Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mapaki - Third Entry

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things that makes me love Mapaki is seeing the embodiment of so many values we discuss in Canada but don’t often practice. For instance, any time I pass some food to one of the children around me, that child immediately looks around for another child, takes the food and divides and shares it. If a preschooler or young child notices a baby crying or in need of help, he or she will sit and rock the baby or find some other way of comforting it. Adults do the same. Food shared with one is passed on to be shared with others. Children are truly raised by the whole village, every child has an important role to play in the functioning of the family or community, and children of all ages are able to participate in village life with minimal need of supervision. This is most obvious to me in the evenings, when the adults tend to stay put at home and most of the children gather at our barrie to do homework or just socialize without any need for adult supervision. In schools there is a strong emphasis on respect for the needs of children who may be disadvantaged and every effort is made to ensure they are not stigmatized. There is also a strong emphasis placed on sharing of labour and everyone in the community participates in community projects, from keeping the village cleaned to keep snakes away, to working on community farms, and keeping the roads clear of brush (I’ve just come from the court where one village member was fined for not participating in road brushing). This morning I also met with members of the youth development committee (age 18 to 35), volunteers who organize and initiate many community development projects, from micro-credit to farming to women’s projects. Actually, all of the best grassroots work I’ve seen in Sierra Leone is done on a volunteer basis by concerned and committed community members.

As the rice has run out in many households, there is more cassava being eaten and I’m told there are 12 ways to prepare it. Last night the girls in our household were up late in the dark grating large basins full. I’m slowly getting to know the members of the household better (slowly, as direct conversation is limited to so few words we have in common) and am starting to understand why there are so many here. Many come from small remote villages in the chiefdom, and are invited to stay at the chief’s household so they can attend school. One mother of four young children from a remote village stayed after giving birth to twins in this village. Her eldest son, who is about five, spends much of his time lovingly carrying and feeding one or both of the baby twins. Twins, incidentally, are quite common and considered a blessing. Most babies are born at home with a traditional birth attendant and family near.


So far today has been a long lesson in grassroots democracy. The morning was spent in a two hour long community teacher association meeting to discuss needs of the junior high school and ways the community and teachers can work together. While we met, the students were involved in community work and were gathering and delivering stones for construction at the community centre. As always, I’m overwhelmed by what the community is able to do with virtual no resources and seemingly limitless demands. The meeting started with sharing several letters asking why the school had not paid fees to various external bodies. The principal explained how the school fees paid by parents are allocated and how the school was in debt and without resources. Meanwhile, outside, two teachers were assisting one student who had come to school with only one shoe.

This meeting was followed by another with representatives from the entire chiefdom called to deal with a pressing issue. It seems that several people who refused to pay tax last year (about $2 for the year) were provoking people who had paid tax, causing a conflict in a neighbouring village. When the chiefdom constable was called in, he was pushed away. As resolving conflicts seems to generally involve the extended community, in this case the entire chiefdom had been called. The focus of the meeting was on tax collection, why it is important, who should do the collection, and what to do about people who refuse. Again, all sectors of the chiefdom participated in discussion, debate, advice, and decisions with the most passionate intervention calling for support for the chief coming from one of the elderly women (he seems to be greatly loved and respected for his work on behalf of the chiefdom). There was also great discussion about the fact that market sellers also refuse to pay tax. One suggestion was that, as an alternative, perhaps market sellers could consider providing food for people in need.

Yesterday, in my bright baby blue crocs and shocking pink umbrella protecting me from an intense sun, I took a long walk along a local path to Moria, a neighbouring village to meet with teachers there. I came home with a gift of a rooster and very large cucumbers. Today at the chiefdom meeting I promised several other chiefs and community members that I would visit their villages soon too and received a gift of two hands of bananas from the neighbouring section chief. Tomorrow I start walking at 7am to get to a parent teacher meeting at 9am in Makamray, several miles away.

The night before last I woke up to many mosquito bites and realized that using the bednet would probably be a good idea. Today I discovered that it’s OK to drink the water from covered wells, which is a great relief as I sometimes find myself running out of water when “on patrol” as my walks are called.

Great news, the container has arrived in Freetown! UNDP is putting wiring and a generator in the community centre, which will temporarily house the library.

Friday October 5

It’s World Teacher Day and a holiday for most of the schools around. My early morning walk to Makamray through the rain to attend their community teacher meeting was as spectacular as my previous walks with hills clouded in mist, every shade of green you can imagine, passersby to greet, and long stretches of silent road. The meeting took two hours to start as the rain prevented distant community members from traveling. Makamray School, isolated in a small Limba community and staffed by a dedicated close-knit group of committed volunteer teachers who seem to love the students and parent community, will become, I’m sure, a cherished place that I’ll look forward to working with. This is a school with three classes, patchy mud walls, a dirt floor, no furniture, and one chalkboard that moves from class to class.

The trip back to Mapaki was on a motorbike belonging to a local NGO. As it is rumoured that I give my gifts away, the community decided to hold onto my gift of four chickens and deliver them to the chief themselves when he returns from Freetown. The rest of the day was spent meeting with the community at Mayagba about cdpeace, visiting a small neighbouring village (home of one of our teachers), and traveling to Magboraka to fix the motorbike. Travel by motorbike with a trusted driver along long rural dirt roads that meander through villages, rice swamps, streams, bush, and plantation is always a joy.

Saturday, October 6

This morning I participated in a workshop to train community representatives on issues of health education (focused on malaria, diarrhea/cholera/typhoid, and malnutrition). There is tremendous scope for doing basic health education and I hope to be able to work in some way with the newly formed health committee (e.g. study groups with “Where There is No Doctor”, etc.). On my first day here, the chief talked to me about some of the pressing health issues….the high rate of river blindness and large number of people who suffer from hernias (related to birthing practices). I’m also noticing a number of children who show classic signs of malnourishment. While I’m hoping that there will be an opportunity for health workers from Canada to contribute in some way, I’d also love to see Cuban health workers here. I also met with members of the youth group to make arrangements to learn to ride and borrow the village motorbike which they keep and maintain.

Sunday October 7

I love having Salay, the chief’s wife, come home on weekends from Magboraka where she works, both because she has become a cherished friend and because she is able to help me slowly piece together a greater understanding of how the household and extended family structure works. It seems that the number of people being fed by the chief is much greater than I thought and yesterday Salay took me to several other houses that eat from the chief’s pot. I’m also trying to better understand food consumption practices, which are largely based on age (children get less protein) and availability of kinds of food, which vary according to time of year. Household meals consist primarily of rice and a sauce made from palm oil, potato leaves, peppers with some fish or meat or a groundnut-based sauce. Oranges are the fruit in season (though I’ve also had banana and guava). The household is extremely concerned about my health and eating and somewhat shocked to hear that I wanted to, and was able to eat ankweear for breakfast (“rice that slept”). Everyone also carefully notices and inspects any scrape or bug bite that appears on my skin. Last night we spent some time brainstorming possibilities of setting up some kind of food preserving system to make seasonal foods available at other times of the year and as an alternate source of income for the community. As I mentioned, many are in the process of writing project proposals for GTZ and I’ll be helping the youth group, women, school, and two other communities draft proposals related to agricultural production.

More on ants (and probably why the chief is building an inside latrine for guests). Last night they got me again. While stopping to stare at another amazing night display of stars and moon, I suddenly felt a nip on the ankle. While difficult to see what was happening in the dark, it seems that I had inadvertently stepped on an ant patrol and ran slapping at ankle and arms into the safety of my bednet covered bed. Actually I don’t mind the ants at all, as my graphic description of encounters with insects keeps the elderly women across the road highly amused. Tonight I sat out to watch the incredible dry lightening laser storm, which is unlike anything I have ever seen or could imagine.

So, this morning they told me that soon the ants would start their hunting season, when they come into houses searching for food. The antidote is kerosene mixed with cassava leaf, which apparently acts as a deterrent. This afternoon three of my older women friends took me to see the chief’s rice swamp. This walk of about five miles took us out of town through forest, upland rice fields, over hills, barefoot with skirts hiked along a meandering stream for a half kilometer, calf-deep through squishy mud in the rice swamp, barefoot along a dusty trail, back through forest and home again along the road from Malimp. This was a breath-takingly beautiful experience with butterflies and flowers of many intense colours, an unbelievable viewscape of distant hills, forest and fields at the swamp, a cool rest under the palm frond shelter and palm trees, and the company of three very close friends who enjoyed joking, making up songs, talking, and showing me many things as we wandered home, with machetes balanced on heads. Their songs, in Temne, involved words like “chief” and “thank you”. Mine involved the names of the villages we passed and people we know. They thought it would be a good idea to invite me to come sing at their fire in the bush tonight. This morning I had my first motorbike lesson and feel quite comfortable and confident already. There are only six people in the village able to ride a bike, so one more will be helpful to transport sick people to the hospital. I’m looking forward to taking to the back roads soon.

This afternoon I visited a friend’s father who lives across the road and is very ill and in pain. It was heart-breaking to be there and unable to provide any comfort or relief. My friend told me a bit about his life today. He talked of how his third child died during the war when Mapaki was occupied and the villagers were forced to live in the bush for an extended time without food or shelter. He talked about how he lost an important educational opportunity when his mother took ill and died, his deep commitment to education especially as he is the sole provider for his extended family. This followed a visit by another friend who gave me his entire month’s salary (except for $2 for his mother and $2 for himself) and asked me to use it to purchase an application form for extension courses. Each day I am overwhelmed by the sacrifices that are made here for education at all levels…the parents that use the only cash they have to send their children to school and the adults that use every penny they and their extended family have to further their own education.

This morning I walked to Maso for a community meeting to discuss ways that the community could pay salaries to teachers. Much as I love being in the village at all times of day and night, stepping out into countryside is also always a delight. This time I was joined by friends coming and going, who told me more about the sacred hill behind the village, which is where the baboons and monkeys reside. One of the elders also told me that it was time now for me to be given a local name and Kadiatu was the one chosen.

This evening as I watched little Hassan with his baby brother strapped to his back and watched all the other ways the children’s play imitates the activities of adults, I thought about how children’s play reflects community values and prepares them for the future. Play here is all about growing and preparing food, carrying for babies, and participating in group activities (also watched the five year old girls doing very intricate traditional group dance). Thinking about the kind of play that many of the children I work with in Canada are involved in helps me also understand (and worry) about the lives we are preparing our children for in Canada. Two other observations….in Maso today, I read in the social studies book that there is platinum mined in this area and gold in the second area I’ll be staying in (two of the poorest areas in the world) and I thought about the ways that mining produces large profits for external companies (e.g. Canadian) and dislocation, environmental and social problems for local people. I’m also becoming very aware of how relatively exorbitantly expensive the telecommunications system (cellular) here is and understand now how this has been able to generate such huge profits for individuals and companies in places like Canada. All of which makes me remember how much I wanted to work on developing global studies educational materials for Canadian schools and what a catch-22 this puts me in (it’s very difficult to produce materials while living here). Perhaps the solution is to partner up with a like-minded Canadian or other organization (which means that I’ll need to make a greater effort to stay in touch with “the outside world”). Today I had planned to go to Makeni to check email and the reality is that I’d much rather stay in Mapaki and participate in work going on here to address river blindness, a major problem in this area, and help sort out a food access issue in the household. We’ll see how the day unfolds…much depends on whether the chief, who was in Freetown, was able to make it back to Mapaki tonight.