Review — FROM FREEBORN TO FREETOWN & BACK by Patrick R. O’Leary (Sierra Leone)

From Freeborn to Freetown & Back
by Patrick R. O’Leary (Sierra Leone 1966–68)
Peace Corps Writers
September 2016
146 pages
$14.95 (paperback), $10.00 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Mark D. Walker 

THIS IS A WELL WRITTEN  that brings back many memories, as I worked in Sierra Leone for three years. When twenty-two year old Patrick O’Leary stepped off the plane in Sierra Leone, West Africa in January 1967, he was dressed for the snow storm he had left in Freeborn County, Minnesota a few days earlier, so it didn’t take long for him to realize his rural Catholic upbringing, training for Tanzania — his original Peace Corps assignment — and an earlier road trip to Key West, Florida — in a Cadillac hearse — would be less than effective in preparing him for a two-year stint in Binkolo, a small village outside of Makeni in western Sierra Leone.

One unique aspect of Patrick’s story took place when he was being evicted from his house, and a local Paramount Chief befriended him. Paramount Chief Alimanmy Dura II was one of the founders of the Sierra Leone People’s Party and would become one of twelve Chiefs elected to Parliament. The author describes a surreal scene in which Chief Dura stopped at the Peace Corps Rest House in Makeni wearing a “Ben Hogan style golf cap, Bermuda shorts, an open-necked short-sleeve shirt and plastic loafers. He arrived driving a bright-red Alfa Romeo convertible on loan from a Lebanese trader in Freetown. Now here was a local leader who knew how to live life “large” and had considerable influence and was willing to help Patrick; thus began a friendship that lasted for over forty years.

My experience in Sierra Leone helped me commiserate with much of Patrick’s story. He went to great lengths to avoid the “Tumba Fly,” as they laid their eggs on clothes hung out to dry, and the eggs would hatch upon contact with human skin. Then the larvae would burrow into the skin and develop into maggots, which resulted in boil-like sores! Upon my arrival in Sierra Leone, I remember thinking, “And I thought I knew what poverty was — and diseases — lassa fever and green monkey disease — yikes!” (According to the author, in April 2016, WHO reported that 14,124 Sierra Leoneans contracted Ebola and 3,956 died.) I’ve always admired the PCVs who served and were able to survive the rigors of “Salone.”

The author’s use of photos throughout the book helps one appreciate what he’d seen and done as a Volunteer and the snippets at the end offer additional insights into life in Sierra Leone. The “Culture Shock” segment will bring back memories for anyone who entered Sierra Leone for the first time — the innumerable, pathetic, mangy dogs, the bare-breasted female dancers of the Dance Troupe, and the bare-breasted women hauling water and working in the fields were just a few of his excellent examples.

Like Patrick, I found Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, the tale of his 1936 trip from Freetown to Liberia very descriptive, yet difficult reality to appreciate. The region where Patrick was stationed in the eastern area was described as “unexplored territory, cannibals.” The author received a new appreciation of the brutality Greene described when he returned in 2004 to see the impact of a brutal civil war that included “desecrated bodies, severed and mangled limbs, severely damaged buildings, and piles of garbage . . ..” He goes on to say that Makeni had “no electricity without private generators. Running water was no longer available. Rebels had occupied the town for eight months late in the war, and the effects were still evident.”

The author sets the tone for these “counter culture” years. After returning from Sierra Leone, he agreed to be interviewed by his draft board in 1969 in order to find out what they expected of him. Like many of us of that generation, he’d been exposed to enough to believe that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was a “serious mistake,” and not worth being drafted to participate . . . but he was classified 1-A. In 1971, Patrick applied to be a Conscientious Objector as I had done, and, like Patrick, my request was turned down. For Patrick, what ensued was a back-and-forth with his draft board and the Minnesota Attorney General. Eventually he became a draft counselor for a local group at the American Friends Service Committee’s office in Minneapolis, and the Attorney General indicted 150 Minnesota men for selective service violations, although eventually they found no reason for persecution, so Patrick moved on with his life, which included three years study in the seminary, and a degree and career in social work. Patrick’s story is both insightful and inspiring.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, reviewer Mark Walker implemented fertilizer experiments in Guatemala and Honduras, although his most important accomplishment was his marriage to his wife and their three children, all born in Guatemala.

Following earning an MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas in Austin, Mark co-founded a Guatemalan development agency and then managed child sponsorship programs for Plan International in Guatemala, Colombia and Sierra Leone. He has written and spoken in English and Spanish at a number of global conferences, including the Hemispheric Congress for Fundraising in Mexico, and has held senior fundraising positions for several groups like CARE International, MAP International, Make-A-Wish International, and was the CEO of Hagar. Most recently, he completed a fundraising study for the National Peace Corps Association as a VP at Carlton & Co.

His involvement promoting “World Community Service” programs led to his receiving the most prestigious Service Above Self Award from the Rotary International Foundation, and all three of his children have participated in Rotary’s “Youth Exchange” program. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond won “Honorable Mention” in the Arizona Literary Award competition. He’s published various articles, including one in the summer issue of Advancing Philanthropy.

Mark and his wife, Ligia, live in Scottsdale, Arizona close to their three children and seven grandchildren.

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