Summer in Sierra Leone an adventure made possible through internship

I remember exactly how I felt as I boarded the plane to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Excited as I was, I just knew something would go wrong – they would forget to pick me up at the airport, I would miss my connecting flight or my luggage would get left behind.

Thankfully, none of my predictions came true. My bags and I made it to Africa all in one piece and I was met at the airport by a volunteer of the organization I work for. Unfortunately, that was the easy part.

In the last four weeks, I have been stranded in a jungle, made fun of in at least four languages and waged war on a pack of lizards that invaded my house. I have been sick from the spice of the local food and I haven’t seen a toilet seat since I left home.

But I have also learned how to live without running water or constant power. I can navigate the city using okada motorbikes and bathe from a bucket. I know how to greet people in Krio, Mende and Temne and can skin my own fish for dinner.

I never expected it to be easy, but I also didn’t expect it to be this much fun.

In April, I was awarded one of Carleton University’s Centre for Media and Transitional Societies internships. The program provides funding for a few journalism students to work in developing countries in Africa over the summer. I was thrilled to discover I would be spending 10 weeks in Sierra Leone working with Independent Radio Network (IRN), a media station based in the capital city of Freetown.

Freetown is a complete assault on the senses. From the smell of burning garbage to the hissing of passing okada drivers, everything in this city seems to demand your attention at once. I am one of few foreigners in Sierra Leone and gleeful shouts of “White girl, white girl!” follow me wherever I go.

Despite their cheerful disposition, the people here live a hard life. Sierra Leone’s history is marked by political violence, an overly centralized government and a 10-year civil war that has devastated the country.

As such, marginalized groups such as women and children have struggled to participate in civic and political life. One of IRN’s main priorities is to include these voices in its programming, which has proven difficult without adequate equipment, funding, power and infrastructure.

My job is to find ways to incorporate these voices as I evaluate the programs of IRN’s 25 community radio stations. I meet with producers from all over the country to discuss the production challenges and ethical issues faced by the journalists here. So far my work has taken me all over and even outside of Freetown. I have been to the Sierra Leonean Parliament and travelled as far as Tonkolili and Bo. I’ve met with members of the rural community and am hoping to see more before I leave.

It’s been more than a month since I left Canada for this small, West African country. Now that I’ve settled, people keep asking me, “So how do you like Sierra Leone?” I wish I could come up with a more descriptive answer than “good” or “fine,” but the question is deceptive in its simplicity.

Sierra Leone isn’t a place you can describe in a phrase or two. In the city, Sierra Leone is chipped paint and crumbling buildings; it is busy markets and red dirt roads. Outside Freetown, Sierra Leone is bare feet and palm trees. It is brick huts and water pumps, sponsored by well-known charities. But no matter where you go in this country, you are sure to find smiling faces, a pick-up game of soccer and the most delicious smoked fish you have ever tasted.

How do I like Sierra Leone? As I expected, it has tested me, comforted me and inspired me.

What I didn’t expect is that it would teach me more about myself than it would about Africa.

Elizabeth McSheffrey graduated from the Carleton journalism program in June.

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