As a senior in college at Graceland University, Paige Webberly was on track to her dream of becoming a doctor.
She had good grades, a double major in biology and chemistry, and a work ethic to match.
However, Webberly felt something else pulling at her, a desire to see the world and make a difference.
After being turned down for medical school, she knew joining the Peace Corps was the right move.
“But even before I got the news of rejection from UW, where I had interviewed, I started applying for Peace Corps with the newfound realization that I wanted to follow this path of adventure and service rather than pursue medicine.”
The application process was long, with no shortage of hoops to jump through.
“But several recommendations, personal statements and doctor visits later, I submitted my application and started the next phase, waiting.”
In the spring of 2013, a year after Webberly applied, she found out she’d been accepted for a secondary education assignment in Sierra Leone, located on the western part of the African continent.
Webberly, who grew up in Camas, had no idea where Sierra Leone was located, other than it being somewhere in Africa. On her blog, “The Dangling Possibilities,” she jokingly refers to having to look it up on the Internet.
When Webberly arrived last June, she participated in 11 weeks of training to learn more about her teaching assignment and the area in general.
A vegetarian for several years, Webberly decided to go back to eating meat in order to make it easier to find protein sources. She jokes about having “gone over to the dark side,” by not only eating meat but eating the bone, too, in order to supplement calcium intake. After her training, Webberly began teaching high school, referred to as senior secondary school, in the Tonkolili District of Sierra Leone.
Due to the civil war in the 1990s, many students missed out on receiving an education, and some are much older than the typical high school student. Two are older than Webberly, who is 24.
Webberly teaches 160 students health sciences curriculum. During the last two terms, she has also taught computer classes in the evenings to students at all levels. In one of her classes, she has 120 students.
“Boy, can they be rowdy,” she said. “My other classes are small/normal sizes, 27, 8, and 7 students.”
A big differences between the educational system in Sierra Leone and the United States is the use of flogging as a punishment for bad behavior.
“School is also a lot less structured here,” Webberly said. “There is a timetable with periods where students theoretically have class, but on a regular day, some teachers won’t be teaching their assigned periods, and will just be hanging out in the staff room. There is a lot less accountability on the teachers’ part, which makes for some dysfunctional schools.”
On the students’ side, there are many barriers in trying to get an education, she added. “Some of my kids live in villages eight or 10 miles away, and have to walk to my town each week and go home on weekends and holidays.”
School is not free, so coming up with the money for school fees, uniforms and supplies can be a struggle.
“Girls have an especially difficult time,” Webberly said. “Some are often kept at home to do chores or sell for their family, so they have a high absentee rate, or just drop out of school. Some girls get pregnant and are forced to drop out for that reason. Sierra Leone is number one in the world for teenage pregnancy, sadly.”
Despite the challenges, Webberly is enjoying her time teaching as a Peace Corps volunteer. She is approximately halfway through her 27 months “in-country” as it is known.
“I think my favorite thing about living in Sierra Leone is the way that everyone lives in community,” she said. “People greet each other, rely on each other and take care of each other so much more than in the states. Here, they know the value of relationships in community living, and it is evident in all aspects of their lives.”
She adds that in, “stark contrast” to American culture, most Sierra Leoneans see the happenings in their lives as largely out of their control.
“‘Insha’Allah’ (Arabic) and ‘With God’s power’ are common phrases that can be heard as a follow-up to nearly any statement,” Webberly said. “‘I’ll pass my exam, with God’s power,’ or ‘I’ll return from Freetown, insha’Allah.'”
In working with Sierra Leoneans at the school and in the village, this worldview has provided one of the hardest challenges to Webberly’s service.
“Where I would say it is in my own control whether or not I finish my report cards on time, one of my co-teachers might be two weeks late with his because he saw it as in God’s control and not his own,” she said.
Living in a new country can also present communication barriers, but Webberly said the official language of Sierra Leone, called Krio, was fairly easy to learn. For example, “kushe-o” means “hello,” “motacar” is “motorcar,” “skul” is “school,” and “makit” is “market.”
“Krio is fun because if you don’t know the word for something, chances are you can just say the English word, and just use a Sierra Leone accent and you’ll likely be right,” she said.
Until the Ebola outbreak this summer, Webberly was not planning to return to the United States during her time with the Peace Corps. However, she and other volunteers were put on administrative hold as a safety precaution and sent home until Peace Corps leadership determines it is OK for them to return.
“I was utterly devastated to be pulled out of my village prematurely, and with such short notice,” she said. “After we all got the news, I had just one full day to pack and say goodbye to the wonderful people who had become my neighbors, friends and family. Now it’s just a waiting game, until Peace Corps decides it is safe for us to return to Sierra Leone. I’m hopeful that in a few months I’ll be returned to my site and will be able to finish out my service.”
Due to the administrative hold, she is in Camas waiting for it to be lifted, and catching up with friends and family.
Her parents, Brett and Dianne, are proud of their daughter. They noted that she has always loved experiencing other cultures and has a passion for helping people, and that her time in Sierra Leone had further developed this.
“She is definitely a more rounded, global thinker, who doesn’t take for granted food, clean water or safety, and sees people of differing cultures as interconnected,” Dianne said.
Having never before been to Africa, Webberly had a “whole new world” open up to her upon arrival in Sierra Leone last June.
“It was here that I was first exposed to a place whose people have been so instilled by the belief that the white man comes solely to bring money,” she said. “After the devastation wrought by civil war in the 1990s, the United States, the U.N., and tons of other countries poured aid money into Sierra Leone with the intention of helping the country rebuild. Good intentions of course, but there were negative repercussions.”
Now, she adds, when a Sierra Leonean sees a white person, the automatic assumption is that they are rich, and have come to put money into the country’s development.
“Before living here, I was unaware of the damage that foreign aid can do in the recipient country. And now I witness it every day. On a regular basis, I have to explain to people that I have come here to teach their children, and don’t have buckets of money to give them.”
After Webberly finishes her Peace Corps service, she plans to teach abroad in an international school or similar institution.
“I love living in other countries, and have discovered this past year that I really enjoy teaching,” she said. “I’ll be back in America for a few years to get my master’s degree, since my training is in science and not education. But after that I see myself gallivanting all over the world, experiencing new cultures and peoples while teaching.”