A week in Freetown came and went way too quickly. It was only supposed to be 1-2 days, but became a week because of an important engagement that had to be postponed. Everyone had cabin fever in Freetown. Our housing and schooling was all within the same compound, a small catholic church located just outside the heart of the city. For kids that had waited for nearly, or in some cases more than a year to live in a new country, spending the first week in lock down made for an anxious environment. We all just wanted to get out, see the city, and talk to locals.
Our first real release came on the second day, when we received a formal introduction to the country from the Department of Education, Science and Technology. We were all given “Africanas” for the occasion; large, brightly colored, hand knit shirts that reflected historic ethnic style. The event was also our first introduction to ‘Salone Time’, which I would best describe as a relaxed schedule. An event scheduled to start at 6pm might not start until 7pm, a common and very widely accepted part of the national culture. Time in Sierra Leone is far more fluid and variable in America. People regularly quote one time and end up showing at a far later time, having not accounted for the other commitments and outlying circumstances that might delay them. It is neither a bad nor good thing, simply a culture not nearly as focused towards time as America.
But back to our event and formal introduction…
It was held in a large hall near the National Stadium in the center of Freetown. Tables sat on the periphery of the room and the center was left open as a dance floor. At the far end of the room sat a long, well arranged table where the important figures of the night would sit. A DJ sat in the corner of the room, bumping Salone pop music, catchy dance songs laid over strong, bass and drum heavy rhythms. After one of us got the cue and took the dance floor, we were bulls let out of a cage. We stopped to sit, eat, and applaud the welcoming addresses, but spent 3 hours dancing until we were all left without a dry inch of fabric. It was the perfect release for a couple of excited and optimistic American kids who had felt far too cooped up for the first few days in country.
Most of our free time was dedicated to learning as much about each other as we could in a short amount of time. Once we left for Bo, we would all be living with host families and quickly working towards adapting to local and national custom, but for a quick week we had a chance to talk and hang out as much as possible. Our class time was blocked into 1-2 hour blocks of class, including Krio language training, personal security, cultural training, beginning teaching strategies, and activities designed to understand our strengths, flaws, and need for establishing a strong support group within both our eventual communities, but also with one another.
The culmination of our week long stay in Freetown was our final full day in the city, June 24th. We were invited to the state house of Sierra Leone, where President Ernest Bai Koroma was to formally welcome the fifty-six of us into the country. Africanas on once again, we convoyed over to the state house, located on a hill just behind the gargantuan Cotton Tree, the national symbol of Sierra Leone. The greatest initial thrill once arriving at the State House was not the chance to meet a national leader, but standing in an air conditioned building. Seven days of perpetual sweat made me appreciate something as westernly mundane as air conditioning like I never had before.
We sat in large wooden chairs in a small room, just large enough to hold us all as well as a few dignitaries and important figures of state. When President Koroma entered the room we all stood, and after listening to the national anthem of Sierra Leone, all sat. We listened to several different speakers welcoming us, including our own Peace Corps Country Director Karen Swails, who most of us had had a chance to greet at some point or another over the course of the week. Our final speaker was the president himself, who assured us all of his personal interest in the Peace Corps’ work in Sierra Leone. He shared a story of having been taught by a Peace Corps Volunteer, who he managed to track down and meet in America decades later. He told us of his desire to maintain our presence and cater to our needs as well as support our work so that we can continue the grassroots development of his country. It was no stretch at all to say that we were all honored to have a national president take the time to formally welcome us all and relate his own experiences to show how much our cause meant both to him, but to his country. To cap the event, we all had the chance to shake his hand, and take a group photo on the steps outside of the state house. It was an amazing event, and very comforting; to know that the nation was very much behind the work that we all planned to do over the course of our two years.