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Sierra Leone News: First days in Freetown

I hadn’t even touched the tarmac at Lungi International Airport before I felt the intense humidity. I was raised in the United States, near Seattle, in Washington state where we have a reputation for a large amount of rain.
In Seattle, the precipitation doesn’t come on a regular basis. Much like Freetown, Seattle has a wet season and a dry one. But, Seattle’s humidity throughout the year is much different than here in Freetown, where the humidity was 100% when I arrived a few days ago during the middle of the wet season. My skin felt sticky in the warm, heavy air and I could clearly feel the air as I breathed. It was the kind of environment that made me perspire each time I went up even a small flight of stairs. In Seattle, however, the humidity doesn’t fluctuate as much during different parts of the year, usually staying around 70% humidity throughout the majority of the year. Even during Seattle’s wet season, a sunny day every few weeks is expected. So, what did all this weather mean for a newcomer in Freetown? Aside from leaving behind my winter jacket and bringing light, breathable clothes, it didn’t result in many differences for me.
With food, however, I had to make adjustments, and those came on my first day in Freetown when I sat in my first one-room aluminum structure that functioned as the kitchen and dining area. There, I indulged in my first home-cooked meal in Sierra Leone. I had rice and beans with a sauce that contained a fair amount of fish. With my stomach accustomed to a western diet, I wanted to ease myself into African cuisine, so I felt that starches without vegetables or red meat would be the best bet for a quiet night.
I submitted my order from the outside of the tin box and stepped into a seat at one of the two tables. There, the cook’s back was to me and I could see all of the preparations that she was doing: tearing lettuce apart and ripping up pieces of fish. But something else also caught my attention: the mass of flies that buzzed around the inside of the small, stuffy shack. One of the first things I was warned about in my university’s orientation sessions that I attended prior to coming to Sierra Leone was to watch out for how food was prepared. Aside from vegetables being washed in unsafe water and the possibility of meat sitting out, the prevalence of flies and other insects interacting with food was another topic of caution. These creatures could carry diseases that my body would not be accustomed to and I could fall ill within a matter of hours. For many of the locals, who have built up an immunity to these food conditions, this issue isn’t one to waste time thinking about or resources to solve.
So, when I saw one of the women in the hut unfurl numerous plastic bags to reach a protected, steaming pot of rice, I was relieved. Not only did the layers of bags help protect from the flies, but the steam that rose suddenly from the pot alleviated my worries that my food wouldn’t be fully cooked, even if it was just a grain like rice. As she scooped a healthy portion of beans, fish, and sauce, a small girl, aged just over a year and the daughter of another woman in the structure, reached in my direction. The little girl then moved her hand to my left wrist, which was placed atop my left knee, and latched on. She kept staring at me, and I smiled back at her.
My food was done and I had to shrug off the girl’s hand to accept the bowl from the chef. The girl retreated to her mother’s embrace, but continued to look on in my direction as I picked up my spoon and scooped my first bite of traditional African fare into my mouth. I first noticed the dry spice that flavored the sauce, and I chose a spoonful of plain rice to quell the burning sensation. After more bites, I had my first sip of water, which was a sweet relief to the spicy food. Eventually, my lack of water and the sheer amount of food was enough for me to leave my meal unfinished. It was delicious, and I intend to return soon with a full water bottle to actually finish an entire meal.
Jack is an intern from the U.S. who will be with Awoko for three months.
By Jack Russillo
Thursday June 28, 2018.

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