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Navigating Identities in Sierra Leone

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers with disabilities to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to promote a safe and effective service.

  • As a Volunteer with disabilities Sierra Leone, you may face a special set of challenges. In Sierra Leone, as in other parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with visible physical disabilities and may discriminate against them.
  • There is very little infrastructure, like ramps, railings, and elevators, needed to accommodate individuals with physical disabilities compared to those in the United States.
  • There are public schools for the deaf, those with cognitive disabilities, and the blind.
  • Staff are committed to exploring creative and innovative ways to support reasonable accommodations for Volunteer success.

Gender role considerations

  • Binary gender roles in Sierra Leone are strongly defined. Women generally have traditional responsibilities that center the home. These include caring for the family, cleaning the home, collecting water, and working long hours to prepare food from scratch.
  • In rural areas, Volunteers may find conservative attitudes regarding gender equality.
  • The behavior of Volunteers identifying and presenting as women is more often scrutinized or criticized by host communities than that of their peers identifying or presenting as men.
  • Volunteers identifying or presenting as women may find that they are constantly asked about their marital status and whether they have children because women of a certain age are expected to be married.
  • Women have tremendous influence in villages and are often the backbone of community development efforts. While it may be challenging at times, Volunteers identifying and presenting as women will enjoy success by aligning themselves with the women’s groups in villages and working within the gender defined system to influence change.

LGBTQI+ considerations

  • In general, in the rural and small towns where Volunteers work and live, there is limited understanding of gender identities other than binary and cisgender.
  • Because of deeply held religious beliefs in communities, sexual orientations other than heterosexual are not accepted.
  • It is recommended that LGBTQI+ Volunteers explore the safety and integration implications (with the support of staff if needed) prior to sharing this part of their identity with community members. It may be necessary to keep these parts of their identity private to avoid stigmatization in the workplace.
  • Volunteers have reported they feel they can be open with other Volunteers and staff, and that they are able to identify support mechanisms and networks outside of their host community.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

  • Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers:  Volunteers of Asian descent may not be viewed as American in Sierra Leone. It is common for all people of East Asian descent to be referred to as “Chinese.” Microaggressions around martial arts abilities or language/accent may be common. Volunteers of South Asian and Pacific Island descent may also experience microaggressions and may not be initially viewed as Americans.
  • Black/African American Volunteers: Some Black/African American Volunteers may not be viewed as American in Sierra Leone. They may be presumed to be from other countries in Africa or Sierra Leonean.  In their community they may receive less unwanted attention as compared to other Volunteers, but unwanted attention as a whole generally affects all Volunteers and their service.  Community members may not believe that one is American or may consistently ask where one’s family is from. Volunteers of color will likely observe frequent acts of racism and microaggressions. During pre-service training, Black/African American Volunteers have reported feeling invisible or unacknowledged, especially when they are among other Volunteers that are not Black/African American.  However, once they arrive in their community and get to know people, they are usually able to become well integrated and recognized as the American Volunteer of their community. Staff are ready to support Volunteers should this challenge arise.
  • White Volunteers: White Volunteers will likely experience privilege in many ways. Navigating this and being an ally to fellow Volunteers and community members who may not have the same experience will be important as a Volunteer.  One such privilege may be not having their U.S. citizenship questioned and automatically being assumed to be American or another nationality from Europe that also experiences privilege, while many of their fellow Volunteers of color may experience the contrary. At the same time, White Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention more often because of this aspect of their identity.

Age considerations

  • Occasionally, Sierra Leoneans will assume that an older Volunteer is an immediate expert in their field, which can have positive and negative impacts.
  • Most local administrators such as Paramount Chiefs are elders.
  • Living conditions in Sierra Leone are basic, and medical services are not readily available in villages. Older Volunteers may need to be prepared to take special health precautions to ensure a healthy completion of service.
  • Sierra Leoneans often revere their older citizens, and older Volunteers often find that they are treated with special respect.

Religious considerations

  • Sierra Leoneans are religious. Islam and Christianity are the two main religions with most of the population being Muslim.
  • The beauty of religious practice in Sierra Leone is the high level of religious tolerance. This is observed through interreligious marriages and mutual respect for each other’s beliefs.
  • While serving in Sierra Leone, it is essential that Volunteers understand and respect the importance that religion holds in the lives of community member. Volunteers who show respect for local beliefs are more likely to be accepted into the homes and lives of the members of their new community.
  • Some community members feel it is their duty to “convert” you to their religion. Some Volunteers find this issue one of the most frustrating and try to explain to their host communities that they are not religious or have other religions. Others find that attending religious observances, as a cultural behavior, can aid the integration process.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

  • Heterosexual couples will be warmly welcome and treated with extra care in their communities. In Sierra Leone, married couples are held in high esteem.
  • If a couple is unmarried, they should have a good understanding of how they will respond when questioned about their relationship.
  • Men in Sierra Leone are viewed as the dominant gender and as such the man will usually be the person in a heterosexual relationship that all questions are directed towards. This can be trying on the couple who may be used to being viewed as equals and should be something they discuss in advance.
  • Couples without children may be repeatedly questioned about why they do not have children.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

At Peace Corps Sierra Leone, all staff are trained in ICDEIA principles and work intentionally to foster a more inclusive and equitable organizational culture. Additionally, staff are continuously learning as they deepen their familiarity with Volunteer identities and the intricate nuances of American culture. ICDEIA learning is a continuous journey where staff and Volunteers continue to grow together.

  • We work to make training and programming more effective through the inclusion of Volunteer Assistant Trainers to co-create ideas across units and functions to strengthen inclusion and belonging for Volunteers, staff, and host country partners.
  • PC/Sierra Leone’s Language and Cross-Cultural Coordinator also liaises with the Embassy-based DEIA council to identify potential support avenues and programs that can be helpful for Volunteers.
  • The Peer Support Network is a great resource for Volunteers to receive support from their peers on any given issue. Volunteers have found it to be very helpful in providing support to manage challenging situations.