Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mapaki Second Post

We discovered last night that I can charge my laptop with the village generator which is a huge relief! This means I can start to record and share experiences. Today I’ll write a bit about daily routines. I generally wake about 4:15 when the first rooster crows, dogs warn off intruding animals, and the first footfall passes by my window. Mornings start with the sounds of early routines (collecting water from the drum by my window, chopping wood, sweeping the compound, roosters crowing, church or mosque call to prayer, etc.) I’ve discovered that the best place to be is in the outdoor palm frond kitchen area of our household where most people stop by and women and children congregate. We have five or six three-stone fire pits and small stools or logs to sit on. This is where I go when I get up to learn to cook, process food and oil, talk Temne and Limba, greet people, make plans to visit people’s gardens and farms, share food, check in with the kids, etc. while baby chicks and hens scurry around or across my feet to pick up any dropped rice from the shared pot, neighbours stop by to get embers to start their fires, and small dogs come looking for chicks to catch. As it’s the time of Ramadan, half of our household is fasting and cooking later at night, which means the fires are going for much of the day. Quite often people from Mapaki and other villages will gather for meetings at the chief’s barrie or gathering space just behind the kitchen, which allows us to also get caught up with the latest local news or events (am completely out of the loop of world news as the wind-up radio I have gets no reception here). I try to take a stroll to some other part of the village to greet elders each day and have had the chance to meet most people by now. People are wonderfully accommodating in inviting me to participate in whatever task is on the go (pounding rice, cleaning yams or cassava, shelling groundnuts, cooking, harvesting, weeding, etc.). During the day I walk to neighbouring villages to meet with teachers or the community, meet with people in Mapaki, or very occasionally go to town Makeni) on the back of a motorbike and in a shared car on the highway. I know I’m home when the little children I pass on the bike call out “Carol, Carol!” when they see me, instead of “Oporto, Oporto!” (white man) as most do. Evenings are a time to sit on the porch, talk, and take in the incredible, magical light from the dry electrical storms or moon. As it’s still rainy season, we get a downpour most days, which is when I fill my water bottles from the roof run-off and we all sit at the nearest porch or barrie to wait out the heaviest of the rain. While I’ll often have my journal or other reading or writing material with me, I’m adjusting to another pace of life and am also very content to simply sit, talk, and wait. I very rarely look at my watch at any time, which is just as well since the little children have learned how to change the settings and it seldom shows the right time anymore anyway.

This evening I’ve been invited to come in the adult literacy class, run on a volunteer basis by the primary school teacher (son of Margaret Conteh, who passed away recently and was the pillar of adult education in the community). This is a class of about 30 men and women, many with babies strapped on their back, who are now working on learning the letters of the alphabet by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp and one alphabet chart in the outdoor barrie. This community takes education for all very seriously and put their limited resources into education before anything else. Since discovering the computer works, I’ve also had several evening computer sessions with four or five men and women when the generator is running. There is immense interest and excitement about the possibility of holding computer classes here and I hope this can be part of the library we’ll build. After one session, Kouamie, my “brother” in the household, has already taken over teaching the others while I sit back and watch or do my own work.

After writing about the lack of conflict, on my return from Makeni I found myself immersed in a big conflict at the junction yesterday over car fare when it appeared the driver charged me five times the quoted price. It turned out to have been the result of miscommunication and ended well, but in the process involved a huge crowd, all trying to have input, and the finesse of a mediator (relative of the chief) who stepped in, immediately reduced the level of tension and found a compromise that satisfied all. Anyone from Mapaki who goes to the junction comes back with the story of the chief’s stranger and the car.

Thursday September 27

Every time I step out into the surrounding forest, farms, and roads I’m again filled with a sense of awe. This is an incredibly beautiful area where the forest feels about 5 degrees cooler than the road or farms, each plant and insect deserves close inspection, and I’m blanketed with a sense of peace when I visit the streams, forests, and hills. I wander into the forest behind our house to pick oranges or marvel at the cotton tree that’s bigger than any tree I’ve seen anywhere in the world. In the evening the tree outside the chief’s house is alive with the warbling of hundreds of nesting bright yellow weaver birds (occasionally raided by young boys for soup). This morning, though, on the way to wash my clothes at the stream, I discovered why people here are so careful about not stepping on the ant highways. Their bites burn and they are very quick at climbing on unsuspecting legs. On the way back from the stream, I stopped at a community meeting called to discuss the crisis in food security. The community has decided to plant a community farm of cassava, which can be harvested in a short time and brings in a good price at the market. To do so, they will organize the male and female youth to take a lead role and will involve all sections of the village in planting and harvesting. While I missed most of the discussion which was, of course, in Temne, I picked out frequent references to TMT (Thomas Turay), whose agricultural legacy still seems to direct vision and decisions. I am slowly, slowly picking up bits of Temne and Limba language and everyone is very good at helping me learn. Sometimes I run into trouble by agreeing unknowingly to visiting someone or coming to cook at someone’s house and then am gently reminded after I’ve missed the agreed appointment.

The chief has returned from several days in Freetown to meet with NGOs. His departure from Mapaki involved five young boys pushing the car down the hill to jump start it, which is what seems to be needed much of the time. I was concerned that he might not make it back. On his return we talked, as we often do, about best ways the chiefdom can meet its needs and the role that NGOs play in this. While support from abroad is needed, NGOs’ own needs sometimes generate unexpected results, like when community needs assessments are focused only on their own area of specialization. This resulted, for example, in one village getting lovely new latrines for each family. However, as the houses in the villages had all been previously destroyed and weren’t considered in the needs assessment, before long people started covering the latrine holes and using the latrines for temporary shelter.

I have just come back from one of the upland farms where I went to help my friend and neighbour Mary pull grass (weed). She showed me how the local rice is broadcast planted and the seeds mixed with greens seed. After the rice is harvested the greens flourish and are used for cooking. All fields seem to be intercropped and with the rice and greens were okra, corn, palms, potatoes and groundnuts. Crops are also rotated and after the rice, groundnuts are planted. As harvests are ripening, the young people spend time in the fields scaring birds from the rice with small stones. Yesterday I noticed the first rice of this season drying by several houses and young men going to cut the rice as I returned from the farm. Many women are also busy harvesting groundnuts, which are dried and/or boiled, shelled, and ground with an old bottle and board. I have yet to discover the difference between a garden, farm, swamp, plantation, all of which are referred to when talking about places people plant and grow things. I should find out soon, though, as I’ve promised to help out at all of these in the next little while.

I have met with all the schools now and am in the process of planning how we can best work together. As the situation at each school is so different, my involvement with each will vary widely. Some of what I’ll do will include helping community teachers qualify for extension courses, working directly with the students, transporting a mobile library in my bike cart, a pilot “principles of peace education” course at several schools (leading to schools joining PSI), and guest seminars at the local teacher college in Makeni. Right now my time is spent, though, more in immersing myself in learning and in “development” or partnership support (proposals, meetings, etc.).

Friday September 28

As always, the shortest trip can take ten times the time allotted, as frequent stops to greet people is customary and I have several friends to stop and chat with wherever I go. I went to the school today to help the secondary students weed the garden and learned a little more about ants (don’t step on their hills either; when they bite, they hold on for life and need to be very quickly removed). Afterwards, while scouting possible locations for a library, I ended up at a breath-takingly beautiful spot; an abandoned roofless house formerly used by the colonial administrators nestled on the peak of a hill through the forest just outside of town that overlooks the entire area with an unbelievable 360 degree view. This had also been used by peace corp volunteers stationed here in decades past and I was filled by in my friend with many stories about the strangers that preceded me.

Saturday September 29

Last evening we were visited by someone from the German NGO GTZ and the community is very excited about possibilities for funding some agricultural initiatives. All day we’ve been meeting in small clusters to discuss best ways to move forward with this. As I sit and jot notes to myself, I’ve had a couple of people pass by and comment, “You know how to write!?!”. I’m reminded almost daily about the impact the war had on disrupting the education of most in the community and the number of women, especially, who have been unable to get more than a few years of schooling, which probably explains the popularity of the adult literacy class. Every now and then someone will stop by to show me how they are able to read a few lines from my book and all of the reading material I’ve brought with me is in use every evening by the youth.

This morning I was called to witness the distribution of salt, bought with the money left-over from the rice/goat purchase. I also stopped by to see my “brother” (the new baby named after my older brother), many of the elders, and a few close friends. I’m in a strange space now of having head, heart, and hands feeling slightly disconnected as my head is involved in critical reading and discussions about development theory, my heart experiences pains and joys of the lives of my new friends, and my hands or body adjusts to the routines and priorities associated with life in a subsistence community. Also, the juxtaposition of enjoying the sheer beauty and joy of this place and feeling the struggle and trials of the people can be disconcerting. I spent this evening at the top of the hill overlooking Mapaki with its astounding view, watching the sun go down. Five of my little friends who noticed me on the top of hill came running up to drop groundnuts in my hand and snuggle close until it was time to return to the village.

Monday October 1

This morning the chief suggested that I attend a meeting called to discuss gender issues with representatives of ten communities. I traveled by motorbike a distance of about 15 miles, which took me through the cdpeace land and “across the line” into a small village on the other side of the chiefdom. We spent about four hours discussing new laws related to inheritance, domestic violence, human rights, education, etc. I came home to help my friend Fatmata pound cassava leaf (an incredibly tiring activity) and have just left the porch where once again I witnessed an incredible sky with billows of angry cloud moving in and waves of lightening splitting the sky while thunder continues to roar. Tomorrow I head to Makeni where I hope to be able to access the internet and post this.

Tuesday 4:30am

The only side effect I’m experiencing from my anti-malaria medicine is lighter sleep, which allows me to wake early and sometimes write in my room by the light of my wind-up lantern. As I’m probably one of the few people with a room to myself I am very aware that being able to do this is a luxury. Housing is in short supply and most rooms in the village are occupied by several people or whole families. In my household, some rooms smaller than mine are occupied by up to six people. I’m hoping that when the new house is finished, overcrowding will be somewhat diminished. I’m adding a few last-minute details to this post before heading to Makeni this morning. On the day of my arrival, my first glimpse of Africa was of an incredibly vivid massive double-rainbow that hung over Dakar, which seemed to me to be a beautiful city of light-coloured mud brick cube-like buildings sitting on a delta next to a beach with pounding surf. This reminded me of the other magical image that marked my first visit to Sierra Leone, when the full moon was eclipsed by the sun on a clear, cloudless night, signs of some kind, I’m tempted to believe. My time in Freetown staying at Peter and Josephine’s house in the eastern part of the city was as interesting as my time in Mapaki. During these few days everyone was talking of the election, rumours circulated that the electoral commissioner was about to be arrested and that the market women had threatened to strip naked if she were, that women would be assembling en masse at the police station if they tried to take her in, etc. Josephine kindly showed me how the market functions and how to cook and eat red palm oil soup, cassava, rice, fish, etc. In Freetown, as in the village, the cooking is done outside over fire and meals shared in small groups from one pot. Driving from Freetown to Mapaki on the day the results were announced was another experience involving several means of transport, ten hours of travel door to door, lots of military posts and some tension in the city, jubilant celebrating people dancing on the highway in the north when the announcement was made, street theatre stopping traffic in Makeni, etc. Arriving in Mapaki at this time was quite an experience and my welcome was tied with a celebration of hope and happiness that the election had taken place generally peacefully, fairly and independently.

I planned to title this next post “Love in the Time of Cholera”, as so much of the time I feel like I’m living in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, there is an outbreak of cholera in Makeni, and I’m learning such interesting things about relationships. However, my battery is about to die, the kitchen calls, there is a goat I want to see that’s bleating under my window (we’re having a few health problems with goats), and the lantern’s light is out. More next week, I hope.