Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fifth Post-October 23, 2007

Friday October 12, 2007

Tomorrow I expect visitors to Mapaki from the institute in Makeni where I access internet. I neglected to inform the visitors about the very wry sense of humour here so they may be in for a surprise. Tonight as I sat out on the step of Theresa the nurse, chatting with Sulay the carpenter, Momi the chief’s daughter, Woto the traditional healer/birth attendant, and many passers-by I realized that about 75% of our conversations revolve around humour. Some common themes….the story that’s circulating that my name has been changed to Kadiatu Turay and that I have a Limba mother from Maso and Temne father from Mapaki…the two elderly men who live next door who I’ve promised to bring “oporto women” from Makeni (the women here, on the other hand, ask for bread from Makeni)…all the various husbands or wives that everyone claims to have, usually involving massive age differences….the divorce/marital problems that Joseph, the catechist, and I are reputed to have (and the lives of our four not very studious children)…my “cutting grass” hunting prowess…and on…

Sunday October 14, 2007
A quick note of explanation….because my computer time is limited to the amount of electricity I can access, these posts are generally not edited and often not completed.
Yesterday was “prayer day” (the end of Ramadan) and a day of celebration here that highlighted the strong harmony that exists among the religions. It was a day to pray, visit neighbours and friends, cook and share food, and generally relax. I spent the early part of the morning chatting with two of the teachers and sharing my morning pap, going around to greet as many people in the village as I could, and then running up the hill (I was late) to join the Muslim community in prayer. As always, everyone was very gracious and concerned for my well-being, with the women offering me the best place, a young man coming to sit next to me with an umbrella to protect me from the sun, and everyone encouraging me in my Arabic greeting. After prayer the community stopped at the chief’s house and I went off to join my friend Fatmata in a meal (Fatmata had not gone to pray as she didn’t have a good dress). The tradition is that on this day the Muslim families prepare food and share with the Christians and on Christmas the Christians do the same with the Muslims. We had a number of visitors and most of my day was spent chatting and cooking. The chief and much of his family have gone to Freetown for the memorial of his brother so our numbers are a little diminished and I seized this as an opportunity to be more involved in cooking (I am trying to learn local dishes and almost made white cassava leaf, in which the palm oil is replaced with groundnuts). In the evening I was very entertained on the front porch under starlight by the story-telling skills of Benjamin, one of the teachers, who vividly recounted every novel and poem he had read in junior secondary school. The backdrop to this was the drumming and singing taking place in the traditional house of the women’s secret society as part of the girls’ initiation, which continued throughout the night until daybreak (just minutes ago).

Sunday October 14
On a long walk to neighbouring Bumban this afternoon, I was happy to see many of the rice fields adorned with small tufts of gathered rice drying on sticks, indicating that most families will soon have the first of this year’s rice.

Monday…last night the community hosted a big dance to celebrate the end of Ramadan and the music continued until past the morning rooster calls. I’m starting to feel the effects of two nights of non-stop music and wonder how the rest of the community is able to function, especially as most have headed off to the fields to harvest today, while I’ve been able to relax at home….continued Tuesday…after another sleepless night I headed off for a six mile walk to Makamray to deliver letters from Canadian students. All went well until, in addressing the grade one students I suddenly lost consciousness and came to with three worried teachers fanning me and a class of frightened six year olds looking on. I think it was the combined effect of three sleepless nights, a touch of stomach cramps and a long walk in the sun. I was fine after five minutes but after returning home, spent the rest of the day resting and reading. As always, despite a little weakness, this long walk through exquisitely beautiful countryside, stopping to joke with passers-by headed for the fields and taking in many new flowers and plants, was delightful. This morning Woti, the traditional healer, had given me a leaf she uses for headache and I collected several that looked similar. Actually, I’ve been collecting a number of edible items and enjoy figuring out how to consume and/or share them. Tomorrow I’ll be eating roasted snail that someone gave to Kouame. As an aside, it’s interesting to note gender roles vis a via cooking. For the most part, it’s women who cook, although there are several men who will also share recipes with me. One young friend, AKT, explained to me as he was cooking a meal to share with a friend, that he did all the cooking at home when he lived with his mother in Freetown. I told him that in Canada, women generally prefer men who cook and the next day three of his friends appeared in the kitchen with pots and the makings of a meal.…continued Wednesday….Today I discovered a huge patch of ginger planted behind the house and made a big pot of ginger tea. This will be the base for the breadfruit and cassava stew I’ll also make (courtesy of Joseph’s garden…the generosity of many keeps me in steady supply of fruit, vegetables and occasionally, chickens). Tonight I’m sitting in the chief’s “parlour” (which has one of two electric sockets in town, run on generator), taking a break from writing funding proposals, listening to the town crier announcing a morning meeting and hearing conversations taking place on the front steps where people gather in the evenings to talk to the chief under the light of the moon and stars. I’ve just left a meeting of the adult literacy class, one of my favourite groups in town. Here Foday, the volunteer instructor, was explaining how they were switching to a new method based on the work of Paulo Friere. Here I was also deeply moved by an offer of a gift of land and a house (I’d provide roofing and cement and the community will provide all local materials and labour) after I told them that I hope to stay on in Mapaki. And stay on I hope to do. Every day I still have moments where I can’t believe my fortune in coming across a community and area that has so very much that is important to me (a culture of caring, respect, sharing, humour, democracy and peace-making, children who are valued and loved and are everywhere, a breath-takingly beautiful landscape, absence of a consumer culture, deep commitment to education, etc.). About a week ago a visiting NGO worker asked how I was coping in the village and whether I didn’t feel lonely. I found this question so very odd as my experience is just the opposite and most of my time is spent in the company of friends. While few of the women speak English, I have several groups of women of all ages whom I enjoy sitting and chatting with. I also enjoy spending time with a group of teachers, either sitting on the porch talking or going “on patrol” to other communities. There are also several other Sierra Leonean volunteers /NGO staff here. Elizabeth with CCF from Freetown and Momi, the chief’s daughter, live in the house with me as does Kouame. As a “fellow stranger” (from Cote D’Ivoire three years ago), he is able to give me an interestingly different perspective on much that I observe. Mohamed and John, volunteers with SPW who live just up the hill, Abdul from Red Cross, and Theresa the nurse often drop by. And of course the chief and his wife, Salay have become dear friends. Finally, I have about 25 young friends (age three and up) who come by daily to say hello.

Thursday October 18, 2007
This evening while I was watching Kouame cook eleven massive snails with peppers and local vegetables, some children came excitedly telling me to come quick, there was another oporto in town! Turns out to have been a Dutch evaluator of the Red Cross program, the first oporto I have seen here. Today I also had my first afternoon session with all the students in the junior secondary school. Over 50% of the students live some distance away and walk at least an hour to come to school (often without breakfast) and usually head out to do farm work after school. I have not yet met a single “irresponsible” child or youth, or one who wasn’t integrally involved in helping with the work of the family. Over half of the students are in grade seven, as many drop out after that, and relatively few were girls. The session with the students involved brainstorming meanings of peace, introducing Peaceful Schools International, and group activities exploring the roots of conflict and resolution by children, adults and world leaders (noting commonalities and what this means for peace education). We also discussed the strong peace-building traditions that exist in the community and ways that the students can document and share this with other PSI schools. Interestingly, I witnessed another example of this peace-building this morning, when representatives of the three women’s groups in town came to ask the chief to help them resolve an issue. The women were organizing to create a community farm and felt that the men were not providing the support they needed with the farm. The meeting took about two hours, involved many passionate speeches, laughter, and clapping and was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Sunday October 21, 2007
On Friday we had a similar meeting as the youth questioned the transparency of the youth group executive and spent the entire day discussing, debating, reviewing and resolving. This was the fifth such meeting on this issue, which started last Sunday at a meeting with the elders. It seems this lengthy process has paid off as all grievances have been aired and resolved peacefully and the group can move on without any residual hard feelings or tensions. Other bits that I’ve wanted to write about (but have not had electricity). I’ve been noticing small tomato plants growing out of the side of several houses and have been told that this is how transplants are nursed. The seeds are dried high on the mud brick where they germinate when ready, and are safely kept out reach of marauding goats and ducks. We had another baby born on Saturday, which they named Kadiatu after me. Last night I walked to neighbouring Malimp, where I helped the women’s group write a GTZ funding proposal for agricultural work. The first rumbles of thunder sounded as dusk fell, on the way home the heavens opened, and we had a terrific storm with lightening, thunder, torrential rain and gales of wind. Luckily a friend came by on a motorbike and I managed to get home with computer and coconuts intact just before the worst. I’ve been slightly under the weather with a stomach ailment brought on by my own carelessness with drinking water, but figure the bright side is that I’m hardening my stomach for the long haul. Today I was brought two snails which I turned into a delicious meal with ground nuts, ginger, orange, crane-crane (greens), onion, peppers, tomatoes, etc. to the amusement of many on-lookers and helpers. Once it was completed, everyone turned away horrified at the thought of having snail touch their lips. (I have also heard stories of how the rebels made the people collect snails for them when all other sources of protein had been exhausted.) This is the first time I have not been able to share food widely, so probably won’t cook it again.

Tomorrow I’m going to the district council meeting with a request for support for two of the schools I’m working with, which are applying for government recognition. If successful, at least some of the teachers could receive salaries after at least seven years of volunteering. The return journey should be interesting as I may be driving the “ambulance”, which only starts when pushed downhill, back by myself.

After finding the six and seven year olds not in school because of lack of shoes, I’ve asked someone to make a list of school aged children in our household. 38! No wonder I’m still struggling with names and the chief struggles to meet their many needs! It’s now Sunday evening and those who left on Saturday to help their families harvest are slowly straggling back from their villages with sacks of cassava on their heads.

It’s 4:30am and I’m sitting out on the back step watching the fluctuation of stars and fireflies, feeling a perfectly warmed breeze drift by, and thinking about fate and destiny. The chief is going to Freetown this morning to see his nephew, who is seriously ill in hospital. Since the recent death of the chief’s brother, the chief is essentially responsible for this family of twelve children. I realizing that the number of children you choose to have bears little relationship to the number you are ultimately responsible for (including the children in our household from other communities, I figure there are over fifty children that the chief, who has a very small family of his own, cares for). However, as I see how children are loved and valued, no matter how difficult the circumstances of their family, I better understand the view here that every child is welcomed as a “gift”.

Next day…sitting on the back step waiting for daybreak. I was unable to post this both times I visited Makeni and will return to try today. Accessing internet is more difficult than I thought it would be (as is communication and travel in general). So far I have also been unable to post photos, but hope to find a way soon.