In this installment of our blog, our wonderful intern shares one of her mornings in Sierra Leone with us.
This week I thought it would be best to share a picture of a typical day of my life in the villages, and my random observations (though I must admit that this “day” is actually comprised of my activities and observations over several days). I’ve had to split this post into two parts, so this week you will only hear about my mornings.
Each morning I wake up at 5:40 to the sound of the mosque bells and the roosters’ crows. I start a short run by 6 a.m., just as the town is beginning to wake up. After I return and take a quick shower, I head to the village market. Passing through the town, I am constantly followed by cries of “Alice!” which is the name I go by here (Alissa is too foreign for them to pronounce correctly). They are always happy to see me (Pujehun can be a bit like “Cheers,” “where everybody knows your name/and they’re always glad you came), and are pleased when I say hello in the very limited Mende I’ve picked up.
A typical conversation:
Villager: Bissie (Hello)
Me: Bissie (Hello)
Villager: Kahunyena (How is your body today) (or Beeyaee (How was your sleep))?
Me: Kayan Gwoma (Good, praise be to god). O biya bey (How about you)?
Villager: Kayan Gwoma.
This is followed by more words in Mende, which results in a completely blank stare from me, which in turn results in them laughing good naturedly at me and my lack of knowledge before sending me on my way.
When I arrive at the market I am met with hellos from the women there, who now know me well, as they walk by carrying their wares on top of their heads before setting them down on the market tables. In Sierra Leone everyone (especially women and children) carry things on their heads, placing a rolled cloth on top of their heads to balance the object on. I’ve seen some insane things carried that way, from large buckets and basins of water (they don’t spill a drop) to egg cartons piled high with eggs (I think they were boiled) to a log carried from deep in the bush (this man had made his balancing circle out of leaves).
At the market, I debate between rice “pop”, a purple-ish sweet, warm liquid made of rice, lime and sugar that is eaten with chunks of bread (this is my personal favorite food in the market), fried sweet bread (most of the food you can buy here is fried), fried meat pie (a little bit of spicy meat and veggies — I’m trying to increase my spice tolerance), fried dough balls (served with a spicy sauce drizzled on top), cassava balls (served with the option of salt or a spicy broth) and more. I really enjoy trying different meals and getting to know these talkative, lively women. After I have finished chowing down, I head back to my porch, stepping under the awning just as it begins to rain (it is rainy season right now and the weather is living up to the title).
Under the porch, my host siblings are crowded around a bowl filled with rice and leaf “soup”. This communal bowl is how all children in the village eat. I was told by a villager, “If they eat together they will love each other.” The children eat with their hands, taking a little of the soup and mixing it with the rice, forming it into small balls in their hands and eating it. Looking out at other porches, I see similar scenes playing out. Though this is not the case with my host siblings, I notice most children here have very large bellies (but no fat in other areas) with large bulges, far larger than typical belly buttons should be. When I posed this question to my mom, a physician back in America she sent back this reply:
“The children with the swollen bellies, from what you have told us, almost certainly have a form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor. This is characterized by adequate caloric intake, but a deficiency in protein. Children are especially vulnerable to this as their growing bodies require protein for growth. Because of the lack of protein, fluid leaks out of vessels into tissues and what are called “third spaces” in the body of which the space in the belly between the intestines and the belly wall is one. This fluid, called ascities, builds up causing the belly to swell and the belly button to protrude out. This fluid build-up can also happen with liver failure, heart failure and certain cancers which are the usual causes in the first world. Kwashiorkor is common in Africa as meat is just too expensive for many people to have adequate amounts of protein in their diet.”
It makes sense from what I’ve observed. Most people here can’t afford any protein, and when they can, its tiny fish that they catch nearby. Also, even if a family gets fish, it tends to be the adults who get to eat it as they have been working on the farms all day.
Time in the town slows due to the heavy rain. Everyone is trapped on their porch, wrapped up in sweatshirts, fleeces, and pants, shaking from cold when it is only 60 degrees outside. I, however, love when it rains here. It’s a comfortable temperature to me!
My host mother spends the morning braiding my sibling’s hair, as well as the hair of a few of her friends who brave the rain to get to our porch. The calls from the village women to braid my hair have been steadily increasing as the days have gone on, up to 2-3 times a day. I’m going to have to give in one of these days. They especially like my hair when it is wet (they keep touching it and asking to braid it). I am also told on a daily basis that my skin is very white, as if I needed a reminder!
The women share a small handheld mirror, one of the few in the village, staring into it intensely. Most people here almost never see their face, myself included. I haven’t seen my face since I arrived in the villages, an odd but liberating experience. This is why both kids and adults love having their picture taken. Since they so rarely see themselves, a picture means all that much more to them, producing smiles, laughter and cries of joy.
One of my neighbors, a teenage girl, runs over with a few limes and mashed up green leaves in her hand. She showed me how she uses this as a kind of homemade nail polish. She lays out the mashed up leaves on a plastic bag and squeezes the limes onto it, mixing them up with her hands. She then puts a little of the leaf mix onto each of her toes, cutting another plastic bag into strips and tying the leaves to her toes using the plastic. She asked if I wanted to try it, but since I didn’t know how long they had to stay on I told her I would do it next time. She came back later in afternoon to show off her nails, which were now stained orange.
Eventually the rain lets up and the children change into their uniforms and head to school. The adults also pack up and most of them head off to their farms in the bush. After being surrounded by people all morning, I am left in relative tranquility; the only sounds are distant yells of children at the school. I get comfortable in my chair and open up my book to get in some reading while I can.
Part 2 is coming soon!
Till next time,