“What have I gotten myself into?”
This is a question that has come up many times on my journey to Africa.
I suppose to clarify, and so as not to sound like a cynic, I should explain a little bit about myself. I’ve been a photographer for two and a half years now. When I first picked up a camera the only thought that went through my head was “Awesome, now I have a big chunk of metal, plastic and glass that will allow me to take clearer photos and I’ll soon be rich and famous as a result of having this camera!”
This was not the case as I am neither rich, nor famous (side from my own delusions of grandeur.) Anyways all of that is beside the point. If someone had told me the day that I picked up that camera that it would eventually lead me to post war West Africa, I would have laughed in their faces. Not because traveling to West Africa is a crazy idea, but simply because I did not see myself ever getting past the stage of “hobbyist” photography.
And yet, here I sit, in Sierra Leone, thousands of miles from home (6168 miles approximately) volunteering as the photographer for Youth Action International.
Now in regards to Africa, particularly Sierra Leone and Liberia, I don’t think that anything could have really prepared me for what I would experience here. This is including Kimmie’s ‘worst case scenario’ description of Liberia.
There are a number of reasons for this, the main ones being that (a) in Canada the only news we ever hear about Liberia or Sierra Leone, if we hear any, is usually negative. And (b) even if I had a picture painted for me about what it would be like here, experiencing it, and hearing about it are two completely different things.
I’ll start with Liberia, as it is my center for work, and where I first arrived, and where I will last leave from on this particular stint.
Liberia is a beautiful country, absolutely breathtaking. There are savannahs that stretch as far as the eye can see, and flora and fauna that I’ve only ever read about in books. The capital city, Monrovia, is one that has all but lost its former glory. There are signs that show just how beautiful Monrovia one was, but the horrors of war have ravaged the city, and left scars not only on the buildings, but also on the peoples bodies and souls.
One of the first things I noticed about the Liberian people was the look in their eyes. There is so much emotion and hurt ingrained in the peoples eyes, but also so much hope, and determination.
The second thing I noticed is just how long it takes to get places in Liberia. The roads are filled with potholes, or destroyed entirely, so driving can at times be an arduous and patience building experience. None-the-less it is a good time to get to know your driver, and the people around you.
On m very first day I got to experience “Driving Liberian style” which encompasses squishing 4 (or more) people in the back seat, and often times two people in the front passenger seat. This was no easy task for me when I arrived as that I am 6 feet tall and was about 195-200 pounds. Needless to say I am not the same size as the typical Liberian.
My first week and a half was fairly easy to get used to, things flowed the way that I expected them to, and I was sleeping more than I ever have at home. The bucket showers I was used to from my time in Thailand and the Philippines, and I’ve never been one to turn down food, no matter how spicy it was, so I was doing well.
Then the first challenge came. Leaving Liberia.
Now this isn’t actually a challenge, especially in the way that sudoku is a challenge, or a marathon is a challenge, more in just getting up the nerve to do it. We were lucky enough that the UN WFP offers free flights in between Liberia and Sierra Leone for people working for NGO’s. The flight is short, just under an hour, but is possibly one of the more harrowing things that you can do (other than say, fighting a great white shark with your bear hands, or staring a grizzly bear in the eye).
We did however arrive safely in Sierra Leone with no hindrances.
Sierra Leone even at first glance is very different than Liberia. Freetown is built among the hills, and is significantly more crowded (or so it would seem) than Liberia. There is a lot of congestion on the roads due to them being narrower than Liberia’s roads.
Now if I thought it took a while to get around in Liberia, I was about to realize just how quickly things move there in comparison to Sierra Leone.
Sometimes it could take us as much as an hour and a half just to get across Freetown, due to the congestion and pedestrians all over the roads. I have a lot of respect for our drivers here, because they handle the driving situations calmly and with a commendable amount of poise.
Except when they drive off the road while traveling down a muddy hill in the middle of pouring rain on top of a mountain.
But other than that there have been no serious threats to anyone’s safety.
I would have to say that Africa has shattered my thoughts, expectations and any preconceived notions that I may have had about this continent before coming here. I’m constantly fascinated by the stories that people tell me, while at the same time saddened that such atrocities happened.
It is inspiring to see an organization like YAI that is small, and yet deeply invested in, and committed to the countries that it is working in.
I believe the leadership is paramount to the commitment to the work that is done here, as is first and foremost exampled by Kimmie Weeks. I really am blown away by his work ethic. In Liberia he’s working from 730 am, until 10pm most nights, if not later.
I’m actually quite convinced the man is a robot who survives off of doing humanitarian based work.
My views on his robot heritage are beside the point however.
From what I have experienced I can say confidently that I will return to Africa to continue documenting the work that NGO’s like YAI do, to help and destroy the misconceptions we have in the west.
Liberia and Sierra Leone are beautiful countries with wonderful people who are working to help rebuild their nations, just as much as they are trying to dispel the notions that these are dangerous places.
I’m excited to see what is in store for Africa and for my remaining few weeks her in Africa.