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Allieu Moiwa, right, an exchange student from Sierra Leone, left, takes a plunge in a mountain stream with host brother David Ribich during his first days in the U.S. (Courtesy photo)
ENTERPRISE — Born in exile during a civil war, Allieu Moiwa is now in a self-imposed exile — this time in rural Eastern Oregon.
The teenage son of a pharmacist, Moiwa is a diligent student at his government school in Kenema City, Sierra Leone, and at Enterprise High School, where he is taking two science and two math classes. He said he wants to be a doctor and he’d like to study in the U.S.
Moiwa is here on an exchange through the American Field Service with the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, otherwise known as YES. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and provides scholarships for secondary school students to spend one academic year in the United States.
“There is a lot of diversity between Sierra Leone and the U.S,” Moiwa said.
Moiwa grew up near the equator, where the temperature rarely dips below 75 degrees. Last weekend, while helping get firewood with his host family, he encountered snow for the first time.
“It’s very cold. I don’t like cold,” he said. “Where I live is hot.”
Though he may not be used to gathering firewood for heat, Moiwa is familiar with gathering wood to cook. He showed his new family how it’s done in Africa, by packing wood on his head. He said at home they use both firewood and charcoal to cook over open flames in outdoor kitchens.
Women don’t use chainsaws in Sierra Leone, but some do in America, like his host mother, Jenny Reinghardt, a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter. His home culture is patriarchal and his school is all boys. Getting used to girls in the classroom is another adjustment, Moiwa said.
“At home we have very extended families and the environment is quiet,” Moiwa said, “not noisy with loud music and people talking a lot.”
Moiwa came to Wallowa County sight unseen, but is familiar with an agricultural community. His family lives 73 miles from where he goes to school in a town called Keilahun, where his mother sells produce at an open air market. Cacao, from which chocolate is made, and coffee, are the region’s primary crops.
Sierra Leone is also well known for its diamond trade, which is conducted in the eastern region of the same province where Moiwa goes to school.
The tiny nation was wracked by civil war for nearly 11 years. Moiwa’s family took exile in neighboring Guinea and returned when he was 5 years old. The conflict, which left 50,000 dead, ended when the U.S. and the international community intervened and brought the war to a peaceful end, Moiwa said.
“My family fled for their safety. A lot of people were killed,” he said.
In August, Moiwa boarded a plane — a first for Moiwa — to Senegal, then to Belgium, Washington, D.C. and, eventually, Walla Walla, Wash., where he traveled the last leg by car with Reinhardt.
“I was scared to get in a plane. Getting up, it was shaking and landing was a bit scary,” he said.
In fact, he’d never been to his nation’s capitol of Freeport, a city of 700,000 people 275 miles from his home, until his pre-departure retreat with the other students in the YES program.
Moiwa’s native culture is a blend of the traditional and the modern. English is the official language, but he also speaks Mende, as do most of the 16 tribes of Sierra Leone. Some people use traditional herbalists while others, like his own family, use Western medicine when they are ill.