Dancing with the Stars in Sierra Leone

One Family dancers practicing at the beach in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Author: Šárka Pechová, Czech Republic
The article is the 1st prize winner of the Mladiinfo Article Contest 2012 in category A

Phil has been too ill to move for two days now. This is his third day of recovery so there is a chance we might be able to move. I am praying that we will. Phil has caught malaria and I am quite worried. We are in provincial Sierra Leone, the seventh poorest country on Earth, where health seems to be quite a luxury.
We managed to find some kind of doctor who has prescribed numerous pills and an injection (which would kill an ox, so why not malaria?). It happened to be also my premiere as a nurse as I had to assist the doctor. Just to be clear, the only medical training I have was the one at driving school. Don´t get me wrong, most of the time we absolutely love Sierra Leone, but the previous three days not so much to be honest.

A text beeped. “Sarka, you have to come, we all dance for you tonight.” Oh dear, I had totally forgot. There is a dance performance tonight and I am meant to be there! But there is a slight problem. The dance show is in the capital, Freetown, but we are stuck in Kenema – a small upcountry town. Freetown is hours away along a dusty, potholed road.
Adventurous you think? Well that is not all. We are guests of a diamond miner who had invited us for a visit. This is somewhat of an honour as diamond miners usually don’t invite visitors, unless they are young girls, I guess.

We were meant to stay with our miner-friend for two days, but the malaria incident has delayed our return to the capital for an extra couple of days. Another text comes. “Please Sarka, we all look forward to see you.” It is Friday, and every Friday I dance with my deaf dance troupe. I met them some months ago when we first arrived in Sierra Leone to work as volunteers. As we are working with the disabled community it was not long before I met One Family People – an organisation that unites disabled artists. The physically challenged are singers and the deaf dance.

As a gymnast and a dancer I offered them a deal (West Africans are born traders, they love a deal) and this was a good one for them. I teach them my European dancing and they show me how to dance African dances in return.
As I progressively learned more sign language we became closer as friends. I started to train with them three times a week and soon my students began to arrive on time. This is actually a great honour because Africans usually operate on “Africa time” – four o’clock actually means … well, at some point in the evening.

We also started to practice on the beach and everybody loved it. You should have seen the faces of the dancers, such happiness and joy. Even though most of them were adults already, on the beach they were playing like kids, and so was I. The dancers don´t need to hear the music to dance. They count and watch the drummer play. They’d already learned a lot and were improving all the time. Oh those bendy backs, strong legs and elegant moves would make most European dancers very jealous!

But now it’s nearly the end of our time in Sierra Leone.  It is time to say goodbye and have the final dance show with the dancers. Everybody was so excited about it and they had been talking about what they would wear weeks in advance.
But here I am. Stuck somewhere in the middle of the provinces with my ill boyfriend, our diamond miner friend, who likes his whiskey too much and a doctor with doubtful skills. A pretty desperate situation if I’m honest. The dancers and leaders of the group, Hady and Edward, keep on bombarding me with texts and calls asking where I am and if I am able to get to them. I’m trying to explain that I’m far away and that Phil has malaria. They all promise to pray for him and insist on me trying to meet them.

Well, I would really love to, my dear dancing people, but how am I supposed to do that?!
Luckily, our diamond miner friend promises to lend us his car and driver – I guess he’s noticed me utterly stressed walking in circles around his compound. Such a nice person he is. He keeps his promise and an air conditioned four-by-four arrives. The driver has the wonderfully named Whisky as a companion – our diamond man´s security guard. And so off we go – direction Freetown, please.
By now the text messages are coming in regularly, urging me to move quickly as some important people from Handicap International are there to see our dancing.

The show is supposed to start in two hours. But instead of rushing, we are stopping at every food stall we pass. As our two lovely escorts are going home to visit their families there is a need to take some special goods from the provinces. I am already stuffed with bananas, fried meat and fried-better-not-ask-what-it-is on a stick but they keep on feeding their foreign passengers.

Phil now looks a bit paler than in the morning. Oh dear. We really need to get to Freetown, hopefully there are some good doctors there. I’m nervously rolling the end of my T-Shirt, fidgeting with my almost constantly beeping phone and attempting to hypnotize the clock to slow down. No way we are going to make it in time.

Can it be a miracle? The constantly traffic-jammed Freetown seems now quite empty. I suppose in Sierra Leone miracles are everyday reality, so why not?  Our amazing driver (who I‘d silently been cursing for the two previous, sweat soaked hours) has found a shortcut and we are on the junction where my dance hall is.

Excitedly I nearly jump under a car to cross the road, manage to survive, take the stairs two-by-two and arrive just in the middle of performance…pffffffff.
Never mind. This is Africa where delays are acceptable.

Everybody dancing is deaf so my heavy breathing doesn’t disturb them. I squeeze in and start to shake my butt as best I can – it took us a lot of time to teach my stiff European body this style but it seems that the effort was worth it. I know that as a white-person arriving late I will get a lot of attention. But I am their white-person and they love to dance with me and everybody is so happy to see me that I conclude: I am in the right place.

A massive round of applause comes – for deaf people you don´t clap, you shake your hands in the air. All the dancers start to hug me and I, acting like a weird foreigner, start to weep like a baby and am unable to stop. My dancers surround me to dry my eyes, using everything, their fingers, their palms and the sleeves of their costumes. Okay, I must admit it. I love Sierra Leone again.

P. S. Phil got better that evening, so in the end we even didn´t need any other doctor.

6 thoughts on “Dancing with the Stars in Sierra Leone

  1. This story is just not credible! The pathetic picture painted by the writer is not representative of the current situation in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone has had its share of horrors, but the situation has improved far more than the writer cared to acknowledge.
    For example, the road from Kenema to Freetown is not dusty and potholed as claimed by the author. That road has been recently constructed, about a couple of years now; it’s a standard road comparable to any good road in the Western world, and in fact the best intercity road in the country. Contrary to the author’s claim also, Kenema is not a small town, and it might not seem small even to someone from the largest city in the world; it’s one of the biggest towns in the country and mostly referred to as a city. If the author does understand the country well, he/she is supposed to know that Kenema is never considered a small town.
    “…malaria…pills and injections…that will kill an ox…” that’s just ridiculous. Sierra Leone has some of the best and most advanced medications for malaria. The problem with regards malaria in the country is accessibility and affordability by the many poor people in the country, especially those in the rural settings. Now, for a tourist, access to such advanced medications is relatively quite easy, especially in such a big town as Kenema.
    All in all, I feel the author took advantage of the horrific past of Sierra Leone to coin out a pathetic and emotional story that will attract an award. And I think this is really unfair to the people of Sierra Leone.

  2. Dear Hamid,
    Thanks for your comment and interest in my article. My article was not meant to be a representative picture of Sierra Leone. And I never claimed it was. It was a description of my experience abroad. Yes, now it seems funny, pathetic, crazy, unbelievable… At that moment it was scary and a bit surreal. And emotional? Oh it SO was! Imagine – your partner is suffering from malaria, you are not sure how to get to the doctor, you are not a doctor yourself and at the same time you are mend to be on a performance with your group of dancers, who are your friends and who were looking forward to it. The accusation that I am exploiting the country and the poverty of the people – well…I think that exploiting looks a bit differently than taking your savings and going somewhere to work there with the people….
    I am not going to discuss the state of local roads with you. They are not great.
    The article is written for a western audience. So description of Kenema as a small town is, in my eyes more accurate than describing it as one of the biggest cities.

  3. ….What to say about your comment on the medication we were given….I never claimed to be expert on the malaria situation in the country and I was not analyzing it at all. I described what has happened to us.

    Thanks for your comment
    Best Regards

  4. Greetings from Mokanji, Sierra Leone, my husband and I are two of the long term GOM volenteurs here in Mokanji, where let them LOL has their orphanage. We are working with them in drilling watter wells. Thank you so much for hosting such an innovative fundraising event. Thank you for converting your surpluse into a life giving water source. May you be richly blessed. Petra Wirrell (www.wirrell.com)

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