Prior to traveling to Pujehun, I was told by my colleagues that the district is very basic, and primitive, as it is still very much in the developmental, post-war stage. So I did my best to go there with a clear mind, without much expectation.
I remembered my first day in Freetown and thinking of how different it was from the world in which I grew up. But if Freetown was an eye-opener, then one could say Pujehun was a jaw-dropper.
The village is small and the roads are not in good shape – although I saw some areas under construction and improving. There’s electricity only in certain buildings – guest houses, restaurants, police station, etc. – and every family seemingly lives by just scraping by.
This was the first time I had witnessed this much poverty and the severity of the situation only proved to strike a stronger chord in my chest. I tried my best to put myself in the people’s shoes; imagine growing up and living under the same circumstances and I just couldn’t do it.
I thought to myself in amazement: How are they (the people of Pujehun) able to go on with their daily lives, bracing themselves knowing that the number one priority is mere survival? There are no iPods or Playstations, there are plantains and potato leaves; the children don’t play with cell phones or computers, but they have instead a small stick and a busted bicycle wheel – the lucky ones have a flat soccer ball and makeshift goal posts made of bamboo.
I suppose it’s not worlds different from Freetown or other bigger cities in Salone. But it would not (and still doesn’t) shock me when I see some kids playing the Fifa World Cup Soccer video game in arcade centers in Freetown. On the contrary, if I saw the same spectacle in Pujehun, I would be supremely surprised.
It happened to be my father’s birthday last Monday when my colleague, Solomon Rogers, and I went out to interview some local families. It pained me to hear that some or most of the people there don’t have the luxury of celebrating birthdays because they only make enough money to provide food for the day. The subject came up when I was interviewing a woman who didn’t know her exact age or birthday because of faulty registration, and when I asked her about whether she celebrates birthdays, she simply laughed. The respondent’s question: What is there to celebrate when we barely have enough to be thankful to survive one more day?
My first couple days – and first few hours, for that matter – in Pujehun hit me hard. As I watched small children help their parents clean the house and sell their goods, I was reminded of countless times when I whined and complained about doing household chores for my parents. Sure, our circumstances were substantially different – me growing up in the prosperous land of America versus the village people still trying to cope and recover from a devastating war – but it didn’t change the fact that I still felt compassion for the Pujehun people.
Needless to say, I was very much inspired and I’m convinced that anyone – whether an American or not – would feel similarly after just one visit.
By Yu Nakayama