Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ebola in Paki Masabong

Terrible news again from Paki Masabong but hopeful in that action is possible. A resident in each of two villages attended a funeral and brought Ebola back to the villages. One village is near Magburaka close to Makump America and the other is near the large communal farm close to what was called the village of One Ose. In both villages many died and the remaining residents are quarantined in their houses. The chiefdom as a whole is now quarantined and no one other than the Paramount Chief and Ebola health teams may enter or exit the chiefdom. This has caused a crisis in food access, which is where we can help. Chief, who has been in the the chiefdom for the past three months, will travel to Freetown to purchase food and other materials (thermometers, etc.) with support we sent today. This will go to those in quarantine. I am hopeful that once the hunger season passes and harvest starts, more food will be accessible from within the chiefdom. For now, though, it is an emergency situation. If you are interested in also helping with a donation, I can send you information on how to transfer funds directly to the chiefdom. Please note that tax receipts are not possible for donations made this way, but 100% of your contribution will be used for this emergency. Thanks!!

Friday, February 10, 2012

A deafening explosion, blood, damaged houses, and confusion all round. Young Sarrah found the bomb in the kitchen area of our household yesterday. The people of Mapaki are in a state of shock after a cluster bomb, left behind ten years ago by retreating rebel forces, exploded, sending six women and children to hospital. The bomb had been left in the ceiling of the house where our household cooks, a place predominantly populated by women and children. The bomb was uncovered during repair work and Sarrah, who found it, had no idea of what it was. By the time Mommy noticed the strange object in his hands, it was too late. Bleeding and in a state of confusion, Sarrah ran to the bush, where he collapsed under a tree in shock. Toddler Adama, young mother Ya Beka, nursery teacher Mommy, students Augustine and Adamsay, along with Sarrah are lying in the hospital today waiting for treatment. We wait for news and and worry too.

The world over, children are disproportionately represented among victims of cluster bombs. While many countries ban their production as they mostly kill civilians and do so for decades after their deployment, three Canadian financial institutions (RBC, Sunlife and Manual Life) still profiteer from U. S.company-based cluster bomb production, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition. After we heard the news from Mapaki last night, one of our children asked, “But why do people make these bombs?” Why indeed. Not an easy question to answer without thinking of concepts like evil and greed. Check The Cluster Munition Coalition for action suggestions and resources to end this travesty.

We are so grateful for the friends of Mapaki who have quickly stepped up the plate to offer moral and financial support. We’ve heard that, in the village today, headman Brima called an emergency meeting to implore all in the village to rally around and support the victims and family. Messages and offers of support have come in from friends in Canada also. This morning we were able to send some funds to help with the initial treatment and medicines (each shrapnel shard costs about $25 to remove). More will be sent next week to help with continued medical costs. Most importantly though, we send our thoughts and condolences to Mapaki on behalf of all of you and thank you all for your care and compassion. May we all live in a world (and country and province…that’s another story!) that values peace and harmony over war and weapons profiteering. Peace and best wishes to all.
(Photo - children in the kitchen area of our household)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Moments of incredible beauty take my breath away. Like last night’s light show. As the sun went down, the completely silent dry sky lightning flashed in and through and behind the one billowing cloud that hung at the outskirts of the village, fireflies marking the rhythm. Or the deep purple of the river blossoms undulating with dancing streams of river weed we passed over rickety bridges on back roads leading to boli lands. When I wonder if I’m the only one whose jaw drops at these sights, I think of my mom’s solitary response to the beauty of her adopted home. Maybe we can only see beauty in new lands. Maybe that’s why I love this land so much. On the other hand, as I type this, I hear my small nursery school friends calling me to the door, still singing our parting song, “Aunty, I’m tired, I want to see my mother, Aunty please lef we go home.” I think of the friends I’ve made over the years that keep me coming back and am making plans for return visits to those I haven’t seen on this trip. This trip marks a turning point in many ways. It’s my first visit without deep heart-ache or funerals to attend. No personal illness, tragedy, or deaths of friends. Many new developments in the community and the security of knowing that our own family is finally whole and together. Transitions on many levels. The needs and issues are as deep and strong as ever, but here, the community visitors and big white jeeps on the road are no longer addressing social concerns such as education of the girl-child or reproductive health but rather monitoring, evaluating, accounting, and dealing with the business of agriculture. Lots of talk of next year’s election and Ministry of Finance needs. Perhaps a greater focus on the future than the past. Over the coming year the world will continue to roll towards the uncertainty of impending resource, climate and financial crises and I expect that this particular euphoria might be fleeting but I intend to grasp hold of it for as long as I’m able. Until I return I hope to be involved with a number of developments started or conceived of here (nursery school, work of the youth group, scholarships, “birthing boarding house”, etc.) and will post again on my return. Till then, I hope that you also enjoy the moments of fleeting beauty that pass your path while we wait to “occupy the future”. Final photos of the year are posted here.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday. The uplands were ringing with the sounds of women calling “Momo!” (thanks!) to each other and teasing laughter from hill to dale as we headed off to the garden to weed and deliver rice and poyo to the friends working there. I hear from Canada they expected snow today. Here we sweltered, drifted past sorghum, millet, sesame, and rice stands and after our labour, rested in the shade of a palm while the sweet smell of rich loam wafted our way from the withering weeds and newly planted mango seedling (I’ll be harvesting the mangoes in ten years, I’m told). Digging hands into the rich warm soil, flicking ants from sticky legs, picking at the massive quartz boulders dotting the hillsides while keeping a wary eye out for snakes, we mused over the ownership of any gold we might find at the riverside before we sauntered home after just a tiny bit of poyo. Everyone working in the garden today was a volunteer teacher. All are waiting for word (still!) about the possible granting of teacher vouchers to those volunteer teachers who have replaced missing teachers at schools. IMF conditionalities mean no new teaching positions may be created but, with so many leaving for the mines, it good to know that at least some can be replaced. In the health field, meanwhile, there are also a number of interesting developments. Young children, pregnant and lactating mothers now have the right to free health care and medicines, which has apparently reduced deaths in these target groups (perhaps explaining why this is my first visit without witnessing tragedy in the community). Unfortunately, it seems to come with a corresponding lack of available medicines for those not in the target groups, an issue yet to be resolved. I’ll be making my way back to the cold north soon (I’m told Canada’s cold is nothing compared to the bone-chilling wind of the Harmattan!) and hope that the good news encountered on this trip will hold through challenging times on the horizon. Time for a wee poyo nap, now! Oh, I am posting new photos each day in October 2011 Photos.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Never Lose Hope!

Move over, Nollywood, Mollywood has come to town! Featuring all my favourite locations (including my room) and actors (including the Paramount Chief), “Young Men Never Lose Hope” is a full-length feature conceived and filmed on location by the Mapaki Youth in Action Group. Produced sans budget with a Mac, video camera, and solar power, this action-packed cautionary tale about the wisdom of listening to your wife and parents and staying home in school rather than chasing the illusionary paying job is especially relevant to young people in today’s Sierra Leone. Word on the street is that youth are now flocking to the new mining areas seeking that elusive paying job. Unfortunately, most get nothing and those that do get short-term positions with a fast turn-around (so the mining companies can avoid paying benefits). And, unfortunately, it has also meant that most schools have lost their best teachers who are first in line for a higher-paying, if short-term, mining job. Problems all round. What an impact, though, working on this feature must have had on the young people here who are lured by the lights of Makeni and Freetown. Who says village life is dull? Congratulations, Mapaki youth!! At the same time, I’m delighted to hear that this will be a bumper rice harvest year due to an abundance of rain. It was especially gratifying to go to the new rice gardens today, bursting with rice that’s about to be harvested and stored in the large just-finished grain store, supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture. Last year the rice harvest fed the farmers and the surplus was sold to generate income. Nice feeling to know that many working together have had a tremendous positive impact (no talk of the hunger season this year so far). Thanks to all who helped provide the tractor which enabled the expansion of the rice gardens and gainful employment for the young people who have not headed for the mines. I spent last evening with some of those young people. Thanks in part to the scholarships and teacher support, there is also a bumper class of junior high graduates this year, all heading out for school interviews and beginning of term. Last night I listened to the advice of one seasoned student giving tips to his younger peer. Yes, you’ll need to take soap to launder your clothes, don’t buy six pens all at once or you’ll end up giving them away, make sure to bring rice, salt, maggi for the cook. There is some disappointment that we have no funds for new scholarships this year and I’m hoping to remedy this when I return. Soon. I can’t believe I’m already at the half way mark of this visit. Riding on the motorbike down the back road to the gardens; startling small darts of fish while splashing through streams; passing stands of sorghum, sticks and mile-high cassava; watching the road weave between washed-out bridges and new pitch; waving back to the small children who call out “Father!”, “Sister!”, “Carol!”, “Oporto!” depending on our location; satisfied in the knowledge that my pack is full of pumpkin, okra, rice, two eggs, and plantain freshly picked and destined for my mother-in-law’s kitchen; I’m already worrying about my impending departure and planning my return. Two homes and families and an ocean between. So much to traverse and treasure.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Arrival Part Two

Last night the drums dueled and the small children shimmied and the women sang long into the night. We arrived in Mapaki late, delayed by a missed ferry and breakdowns along the road. Smell of dust and diesel, hot, tired and thirsty (I’d left my stash of good water in Lungi), all was forgotten as soon as we stepped out into the evening’s dancing darkness. I’m still shaking off the dust and echoing the rhythms (sure there’s a samba call and response in there) as I continue to reflect on the changes I’m seeing. Freetown. Billboards promoting new internet capability along others warning of climate change. Power lines crisscross the city, connecting from a chain of towers from the distant Bumbuna hydro dam. While passing the poles that slowly snake their way to our chiefdom, I can’t help but remember Daniel’s dream that had been so carefully interpreted by the elders two years ago and expect that the advice of the elders is still relevant to all of us (welcome change but honour your past). The signboard for the “barefoot women solar power technicians” contrasting the expanding mining and biofuel projects was a welcome sight. As always, though, all is forgotten when in the presence of friends, big and small, here. Tonight we are celebrating Mabinty’s birthday with a taste of palm wine. I’m looking forward to spending the afternoon with Momi, recently returned from Freetown to run the nursery school. And all around, small children, all born since my first visit, are delighting in singing the songs and rhymes of the morning’s lesson. The scholarship volunteer teachers have all come to express thanks to those who helped them complete their program as do the secondary students. Daouda’s parents proudly shared that he came fourth in his class. Everywhere I go people enquire about the many visitors who have been to the community over the years and I’m asked to pass good wishes on to them. So for all of you out there, momo nu!

Back in Mapaki! October 2011

I’d forgotten how much I miss waking to the sounds of roosters and morning Muslim prayer mingled with distant church bells all brought in on the whiff of morning cooking fires. My first morning in Lungi, Sierra Leone, set me straight and anxious to get back to Mapaki where I now am. Feeling like I've never left but delighting in reconnecting with friends and noting new developments (gravity-fed water from the hill means no more bucket trips to the river during dry season; library ringing with laughter and song and little dancing bodies as the new nursery school gears up for daily class). Once again, I'm told that the junior high students have had some of the best exam results in the district and seeing the library table filled with studious youth and teachers while little ones crowd the floor and benches around the solar lights helps explain why. There's lots to do while I'm here (for a relatively short time) but I hope to post daily while here. For now I'm just letting you know where I am. Stay tuned for upcoming videos and photo postings.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It’s time. Time for the annual brushing or clearing of the uplands for planting. Time of year when the wells go dry and endless buckets of murky water are hauled by hand and head from the closest shallow stream. Time for many to be dreaming and talking and developing plans. Time for me to pack my box, say good-bye for now and head off to Lungi for the remainder of my stay in Sierra Leone. This morning the sights and sounds and sensations related to all these times have been jumbled up with thoughts of family and friends here and elsewhere as news comes from Cote D’Ivoire and Canada and as I start the always difficult process of saying good-bye. The girls have headed off to their granny for two days and I had our room to myself last night, recuperating well from the previous all-night drumming (preparation for the brushing). My small friends stopped by with buckets of water from the stream, in case I had any last minute “brooking” to do. The guest house has been a hub of activity as cdpeace staff and community members talk on-line with Canada and with the women here about economic development and youth gather to develop a three-year plan with Munafa M'Patie. We hold one last meeting about the nursery school (I’m told of a recent report recommending that all primary school communities develop a nursery school for 4 and 5 year olds) and then the Munafa M'Patie people also pack and head off in multiple directions. For the first time on this visit, I’m alone in the guest house and have a few minutes to simply breath and gather my thoughts, reflect on current experiences and anticipated directions.

As always, I am struck by the incredible ability of people here to find ways to overcome or mitigate the effects of circumstances beyond their control. Climate change affects subsistence agriculture and the response is to experiment with growing different crops, using a combination of time-tested traditional and newer methods. I was delighted to hear that a group of women farmers may travel to the north of the country to see how women there have organized in vegetable-growing co-ops and that women may soon start producing jam. Wells dry up and work begins on constructing a gravity-fed water system to bring fresh water from the local hill-top to the centre of the village. In the country as a whole, 59% of children are out of school and the community pulls together to develop a nursery school to support the youngest and most vulnerable learners. Conflict arises in mining areas and a delegation of local peace-makers manages to bring communities and others together to address grievances peacefully. Global factors (climate change, exploding cost of food, peak oil, unfair terms of trade, land/resource grabbing, etc.) will continue to throw blocks into the path of this and other communities, but the strength, resolve, humour, grace, hard-work, and ingenuity at play here and the connections made with friends like you who share common concern, compassion, and strength will go a long way in keeping this community thriving and flourishing.

At the start of this year’s visit, someone commented that my blog posts sometimes seem full of misery and despair. It’s true that life is challenging here, beyond the experiences of most of us in Canada and that worry and hardship is part of daily life. I hope, though, that the joy and light and inspiration that keeps me coming back also provides you, maybe vicariously, with some small hope or satisfaction.

I will be incommunicado for two weeks and then will be spending more of my time in Canada but will be returning to Mapaki, the home of my heart, every year that I can. A number of blog readers have been helping with various community support projects over the years…rebuilding cdpeace, health, education, agriculture, etc., and I hope this support can continue. Each day I see or hear about another initiative that could go far with small support (as I write this blog, I've just heard of one more initiative from a neighbouring area that I hope can be supported). There are numerous ways and means to contribute to the community; please drop a line if you want more information. Looking forward to seeing you soon. As always, thanks for reading!!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The slight nip in the air sent me scurrying to the five three-stone fires in the kitchen at 6:30 today. Each morning I rise early before the girls are up, greet the Chief, visit with Sallay, Mabinty and the other women in the kitchen and return to our “dorm” to prepare the day’s lessons for the young women who are studying in the guest house while we’re here (homebound by malaria). Today’s lessons featured readings on how to bake crocodile bread with palm wine leavening, life in big African cities and an introduction to Deborah Ellis’ “The Breadwinner” from Afghanistan. Adamsay, who’s not currently attending school but joins us with her baby, gave me detailed instructions and plans to show me how to bake a local version of rice bread with palm wine. Afternoons are spent in delightful after-school literacy coaching sessions in the library with dedicated Class One and Two teachers (one of whom teaches a class of over 80 as a volunteer) and eager six to eight year-olds who regale us with poems and songs and wide-eyed wonder over books about chickens and groundnut farms. I join the older students and adults in the library in the evenings while the small ones slip in quietly, find a book and nestle down on the floor to peruse with friends.

This morning my routine was slightly altered when visited by a delegation of women who asked me to join them in the community centre where they were holding a discussion on the needs of the young children in the village. About sixty women with small children in hand or on laps and backs explained that, while huge gains have been made in education, there are still too many children who are not attending or not succeeding in school and that the girls, in particular, seem to struggle the most. They worry about the number of girls who end up out of school and pregnant at an early age. A nursery school, they felt, would give the young children the extra boost they need to be successful in school. The community has chosen a space (an empty room in the primary school), a teacher, and held initial discussions on class size and student selection to make it manageable yet most accessible to all. Next steps for the community planning committee and teacher are to visit nursery schools in surrounding towns, organize some training for the teacher, set up and equip the space, and seek funding for a salary. When I return to Canada, I hope to help try to raise the $2,000 needed for the first year of operations. The nursery school will be an excellent complement to the other educational initiatives in place…the library, new junior high school, and youth training centre that serve the needs of this and surrounding communities.

As for me, teaching junior high students here directly myself for the first time is quite an eye-opening experience as I reflect on the challenges for teachers and learners operating in a second language with limited resources. It gives me great respect for those who successfully negotiate this system of education. Time to return to our science lesson on soil and check in on reading logs. Break’s over!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday evening in Mapaki. From my comfortable vantage point on the guest house porch, I am lulled by the whirring of the foot-operated sewing machine the tailor is using across the road to craft piles of bright freshly tailored children’s clothing. The sound of a thousand weaver birds in the tree next to the tailor provides a pleasant contrast. Small children, as always, love stopping by to chat and drop off small gifts. My latest was a tiny weaver bird hatchling, tenderly placed in my hand with detailed instruction on how I was to roast this delicacy. When I politely returned the gift, the children told me that tomorrow morning the bird would fly back to the tree. Let’s hope they’re right. The generator is running in the community centre and young people wander in and out to take in the last of a football match. Chief is on his porch, surrounded by community members dealing with the latest community issue. I’m just back from sitting with friends in the kitchen where my attempts to read from a borrowed Krio language book brought riotous laughter from all. I’m chatting with my house-mate about the latest plans and dreams for health education and organization in the Chiefdom, a topic made so much more personal by last night’s frantic round of visits to medical clinics in Makeni on the back of a motor-bike through dust and dark. Makeni, where people also delight in the daily six hours of electricity that is now available. When the lights finally did come on in Makeni last night, shouts of joy resounded from all the houses. As always on short visits, my time to just sit and take in the sights and sounds and smells of this Chiefdom is just too short and there are too many people and places that I’ll miss seeing. On this evening, though, as the sun is setting and the searing heat subsiding, I take great comfort in simply sitting and “genoting”.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

People at the junction have been weeping and crying this afternoon, having heard of the death of one of our young men who had been taken to Freetown for surgery. On my arrival here last Monday night, I was informed that the son of a friend was seriously ill and not expected to survive. He’d been treated with local herbs for some time and was taken to hospital after it appeared that the local medicine was not going to work. The first hospital had no x-ray machine to determine the problem. The second hospital was able to x-ray but did not have the required surgery tools. They recommended a third (known as a place of last resort from where people often do not return) or going all the way to Freetown to the emergency department. The young man was brought back to Mapaki where family and community members met to decide what to do, given the anticipated prohibitive cost of travel and surgery in Freetown. Fortunately, we had just received a generous donation to help with health problems and the cost of travel was covered. Our health officer accompanied the young man and was pleased to be asked to donate blood for surgery on his arrival, as this indicated that the hospital was willing to accept him at emergency (hopeless cases are often not accepted). Thank God the news from the junction was false. The chiefdom ambulance returned from Freetown just now, with the good news that the surgery was successful. A few more hours and he would have been dead, they said. This experience will have a long-lasting impact, I expect, as the hope is that it will encourage community members to seek medical assistance before they reach the same critical state.

This week I’ve also had the opportunity to meet with many of the junior and senior high students receiving scholarships and the teachers who have finished, are in the final or first year of distance education. Everyone sends thanks and shares stories of how this support has impacted themselves, their families and communities. Yesterday four junior high scholarship students came to visit. Most had lost either a father or both parents and consequently had no one else to pay their fees. When asked about future plans they shared dreams of becoming nurses, lawyers, office workers, the Minister of Health, all in order to support their extended families, the community or in the case of the prospective Minister of Health, to prevent diseases in the country as a whole. The senior high students, all of whom have had to leave the community to board or stay in the towns share stories of struggle and determination. As for me, I am still so humbled and grateful to be able to share in a tiny slice of life in this amazing place and thankful to all here who have invited and welcomed me into their community.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My heart soars and crashes here in Mapaki, at the start of my fifth visit in five years. On my arrival on Monday night, the chief had just returned from taking a young farmer and father to hospital. He’s home now and we're waiting to see if he’ll need surgery. And as always on my return, I’ve learned of all the children and wives and mothers and teachers I know who have passed on during my absence. Thankfully though, there are also some very positive developments in health care here and we look forward to better news in the coming days.

The Ministry of Education has sent its representatives here to see if they can figure out what’s going on. From being at the bottom of almost all social indices in the district to having the third highest scores in the junior high leaving exams in all of Bombali District this year, this chiefdom has made remarkable gains in education and people want to know why. For me, it seems obvious as I wander into the library at night and see all seats occupied by the older students of the village, intently studying their class notes while the young ones sit side by side on the floor, sharing and poring over boxes of beautiful picture books from Africa and elsewhere under the solar-powered lights in this country that is just starting to see electricity return to the towns and cities. Or after sitting and talking with the Chief and several community members who always place education first when talking about needs and plans for the chiefdom. Or chatting with the several well-educated Sierra Leonean young women who are here from the city to learn first-hand about life in a remote rural village and who serve as strong role models for the girls who soak up their every word. Or seeing how well the support that has come from local, national and international organizations and avenues is used and valued. Or chatting with the various volunteer or underpaid teachers who devote their hearts and souls to teaching, scrambling to further their own education through distance learning while struggling to also feed themselves and families. Or meeting the students, some lucky enough to continue to senior high school, but also needing to scramble to find food to sustain themselves from week beginning to end. Or simply counting the number of primary schools that have sprung up throughout the chiefdom over the past ten years without external support. I think it’s the interplay of these and other factors over time in an area that has come to see first-hand the value of education in improving lives overall, especially when community members like the Turays leave, do well, and then return to work for the community. That’s not to say that the struggle is over. Students still have no desks or benches in the newly build junior high school. Teachers are still unpaid and trying to further their own education. While more are passing junior high exams, literacy skills are still weak and there are now more who can’t continue to senior high because of fee requirements. However, the incredible community cohesion, commitment to education and collective efforts will, I’m sure, continue to drive progress long into the future.

Stopping by the school yesterday, I was delighted to also meet up with my little Class Three friend, Alusine. I’m told he decided to leave his grandma’s house (my neighbour) and moved in with his dad and twin brother in the village up the road some months ago. Alusine promised to stop by for a visit and I look forward to catching up on news with this little bright light I’ve come to know and love over the past few years. This morning he arrived in the village, solemnly presenting me with a gift of a pineapple and an invitation to join him for a stroll to the river beach close to his house. I think we’ll make a picnic of it and all go for an outing in a few days.

There is so much to write about after too long an absence. More later. It's so good to be back!