My Second First Day in Africa

01 Sep

Before I left to intern with Wellbody Alliance, a health NGO that operates a clinic in rural Sierra Leone, I had to provide my Zambian American family with an answer to the question they reiterated ad nauseam during our end-of-year conversations, “So…why exactly do you want to return to the continent we worked so hard to leave?”

Given that I’d never exhibited any demonstrable interest in my roots during high school years, my family’s uncertainty about my motives makes perfect sense.

The short version of the answer I gave to them is that whereas I had no extra-familial companions who were interested in Africa when I lived in suburban Ohio; at Princeton, I suddenly found myself surrounded by students who were more interested in helping my family members across the pond than I was.  As a member of Princeton’s Africa Development Initiative, I met students whose last ancestor’s left Africa at least 10,000 years ago who spoke about and dealt with Africa as if it were their first home.

Basically, guilt drove me to attempt to rediscover my heritage.

So I made summer plans to intern with Wellbody Alliance after having spent the last 16 years of my life in the first world—depending on where you place a Johannesburg high rise.

My Second First Day in Africa

With my guitar, clothes and fuzzy memories of a continent I never really knew in tow, I embarked on a journey that I hoped would reeducate me about my home…Man did the lessons start quickly.

As I waited in the baggage claim for my luggage in Freetown Lungi International, Sierra Leone’s airport located across a short ferry ride from its capitol city, I surveyed my night-time surroundings.  Buzzing fluorescent lights, brown and yellow streaked walls and an oppressive, humid heat was the décor.

A strange man in some sort of bellboy-like uniform approached me and began asking me questions. Now, mind you, I was running on 22 hours of no sleep so I was in no state to think prudently.

As he asked me question after question, I began eagerly divulging the details of my stay to him, “I am student volunteering with Wellbody in Kono. My name is Teguru Tembo. I’m 5”10’, 150 lbs etc.” (In my near catatonic state, I think I would have given him a printout of my social security card if he’d asked for it).

While I was detailing my life history and preparing a copy of my 1040 to hand over to this friendly stranger, I noticed the rapt attention he had initially displayed began slowly fading. He then promptly picked up my luggage, sent a quick text message and asked me to follow him.

He led me to an area outside the airport where a sea of African faces was waiting—some with name placards and some just yelling for a passenger to ferry in their taxi.  I looked around and saw man with a placard bearing my name, but it was spelled incorrectly. Finally, I began to have misgivings about striking up conversation with a strange man and divulging personal details about my trip.

I had never heard of nor had I ever seen this man who knew my name but did not know how to spell it (suddenly, that text message my bag boy sent began to take on incredible significance), yet he insisted that Wellbody had sent him to pick me up. Admittedly, I had been lax about arranging my pickup, but I was not going to continue with my apathetic approach towards planning my African adventure.

I offered to spend the night in the airport and wait for a fellow Princeton intern who was arriving the next day because as I would tell my co-intern later, “I didn’t have room in my itinerary to add he line-items ‘Get robbed, have my organs harvested and slowly bleed to death in the West African jungle.’” Joking aside though, this man insisted that we go immediately or we would miss the last Ferry to Freetown and have to spend the night in a 90 USD per night (the equivalent of three years of tuition at a private school in Sierra Leone) hotel.

Considering relenting, I demanded that this strange man at least show me his Wellbody ID and he did the worst possible thing for his credibility, he refused and looked visibly annoyed. Apparently, I had called his trustworthiness into question, but seeing as I was having very vivid visions of my throat’s being slit, my body’s being dumped in the West African jungle and my easily-visible iPod’s being sold on Freetown’s black market, I wasn’t very worried about offending people.

At this point, I was convinced that I was going to die a horrible and probably painful death and I may have let out a whimper or two. The man holding the placard got over his being offended when he saw my palpable and visible distress. He came up with what he thought would be a great solution to all our problems, he offered to call the doctor with whom I’d be working so that I’d be reassured.

I agreed that this was a good plan, however, after speaking with the doctor, I remembered that I had never heard him say a word due to Sierra Leoneans lack of infrastructure, money and my lack of foresight. (I may have forgotten to mention that I left for Sierra Leone two days after my last final so I had very little time to prepare for my journey).

I tried testing his knowledge about Wellbody. “If he can name last year’s interns or tell me Jenny’s name and arrival date, I’ll go with him,” I thought. I administered my tests, but even though he knew Raphi’s and Bj’s name, I began thinking that an emaciated-looking, red-headed American would probably have drawn a lot of attention in Sierra Leone. The entire country probably knew his name so this was not a valid test. I next asked him if he knew of any interns coming the next day. He answered he did, but he did not know his name. The intern coming the next day is female so my alarms were set off again. (I would later learn that in Krio, the 3rd person pronoun is not gendered. So as a non-native English-speaker, he said what was natural to him).

When this oh-so-serious game of 20 questions ended, I stood dumb for a few minutes, lookingout into the West African darkness (I’d arrived at night) and getting a very good view of the jungle I so strongly feared. I considered my options: (1) buy a ticket back to the United States and fail in my goal of learning about Africa or (2) trust this strange man who should have paid more attention in spelling class.

For reasons that will never quite be clear to me, half an hour later I found myself in a taxi with him, without his having given me any sort positive identification.

I had a window seat and a deep, dark equatorial jungle was the scenery. Throughout the ride, I kept waiting for the moment the taxi would jerk  to a halt once they these men found the designated spot for dumping my body. In my delirium, I began uttering (what I assume) were nonsensical mutterings to them like, “That’d be a nice place to spend eternity” and “Maybe I’ll survive and can be like Mowgli.”

Thankfully though, the moment never came. An hour after that, I found myself on a ferry, thinking, “I guess getting dumped in the Atlantic is a better option. Some starving shark will be very happy.”

It was during my calisthenic stretches (I hoped to attempt a swim to shore even if I was disemboweled) that Amadu finally showed me a copy of his Wellbody Alliance ID and the sigh of relief that escaped my body would later become known as Hurricane Irene.

After disembarking, Amadu, the I had feared until this point, apologized for not showing me his ID sooner, dropped me off at the Sierra International “hotel” and left for the night.

I tried the faucet, which (of course) didn’t work and saw a bucket filled with cold water. My mind began connecting the dots and I began to understand how I’d be bathing for the next 8 weeks.

After my ablutions, I promptly plopped myself on the bed as I was more tired than I’d ever been. I next switched off my light and began a night of deep, deep sleep…But not before locking and double locking the doors by putting my suitcase in front of it. Though I now trusted Amadu, my thought process was, “If 16-year-old Midwesterners can get fake IDs, I saw no reason that Sierra Leoneans, who’d have a lot more to gain from one, can’t.”

As I drifted off to sleep, I began hearing my family’s end-of-year question over and over again and, looking at the rat scurrying up my curtain and the cockroaches attempting to raid my provisions (hence the earlier quotations around the word “hotel”) I attempted to give my rehearsed answer aloud for reassurance but I just ended up swallowing a lump in my throat and sighing again—though this time, with much less gusto.

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Posted by on September 1, 2011 in Uncategorized


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