There’s an old joke about my much-maligned hometown of Limerick. A Limerickman is on holidays in the United States. A girl serving him at a diner notices his strong accent. She asks him where he is from. He tells her “Limerick.” She asks “what state is that in?” He replies “It’s in an awful state.”
I like the joke, particularly because I have encountered similar situations. When I was 20, I spent a summer working in suburban Detroit with two friends (don’t ask me why we went there). When we would tell people we were from Ireland, the responses would vary. Sometimes we got blank stares, sometimes we’d hear about family trees, other times we were told that Arlington is indeed lovely at this time of year. Our favourite was a guy who said, with minimal confidence, “that’s near Poland, right?” True story.
Here in Sierra Leone, the responses also vary. But, in general, people know Ireland. They know what it is and where it is. Part of the reason is the number of Irish NGOs working in Sierra Leone. You see the Toyota Land Cruisers every day with the logos: Goal, Trócaire, Concern Worldwide and Irish Aid. Consequently, there is both an Irish Consulate downtown, and an Irish Embassy up the hill, not far from where I live. People here are grateful for Ireland’s presence.
But alas, there is no St Patrick’s Day parade. Nor is there the city-wide, Guinness-sponsored, queue-and-drink-and-vomit festival that has hijacked Ireland’s national day around the world. The latter is an image that has become many people’s only impression of Ireland. Now, I’m not saying we don’t like a drink, but there’s more to us than just that.
Instead, the main Irish cultural event last weekend was a pick-up gaelic football match organized for inside the Siaka Stevens National Stadium. Unsurprisingly, the stadium had been double-booked. So the game went ahead outside, on the dusty, grass-free practice pitch. Most of the participants were not Irish, meaning the standard was so low that I was asked to be a team captain. Afterwards, everyone talked about how much fun they had had, and how they’d like to play again. I really enjoyed it too, but I also noted how gaelic football was never meant to be played in west African heat.
Having said all that, I would be lying if I told you I didn’t enjoy a Guinness myself this week. In fact, I had my first taste of the local version of the black stuff. It’s 7.5% alcohol, it’s very sweet and it’s more metallic than sucking on a spoon. But it’s nice.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, very few consumer goods are produced in Sierra Leone. That contributes to high prices and low employment. But that Guinness was brewed and bottled right here in Freetown. I guess our beer is not such a bad cultural export after all.