Living Deep in West Africa
- Africa, Sierra Leone
In the early days of the Peace Corps, Roger B. Hirschland worked in a remote village in the hilly grasslands of West Africa. See and hear what his daily life and jobs were like where the grass grew 12 feet high.
Hi, my name is Roger Hirschland. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, West Africa. By the way, I'm the one in the red shirt. The other guy is a young chimp that belonged to the chief.
The language most people speak in common in Sierra Leone is called Krio. If you want to say “How are you? Where do you live?" in Krio, you say, “Ow de body? Oosye you de tap?" That means, literally: How is the body? Where do you stop?
The capital of Sierra Leone lies on the coast. It's called Freetown, and is named for the freed slaves who settled there. Freetown gets a lot of rain—about 16 feet a year. That's why the gutters you can see are about a foot wide and a yard deep—to drain off that much water.
I asked to be assigned to an isolated spot. Wow, did I ever get one! To reach my little town of Saiama, I had to cross the whole country—through a band of coastal mangrove swamp, across small rivers on a ferry in the rain forest, and, finally, into the savannah, or grassland.
The Peace Corps van taking me to my post had some engine trouble. I'm standing on the far right. I was 21 years old.
When we talk about grassland in West Africa, we're not talking front lawns. We're talking grass that may grow 12 feet high. This is my housemate, Peace Corps Volunteer Hugh Robinson, who came from South Carolina. He taught school, and I was a health and farm and construction Volunteer. My work was called community development.
My house was made of mud brick, plastered with cement and then painted blue. Most of my neighbors had mud-and-stick houses, with roofs made of grass.
I came from New York State, where we had four seasons. But Sierra Leone has only two seasons, the wet and the dry. Here's a photo of Saiama, my town, in the dry season. Note that the grasses are dry and brown and the air is hazy.
In the wet season, it rains almost every day. Everything turns green and the hazy air clears up completely.
There's usually no doubt about it when it's going to rain. When the sky looks like this, it's time to seek shelter.
And then it pours. It really pours! Rainwater comes cascading off the tin roof, where I collected it in a barrel so that I'd have bath water and water to boil and filter for drinking.
Here I'm crossing Sierra Leone on the dirt road that served as the main highway. It was usually a challenge. Most of the transport vehicles were open trucks. In the dry season, there was always dust filling the passengers' eyes, ears, nose, and hair.
In the rainy season, the roads often became impassable. The only way to get through the three-foot-deep mud on this hill was to be pulled through by bulldozer. It took four hours of waiting for my transport to clear the hill.
In the dry season, neighboring kids would bring me water from the spring at the bottom of the hill. I wanted to help get my own water, but I was told right after I arrived that that was a job only for women and children. Men cleared the land for farming, hunted, and built houses and furniture, and also did the weaving.
Weaving was actually the last stage in making local cloth. First, the women picked cotton and had to roll out the seeds, using a metal bar pressing out the seeds against a wooden block.
A woman would then card the cotton. That means she'd comb the fibers with metal brushes so that the tiny fibers were all lined up in the same direction.
The next step involved spinning the cotton. Balls of soft cotton were slowly transformed into long, even threads.
Finally, women dyed the big loops of thread in a large metal drum.
The women and children would then help a man set up his loom, and...
The man would then weave a very, very long strip of striped cloth.
The strips of striped cloth finally were then cut and sewn into so-called country cloth, which people like these young girls in a ceremony were very proud to wear.
This man is weaving a fish trap. He's wearing his country-cloth shirt as long as it will hold together.
In Sierra Leone, most people survived by farming their own food—usually just enough for themselves and their relatives. The staple crop was rice. To grow rice, they would first burn off the high grasses.
Then they plowed the field with hand tools and planted the rice.
The women harvested the grains, cutting the bunch of rice kernels off each stalk by hand.
To eat rice, first you have to pound it to separate the grain from the surrounding chaff. This was done by girls and women.
Then the woman of the family cooked the rice in a pot balanced on three stones, just outside the house. She had to be watchful to ensure that visiting chickens and dogs didn't help themselves to the family fare.
My biggest project as a Peace Corps Volunteer was to help the villagers build a bridge, which would extend the small dirt road to some villages what were not yet reachable by vehicles.
All the work had to be done by hand—breaking stones, digging sand, mixing concrete, and building the forms for the concrete. We had to work in the dry season, when the river level was low.
This is as far as we got while I was still living in Sierra Leone. The villagers finished the bridge after I left.
Many of the local people became my good friends, like this man on his farm.
And like the paramount chief, whose name was A.A. Mani, and his wife, Hawa.
The children who were my neighbors often hung around my house. We learned a lot about each other's ways of life.
Even the small children were very curious about the foreigner from so far away who was living in their tiny village.
Here I am, holding a pet monkey that kept me company on many of my walks. Again, this is Roger Hirschland. After 40 years, I'm working for the Peace Corps once again, for their school program in Washington, D.C. I'd like to thank you for sharing a little bit of my Peace Corps experience in Sierra Leone with me.