Friday, May 11, 2012

On being Poto

Several months ago, Erica told me a few items about her visit to Sierra Leone in 2011. "People would see us and call out 'White man! White man!' They would call me a 'white man' too."

The precise term was "Poto" (or "Porto"). I asked Vince what people called him, as he's Asian-Canadian. "They call me Poto." This tickled my fancy. "Really? So we're both a couple of Poto!" Many times following this I would find excuses to compare myself to Vince. "Hey man, I understand, I'm Poto too."

Our driver Soulay would ferry us about an hour and a half each day to the work site where the school was being raised up. As we passed out of Freetown and into the rural areas, our presence would draw the occasional stares from adults, but "Poto" was usually exclaimed by the children. As we drove into the village of Waterloo where the school was being built, the amount of children would intensify. All around us we would hear: "A Poto! A Poto! A Poto!" and a flurry of tiny hands waving at us. Some of the children would race to follow us, calling out as they ran. Seeing other white people was so rare in Sierra Leone that we couldn't help ourseleves: "A Poto! A Poto!" we'd cry from our car when we spotted other outsiders.

Wheels were turning inside the head of Jay, Erica's husband. "Soulay," he asked one afternoon, "how do I say 'one of you' to the children?" Soulay is old by Sierra Leone standards (perhaps 50?) and usually stone-faced, but he had his moments of levity and would often drop his guard around Jay. "Unibe." was Soulay's response. "That means 'black man'?" Jay confirmed. "Yes." Soulay answered.

As the next collection of children waved at our car, crying out "a Poto!" Jay waved back: "Honeybee!" he called. "Sweetie, I don't think you're saying it right." Erica cautioned. "Honeybee!" Jay cried. "Look, it stops them in their tracks! They don't know what to think!" Behind the wheel, Soulay was practically chuckling.

In the days which followed, Jay's cry of "Honeybee!" became a constant refrain (I think he was trying to say "Unibe" and sometimes succeeded). Even Soulay would mimic Jay's "Honeybee!" I occasionally joined in; greeting the children was the best part of the 1.5 hour drive we had to make twice each day.

My favourite task on the work site was to make bricks; this involved mixing together pans of sand with a bag of cement and a measure of water (more art than science). I made a few attempts to help the workers mix the contents, but I wasn't very good at it and usually stepped back to let the professionals manage it. Once the mix was ready, we would fill a rectangular steel box with mix and lay it upside down on the ground, much like building a sand castle. Hundreds of these bricks would be made each day.

I believe it was on our fifth day that I found myself making bricks alone; although the workers were present, ready with shovels to fill up my brick mold, the other 10 members of my team were elsewhere, either taking a water break or performing other tasks. I never liked going on break when I was the only person making bricks, so I kept going. Two children were seated nearby, watching me; we always drew audiences on the site. "Hello Poto," one ventured. "Hello Unibe," I replied.

A short time later, I noticed a stranger wandering through the site. He clearly didn't belong; unlike the workers, who wore dirty, tattered t-shirts and shorts, he wore good slacks and a clean white long-sleeved shirt. He was, I would learn, one of the teachers from the school for whom we were building this structure.

As he passed nearby, he addressed me: "Thank you, Poto." He moved on before I could stammer out my own grateful response.

That's what "Poto" means to me.

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