First experiences in Sierra Leone

Joanne went into this experience never having been to West Africa. She recently completed her PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and decided to get involved with our program in Sierra Leone. She wrote to us about her first impressions about Sierra Leone and the first couple of days teaching at Fourah Bay College. Read her experience below:

Some brief first impressions:

The view from our house is spectacular, with the hazy blue bay on one side and the verdant valley stretching out on the other. While the weather is not searing hot, the humidity is draining for one who is used to cooler climates.

Photo taken by Joanne in Sierra Leone

The rain comes in heavy spells, clouding the sky and washing out Freetown’s bright colours. After the rain, the sky clears and the light azure of the ocean, the bright green of the mountains, and the happy multicoloured clothing of the population re-emerge, refreshed.

The friendliness of the people dispels any fears for safety, but things in Freetown can be a process. The roads are dotted with potholes and barriers and the chaotic traffic can mean that it takes longer to get to any destination. The foreignness of it all can also be daunting, from the open gutters to the constant bartering to the Krio spoken by the population.

The food is tasty: particularly the grilled meats and seafood, which are typically served with fries or fried rice or plantains. The stews and sauces are incredibly spicy and not for the faint-hearted. The shawarmas are generally reliable. And the fufu and mystery meat stews that comes with it (mine had cowhide), eaten typically on Saturdays, is just simply bizzare.

“Red snapper grilled with chillies and plantains. Yum!” Joanne

Day 1 of Classes:

I expected little going into the program having never been to West Africa or Sierra Leone but Day One was more chaotic and disorganised than expected. When we arrived, we were informed that the college is in the middle of a semester, which means students still had a full lecture load. We quickly realised our scheduled program needed to be rearranged. We have condensed the program to three one-hour classes in the morning, but many final year law students will not be able to attend the classes as they have other lectures and will only be able to attend the afternoon workshops. We are not sure we will have the same students each day. We also may have limited classroom spaces to hold classes, which hopefully will begin tomorrow. The school has left the organisation to the student law society, who are doing a great job leading their peers, but have limited say in issues of classroom allocation and course scheduling. Some of the staff, we are told, have gone on holiday, which is very surprising since Fourah Bay is in the middle of an academic term.

In addition, all the students thus far are law students and likely expect our classes to be directly related to the law degrees they are currently pursuing. Exams are coming up in September. While my course in International Relations speaks to larger theoretical questions behind international law, I will not be teaching public international law or anything close. My seminar and discussion-based teaching style may also be different from the large-scale lectures they are accustomed to. I am sure they will adapt and hopefully we will all enjoy this new experience. Classes start tomorrow morning at 9am!

Photo of Fourah Bay College Faculty of Social Science and Law

Day 2 of Classes:

Day one of class and the disorganisation continues — we arrived at 9am but by 9:30am, there were only maybe twenty students. We divided them into three groups and told Majeks to divide others as they trickled in. Because we only had access to one lecture hall, Charlie used the outdoor space and I used the library downstairs which was barely large enough for the dozen or so students that eventually arrived. There was no fan and no working electricity. Some students had lectures so left when their lecturer arrived.

I taught for four hours straight which was extremely exhausting (having two hours of research workshops immediately afterwards). The students were engaging and opinionated which made the experience worthwhile, but at the same time took more energy. I was pleasantly surprised by the calibre of the students and the thoughtful opinions they voiced. I was also impressed with their engagement with the material and their ability to adapt to small group discussions.

Joanne teaching

Immediately, I noticed differences from my Western students — when I asked them to describe themselves, they emphasised their integrity, family, loyalty and humility. When they discussed politics, it was immediately centred on corruption and selfishness. And when they discussed international relations, many looked up to international organizations and peaceful persuasion. As a group, they seem quite optimistic about their country and the world.

Eager students in class

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