Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Sierra Leone
Mail may be sent to:
Peace Corps Volunteer
P.O. Box 905
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Letter mail may be received at the above post office box number. Parcels may also be sent, but delivery is not reliable. If parcels are sent it is recommended to keep the tracking number for reference. It is also recommended that expensive or irreplaceable items not be sent. Please keep in mind that mail delivery is difficult in Sierra Leone, so Volunteers should not count on receiving a lot of mail. While mail may be limited, it can be a great source of joy to both send and receive letters.
Email is a good way to stay in communication, but access will vary according to location. There will be a few computers available for Volunteers in the Peace Corps office in Freetown, the nation’s capital, but trips to Freetown are infrequent. Some larger towns might have Internet access due to very small Internet cafes or the presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Volunteers might be able to access these resources on an occasional basis. Overall, you will have much less Internet access than you are used to in the U.S.
The telephone system in Sierra Leone is not always reliable; phone service in the interior of the country can be quite sporadic. Calling the United States can be difficult and expensive. Volunteers often set up calls with the United States in advance, arranging for a time and place to receive calls from home. It is not possible to make collect calls or calls to toll-free numbers from Sierra Leone. Note that Sierra Leone is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (fours hours ahead during Daylight Savings Time).
Please be aware and inform friends and family that communication options are much more limited than in the States.
Housing and Site Location
Before Volunteers arrive, Peace Corps/Sierra Leone staff, in collaboration with local partners, identify safe and secureVolunteer housing. Housing is provided by the school and/or community. Housing is in short supply in many regions of Sierra Leone, so be prepared for very basic housing. It is possible that you will share a house with another PCV, have your own house, or live with a host family. Electricity may not be available and water may need to be carried from a neighborhood pump. You must be prepared to accept the living conditions to which you are assigned as you will be living under the same conditions as the people with, and for whom, you work. Peace Corps inspects all potential housing to ensure it meets our standards for health and safety.
Most Volunteers are assigned to work in rural towns or large villages. The workplace will be within walking distance of your home, but it might be a long walk! Dependent on community need, Peace Corps makes every effort to cluster Volunteers within reasonable distances of each other in order to promote collaborative efforts and minimize isolation.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Volunteers will receive a settling-in allowance to cover the basics they need, such as bedding, dishes, etc. In addition, Volunteers receive a living allowance. The Volunteer living allowance is intended to cover regular expenses such as food, transportation, work supplies, and clothing. It should allow you to maintain a standard of living comparable to your Sierra Leonean counterparts. Most Volunteers, however, find that the living allowance surpasses the resources of many community members.
The official currency is the Leone (SLL or Le), which is divided into 100 cents. The banking system in Sierra Leone is rebuilding from the long period of war. There are limited bank branches up-country and there are no ATM machines for foreign credit cards. The banks intend to open them over time, so this may happen during your tenure in Sierra Leone. Until then, you will likely have to travel a distance to banking facilities in another town.
Sierra Leone is predominately a cash economy and credit cards are not accepted at the majority of places. There might be a few higher end hotels in Freetown that accept credit cards. The potential for credit card fraud, however, does exist. Peace Corps/Sierra Leone is able to hold traveler’s checks and credit cards for safekeeping so you can use them if you travel internationally.
Food and Diet
In Sierra Leone, rice is the staple. Other favorite foods include plantains, fufu, and okra. Fufu is prepared from fermented cassava (manioc) and eaten with a soup.
The typical meal is a sauce called “soup” or “gravy” poured over rice. They can be thick stews of vegetables (such as okra or greens) with meat and/or fish, or more of a broth with meat and vegetables. Frequently, a combination of meats is used in the soup. The meat is not trimmed the way Americans are accustomed, so there are frequently bones or cartilage. The variety may be beef, chicken, or “bush meat” (which covers a wide variety of animals). Fish may be fresh, dried or smoked. If meat or fish is not available, peanuts are always a good source of protein. Most cooked dishes will have meat in them. If you have the ability to remove the meat and eat the rest of the dish, then you will have more dietary choices. Strict vegetarians and vegans will be challenged.
Sierra Leone is graced with wonderful fruits, including pineapples, bananas, papaya, coconuts, and mangos. In season, fruits and vegetables are a good buy. Out of season, specific fruits may be unavailable and also unevenly distributed across the nation. It can be challenging to eat a well-balanced meal during some seasons and the variety of foods may be limited.
Access to western style foods may also be very limited, so you will have to adapt your diet (and tastes) to local foods.
Transportation will be very challenging. Some of your best and worst Peace Corps memories will involve transportation! As with any Peace Corps country, Volunteers primarily use public transportation. Many of the roads and means of public transportation are in poor condition. Most rural roads are unpaved and for much of the year will be either muddy and rutted, or dusty, depending on the season. Up-country there are small taxis and medium-sized mini buses. In cars, there are usually two passengers in the front passenger seat and four in the back seat. You might also have chickens, produce, and some children (as only adults are counted as passengers). Be prepared to let go of your need for personal space. Motorcycle taxis have become widely used in Sierra Leone. Due to safety concerns, Peace Corps Volunteers are not permitted to use them. If Volunteers wish to purchase a bicycle, they will be provided with helmets.
Vehicles from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies (WFP, UNHCR, UNICEF) traverse the country and are sometimes an option based on relationships and friendships.
You will receive in-depth training on all of the safety measures and policies related to transportation.
Geography and Climate
Sierra Leone borders the North Atlantic Ocean, Guinea, and Liberia and is slightly smaller than South Carolina. Sierra Leone has four physical regions: the coastal belt of mangrove swamps; the Sierra Leone Peninsula with thickly wooded mountains that rise from the swamps; the interior plains, consisting of grasslands and rolling wooded country; and the interior plateau and mountain regions.
The climate, especially on the coast, is warm and humid yearround, dominated by a dry season from November to April and a rainy season from May to October. Rainfall along the coast can reach 495 cm (195 inches) a year, making it one of the wettest places along coastal, western Africa. The dusty and dry harmattan (desert winds) blows from the Sahara to the coast in December, bringing some relief from the high relative humidity with a night-time temperature that can be as low as 16 degrees Celsius (60.8 degrees Fahrenheit). The average temperature is 26 C (78.8 F) and varies from around 26 C (78.8 F) to 36 C (96.8 F) during the year.
You will be invited to the major celebrations in your village, such as marriages and baptisms, which usually feature music and a feast for all participants. There may be an opportunity to study local dance or drumming. Some villages may also have dance halls (discos) or bars, but your activities there will be decided by the cultural norms in your community.
There will also be times you see other Volunteers and take advantage of the time to relax and process your new life as a Volunteer. The best opportunities for socializing, however, will come when you have made friends at your site. Be prepared to spend a Friday night talking about how much rain fell that week and what that means for the crops or sharing ways you adapted to your new home with a fellow teacher who just moved to your community. You will find yourself looking forward to moments like these.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity. It is not an easy situation to resolve, but we can provide you with some guidelines. As a professional at the invitation of a government ministry, you will be expected to dress and behave professionally both on and off the job.
While some of your Sierra Leonean counterparts may dress in seemingly worn or shabby clothes, this is more likely a matter of economics than choice. It is likely that they are wearing their best and work very hard to keep their clothes clean and as presentable as possible. Much importance is placed on appearance in this culture, and you should always try your best to present a neat, clean, and professional appearance.
In general, dress is more conservative, particularly for women. Short skirts (short is defined as anything above the knee), tops that expose your stomach or lower back, low-rise jeans/pants, backless dresses, spaghetti strap tops, and shorts (outside of sporting activities where long shorts are appropriate) are considered inappropriate for female Volunteers. Slacks are acceptable for women, although most women will wear skirts or dresses.
Long hair and long beards are not normal for men in this society. While there is no restriction in place, please be aware that a male Volunteer with long hair or a long beard will attract unwanted attention and might have to work harder to prove his professionalism. Shorts are normally worn by boys or students rather than men. It is appropriate to wear shorts for sporting events or around the house and yard; otherwise, pants or jeans are appropriate.
Visible tattoos and body piercing may attract unwanted attention and commentary. Earrings and nose rings on men may create concerns among supervisors and counterparts, or minimally, bring several questions and unwanted attention. It is against the law for civilians to wear military fatigue dress or camouflaged uniforms or clothing.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the “Health Care and Safety” chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without incident. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Sierra Leone. Using these tools, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Each staff member at the Peace Corps is committed to providing Volunteers with the support they need to successfully meet the challenges they will face to have a safe, healthy, and productive service. We encourage Volunteers and families to look at our safety and security information on the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov/safety.
Information on these pages gives messages on Volunteer health and Volunteer safety. A section titled “Safety and Security in Depth” is on this page. This page also lists topics ranging from the risks of serving as a Volunteer to posts’ safety support systems to emergency planning and communications.
Rewards and Frustrations
Living and working in Sierra Leone will not be easy. Your challenges will stem in part from the differences between American and Sierra Leonean cultures. You are a guest in Sierra Leone and will need to learn to become effective within the Sierra Leonean culture. You will need all of your technical skills, but more importantly, you will need to learn how to adapt those skills to the interpersonal situations that you experience.
Life for a Peace Corps Volunteer can be in a “fishbowl,” with everyone being curious and interested in all of your activities.
You will need to manage all of the attention you receive, be it welcome or unwelcome. You will need to be sensitive to the fact that you represent Peace Corps 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You will need to consider your actions so the Volunteers who come after you will benefit from the same excellent Peace Corps reputation that you will enjoy.
Sources of frustration are myriad: the inability to communicate effectively at first, loneliness, the slow pace of change, disinterest or lack of understanding by others as to what you are trying to do, and the lack of positive reinforcement.
As part of Peace Corps’ return to Sierra Leone, there are special challenges and rewards. The infrastructure of the country is not developed, so you will need patience. Simple tasks, like making or completing a phone call, take longer.
Transportation is a huge challenge, with difficult roads, as well as limited and run-down public transportation options.
There will be certain cultural and interpersonal situations that will take a long time to understand and appreciate. You might hear personal stories that are difficult to hear or you might not be able to discuss certain personal topics with people you consider your friends and family. You will need patience, empathy, and the ability to recognize appropriate boundaries.
While Peace Corps will cluster PCVs, there will be a limited number of PCVs who initially re-enter the country. You will need to be able to work with a smaller, but solid network of support.
While the challenges may seem numerous, the rewards can be tremendous. As you integrate into a totally different culture, you will be amazed at how quickly people accept and welcome you, quick to forgive a cultural blunder. Most Volunteers come to realize that the most important and lasting achievements of service are very personal in nature and are realized in the context of relationships. These relationships are with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, of different ages, and with different opportunities for their future. These friendships are built upon mutual respect, often after seeing you adjust to the physical hardships to which Sierra Leoneans have grown accustomed and in appreciation of your becoming a true community member, embracing the local culture.
Perhaps your greatest reward will be bringing Peace Corps back to Sierra Leone. The government of Sierra Leone and the Friends of Sierra Leone (returned PCVs from Sierra Leone) have worked diligently to bring Peace Corps back and “you are very welcome.”