Monday, September 06, 2010

Lifestyles in Freetown...

While enjoying a lovely meal with a group of expatriates in a restaurant in Freetown I could not help but think of the stark contrast of how various expatriates in Sierra Leone live. While some expatriates rarely venture beyond the expat social circle the other end of the spectrum consists those expats who live with nationals and hardly see other expatriates at all. Neither is right or wrong but I think I can say I prefer something in between the two.

Living with nationals would have many of its own challenges: limited to no water and electricity, different food, language and culture barriers, limited privacy etc. But on the other hand, it would be very enriching and a unique cultural experience. However, when dealing with so many issues all day long when working in Sierra Leone, I think it is nice to get a little break from some of the daily issues. I am impressed with expatriates that can pull this off, I am just not sure I could cope.

The other end of the spectrum is much less appealing to me and I am often shocked to hear that there are people who come to Sierra Leone and have very limited interaction with nationals whatsoever and end up living their Western lifestyle right here in Freetown. It is hard to imagine but I suppose it is possible. They spend their days at the office, their travel time in 4x4s and their free time with other expatriates dining out or enjoying the endless expat party scene. Food is purchased in restaurants or bought at the supermarket and prepared by a cook and life seems to be all about convenience and luxuries. They are here to get a job done. A different approach to life in a developing country, but for some people, this is what it’s about. I cannot say it is wrong, but it definitely would not be my choice of lifestyle.

I suppose my way of life is somewhere in between; living in a fairly spacious flat, socializing with my expatriate friends but also working with the nationals, meeting up with nationals and being part of a smaller national community in Regent. I have no access to cooks, cleaners, washing machines, and no means of transport at the moment so my way of life is a bit more basic in comparison, having to do my own shopping, cooking, cleaning, hand washing and taking public transport. I must say, from my previous time in Sierra Leone how nice it was to have these things and it’s been a bit of an adjustment to do without. However, in comparison to how the average family in Freetown lives, I still have it easy. It’s not a life of extravagance but I definitely cannot complain. I can enjoy the people, the language, the culture and still enjoy some of the simple luxuries such as decent electricity, water, chocolate and a meal out once or twice a week.

I guess the contrast is partially due to a difference in income levels, however, some of it has to do with attitude too; not only attitude but also motivation for being here and the degree to which one wants to take part in a new culture and people group.

Of course this stark contrast does not only exist among expatriates, but also among Sierra Leoneans. In 2005 I remember that Sierra Leone was ranked at the top for having the largest gap between the rich and the poor. Basically there are a lot of very poor people in Sierra Leone but also a lot of very rich people. Their ways of life are also very different to each other with some living in mansions with generators and running water to others living in small over-crowded shacks lit by kerosene lamps without a water source nearby.

I suppose in reality, these differences occur all over the world, whether in Sierra Leone, the USA, the UK or Holland. Everyone lives with different standards. Some people mingle in with their local communities and others do not. I suppose this is nothing new. It is just something that crossed my mind as I was sitting in a restaurant enjoying a meal with a very diverse group of people in the middle of Freetown.

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