Into the Deep

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It’s the smell. Undoubtedly it’s the smell that’s the most foreign thing when you step off the plane at the Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone. It’s a concoction of burning plastic, dust, exhaust, and the sweating city not so far away. The smell is coupled with a humidity that makes the air thick enough to taste -- to choke on. You don’t just know you’ve arrived in Sierra Leone, you can feel your arrival and it’s acute.

I haven’t been in the country long, six short weeks. My environment still remains largely foreign. For example, our drinking water comes from little plastic bags. You bite into the plastic, squeeze the water into your mouth and then drop the bag on the ground (since there is no waste disposal system here). It’s a small example, but a frequent reminder that life is different here. In Freetown it’s a fight to keep the dense chaos from becoming overwhelming. The streets are a whirl of horns, navigating intersections are a game of roulette, and sidewalks - if you could even call them that - are home to man sized holes that drop directly into the sewage system waiting to swallow an unaware pedestrian. Out in the country it’s quieter but there are no less reminders of the alien environment. It’s not uncommon that I’ll go for a walk and just the sight of me will make babies cry; I am often the first white man they’ve seen. It makes me feel like the antagonist in some low budget film titled, “Beware of the man so horrible his mere appearance will make your children run and cry”. I always wanted to be the hero when I grew up, not the scary guy.

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I am often reflecting, “I’m in deep now, maybe too deep.” It’s hard not to have that thought or similar ones as I start building a life in a new country, a new world. When I was planning for the leave the United States there was a lot that got romanticized in my head. Naturally I constructed a reality of Sierra Leone being America with an African veneer. Every meal would be a tangy mix of vegetables, meats, and local spices, not the frequent white bread and canned sardines we often eat. The landscape would be like the Serengeti with flowing rivers and prowling beasts, not trashed covered dusty roads with a smoky atmosphere. However, despite all differences, all the ways I misjudged how this country would be, there is one aspect of my new life that is universal, one aspect that is clear. The way to the heart of this country, a heart that is life giving and full, is through its people.

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When walking around the village the most common thing I hear is “poomui!, poomui!, poomui!”, white man, white man, white man. The second most common phrase I’ll hear is “I love you”. It’s a bit funny hearing professions of love as I walk through the market, and while most of the speakers don’t know me to be anything more than a stranger, I don’t think they’re dishonest in their words, but perhaps slightly inaccurate. I believe they are articulating a desire to get to know me, and through that love me. In the few days I’ve been in the village, I’ve been invited to dance, to teach, to sell eggs, to wash clothes, and to eat fried... grasshoppers? Each invitation has been an invitation to be a part of other people’s lives: To share in the common language that is relationship. I haven’t been offered a life-raft to float above, but rather I’ve been extended an invitation to dive into the deep, to live and work with those around me.

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