Originally written for Turnstyle News.
It had been 25 years since my mom, Lois Williams, saw Freetown, Sierra Leone: the place she was born and raised, schooled, married, and had me, her first of three children. My parents left Sierra Leone in 1986, five years before the official start to the 11 year civil war that killed more than 50,000 people, and displaced more than half of the population (2.5 million were displaced internally and externally).
According to my mom, right before they decided to go, things were slowly becoming more and more difficult. “Everything was starting to get rationed,” she said. “You’ll go to buy two bags of rice and they’ll only sell you one.”
The economic hardship my mother faced, coupled with the civil war in Sierra Leone, is what made her leave for good. And her economic hardship in America, plus and the high cost of visiting Sierra Leone, is what has kept her away since she got her green card in 2005. What finally motivated her to definitely go this year was the fact that I was traveling there for a third time.
I arrived in Sierra Leone a day before my parents and met them at the Pelican Water Taxi, which is one of the few ways to get from Lungi (where the airport is) to Freetown, the capital.
It was inevitable that my mother would compare Sierra Leone today to the Sierra Leone she knew 25 years ago. Driving around Freetown for the first time, the following day, my mother said, “Eh Salone. Ow kontri kin go beyen. Na dat ar nor no.” (“Eh Sierra Leone. How a country can go backwards. That’s what I don’t know.”)
While I’ve grown accustomed to the bumpiness and dustiness of the streets in Freetown since my initial visits, my mom was shocked by it. Traveling down the street where my mother grew up she explained, “All ya been paved.” (All of this was paved.) She also said the streets looked a lot smaller than she remembered. And areas she said used to be “posh areas” were now overcrowded with people and pan body houses, which are made from sheets of zinc and cardboard. During the war, thousands of refugees migrated to Freetown, increasing a population of 800,000 in 1995 to 1.8 million in 2003.
Seeing Sierra Leone through my mother’s eyes was painful. It was like she was questioning her memories and asking herself: Could Sierra Leone really have deteriorated this much? Or has living in America for so long affected my sensibilities? Personally, I think it’s a little bit of both. Yes things were hard before she left the country; that’s why she moved to America. But no one expects to return after 25 years to find one’s country worse than when you left.
From the back seat of the car I watched my mother stare out the window as we drove down Siaka Stevens Street. And every now and then a random, “Eh God” or “Eh Bo” would almost involuntarily come out of her mouth. Point blank: she was disappointed.
I, on the other hand, actually saw some improvements in the country since my previous visit. A street known as Wilkinson Road, which is like Broadway Ave in NYC is newly paved, and has been widened from two to four lanes. Also, neighborhoods without electricity before were now flickering with energy nearly 24/7.
Before this trip, during the tough times, my mom would make comments along the lines of, “One day I’m just going to pack up and go to Salone” (Sierra Leone). I now wonder if I’ll hear those words from her again. Now she knows going back means giving up some of the things we take for granted here in the U.S. like readily available drinkable water, being able to call 911 for an emergency, and shopping malls.
I asked her if she would ever move back, and she said, “maybe when I retire.” My gut tells me that both she and Sierra Leone have changed too much.
See photo gallery of this trip on Turnstyle News.