Wednesday, February 27, 2008

There Are No Giraffes Here

Of course I knew I wouldn't see large wild animals in Freetown. There are baboons in the forests that cover the hills just outside town, but I haven't seen any yet since I've not been up into those hills. I have seen two small monkeys, but both had collars and were being kept as pets.

This is Africa, but I seem to forget that for long stretches of time, much to the amusement of people in the U.S. to whom I've mentioned this experience. I haven't seen any mud-hut villages or jungles or savannas - most people live in concrete buildings or corrugated zinc huts, the rainforest that once surrounded Freetown has been pretty well logged, and the only really wild animals I see are the birds and lizards that live in and around us humans, but can do with or without us. When I showed a carved giraffe to an eight-year-old local girl she asked me what it was. She had never heard of a giraffe, or rhinoceros for that matter. She was, however, familiar with goats and sheep and cows and pigs and chickens. Nevertheless, it is carved wooden giraffes, lions and elephants that petty traders try to sell to the tourists on Lumley Beach, selling an image of Africa that is hardly accurate except in a few places on the continent.

I suppose the situation is an obvious one, explainable in one word, westernization, but this is not a wholly satisfying characterization of the society I have moved into. Of course nearly everyone around me is black, and any one of nearly twenty languages is spoken around me, only two of which are European, and I am the object of everyone's stares and calls of, "White woman," or, "Apotho," the Temne word for white man. I know I am not in America, but this isn't the Africa I had imagined or even seen on television. That Africa hosts safaris and AIDS epidemics and wild animal hunts and famines and political turmoil, giraffes, lions and elephants.

There is not nearly as much that is exotic here as I seem to have expected. There is a laid-back feeling, yes, that is very different from any place I've ever visited in the U.S. or Europe, but laid-back does not mean slack. People speak in low tones and walk with straight backs and confident strides. Rarely is anyone in a hurry to do anything, which often means everyone waits around quite a lot for buses to fill up, for computer servers to start up, for electricity to come. Young men are respectful and polite. Even the ones wearing rhinestone-studded sunglasses and low-slung trousers apologize with care when they bump into me on the street. (They are also, for the most part, incredibly fit, almost all rippling with muscles - I elicited embarrassed giggles from the teachers when I pointed this out in amazement - and honestly since no one wears much clothing here because of the heat, it does sometimes feel as if I've arrived in the land of male underwear models.)

Women tend to be less visibly fit, though perhaps I am just not paying as much attention to them. Recently when I was demonstrating a form of wrestling to teach the children, I realized that Clarissa, our twenty-something first grade teacher is incredibly strong and that she could have lifted me up and thrown me to the ground if the need arose. I look around and see women carrying a heavy bags in each hand, a child on the back and a basin of goods on the head. These are women who wash all their household laundry by hand, carry water from community pumps and pound rice into flour with large mortars and pestles. Children are used to working and expect to be beaten if they misbehave. They are incredibly deferential to their elders, but can be equally as wild when they are roaming free, which is very often.

These people are not trying to be western in their thinking nor are they living an obviously traditional lifestyle. They are living in their time in their place with all the constraints and stories and music and customs and habits and turns of speech and freedoms and difficulties that living in Sierra Leone in 2008 entails. When I return to the U.S. I'll be lucky if I'll be able to say a complete sentence in Krio and I won't have many handicrafts to show off (most of the souvenirs I've seen are imported from other African countries or China) but I will have a wonderful sense of the resilience and vibrancy of life that are possible even in the poorest of conditions.

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