Monday, October 29, 2012


I am stretched out stiffly along the edge of the mattress, bounded on one side by mosquito net, on the other by a sheeted no man's that I'm trying to avoid at all costs. I've been lying like this for what feels like an hour, trying to drop off to sleep, telling myself to concentrate on the waves crashing on the rocks nearby.

Suddenly, the occupants of the bungalow next door come home. A thin woven grass wall that doesn't come close to reaching the shared thatch roof is all that separates their room from ours. They're drunk, from the sound of it - fresh water is expensive on Banana Island, so you might as well drink beer - and they don't seem to realize that other paying guests might be nearby. They comment on the lumpiness of their pillows, their plans for the following morning, something funny a Dutch guy said at dinner.

The mattress shifts next to me, so I know that Julien's awake, too. Drat, I think. Now we'll have to start this whole awkward process all over again. "We have to say something to them," I mutter into the darkness, then flick on my headlamp, to signal to our neighbors that they've woken us up.

"Do you think you could be a bit more quiet?" Julien asks politely through the grass wall.

"Ah, sorry!" our neighbors respond. They soften their chatter to whispers, and I return to the problem of how to fall asleep in this awkwardly narrow bed without disturbing the guy I'm sharing it with, a mild-mannered German Swiss with a live-in girlfriend back home, who I've only recently met.

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"You should just hop into bed naked, and say, real casually, see you in the morning," says Becca, my American colleague, when I profess my dread about the night's sleeping arrangements. We giggle, partly out of nervousness. But there's nothing to be done. All the lodge's other rooms are booked. Becca is already sharing her bed with an older French woman whose English is just shaky enough that she accidentally booked two double beds instead of four single-person cots. Communication is never as straightforward as you'd think here. Misunderstandings happen all the time.

And so here we are. When I'm tired of conversation that night and excuse myself from the dinner table, I quietly slip into the room and under the mosquito net, eyes averted from Julien's already prone figure, dealing with the awkwardness by pretending to ignore it.

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This is a pretty benign situation, as these things go. Julien and I are both in Sierra Leone for less than three months. It's a short enough period to leave us both hopeful, perhaps naively so, that our romantic lives back home will still remain where we left them upon our return.  

Which is not to say that life here isn't lonely. Being here is stressful in all kinds of ways, and it would be great to have a tangible outlet for that stress. We're far removed from the comforts of home, and the little inconveniences - mediocre bread for breakfast everyday, unreliable internet, assistants who can never seem to find files you emailed them weeks ago, toilets that only function as intended a third of the time, air so humid you feel like a slug when you try to run, which isn't often enough, what with the amount of work to be done, the short daylight hours and your sheer exhaustion after a long day in the field - build up. Though our forced closeness in the house that we share - we are the only Westerners we know here, after all - creates a sort of instant intimacy, it's not always enough. I crave a relationship that's about more than mere convenience.

Outside the house, of course, it's easy to feel like a stud. In a hillside community the other day, Becca and I used a family's backyard latrine. When we emerged, the man of the house, graying at the temples, approached us. "I love you," he announced. 

"I love you, too," quipped Becca, handing over the remains of the wash water.

The draw, of course, is not us, but the promise of our white skin. Europe, the US, the western world, all represent wealth that is simply not attainable here. People who make it overseas who manage to send even a small portion of their salaries back to Africa can make their families rich, by local standards. That money funds fancy houses and refrigerators, college educations, trips to the countryside to buy large volumes of palm oil that can be sold for a sizeable profit back in Freetown.

Everywhere we go, people wink at us, ask for our phone numbers, say, "I want you for friend." It's amusing, and usually harmless, but it's also tiresome. If you're not careful, you might get an inflated sense of your own importance.

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Back on Banana Island, we're accosted by a vision of what we could become if we let our guard down for too long. A pudgy, middle-aged woman with dark roots, a sun-scorched chest and a skimpy American-flag bikini top emerges from the beach and starts digging around in a cooler on the ground next to the table where we’re eating lunch. “You’re gonna finish all the Jagermeister?” she cackles to her companion, a muscular local in a speedo who’s at least twenty years her junior. “You’re gonna be hurting if you drink alla that yourself,” she continues, revealing a missing incisor. 

I wink at our French colleague across the table. “There are all kinds of Americans,” I whisper. “You might wonder about us sometimes, but it could be a lot worse.”
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This could very well be outright sex tourism. In most cases, though, expat-local relationships are a little blurrier. But it’s often the same general phenomenon. People with limited means latching onto people with money. A livelihood strategy, of sorts. And westerners who might have a hard time getting a date back home, whether because they’re inexperienced, awkward and pimply or over the hill, potbellied and arrogant, enjoying the attentions of a fit and attractive someone they wouldn’t have a shot at in any other situation.

Some people form genuine attachments, of course. We meet one such person at dinner. She’s a recent Peace Corps graduate now working as a teacher in Freetown, who’s become engaged to someone she met during her service. Apparently she plans to return to the States, though she’ll have to navigate some substantial hurdles, namely, that her parents are no longer speaking to her, and that her fiancĂ©, who survives off a business that earns him $6,000 a year, will have to carve out a place for himself in the American workforce.

Some aim for lower stakes relationships, but they can quickly get complicated, too. A local student has asked the European guy she’s been dating for three months for help paying her university fees, claiming that her former patron refused to support her any more when he discovered that she was dating a foreigner. Probably, he figured that a white guy would be able to shell out the few hundred dollars’ worth of bi-annual tuition without much difficulty. But, unsurprisingly, the white guy’s none too thrilled about the situation, and is trying to figure out some kind of low commitment solution that’s acceptable to all parties.

Others avoid the headache of cross-cultural romance and choose a partner among the smattering of expats they meet at work, bars, parties, workshops. Many of them might have significant others, or even children, somewhere far, far away, but a lot of them rationalize their infidelity with relative ease. In these cases, you act according to your own code of ethics, which can start to bend in surprising directions the longer you’re here. You might find yourself willing to shack up with someone you wouldn’t look at twice back home, or you might meet someone you genuinely like. Either way, it probably won’t be easy. If you share the same living quarters, things are likely to get weird (uncomfortably weird, most likely) fast, and if you work for different organizations, or, God forbid, in different towns, your meet-ups are likely to be few and far between.

A rare few actually find someone they want to stick with. They manage to find joint posts, sometimes with the same organization, often with different ones, in various exotic locales. Some end up raising multilingual children with a personal address history that includes places most Americans haven't even heard of. It's encouraging to meet these couples, on the odd occasion when you do.

Expat romances are almost always story-worthy, and they often make pretty entertaining stories at that. But if your romantic aims include longevity, depth and reciprocity, this probably ain't the job for you. Take a short post, no more than two to three months, max, then cut your losses and run home to Seattle.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The New Africa

In the eighties, all of this was forest, says Patrick Tommy, a community elder of perhaps 60, whose eyes are starting to fade to a pale blue with the onset of cataracts.

We’re hiking up to One House, a neighborhood so named after the era - not so long ago - when there was only a single human residence on this hillside. It’s hard to un-imagine the profusion of houses all around me, of laboriously etched-out earthen terraces colorful with drying laundry, of children in blue and yellow school uniforms toting water jugs, of men and women trekking up and down the slope with goods for sale. It seems extraordinary that, a mere 30 years ago, wild chimpanzees were probably living here.

Across Freetown, in another hillside neighborhood a bit farther from the central business district, people have not yet exhausted the local supply of wood. Plenty of residents there still eke out a living but cutting firewood, or by transforming it into charcoal, the two most common fuels for household cooking.  Is anyone here planting new trees to replace the ones they’re cutting? I asked a tribal chief we met during our initial visit.

No, no one, he replied.

So how will all of these people manage ten years from now? I persisted.

The chief shrugged. They will find something else to do.

In One House, nobody cuts firewood anymore, since they would have to trek far into the mountains to find any, a journey that wouldn’t make financial sense. So the wood traders here purchase their stock in town, off of boats that come to Freetown from “upline,” in the country’s increasingly rural countryside, and haul it up to One House.

High-speed urbanization isn't just a Freetown phenomenon. All over Africa, people are flocking to cities. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 60% of Africa's population will live in urban areas. 60% would be a moderate figure in the developed world; in countries like the U.S. and France, around 80% of the population lives in cities. But it's astounding in a continent where, half a century ago, almost the entire population was rural, surviving mostly on subsistence farming. 

Africans leave the countryside for a variety of reasons. Many seek economic and educational opportunities, or aspects of the modern world - media, technology, fashion, lifestyles - that rural areas simply can't offer. In many countries, Sierra Leone included, violent conflict has driven people from their relative vulnerability in rural regions to the relative safety of cities. Though the war here ended 10 years ago, few people want to go home. From what I understand, for many, the memories of suffering and flight are too horrific and heavy, the devastation wrought to their villages too complete, for them to care very much about rekindling their past lives. 

Personally, I often find Freetown completely overwhelming. The streets are so crammed with carts, vendors, soot-spewing autos and near misses with motorcycle taxis, that just getting to work in the morning can raise my blood pressure a few notches. Most of the people I've met work extremely long days - selling cigarettes, carrying loads, breaking rocks, filling boats with sand - only to earn barely enough to feed their families for the day, then wake up and repeat the next. If I had to choose between their lives and a quiet, peasant life raising animals and growing rice in the countryside, I'd almost certainly opt for the latter.

But while some folks I've met hope to someday move out of the slums, nobody talks about leaving Freetown. And so this city, home to a mere 65,000 residents in the 1950s, with a population of over a million today, will continue to grow. And all of those people will do whatever it takes to get by. 
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