19 June 2010

Much Needed Update

At the sacrifice of considerable detail, this post will be devoted to summarizing my experiences thus far as a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT). It has been a long time since I’ve last blogged, but it’s not entirely my fault. I haven’t had any reliable access to the Internet since leaving for Sierra Leone, and now that I’m actually in-country, my access is severely limited. It will only get worse after our swear-in ceremony, where we will make our transition from PCTs to Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) and we’re all shipped off to our worksites, isolation and all.  We are all training currently in Bo, Sierra Leone, affectionately known as the second city, with Freetown coming first.

Our staging even was pretty fun. It was great getting to know everyone and hearing everyone’s hopes, aspirations, and fears for service, as naïve as they may have sounded (Mine included!) We all arrived on Tuesday night, 1 June at the Holiday Inn Georgetown, went out to eat together, and came back to the hotel for the next day of staging activities. That whole Wednesday was devoted to turning in paper work exercises, activities, group skits, etc. The basic premise behind all of these activities was to remind us of the hardships we were all about to face as PCVS, in addition to making sure we didn’t forget the three main goals of the Peace Corps, which escape me at the moment! (I know, I should be ashamed huh?) It goes something like: 1) to bring our technical expertise to needed people and areas, 2) to create a better perception of Americans on the part of people who have served as PCVs 3) and to create of better perception of the people served in their respective countries.  We also attended a ceremony at the Peace Corps headquarters that day, heralding our return to the country as PCVs for the first time in 15 years. Peggy Murrah, the Executive director of Friends of Sierra Leone, was there. A LOT of Returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) were in attendance, Sierra Leonean expatriates, as well as Peace Corps dignitaries, NBC news and the Peace Corps press were there. It was a great event, with great food and interesting people. I was actually interviewed by both the Peace Corps and NBC. The NBC interview didn’t necessarily surprise me because I was expecting to be interviewed. I had a phone discussion with one of the producers assigned to cover our return to Sierra Leone. What surprised me was how scripted it felt. The interview was a bit rushed and it felt unnatural for me. Having to direct my answers to an individual (the Peace Corps director) who wasn’t the person asking me the questions, all the while making clown faces was a bit awkward, I would have to say. But it was a fun experience nonetheless. Not many people can say that they have been interviewd by NBC news. They are actually coming to Bo on Monday and are coming to my host family house to interview me and shoot some footage of me handling my business around the compound!! That should be interesting…More on that later.

We checked out of the hotel on Thursday the 3rd, did our medical, and then left for Reagan International Airport. There were a couple of hiccups along they way. A couple of us, me included had a few luggage problems. One of my bags was overweight, so I had to redistribute the weight into my lighter bag. After I did this, I placed my bag on the scale and before I had the opportunity to lock it, the ticket desk attendant threw my unlocked bag on the conveyer belt. She actually did this twice! And the second time I had to get another assistant to go deep in to the bowels of the luggage security system to find my unlocked bag amidst the thousands of bags, and lock it. We nearly had another, more serious scare within our group. Andre, one of the PCTs, misplaced his passport at the airport before our departure to Brussells. Luckily he found it in one of his pockets, and we were on our way.

We landed at Lungi International Airport in Freetown about a day later exhausted and excited. We exited the plane and were immediately greeted by our country directors, Joel and Gale, as well as other members of the Sierra Leonean Peace Corps Training staff and the Sierra Leonean media (We made the news a few days later!). It was all just so overwhelming. All of the staff members were so excited to see us arrive. The Sierra Leoneans in attendance were absolutely mad with excitement. Many of them have had experience with Peace Corps volunteers in the past, and were happy to see us land. It was interesting for me though. I actually wore one of my traditional African clothes complete with a kofia hat and kente cloth, so I stood out from my other colleagues, all of whom were dressed in western clothing. I also think it played a big role in how I was perceived by the host-country nationals (HCNs). Honestly for me, It was just something comfortable to wear and I knew that I looked good, a no-brainer.

We spent the duration of our stay in Freetown at the stadium hostel near the national stadium, which has an interesting history of its own (That I wont go into for now). According to Annaliese (One of the PCT staff members) they were slowly trying to wean us off of the western mode of existence. We were lucky to have electricity, air conditioning, and running water in our rooms, although those amenities did not work perfectly for everyone! Basically our training began there at the hostel. We were introduced to all of the PCT-staff members that we would be working with for the remainder of our 10-week training. We weren’t allowed to leave the premises of the hostel for any reason whatsoever, save ‘Peace Corps approved’ field trips. There were however, a couple of notable trips. We all took a visit to the U.S. embassy house where the Charge d’ affairs (gle lived. His home was absolutely spectacular, although conspicuously out of place amidst the general poverty in Freetown. It was on the top of a large hill, giving us all a birds-eye view of all of Freetown. The Sierra Leonean ambassador to the U.S. was there, and two RPCVs, Scott Bode, and Jordan Kimball, who both work in Sierra Leone in the natural resource management sector. I enjoyed talking to them both because they are doing the kind of work that I would eventually like to get involved in after my service, and I wanted to hear how their service as volunteers lead them to their current careers. Before our arrival in Sierra Leone, we sent in our shirt sizes. We all received these styling clothes made by traditional Sierra Leonean tailors. We all went to the state house in Freetown and had a meeting with both the president and vice president of Sierra Leone. Plattitudes and speeches were given and we all shook hands and took a group picture with both the president and vice president which was great.

We left for Bo, Sierra Leone on the 9th where we will spend the remainder of our 10-week training. I can't even begin to describe the level of excitement and celebration our arrival inspired. Before our adoption ceremony (our adoption to our host-families who will house us for the remainder of our stay), we were greeted by traditional Mende (one of the dominant language and cultural groups in Sierra Leone) dancers who performed for us, and plucked a couple of PCTs from the crowd to dance. Gavina was one of the PCTs chosen and she absolutely KILLED it...my goodness I enjoyed watching her. And I bet you can guess the other individual chosen to dance for the crowd?...ME...yes,  I was pulled against my will to the center to dance to the beating drums. So I did. Simple as that; and it was great. It was funny though because somehow I knew in my gut that I would be chosen, yet I stood there like a man, and accepted my fate, instead of slinking to the back after Gavina was plucked from the relative safety of the crowd. Apparently everyone loved it and they are expecting me to perform for my birthday...that will be interesting.

There were a few glitches during my adoption ceremony. The family I was initially paired with wasn't happy because the head of the household was our of town for one reason or another, and he would have been extremely upset to return and find that another man had been in his house while he was gone, so I was swiftly transferred to another host family and so far it has worked out well. There are around 16 individuals in my family, some of whom I don’t even see regularly so it is difficult keeping up with the names of everyone. The language is also difficult. Krio is the Lingua Franca of Sierra Leone, and it is relatively easy for a native English speaker to understand, but to speak it fluently is another matter. On top of that, my family members speak a sort of village Krio which is much more difficult to understand, but I learning little by little everyday and my speaking proficiency is slowly improving. Baby steps now….”Small Small”.
Picture with some...emphasis on some...of my family members

Picture with Mohamed Kabia, my first Krio language instructor

So there you have it. Again, I have neglected a lot of detail in writing this post. But an update was needed. I will post photos and some more fillers another time. The Internet connection here is agonizingly slow, although it is faster because I have my laptop with me. I’m currently at the Mars Internet Café in Bo. This is supposedly the best café in Bo! 


Susan S. said...

Wow, Ikenna, you made it! It's fantastic to read all about your experiences so far! The FoSL YahooGroups list had posts by RPCVs who were at the reception in DC so it was great to hear about it from your perspective. I watched NBC Nightly News for the following few days but didn't see anything about it on the broadcasts. Maybe I can find something on their website.

And your arrival and stay in Freetown was very interesting. I wonder if the stadium hostel was the same one I stayed in when I was in Freetown in July or August of 1983. Probably not!

I hope your training goes well. How do you like the food so far? It's so amazing to read about an Internet cafe in Bo! I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined such a thing when I was there!

Ah de glad yu wehl!

Letters from Sierra Leone said...

And the adventure begins! Thanks for the update, I.

Rupinder said...

Home Staging training courses have come long ways and grown up very fast in the business industry.

Home Staging Training