Last September, I arrived in Sierra Leone to serve on the staff of the country’s Council of Churches and join efforts to advocate for girls and women. In the past 10 months of working in the Tonkolili District, I have gained a deeper awareness of and appreciation for the love of God as made known through the peace and justice ministries of the Council.
Although my everyday life in Sierra Leone differs vastly from my life in America, I do not feel as if I am living away from home because Sierra Leone has accepted me and treated me as her own. I struggle when attempting to articulate my love for Sierra Leone, or as we say “Mama Salone”. The simplest yet perhaps most important description of my life here is that as a Black American woman, I feel a sense of belonging in Sierra Leone. I have made deep and meaningful connections with Sierra Leoneans, and I possess a feeling for them that can only be described as love. In fact, people here regularly inform me that “Salone is my home” and that I am always welcome.
Amongst all, I have developed an affectionate appreciation for Sierra Leone. Part of this is my newfound appetite for rice! Rice is the staple crop here as 85% of farmers grow it during the rainy season. Nearly all households consume rice in Sierra Leone. Since my arrival, I have been eating rice every day. I routinely enjoy rice paired with plasas, a name used for a variety of African sauces cooked with red palm oil, onion, chilies, meat and fish, and the beloved bouillon cube. There are endless delicious plasas such as potato leaves, crain crain, and groundnut soup; but I most enjoy cassava leaves. This popular dish brings many together as it is easy to find whether in a restaurant or on the street.
It is common for Sierra Leoneans to encourage others to join them when eating rice. In fact, not offering to share a plate of rice when others are present may be viewed as rude. “Let’s chop” or “it’s chop time” is an invitation I normally receive in several locations such as the office, beach, hair salon, fabric shop, taxis, corner stores, and in my neighborhood.
I treasure the moments spent with friends as we gather around a large plate of rice, eat with our fingers and listen to Lucky Dube, a popular South African Reggae musician. During chop time, I love listening to stories about how diverse life is in Sierra Leone, and sharing stories from my childhood and college years. Through these exchanges, I have learned about the culture of Sierra Leone, politics, and to speak Krio and Temne.
As food is a large component of African culture, chop time always presents an invitation to establishing relationships. Furthermore, it represents the nurturing art of ensuring all are fed. Chop time is an extension of love and welcoming. Foreigner or citizen, everyone is given a spoon and a section of rice to finish.
In my time spent in the Tonkolili District, I have learned to associate cassava leaves with peace. As I travel to different communities, I am often greeted with a delicious plate of cassava leaves and rice from the paramount Chief or the parents of the children who attend our Safe Centers and Boys and Girls Club. Taking a moment to sit with members of the community encourages conversation and thus creates familiarity and trust, elements that are vitally as I work with their children and youth. Through these relationships, children involved in our programs have opened to my co-workers and me. Accordingly, levels involvement and excitement for our programs and community events have increased due to parents encouraging their children to participate.
The Salone attitude of giving, and the tradition of welcoming others and creating relationships are beautiful and admirable characteristics of life here. Such welcoming has made me consider Sierra Leone as my home. This is a feeling I want every person seeking refuge to experience, and a story I want to take with me to the United States.
Nia Sullivan serves with the Council of Churches, Sierra Leone, Girls Access to Education Program (GATE). Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, WOC, OGHS, and your special gifts.