Thursday, June 12, 2008

A plane ride to Africa

Koi sits down next to us on the plane. We ask him his reasoning for flying to Sierra Leone. He looks at us in surprise and says, “I’m from there.” And so begins a long question and answer period he allows us to control – about his country, his people, his customs. We soon realize that everything we’ve read and watched on videos is very real in Sierra Leone – for here is proof in the flesh sitting right next to us. He tells of his family of seven siblings plus two that were adopted after they lost their parents in the war. He tells of living in multiple refugee camps and stealing food from nearby farmers for the necessity of nourishment. He shares of his brother who had to flee the country because the rebels were after him. He says he doesn’t worry about much now in his country – because after going through the war, “nothing could be worse.”

But Koi is also an introduction to the Sierra Leonean people for us – his warm smile and friendly face are kind to the two curious Americans who know no more about his country and his people than a Hollywood movie about diamonds and a website that lists population statistics. He tells us we will love Sierra Leone and his pride for his country is evident in how he speaks and in the details he shares. He is polite and continues to warn us about cultural characteristics that we may not know.

His mother sells palm oil at a market in the village where he grew up. He says it was only through a micro loan from an international organization that she was able to earn the money to pay for him to attend college – his gratefulness is quite evident in his demeanor and the way in which he tells us his story.

I wonder, as I look into this young man’s eyes, what has he seen? What does he have in his history and childhood that my safe and secure American mind can’t even imagine? Where has he been? And what does he think of us?

He assures us, once he finds out that we’re Americans, that he likes Americans. “The British are too stiff,” He tells us, laughing.

I’m always amazed at how we can be a communicating world – so small now with the Internet – and yet still struggle to relate with and fully understanding certain people and cultures far away. It’s hard to believe such countries even exist when they are not in our daily lives. But, in person, suddenly there is a whole new perspective. Koi is here sitting next to us – a native of this African country we had never even heard of until a few years ago. His stories are very real and this place – his home – will soon be more than just “a poor country in Africa” to us.

We begin our journey…

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