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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View: Saying goodbye

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

I still can’t believe this is my last column for Awoko newspaper. On Tuesday at 5 am, I fly out of Lungi airport to Casablanca, and eventually back home to Seattle in the Northwestern United States.
Phrases like “unforgettable” and “life-changing” are so overused they’ve lost any resonance they have. But my time in Sierra Leone this summer has been both.
It’s hard to find the words to express how I feel about having to say goodbye to Sierra Leone and the staff of Awoko newspaper. From the day I arrived and throughout the summer, I’ve been touched by how warm, welcoming and thoughtful not only my friends and colleagues at Awoko have been, but the countless Sierra Leoneans I met only briefly.
Since the day I arrived, the staff of Awoko made me feel part of the newsroom family. So many staff members went out of their way to help me achieve my goals for the internship, pursue subjects I was interested in, and show me a good time.
There were several occasions when, after I expressed interest in a story idea, my colleagues took time out of their day to help me pursue it further, arranging interviews, chasing after government officials and explaining so many things I didn’t understand.
Throughout the internship my colleagues not only helped make things go smoothly for me, but treated me as an equal and a member of the team. They introduced me to the things they were proud of about Sierra Leone, but never tried to shield me from the real problems. Whether it was specially making vegetarian lunches for me, taking me to church or to bars in the evenings or cracking jokes, my colleagues went out of their way to make me feel like I belonged.
My time here had its difficult and frustrating moments. As a result of this, I could sometimes be resistant to trying new experiences and opening myself up to the country, which I regret a little bit.
I also wonder if I was too judgmental of Sierra Leone sometimes. Anyone reading my columns would know that I can sometimes be uncompromising in my opinions and think the world should be a particular way. The problem is that sometimes it isn’t that way. For better or worse, things are the way they are, in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, usually for complex reasons. My time in Sierra Leone has reminded me that the world defies easy explanations and absolutes aren’t that useful. While forming opinions is important, so is keeping an open mind.
My experience in Sierra Leone has been amazing. It exceeded all my expectations, and then some. There were days when I was ready to go home, but now that I actually am, I’m not ready.
In a way, though, I won’t leave, because I know Sierra Leone won’t leave me. This wasn’t just a trip abroad, or a journalism internship. What I’ve learned during my time here will stay with me forever. I have a better understanding of Sierra Leone, Africa, the developing world, the United States, the whole planet and humanity as a whole. Am I exaggerating? Not one bit.
Living in the United States, there are so many things I take for granted, and my time in Sierra Leone taught me I shouldn’t. All around the world, people struggle with many of the same serious problems. The other day, journalist and Awoko newspaper co-founder David Tam Baryoh told me he’d seen corruption in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, and also Canada, the United States and Britain.
Spending time in Sierra Leone, I learned that there’s a tangled web of dysfunction holding the country back. The same problems and issues exist all around the world, and it’s essential for an aspiring journalist like myself to understand how these things manifest.
Despite all the problems, I’ve been struck by how full of potential Sierra Leone is. Yes, it’s rich in natural resources, tourism and everything else government officials and aid organizations talk about. But Sierra Leone’s strength really lies with its brave and resilient people.
As broken as many things are, the country was able to bounce back from the destabilizing horror of civil war to a democracy. Ebola is gone, and Sierra Leone is better-prepared, should it strike again, to defeat it.
I’m amazed by the how people have coped with unimaginable difficulties most Westerners have never faced. In Bo, young people who had their lives thrown off balance by the civil war were given motorbike taxis to ride, giving them a steady job and focus. With little support from the government, a resident of Kroo Bay slum works to prepare people to weather disastrous floods safely.
Being struck by disasters like the ones Sierra Leone experienced could shake a country to its core and kill its soul. But I was struck by how much people believe in and love Sierra Leone. It’s not a blind loyalty to the government  the majority of people I met were fiercely independent-minded and critical of their government, but loved their country, and believed in their people’s potential.
So many people I met, even strangers in the street, have asked me what I think of Sierra Leone. I feel privileged to have been able to spend time here. I only hope my country can be as welcoming as Sierra Leone has been to me as a foreigner.
My time in Sierra Leone has given me a new sense of perspective. After seeing the problems people have to deal with in Sierra Leone, many of the issues people complain about in my area of the world seem empty and selfish. Before I came here I was interested in Africa and Sierra Leone, and I certainly cared about their wellbeing — when I remembered they existed. But now Sierra Leone and Africa are more present in my mind, and I have no doubt they always will be. In a way, it feels wrong to fly back to the comforts of home, leaving Sierra Leone behind to struggle and thrive, now out of my sight.
But I won’t keep Sierra Leone out of my thoughts. I have no illusions I can make a huge difference, but I’ll do what I can. I’ll tell people to think of Sierra Leone, donate to help the country, and to visit for themselves.
I hope to come back myself. Until then, Sierra Leone and the staff of Awoko will be in my thoughts and heart.
Tuesday September 13, 2016

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