Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Life in Freetown

Hi everyone,
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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Hi Lynn,
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 ChargĂ© 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!
Becky Cheney
OMS - Chargé d' Affairs
U.S. Embassy Freetown


Tom said...

where are you going next? i really do need to know so i can arrange what i am thinking around it.

Yellow Flower said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I just received my congratulations email from State, inviting me to send in my MCAS cert.

This was 2 days after I put an offer on a I have to decide if I walk away from the house to follow this dream...I have a 17 year old son who is still in high school. He is not sure that he wants to leave with me.

Decisions, Decisions.

Aerochet said...

We are looking forward to bidding on Freetown if it is available. My wife starts A-100 in about 25 days in the consular cone. My local church sends a group of men and women each February to Freetown for medical/spiritual mission outreach and each year we hear the reports for their trip. We have three children (4,7,11) and can't wait to find out where we are going. Thanks!

Tristan said...

How goes it?

I sent you an email a month or so ago, but had not heard from you.

Entertaining blog to say the least...


Debi said...

Hi Becky!!

Are you getting excited yet? I've already planed out my flights out of Tegucigalpa for May...I like to plan ahead!!

Jeb said...

Becky - Loved the letter. You are still loved & missed here in Austin. Went to JuggleSkate on Sunday and will be back to the rink next Tuesday with Duaner.

We send our love & I will continue to check in on you via the blog.


Mark Brian said...

Becky thanks for you insight into Freetown. Very helpful and informative.
A telecom firm has just offered myself a job in this town, the facilities that you mention in the embassy, are they only open to Americans? if yes, have you experience of the British embassy?
Did you live in the embassy or in local digs..

Debi Demetrion said...

Becky, greetings from Lahore!! You should really consider the Consulate here. It's a great post and a year goes by so fast. I extended so I'm about to start my 2nd year. What a great write up of Freetown! Where are you now...this string is quite old. Last time I saw you in DC you were headed to Berlin?? Take care!