I was in a small poda poda mini bus on the way to Banta trying very hard yet failing really quite spectacularly to grasp the most basic mende greetings. I don’t know if it was the 5 am start from Freetown that was making my mind sluggish. I had really been quite on edge when I squeezed on the bus that morning with my team of American interns – I just had no idea what I was doing and the reality of a year in Sierra Leone was stretching itself out in front of an intimidated me. I found myself seated next to one of my team leaders, Laura and a Sierra Leonean poda poda “apprentice” called Francis. My conversations that day with both Laura and Francis would be the start of my finding my feet in a place I quickly grew to adore.
Francis would say something really basic like “Hello” – “Buwa”. And I would repeat it. And then my mind would take that little piece of knowledge, crumple it up in its hand and nonchalantly toss it over its shoulder.
“I’m sorry Francis, what was it again?”
Looking back that turned out to a blessing disguised as stupidity because it gave Laura the kind of idea that occurs to a lover of exclamation marks and the word “awesome”.
“Let’s make a song out of it! And that’ll help us remember!!! This is going to be awesome!!!”
I can tease Laura because she knows I love her but it actually worked a treat and turned in to a ridiculous rap which we performed to the great hilarity of our children when we arrived. Imagine your reaction if a bunch of West Africans came to your house and started (badly) singing at you with a broadly smiling enthusiasm which you can tell is putting exclamation marks after everything in its head while warbling and rapping the following -
“Hello! Hello! Hello!
How are you!? I thank God!
What’s your name!?”
The kids still sing it at me from time to time.
Francis also gave me a quite precious gift on that dusty and slow road to Banta. He gave me my name. Visitors to Sierra Leone will not have to wait long before they are renamed and for me it was Francis who did the honours. He called me “Peemeh”, the man who runs. And Peemeh has been my African alter-ego ever since.
I have yet to meet another Peemeh which just makes the name all the more “mine”. Since the locations and circumstances around them are so different so there are differences between “Mark” and “Peemeh”. They dress differently, speak differently and spend their time differently. Probably the biggest difference is how much time I spend with children as Peemeh. There are few things I find as joyful as playing ridiculous games, singing silly songs and literally making fun with a group of kids. I was leaving from Belfast City Airport to fly to Freetown via London last year and while I was queued up at security the wee girl in front started playing a little game where she would take her bag and nudge my hand luggage until it nudged back. She seemed to think this was just hilarious entertainment until her father informed her that she wasn’t behaving herself. And I realised that I hadn’t really spent any time with children when I had been at home in Belfast. And how that was about to change. Because I was about to be called “Uncle Peemeh” again.
Alright then, who wants to play Balance Ball?