Sunday, January 27, 2013

Christmas and a Visitor

Yesterday afternoon some “Old Boys,” or alumni of Scarcies Baptist Secondary School, came to visit. Their mission was to, generously, present scholarships to twenty students. There was a corresponding alumnus for each scholarship, and each of the twenty stood to be introduced before making a short speech in Temne.

Twenty minutes later, after the third alumnus had been introduced, the possible length of this meeting made itself scorchingly manifest. Having no venue large enough to hold the student body and attending guests for the event, we were using the great outdoors as our meeting place. The sun, incredibly bored of its staring match with solar panels somewhere, sat down directly on the meeting to watch. As the next two-minute introduction for the next five-minute speech began, the first bead of sweat slipped under the collar of my dress shirt, whispering, “Best inflate your water wings—for I am legion.” A large chicken tied up in a black plastic sack squirmed on the concrete steps of my school, either excited to be eaten after the proceedings or as equally disturbed as I was by the unbroken stream of solar radiation.

Given my comprehension of Temne shuts down somewhere around 90F, I turned inward for entertainment. Having just survived the most eventful winter break of my life, I had plenty to think about and relive. Like that one time…

“This is by far the most radical thing I’ve done this week,” is what I would have said if I didn’t have a gummy regulator plugged into my mouth. The oxygen-rich air it had been forcing down to my alveoli would have been missed if I had taken it out to talk, so I kept it in and my little heme trucks kept shuttling oxygen to my brain so I could appreciate the view. I was hovering like an awfully bulky, male tinkerbell over a handful of cannons that had been inconsiderately spilled out over a cartoonish ocean floor. Whichever Spanish warship had wrecked there however long ago had left a real project for nature to settle down.  Entropy had planted sea fans then spackled coral across the whole picture to soften the manmade curves and lines. An anchor I had at first mistook for an underwater redwood lurked in a blue corner of my vision as I twisted to look up at a bright glass ceiling ten meters above me. “Radical,” I bubbled.

Now since I wasn’t quite deep enough for the pressure of the water to force Nitrogen out of my tissues into my blood stream, I reckoned I might make it out of this alive as long as I exhaled during the ascent. Or else my lungs would burst and I would have difficulty talking about how great all this was.

The little mermaid and all her fish friends surged around the outlines of underwater features in yellow-silver sprays as I gurgled back up, greeted on the surface by the primal outlines of the Banana Islands. Sarah’s bright face, made slightly goofy by the Cyclops characteristics of her mask, swam up out of the water near me. Alusine pulled our tanks inside the launch—narrowly missing setting them down on a chicken in a black plastic sack.


No, that plastic-swaddled chicken was in the now. In fact, it was doing an admirable job of flapping its waddles violently, dissipating its own thermal misery into that of the ambient misery. Thoroughly lusting for that chicken’s waddles, I observed about half the line of the alumni had had a chance to speak. The sweaty squelch in my shoes was reminiscent of the flippers I had just been wearing in my mind, and with that I wandered off to another of the more entertaining places I’d been recently…

No rocks or poop missiles had been rocketed at me yet, but I was coiled to pick Sarah up in an instant and use her as a small, brunett shield if any projectiles were napoleoned at me. Something about it being feeding time for the residents at Tecugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary had distracted them from the offensive our tour guide had warned us about. Then again, the tour guide had been saying a lot of crazy things this afternoon.

Like: “A chimpanzee is five times stronger than a grown man.”

“Ridiculous. Absurd,” I thought to myself, “I could totally take one. They’re merely adorable, furry children.”

“For example,” our psychic guide continued, “when our chimpanzee Bruno escaped into the wild, he ripped both arms off a man. Then killed him.”

Well I didn’t know about all that, but I did know this place was about the most entertaining thing to watch since that “Pipes” screensaver. They had the Chimps graduated into five different stages, progressing them from individual containment to communities in semi-wild enclosures. After the tour, Sarah and myself retreated to our lodge, tastelessly named “Bruno,” where Mabinty met us and prepared, without a doubt, the best dinner I’ve ever eaten in a chimpanzee sanctuary.

The Chimps apparently didn’t have a curfew and must’ve been having a late-night, wild game of Cribbage or Fling Poop, because they kept up their yammering and yelling till late. So loud… don’t they know people are trying to have a peaceful evening?

Oh. That yammering was actually coming from the students as the names of the twenty scholarship awardees were read off. While they were called forward one by one to receive a gift of education that would unalterably change their lives, I thought how great it was the alumni were taking care of their own. Then I stopped thinking ethereal and started thinking practical- the chicken had managed to roll/flop its way into a patch of shade. Shouldn’t I be able to manage that too? I glanced sidelong at an inky black pool of cool pleasure. “This isn’t Hades,” I thought, “I can do this.” And so slowly I started a tactful, side-ways shuffle through the sweating crowd while remembering how intimidating another recent trek had been…

Every New Years day, the paradise known as Kabala cradled in the rocky features of North-East Sierra Leone is inundated with avid holiday celebrators. An ‘outing’ is held with huge stacks of music-screaming speakers, vendors selling everything from beer to biscuits, and thousands of revelers dressed to impress. The thing that makes this different from a fair at your local, barely-sanitized county fairgrounds though, is that it’s held on top of one of the rocky mountains that spring up like earth-tumors around Kabala. All the speakers, generators, gas to run those generators, every bottle, can, package, five-gallon container of palm-wine, and person has got to make it up that pathless, roadless mountain.

Standing at the base of this mercilessly rocky tumor, slight apprehension could be read in the eyes of the other volunteers Sarah and I were with. Or heard, for that matter, via tympanic membranes vibrating with soundwaves at the frequency of something like, “Up that? You’re kidding, right?”

The climb killed exactly zero of us though, and after a forty-minute attack we reached the wide, bald peak. After a really great meal, served up by Abu, we were content and free to spend the remainder of the day people watching as the bald spot was populated with brightly dressed hairs whose main concern was enjoyment. When we started our descent in the late afternoon there were still people streaming past us up the mountain, drawn by the continuous thumping of the black lump of speakers.

Streaming past like all these people walking past me right now. The scholarship presentations were finished? Oh well. I missed pictures? Dang, tough break.

I gave a nod of encouragement to my friend/chicken as it was picked up and ushered to a stew somewhere, then fell back to the staff room with the other teachers. It was time for our staff meeting that we hold at the beginning of every term- this one was promised to be relatively fast and indeed only lasted a nudge past four hours. Ripe with too many other great memories to replay though, I felt like a bandit smuggling a good time into an otherwise dull affair. I came out of my reminiscing haze only to give a summary of a recent conference the Peace Corps volunteers orchestrated for female students, and then again for my customary plea that the school not use such big sticks to beat our students with quite so often.

I doubt if I could have churned out so many great memories in so short a time if my friend, Sarah, hadn’t been visiting. Having a fresh American set of eyes around made me appreciate the quirks and qualities of this country again (Woah, we suck water out of bags here. I guess that is a little weird), and having her personality around made everything a bit more entertaining (Sarah, that’s not your baby.....No, I don’t care how cute it is, it’s illegal to take that home). It’s also worth mentioning that about a thousand people, my school’s population, think she’s a superhero now for bringing over some teaching aids and other resources for Scarcies. I’d readily agree with them. The mention of Isha (Sarah’s name translated into African) these days is enough to plunge my staffroom of teachers into a giggling torpor. Please clean that drool off your chin, Mr. Kamara.

I hope you all came out of the Holidays with as many good memories.


  1. Hi Jared, I just received my invitation to serve in Sierra Leone as a Secondary Ed Science Teacher. I was wondering if i might be able to connect with you?

  2. Hey Courtney, how exciting! Working, teaching, and living over here the last couple years has been more than interesting. I sent you a facebook message, but I think Zuckerberg most likely shunted it to your 'other' inbox.