This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.
I got back late last night after about 42 hours of travel, beating my 2010 record of 31 hours of continuous travel by a handy margin. It was long, but the company was good, and I think I still have a brownie from Heathrow carefully wrapped in my jacket pocket (the itinerary was: Makeni->Freetown->Monrovia->Brussels->Heathrow->LAX->SFO->Home in San José).
I spent the weekend in Makeni, seeing many but not all of my friends from when I taught there back in 2017. One of the most touching moments was when I was presenting about how to give an elevator pitch and then I paused and asked the students there to raise their hands if they already knew me. Half of the room raised their hands.
To be known so far from home, to be so thoroughly remembered by people with busy lives and complex obligations, means more than I can say. I remembered them each as well — Fatimata who wants to be a Modern Day Bai Bureh, Abdul who wants to be a rapper (and who swaps new Jidenna tracks back and forth with me on Messenger), Joseph who is an incredible leader and just graduated, and Ibrahim, who is getting his MBA in China now. They and dozens of other students live with me every day and I usually assume — just like most people who teach do — that I remember more of them than they do of me. It meant a lot to see that wasn’t the case this time.
Here are 10 of the students who attended that session, giving their elevator pitches:
I presented for 3 minutes in my Japanese class about why I missed class last week, at the request of the sensei. I spent probably more time thinking about how to explain this entire week in 3 minutes than I did studying my hiragana (which may explain the resultant quiz grade). How do you sum-up an entire country in 3 minutes?
I talked about freedom of faith. I talked about technology and brilliant scientists. I talked about the deep, centuries-long relationship with the US, good and bad. I talked about why it’s vital to know the monetary value of the help you’re providing before giving some European airline $2000 to go to a country where that money could send a young person to college for a year, including room and board. I talked about the power of the US exchange programs and how the US citizens and the international students (who are about 50% of my class) could get involved.
My sensei asked what I taught that week. I listed it on the board:
- Coding on a Loom
- Finding Funding ($$$)
- Public Speaking
A student asked how I taught coding on a loom and I showed her with my fingers; she’s also a CS student and we ended up talking about what classes she was taking during the break, and the fact that CSU East Bay only offers C++, no Java.
While I spoke, I passed around some of the fabrics, I bought and a skirt I had made. This skirt, in fact:
I also included a mahogany sculpture of a woman reading and a wood-beaded bracelet I bought when I was there in 2017.
I talked about where the fabrics were from, about how different countries have different styles.
The first day back is always hard. The food tastes wrong, all of the colors in our cloudy California skies are too dull. I, who usually wear black accented with additional black and maybe some dirt on it for color, found myself wearing pink plaid and feeling as dull as an unvarnished door. Campus was so quiet, no call-to-prayer, no children running around me. My skin felt strange with no one tapping my arm for attention or brushing against me in crowded classrooms. I had my American personal space bubble back and it felt cold.
But every time I sat down to get my computer out, I got to see a bag full of Sierra Leone and suddenly the colors, the smells, the textures, the sounds were around me again, if only for a few moments.
One of the things that makes TechWomen so powerful is invested I get in the lives of women who live all over the world. When the women I know through the program have incredible professional wins, I cheer online along with them. Since they’re TechWomen Fellows, those major wins come regularly:
But the flip side of this is that I am invested in the lives of women who live all over the world. Women who I rarely get to hug, rarely get to smile at except through the mediating technology of Skype or WhatsApp. When things go wrong in their countries, which happens, then I hurt too. I get worried for them every time I see their countries’ names in the headlines.
Even when elections happen as planned, even when the airstrikes are called off, I miss my friends.
I love making friends around the world, women who know me, women whom I am honored to know.
But it is hard to know they are so far away.
I will miss Sierra Leone.
I didn’t say goodbye to any of my friends new or old during the delegation, only: “See you later.”
Sierra Leone, I will see you later.