On a day to day basis, the staff of the ELCSL are my teachers, translators and interpreters of all things Sierra Leonean. Much of what I have learned about life in this country I have learned from them. A couple of my colleagues are working especially hard to make certain that I continue to learn and speak Krio (I have to admit they have a challenge).
Like many foreigners in Sierra Leone, I travel often in the company of my own driver. My driver is Abu, and he has been a good tutor in the ways of moving around a city with no stop signs, traffic lights or street markers. A former taxi driver, he knows his way around the town and country. From him I have learned how to navigate congested round-abouts and crowded city streets with a certain calculated assertiveness. From him I have learned how and when to use the car’s horn (often seems to be the rule). He has shown me the best routes to take when I drive myself, and he has a keen ear for sounds that signify the need for car repairs.
Abu also offers great insights about the cost of living in Sierra Leone. From him I have learned the difficulty of making ends meet and providing for a family in Freetown. Working as a driver, Abu earns about $70/month. His wife teaches at a Catholic primary school and possibly earns a slightly higher salary. Jobs are scarce in this economy and they both are thankful to be working. They have 4 children, including a daughter born this summer by emergency cesarean section. Abu’s mother in law also lives in the household, along with other extended family members I have yet to meet. Just days before his daughter was born, Abu told me he was looking for a room to rent during the week, as he lives quite some distance from the ELCSL offices and the cost of public transport was eating too much of his income. (Depending on connections he might spend $1/day to take a series of poda-poda minibuses.)
One way to measure the standard of living in Sierra Leone is to calculate the purchasing power of a salary against the cost of one bag of rice. Rice is the most important part of the Sierra Leonean diet, often served with cassava or potato leaves, or groundnut stew with fish. Given the amount of rice a household consumes in a month, families traditionally purchase rice in large quantities. Rice has averaged $30 – $40/for a 50 kilogram bag in recent months. The poorest families are able to afford rice by the cup. Abu tells me he can afford to buy half a bag of rice at a time, and that the family stretches this by mixing it with bulghur wheat.
Celebration of the birth of Abu’s daughter was initially subdued by the difficulties of the labor and delivery and the ultimate need for emergency surgery. In a nation with the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, we gave thanks that the cesarean operation was successful and mother and child came through it well. But the costs incurred were staggering for a family that lives carefully and humbly day-to-day. (One of the reasons the maternal mortality rate is so high is because most women cannot afford to pay for medical care and so avoid hospitals and doctors until they are in critical condition.)
When I first came to Sierra Leone, the exchange rate was 3000 leones to the dollar. Today the rate is about LE 3900 – $1. Prices have increased about 20% for many items in the past 2 months, and everyone is concerned that the leone will continue to lose value and prices will continue to rise. In this economy, everyone is trying to stretch their few leones as far as possible, so spending even 1000 or 2000 leones (25 or 50 cents) is not done lightly.
I am conscious on a daily basis of the gap between my own standard of living and that of the average Sierra Leonean. I have a house wired for electricity and with running water. Many families draw their water from a neighborhood tap and carry it home. I have a car (compliments of my support from NTNL). I can afford to buy fuel at $4.50/gallon (the cost of gas is regulated by the government). I can weigh the options of buying imported Jiffy peanut butter at $6/jar, or Maxwell house coffee for $8. I can think about buying a tin of milk powder at $10 or a can of tomato sauce for $4. Within the limits of what is available in the market here, I can eat a varied diet with beef, chicken, seafood, pasta and rice.
I am abundantly blessed and immensely grateful for my privileges. I am also conscious that here in this place I serve as an ambassador for Lutherans in the U.S., that I represent power and resources, and that I am teaching my colleagues as much about being American as they are teaching me about being Sierra Leonean. Learning how to give and how to receive is a significant dynamic in this context, and I find myself leaning on God’s wisdom frequently. It is meaningful and humbling, joyful and challenging all at the same time.