The Other Side of the Coin

October 10, 2012 4:27 pm Blogs & Columns

The bread oven and its proud owner.

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.

October 10, 2012

How’s the body? As I stay longer, I work side by side with people suffering from malaria, or worse. The sweaty faces, cold clammy handshake or jaundiced eyes say a lot more than “Thanks to God.” Behind the smiles, as always, is that which we portray to the world and that which we internalize. In a place where confrontation, death and war is too recent a memory, I’m glad for the ability of the population to try and show the optimism that is beneath the sun-drenched surface, because it is a powerful tool needed for survival, both here and in the world at large. I’m happy to be exposed to it.

Our daytime security guard is still proudly cleaning his bike; I had to bend the rules slightly to get him on the one-day workshop, as his need may not be as great as the others in the villages, but as he has the keys to the house where we keep our worldly belongings, has killed three poisonous snakes around the house in my short tenure here, and knows where to climb and tap the palm trees for fresh ‘Palm wine,’ a local alcoholic delicacy, I thought some rule-bending wouldn’t hurt. As I see him on a daily basis happily pedaling along, it serves another purpose — it reminds me of why I am here, and as I can’t see the proud new owners of the one-day workshops out in the bush, pedaling to their farms or schools, seeing Saidu makes me smile and think of them all.

Sitting in a bar on the outskirts having an ice cold beer (!!!:-) one night portrayed a different side to life here. The young girls who want to “Be your friend” seem a world away from their topless counterparts in the bush with their babies on their backs and their simple thatched houses baking in the hot sun or giving shelter from a torrential downpour. But are they really? How many may go home to those same places at night? These young girls are maybe paying to be there to help serve more beer, and the connotations are very sexual.

I have no clue how it works. The night bar scene isn’t the usual “Opoto” one, and there are a few of us around — a handful of white faces who maybe work for the mining companies or another NGO — so we are easy targets. HIV billboards promoting safe sex come to the fore of my mind when I see the young ladies at work. It’s a part of life that is not only true here in SL, but being played out from Thailand to Amsterdam right now. You can only hope that for all the women out there having to sell themselves just to survive, most will survive those years and come out the other end with their health intact.

As for another side of life, I am told that the Baptist morning devotions here at the eye clinic put homosexuals, cocaine dealers, and people with earrings in the same category!! On the other hand, the Muslim and Roman Catholic schools seem to work in harmony. A Peace Corps volunteer told me today that, after the morning announcements in her Catholic school, the day begins with a Christian prayer with a Muslim prayer to follow. In Lunsar, there are at least two Mosques and a few different denominations of Christian church. The different practices and belief systems seem not to be an issue. Sierra Leone does seem special, and as the gentleness
alongside the rawness of life slowly works its way under my skin, I feel a lovely kinship. Again, I still am only skimming the surface and know I would always be the “Opoto” no matter how long I remain, but to begin to understand culture, religion, and how it all works — or doesn’t — takes much longer than the time I will spend here.

I have fun reading the different t-shirts scattered around the place, “Zoo York City” being my latest favorite. This kind of city dress juxtaposed with colorful traditional dress. One thing, though, that is universal is the seeming ability for everyone to carry a load on their head, and bend forward from the hip absolutely straight-backed with the load still in place. It could make a yogi jealous.

In a society where debilitating disease can ostracize you from your family and community, it is interesting to be staying at an eye clinic where blindness (often curable with a simple operation) can be the difference between a life in isolation, and a normal life with a husband or wife and children. The line between the two is a razor’s
edge. Before the ten years of brutal warfare, the eye clinic helped many people here in SL, and now hopefully the eye clinic can regain its prewar status. It does what it can for now, and a few lives are changed weekly. My Dutch roommates tell me on their interviews they get to hear about those lives changed by a simple operation as well as those marginalized forever.

Many people are here trying to make a difference, like teaching blind people to keep bees and work the land, and the six Spanish doctors we ran into in Makeni, a nearby town, who are here doing voluntary surgery and dentistry. My cousin is also down in Colombia and Peru doing much the same work as these doctors. We’re all trying to make our small marks, and today the same Peace Corps worker told me of a young girl who now uses her bike for the 9 (15kms) mile walk each way to school!

I sit here writing, eating a warm small bagette-style bread that Yann, one of my roommates, and myself found in a bakery on the way to Lunsar. The bread oven is a dome, much like the one that Angie built in our front garden but much bigger. It’s the nicest bread around, complete with a crusty outer. I was explaining our oven to Yann, and there was one down the street all the time. It wouldn’t pass EU standards, as the wood is placed in the same dome as the bread, the way ovens used to be made. The owner was quite shy, but he stood proudly next to the oven as I took a photo. Up the street is a couple who have an ice cream machine.

The soft ice cream, at 50 cents a serving, is good; you just have to wait ten or so minutes as the generator gets going, so getting a photocopy at the same time is a good idea so as not to have the whole thing going just for an ice cream. When the hot dry season comes, I may make it a weekly stop, and who knows, with any luck the generator may stay on a few hours in the hot afternoon sun. I hope they do well. So amidst the chaos, between the days in the bush, tiptoeing over dead snakes or running from live ones;-) there are some of the comforts of the different life I lead normally. These small connections make it once again so clear that the people of the world are much more similar than we are different.

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