I opened my facebook app to dozens of posts from friends sympathising with me – another tragedy in Sierra Leone (Salone). A mudslide had wiped out hundreds of homes and thousands of people. I felt sadness, guilt, worry and yet immense pride as I watched endless clips of the Salone natives bundling together to clear up the affected areas and offer refuge to victims. I called my cousins immediately and arranged a flight out as soon as our schedules would allow.
As well as generating financial support for the camps taking in mudslide victims, I also had ‘selfish’ reasons for travelling to Sierra Leone to reconnect with long lost family members, to set about launching my performing arts school and simply to experience the Country as an adult – as a friend once told me, “Our ancestors smile when we return home and touch the soil.”
The lead up to the trip was both confusing and frustrating; endless hours at the Salone Embassy having to request a VISA to travel; tedious phone-calls and appointments to General Practices to ensure I would be sufficiently immunised against disease; constant reminders from family members, ‘avoid drinking local water’, ‘don’t stray too far from your high-calibre apartment.’ All these sincere warnings to protect me from the country in which both my parents and grandparents were nurtured. The country I often refer to as home.
I disembarked into the familiar bustle of the Salone airport. The tangy smell of sweat in the air accompanied by locals shouting “cold water deh yah!” My heart was full, however the sentimentality was tempered by an awareness of the baggage handlers fighting over the privilege of wheeling my suitcase 10 feet to the car. These men rely hugely on tips from travellers coming in from overseas. The average tip per customer being about 5000 Leones (£0.71). My pure overwhelming joy felt tinged suddenly, a small sadness crept in.
The fresh fruit, reliably warm weather and relaxed way of living are enough to attract anyone to this country but for me, it was the sense of community that I had always envied about my parents’ experiences growing up here. A place where children as young as four manage to encapsulate a mature work ethic and an understanding of life, whilst maintaining their happiness and hope. However it would be remiss of me to ignore the complications I experienced. The Salone that I had so longed to return to, met me with harsh realities about what was expected of myself and women alike. The confusion and disbelief on the faces of the business men that I met with initially humoured me, however by the third or fourth meeting, I took heed of all questions about our business ideas being directed towards my male cousin while the topics discussed with me were centred around the weather and food – anger and frustration set in. In an effort to empower my gender, I began questioning the men’s actions in the presence of women. Not enough to show disrespect but enough to begin planting seeds.
During my time in Sierra Leone, I worked tirelessly on perfecting both the Salone language and accent. However my quest was met with resistance from almost everybody. Adults would chuckle in a manner that was unintentionally received as patronising and children requested that I spoke in my real accent. They were confused by my African attire and shocked by my playlist that was primarily made up of Afro-pop. They found it interesting that someone born and raised so far from them would choose to dress and behave similarly to them. As if my parents living in the UK would somehow erase their ability to pass down the culture to me.
I began incorporating motivational speaking into my classes. “Who here has ever been overseas?” *silence followed by bashful laughter* “Who here would like an opportunity to visit the UK or the States?” *raucous cheering as hands shot up* “Why would you like to visit those places?” *Various mumblings about those Countries being better, more opportunities, easier living, etc. *
I suddenly realised how much we both longed for what the other had.
“Do you know that videos of you children dancing and playing go viral overseas? Do you know that catwalk runways and fashion brands model their designs on your fashion? Do you know that people tan their skin and copy your hairstyles? Do you understand how rich this land truly is?” *silence and shock followed by smiles*
In that moment, the importance of the stories we are told became all too clear to me. It troubled me that these children did not know their worth and it bothered me that everybody wanted to travel to countries that had made themselves great by stealing from everybody else. What shocked me the most, however, was that I seemed to be the first person telling them. It seemed that fellow Sierra Leoneans that had returned before me had been preoccupied with flaunting their dual-citizenships, money and ostensibly higher standards of living.
Thanks to colonisation, the natives treat the Europeans as though they are of a higher calibre, and the diaspora strangely also happen to fall into this category.
With so much focus on asking others to aid the social, economical and physical development of Salone, little energy is spent on retraining the mindsets of its inhabitants. Children are told to work hard in school, so that may get a good education and a great job, all with the intention of moving overseas. If they were taught to do this, but with the goal of using the same education and wealth to rebuild our own Country, how different the experiences for us all would be. Maybe then we wouldn’t have homegrown Africans longing to leave and position themselves closer to European standards. Maybe then the diaspora could return home without being treated like outsiders. Maybe these are the diamonds that we would get to keep.
Many of our parents battled with the contradictions of raising African children on British soil and as a first generation expat, it’s not at all uncommon to feel like a visitor in the Country that birthed you. I travelled to Sierra Leone in search of belonging and a sense of home and I’m not entirely sure I found it. Like an ex lover, the romanticised idea almost never quite lives up to the realities. My aim is to return to Sierra Leone at the end of this year with the mindset of treating the Country as a sibling whom I love dearly. I plan to acknowledge it’s flaws and nurture it with the tenderness needed to help incorporate change for the better.
Words By : Vanessa Fisher
Photos By: Vanessa Fisher