Joy Marburger

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My First Job: Teaching in Sierra Leone

Joy Marburger

I joined the Peace Corps in 1969, after graduating from Allegheny College in 1968 and completing one year of graduate school at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. My decision was based primarily on a need to explore the world. The Peace Corps application inquired where I wanted to work – my response was India or somewhere in Africa. Needless to say, I had no clue that Africa was so diverse in geography, cultures and nations.

I ended up in Sierra Leone, or “Salone” in Creole, where I would become a secondary school teacher. Sierra Leone is a West African country about the size of South Carolina located about 7-10 degrees above the equator. The name Sierra Leone dates back to 1462, when the Portuguese explorers dubbed the territory, “Sierra Lyoa”, meaning Lion Mountains, since the coastal regions looked like lion’s teeth. The British, who took over the country from the Portuguese, officially adopted the name Sierra Leone in 1787. Freetown, a British crown colony and eventually the capital, was the principal base for freed slaves from Britain and North America.

When I arrived in Freetown the heat and humidity overwhelmed me, since I was used to the cool temperate climate of Meadville in Western Pennsylvania. The newly minted PCVs landed at Lungi Airport in Freetown during a military coupe, so we were herded into the receiving room by AK-47 toting soldiers. We were eventually cleared to begin our 6-week training adventure by living with a family in the capital city to learn about the culture and Creole language. The training experience was very memorable: first, the very hot food with staple ingredients of rice, cassava, and palm oil; second, the custom of eating the food with your hands; and third, the total submersion in inquiry-based teaching methods we were supposed to use during our teaching assignment.

Sierra Leone is divided into four provinces, Northern, Eastern, Southern, and Western. There are 16 ethnic groups in the country; the Mende people are the largest group in the Southern and Eastern Provinces. My assignment was to teach biology and general science at a girls’ secondary school in Moyamba, the capital of the Southern Province. I lived in a modest cement block house equipped with electricity and running water. I had three other female housemates, including a Canadian, who were also teachers at the school. After dinner in the evening we would tell stories of all kinds, including those of the neighbors who would visit occasionally. I was impressed by how friendly everyone was – the elders who visited our house would often tell us their life stories. We had a local “band” in the neighborhood, which would play traditional Mende songs at least once a month with hand-made instruments.

Teaching science to Sierra Leonean girls ranging from 12 to 21 years of age was a real challenge, especially since formal education was based on the British System. Instead of grade levels 7-12, there were forms 1-5. The whole point of students going on to high school after elementary school was to pass the Ordinary Level exams to get into a college or technical school. These girls were a select, small minority of the general female population given the opportunity to get an education through private support or government grants. Some students came from wealthy families living in Freetown. Many came from the rural areas around Moyamba, whose family income amounted to about $360 a year. The school fees were around $30 a year, so this was a substantial sacrifice for the rural families to send their daughters to school. Many did not finish high school because of family responsibilities. All of my fifth form students managed to pass their final biology exams, which allowed them to pursue higher education.

As a biologist, I had the opportunity to investigate the flora and fauna in a tropical country. With encouragement of two British scientists, whom I met in Sierra Leone, I developed a research project on a tropical liana that eventually resulted in my M.S. thesis after I returned to the states. I also had some unusual encounters with wildlife: especially with poisonous snakes and army ants (on separate occasions) entering our house or school compound.

I try to keep abreast of what has happened to Sierra Leone since I left in 1972. I feel sad about the civil war conflicts that ravaged the country from the early 1990s until 2002. I often wonder what happened to my students, and whether they and their families survived the conflicts. I am currently a member of a friends’ group (Friends of Sierra Leone) that provides assistance to people in Sierra Leone. Electronic media now permit networking of people and programs within and outside the country. Much has changed since I was a volunteer there, but my experiences will always be fondly remembered.

Joy Marburger completed a Ph.D. in agronomy from the University of Maryland in 1986. She is currently the Research Coordinator for the Great Lakes Research and Education Center, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Porter, Indiana. She can be reached at