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Finding peace in Sierra Leone

When Ashley Kuehlwein graduated from Oregon City High School in 2005, she might have been able to pick out Sierra Leone on a map of Africa, but she probably did not foresee that in 2012 she and her husband, Dan Keller, would be living in a village there.

The pair joined the Peace Corps after finishing their college degrees, and going through a lengthy application process. They have been living and teaching at a school in Mokanji, a small village in Sierra Leone, for one year now, and Ashley Keller was able to get to a computer recently to answer questions about what their life is like in Africa.

When the couple arrived in Sierra Leone, Keller said it was a challenge living with a host family and learning about the new culture.

"After moving to our placement site things got a lot easier," Keller said. "Not to say that there weren't plenty of challenges, but I can't imagine doing anything else but being in the Peace Corps right now. I love my village and I give a lot of credit to our placement team who worked very hard to find the ‘perfect fit' for each volunteer."by: PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHY AND DANIEL KUEHLWEIN - Ashley Keller shares some grade marks with one of her students in Mokanji, Sierra Leone.

The older children know to speak to the Kellers in English or Krio, a language similar to English, but one 5-year-old boy was becoming frustrated, because he would tell Ashley Keller things in his tribal language of Mende, and she did not understand him.

"He would repeat the same things over and over but I had no idea what he was saying," she said. "One day he was asking me something, but he spoke in Krio instead of Mende. It took a minute before I realized that I could understand him, and I answered him in Krio. He was amazed that I had understood him and he finally realized that if he wanted to talk to me he had to talk in Krio. Now he has appointed himself as the translator for all of the small kids who can't speak Krio yet, and he loves to tell me what the little ones say when they come to visit."

Living Conditions

The Kellers live in a zinc-roofed concrete house with three bedrooms and a living area; the kitchen, wash room and latrine are outdoors, because there is no indoor plumbing.

There is also no power, so they rely on flashlights when it gets dark.

"We also have to haul our own water," Keller said. "Right now it's the rainy season so we are able to collect rainwater at least three to four times a week, which is enough for the two of us. In a good rainstorm we can fill every bucket in the house with water, which will last us about three days."

In the dry season, the couple relies on the children to help them carry water from a pump or a spring. There are only two pumps in Mokanji, and the closest one is a quarter mile away and the wait can sometimes be two or more hours. The other option is to go to a spring and get water, which is the same distance away but harder to access, she noted.

"There are not adequate words to describe all of the people that we have met, but the one thing that they all have in common is their acceptance and appreciation for Peace Corps and what we are here to do," Keller said. "In Mokanji, most of the people know us and the schools that we work in and can greet us by our local names. They look out for both my husband and me and they are very concerned for our safety and well-being.

"I don't know if I can fully comprehend all of the ways that this experience has changed me, and will continue to change me over the next year."

Keller, who studied education at Western Oregon University, said teaching in Sierra Leone "has definitely given me a new perspective on the teaching profession."

"There have been some intensely frustrating days, and weeks, but I have learned how to better handle the frustration and that is something I know I will use for the rest of my life," she said. "I have also gained an enormous amount of patience, which is necessary for surviving in Sierra Leone. I have also learned a lot from the people around me about being innovative and living without things that I used to consider essential, which I can take back with me."

Parents come for a visit

In April, Ashley Keller's parents, Kathy and Daniel Kuehlwein, visited their daughter. They arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after a 33-hour flight from Portland, and six months of planning and reading and talking to others who had traveled there.

Ashley had requested a long list of "gesture gifts" to give to people who had played an important part in her and her husband's safety, health and adjustment, so her parents brought four 50-pound bags of toys, food and clothing for the people of the village.

"My anticipation of seeing my daughter is difficult to describe," said Kathy Kuehlwein. "I thought speaking to her weekly would be fulfilling enough to get me through the 27 months. But missing the physical presence of her has been the hardest."

Days and nights of worry, sadness and emotion were replaced by wonder and fascination, when she saw her daughter in action.

"This began the moment we went through security at the airport and were able to see her," Kathy Kuehlwein said. "She navigated the locals like a pro. Using the language and her knowledge of the culture, she was confident, firm and efficient. We found ourselves staring often, in amazement, at her ability to negotiate the markets, the transportation, the restaurants.

"She quickly impressed us; she speaks the language, dresses culturally and performs daily chores (cooking, cleaning, bathing) as the African people do. We were in awe each time we saw her interactions with the people of Sierra Leone."

Generosity and hearts of gold

"During our visit the children are the ones that grabbed our hearts," Kuehlwein said.

They were always around, day in and day out, laughing, playing, teaching and learning.

Kuehlwein woke one morning to find a little boy on the porch with flowers he said were for her. She was delighted and put them in a cup.

"He showed up each morning after that, asking for me, with flowers," she said. "I have pressed the ones I could and brought them to America. The children have hearts of gold, are full of mischief, questions, giggles that I still can hear; holding your hands on every walk, sitting on your lap when resting. They will not be forgotten."

On a visit to her daughter's school, the Kuehlweins were presented to students by the principal, who "expressed great appreciation to God for blessing the village with our daughter and providing her to them. We were praised for having given Ashley life, so that she could grace them with her abilities and work ethic," she said, adding that she knows her daughter is making a difference in that village.

Kuehlwein remembered another heart-tugging moment after meeting an elder in the village.

"The woman sent an older boy into an out building room and out he came with a live chicken," Kuehlwein said. "After much insistence, we took the chicken. Ashley said that a chicken is a very big deal in Africa.

"Again the generosity; this chicken could have fed her family and provided them with much needed protein, but as a gesture she gave it away. Time and time again, people did without something so others would have."

Kuehlwein said a goal in going to Sierra Leone was to experiences the life their daughter had chosen for a few years. She will never forget being greeted with smiles, questions and thanks. She learned that "ingenuity, kindness, pride, humor and generosity overpower poverty and lack of material items."