A delicate balance: My first visit to Sierra Leone

April 29, 2014

On my first day in Sierra Leone, I woke up in Freetown with traveler’s diarrhea and no choice but to get in a car for our 60-mile trip to Bauya. Leaving early and getting ahead of traffic is one way to cope with the narrow, bumpy roads of rural Sierra Leone. Even for this Mississippi-born man who spent a lot of time as a child on gravel roads, this four-hour trip with a churning stomach was memorable.

“Pumwee! Pumwee!” squealed smiling children from mud huts in villages along the way (we were told “Pumwee” means “White Man from Europe” in the Mende language). I felt safe, and relieved because most of what I knew about the area was from the movies I had seen about the civil war, showing scared people running for their lives.

Our accommodations were much nicer than I had expected – good news after a long ride with a not so stable stomach. We actually had an outhouse, and a shower with a thermostat controlled by God. In the late afternoon after hours of sunshine, it was a warm shower; morning showers were cold! At night we had a generator we could use for a few hours to charge up electronics for video and recording notes. We could even send email if Kongbora’s Paramount Chief had turned on the cell tower.

Over the next few days, we visited with locals and witnessed a powerful sense of community. Adults talked, laughed and visited with other neighbors. Kids seemed to smile always, playing outside from sun up to sun down, with no electricity, no running water. They used eye contact and even knew how to carry on conversation with adults. The toys of choice were an old bicycle wheel they pushed along with a stick or a soccer ball. A bell rang every evening, signaling time for the daily community soccer game.

I was amazed at how many people had cell phones. Without Internet, however, kids played outside together instead of gaming online. Adults interacted in person, not on Facebook or Twitter, and got their news from each other, not CNN. It was easy to wonder if perhaps they already had it figured out.

But then we heard the words of the Chiefdom’s Paramount Chief, Alfred Saidu Ndomawa Banya II, who told us, “My people have taken handouts for too long.” And we were reminded by our team of local workers, most of whom walk three to seven miles one way to get to their jobs on our property, because they want a better life for their families.

I became keenly aware of a delicate balance: on one side, doing too much for people in need and risking their dignity and way of life, and on the other, showing them ways to increase their income, so that they can access health care, education and food. It’s a balancing act that I feel sure will be a steady part of my job.

Phillip Crockett is Director of Projects for Just Hope International. More about him can be read here.