It’s now been a month since I got back from Sierra Leone and I am finally getting around to telling you about it. I’ve been trying for a while to think of a way to sum up my volunteering in a few words but I don’t think that’s possible without over simplifying everything that I experienced.
Telling my friends and family here at home about everything I did, the people I met and got to know over the 10 weeks and all the trials I faced has been difficult, actually. Getting across an experience like ICS isn’t easy without losing people’s attention when you reminisce about places they’ve never been or a way of life they could never imagine. Or even worse, feeling like you are just “going on about it”.
I spent 9 of my 10 weeks living with my host family in Makeni, the largest city in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. I was unbelievably lucky with the family I was placed with. My host mum, Aunty Zain, was so wonderful. She cooked the best food (seriously, it was amazing), she always made sure that the tailor didn’t overcharge us and just made me feel so welcome in her family.
Without her, I think I would have missed home an awful lot more than I did. Just knowing Aunty Zain was around, seeing me not as a stranger from another country but as her second daughter, helped more than she’ll ever know.
Honestly, no-one deserves happiness more than she does. Aunty Zain was known by absolutely everyone in the area. She volunteered at her church. She made the most amazing cakes and decorated halls for the weddings of people she barely knew. She fed the local children that sat around on the street biscuits. She looked after a crazy girl from one of the outer villages named Sio, who she practically adopted, fed and paid for her to go to school.
I’ve never met someone like Aunty Zain and yet she’s had such a hard life. Her family is distant from her and after all the time she spent looking after her younger siblings they no longer talk to her unless they need something. Her daughter is away studying social sciences at university in Freetown (she is rightfully very proud of her) so they don’t get to see each other often. Through all of this, though, she pours her heart into everything she does and is one of the most honest, hard working and brilliant people I have ever had the chance to meet. Saying goodbye to her broke my heart.
The rest of my host family were also great, even if they were a bit crazy. In our house, there were so many people that I honestly still don’t know who was actually related to who! But, I had some very welcoming brothers and sisters who taught us a few great card games and – once they realised that my closed door meant I wanted to be alone – they were great company. One of the best nights I had with them was, sadly, my last. There were a lot of balloons, a lot of running around, screaming and throwing until I had to admit defeat and my bedroom was filled with the damn things.
Aside from these great, crazy people, I also got a strange dysfunctional family in the rest of the ICS volunteers. Honestly, I can’t say that I got tremendously close to everyone but I did make some friends out there without whom I probably wouldn’t have made it through the 10 weeks. The people who sat with me in silence when I needed a moment (or many moments) and left the socials early to come back to mine to play cards because it was getting all too much; they were the ones that kept me going.
Of course, I fell out with some of my fellow volunteers. Being in such constant contact with effective strangers was bound to lead to disagreements – and it did. Still, I will look back fondly on my time with these people and I’m sure that there will be moments when I even miss a few of them.
There is no other way to describe my time in Sierra Leone other than a real experience. There were ups and downs and moments I’ll never forget. People that changed my outlook on life and helped me realise more about myself than I ever could have done alone.
I’m going to do a few more of these posts as I work through the memories of my time in Sierra Leone, each focusing on different areas of the trip before I forget about it – unlikely as that may seem, I want to share some of the bad things as well as the good. If I wait too long I’ll end up romanticising it all and I don’t want to do my memories that injustice.