This is advice for those coming to stay with us about the cultural norms in Sierra Leone. You should also check out our post on ‘Pack your Rucksack’. If you would like to volunteer while staying in your own country, see our ‘Advice for Stay at Home Volunteers’, medical volunteers should see our ‘Advice for Medical Volunteers’.
When you invite someone to an event or evening in Sierra Leone you are accepting financial and practical responsibility for them. You will be expected to pay for and be sure of any transport, food and drink required. Equally if you are invited somewhere you should remember that the person who invited you feels responsibility for you. Make sure they know if you are leaving and try not to order the most expensive beer. If you would like to bring a friend to a social occasion you were invited to, such as a wedding or party, be sure to ask first since you are effectively doubling the bill and responsibility for the person who is giving the party. That said, all social events are usually big open affairs and if others do want to come the request will almost certainly be given a thumbs up. If permission has been given, it is considered appropriate to quietly give some monies to cover the extra cost of your invite.
Sierra Leone is both deeply religious and deeply tolerant, see our post on religion
It may sound obvious but sometimes it can be forgotten, cosmetics and certain hair products for anyone who is not black can be difficult to find and/or expensive. Cosmetics that rely on cold weather, such as wax, should be avoided. Most basic items can be bought at the supermarkets in Makeni, an hours drive away, so if you forget something don’t panic.
Prices and requests for monies
Foreigners are usually charged more than locals although the price increase is not much, and are routinely asked for money. This is not viewed as unfair, but as a form of income tax. There is a strong tradition of the wealthy in a community supporting the poorest members. Regardless of your situation at home, in Sierra Leone you will be among the wealthest people here. Since you will not be paying any tax and there is no generally reliable tax system, a double standard of payment is seen as perfectly legitimate. Of course you are encouraged to haggle and if you ask, a colleague may be able to purchase larger items on your behalf.
We would strongly discourage any spontaneous donations of money or objects. You are not the last volunteer and your generousity may make life more difficult for those following you. If you wish to help someone be sure to ask the director of the hospital for advice first. There have been several instances of valuable property been given to those who cannot make use of it, such as electrical equipment going to those who have no electricity, at a time when they have no money for school fees. Seek advice in all cases before donating.
Many volunteers only come with outdoor clothes but your work will be in a hospital, not the bush. Apart from the heat, you should dress exactly as you would in a hospital in Texas or Paris. You will only really need outdoor equipment if you are going away to one of the many firest parks or climbing Mt. Bitumani, West Africa’s highest mountain – which we hope you do.
Do bring something special to wear to parties and other events, you don’t want to be the only person at a wedding dressed in hiking sandals and khaki! As Sierra Leoneans we take great pride in our appearance and it is a continual puzzlement to us that foreigners appear to dress so badly.
While breasts are regarded as being as functional as arms or feet, in Sierra Leone legs are usually covered. A woman walking in shorts will generate many remarks. For your free time we would recommend that legs should be covered at least to the knee. At work legs should be covered to the ankles at all times.
Sierra Leone is a hot country, your clothes should be made from natural fibres such as cotton and be loose if possible. Avoid light colours as the ground is made up of red dust that stains and black as it will attract the heat. Pick strong, bold, bright colours instead. Clothes should also be hard wearing, since the water in the area is very strong and delicates simply do not survive the first few washs.
It is very difficult to obtain money in Sierra Leone. There are no ATMs anywhere near the Hospital. There is only one bank in the country and only one branch of that bank, that accepts mastercard, and visa is only really of use in the capital. There is a charge of between 10-20% on withdrawing money using credit cards. The best way is to have someone in your home country transfer money as you need it to the local western union. You will not be able to do this yourself, not online, not by phone. There are security precautions operated by Western Union that mean you cannot forward your own money to the western union, within Sierra Leone. The charge for this method is approx. 6% of the transaction. Please believe the above statements, so many don’t, we have tried everything, this is the only way, other methods may work in your own country -they will not work here.
If you like to keep fit there are miles of sandy tracks surrounding the hospital so bring your running shoes. We also have bicycles that you can borrow.
There are so many things to do at the weekend that we cannot list them all, See the website ‘visitsierraleone.com’ and others to get some idea, but be sure to visit at least one beach before you leave us. No visit to Sierra Leone is complete without seeing one.
Mabesseneh is a small community and the hospital is a small family within that community. You should not wait to be invited to see where people live. Go for a walk in the village and in nearby Lunsar after work and you will meet people you know sitting on their steps. Try not to hurry, walk slowly. Stop, sit down and talk. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Be prepared to not understand everything, the spoken languages of the area are Krio and Temne, not English, and it can be a strain on people relaxing after work to continually translate.
Communication and rest
The reality of the day-to-day health in Sierra Leone is very upsetting to those newly arrived. Because of the nature of the work at the hospital volunteers can feel an internal pressure to stay on at work, well past their hours. Try not to do this. It is vital that you have free time to unwind. You should make an effect to have a daily siesta, and to leave the hospital grounds for at least a few hours every day. A well rested, focused volunteer is of far more use than one who is stressed.
Talk to others here and at home about your experiences as they happen- do not wait until you go home. It is important that someone at home knows your experience before you return. Pick a strong friend or family member before you leave who can afford to ring you and will be able to listen to your experiences as they occur. Communicate to others who are here. Above all do not try to be a strong, silent type, we feel the same, we are beside you, talk to us.
Communication and rest are two of the most important pieces of advice we can give you. They are the most vital things you will need during your stay.