Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Sierra Leone

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Sierra Leone, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Sierra Leone.

Outside of Sierra Leone’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Sierra Leone are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Sierra Leone, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Sierra Leone[edit]

The Peace Corps staff in Sierra Leone recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?[edit]

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Female Volunteers who are single are often considered an oddity because most women, particularly in rural areas, are married, some with children, by the time they are in their 20s. Single women may also face what in the United States would

be considered inappropriate advances from male colleagues, supervisors, and acquaintances. Gender roles have changed drastically over the years in the United States; it can be a challenge to adapt to a culture with more traditional roles and to know how to effectively set boundaries. Unwanted attention, and even harassment, can be one of the greatest frustrations as a female PCV.

Above and beyond traditional gender roles and possible harassment, is the possibility of sexual violence. Sexual violence against women is a reality in Sierra Leone. Rape was used as a weapon of war and the government has launched campaigns to address this problem with the hope of reducing its occurrence. Domestic violence is also a possibility in this post-conflict country. According to police, most acts of sexual violence occur between people who know each other. Female Volunteers must exercise caution with their consumption of alcohol and going out in the evening unaccompanied. Volunteers will learn what is and is not acceptable in the Sierra Leonean culture, such as when it is and is not advisable to invite men into their homes. Often, Volunteers must take an even more conservative approach than their Sierra Leonean friends and colleagues.

Strategies to deal with these issues are discussed in training, and the Peace Corps staff can offer help in resolving any problems.

Volunteers should report any concerns or incidents to the Peace Corps medical officer (PCMO) or country director (CD) immediately.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

Volunteers who belong to minority ethnic groups will generally not experience overt biases. However, Sierra Leoneans may make some stereotypic assumptions based on someone’s background. For example, many Asian-American Volunteers are considered experts in Chinese or kung fu and African- American Volunteers may be mistaken for a Liberian or Sierra Leonean.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Varying Ages[edit]

In Sierra Leonean culture, people respect age as bringing wisdom and experience. Volunteers in their 20s sometimes find they have to make an extra effort to be accepted as professional colleagues. Older Volunteers, in contrast, are automatically accorded respect. In turn, older Volunteers might find that almost too much is expected of them because of their age; or conversely, older Volunteers who are accustomed to living independent lives may at first feel frustrated by the fact that younger Sierra Leoneans want to do things for them.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

Most cultures in Sierra Leone consider homosexuality taboo. Homosexuality certainly exists in Sierra Leone, but there is no open homosexual community.

Volunteers who are lesbian, along with female Volunteers who are heterosexual, will have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex. Some female Volunteers wear an “engagement ring” to avoid unwanted attention. While this practice might be helpful, it might also create complications.

Volunteers may not be able to freely discuss their sexual orientation with new friends and family; this can obviously be very difficult. Peace Corps staff is aware of this challenge and will offer support as you navigate through your new culture.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Sierra Leone without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service. The Peace Corps/Sierra Leone staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

As a result of the protracted war, there are many amputees in Sierra Leone. Some support themselves by begging, so a Volunteer with disabilities may receive offers of assistance or notice stereotypes based on common interactions Sierra Leoneans have with amputees.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers[edit]

While serving as a married couple offers unique challenges and rewards, there are none specific to service in Sierra Leone. In general, more traditional gender roles exist. So, a married couple with a husband who helps cook or clean might draw teasing or even unwanted comments. Generally couples will be regularly asked why they do not yet have children and when will they start a family.