Posted at 12:21 p.m., Dec. 5, 2014


Culture shock:

A soccer player rests after a leisurely game with his friends in Sierra Leone. The clothes they wear seem so American because they primarily come from donations by the U.S. and other countries.

Photo by Vycktoryja Selves

Experience of a lifetime: Sierra Leone

Freetown, Sierra Leone—Shirts? Check. Pants? Check. A week’s worth of underwear? Check.Camera? Check. Anything else I might need while I travel halfway across the world? Oh, yeah, the most important thing, an open mind.

When I was told in May of this year I would be traveling to Freetown, Sierra Leone, Africa, I was in disbelief, to say the least. What had my mother been doing while visiting her brother in Belgium in March while I was visiting friends in Seattle? Planning an opportunity of a lifetime should have been my answer. But I’m the pragmatic worrywart who usually thinks of others before myself.

My first thought was “Are they drunk right now in Belgium? There is a lot of beer there, so it could be possible.”

My second was “But I’m supposed to be the manager of a pool in Kimball, Nebraska, this summer! I can’t tell my boss I’m flying overseas in the middle of the season.”

But as soon as my friends heard about the outrageous travel ideas my mother was making, they fully supported her by telling me there was no way I was missing this kind of an opportunity because of a summer job. And, as all small towns work, my boss already knew I would be leaving by the time I got the guts to tell her. Thanks, Grandma.

Before this year, traveling to Sierra Leone had barely crossed my mind. All I knew was my uncle worked there as some director-type person in the Peace Corps and wanted us to visit him. Well, instead of the whole family, he got stuck with me, his favorite niece.

By July 7, with much planning and arguing between myself and my mother and her awesome planning skills, I was on my three-day journey to Freetown, Sierra Leone, via Newark, New Jersey, and Brussels, Belgium.

Upon my arrival at Lungi Airport, Sierra Leone, I stepped from the airplane and walked into a sauna. On a map, Sierra Leone is situated in Western Africa, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and about 600 miles north of the equator.

Additionally, it was during the rainy season, so the humidity was much higher than ours. After meeting with my uncle and taking a water taxi to Freetown, I was faced with the realization I was no longer in Kansas when he took me to supper at a small eatery on the beach where I watched the sunset from a place I never seen it set before.

Not only were the sunsets a beautiful treat at the end of each day, but also the people I met while staying there were some of the kindest I have ever known. Any time I had a conversation with someone new, one of the first questions he would ask me was “How do you like Sierra Leone?”

Sierra Leoneans care about the perception of their home and want visitors to love it just as much as they do. After a decade of civil war from 1991-2002, the people of Sierra Leone have come a long way in working together for the development of their homeland.

While staying with my uncle, I was able to experience what it was like to go to the market on Wednesdays with Adama, his maid. Let me tell you, market day in Freetown reminds me of Black Friday in the U.S. with more bartering. At the market, I could find fresh fruits, vegetables, rice, meat as well as items like material for clothes.

Walking around the market with Adama caused a little trouble for her because all the sellers could see I was with her and tried to make her pay more for items she had previously bought. Watching Adama shop for her items and barter for the price was amazing because she was a natural at it compared to me when I tried to buy a few trinkets to bring home.

It takes skill to make someone give a fair price for his wares. If we could not get an item in the market, Adama would have our driver take us to a store similar to our grocery stores. Depending on which one we went to, I could find Nutella and Jif peanut butter or Special K cereal and V8 juice. It was almost as if I had a piece of home with me.

After I spent about a month in Freetown, the issue of the Ebola virus became bigger, and the Peace Corps volunteers with whom my uncle were working had to be removed from their sites around the country. It was hard to watch how much the removal of the volunteers affected the Sierra Leoneans who had been working alongside them. A strong relationship of camaraderie had developed as everyone in the Peace Corps of Sierra Leone worked together to improve all the different villages with programs ranging from education to agriculture. These aid workers cared so much for these Sierra Leoneans and the changes being made in the country of nearly 7 million.

Also, because of the problems created by the Ebola virus, the internships in which I was interested were unable to take place. Many of these organizations were dealing with their own issues, yet, with the extra time, I was able to reflect on how this experience made me want to travel more. By being able to experience the cultural difference and similarities, I could see how important having a broader view of the world gives me perspective others don’t know.

Even now, when I hear of crazy conspiracy theories about the spread of the Ebola virus, it makes me somewhat mad because I was living and working with Sierra Leoneans who actually had to worry about their loved ones in different villages where the Ebola virus was prevalent.

After sitting in two separate meetings in Freetown with health care professionals, one of them a U.S. Centers for Disease Control representative, I will tell anybody who will listen what I learned about the spread and prevention of the Ebola virus.

The Ebola virus is not airborne but is transferred via bodily fluids including blood, saliva, mucus, vomit, feces, urine and semen from people who show signs of being infected. The bodily fluids then must come into contact with a person’s eyes, nose, mouth or open cut for him to infect another person.

From a general visitor’s point of view like mine, who stayed in the city of Freetown for the majority of the time, the basic precaution I took decreased my chances of contracting Ebola.

Step one, I washed my hands frequently. Similar to when a person catches a cold at the office, I used alcohol-based hand sanitizer and washed with soap and water because they can kill the Ebola virus if it is on the hands while I also avoided touching my mouth, nose and eyes.

In Freetown, everyone was taking this seriously; bleach and water solutions were set outside every establishment with some kind of guard or attendant who required patrons to rinse their hands before entering.

Step two, I avoided contact with items that might have come in contact with an infected person’s blood or bodily fluids. This is like what we tell our children who find needles in a park: Don’t touch them.

Step three, I didn’t eat bush meat like monkey that has the ability to carry the Ebola virus.

Finally, step four, I would not have touched the body of someone who has died from the Ebola virus. I think this was the hardest part for Sierra Leoneans to follow because their customs dictate the body of the dead be washed before burial, resulting in how the majority of the virus has been spread. Currently, organizations are trying to facilitate safe burials of those who died from the Ebola virus and reduce the chances of it spreading.

In the end, I never thought traveling to Sierra Leone could open me to new experiences and a craving for more. The seed I had within me that enjoyed an adventure had finally received the fertilizer it needed to begin growing. Traveling abroad brings a sense of wonder and excitement, which waters that seed. Surrounding myself by a completely different culture was one of the best decisions I made and will continue to make in the future.