he’d had with our driver, and he told them they should help their wives too. Now, there is of course, no way to know the actual impact of this one conversation. But our program includes a lot of gender training for the staff, and a focus on engaging men and women around these issues within different program activities. Whether it was because of having a personal conversation on the side of the road or because of other factors, I don’t know. But our driver told me that when they visited three months later, they saw more men in the village carrying children and helping their wives! It was gratifying to hear a member of staff proudly relate this story, explaining how he is personally noticing and encouraging a positive shift in gender norms.

IMG_0455*  Many of the vehicles on the road in Sierra Leone are brightly painted and have sayings on the front like “God is great” or “Have faith in God.” Being a highly religious country, I didn’t think too hard on why the vans and trucks were painted this way, until one morning our driver pointed it out. He asked whether we had noticed the sayings and then told us that when a car or truck is new and running well, the owner will paint it to say “Mother’s blessing” or “Father’s blessing.” But after a few years (or perhaps months!) of rough wear and tear traveling the roads and braving the weather, the vehicle will start to break down and have troubles. At that point the owner will repaint the vehicle with a new phrase, asking for more help from God to keep it running. That’s when you start to see more phrases like, “Bless the travelers” and “In God I Trust” and “Jesus Never Fails”!

IMG_0290* Ebola has obviously had a large and tragic impact on Sierra Leone, but the country is recovering in important ways. I truly hope that the worst is behind them, and that they will be able to eradicate the disease from their borders as soon as possible. While part of the struggle to prevent EVD has been due to traditional cultural practices, there have been some interesting changes in the daily, informal culture. There are reminders everywhere to wash hands. You are expected to wash hands and are provided with hand washing stations at the entrance to every public location, from hotels and restaurants to shops and office. Hand sanitizer is placed on every table, and it is now a standard meeting supply. Casual contact is forbidden. No handshaking means people have to find other ways to greet each other. I saw an increasing use of bumping elbows to say hello and goodbye, even in formal settings, and it is jokingly called the “Ebola handshake.” And hugging becomes an air hug where we keep bodies apart and mime a hug from a foot away from each other. Another big change was the way people wait for buses and taxis — rather than crowds mobbing together and pushing for a space, people lined up in orderly queues, with ample space between them, waiting for the bus to arrive.

* I was surprised at the level of attention I received out in the districts. As our truck traveled along jungle roads and passed remote villages and schools, children often spotted me through the windows and shouted, “Pumui! Pumui!” Some smiled and waved vigorously at me, while others shyly stared. I began to wave at them, which delighted them immensely, eliciting even more smiles and waves, as well as laughter. The staff in the car were amazed that even a few of the adults smiled and waved at me excitedly, surprised that they would show that level of interest in a passing pumui.I asked why they were so excited about seeing me — didn’t they see white NGO workers fairly often? Didn’t white doctors come to help with the Ebola outbreak? Actually no, they told me. The roads are so bad and we’re so far out, residents of these districts rarely see western or white NGO workers, only local national staff. Many of the foreign doctors who came to help with EVD were actually from other African countries, so they weren’t quite as exotic as I appeared to be. So the children were excited to see me. The staff began to tease me about all the attention I was getting, all the waving from the car, saying I was on my “Obama Tour” of Sierra Leone! Indeed, it was an unusual experience — most of my travels to Africa have been to places where they are used to seeing people like me, so I’m usually not very exciting. When we stopped to do focus groups, and I got out of the car and walked through the village, there was a rolling murmur of pumui, pumui through the village as I passed through. I also heard way-ah, way-ah, and the staff person told me, “They’re saying you’re beautiful!” I won’t complain about that! In one village, we were waiting for the driver to bring the truck and collect us for the next stage of our journey. A group had gathered, watching us and murmuring. My interpreter explained, “They call you pumui because they don’t know your name.” So, I turned to the group who had surrounded us, pointed to my chest and said, “Jeneba.” That brought big grins, and they repeated, “Jeneba!” and laughed. We ate freshly picked bananas together, and then the truck arrived and it was time to go.