This August, I’ve been to London to do 3 days of oral closing submissions in my last case and now I’m back in Salone. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about culture shock: what’s different here, what unexpectedly is not, and what is shocking about coming back to London after a couple of months living somewhere really, really poor.
I think anyone who has gone backpacking would say that you don’t get culture shock from the obvious stuff. If you’ve come to Sierra Leone, or gone off to India or South East Asia, you’re expecting to have to wash in a bucket, the roads to be unpaved, the food to be different and to have to cope with a vibrant market culture involving a painful and embarrassing need to bargain. In many ways you’d be hugely disappointed if this turned out not to be the case, because what’s the point if you’re not roughing it to some degree. Gotta prove you’re being as brave as everyone says you are!
It’s the small stuff that really proves you’re a stranger. In South America they beckon upside down. Instead of holding their hand out palm up and flipping their fingers towards themselves, they hold their hand out palm down and snap their fingers downwards like they’re brushing something off the air.* I spent a long time waving back to puzzled stares until I eventually understood what was going on.
I’ve listed below some of the stuff that’s really taken me aback so far. Having written this, I realise I really don’t come out of this too well – it’s a very friendly country and I seem to have become unused to normal social intercourse. I blame the Bar.
Anyway, here’s the list:
Anyone who’s anyone has a TV, on all the time, in their office at work
This drives me absolutely nuts. Everyone who’s important has a large flat screen telly in their office, and it’s on all the time, even when it’s not tuned in and is showing grey static. There’s a local TV station in Sierra Leone called DStv. The (unreliable) power in Salone is mostly provided by a hydroelectric power station, which obviously provides more power in the rainy season than it does in the dry season. However, the rainy season also involves heavy cloud cover which interferes with the signal. So it’s known as Dry Season TV. It drives me nuts.
Messages on WhatsApp
I think I’ve already said that everyone does everything via WhatsApp, because no-one has enough data (it’s expensive in SL) for general access to the internet/email, including at work, and you can buy cheap packages covering WhatsApp messages.
People send what are in reality very sweet messages wishing you a good day:
People also send lengthy videos describing the hellfire you’ll be in if you fail to comply with some very poorly defined requirements. I have tried to see if I can upload one of the videos here but I don’t know how to do it. Here are some stills from the first minute or so of a 15 minute video:
Friendly greetings required at start of phone calls
In the UK, and especially at the Bar (or possibly this is just my chambers), when people call me or I call them, I do usually say hello (I’m not a monster!) but after that I go straight into saying what it is I am calling about. Quite often a demand for some printing.
Not so here. In person, everyone says hello and asks after your health, how you slept, your family and any pets they may know you have. It creates a really warm and kind atmosphere. It turns out this is also what is required on the phone. I’ve had several conversations along the following lines:
Caller: Oh hi Lucy it’s Mohammed.
Me: Oh hi!
Me [thinking]: He phoned me right? I haven’t accidentally called him and now have nothing to say?
Me [thinking]: He did phone me! Why isn’t he saying anything?
[Looks at phone to see if cut off]
Me [thinking]: Help!
Mo: So – er, how are you?
This is going to sound very obvious, but there’s a stark contrast between being white in a sea of white people and being white in a sea of black people. This contrast seems to me to be more acutely felt when you’re living in a country rather than just visiting it. I expect this is probably because you’re not in tourist areas but in the normal life areas. It means everyone notices you, you’re the odd one out and the stranger, and you’re the one who’s obviously different and Not From Here.
A few weeks ago I was in the upstairs balcony bit of a restaurant which was partly hidden from outside as it had large awnings. The restaurant is on a very busy road full of market traders, shoppers, people who work at the City Council, money changers, loafers, you get the picture. I was on the phone to some colleagues who were coming to meet me for lunch but didn’t know exactly where the bar was. They turned a corner some 100m or so away and literally instantly saw me waving at them from the balcony. I thought to myself, blimey they’ve got good eyesight to pick me out from miles away. But it wasn’t good eyesight at all, obviously. It was because I’m white.
I suppose I now know a little tiny bit how it feels to be black or Asian in the UK. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, exactly (although it’s a little wearisome being noticed all the time), but my experience is in the context of constant almost overwhelming friendliness. It would be no fun whatsoever in the absence of that, and how it would feel were there to be mistrust or aggression, I can hardly bear to imagine.
But it’s the reverse culture shock that’s really hit me over the last 10 days.
Being in London
We live in a Paradise, guys. The streets are so clean you could eat off them, hot and cold water comes out of all the taps in the house and you can drink it, the shower works perfectly, the electricity never goes off, we can pay for everything with our bank cards and it is supremely quick and convenient, there’s wifi everywhere, there’s paper in the printers, all the buildings are painted, everyone has shoes and free health care, the roads are smooth, you can order things off the internet and they arrive the following day, you can do your supermarket shopping online and they deliver it, you can call a cab on your phone, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players… oh no, wait, that’s something else.
You get the picture. Thank your lucky stars.
Friends and family
It was lovely to see the ones I managed to catch up with and I miss you all like mad.
* It is very difficult to describe a beckon.