The once distant dream of owning a cell phone became a reality when I purchased a brand new Nokia 3210. The year was 2004, the year of hi5 and email. I was ecstatic! Even though each of the three floors of the boarding house was fully equipped with a landline, one had to stay glued to the phone if one was expecting a phone call (but God forbid someone else gets a phone call at the same time you were expecting a call!). My troubles were over as I could now easily be reached. My parents must have kept the cell phone companies in business because they would call at least once every week even if it was for two minutes during the two years I was there. I would look forward, with unabated anticipation, to those weekly phone calls.
Besides the diet (which was excellent), there was little in Singapore that reminded me of home. Singapore was immaculately clean. I kept waiting to stumble on the slums, the not-so-clean parts but there was none; Singapore did not seem to have skeletons in her closet. The “Fine City” (pun intended), I came to realise, left nothing to chance and had many measures in place to safeguard her interests. Stuffs like chewing gum (which is banned in Singapore), littering, urinating in the elevators and not flushing the toilet (yes, not flushing public toilets) are all crimes punishable by fines. I made a mental note to
never drop trash on the sidewalk or any place during my time there. They say old habits die hard but not when there is a fine involved. I adjusted immediately.
Shopping, I observed, was the main affair in Singapore. But shopping was a new territory for me – I had never ventured into the heart of Freetown to buy a shoelace let alone clothes for myself. Due to our tight budget, shopping was entirely my mom’s responsibility. She bought everything (and I mean everything) we needed and that was the case up until age 18 when I left for Singapore. Naturally, I evolved into a keen shopper and soon discovered that I had an innate passion for shoes, nice shoes. When Orchard Road – the main shopping district in Singapore – proved too expensive for us, my friends and i would save up and venture into neighbouring Malaysia where we would shop for pirated DVDs, bags, shoes, clothes etc.
School, as I knew it, was different from what I was used to. The first thing I noticed was the difference in our understanding (my understanding vs. the school’s understanding) of the ‘first week of school.’ In Sierra Leone, ‘school’ doesn’t really start until the second or third week from the opening date of school. Not so at UWCSEA. At UWCSEA, you hit the ground running and this I learned the hard way. At the end of my first business class, we were given a reading assignment with some questions to answer. Clueless as to how things worked, I did the reading and just scribbled the answers on a piece of paper assuming we were going to discuss the assignment in class. There are no words to convey how embarrassed I was when at the start of the next class, my teacher went around the class and collected the assignment. Everyone but this brown girl handed in their work. I must have turned ten different shades of brown as I tried to explain why I didn’t have my assignment. By the end of the first week, I felt like I had already been in school for a month. I had homework every single day for every class in addition to writing papers and extracurricular activities. This International Baccalaureate was some serious business, I quickly realised!
In my English class, we read and critically analysed about fifteen acclaimed works of literature from different genres including Pride and Prejudice, La Casa de Bernada Alba, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, The Outsider etc. I had opted for English A1 higher, a course designed for native English speakers. With the best grades in English both at BECE and WASSCE level, I prided myself on being a good writer until I met Ms Julie Davidson, my Aussie English teacher. Her red ink drowned my blue ink due to her many comments on my written papers; on other days a simple diagonal line across my paper was all it took to communicate she didn’t approve of my analysis or assessment. I had a lot to learn. I was frustrated. Even though I was not failing, I wanted to get a 7, the best possible grade one could get in any subject in IB. And so I developed a game plan. I met a few times with my teacher to really understand what she was looking for and how I could be better. I also befriended a girl in my class who seemed to have nailed the art of assessing literary pieces. I would ask for her papers and study them to know what was present in hers that was absent in mine. I gained and developed a deeper appreciation for literature during that time and my writing skills improved tremendously. I never achieved a 7 in that class but I definitely learned a lot.
But Singapore was not all work. There were many great times. Like the weekends we spent on an island in Malaysia, Pulau Besar. I had NEVER been on a boat (besides the old lady ferry in Freetown) but with some cajoling I ventured on and enjoyed the speedboat excursion around the island. While my friends were swimming and playing around the water, I safely enjoyed the view from the bamboo huts scattered around the island. I had heard enough stories about people drowning in the waters of Freetown to keep me at bay. My friends were baffled; how could someone from a country bordered by the sea not know how to swim? But swimming was not the only thing I didn’t know how to do, I did not and still do not know how to ride a bicycle. Some friends attempted to teach me but somehow my fear of falling and lack of coordination made the process exhausting for all involved. They eventually gave up.
In the midst of my many blessings, changes and adjustments, I would sometimes go to bed at night in tears, just like I did the first night and cry myself to sleep. It was my first year away from home and I was missing home. Terribly. I missed my family especially my sisters who were also my best friends. We had not only grown up together, we had shared everything and had been through a lot together. We had no need of playmates as kids since there was always at least one other person to play with in the house. We had even invented a special language, which we thought was how English sounded like when spoken in haste. It made no sense really but we acted like it did especially when we were around our cousins who had no clue what we were talking about. My friends at home were in university and making new friends so it became hard to keep up with them. My days at St. Joseph’s seemed like eons ago and those memories were quickly fading. I was reluctant to make new friends and new memories at first and desperately tried to hold on to my friendships at home. But it wasn’t working. I was lonely.And that’s when the headaches started. School stress and missing home syndrome must have cumulated in these migraines and I was referred to a neurologist who put me on some medication. I contemplated the thought of going home during the first year but my mama raised no quitter. Besides what was there to go back to?
God must have heard my cry because that December I was blessed with an opportunity to travel to the U.K where I spent Christmas with some family friends. It was a much-needed break from the demands of schoolwork and an antidote to the missing home syndrome. It was also the year of the tsunami that devastated South East Asia. I don’t remember how I found out exactly but my first thought was the safety of my friends back in the boarding house. Miraculously, Singapore was unaffected. I left the U.K for Singapore on New Year’s Eve (U.K time) and completely missed out on New Year’s eve/ New Year’s Day festivities. By the time my plane touched down at Changi airport in Singapore, it was the day after New Year’s, 2nd January 2005.
Of all the things I remember about Singapore, this one thing stands out: it was there that I personally found God. I was born, groomed and raised in a largely Christian home and had spent most of my time in church – Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, choir practice etc. My life revolved around church but I had no personal experience with God. God had performed many miraculous feats in my life but I was yet to have a defining personal encounter with Him. Being away from home in a distant land was probably what I needed to understand who God was/is in my life. Then it was no longer mandatory to go to church; I went to church because I wanted to.I joined a local church, Living Waters United Methodist Church and sang back up in the worship team. At that point, i had all i could materially wish for but none of it was enough to fill the void, the emptiness i felt in my heart. God filled that void and time in His presence was what i needed to calm the nerves of my soul. It was also during this time that my faith was tested. For the very first time in my life I met people who openly declared they were atheists. Talk about culture shock! Growing up in Sierra Leone where everyone including juju men believes in God, it was shocking/nerve-wrecking to say the least that others would outrightly dismiss God. There were days when during my Theory of Knowledge class I’d wished God would just do something to show people that He really does exist. Oh the days of being young and naïve! I would later appreciate UWC even more for that because those discussions, interestingly, solidified my faith in God and enabled me to be tolerant of differing religious beliefs. It was also during this time that I learned how to talk (like you would with a person) to God. I would often talk to God about my fears, hopes, dreams, and everything else in between on my long walk back from the HDB where we bought calling cards and snacks. God was no longer a distant phenomenon who solely performed miracles. He became a Father, Confidant, Friend and Comforter. With all I was exposed to and the freedom I had to do whatever I wanted (within the confines of the law of course), looking back I can proudly say I have no regrets about my time at UWC. God was with me the whole time.
For this God is our God forever and ever, He will be our guide even to the end. Ps 48:14
Daughter of the King