Sunday, July 6, 2008

It was the mother of all scavenger hunts.

Arlene thought it would be funny to send Scott and I on a hunt to purchase some Sierra Leone items. The problem for us was that almost every item listed was written in Krio, so we not only were clueless on how to pronounce the items, we had no idea what they even were. Our national “guide” was John, a Sierra Leonean who was an intern for COTN last year. He was explicitly instructed to not say a word to us – no help at all -- except how to get to the market where we would begin our hunt.

Talk about an experience. I think that was the day that Scott and I were officially introduced to this beautiful and crazy culture. The first part of the adventure began with just getting there. We took the “public transport.” Now, instead of a public bus in Sierra Leone, they have what they call a poota-poota. This vehicle is usually made out of a 1970s Mazda van, which has been gutted. In place of the original two bench seats and interior, four skinny, metal benches are welded in from the back to the front and only the metal frame of the vehicle remains. Now, if two people are sitting on each bench, the only uncomfortable parts are the lack of legroom and the fact that the benches sit very high so most people have to slouch a bit in order to fit. However, the benches are actually meant for four people – which, when smashed up against one another, somehow is able to work. So, here Scott and I are, waiting for a poota-poota that’s going into downtown Freetown, with John at our side laughing at our reaction to everything around us.

We find a poota-poota and clamber in. I think we might have chosen the hottest day for such an outing. Add in that we’re now hunched over on a metal bench in an old Mazda, riding down the bumpy road along with about 18 (yes, 18) hot and sweaty Sierra Leoneans, I think the day just got hotter. Scott was wedged beside me, his knees practically at his chest and we both just laughed out loud – was this really happening? Were we really squashed into a public transport van in the middle of Sierra Leone with a bunch of Africans? Yeah, this was our day. No big deal. We remembered together what a blessing it is to be experiencing such things together, for to try to explain such an experience hardly does it justice.

We made it to the center of the city. John weaved in and out of streets and people to guide us to the large market area where they sell everything from kitchen sinks to cucumbers. The sights and sounds almost exhausted our five senses. Everything around us was extreme and to take it all in was a job in and of itself, don’t mind that we actually had to do some shopping. We passed women and children carrying fruit, water, clothes for sale on their heads. Others had goods laid out on the ground. There were so many people that we had to be conscious of every step. Cars tried to make it through the crowd every once in a while. We stared wide-eyed at passersby, the Krio language ringing in our ears. The buildings reminded Scott and I of New Orleans – bright colors of greens and purples, with rot-iron railings and balconies adorning the second and third stories. Some had been abandoned, others had been burned, a few refurbished. We wondered how much of this had been destroyed in the war. We wondered if this was still the result.

The outside market finally came and our job began. We fell into our “clueless white people” roles quite quickly, asking the market men and women what certain items were and if they had them. We, of course, were met with laughter when John explained to them the “game” we were playing, yet that didn’t cause many of them to lesson their price. We are white, which to them means we have a lot of money to spend. (If they only knew.) John wouldn’t even tell us if what we had bartered was a good price or not, which did honestly make it more fun. There was a lot of repetition since we didn’t know the Krio pronunciations – we’d struggle to read it, the old woman or child selling would say it back to us with a strained face trying to understand what we needed. We’d repeat it, they’d repeat it and finally they’d understand (toward the end, we just gave them the list). Scott got into a ten-minute barter session with one woman who wouldn’t budge on her high price for green peppers and I think I spent way too much money on two lapas (the fabric that women wrap around them as skirts or dresses).

The deeper we got into the market, the closer together the stalls were and the more intense it was – whole fishes laying out for sale, parts of bright pink pig in baskets, children running around asking if we wanted to buy their goods (“You want? You want?”) and puddles of rainwater to avoid here and there in the pathway. Everywhere was constant movement. After finding, choosing, and purchasing plantains, tomatoes, a kitchen bowl, we visited a small grocery store (a room where you could wander about 5 aisles) for cheese and cookies. We then asked someone to lead us to the closest pharmacy once we discovered what AAA was (malaria medication). And, finally we ended up on a street where about five local newspapers were sold after asking a businessman where we could buy one – that completed our purchase list.

Meanwhile, John just stood by the crazy Americans with a smile on his face, tying to stifle his laughter at our frustrations with language, knowledge and how much we should pay for what. A few times he gave me a nod yes or no if I really begged, but for the most part, he did well with his promise to Arlene. We stopped off at a little restaurant and paid way too much for a cold soda, but it was worth it. Then, it was jumping on the next poota-poota to wedge our way into a seat with other Africans going about their day – we somehow enjoyed the bumpy ride home.

As most of you know, Sierra Leone is a rainy place. Scott and I have quickly learned that when it rains, it rains hard. As we stepped off the poota-poota with about a mile left of walking to the house, we looked at the dark sky in front of us and then looked at one another. There was no way we were going to make it. Indeed, about two minutes later, the buckets of water started pouring down. Walking on a dirt road that leads between mud houses and small, shack-like businesses, John quickly led us onto the covered porch of the closest home. We certainly didn’t know the owners, but then again, neither did he. That’s the beauty of the Sierra Leonean culture – so often, they see themselves as one community. It was absolutely no big deal for us to stand on the porch of someone we didn’t know, without asking, as they stood there too, eating their dinner and talking. For the two white people, we were just along for the ride. We had stopped attempting to understand and were just happy to experience such a day. In the end, John’s uncle happened to drive by in a very nice vehicle (equipped with air conditioning!); we hopped in and he took us up the hill to our home – another act of kindness by this culture. We were concerned about our dirty and rain-soaked bodies messing up his pristine SUV, but it was nothing to him. We were flattered at such treatment and in the way such help was given – with no hesitation. In our individualist American culture, it is so much more common to fend for ourselves. And yet this little taste of Sierra Leone was a refreshing change in mind and spirit.

Took place on June 12

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