Sierra Leone: A Field Guide

Right as 6:30 am roles around a knock knock knock comes at my door, waking me up from a peaceful, albeit slightly sweaty sleep. Then I hear my name being called a few times. I peel back my mosquito net, get up, and walk to the door wondering what’s up. Opening the door I see Farabic, one of the people who lives in our attached mud brick building.

“Good Morning Austin,” he says with no particularly concern or emotion on his face.

“Farabic, how are you? What’s going on?” I reply.

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“I’m fine, I’m going to town,” he says. As I’m standing there in the doorway, still wondering what’s going on, he gives me a little smile and walks away, presumably heading to town. But why did he have to wake me up to tell me that? As I’ll learn over the next few weeks with similar early morning or late night greetings, It’s completely normal to go to knock at a neighbor or a friends door, check in on them, state what you are up to, then leave -- regardless of the time.

This observation, and so many others, have inspired me to write this blog. Let’s call it the Observation Blog. I hope this may be an insightful perspective on how FTF encounters culture on the local level. We live in the Kailahun community, eat the local food, take public transport, wash our own clothes, and get our own water, all allowing for some interesting culture exchanges and mishaps. So, here goes.   

Greetings: Greeting culture is different here. Leonies have done away with awkward “stranger” greeting hesitation. Here, you greet everyone. You don’t have to account for traffic when moving around the village but you do have to account for greeting time. I’ll be out on a bike ride, riding up a hill and pushing hard, and people will greet me expecting to have a chat.

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The Rain: In the 50s the U.S. introduced duck and cover to train students what to do in the case of an eminent Soviet invasion or nuclear strike. In rural Sierra Leone there are “rain drills”. These are played out almost every night during the rainy season. Like clockwork, as the wind starts whipping along the dusty streets and the sky darkens people here start to move -- fast. If you have a shop you make sure it’s wind and rain secured. If you’re a street vendor you bundle your supplies and run for cover. If you are a child, your job is to tell everyone the rain is coming, as if it weren’t obvious.

The other day I was sitting out one of the storms in a motorcycle park in the center of town. Next to me sat a burly looking driver, sporting two winter jackets and a beanie. He looked over at me in my t-shirt, bowed his head and mumbled, “I’m cold.” It was well over 80 F.  If you’re caught in the outskirts of Sierra Leone during the rainy season and start to see locals buzzing around, it’s likely going to rain. Find a good place to hunker down, jacket optional.

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Physical Contact: The other day Daniel and I were sitting in an important meeting with some impersario candidates we’d decided to work with, all belonging to the same group. There were 4 of them and two of us, each of them movers and shakers in the community and well respected and liked. The purpose of the meeting was to get two documents signed, one of theirs and one of ours; we were figuring out the formal terms of our relationship. The meeting seemed serious by all accounts. At one point FTF Daniel got up to go grab something and during this break one of their members, the second in command, got up to stretch. As he did the leader of the group, still sitting, put his hand on the standing man's belly and started rubbing. The motion was like a man stroking his beard, gentle and consistent. This went on for about 5-10 seconds before he asked the standing man to go grab his laptop out of the car. That’s the first time I’ve seen a grown man rub another man’s belly. Based on how the others reacted (they didn’t) I can’t help but think it’s somewhat common. I also think about how it’s common for two men to hold hands when walking down the street. It’s simple sign of deep friendship. Physical contact is used differently here, and while I’m not able to put my finger on the nuances yet, don’t be surprised if a local you’ve befriended grabs your hand or rubs your belly.

So, there you have a few western insights into Sierra Leone culture. There are nuanced differences, and there are some profound cultural differences too. All of what I see here has rhyme and reason, though the rhymes and reasons don’t always avail themselves. My job is to be very intentional about understanding it all, studying it and applying it. It is the essential piece behind our “assistance”. We must learn about the real life humans who are sustained by this unique way of life. We must learn how culture informs the people we work with. When we do this we acquire deep insight into how best to serve.

Austin Klise