Last week I received email from Nat Treadway, an old friend and fellow volunteer. Nat (Peace Corps) and I (CUSO) had trained together in swamp rice irrigation and cultivation in Bumban, Sierra Leone in 1975, and had worked together as trainers in similar Peace Corps agricultural training programs in Makali (1976) and Kpuwabu (though I don’t trust my memory on the latter).
Anyway, Nat, who resides in Houston, was in Alberta on a government contract and wondered if we could get together between his meetings in Edmonton and Calgary. I eagerly agreed and was delighted to host Nat at our house on the weekend.
Of course, we reminisced about the old days and updated each other on our education, work, and family life since leaving Sierra Leone. We shared scans of our slides (since it’s no longer polite to subject guests to torture by Kodak Carousel). Now our slides are darned and muddy. Some of mine have blotches, an artifact of falling into a swamp drainage canal with my camera attached. Who knew Kodachrome wouldn’t last forever?
I told a story of attending a church service with my host family while undergoing Krio language training in Leicester village. In the middle of a hymn, a hullabaloo erupted as members of the choir sought out and killed a snake that was trying to enter a church window. Nat interrupted excitedly that this hadn’t occurred in Leicester but in the old stone church in Regent! And he remembered the exact same incident.
Since Nat and I were stationed in different parts of Sierra Leone, we rarely saw each other except at training programs. But because our training was similar (Nat in civil engineering, I in surveying) our work lives were similar. We lived in modest houses, were routinely plagued by malaria and intestinal parasites, made tight friends with those around us, and even rode the same motorcycles. We had even carried the broken engines of our Honda XL 175s to the same PC mechanical gurus in Tikonko! And as perhaps naive and brash young men, our experiences during those early years were deeply important to us, then and now.
Thirty five years later, I think Nat and I are still trying to make sense of our volunteer experience. I think Nat was a little more observant and thoughtful than I was, since he kept a journal of his time in SL. I, on the other hand, gave no thought to the future and of how those years might change me.
But we both had noticed acutely the strangeness of being outsiders in a radically different culture that nonetheless generally respected us simply because we were white men, no matter how raw and inexperienced we were. Time and again, Sierra Leoneans ascribed to us wisdom and expertise we simply didn’t possess. And I think sometimes we were emboldened to undertake projects perhaps beyond our capabilities. We also doubted, after three decades and a massively destructive civil war, whether anything we had done had made any lasting change. How could we know? And where would we look? But, on the other hand, we did know, and were keenly aware of, all those times when we might have slighted someone or taken Sierra Leonean hospitality for granted.
We concluded, with certainty, the oldest of volunteer truisms: that though we had gone to Sierra Leone to help, in the end, Sierra Leone had given more to us than we had to its citizens. And we knew this not so much as a cause of gratitude, but of a discomfiting guilt. We never intended to count our Africa years as mere “experiences” or entries on our resumes, but in the end, we knew how much of our identities were rooted in those years of laterite dust, palm wine, gara cloth, endless drumming, motorcycle repairs, kerosene lamps, plasass and rice, pounding rain on tin roofs…
I still dream of Sierra Leone. And when I do, I see the same volunteers I knew in the seventies. part of me wants to return to smell the smells, hear Krio spoken, feel the sun’s heat.