Chasing crabs at sunset – one year in Sierra Leone!

I have been in Sierra Leone for one year and so much has happened! It feels like yesterday, but it also feels like it has been way more than one year. So much has changed and so much has remained the same. I remember interviewing for my current job and someone on the panel asking me if I would really walk away from my job and my lifestyle to move to Sierra Leone. I could tell that they thought I could do well in the position, but they doubted that I would drop it all and move.

Thankfully, I did! I walked away from the big job with the big title and the big salary. I walked away from the big house, the big city and the big hectic lifestyle. I told myself that I was coming back to a place were things were smaller and simpler. A place were I would slow down and reconnect with family and friends, while doing work that I was so passionate about. In retrospect, I miscalculated a lot – things were smaller, but definitely not simpler! I slowed down and reconnected with family and I was passionate about my work, but work was definitely more hectic than I anticipated and it definitely kept me on my toes. I faced a lot of challenges, missed home while being at home, and thought about returning to Atlanta many times. Despite all this, moving to Sierra Leone was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I believe that my life and my family has been enriched because of this.

I decided to share my experiences and had lofty plans to write a weekly blog post for the first year. I hoped that others in the diaspora could be inspired to return or use my experiences to help inform their decisions not to return. That went nowhere pretty fast as life caught up with me – I wrote occasional blog posts, but I was at least able to share many pictures and experiences on my Facebook page. I probably painted too rosy a picture of my return, but I am an eternal optimist and always see the glass half full. I planned to become this social butterfly – to reconnect with friends and go out on weekly dates with my husband, but quickly realized that we were the same old boring homebodies in Freetown like we were in Atlanta. We went out occasionally, but just like in Atlanta, we were usually in bed by 9pm on Friday nights, wiped out from work and from chasing four kids. I did much better reconnecting with family, I hung out every Friday afternoon with my dad, saw my mom more and spent a lot more time with my sister who had also returned from Atlanta. There were many other family members that I barely connected with though, as I had the same work and family obligations in Freetown that I had in Atlanta.

The food! The food has been everything! The struggle was real over the past 27 years and I definitely made up for it this past year! I ate ALL of the foods I had missed – puff cake, Saturday foofoo with obiata, white sawer, kanya for snacks, roast beef on the regular, tombie ice in the fridge… Lawd, the food has been good, and unfortunately, my waistline and not my derriere, has increased. At the one year mark, my resolution is to lay off the good food and return to normalcy – I should be good with all the nostalgic eating now! Thankfully, it has been easy to continue exercising as nothing can beat jogging along Lumley beach or hiking up Leicester Peak.

The kids have struggled. They love their school and thankfully the school has been academically identical to their school in Atlanta. They however miss everything about America and ask to go back a lot. I thought that things would change with time and friends, but it has not. They have made a lot of good friends and they have a lot of fun in Freetown, but technology has allowed them to continue with their friendships at home. Facetime and snapchat means that they still exist in both worlds and know about everything going on with their old friends and their old schools. They have also continued their friendships, so it is hard for them to move on and imagine that they will not be permanently reconnecting with their friends soon. They don’t miss the food as much as we can make their familiar foods at home, plus they love cassava leaves and potato leaves, which I used to cook in Atlanta. Sheba, our dog, has surprisingly thrived the most – she has adapted well to eating mostly rice and plassas, and occasionally eating her dry dog food. She has also figured out how to locate the coolest spots in the compound, and how to open doors and locate the coolest air conditioned rooms in the house.

I have struggled with the small things. I really miss going for a walk with my husband and Sheba every night. We tried, but the dark side roads in our neighborhood limits that option. We tried the main Spur road, but too many cars with iffy brakes have crashed down the mountain into the sidewalks to make me want to risk my life for my walks! I miss Amazon Prime and my ability to get anything I want on my doorstep in 24 hours, but maybe that is not such a bad thing as my credit card is now dormant. I do miss my old job and my friends at my old job – I miss the camaraderie and I miss innovating and trouble-shooting. I miss the stores and the malls and the movies. I don’t miss the traffic and the commute. I don’t miss driving. I don’t miss cooking. I don’t miss cleaning. I still want to spend more time with my kids, but that is the perennial burden of a working mom.

A few things really had me reflecting this past week. On a Tuesday, I was able to help my 85 year old Papa vote – the joy I felt just being there to help him put his thumbprint on the ballot for his candidate of choice was beyond description. On a Sunday, I went to church after a long absence – I sat in the back and looked up to see my sister in one of the pews and my best fried and Goddaughter in another pew. These two things seem simple but war and economic challenges have forced many Sierra Leoneans into the diaspora, away from family, friends and social networks. Many have given up friends, family and relationships in search of safety and economic stability – I am so thankful to get some of that back after so many years.

Finally, my husband and I decided to find a solution to our challenges with walking on weekdays. Yes, we couldn’t walk in a gated subdivision with perfect sidewalks and lighted pathways, but maybe we could find a way to walk. On one cool and breezy night, we took Sheba for a walk on Lumley beach after work. We watched the sun disappear into the Atlantic ocean while she chased the crabs from their holes in the sand into the crashing waves. She never caught the crabs, but the chase was everything – I have never seen her happier. Sheba showed me that there is pure joy in chasing your dreams. Even if you never catch them, there is joy and happiness in the chase. My lot in life, and my blessing in life, was to have lived and bonded with two countries and two people. To have friends and family in Sierra Leone and in America. Because of this, I am always searching, always yearning for home. Because of this, I must strive to always remember that wherever I am, it is always ok to chase crabs at sunset.

12 Comments

  1. Hubainatu Toksy Davies

    Thanks for sharing! A very good read. Very inspirational and motivational for us all in the diaspora.

  2. Mimi Sei

    I love it! Honest, open real talk about life at home away from home. Your words conjure so many memories for me….thanks for sharing.

  3. Aissata Bah

    Well said!! My father was a returnee also; dropped everything and left to help his people. So I am well aware! I hope to one day follow those same footsteps. I really have a passion and have always had for one for maternal/child health. I am in public health now and trying to work on getting enough experience. I will one day be there

  4. Anne Marie Mustapha

    Great piece. It takes a real patriot to leave all the goodies in the US to take a job in Mama Salone. For putting Sierra Leone God will continue to grant you His choicest of blessings. You and your family will be rewarded abundantly for contributing to strengthen our health system.

  5. Josephine Faulkner

    Dr Forna, I truly applaud you and your family for your bravery. I know it takes a lot of planning and determination to make such a move. You did it and you will be rewarded for YOUR SERVICE TO THE PEOPLE of that country. As THEY always say God go Bless you yah.
    As a Sierra Leone, I know many have tried and failed, yet many have tried and succeeded. I am sure you have connected with some of the other brave Medical professionals who have gone and stayed to make a difference. Many small groups make annual trips to touch people’s lives in Salone such as Krio Descendant Union in the Diaspora, Sisters of Sierra Leone from Dallas Texas and so on. I will stay in touch by email . By God’s Grace, we will connect in person.
    Take good care. God bless you and yours.

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