Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sierra Leone—A most unusual encounter

My December trip to Sierra Leone was no ordinary travel escapade. It was more of a working trip—something I think of as voluntourism. We were there 10 days and we spent a lot of time getting closely involved with the villagers of one community. I traveled there as part of a seven-member group under the auspices of The Lance and Julie Burma Foundation ( The foundation’s stated mission is to enrich the lives of the people of West Africa specifically in the country of Sierra Leone through support of education, healthcare, and economic development initiatives.

We more or less did that—more in the sense that we moved some education and healthcare initiatives ahead, less in that our work didn’t include any economic development activity.

While we didn’t really go to see the sights, we did see some sights. Took a home-brew tour of Freetown, the capitol. Stayed in Makeni in central Sierra Leone and managed to get downtown a few times. Drove to another town, Yonibana, a 2-1/2-hour ride (one way) that I will talk about but never want to take again.

Our accommodations were light years away from what any normal vacationing traveler would consider acceptable, although in their own right, they were acceptable. The food was different but good. However, our bodies had to adjust to it—gastronomically speaking—a process that worked itself out in a couple of days.

It is a wholly different place than most of us can imagine. Traveling and living there produced the kind of intense awareness that dramatically affected my perspective. I have spent a lifetime living or traveling in first-world countries and suddenly thrust myself into a third-world country trying to recover from 10 years of civil war. No electricity in most of the country. Little clean water. Poor, if any, healthcare. A broken economy. Extreme poverty.

Still, the adventure was not disheartening by any means. It was rather enriching and enlightening. To see people living in a place so remarkably different than my own, and to see them happy and joyful—well, I had to ask myself how that was possible. And I’m not sure I have the answer. It just doesn’t seem as if people living in some of the living conditions I saw should be happy. On the other hand, some of them have lived that way for 800 or 1,000 years. In my semi-philosophical moments, I tend to think that life is what life is; we have two choices: be happy with what we have, or not.

Ok—I’m not a philosopher or psychologist. No need to roll your eyes. But as I said, this was not the usual travel experience. It was more than a visit; it was somewhat of an immersion, a close look at another culture. I recommend it. Don’t let the opportunity pass should it present itself to you.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some stories and photos about my visit to Sierra Leone. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to comment. Just click the comment link at the bottom of each post.


Ruth Zouzouambe said...

Wonderful! I especially love your questioning of people's happiness. That seems to be a common discovery for people living in first world countries. When we travel to third world countries, we often think that we will show others the way to live, when in reality, they are showing us the way to live!

Sharri said...

Well, you just answered my question. Its all relative. I like your conclusion.