October 24, 2020 9 min read
On October 15th, 2019, I arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, my hometown, having relocated from Canada. I had no outstanding credit card bills or a "car note"! After living elsewhere for 28 plus years, I was finally going to live at “home-home”!
I left home alone in August 1991, at the tender age of 16, to complete secondary school near Victoria, Canada. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I had never cried so much before that and I have never cried as much since. Why did I leave home? A simple reason really. My parents had me apply for a secondary school scholarship so that I could have a fighting chance of studying at a university in the US or UK which would position me for better opportunities in life than what Sierra Leone had in store for me. Both of my siblings were sent on similar journeys, one the year before me and the other, the year after. At the time that I left home, my teenage brain could not fathom the magnitude of the adventure on which I was embarking. Everyone’s life changes, incrementally over time; that's guaranteed. However, the time I spent on Victoria Island changed my life’s trajectory exponentially. My parents' plan exceeded all expectations. I have come across opportunities to fill three lifetimes! I have been fortunate.
But back to Freetown. This trip in 2019 was by no means my first; I had visited at least once every two to three years, and more recently multiple times in a year. I had done a 5-month stint in 2011 returning to Canada because I wasn’t mentally ready to stay. This time, I had decided that I was ready to be "bakhome". I had a one-way ticket and no discernible exit plan. After I arrived, I felt surprisingly OK. I KNEW immediately that it would take only a matter of weeks for me to self-destruct. I could not be OK. I intently waited for the other shoe to drop. It didn't. How could it not? Why did it feel so right? It wasn’t long before I came up with a working theory to explain the absence of an implosion. It struck me that I had been homesick for much of the time that I had spent away from Sierra Leone. For 28 years, I had wanted to live in Freetown more than I wanted to live anywhere that had uninterrupted running water, uninterrupted electricity, choices of cinemas, choices of cheese (other than the one with the image of a cow laughing), the freedom to shop at any time of day or night, or fall foliage. Anywhere I could pick up a foreign accent if only I tried (I could never quite figure this one out!) or use self-service fuel pumps. Anywhere with ATMs I could trust 99% of the time, functioning traffic lights, personal space, customer service, "peace and quiet"... OK, not that last one. Clearly! But seriously, all I had wanted was to live in Freetown. I had been homesick for so long, now that I was finally at “home-home”, I had to keep pinching myself.
Since my return, I have eaten fresh fruit every single day and have had cereal for dinner only once! Imagine that. I get fresh oysters, fresh fish, and the leanest beef this side of the mesosphere. I have not once had to cook myself a full meal, take the trash out, or lift any heavy boxes. I have not once needed to use a shovel for snow and such, nor rake blowing leaves (yeah, fall foliage is not all it’s cut out to be). Speaking of snow and such, partying outdoors in Freetown in December is nothing short of epic (relatively speaking, of course). When your New Year’s EVE parties start at 3am on New Year’s DAY because folks have to get midnight mass/service out of the way, you know you have arrived at a special place. I live near a bay, and mere minutes from a peninsula of beautiful beaches. I now have two dogs – a stray called Brownie who I adopted right off the street and her puppy, Caeser (after the protagonist from Planet of the Apes). He is so cuuuute!
Being here has certainly not been all fresh food, frolicking on the beach and puppy dog eyes though. Freetown is a difficult city in which to live. She's no Lagos from what I hear of that over-the-top city in Nigeria; but she has an abundance of tricks up her sleeves ready to keep you in a never-ending cycle of whack-a-mole. You know, kind of like the game, "Ah pass ya? Nor way! Nor way!", except you get smacked over the head every time you try to come up for air.
Whack-a-mole Freetown style goes something like this: today you wake up to electricity, pop your head up and smile because you can finally take a warm shower, only to turn the faucet on to find the day’s trick is "no water in the pipes for you". Whack on the head! Tomorrow, you'll finally get time off work to go to the national ID office only to find their generator is down, so they won't be printing ID cards until ... [insert clerk’s shrug here]. Whack! The day after that, someone close to you will die unexpectedly (I am writing a piece on this topic separately). The next day, you'll run into an old colleague and you'll find a spot to sit and catch up for hours. It’ll be a blast. It’ll have felt great to raise your head up and breathe in the fresh air. However, you'll return home to an announcement that there is an unplanned public holiday the following day. Where are you going to get ingredients to cook tomorrow’s dinner? Besides, you were really looking forward to the day's earnings. Yup, whack! In any case, the day after the holiday, thieves will break into your house and take your phone, jewellery, and the money you were going to use to buy ingredients, while you stand there watching them with very little hope of the police following up. Should I go on?
In my case, the game went like this: the perfect job opened up in Freetown with a subsidiary of a multinational just as I was putting the tags on my suitcases in Canada. I mean, the job description could have been taken from my CV. I was ecstatic. But someone else was hired who had some experience but did not know their way around Excel. True, Excel doth not a scientist or engineer make, but come on. How did I get into the same job competition as someone who did not possess stellar Excel skills? Ah, right, s#!+... it’s the game. Whack! Thank my lucky stars, the multinational has since engaged me more directly. Level 1 of the game...under control.
On to the next level. I’ll call this one “thou shalt remain vigilant, always. On March 4th, I did have my phone stolen from my purse in church while attending a funeral. In C.H.U.R.C.H, people! I let my guard down for a total of 5 minutes and whack! I can’t say much more than that about this incident. It still hurts too much.
Level 3 in the game happens to be the one involving car ownership. It took the customary 6 weeks to ship a vehicle here. It took what seemed to be double that time to finally drive it legally. Why? you might ask. I’ll tell you. At the time I tried to register the vehicle, the road transport authority suspended the production of license plates. I heard “they” had given the contract to a new supplier. “They” had cleverly not factored in a phase-out/phase-in period for the old and new suppliers. The new supplier could not ramp up production before the old supplier’s plates ran out. Whack! I had to drive around without a license plate, keeping my head down, dodging main intersections to avoid running into traffic wardens.
Who knew I had it in me? When I finally got the plates on 26thMarch, I was full of joy, then I remembered that I did not have a driver’s license. Whack! It was easier dealing with the traffic wardens with only a missing driver’s license, but it was precarious all the same. I did get the license shortly after, only to find out in September that the license had expired in August. I had been so relieved when I received it, I had not bothered to check. Why would I be handed a license that was valid for only a few months? Apparently, at the time that I applied, “they” had run out of supplies to produce the regular license that was typically valid for 5 years. No one had informed me of that fact. Whack!
Bonus round on level 3: I've gone to 4 garages for what I think is a problem with my vehicle’s axle. I'm yet to find a mechanic who can diagnose the problem. One of them spent the whole test drive interrogating me about what I did for work, as though the diagnosis depended on it. He, like the others, concluded that the vehicle was fit as a fiddle. Whack! It’s not. Trust me on this one. There are warning lights all over the dashboard that say all isn’t well. Nonetheless, I paid all 4 mechanics for their time, mere woman that I am. Speaking of being a woman and driving in Freetown, if you want to get me out of my state of zen, yell out in an exasperated tone, “Bo, nah uman dey drive!” (“Ah, that explains it, it’s a woman at the wheel!”). The first person who yelled that at me was an apprentice standing on the back of a truck. Note, he was not driving. The second time I heard it, it came from the passenger of a motorbike taxi as the driver wove his way past me and around an obstruction that my vehicle could clearly not pass. Again, the person yelling was not driving. Unfortunately for this person, we were headed in the same direction. Naturally, I used all my feminine strength to catch up with the motorbike and not-so-calmly asked how a specific part of the male anatomy made him, a passenger, better at driving than I. Actually, I framed the question differently at the time! He apologized because he did not have an answer, and he had not expected me to chase them down. Like, who does that? Whatever. I did. A whack! for him and I collected my bonus points. One down, three million, five hundred thousand (i.e., half the population) to go. Ladies and woke gents, you with me, right?
There are so many other levels to this game: driving while sober, banking while sober, receiving marriage proposals from practical strangers, and where it is mandatory to wear masks in a pandemic and we make-believe our noses are located below our chins, just to name a few. Oooh, since we are here, let’s take a peek at what’s behind the pandemic curtain. One day in May, no COVID-19 cases were reported in Sierra Leone. Instead, the numbers were reported the next day with an asterisk. When asked why cases had not been reported on the previous day, “they” said it was the president’s birthday. What?!! Don’t take my word for it. The numbers are a matter of public record. That was the last day that I believed in the numbers. Don’t be quick to judge me though. There was also the lady with the virus who was reported as dead one day but was undead the next. Yup, let’s close the curtain on that for now.
So, when Canadians were being evacuated from Freetown earlier this year, why didn't I head back to my second home with all its beautiful conveniences? You know, running water when the temperature is above -32 °C! After all, evacuation was the foremost reason I had applied for a passport. No lies detected. Why did I not give evacuation a second thought then? Why not take the $5000 one-way trip back for some much-needed break from the chaos? (That is Canadian dollars, so no need to gasp!) Perhaps, just like the next person I secretly liked being in a game of life-size whack-a-mole. Perhaps, it was because for the first time in 28 years I believed I could exercise free will...at least to a degree that I had not previously experienced. Perhaps, I understood that adapting to life in Sierra Leone wasn’t half as strange as it had been adapting to life in Canada. Yes, I will go back to Canada. Perhaps in April or July of 2021 for a visit. I will wait and see. There’s no telling what's going to happen on that continent after civil war breaks out in the US next month (tongue in cheek). I mean, can anyone foresee the elections ending any other way? Besides, THE covid is still around. OK. OK. If I was being completely honest, it’s not about all of that. I am really waiting for my trip to coincide with the opening of the new James Bond movie, “No Time to Die”. It is what it is.
In any case, I made it through 365 days living in Freetown (excluding a couple weeks or so when I travelled for work). My head hurts from having been whacked so many times, but I am learning when to raise my head up and when to keep it down. THE pandemic aside, I am uncharacteristically, relaxed, I am content, I am at peace, I am in reasonably good health, and my work is remarkably rewarding. More surprising than feeling OK since I arrived at “home-home” is the fact that, while I am still expecting the other shoe to drop at any time, I am not planning to move anywhere else... at least not just yet!
Le jeu est en cours. Game on!
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