Learning About Africa: Going Back to Sierra Leone

Next Friday I’m heading back in time, so to speak.  That is, I’m going back to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for the first time since I left in 1976 after two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My emotions are very complicated as I went to Freetown straight out of college, age twenty-one.  I was part of a large group of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Sierra Leone at the time along with a number of British (VSO) and Canadian (CUSO) volunteers.  I can’t speak for all of them, but for me it was a seminal experience in my life.  So going back after so long and after a horrendous conflict is scary.  Will it seem familiar?  (I know the Cotton Tree will be even if the City Hotel is gone.) Will Krio come back to me?  (Kushe-o… How de body?…) My way around town?  Bargaining for a taxi? (Remembering that instead of it being two leones to the dollar it is now 4, 357.05 leones to the dollar.  Talk about inflation!)

Here’s my twenty-one year-old self upcountry circa 1976

I’m going for a meeting of the Friends of Sierra Leone, a group that came together when things were first falling apart in Sierra Leone and no one in the world media seemed to be paying any attention.  I remember several difficult meetings at the Sierra Leone Consulate here in NYC with Sierra Leoneans hopelessly talking about what we could do.  It took an invasion of Freetown for the world media to finally take notice and then it was mostly about child soldiers, blood diamonds, and amputating limbs.  Around that time I did a project with my fourth grade to raise money for Sierra Leone and draw attention to other aspects of the country than had been in the news to date.

In 2000 the Friends of Sierra Leone held its yearly meeting at Mystic Seaport to celebrate the Amistad. The replica of the ship was just completed and the museum had several exhibits about the captives and their stories.  While preoccupied with events in Sierra Leone I noticed that there had been children on the Amistad (something Spielberg left out of his movie) and later became obsessed with learning all about them (as they all came from what is now Sierra Leone). That turned into my story about Sarah Margru Kinson which is to be published by Candlewick Press in a couple of years (as it is an interactive book with envelopes and such it is complicated to create so while the writing is long done the designing and illustration is just getting underway).

The reason for this meeting is to celebrate Peace Corps return to Sierra Leone.  They had been there since the 60s, but were pulled when things go too dangerous in the mid-90s.  The Friends of Sierra Leone lobbied tirelessly to get Peace Corps to bring them back and finally last summer the first cohort returned and a second group is starting their training now.  And so we will be in Freetown shortly meeting with the current volunteers, returned volunteers (what Peace Corps calls those of us who served), family members of current volunteers, Sierra Leoneans who are also members of the organization, and many others.  If the weather prevails (it is the rainy season so who knows) we will visit Bunce Island, a notable slave fort that has great meaning and significance.  (I’ve always rued that I missed my chance to go during my own Peace Corps training because I was sick reacting to a shot of some sort —we got many.)  We will visit a school we’ve supported as an organization and help at another one.  Hopefully I will also visit the school I taught at, still there after all these years.

I will take photos and hope to blog as well — this grand adventure of mine.



Filed under History, Learning About Africa, Sierra Leone

11 responses to “Learning About Africa: Going Back to Sierra Leone

  1. Have a good time, Monica. That ought to be a fascinating trip.

    If you’re taking along reading, Teju Cole’s novel, OPEN CITY, is excellent. Young Nigerian intellectual in NYC, with lots of historical information woven in about African, the US, and Europe. I think you’d like it.


  2. Judy

    I’ll be going with you. I was a volunteer in the 60s and went back for the first time in 2004 after 38 years. Freetown is not the same place it was back then. I hope you get to visit your former school. The whole experience was a very emotional one for me, one that has kept me going back every year since. I’ll see you in London.
    Moyamba 64-6


  3. I’ll look forward to sharing in your trip. My daughter is still working out the details of her own study in Africa. I hope it’s as transforming an experience for her as it was for you.


  4. Wow! Can’t wait to see the pics and read about it!


  5. Laura Whitson

    Hi Monica,
    I, too, was a PCV in Sierra Leone ’74-’77, so perhaps we crossed paths back then. I am so excited to be returning after all these years. See you in Freetown!


  6. Lesley

    So excited for you! Your experience in Sierra Leone generated an infectious enthusiasm that now permeates my own teaching. I am simply thrilled that you are able to return in less than a week! I will be thinking of you and sending you safe journey thoughts the whole time.


  7. Thanks, everyone. Off tomorrow!


  8. My husband was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the 80’s, when they were having a hard time placing people because of all the unrest. Best wishes on your journey. Thanks for sharing it with us all!


  9. Pingback: My Return to Sierra Leone: Freetown « educating alice

  10. bridget56

    Hi Monica, I was a VSO volunteer there in 1976 and remember meeting you. Lots of luck and love. Clive.


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