Monday, December 7, 2009
I went running on the beach after work yesterday. Traffic was terrible getting from the Embassy to the beach and my usual 25 minute commute took almost 40 minutes. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but that put me at the beach later than I prefer. What the delay meant was that I could choose to cut my run short because it would get dark sooner than I planned, or I could stick to my original schedule and run the last bit in the near dark. On this particular day, I had a challenge from my coach so I decided to keep my training schedule and risk the last part of the run in whatever darkness would hit at the end of my session. What, you may ask, has any of this to do with someone named Mohamed? Well, I’m trying to set the scene so you can understand my particular frame of mind when I met Mohamed.
Now back to the run. I have been running consistently 3-4 days a week and trying to improve my stamina and run times. Lately for each session, I have been running 20 for minutes, walking for a minute and then running another 20 minutes. I felt good about that. My coach thought I could do better. He challenged me to do 20 minutes running, reduce the walking to 30 seconds and then run the remaining 20 minutes. I thought this was ridiculously difficult, but decided I might give it a try. I didn’t make my mind up to try it until I was all the way through the first 20 minute run and about 25 seconds into the walk when I thought, oh heck, if I’m going to try this, I only have 5 more seconds to walk! So I took a deep breath and started running, hoping for the best. I felt great and kept going. About 8 minutes from the end of the run (and the place where my car was parked) it started to get pretty dark. My feet were having trouble finding the road and hoped I wouldn’t step in any large holes or trip over a speed bump. The lights from the approaching cars helped some. Remember, in Sierra Leone, there is virtually no power and hence, no street lights. Then, I actually started to run faster—that was definitely not part of my program--but I still felt good and really wanted to get back to the car in one piece. At last, there was the car and I scrambled in. I don’t know what felt better; the fact that I had run nearly 40 minutes non-stop (that measly 30 second rest hardly counted) or the fact that I had survived the darkness without injury, or the fact that I was safe in the car. All in all, I was excited and tired and just wanted to get home after a long day.
As I left the beach road, I could see a line of card stopped ahead of me. The same traffic that had delayed me earlier had obviously moved to my current location and I was dead stopped a long way from home. I was cursing my bad luck and feeling even more anxious to get back to my cozy apartment where there would be a hot shower and dinner on the table made by my wonderful housekeeper Mariama. So I was sweating hot in the car that was not moving an inch, when a large black man walked by my open driver’s window and said, “Hi Madam Becky.” Now, contrary to popular belief, I am not personally known to everyone in Freetown. Obviously this man knew me from somewhere. It was dark and I could not see his face very well but he greeted me again and said, “Madam Becky, it’s me, Mohamed.” Of course that meant that I should also know him but I could not recall from where. Finally I asked him, how we knew each other and he told me he used to be a security guard at my apartment. That explained some of my memory lapse—on this night he was not in uniform but in street clothes. He told me he was on his way to his new job and a few other details about his life. I learned he didn’t have enough money for a taxi (they call it ‘transport’ here) so I offered to pay for his taxi. It’s not very expensive (about $1) and I can afford it so I gave him the money. He remained standing next to my car talking to me as I sat in traffic. I decided to be helpful and offered to drive him to the closest taxi junction so it would be more convenient and cheaper for him to get to work. He was very grateful and climbed in the passenger side. The traffic was still not moving at this point, so Mohamed began to talk again. I should mention here that almost everyone in Sierra Leone is poor--desperately poor. The things you and I take for granted, they cannot even begin to afford, such as a $1 taxi ride. I asked Mohamed an innocent question: Why was he not working at my building any more? His answer turned out to be a long story which broke my heart. Mohamed said that one night when he was on duty at our security gate (a run-down shed, really) he fell asleep sitting in a chair, and the head of Embassy security reassigned him. This happens all the time, I am sorry to say. The guards work 12 hour shifts, 5 or 6 days a week and they are always tired and hungry. Sometimes the only food they get all day is from one of us at the apartment complex. For the privilege of working 240 or more hours a month, they earn 200,000 Leones. Presently, $1 is worth about 3800 Leones. That comes to about $52 per month. Mohamed said he has a wife and 5 children to support. Imagine how far that money has to go. Mohamed said when he lost his job at our apartment building, the security firm relocated him to a complex much further from his house. Because of the distance from his house to the new location, he cannot afford ‘transport’ to get to work so he has to walk—probably about 4 miles each way. His story got worse from there. I began to feel a little guilty about my nice apartment and my hot food waiting on the table. Mohamed said the house he was renting is owned by two sisters who are fighting over who gets to manage the building. The sisters somehow decide they don’t want to rent to Mohamed anymore (because one of the sisters wants to live there) so they threw Mohamed’s possessions out of the house and told him to find another place to live. His family had to be split up between various friends and family until they can find a new place. He recently found a place, but it’s 2,400,000 Leones –up front-- for the year’s rent. That is also typical here. Sierra Leoneans pay all their rent a year in advance. I cannot fathom how someone who makes $52 per month can possibly afford $631 for annual rent all in one lump sum…so he explained how he planned to accomplish this. He told me he sold all of his possessions that are worth anything: tv, dvd player, etc. He was still 400,000 short so he told me the only thing left to sell was his bed. I was in disbelief. He will have to give up a good night’s sleep just to keep a roof over his head. Logical me wondered how he will manage to stay awake at his new job if he can never get proper sleep at home. I thought of how ironic it was that this whole saga started because Mohamed fell asleep in a chair at the Embassy compound. Now it looks as though that chair might be the only place he can sleep again.
All during the story, Mohamed moaned and told me how worried was about his finances and how much he missed his family. Because they are all split up around town, he does not get to see them very often. He also explained that he cannot afford ‘transport’ to go and visit them. I felt terrible; all this because I went running on the beach in the near dark and got stuck in traffic. I felt like I should do something to help Mohamed but all I really did was listen. I knew that his story was typical of almost everyone working at the Embassy in a low-paying job. I hate the fact that the Embassy contractor does not pay them a decent wage, but that is the prevailing wage all over town. The security guards are very lucky to even have a job; most of the people in Freetown are unemployed. I have no earthly idea how they provide for their families.
Mohamed never really came out and asked me for money. I gave him ‘transport’ money of 10,000 Leones, which is about 5 times extra what it will cost him to get to work. I hope he appreciated my gesture and can use the money for some good.
I desperately want Sierra Leone to advance so the people can enjoy a better standard of living. But I cannot do that all by myself. I have given money to people who have sick children, money for school fees, and money for people to visit their families far away in another province. But I cannot help everyone. I wish I could. I wish people in developed countries could witness what I see every day: children as young as 5 with younger siblings tied to their backs as they help their mom sell things by the side of the road; children as young as 2 or 3 who sit alone playing in the dirt as cars fly past right next to them; children who don’t have the privilege of going to school --carrying water jugs on their heads wearing very tattered and dirty clothes; handicapped people who do not have anything more than old wooden crutches to rely on for transportation—they use these for their whole lives; children who are sick with malaria who die because their parents don’t have enough money for medicine. This is life in a third-world, poverty stricken, war- recovering country. I read some of these facts before I came, but nothing prepares you for the abject poverty you see every day. You never get used to it. If I see Mohamed again, I will give him a little more money and tell him I will pray for him.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Below is an email I wrote recently to a fellow OMS colleague who was inquiring about my position here in Freetown because she is contemlating bidding on my job. As I wrote the details, I thought maybe some of you might like to hear my thoughts on Freetown after living here over a year now. Hope you are all well. Enjoy.
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I am happy to share all my experiences about Freetown. I really love it here. However, I am a simple girl who was anxious for an expanding cultural experience and that is exactly what Freetown delivered. It’s about as different here as you can get from a civilized place.
This is my first tour, so like you, I do not have much to compare it to. However, I did visit Embassy Monrovia when I assisted with the Sec State visit in August, so I can at least compare it to another West African post. Monrovia had the feeling of being slightly more dangerous—they suggested I not run on the beach at any time. I run on the beach here in Freetown almost every evening after work and feel completely safe. I think the people here are more friendly than Monrovia. Our Embassy building is only two years old, so everything is nice and new and modern. Embassy Monrovia is old, but they are building a new one. Our post has about 23 direct hire Americans. We only have two OMS’s—one for the DCM and one for the AMB. Our AMB has been away from post which means that the DCM is the Chargé and that means I have a lot more responsibility—which I love. A small post such as Freetown means that you get a lot of varied experience and you also get to meet a lot of interesting and high level people. The Front Office is the hub of the activity at the Embassy, so if you like meeting new people and learning new things—with no two days being the same, then you will love the job. My boss leaves in August next year.
Although Freetown is the capital city, it has more of a small town feel, and before long everyone in the diplomatic and NGO community knows each other. I find it cozy and welcoming. I have many good friends here and we take turns hosting dinner parties and Sundays at the beach. You are right, there is not much to do, but getting together with good friends can be very rewarding and I am going to miss all my friends very much.
The shopping is extremely limited and I buy most of my things online. I had not done that before but it’s worked out ok. Embassy employees pay shipping to Dulles, VA and then State Department pays from Dulles to Africa, so the cost to send things here is minimal. My family and friends send me packages of goodies and they appreciate that they don’t have to spend a fortune. You can return things for free from here (from places you order from online like Target or Amazon), so that’s good if something does not fit. The down side is that the mail takes from two to four weeks to arrive, so you cannot be in a hurry for anything. There are restrictions on some items—like liquids and glass containers. Coming from Stockholm, you will learn to live without a lot of conveniences. For instance, we do not have fresh milk here. I think for me, I learned to appreciate the essence of West Africa and I try not to think about the things I am missing.
Culturally, it’s challenging to live here. On the way to work, you will see children struggling to carrying water on their heads. You will see poverty and starving dogs. That can get to you after a while. We get two R&Rs during a two year tour. I took my first R&R after 11 months and that was too long. I suggest leaving post about month eight or nine for sure. I went to Thailand and almost cried just to stay in a nice hotel. You will appreciate civilized things much more after you live here.
Medical care is non-existent for the quality of care you are used to. We have a small medical clinic at the Embassy where they can treat most simple ailments. Anything complicated or serious and you are medivaced to London immediately. I feel very sorry for the Sierra Leonean’s. They die every day for lack of available medicine and competent medical professionals. The maternal death rate is 1 in 8; that means that for every eight woman who give birth here, one woman dies in childbirth. The average life span for males is 42, which means that a man’s life is half over at the age of 21. You do not see many old people on the streets here.
Speaking of street life—it’s quite vibrant. You will see chickens and goats and sheep and children and mothers with babies tied to their backs and broken down buses, and cars going the wrong way and children in school uniforms and motorcycles all sharing the same roads at the same time. There are no sidewalks, no stop lights or stop signs, no shoulders on the roads. The roads are terrible; potholes, ditches, erosion, you name it. You must have a high clearance vehicle that is build to last. I have a Toyota 4x4 and it works great. You get used to the driving and after a while it’s actually fun.
It’s convenient one stop-shopping at the Embassy for a lot of services: you can go to work , go to the doctor, get fuel for your vehicle and go to the bank—all in the same building during the working day. We also have a tennis court, a gym, a pool and a basketball area. The Ambassador promotes wellness, so three days a week at 4:00, the Health Unit sponsors an exercise class or a walk up the big hill near the Embassy.
The beaches are absolutely fantastic. I probably went on and on about them in my first email, but if you like beauty and nature and serenity, then the beaches here are really wonderful. They are great for your peace of mind and to relieve the stress of the environment and the working stress at the Embassy. No movies here, except for your private DVD collection. A lot of people order TV series online and then everyone shares them. They do have one golf course here which is very convenient and is utilized by a lot of people.
Basically, what I can tell you is that you learn to appreciate the simple things in life; you learn to be generous to others because people here need everything and we have so much compared to them. I have a housekeeper that also cooks for me and the cost for such a service is very low compared to the U.S. I also have a driver to help out in the evenings and he is also very cheap.
I feel like I am making a real difference here. I feel like I am meeting influential people and learning about the diplomatic world from a small perspective. I have learned to accept the face of poverty and although it still breaks my heart, I have learned that the host country must do more and I cannot do it for them.
Hope that answers a few more of your questions about life in Freetown. Feel free to inquire about anything I left out. Best of luck bidding!
OMS - Chargé d' Affairs
U.S. Embassy Freetown
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Today I delved into a project I have been avoiding for months. You know what I mean; everyone out there has a drawer or a room or a stack of something sitting in a corner that they keep meaning to get to but somehow never seem to find the time. Actually we all know the answer to why those things don't get done but we would rather not face the truth: that there are so many more fun and interesting things we would rather do with our time. Putting these tasks off only makes things worse and makes it all the easier to avoid; after all, we have created lots of practice avoiding those chores and now we are good at it. Well, for me, that task is unpacking the three large wardrobe boxes in the hall of my apartment. Now, I have lived here for 16 months and those boxes have been there the whole time. Luckily for me they are in the hallway leading to my bedrooms, so my guests have not had to witness my laziness directly. Nonetheless, it hit me the other day that in just a little over 8 months I will be packing to leave here and there is no good reason those boxes should not be unpacked by now.
So onward I went to dive into clothes I had not seen since I packed out of Austin in March 2008. What a revelation! It was as though looking through all those old clothes, I could see my life flashing before me in a wardrobe sort of scene setter. I guess I was trying to find myself for the past few years because some of those clothing choices were really ugly to be honest. For instance, I had several blouses that were orange. I don't even look good in orange. And what about clothing with color names that don't make sense? There was a cozy corduroy shirt that can only be described as the color salmon--definitely a color for a dead fish and not for me. And what about that day-glow lime green Polo sweater? Even though it was on sale, what was I thinking? You could see me coming down the road a mile away in the dark in that thing. There was some good news. I realized that most of my clothing was Ann Taylor and Polo and Gap--fairly decent brand names, so I have had decent taste even if I don't always get the color right. I purchased most of those clothes on sale or at the outlet mall because I well remember how poor I was during that time, but nevertheless I managed to look ok, despite a very tiny clothing budget. Another bit of good news was the clothing sizes I found in the boxes. Literally everything was too big for me. I tried on a couple of pairs of pants--sort of hoping I might be able to retain them and increase my wardrobe here in shopping-deprived Sierra Leone, but every single item was too large. I am happy to relate that all those miles of running have paid off because I am definitely a slimmer me than I was 18 months ago. Then there were the nostalgia items: Ryan's high school graduation robe complete with Valedictorian metals and National Honor Society sash. I had two lovely gowns; one from Allison's wedding and the periwinkle blue formal from Angela's wedding. Somehow the movers packed Laura's prom dress in my boxes and at a size 3/4 it's definitely too small for me. I found my grandmothers pink sweater that I gave her just before she died, my other grandmothers christening dress from 1905, several German dresses from Bavaria and even my old bowling shirt circa 1980. (did you know that I have bowled several 200 games and even a 600 series?) All those memories had been waiting for me and all I had to do was unpack them. To celebrate the big mess of hangers and stacks of clothes I have ready to give away, I happened to notice a wad of something in the pocket of that hideous orange stripped shirt I mentioned earlier. Guess what? I found $60.00! So to all of you out there who are avoiding that area of your life that needs doing, maybe you should think about tackling that project; you just mind find more rewards than you anticipated.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Some of you know that in 1999, I moved back to the U.S. after having lived the past two years in Germany. At that time the following events took place simultaneously: my marriage ended, my oldest daughter returned to college at A&M, my middle child started college in Pennsylvania, my youngest child started her third year of high school, I started college, and I was working full time trying to make ends meet. Needless to say, I was a bit stressed out. I read some physiological chart a while back that has you identify key events that cause stress in your life and after you list your "life changes" it tallies your score in the stress department. My score was so high I probably should have checked into Shoal Creek Healthcare Facility, or given it all up to eat bon bons on the sofa. I did neither, and it was at this time that I met Joan. I'm a fairly regular church goer (I remain Catholic despite all the people from my generation who gave up their religion long ago), and one Sunday Joan noticed me and came up to say hello. In all fairness to the story, Joan came up to me not only to say hello, but also something like, "Are you alright?" She said this because I had been crying. With all the changes going on in my life, I tried to be strong for everyone else, but church was the one place I allowed myself to break down and fall apart. Maybe I thought God would not mind if I showed my true feelings; feelings of despair and anxiety and fear. I think Joan saw this in me and walked over to say hello. I'm sure she got a lot more for her hello than she bargained for, but I was glad for the company. I felt totally alone at that point in my life and she reached out to me in a way that I knew at least one person noticed my struggle and cared about me. She gave me her phone number but I must confess I was too shy with all my troubles to call her. We saw each other at church and each week she asked how I was. I felt so glad for those meetings. Nine years later when I left Austin to take this job with the Foreign Service, Joan and I exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch. Eventually I gave her the address for this Blog, and she follows it faithfully--even emailing me her comments from time to time.
About a month ago, I got an email from Joan. She knew someone who was coming to Sierra Leone and she asked if it might be possible for us to meet. I said yes immediately and she gave me the email for "Erin." It turns out that Erin is the best friend of Joan's daughter, Sarah. Erin and I exchanged details and I offered to have her stay with me while she was in Freetown. She arrived Thursday evening and went upcountry (the term for "up to the primitive areas") for the next two days. On Saturday afternoon, she came to my house and we met for the first time. She was really nice and we got along great. We went running on the beach, and then came back for a shower. She said it was the first hot shower she had had in two weeks; as she had spent the past 10 days on a mission trip with Young Life in Liberia. I took her to an Embassy Happy Hour that evening and she met people from all over the world. The next morning I made waffles and fresh coffee and we sat around the table like family. Later on, I took her to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary and she got to see the chimps and all the good work that Bala is doing. On the way home we stopped for fresh bread and she shopped for trinkets on the side of the road. We had a great time and she made me realize something very important; that this really is my home now. Seeing Freetown through Erin's tourist eyes made me understand how comfortable I have become here. I have a pretty good command of the Krio language and I can talk to the local people in their own dialect. I know how to drive in this crazy place. I know where to find the good bread. I'm not afraid to walk the streets and I can bargain shop with the best of them. I really like living here, experiencing the rich culture of Freetown and being with Erin reminded me of this. She kept thanking me for all I have done for her, but really I wanted to thank her for showing me how far I've come.
So thank you Joan for being my friend when I really needed one. (And I hope you didn't mind that I told your story here). Thank you Erin for trusting some random acquaintance of your best friends Mom (me) because it was great meeting you. Thank you God for the experience of being in Sierra Leone.
Life is what you make it. Make it good.
Friday, August 7, 2009
My best friend at the Embassy, Lynn, is Sierra Leonean. She and I bonded a while back because she is a wonderful person, a true professional at her job and because by some strange concidence, her entire family lives in my home town in Minnesota! (her family left many years ago but she stayed to finish school) Her family met my family twice when she went back to the U.S. to visit. (No it is not lost on me that she has been back twice to the U.S. to visit her family and I have not been back at all in almost two years....but she has worked for the Embassy for 5 years and has a lot more vacation time than I have.) They met at my favorite restaurant and had margaritas, took photos and talked about me. Again, I'm off topic; this time I think it was mention of margaritas that did it. Anyway, Lynn was recently accepted into the PhD program at St. Could State University. She starts classes in August. With little more than two weeks notice, I have to say good bye to my closest Sierra Leonean friend. While I wish her all the best, as she has worked so hard for this opportunity, I will really miss her genuine friendship. We have plans to meet again at Christmas when I come home on R&R to Minnesota.
My other best friend, Stephanie, has decided to leave her post at UNICEF and go back to Canada. She is tired of living the nomad life and wants to settle down and be closer to her family. She and I bonded quickly (as this life makes you do) and she plans to leave a month after Lynn. Stephanie and I shared many lazy afternoons at the beach, we ran together, attended each others birthday bashes, and had the best girls night sleep over with pizza and M&M's that one could ever imagine in a third world country. I will miss her a lot.
Most of our Embassy staff is leaving in the next 8 months. Daren, who started the same day as I, will depart for language training in November with an onward assignment to Monglia. Lindsay and Sean, who were my sponsors when I arrived, are leaving for their next assignment in Canada a little earlier than planned because Lindsay will have their first baby in December, which I'm pretty sure was planned. I leave sometime next spring-probably May or June- with 30 days of Home Leave before my next assigment. No, I don't know where I'm going yet, but we did receive our Bid List last Monday and I have been researching where to go next. I will write another post on that later. Our bids are due August 28 and we find out our assignments sometime in October. Wow, I can't believe I'm over half way through my first tour!
There is one other person who deserves mention here regarding difficult good byes. Some things are just too difficult to write about so I will save that for anther time too. Suffice it to say that this life makes you appreciate every single second of the good times and makes you miss them with complete and utter clarity when they are gone. We all have but one life to live and I plan to make the most of mine. "I'm all in" as they say.
Make it good.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
There is a Monday running group called the "Hash House Harriers" and about 50-60 people (both Ex-pats and Sierra Leoneans) run together each week. They have silly traditions after the run and they even drink beer when they get back (which I was initially appalled at but soon got the hang of ....). We set trails, we arrange special runs on the weekends, and do other social activities. It's a great group of people. After 10 runs, you get a Hash name. The group chooses for you. I am now officially called "Pink Lady" and it's official because the group voted on my name and then poured beer all over me. Not what I would have liked as an official ceremony, but it's tradition. A couple of weeks ago, it was my turn to set a trail. We choose a location, mark the trail with shredded paper and the next day the whole group goes on the run by following the paper. I hope you can follow this! Anyway as I was setting the trail with two other guys, I was initiated into the group of people I call "real runners." By this I mean that I got hurt. A real runner is dedicated, trains hard, and eventually gets hurt. I had gone two plus years without so much as an injury. I had been lucky, but that Saturday my luck ran out. I was running down a steep hill that was covered in lava rocks. I set my foot down in the wrong place and as soon as I tried to move it to take the next step, my foot jammed in the rocks and I went down like a ton of bricks. Falling is strange; it's in s-l-o-w motion and you can do nothing to stop it even though you can see the fall coming for seconds that feel like minutes. You know it's going to hurt and there is not a damrn thing you can do to avoid it. I fell on my left arm and hand. I fell hard enough to know I should try and keep myself from crying in front of the guys. Luckily, they were far ahead of me and didn't actually witness the fall, or they probably would have died laughing. So, there I was smashed on the rocks and rolling around trying to stop the motion of hitting any more of my soft body parts on the hard rocks. My shoulder and hand got the worst of it. Both my knees were cut and bleeding but that sting had not hit me yet. I got up as quickly as I could, brushed off the dirt and my bruised ego and scampered down to join the guys. As soon as they saw me, they were worried. Because we were by the ocean, they took me right in the water and washed off the blood. It was then that I noticed that my left hand had a bruise the size of a golf ball. Oh oh, that didn't look good. There was no ice near by (only lots of bright sunshine) so I toughed it out and contined to set the trail. My hand was throbbing but I tried to ignore it since there was nothing I could do. I did run the trail the next day with the group, but my heart was really not in it. I have to tell you that the bruises on my arms lasted a full two weeks. If anyone tried to give me a hug and happened to touch my arms; wow, pure pain. My knees were scabbed over and ugly for the same two weeks, which is particularly bad when you wear dresses to work a lot. But the worst part was the golf ball sized-bruise on my left hand. The bump finally went away but in it's place was a black bruise that made me look like an i.v. drug or heroin user. It was so painful that even typing the first week was difficult. Did I get an x-ray? No. Even if I had, the clinics here probably would not have read the x-ray correctly. I just took ibuprofen a couple of times and waited it out. I still have slight pain in that hand and I think I probably broke a small bone. Welcome to the world of "real runners."
Tonight I went for a typical Sunday run at the beach. It was about 5:00 pm and it had finally stopped raining--which it had been doing for the past two days, since it's rainy season now. I arrived at the beach to park my car and the very first thing that happened, irritate me. Welcome to Sierra Leone--third world country. I was still inside the car, turning off the radio, taking off my jewelry (no need to draw any attention to yourself here), and hiding my purse in the back seat. I looked out my drivers window and there was the source of my irritation. An African mom was standing there with her three little children and one infant tied to her back in the traditional African way. I had not even gotten out of my truck and I was already being accosted by people begging for money. People beg for money all the time here. If you give money to everyone, you will have no money left for yourself. I don't mind giving sometimes, but today I just wanted to enjoy my time alone on the beach and not be confronted by the needy women who seemed to exploit her children for the soul purpose of playing on my sympathy. How could I not give her something? I would have to answer to God and her children; not to mention that I could not even exit my car with her standing there. I reached into my purse and gave her some money and wished for the 100th time that the government of this country would do something more to help it's people so mothers with lots of children can find a decent way to earn money besides preying on white people who run on a Sunday.
Running here in Sierra Leone is much different than running in the U.S. Try to imagine that you are a white person and almost everyone around you is black. You might say you 'stand out.' When I run, people notice me; and it's not for my quick speed. Add to that, the fact that most black people here do not run; they have far too many other back-breaking things to do with their bodies to incorporate running into their routine. So a person who runs is is already somewhat of an oddity. Someone running for fun? What in the world for? So here is me running along the beach. Some of the young black men make comments when I run past....comments like "thanks." I wonder what that means. Does it mean they are thanking me for being cute as I run past? I hope so. Does it mean thanks for saving us from boredom? Probably more likely. Some people say "run faster." To those people I want to turn around and say, "why don't you try running and see how fast you go!" Some people say "white man" or "white woman" (like they can't tell the difference?) and I guess I'm glad at least they know their colors. In Austin, no one would call out the color of my skin as I ran past.
As I drove home, I saw a little girl about two or three years old standing very near the road as cars whizzed past about 30 miles per hour. Not a parent or adult or even another child was anywhere nearby. I used to be surprised by such a sight, but not anymore. Children are often left alone here--its common--but it still upset me that a child that small had no one at that moment to care for her. Next I saw a couple of starving dogs searching endlessly for food. You can see the ribs of the dogs, the skin diseases eating away their furry coats, and the fleas that drive them crazy enough to scratch themselves even in the middle of the road. I have written about starving dogs before, but I never get used to it. The dogs in the U.S. are so pampered. Here we are sometimes glad when a dog dies because it does not have to suffer anymore.
The last stop of my running Sunday was buying bread from a small stand on the side of the road from Abu and his wife Awa. I have been getting bread from them for a couple of months now. They always smile and greet me like a friend and I like ending my day seeing then and having fresh bread for dinner. There are bright spots here in Sierra Leone, you just have to look for them. I will pray for all the people who don't have bread tonight, for all the dogs who don't have food and I hope that the money I gave that woman and her children will help feed them dinner. When you look at the food on your dinner table tonight, be thankful that you have enough to eat. Many people in the world do not. I see it every day here.
Friday, June 5, 2009
Fridays we work a half day at Embassy Freetown, so we get off work around 1pm. Don't worry, we still work a 40 hour week because we work a little longer each of the other four days. Anyway, I digress. Today after work I decided to treat myself to a mani/pedi. It had been two weeks since the last one and it was time to look pretty again. I have a girl, Mary, and she comes to my house when I call her. She is Sierra Leonean (about 30 years old) and she learned the trade by working for a Lebanese lady at a local hotel. The hotel closed, the lady went back to Lebanon and Mary took her tools and trade on the road. She is very nice, does a professional job and it's pure pampering to have this service at home. The first time she came, I had a glass of wine (for her not me), lit a candle, played the music I liked and she totally made me feel beautiful. She has been coming every couple of weeks since then. Today I sent her a text message to see if she could come over (text messaging is the main way everyone her communicates; calling is more expensive and takes more time and is only done if absolutely necessary). I got a polite text back saying no, she could not come today because she had just been admitted to the hospital. Now, in the U.S. if someone said that you would be alarmed. Here; it's a fact of life. People get sick all the time and go to the hospital. There is not really any other form of health care. People die all the time too, so someone as young as Mary could be so sick that I might not see her again. I hope that's not the case, but I have learned here how often death strikes. It's appalling and you never get used to it. Anyway, Mary was not coming so I needed to make other arrangements.
Plan B was to drive downtown and find a salon. A friend recommended a place that I could not find, but I stumbled upon another place that looked ok. Now, looking "ok" means that they appear to have some manicure equipment around, probably have some towels and probably have a basket of polish somewhere. They had all that so I went in. The place inside was so dirty that any of you probably would have gotten on the phone to the health department ASAP, but here, that's the norm. After living here a while, you get used to filthy conditions. Imagine this: next to me in the chair is a woman getting some sort of hair extensions put in--and the girl doing it is about 9 months pregnant and she is literally sewing fake hair into the head of the woman she is working on. I had never seen that done before and I was fascinated. First, she had to braid this woman's hair really tight to her head in all these neat little rows and then she sewed fake rows of hair into the braids. I thought she looked better with the braids, but it's all a matter of style, isn't it? This process took about 2 hours and she was not quite finished when I left. Across the room was a woman eating food out of a bowl with her hands. I was hoping she was not going to be the one working on me. Eating with your hands is a common practice here--the woman was eating some sort of rice and vegetables. It's ok with me to eat with your hands....as long as you do it at home and not at the nail salon. Another woman was soaking her feet in some sort of murky brown water that smelled funny. She called a vendor off the street and ordered some sort of food item. The vendor was a middle aged woman with a huge basket on her head filled with something that smelled like greasy chicken. Now add that to the rice/vegetable dish that the first woman was eating and you have quite a mix of smelly food. Well, at least for a while, it overpowered the smell of the brown water.
Back to me. The girl working on me got the foot tub ready for me to soak my feet in. The machine was one of those foot baths that you plug in and it vibrates and makes bubbles. In this case, there was no electricity, so the water was still. The water...get this. She poured hot water from a thermos (like something you make coffee in) because of course--there was no electricity to make hot water. She made the water so hot that when I put my feet in it started burning! So she went out back and got a pitcher of cold water and added that and we were ready to go. At this point, I have to tell you that I forgot one very important element of a pedicure; the use of pointed objects. Oh boy. She took out this tool that is supposed to be used to trim cuticles. Right. The tool is so sharp that pretty soon she's hurting me and I'm trying not to say anything so I don't cause either of us any embarrassment. But I realize she is doing more damage than good and I just hope she finishes with the torture soon. After my feet are clean of all cuticles, she takes out the scrubbing lotion. This stuff has little bits of sand in it and it's green in color. I have had this treatment before, so I'm not really worried. But I have not had this treatment in Africa. Right. She gets that tool that looks like a cheese grater with a handle that is supposed to remove the dead skin and 'goes to town' on my foot. By that I mean, she scrapes and scrapes my skin over and over. The tool is meant for the bottom of the foot where dead skin grows and callouses grow and this tool helps remove all that stuff. But she does not stop there; oh no. She scrapes that metal thing across the top of my foot where the skin is thin and delicate. She does this over and over which leads me to believe that she really has no idea what Beauty School is about. I'm wincing and trying not to show it and still she keeps going. I realize I still have the other foot to go and I'm hoping against hope that she does not try this on my hands. She finishes with my feet and I breathe a sigh of relief. Next come the hands. She does the same pointy tool cuticle treatment to my delicate fingers and I watch as a few of my cuticles start to bleed. I try to be blasé, but then remember that I'm in Africa where sanitation is at a minimum and I'm worried--I went for an innocent manicure only to be infected with some deadly virus I try to push that out of my mind. Oh, I forgot one very important point. While I'm waiting for the hands and feet treatment, she has me soaking in something. It's a mixture of something that smells like Pine Sol. Now, my hands were in this stuff for over 20 minutes; until they were white and wrinkled and I took them out myself. I have to tell you, that smell stayed on my hands the whole rest of the evening! Imagine your hands smelling line kitchen floor cleaner--not especially romantic or pretty-feeling. Anyway, the polish was another dilemma. I asked for clear polish with some designs on it--to be subtle. She starts painting my nails a bright pink and when I object, she says that the clear polish only looks good on black African women and that the pink will look great on me. Well, so much for my choice. She finishes my hands and feet in neon pink and then proceeds to paint a couple of artistic white stripes on each nail . It would have been beautiful except the stripes didn't match and I looked more like a candy cane than someone with an elegant manicure. Even though I didn't care much for the outcome, all the African ladies in the shop said I looked "really great" and I tried to believe them as I left the shop. The one great thing in all this is that I managed to purchase those little flip flops they put on your feet as the polish dries. They call those things "slippers" and I bought them for 5000 Le; which is about $1.60. Money well spent, since the manicure/pedicure cost 50,000, or about $16.00. If any of you can write me that you spent less than $2 on flip flops and less than $18 on a manicure and pedicure--let me know. I will let you know the status of any infections and I will try to look at my nails and not see candy canes.
Cheers everyone and appreciate civilization and sterilization,
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Thailand was fantastic! I would definitely recommend it and go back there. Almost everyone we met had been there before, so obviously there is a charm to this place. A couple of things to know if you visit: 1. Toilet paper is non-existant, so plan ahead ladies! They do have these little gadgets that look suspiciously like kitchen-sink sprayers installed next to the toilet. I guess you are supposed to 'spray yourself clean' but as Laura so aptly pointed out, that still leaves you 'wet.' Hmmmmm. We never quite got used to that practice, so we stuffed bits of Kleenex into our pockets and wondered how the Thai women managed. 2. Everywhere you go, you take off your shoes/sandals and leave them at the door. This is pretty easy when you wear flip flops everywhere. Imagine going into a shop or a restaurant and seeing a pile of random flip flops at the entrance. You simply kick off your flip flops and enter like everyone else. The floors are immaculately clean, so no worries there. No one steals your shoes (this is NOT Africa) and they are waiting for you when you return; although sometimes you have to find them in the pile. One bonus of this custom--when you return to your rented Bungalow and you notice your son's size 10 flip flops outside the door, you know he is inside waiting for you even though you have not even seen him yet; his footwear leaves a clear calling card! 3. Thai taxi drivers will always try and take you to the famous custom clothing shops or the jewelry shops--whether you want to go there or not. They suspiciously stop there on the way to the famous sites of Standing Buddha or Reclining Buddha, so that you will buy something--they get a cut of the proceeds from the shop owners. You must be FIRM and say no, or all your vacation time will be spent in these places. 4. Thai open- taxi drivers may claim to know where you want to go (even when you give them a printed business card of your hotel with attached map!) but they will inevitably NOT really know and drop you off in a strange place where you have to find your own way back. Laura and I spent one evening walking the dangerous streets of Bangkok under just such circumstances. When I started to notice gang graffiti on the walls of the alley, I knew we had to risk hiring another taxi to get us out of there. Laura was pretty upset (and we were both tired of walking), but even as I kept my cool, I felt angry and vulnerable at being in a city I didn't know. Simple Freetown, with it's 3 major streets was starting to look pretty good. 5. Thai New Year: a very interesting custom. I think the date was April 12 or 13. Basically, it's a National Holiday involving lots and lots of well-wishers throwing water on you for good luck. Hmmmm. It actually felt pretty good because it's very hot in Thailand. But this custom does have it's drawbacks if you are a tourist. During the day, everyone is making merriment and you expect the dousing of water as you walk or drive by a native Thai person. But as night wears on, you sort of forget about the holiday. Laura and I took the motor scooter into town in the evening to do some last minute shopping. We were driving on a sort of dark side street and I noticed this man standing in the middle of the street. Laura was driving and I thought to myself; what is that man doing--standing in the middle of the road when he can clearly see a motor scooter coming right at him? Too late I remembered the Thai New Year and just at that moment he threw a huge bucket of cold water on us--drenching us both! Imagine being completely surprised, soaking wet, at night, riding a motor scooter and then going shopping. I'm sure we were a sight; two wet white girls wandering the streets of Tungsala with our clothing sticking to us. I was relieved I was not wearing a white shirt; as I had long before abandoned the practice of wearing lingerie in Thailand--just too darn hot!
For everyone worried about the violence that occurred while we were there; we missed it completely-thank God. The day we left Bangkok for Koh Phan Ghan, there were protesters lining the streets of downtown Bangkok. It looked like a sea of red shirts snaking along like a caterpillar from our view on the upper deck of the freeway. Unfortunately because the protesters had taken over the city streets, the traffic was that much worse on the freeway and we missed the first plane to Koh Phan Ghan. As Laura and I bickered our way through the five hour wait at the airport for the next plane, we had no idea what was happening downtown. We boarded the plane for the hour-long flight to the southern islands and were happily ignorant of all the violence in Bangkok. It wasn't until we read the newspapers the next day, that we realized how bad things were. We stayed in Koh Phan Ghan for the next week and by the time we returned to Bangkok, things were relatively calm. There were policemen in riot gear posted at every corner on the streets near our hotel. That mistake was actually ours; we didn't realize that the charming hotel we booked was only a couple of blocks from the State House--where all the violence had occurred. We were ok and the hotel--Shanti Lodge--was really quaint. All part of the adventure, our family is known to muse.
Well, I'm back in Freetown now and since it's Sunday, it might be time to hit the beach. For two weeks in Thailand, I saw the ocean almost every single day. I loved hearing the roar of the surf and once at night, I even dared go for a midnight swim. Life is what you make it. Make it good.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Monday, March 16, 2009
As most of you know, I love the beach. Growing up in Minnesota, I didn't even see the ocean (Daytona Beach in Florida) until I was almost 30. Now, I can't get enough of it. Last weekend, I went to the same private beach house that I almost always go to. My Lebanese friends have a cook to make the food and they provide all food and drinks; including the tequila shots we drink to celebrate still being alive in this third world situation. I usually bring home-made Rum Cake or American Chocolate Chip cookies. It's usually a group of about 10-15 people and the people change as Ex Pats come and go. Last weekend, there were two International Military guys there. One of them sort of jokingly asked me if I wanted to race him to the island. Race, as in swim. Now, this island is maybe 3/4 of a mile from the shore of the beach house. I always sort of wanted to challenge myself and see if I could swim across, but never really took it seriously. I figured I had the whole two years to give it a try. But here was this hunk of a military guy (probably 15 years my junior) asking me to race and I couldn't resist. I thought God was sending me this challenge directly through him, because I might not try it on my own. So, off we went. We didn't race; I think we both knew it was a long distance and we needed to conserve our energy if we were going to make it. I was ahead of him the whole time--which surprised me. He probably works out in the weight room 6 days a week--by the look of his iron arms. I kept looking back and calling out to him to make sure he was OK. I arrived on the island tired but proud. He joined me a few minutes later. We were both relieved to be able to touch the shoreline. We rested about 20 minutes then started to swim back. We were both more tired on the way back and the tide seemed to be working against us. I just kept telling myself if I swam one direction and made it, I could do it again in the reverse direction. He was still quite a ways behind me, but I never got too far ahead of him so I could make sure he was safe. I arrived on the other side even more tired, but elated that I had made it. I actually expected to feel exhausted, but that was not the case. That's when I realized I am probably in better shape than I think. I have been running consistently over two years now, and my endurance is starting to show. I well remember my first Sprint Triathlon in June 2007. I had only been running 5 months at that point and I really had no business even attempting a Sprint Tri. Of course, I was too ignorant to know that--the curse of a beginner. The swim was murder! I literally began praying to God to help me finish the 1/4 mile swim because I really would not have made it otherwise. I was totally exhausted in the water--to the point where it was probably dangerous. Yesterday, I swam out to the island and back for the second time and I was hardly even winded. Just goes to show that with a little perseverance, you really can get healthy and fit. Boy, if only I could do a Sprint Tri now!!
There is civil unrest in Freetown. On Friday, the local police, who are unhappy about some benefits and lack of payment, got angry and there were small riots downtown. We heard about burning cars and some shots fired. Rumors ran from unruly behavior to 13 dead. Luckily, no one was killed. The International Military unit was confided to their compound and the city was on high alert. Today (Monday) the political party currently in power trashed the offices of the opposing political party. The building was set on fire and we heard reports of over 1000 unemployed youth causing a riot that the local police could not control. Our Embassy got many frantic phone calls. The mood in town feels uneasy. I hope by tomorrow things will have calmed down. Here in Sierra Leone, the people for the most part are happy and easy going. But the problem created by a great number of unemployed youth--who have energy and spare time to burn--is that they can incite problems and things can get out of control quickly. For now, I am safe and I hope it stays that way.
Appreciate all the gifts you have in your life; good health, strong body, good friends, protection from harm; democracy.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Living in a third world country, after a while you become desensitized. It cannot happen any other way because if you let all that emotion in day after day, you would lose it. I was driving home the other day and I realized it felt totally normal to me to see kids suffering, to see dirt and broken buildings, to see moms carrying babies on their backs, with huge sacks of grain on their heads and holding the hand of their toddler child all on the street inches from my car while I was driving. It didn't bother me that out of the 8 pregnant women I see on any given day, one of them will die giving birth. It didn't phase me anymore to see a sick, listless child lying on his mothers lap and knowing there was a good chance that child would not live to see his next birthday. It didn't bother me to watch kids carrying water jugs on their heads--half the size of their small bodies-- and knowing they did not have the opportunity to attend school because their parents could not afford the uniforms or the bribes needed to pay for the supposedly mandatory free public education. You get used to these things because they are facts. After a while, you feel helpless and give in to the circumstances around you. They call it acclimating. Most of the time, that is what you do to survive. Sometimes, though, something strikes a chord in you and you wake up and remember that in the civilized world, things are not this way. Sometimes you even try and make a dent in the poverty and hopelessness around you and bring a little civilized dignity to a shattered place. And sometimes you do it without even knowing, until the end, why you did it.
I was leaving my best friends house Sunday evening. It's a house, but we call it a compound because it's surrounded by a huge wall with razor wire on top and a gate at the entrance to let cars in and out. This situation is not for grandeur, but rather for security. Iron bars on the windows and triple-locked steel doors keep out the rebels during war time. War is recent memory for people here and everyone who can afford it, stays as safe as possible. As I was leaving, one of the workers approached my car. Everyone who has a compound, has half a dozen workers, or a small army of people, who help them around the house and around the compound. These people are poor; they live off the owner of the house. They get paid very little, but it's work and they have a fairly safe place to live. Their living conditions are nothing like the owner's. They do not typically have running water or electricity, and some of them live outside--sometimes sleeping on mattresses on the edge of the driveway. I have been at my friends house many times and the workers all know me by name now. So this worker who approached me in the dark was familiar to me, but I did not know his name. He was probably approaching middle age, but he looked much older. It's a hard life here and it shows. He tried to show me his arm and he was asking for something. They speak a version of English here--called Krio. I can understand most of it, but I was having a hard time figuring out what he wanted; mostly because it was pitch dark and because I was confused as to why he was approaching my car. Most times, they just open the gate and I exit quietly. I finally gathered that he had hurt his arm and was asking me for some sort of assistance. In the form of what...I had no idea. I got out of my car, turned on my tiny key chain flashlight and pointed it in the direction of his arm. Right away, by the way he was gingerly holding it, I could tell the injury was serious. Even in the dim light, I could see how swollen it was. I felt sad immediately. I could only imagine how much it must be paining him. I didn't know what else to do, so I gave him 20,000 Leones (about $6.00) and told him to see a doctor in the morning. Being a foreigner, I would have to pay about $50 to see a doctor here, but I know they do not charge the locals that much. He thanked me and promised to go to the clinic the next day. I also gave him two ibuprofen that I had in my purse. I mean, what else could I do? It seemed so little, but here in Africa, suffering is part of everyday life. People get sick and they endure it. You're lucky if you don't die. I tried to put the incident out of my mind; hoping I had done enough and hoping maybe the injury really wasn't that harsh.
I went to my friends house again the next evening. It was not a planned visit; I stopped by after running because he offered dinner. On my way out, again under the cover of darkness, I decided to check on the worker. He assured me he had been to the clinic and that the doctor told him that his wrist was not broken but only cracked. What?? That means the same thing in my book--serious! The doctor had given him an injection for the pain and sent him home. No cast, no support wrap, nothing. The arm was still swollen and I'm sure he was still in pain. He had found a ribbon--something you would use to wrap a Christmas present and he had tied this around his neck and was hanging his wrist from it in an attempt to reduce mobility and thus the pain. Pretty clever, I thought. In fact, the ribbon still had the "to/from" tag on it. My heart sank. I just could not stand by and do nothing when I knew this person was suffering and no one was probably going to do anything about it. Well, I was someone. I could do something. I knew a little first aid--my Dad was an EMT for over 30 years. Where to start? I put the worker in my car and drove him to my house.
At the house, I got Dad on the phone from Arizona and explained my situation. While I talked to him, I dragged out the red plastic first aid kit he had made for each of us about 20 years ago. I don't get hurt much so most of the supplies were still in stock. In fact, I had added a few things over the years like ace bandages and random wrist supports. Dad went immediately into medical advice mode--he has received many calls of this nature from us--so he has a lot of practice. He advised ice to reduce the swelling. That's great Dad, I have ice at my house but the worker has no electricity where he lives, hence he has no access to ice cubes. No matter, I could ice it for the 15 minutes I planned to keep him in my apartment to treat him. Ice went immediately into a zip lock bag and onto the wrist. I think the worker breathed a sigh of relief after only a couple of minutes. I think even the ice helped it feel better. Then Dad suggested an ace bandage to wrap around the wrist to help hold it stable. I found an ancient wrap with a big safety pin. After the 15 minutes of icing, I did a pretty remarkable job of wrapping the wrist. I think even Dad would have been impressed. But while I was wrapping the wrist, I could tell that every little movement caused the worker a lot of pain. I remembered the huge bottle of ibuprofen in my room and I put about 40 tablets into a zip lock bag. I told him to take two in the morning and two in the evening. It would help somewhat with the pain and the swelling. I was not a pharmacy, but it would be better than nothing. Finally, Dad said he thought there was a large triangle tourniquet-thing (sort of like a dish towel) in the bottom of the first aid kit. He was right! I had never noticed it before. I unfolded it and viola. It was a perfect sling! I had to practice tying it around myself a couple of times before I got it in the right position on my patient. But hey, I had never done it before. After I was finished, the worker looked like a patient right out of a civil war movie--he could have been in that scene at the train station where they show all the war wounded in Gone With the Wind.
I had done something to help alleviate the suffering of another person. I had not reduced the infant mortality rate or removed Sierra Leone from the #1 position of worst level of poverty on the Human Development Scale, but I helped one person feel better. Sometimes you get to save the world one person at a time.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Here are some random things that have happened this week--things that don't usually happen back in the civilized world.
1. Yesterday, at 6:30 am I got a txt message from my upstairs Embassy neighbor. She had just arrived back from London and she was asking permission to use my shower. Apparently, because her water had not been turned on for 10 days, it came out of the tap cold and brown! When was the last time that happened to any of you? I told her of course she could come down, but by the time she got my message, her water was better so she didn't have to walk down to my apartment in her bathrobe!
2. On the way home from work today, there was a car accident. The cars banged into each other and decided to just stay that way until the police arrived. Really, there is no point in waiting for the police because no one here (except the foreigners) has car insurance and the policy here is that it does not matter whole fault it was...who ever has the most money pays the other person! The bad part of this accident was that both cars blocked the entire road, so the rest of us had to wait for nothing; or in our case because I have an SUV, my driver drove into the ditch to get around the accident. Thank god for my new driver, Kojo!
3. There is a good side to not having unpacked all my boxes yet. I have 3 wardrobe boxes that have random clothes in them. And by random, I really mean that: my monogrammed bowling shirt circa 1976, Laura's prom dress from 2001, wool sweaters from Germany, my graduation cap and gown, some old clothes that are too big or too embarrassing to wear, and a couple of cocktail and bridesmaid dresses from various functions over the years. I hauled these boxes out because I remember I had packed a couple of formal dresses in case we had formal parties here. Next weekend we are having a Mardi Gras Ball. We are mainly having his event to boost morale and to have an excuse to get dressed up! (this was a girls idea, of course!) I asked a guy from the Embassy to be my date....and so we will sit at a table of 12 friends and act like we are at the Adult Prom.....in Sierra Leone! Anyway, I spent this evening trying all the dresses and deciding on which one to wear. I really didn't love any of them. You ladies know how that is; you buy a dress for a specific occasion and that dress becomes "branded" to the event. For instance; I really love the dress I wore for Allison's wedding, but I wore it with Robert (an ex-boyfriend) so now every time I see it, I remember how beautiful I looked but that I didn't have a very good time with my date. Then there is the slinky, fitted black lame dress with the sparkles, but it shows off every curve and even though I look good in it, it's not the sort of message I want to convey to the Embassy crowd. I think I'll go looking for fabric tomorrow; you can get dresses made pretty cheaply here....and I can pretend I'm in an episode of Project Runway!
4. When you live in a place with very few things to do, you really begin to miss civilization. I know I have said that before, but I learned this week that I'm not the only one who feels that way. I talked to a fellow Embassy employee--a woman--and she told me she had a vivid dream....about shopping at Ann Taylor!! I could almost see the glitzy displays, see the pretty new styles, see the gay sales clerks waiting to help me. Oh, what I wouldn't give for a weekend at the mall...and I don't even like to shop! As for me, I miss other things. I miss going to a movie---sitting in a dark theatre, eating popcorn with tons of butter and feeling all cozy. I really miss having a real hamburger; at this point even McDonald's sounds pretty good! I miss having a manicure and pedicure...at a real beauty shop. Oh well, I get to go to the beach on Sunday, so I'm sure after I'm all tan and a little silly from drinking tequila, then I will feel better!
Gotta run. Birthday dinner party tonight...and of course I have nothing to wear!
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Today I decided to unpack a few more boxes in the den. The den has become the catch-all room, where random things get thrown for temporary storage. Only in this case, temporary has become about 6 months. Even my bike ended up there after being pummeled by the thick dust that settles everywhere during Harmattan season. Anyway, I was unpacking a small box of stuff from the Austin house; mostly random birthday cards and candles and keychains, when I came across a poem I had written over 10 years ago. Ever have one of those moments where you stop dead in your tracks from memories flooding over you? Like that. I have not had one of those moments lately....not since I found one of my kids' first notes to the Tooth Fairy and I went back to that place in time when I remembered the smell of their hair, fresh from a bath, as I tucked a couple of quarters under their pillow. Today was more poignant than that.
Today's title will explain itself shortly. You see, you can change your life; you can move half way across the world, but you can never totally leave your past behind. In some unplanned way, when you least expect it, it will hit you like it happened yesterday. If your past contains some pain, and frankly whose doesn't, thankfully these moments will diminish as you get further away from the events. But today, no such luck for me. I found my poem, and it's typed on a piece of white paper. It has a title (underscored even) but the whole bottom of the page is torn off so there is literally only half a sheet of paper left. Torn paper seems to have significance here; like I saved the poem in a fit of madness, lacking the formality to even save the entire page. Since the poem is short; I'll add it here:
Shiny, glittering bands of silver. Some people never wear these reminders on their finger of the day they said "I do." They never felt the love and hope that a glance at these rings brought me. I always valued their sentiment and their purpose. I used to cherish these symbols of faithfulness, charity and respect.
Then pain and misery rained down on these cold, steel bands. About the 100th time after my husband said he didn't love me anymore, I finally understood the only wisdom the rings held for me. Without love and commitment, they were just pounded bits of metal. Given with promise, they held value beyond dreams. Tarnished with hate and regret, they lie idle and unforgiving.
As I read the words, I started crying. I felt all the hurt and pain from years of suffering through a really bad marriage. It was as thought the words on the page released the clarity of how painful it really was, when at the time I could not let that level of feeling in. I think we must have to mimimize some things in order to survive. But we can never really hide from our true feelings. Even all these years later, I can still feel the sting of how devestating it feels when your husband tells you he doesn't love you.
That being said, today I appreciate how far I've come. I didn't let the pain totally take control of my life. Somehow, I managed to raise our last child, get a Bachelors degree, survive (definately not thrive) financially, and finally get myself together enough to take a long shot at getting a job with the Foreign Service and actually accomlish that. I moved across the world by myself and I am really thriving here in Africa. I have become the person I was meant to be....even though I would not have chosen this bumpy path.
So it just goes to show....when you chose a career with a foreign post, watch out for hidden surprises like memories tucked away in innocent boxes....and plan to unpack with an eye to the past and your arms wide open to the future.
Make it good,
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Let's start with the good day first. Yesterday was the inauguration of our 44th President, Barack Obama. What an amazingly good day. We hosted an event at the Embassy in which 200 members of the local community (foreigners and Americans) watched the inauguration on the big screen. As I watched, I realized I was sitting between an African American business woman whose father was from Sierra Leone, and an American businesswoman from the east coast who does humanitarian work here. As President Obama said in his speech; 60 years ago in some places, African Americans were not even allowed to sit next to white people in the United States. Now, here I am in Africa serving my country and working for the US Embassy and sharing the event with people of all nationalities, cultures, and religions. I thought back to where I was a year ago and I never could have imagined I would be in Africa and watching our first African American president take the oath of office. I felt so proud of my country and the progress we have made. Here in the international community, the feeling is one of hope. It's as if President Obama is the "people's President." I have not heard one negative thing about him from anyone here; Americans or foreigners. Everyone wants to believe in him, wants to have hope that things will improve. I hope so too.
Ok, now for the bad day scenario. This is a part of life in the Foreign Service that sneaks up on you and causes you to remember that you have given up some personal freedoms to take this job. These are the sort of small annoyances that remind me that I desperately need a vacation away from Post and that the word "hardship" has substance. I came home tonight to the unwelcome sight of a new door on my apartment. Did I order a new door? No. Did I want a new door? No. Did I love the beautiful old antique wood door? Yes. Apparently there was some rumor that our doors were not meeting security code, so new doors were to be installed immediately. I was first on the list. The doors here are set in concrete block. They have to be chiseled out....and that creates a huge cloud of dust. I not only came home to an unwanted new door, but to an inch of dust covering every flat surface in my apartment. I don't know why they use the phrase "an inch of dust" because of course that's not anywhere near reality, but if you can write your name in the dust, then it's more than a little. If you are afraid to touch anything, then it's too much dust to tolerate. I left my apartment this morning at 7am and everything was clean and livable. Of course I can't clean anything tonight because this being Africa, they hung the door crooked and they have to chisel it out tomorrow and re-hang it. That means more dust tomorrow. Oh goody. Did I mention the 6 inch gap between the bottom of the new door and the floor of my apartment? I have to be very careful upon entering and exiting my apartment, less I fall into the moat area. They promised to find a solution to that dilemma tomorrow. For now, they have little pieces of cardboard and wood strips to remind me to hurdle the door frame. I hope no rats or small cats decide to enter my apartment tonight for the free lodging provided by the gap on the bottom of my lovely new steel door. At least the color is nice....red. After I carefully navigated the moat, and discovered all the dust, I decided to change out of my Embassy attire and pour myself a nice glass of wine. Unfortunately, the workmen had locked the hallway leading to my bedroom and had not left a key! After two phone calls to track down the foreman and waiting 30 minutes for a response, someone called me and told me they had hidden the key under my tv remote control. How clever! By this time, I really needed that glass of wine. I didn't want to eat inside with all the dust, so I took my leftovers and the coveted glass of wine outside to my patio. Even dumber idea! Here in Sierra Leone, it's Harmattan season. That's when a strong wind blows across Africa and brings the dust from Sierra desert and spreads it all over everything outside. Of course all the chairs and the table on my patio were covered in dust, so now I have to deal with dust inside AND outside. I think I'll change that glass of wine to a bottle!
Love you and miss you....and you can be sure I'm busy planning that much needed vacation!