Julia’s Reflection on her Sierra Leone Trip

Julia (left) who visited Sierra Leone, posing with Kat who went to El Salvador.

Julia (left) who visited Sierra Leone, posing with Kat who went to El Salvador.

It’s now May and our intrepid Gap Year duo have been back from their adventures for a couple of months. We called in to see what they made of their trip, now they’ve had some time to process all that they did and saw…
First up is Julia who visited Sierra Leone.

What were your expectations before the trip?

I thought the trip would be challenging as well as life-changing. I was expecting to see the “real” Africa, not some stereotypical picture that we are shown so often. I had heard a lot about palm wine and how good it tastes. It doesn’t taste good at all! After CAFOD provided our security training, I was convinced that we would probably die as they covered every scenario possible, but we didn’t. What I shouldn’t have done is watch the film “Blood Diamond” just before leaving. It gave a realistic view of the country during the civil war, a beautiful and small country but where 65% of the population live in extreme poverty.

How was the journey out there?

I flew into Lungi airport and had to cross the rough Sierra Leone River to get to the capital, Freetown. We then piled into a 4×4 across very rutted bumpy and unmade roads to our accommodation. As our driver said “This Is Africa!”

Your first impressions?

The heat hit me straight away and everywhere is really dusty. There’s a coating of rust coloured dust that covers every surface.

How was the accommodation and food?

Our first accommodation seemed pretty basic, but after staying with the communities and coming back, it was the height of luxury! It had electricity and running water, whereas when we were with the local communities there was no electricity. When it got dark we had to use torches. We washed from a bucket filled with river water (I now always appreciate a shower) and slept on a straw mattress. I don’t recommend it.
The local greeting is “How’s the body?” and the normal reply is “The body fine” but as Neil, another Gapper, was showering, some passing ladies saw him and said “The body fiiiiiine!” So our discomfort at least entertained some of the people there.
The food was spicy. All meat is cooked, eaten and served on the bone, which was a bit odd to us, but meat is a luxury. So much so, that even the bones are eaten and not just small ones like chicken!

Highlight of the trip?

Our time spent with the people of Rofemka was a real highlight. We saw them as they normally are. We didn’t feel like guests and everyone was just being themselves, no best behaviour for the visitors. We played football with them, went fishing and taught in their school. We tried our hand at rice harvesting, but we weren’t good and tried milling the cereals by bashing them with a large pole but we weren’t great at that either. We also got to meet Samai from the Lent campaign at a village called Tisor.

Lows of the trip?

I was dehydrated and got heat stroke so was pretty low, luckily for just one day. I was deeply affected by going past the Presidential Palace which was massive but completely unoccupied. How could anyone spend so much on themselves with such poverty so close by?

Tell me one story that you’ll always remember.

I was at a school and a holding a 2½ year old girl who fell asleep. One of the workers said I was a natural mother and asked how old I was and if I had a baby back at home. He was genuinely surprised when I said I wasn’t a mother. Later I met the child’s mother, a 16 year old, and she explained that like her, most girls are married and pregnant at about 14. She also told me that her husband was 84. I realised how lucky I am to have the choice of completing higher education before perhaps marrying and having children. This made me an exception for the people in the village.

What reflections do you have on the trip now?

A big thing for me is the gratitude I have to all the women over the years who stood up for gender equality in this country. I’m also grateful for things we normally take for granted like electricity and the Internet. Whenever I start to get annoyed about small things, I remember what other people don’t have. I think that in this country we are much more developed as regards infrastructure but perhaps not as people.

What would you say to other people who might be thinking of applying to Step into the Gap?

Look into the different placements on offer and if you think that’s it’s for you, then get your application in early!

Thanks to Julia for sharing her African story. Tomorrow we’ll publish Kat’s account of being in the land of Romero, El Salvador.

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