Right before the first time I came to Sierra Leone, I spoke with British filmmaker Michele D'Acosta (who has been an integral part of The Peace Project) for the first time. Unlike Michele, I was only vaguely aware of Sierra Leone, but became startlingly more aware after seeing the images that photojournalist Pep Bonet captured over seven years following Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, which has been called the cruelest in Africa's recent history.
A series of circumstances led me to taking the first trip to Sierra Leone by myself and, as has been the case since we launched The Peace Project, I was up against the wall on time and didn't have a chance to do much research on how to behave in this country that was so foreign to me. Thus, one of the U.S. organizations that we were then working with sent me a Sierra Leone "how to" information pack. The only things that I remember from that 20-plus page document were that foreigners doing humanitarian work should get a bunch of shots, wear modest clothing, and stay in the "safe" (meaning "white") areas.
Being one of the healthiest people I know and not believing much in immunizations, I requested advice from Jeff Kelber, who is part chiropractor, part holistic doctor, a hell of a healer, and the man I credit with getting (and keeping) me healthy for the past 25 years. Jeff and I ran down the list of recommended immunizations and I ended up getting only the one that's required: Yellow Fever. I then sought the counsel of Pep Bonet (the only other person I knew who'd been to Sierra Leone) regarding safety. In the fashion of someone who dodges bullets with a camera in hand, Pep laughed heartily and assured me that "Sierra Leone is one of the safest places in the world." he only thing I was left to worry about then was the modest clothing part and I'm sure if you ask Michele, she'll remember me jokingly saying that I was going to write a blog entitled "I'm going to Sierra Leone and I don't have a thing to wear."
I never did write that blog, and thankfully after a bizarre first trip in which I learned that, low and behold, I wasn't in danger of being raped on the streets of Sierra Leone if I was wearing something other than sensible shoes and a loose-fitting dress that resembled a potato sack, I've found a "uniform" that works for me while I'm here. But most importantly, I've learned that Sierra Leone is a pretty safe place -- which goes to show that bloodlust, poverty and various other influences that I'm not qualified to write about, can cause good people to do some really crazy things that in retrospect are probably incomprehensible even to themselves.
I've learned a lot since that first trip... and together myself and all of the people that have joined hands with The Peace Project have done a lot. If you're just coming into the conversation, I invite you to read some background about this journey by clicking here and here. As I've walked this path, gratitude has been my near constant companion and as I always tell people, Sierra Leone has given far more to me than I will ever give to it. Through this journey I have found not only my voice, but my purpose in life and in doing so I've answered the burning question "Why am I here?"
Yes, I have had success in business. Yes, I have (arguably) had success in romance. I've traveled the world, met thousands of people and hopefully brought light into the lives of more than a few. I've been a mother, an entrepreneur, an artist, a cook, an entertainer, a writer, and now, even an educator. But the truth is, what I really want to be is a seamstress. You see, after nearly two years of doing work in Sierra Leone, I've come to love this country and its people and I've become convinced that what Sierra Leone needs, more than anything else, is a new set of curtains.
Contrary to the derisive statements some make, Sierra Leone shouldn't (along with the rest of Africa), be blown up because there are so many problems that it's impossible to know where to start fixing them. It shouldn't be raped by the mining companies (and other corporations) that seek to suck out its vast natural resources and in many cases (albeit often unwittingly) exploit its people.
I often joke about the fact that when I was doing work for some of the largest brands in the world at the age of 23, I was staying in hotels like the Four Seasons, which is arguably the world's best hotel chain. Now that I'm trying to create change in the world, I'm willingly staying in some of the world's worst... and on this trip, in order to save money and be more assimilated into Sierra Leone's culture (read about why I think this is important here), Michele and I are staying at private residences which cost a grand total of about $100 per week vs. $100 per night that we were previously paying at a hotel that makes a Super 8 look luxurious.
Even though I've now been to Sierra Leone numerous times, arriving on Friday and again facing the chaos and complete lack of systematization was somewhat of a shock. I've learned that in order to appreciate all that this country and its people have to offer, you have to learn how not to see things here through Western eyes. It's important to strip away the judgment, don your rose-colored glasses and let everything that Sierra Leone is cloud your vision and help you look past everything it is not.
Thus, when I finally got to my residence around midnight on Friday, I was able to ignore the fact that on the unpaved road that led me here, homes that are considered slums in every country outside of Africa are the norm. I was able to ignore that the kitchen is ill-equipped and depressing, that there is no Internet service or modern furnishings. But when I got to the bedroom that I would share with Tejan and was presented with a window whose dusty, torn curtains were clinging to a rod by one hook... I finally thought to myself "WTH?!"
Over the past few days, I've thought long and hard about the fact that this home that was once very beautiful could be dramatically improved if one thing happened -- if someone would simply rip out the existing curtains hanging in extreme disrepair to curtain rods that are barely clinging to the walls. That's it. A little pride in home, a very few dollars and a good seamstress would go far in fixing what ails this house. (Okay... I'll be brutally honest -- it could use a good plumber too!)
And it's occurred to me that metaphorically this is also what ails Sierra Leone. It doesn't need those who come here thinking that the situation is so pathetic that the country and its people must be "saved." It simply needs concerned global citizens, both native and foreign, to rally people and reignite some pride in this country whose pride was, quite literally, chopped off at the knees. Sierra Leone needs to be dusted off, have its rods tightened up a bit and then it needs what my room here needs, a good set of new curtains.
I believe that myself and others must come into this country with an endless well of enthusiasm, faith, and good intentions, and we must join hands with those who are already doing good work here to jointly devise creative solutions that give people what they want -- justice. Not justice as we sometimes define it in the Western World, but justice in the sense of being treated fairly as human beings. This includes having opportunities that, if taken advantage of, provide a better life.
As Martin Luther King said, "Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice." Join hands with Michele and I and our Sierra Leonean partners, Elias Bangura and Edward Bockarie, as we begin traveling the country on Tuesday and asking people countrywide not just what makes peace, but what creates justice. More details about this campaign can be found by clicking here.