Jan 08

From Freeborn To Freetown & Back

- Back

This is a well written memoir that brings back many memories, as I worked in Sierra Leone for three years. When twenty-two year old Patrick O'Leary stepped off the plane in Sierra Leone, West Africa in January 1967, he was dressed for the snow storm he had left in Freeborn County, Minnesota a few days earlier, so it didn't take long for him to realize his rural Catholic upbringing, training for Tanzania, his original Peace Corps assignment and an earlier road trip to Key West, Florida--in a Cadillac hearse—would be less than effective in preparing him for a two year stint in Binkolo, a small village outside of Makeni in western Sierra Leone. One unique aspect of Patrick’s story is when he was being evicted from his house, a local Paramount Chief befriended him. Paramount Chief Alimanmy Dura II was one of the founders of the Sierra Leone People’s Party and would become one of twelve Chiefs elected to Parliament. The author describes a surreal scene in which Chief Dura stopped at the Peace Corps Rest House in Makeni wearing a “Ben Hogan style golf cap, Bermuda shorts, an open-necked short-sleeve shirt and plastic loafers. He arrived driving a bright-red Alfa Romeo convertible on loan from a Lebanese trader in Freetown. Now here was a local leader who knew how to live life “large” and had considerable influence and was willing to help Patrick; they became friends for over forty years. My experience in Sierra Leone helped me commiserate with much of Patrick’s story. He went to great lengths to avoid the “Tumba Fly”, as they laid their eggs on clothes hung out to dry and the eggs would hatch upon contact with human skin. Then the larvae would burrow into the skin and develop into maggots, which resulted in boil-like sores! Upon my arrival in Sierra Leone, I remember thinking, “And I thought I knew what poverty was — and diseases — lassa fever and green monkey disease — yikes!” (According to the author, in April 2016, WHO reported that 14,124 Sierra Leoneans contracted Ebola and 3,956 died.) I’ve always admired the PCVs who served and were able to survive the rigors of “Salone.” The author’s use of photos throughout the book helps one appreciate what he’d seen and done as a volunteer and the snippets at the end offer additional insights into life in Sierra Leone. The “Culture Shock” segment will bring back memories for anyone who entered Sierra Leone for the first time—the innumerable, pathetic mangy dogs and the bare-breasted female dancers of the Dance Troupe and bare-breasted women hauling water and working in the fields were just a few of his excellent examples. Like Patrick, I found Graham Greene’s “Journey Without Maps” of his 1936 trip from Freetown to Liberia very descriptive, yet difficult reality to appreciate. The region where he was stationed in the eastern area was described as “unexplored territory, cannibals.” The author received a new appreciation of the brutality described when he returned in 2004 to see the impact of a brutal civil war which included “desecrated bodies, severed and mangled limbs, severely damaged buildings, and piles of garbage…” He goes on to say that Makeni had “no electricity without private generators. Running water was no longer available. Rebels had occupied the town for eight months late in the war, and the effects were still evident.” The author sets the tone for these “counter culture” years. After returning from Sierra Leone, he agreed to be interviewed by his draft board in 1969 in order to find out what they expected of him. Like many of us of that generation, he’d been exposed to enough to believe that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was a “serious mistake” and not worth being drafted, but he was classified 1-A. By 1971, I’d also applied to be a Conscientious Objector and, like Patrick, my- request was turned down. For Patrick, what ensued was a back-and-forth with his draft board and the Attorney General. Eventually he’d become a draft counselor for a local group at the American Friends Service Committee’s office in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Attorney General would indict 150 Minnesota men for selective service violations, although eventually they found no reason for persecution, so Patrick moved on with his life, which included three years study in the seminary and a degree and career in social work. Patrick’s story is both insightful and inspiring.

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