My Fulbright year in Sierra Leone made an incalculably significant impact on my life. When I left in 1979, I saw no hint that a vicious civil war would break out there just over a decade later.
On arrival in 1978 as one of a tiny group of “pothos” (whites) in country, I felt such excitement and culture shock that I didn’t sleep for two weeks. Despite my Harvard diploma and master’s degree, I knew little of the world outside the northeastern United States. I chose West Africa for my Fulbright due to its close ties to African-American culture. To be welcomed and fed everywhere I went in Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest nations, was a humbling shock.
Living in Freetown, the capital, and affiliated with Fourah Bay College (“Athens of West Africa”), I quickly learned Krio, the lingua franca, and occasionally sang with the Sebanoh Kings, a popular musical group. We once appeared on national television, and I’d no sooner finished singing my signature song (“Victim”) on air than I was asked to repeat the performance.
I fell in love with the warm, generous, fascinating people and Freetown (like Rio and Sydney, one of the world’s three best natural harbors), with its palm tree-topped mountains and long, pristine beaches. The kindness and generosity I experienced during my Fulbright year somehow softened the impact of the poverty and squalor that I also witnessed up close. On poda-poda road trips across Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, I came face-to-face with leprosy, malnourished and deathly sick babies, and a man in the late stages of rabies. I helped where I could and never forgot what I saw. Just two years later, realizing how much my Fulbright experience had taught me, I interrupted doctoral studies to spend a year teaching and reporting news in China. Nevertheless, I ended up writing my PhD dissertation as a collection of stories based on my time in Sierra Leone.
The chief testimony to my Fulbright scholarship and the lifelong bond I forged with Sierra Leone is the honor of being called mother by my adoptive son, Abdulai. A child victim of the civil war there, Abdulai lost his mother and other family in massacres. He fled the war as a young teenager and sought asylum in New York. He grew up to become an award-winning journalist and activist. Since 2017, Abdulai has also bravely fought 9/11-related blood cancer. He and his Guinea-born wife Aissatou live near me in NYC and are devoted parents to Habiba, my beloved 4-year-old granddaughter.
Fulbright opened my eyes to the world and launched my work in journalism/communications in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. More than ever, we Americans must stay informed and seek firsthand knowledge of life beyond our shores. May the Fulbright program never cease its crucially important work.
Susan Ruel, PhD – Fulbright to Sierra Leone 1978