Back To My Roots

Going back to Sierra Leone to work was so far in the future for me. I didn’t even think that it would be happening any time soon. I thought perhaps I would work around West Africa for a little before finally retiring in Sierra Leone to fulfill the rest of my dreams. When I returned to the U.S. from the Peace Corps in May of 2012, I was telling everyone that I give myself maximum of 5 years to wrap things up in the U.S. and move permanently back to Africa, somewhere. I said no matter what, I’d pack my bags and go and if an opportunity came earlier to go I would snatch it up in a heartbeat. A year later, I finished my masters and six months later I was making a choice that led me to Sierra Leone.

Even with my volunteer experience in Niger and Guinea, I knew that Sierra Leone was going to be challenging. Most people in the Diaspora that I spoke to, were going on about things that I don’t really see as challenging; lack of running water, electricity and other luxuries of developed nations. I wasn’t worried about those challenges. Believe it or not, those are things you easily adjust to. I wrote about this before while I was in the Peace Corps, but what takes time to get used to is the culture, the people, the work environment, etc. Some people might be like, “culture? people? aren’t you Sierra Leonean?” Yes I am. I was born in Sierra Leone and lived here until I was almost 11 and even attended school in Freetown, but don’t fool yourself that you because of that there are not certain things to adjust to. Some people (men mostly) may say I’m more “American” than I am “Sierra Leonean.”

As a woman, some things are even more challenging. It may seem cliché and the tired old thing you hear from every professional woman, but there are many things for us to consider. The first thing you will face is that you have to be extra vigilant for your security, even more so if you are single and alone. You can be alone, even if you have family. Trust me. Some people make the horrible mistake that because they have family back home the transition will be easier, not always. People expect a lot from you because you are coming from overseas and they are going to be more demanding than supportive. Some day when you are in a bind and think you can count on them, that’s when you realize that having family doesn’t necessarily mean you are not alone. You have to be even more weary of “friends” and sometimes as women we can be a little too trusting and understanding, but you have to take your time in new environments. I have to be more observant and really take my time with certain people I interact with.

Also be ready for the surprises. The unexpected challenges. For example, not even the second day I arrived in country, I realized that the man who I lived with from age 9 to when I left Sierra Leone and who sexually abused me that whole time, was going to be too close for comfort. I immediately had to make some very tough decisions and be strong in my mind. Since then, I have had several encounters with this man and I feel victorious. I’ve also been robbed, TWICE, since I’ve been here. Both times were at my place of residence and the last one has left me basically homeless because I made the difficult decision to leave that place even though, aside from the robberies, I felt very comfortable. Thankfully, I have a good friend and a supportive colleague. Finding housing in Freetown has not been easy, so if you know anywhere reasonably priced, let me know!

But it hasn’t all been dark. Weirdly enough, I am VERY happy here and have had some wonderful experiences here that far outweigh the negatives. I am sure as a woman many would like to know about the dating possibilities in Sierra Leone. Yes, I have received this question many times since I’ve been here and even most recently, someone tried to hook me up with someone and I had to make it clear that I am not looking. Here comes the cultural thing again. Dating is tough everywhere (at least that’s what I hear from all those Cosmo and girly magazines). Infidelity is also a problem everywhere, but the level of acceptance here turns me off a lot. There is a general understanding from the women that their men will cheat on them, even if they are married and it is even the case that the women also step out on the men. Anyone who knows me (like any normal woman out there I think), knows that fidelity is a big issue for me. I have my qualms with marriage, but I am a one man sort of woman. I want to settle down with ONE person and make beautiful babies. I just don’t think I would be able to hack it in an environment where such things are so readily accepted.

One of the first guys to heartily pursue me is married, as he says, “in principle.” I am not quite sure what that means, but I made it clear that I am not interested, but it did not stop him from declaring his undying love for me. There have been a few others as well who are clearly in relationships. It is very interesting, but no one seems to bat an eye. Someone close to me here even told me, “yeah Janice, I don’t think you can date anyone here,” when I was explaining the married guy story. It seems perhaps a lot of the men here and I just don’t share the same values. Luckily I have a way to weed out all the ones who are not serious; I tell them I don’t cook. This however has not worked on the married guy, who apparently is a great cook and is willing to cook.

Again, you may wonder: there seems to be more negatives than positives, Janice! Wrong. The biggest positive so far is my job. Yawn. I know. What? Work? Yes, it is true. I love seeing the future generation of my country thinking about innovative ways to solve issues in their community. Just seeing how the kids love being in the lab and experimenting with different tools makes me so happy. There is never a dull moment. I work most weeks, Monday through Saturday, that’s how much I love it. I also just love being here in Sierra Leone. The pace is so much more relaxing. I feel like I hardly ever had any time for anything while I was in the U.S., but since I’ve been in SL I’ve traveled to Bo, Bonthe, Kabala and of course done the tourist-like activities and gone to the beaches. I love the idea that I can always get fresh fruits, vegetables and eat all my favorite foods anytime I want. Some of you may not know how important that last part is to me, but other foodies will get it. Also, even with some decepticons (Transformers reference), our people are generally kind and helpful and I am happy to be here among my people. There is a lot of potential in Sierra Leone and I have been doing a lot of observation of the different sectors and the possibilities just make me more excited every time I think about it. I could write forever on my experience so far, but I’ll stop here. If you ever want to hear more stories and get more details on life here for a woman of the diaspora, let me know.

Author: Janice Williams

Janice Williams is a Peace Corps volunteer who served in Niger and Guinea from 2010 to 2012 and Co-Founder of the Sierra Leonean Empowerment Network (SLEN). She is currently the Country Director for the Innovation Lab (Inlabs) program of Innovate Salone.

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