The Nature of Truth in Sierra Leone
This essay was written by Jessica Dickinson Goodman, a member of the Mountain View, California Lodge #244, touching on a lesson about truth she learned while teaching this past summer in the west African country of Sierra Leone.
Last summer, I went to visit a friend’s tech center in central Sierra Leone in west Africa to teach open source web development and ended up diving into the nature of truth with my students. My friend and I know each other from the U.S. State Department’s TechWomen program, which brings women in technology from Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia to Silicon Valley for month-long fellowships with top tech companies. My friend invited me and my Mom (who was the program architect for TechWomen and blogged about her experience here) to come and teach over the summer, and we were thrilled to accept.
Now, my Mom and I have traveled together to teach in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon in the past few years, so we have a few goals when we travel to volunteer:
1 We need to teach what the people there want to learn from us, not whatever serves our egos.
2 We must provide more value to the people we’re serving than if we just donated the cost of the tickets.
3 We only drink water that is boiled, bottled, or beer.
To reach the first goal, we asked our friend to have her students share with us what they wanted to learn about the most from two women from Silicon Valley: they said they wanted to learn how to build websites and how to find information online that is not offered in their local university’s courses. Reasonable, practical requests from young people wanting to thrive in the information age.
Reaching the second goal is always harder: the tickets to Sierra Leone cost about $2,000, which in local money is enough to send one young person to college for a year, including room, board, tuition, and clothing. We thought if we were able to teach a few hundred young people how to build websites, they could start small web services companies themselves and pay their own tuition; likewise, if we helped them figure out how to find free courses and training online, it would help them in some of the same ways a year of college would (though online education has yet to reach the value that in-person education has, it can be a good way for a young person to expand her horizons).
For that third goal, we knew that Sierra Leone would have tea, bottled (and bagged!) water, and as a country that is 65-75% Muslim, we knew there would be very little beer.
We arrived in Sierra Leone and headed right to Makeni, the city in the center of the country where we would be teaching. I had read a few books about Sierra Leone and we had a few dozen friends in the country through TechWomen, but it was my first time in West Africa. Having spent a lot of time in the Middle East, the low-key religious tolerance was incredible. At our hotel was a sign: “Quran and Bible Available in All Rooms” (just under the “David Beckham Was Here” sign); we went to buy some awesome local tie-dyed-looking plastic bowls and on left-hand side shop we visited was “Christ in Me Enterprises,” while on the right-hand side was “Allah is Great Enterprises“; one of the local buses had “Amin Amen” hand-lettered on the front (“Amen” is how most English-speaking Christians end prayers and “Amin” is how Muslims and Arabic-speaking Christians end prayers), which I think was the driver’s way to sharing how welcome all faiths were in his bumpy back seats. It was incredibly hopeful to see a community undivided by creed or faith. It was a lesson in fraternity and sorority, but that is another post.
That wasn’t the only surprise in-store for us in Sierra Leone. As I mentioned above, our primary goal when we go teach someplace where being Americans and unreasonably wealthy by local standards is to give our friends there what they ask for and what they know they need, rather than some impractical workshop it would be fun to teach but that won’t impact people’s everyday lives. In Gaza, I had taught how to build a crowdfunding campaign at a local start-up incubator, not how to achieve perfect peace, since I’m not yet qualified to teach the latter and there are other people from many sides working on that issue.
On our first full day, we drove a few minutes from our hotel to the University of Makeni, where we got a tour from some of the students and the Catholic priest in charge of finances for the institution. Then we set-up in auditorium (which is the second-largest in-door meeting space in the country, seating 700 people) and began that night’s talk on how to do online research. But within an hour of us starting, the conversation had veered away from the practical stories we were trying to tell about how to check multiple sources, evaluate authorial bias, develop a network of trusted resources. It started when a young man raised his hand and asked:
“How can you tell is something is true on the internet?”
We talked about some of the systems and tools we used, but the question came up again and again; not just that day, but back at the tech center during one of the local secret society’s dances, visiting the markets with friends, exploring the horned-and-bearded secret society masks in the National Museum in Freetown, teaching at the oldest college in West Africa, Fourah Bay College, part of the University of Sierra Leone. I was thrilled: I’d never felt more prepared by my degree from the Philosophy and History departments of Carnegie Mellon University.
At Fourah Bay College, when it came up again, I grabbed a marker and turned to the white board behind me, and drew a graph of an asymptote, a line constantly approaching, but never achieving, contact with a perfectly straight vertical line:
“This is the asymptote of truth,” I told the room of engineering majors, “We can try and try — and we need to try and try — to get closer and closer to telling and knowing the perfect truth; but we don’t expect to get there.”
My Mom broke in, asking the room: “Can someone here tell me the absolute truth about you, what you did today?”
They shook their heads, smiling and getting her point. I continued: “We evaluate the truth of what people tell us everyday. I know if I hear family news from one aunt, that I need to check it with another aunt before believing it,” the class laughed, smiling more broadly, “But if I hear it from my Mom,” and I pointed to my co-presenter, “I know it’s true.” They got it and we moved on, building on the shared knowledge that we could use the same skills we utilize to filter family gossip from gospel truth to evaluate information online.
But I kept thinking about my Mom’s rhetorical question, on the ride back to our hotel, on the nearly 24-hours of travel home, and in the months since then, all within the context of OddFellowship. Truth is one of our major values as an organization. We seek — asymptotically — the truth about ourselves, our world, our purposes. We speak truth to each other, hopefully leavened with fraternal and sororal kindness as few communities could long stand hearing the total truth about themselves all the time. I’d forgotten, as I planned my highly practical trip to visit friends and teach classes in west Africa, that more common than an interest in web development jobs, more urgent than a need for increased access to university courses, there is a human hunger for truth.
My students in Sierra Leone taught me that, and since we all still Facebook friends, they continue teaching me that every day. It’s a lesson I bring back to my lodge, to my community, and to my life.
If anyone reading this is qualified and interested in teaching a college-level class in Sierra Leone, for 10-14 days, I can try to connect you to groups that would love to have you (firstname.lastname@example.org, IOOF Mountain View #244). Like us, you would need to pay your own way; but because 100,000 leones is about $13 and will cover all your meals for a day (including bottled water), if you can cover the ticket you can get around cheaply and safely in-country for not much money. It’s a fascinating, warm, friendly and exciting country to spend some time in and I encourage people to do so.