Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Aging Gracefully

I was sitting in front of the Ministry of Health and Sanitation last week, trying to arrange my hair into something more respectable before my meeting with the Minister. (In the April humidity, my curls generally explode into a frenetic and chaotic mop, and in Sierra Leone unruly hair is a sign of madness, destitution, or both.)

In my car vanity mirror, I noticed a smattering of grey hairs sprouting cruelly from the top of my head. Though I don't generally stress about such things -- I am almost 30 and a few laugh lines and grey hairs seem like part of the bargain -- I do usually pull them when I find them. And so I did, yanking the most obvious before combing my hair into a semblance of order.

But then I started thinking: in Sierra Leone, as in most of Africa, grey hairs are actually an asset. While America continues to worship youth, Africa reveres its elders. On this continent, with age comes respect, power, and gravitas.

So perhaps I should have left the greys. Maybe the Minister would see me in a different light if I looked a bit older. Perhaps I’d no longer be a “small girl” to most of my colleagues and acquaintances, but someone more serious and important. Perhaps people would call me Madam or Aunty instead of Sister.

Perhaps… but for now I think I’ll stick with my more American approach. Yank away, Yankee.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Supernatural Wealth Transfer

Sierra Leone is a very religious place. Some 99% of the population identifies as either Christian (24%) or Muslim (76%), though the majority combines these beliefs with various traditional beliefs.

It's also an amazing model of religious plurality. There is good-natured teasing but absolutely no tension between Christians and Muslims. Intermarriage is so common as to barely merit a mention. If a Christian lives in a village without a church, he or she will often turn to the Imam for guidance, and vice versa. Muslims all go to church on New Year's (because that's what you do).

This religious tolerance is worthy of a much longer and more serious post (one I've been meaning to write for some time). For now, however, I want to be a bit lighter.

One of the most visible trends of Christianity in Sierra Leone is big, bold, unapologetic, fire-and-brimstone evangelism. Posters and banners adorn walls through the city, announcing visiting preachers -- many from Nigeria -- special redemption campaigns, and revivals in the national stadium. I used to live down the street from one of many branches of the Flaming Bible Church, with its logo of a burning cross, and I now spend every Sunday morning lying in bed and listening to a hundred exalted voices calling "hallelujah".

I'm certainly happy to live-and-let-live (as the Sierra Leoneans do) when it comes to religion. People find faith and guidance in many different forms. But sometimes I can't help but giggle a bit at the more notable campaigns.

One of my favorites was from a year or more ago. Operation P.U.S.H. -- Pray Until Something Happens. I wonder if anything did.

Then today I saw an enormous poster (taller than me) for a month-long crusade. Among the many miracles on offer was a declaration that 2008 was the year of Supernatural Wealth Transfer.

I imagined money falling from the sky, or a mysterious transfer into all believers' bank accounts from the Bank of God.

Hmm, maybe I should give this church business a try... a Supernatural Wealth Transfer doesn't sound too bad.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Your face here?

There’s a somewhat disconcerting practice in many African countries – and probably elsewhere in the world – to create (and wear) fabrics that feature repeating patterns of politicians’ faces. I suppose in principle it’s no different than a Barack Obama t-shirt – or, for that matter, a New Kids on the Block bed sheet, which I am proud to say I did NOT own, but which were quite popular in my pre-teen years – but it still always strikes me as a bit funny.

Imagine someone walking down the street, dressed head-to-toe in a gown or pantsuit made from Democratic- or Republican-inspired fabric, with dozens of Senator Hillary Clintons or President George Bushes peering out from every bit of the body. Makes you cringe, doesn't it?

In an effort to embrace and perhaps understand this cultural practice, I went to the market a few weeks ago and bought myself a length of Ernest Bai Koroma (President of Sierra Leone) fabric. Here I am in a makeshift dress, with the President staring jauntily from my hip. What do you think?