Lehman alumnus Joe Diomede (B.A., ’83) has traveled from his home in France to Sierra Leone on the West African coast, a nation still recovering from a brutal decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. An avid cyclist, Diomede is working for the next three months with an organization called the Village Bicycle Project (villagebicycleproject.org) to repair and refurbish bicyles, a means of transportation that can dramatically improve both the lives and economic futures of those residing in villages far from the city center. He is sharing his experiences in a blog with the Lehman community.
September 28, 2012
My last few emails were about Africa and the outer experience, and how the effect we are having can be felt. It feels good to be part of it, but as I was having those experiences, I was going through my own inner turmoil. It was quite strange because, yes, it wasn’t difficult to
screw my traveller’s hat on or to deal with street food and a different culture; after all, it comes naturally because it has been so much a part of my life.
The hard thing was I couldn’t read an email from home … without my eyes welling up. I couldn’t stop thinking of my wife and family, and every time I thought of my kids, I would project the scene of me returning in December and that was not a good space to be in. I was trying to find my internal groove and couldn’t understand what was going on. Why was I missing my kids so much and not being able to 100% settle? Then as I was headed to Freetown on the back of a military truck, which gave us a lift after our original ride broke down twice, I had a deep realization. I was sitting there, watching the scenes of Africa go by, and it reminded me of many other places and times in my life. When the fruit sellers came to the truck, I felt as [if] I was in my second home and being on the road was coming so naturally. So after pondering for the two hours it took for us to get there, it struck me like a lightning bolt.
I am not the single open-ended traveler anymore. My travel groove was easy to find back then, as I was doing it for other, shall I say, more selfish reasons and was not a parent. It dawned on me in that truck that I needed to embrace the emotional feelings. Years ago when leaving NY, I could take most of myself with me; sure my friends’ and family’s lives would happily go on without me, and who knew if I would ever call NY home again. I was a free agent, and the world was my oyster, and indeed look where that life took me. But now the goalposts have changed. My wife and kids are in France. That big part of me, Joe the parent, has a strong pull to that part of the world. Indeed the reason I am here trying to help is because of an accident of geography; my family wants for very little, and we are healthy.
So the other day when the cute girl in that coffee shop came over to me and Jason and started to hold my hand and stroke my arm, I looked down to her and we had a small chat. She lives in a place most of us reading this would never consider as a somewhere to live. Her sister and brother joined us, and as I looked at them, I knew that the reason we try to help from the affluent west is because how could we not? That little girl is not my daughter, but is someone’s. How could I not want to cry and think of my kids?
My view that these emotions were a weakness or inability to focus my energy here to the job at hand was misguided, and the truck ride helped me realize that those welled-up eyes are part of the process. If I could get into a total 100% groove and forget, then I would be missing the whole point. That girl and my daughter are the reasons for me being here. My son’s coming of age and entering the next phase into adolesence is why I am here facing the poverty of Sierra Leone. I and so many of us just want the world to be a better place, and emotions and a bit of painful reality are just part and parcel.
…. I arrived in Freetown in my stride. Yes maybe nearing 100% on form, but now embracing the emotion, and no longer looking to December, but realizing the gifts we give our children everyday. Those gifts from me come from another place now. Sure there will be rough times between now and my return, and who knows what the
final outcome will be of any of it? But for now, I am embracing the day…
Freetown is the most chaotic place I have ever seen, a world away from the bush a few days back. It is an African city unrivaled in its energy and absolute craziness, but the warmth of the Sierra Leonians still shines through the havoc. I love cities and so am not freaked out by the mayhem. I even managed to buy some tools for the project, and made some friends with a few stall holders. Almami now has friends in Freetown.