My sister Nancy, and my cousins Solomon (below), and Andala (to my left)
We left Freetown the day after meeting the president. Two continental buses were rented for the 59 of us making the trip; 56 trainees, and 3 Volunteer Assistant Trainers (established Peace Corps Volunteers in the midst of their summer break). Like anything else in the country, we took a long time to get going; just leaving the city proper took close to two hours. Traffic was never smooth, but it did provide a good opportunity for all of us to pull out our cameras and snap photos of our first extensive drive through Freetown. We first stopped on the edge of the city to collect all of the peace corps Landcruisers spread out behind us. As the buses idled in wait, we took off en masse, spreading through the shanties and saying hi to anyone we could just to practice a little Krio. Once all of the Landcruisers had passed through the inner city traffic to our stopping point, we collected ourselves and continued.
The peninsula that Freetown is located on is breathtakingly beautiful. Jutting out from the continent, the Freetown peninsula is defined by its sharp spine of mountains that look far more imposing than their humble 1000 meters. Thick rainclouds crowded the uppermost peaks, shrouding the highest tips. For all of their beauty, the Serra Lyoa mountains, for which the country is named after, were a short range and lasted no more than the 20 miles of the peninsula. We were soon into the jungle wilderness of Sierra Leone’s interior. It was no stereotypical thick jungle wilderness, but small pockets of jungle surrounded by open ‘bush’. Bush in this case the term used to describe the most common undeveloped areas of the country; typified by palm trees, as well as small trees and large shrubs between two and ten feet in height. Below everything else was thick wild grass, hiding all of the wildlife of the country, anything from black mamba to alligators and scorpions.
Occasionally we would pass through a small village. People would sometimes stop and stare, sometimes wave and run, but most often they would continue their tasks completely unaware or uninterested in our passing. Scenery changed minimally, and except for a few small plateaus rising a hundred meters above the plains and shallow valleys, the landscape was flat. After maybe four or five hours we started to arrive into Bo city. The small villages came more and more quickly and the edge of the city looked like a Brazilian favela. Traffic slowed and thickened as we drove deeper into Bo. Like Freetown, the rules of the road were rough guidelines at best. No lines delineated direction, flow of traffic was erratic, and the width of lanes depended on what vehicle was passing, whether a motorcycle taxi or a charter bus. We turned off on a narrow road with a broad trunked cotton tree at its base. The road was short, only two hundred yards, and led us to the unpaved entrance of the city hall where our welcome ceremony and host families were waiting. As our buses halted, the gates to the city hall compound opened revealing a few hundred people dancing and singing, dressed in traditional Africana and awaiting our arrival.
We exited the bus to a roar of cheers. Most of us didn’t know how to process the fact that we still knew so little about the country and yet we were about to meet the families that we would be living with for the next eleven weeks. Inside the main hall, several hundred chairs were lined up to fit all in attendance, probably 250-300 people. After a brief speech and welcome address from the mayor of Bo, we trainees were set loose into the crowd, and told to practice our novice Krio with the strangers to try to find our host families; they had been given our names, and we had theirs. It proved to be an awkward experience, most of us flubbing through what little Krio we had, barely intelligible to the locals through our American drawl. I found my mom because a friend of mine found her first and yelled my name. Esther Barthalomew (pronounced Ester Bar-tah-low-mee). She was short with an intense demeanor, but I could tell she was a very warm person.
I struggled through every attempt to talk to her, my terrible Krio never bridging the language gap, and I had a lot of trouble understanding her Krio and English. We decided to focus on eating instead of speaking. Families in Sierra Leone share a communal dish, usually rice covered in a variety of sauces or soups, known as Plasas. I sat with my mom and one of my aunts and we shared a communal bowl of rice with Fish and potato leaf Plasas. After the brief ceremony was finished, we walked to their- and now my house- and I was introduced to the rest of my new family. It was overwhelming. I was scarcely prepared for the size and energy of my family. Nieces and nephews grabbed any part of me they could, anxious to greet and look at the new member of the family. I hardly understood a word. Most of my family was speaking Mende, the local language of the eponymous tribe, but for all I knew they could have been speaking Krio and I had not yet had enough real exposure to understand anything.
My mom allowed for a brief deliberation to decide my Mende name, but she eventually picked “Munda”. Munda being the Mende word for belonging to all; she told me that I belonged to the rest of my family just as much as they all now belonged to me, and that I was one of them. Munda Barthalomew.