Two weeks remaining. Time to reflect on almost a year in Sierra Leone. I go home a different person than I was when I arrived. Better I hope, but definitely different.
My work has been wonderful since I moved to Kenema. I have had the privilege of working closely with 11 communities to develop their inland valley swamps for rice production. I have seen them sweat under the blazing sun to construct water control structures, cultivate the fields and transplant the rice. I have doctored their cuts and scrapes and insect/leech bites and shared their food. Their smiles and appreciation for what we have done with them so far are the best payment in the world for this work. I have been part of a technical team that does technical work without the tools I always took for granted. No maps, no computers, no laser level, no mechanization. Old school rural engineering and extension efforts that will definitely make a difference. I can't help but think how much faster the work would progress if all of the tools were at their fingertips. They have taught me much and for that I am grateful. They have also learned from me, and have come to respect me. They are impressed that I can be in the field all day, walk in the swamps and weild a shovel. I hear they call me a soldier because I am strong, and organized and have worked side by side with them in the field. Our motto is "soldierly - one step at a time" and so we have made progress. We have done much in a very short time, and I am proud of them, and proud of my contribution to the projects.
The other part of my work, at the TAA office, has seen me coach and mentor to the manager and staff. I have been the HR person, the administrative assistant, and am everyone's "Momma V". I helped to compile and edit a handbook for the Financial Services Associations. I worked with the management team on project planning. We worked together to improve communication, meetings and teamwork and leadership. I have been driven around the countryside by professional drivers who have brought me home safely every day, and who have run my errands, found me food when I was hungry, and offered to come, even in the middle of the night, if I needed them to. I love the camaradarie of office life here. We are crowded together and it is noisy and there is no privacy but somehow it works. I will miss my seat in the "gallery" and my place at the management team table every week.
I have a new family and many friends here in Sierra Leone. A brother from Sri Lanka, who will go home next week. We both wept at our farewell earlier this week. A son, one of my drivers, who is so like my daughter that they could actually be related. He calls me every day, even when we've been in the vehicle together all day, to make sure I'm okay and don't need anything. A little brother who hails from India, whose laughter and teasing has helped me through difficult days and who I have shared whiskey and Coke with on many occasions while we discussed politics and the state of the world. Many friends and colleagues and the host of other VSOs who I will miss dearly. Some I may never see again, but I will never forget them. We have worked together and laughed together and shared food and ideas and life. I dread saying goodbye, but knowing that I will return in January buffers the sadness that the pending farewells will bring.
I have seen a lot of this country, more than many Sierra Leoneans get to see. It is beautiful, and there is so much potential here. There are beautiful beaches, which would be a tourist mecca anywhere else in the world. The mountains of the north are rugged and the geology is interesting. The jungle is green and lush, and all those tropical plants I struggle to grow at home are huge and wild here. The swamps are alive and noisy with birdsong, and frogs and the buzzing of a million insects. There are snakes....lots of snakes....and I'm grateful for my swamp boots! The rivers are large (and getting larger in the rainy season), filled with fish, and often crossed only by pull ferries or river canoes. The roads are dreadful, and I fear my back will never be the same. I have been on red dirt tracks through remote areas that we wouldn't even call trails at home, and crossed log bridges that made me close my eyes and hope for the best. But I've never been stranded, as our drivers are the best! Agriculture will flourish here, eventually. Tourism is possible, if infrastructure can be developed. Business can thrive here, when the culture of corruption diminishes.
The climate here has definitely taken some getting used to. It rains here like I've never seen rain before. The sound on the tin roof is deafening, and actually wakes me up in the night. Roads become rivers, low areas become lakes. But the rainy season is cool (they call it cold) and I am enjoying the change from the oppressive heat of the dry season. The humidity has been the hardest thing for me. I have never lived anywhere this humid, where you sweat without relief and pray for the sun to cover the clouds.
Living here has been difficult, and yet, even here, I live better than most. I have gone without running water and electricity, two things which I have always taken for granted. I can have a bucket shower and get clean. I can light a candle to fight the darkness. There is no refrigerator but I find I actually waste less food because I only buy and cook what I need every day. I have discovered that I can survive without the huge variety of food that I am accustomed to, and I am thankful every day that I have more than enough food, expecially now, when food is in short supply and many can't afford the doubled price of rice. I don't miss television. I haven't bought much of anything (clothes, shoes, stuff) and have lived very simply.
I could have done without the experiences of malaria and typhoid, and am grateful that I could afford the medicines necessary to deal with both, and that my VSO contacts included doctors and nurses who helped when I didn't have confidence in the medical staff here. Being ill here is frightening, as the hospitals are horrible, the medical staff not up to western standards, and travel is so difficult that an emergency could be fatal just because you can't get to help quickly. My first aid kit has gone everywhere with me and my first aid training has helped in many minor emergencies. I am grateful for a lifetime of good healthcare that has made it possible for me to survive a year without it.
I have learned that even the poorest of the poor are generous of spirit, and that a smile is the best icebreaker when there are language barriers. I have learned to speak Krio (small small), and a little Mende, and love that my effort is always appreciated (and sometimes giggled over or applauded). I have made babies cry because they have never seen a white woman before, and I have had children follow me everywhere I go, chanting "pumoi" (white man), and touching my hand to see if I am real.
The poverty and hunger here is heartbreaking to witness, and the low literacy rate is shocking to someone who has always taken education for granted. Many people, through many programs, are trying hard to help Sierra Leone become self sufficient in food, but it is an effort that will take time.
And so, I will return home to my family and friends. Not all of the changes in me will be visible. I am thinner, and my hair is grayer and longer, and my clothing is a little ragged. But the important changes are those within me, and expect to discover some of those changes only once I am back home.
I am grateful for the gifts this year has given me and will look back on this year with a sense of accomplishment.
This may well be my last blog entry, as the next two weeks are going to be a whirlwind of activity, and work, and goodbyes and packing. Thanks to all who have followed my blog!