Saturday, November 24, 2007

Eighth Post - November 24, 2007

Sunday November 18, 2007

How very disappointed I was to lose last week’s writing! My computer has been plagued with a virus and all my work is done tentatively as I’m never sure of what will disappear. Most of last week’s writing related to my bout of malaria, a sobering experience which I hope never to repeat. After collapsing in the hall outside my bedroom door the morning after I reported a complete recovery, I spent about a week in bed suffering from weakness and barely able to pull myself up to eat. I was given the best of care, though, with friends stopping by to feed me and provide a range of medicines (black bitter native medicine, lemony ginger tea, pills, etc.) and condolences (“oash, eh?”meaning “sorry, sorry you’re not well”). Several friends also took an interest in my religion, or lack thereof, and Michael, a devout Muslim, has been explaining why Africans have a deep belief in God while Abdul tells me his prayers for my health hold considerable sway as he is baptized and confirmed. I took several trips to the Magburaka hospital where, the last time I visited, discovered that a broken generator meant no tests were being done (there was no money to repair the generator). I’ve also learned that 47% of hospitalizations are due to malaria and that malaria is the leading cause of death in Sierra Leone, especially of pregnant women and under fives (another mystery solved).

Yesterday I visited the hospital to see my friend Amadu Conteh, who was injured in the tragic accident and was happy to see that he should make a complete recovery. We are all still reeling from the deaths and injuries and this weekend Mapaki has been in mourning. Mapaki has also had hundreds of guests and visitors as family members and the extended community have come for the funerals and to extend condolences. All houses and porches are overflowing with overnight guests and our house has had a steady stream of visitors (actually people often overnight in our house and appear and disappear randomly it seems). Among today’s visitors was the Minister of Information and Communication and several neighbouring paramount chiefs. Most of my day was spent in conversation with several new friends; teachers whom I expect to come to know very well over the coming months as they have promised to return for extended periods (one will be moving to Mapaki to play a key role in adult literacy). Many visitors and people here are also very interested in the library that will be set up and have put in requests for particular topics or subjects as they see me reading a variety of books I’ve pulled out of the boxes (right now I’m reading the history of philosophy, ethics, and a book on self-sufficiency).

I continue to struggle to understand the fabric of society here as the deaths in the community have generated a whole new level of issues or questions for me. Each of the deaths and injuries has resulted in a wave of insecurity that seems incomprehensible to me. For instance, one of the injured is an only son of his mother, who will potentially be left with no support, and claims that if her son dies, she will die also. He has four sons himself, the youngest of which has been stuck to my side like glue since the accident (his mom has been at the hospital and the kids seem to be much on their own). The death of the chiefdom imam has left five wives and 38 children with no means of support, which is not uncommon. Conversations today revolved around the role of family in the economics of survival in a subsistence agricultural society and I had a hard time explaining the general lack of starvation in our society, which is taken for granted here.

In a different vein, one of the effects of malaria for me was an overwhelming desire for coffee (which I’m told is a common symptom of malaria…go figure!). In a delusional state on a particularly bad day, I dreamed that I was sipping cappuccino and eating chocolate croissants in a café in Montreal. This morning my craving was finally satisfied as I sipped a deep cup of strong coffee dipped with bread and accompanied by sweet porridge on the front porch. Heavenly! Partly this came about after I promised to stop eating “rice that slept” as several people are concerned that my delicate stomach can’t handle African foods. (I’ve also promised to stop eating snail, cooking with ginger and oranges, walking in the rain, and eating oranges when malaria hits as I’m told malaria comes from oranges and bad water.)

Monday November 19, 2007

Today, for the first time, I’m in “my office” trying out the solar electricity, which works! I’m recharging my digital camera batteries, typing, and listening to jazz via itunes while free electricity is streaming into this cement room in the new house. This is my first week post-container that I’m feeling well enough to get back to work. I’m hesitant to get too involved in direct school work as I’m still anxiously waiting to hear about the CIDA grant, which will affect some of what gets done in the schools. I spoke with the Canadian High Commissioner in Cote D’Ivoire last week, who was calling to check out the reputation of cdpeace as one of the last phases of the project proposal review process. I’m hoping this means we get good news soon. Today we’re still receiving guests for the funerals and I continue to meet new people from all over. I just stopped to ask the chief’s advice on distributing the vegetables seeds and met a teacher who came by looking for seeds for their school garden. As I mentioned in an earlier post, agriculture affects all aspects of life, including schools. In Maso, for instance, the teachers are paid by the community in palm oil rather than cash so that all children are able to attend school without worrying about fees. While this works well in theory, there is a problem when the oil runs out as it has this month, and teachers are left with nothing until the next harvest.

Tuesday November 20, 2007

My first Canadian visitors, Joan Baxter and Arwen Kidd, have just left. Having them here and seeing Mapaki through their eyes reminds me of how much I already take for granted here and how fortunate I am to be welcomed into this community. Just before they left the chief filled them in a bit on the history of the chiefdom (how we’ve gone from six schools five years ago to seventeen today, mostly run by volunteers, how one-third of the chiefdom is inaccessible by vehicle and what this means for economics and health, a subsistence economy that runs out of food after six or seven months, etc.). I expect to see Joan back and look forward to working on a few projects with her here (my dream of a Pugwash-style international Peace and Development conference, a radio station, a community discussion/screening in January, etc.).

I’ve written a few times of feeling like I’m living in a novel and today as I watched the four year old boys’ games of imagination and imitation I was reminded of how the children’s lives here put me in mind of Pippi Longstocking, a young girl who raised herself (with her horse and monkey) in a ramshackle old house left to her by her father. Children here very much raise themselves in small similar-age and gender groups. Infants are loved, carried around and cared for by all, but by the time they are able to crawl, they are left much on their own or in the company of slightly older siblings or peers. When they walk, they seem to hang out all day with age-mates and are involved in very imaginative imitation of adult activities (three years olds carry small containers of sand or rocks on their heads, four year olds run with a stick held across the chest as a motorbike, five year olds dance and cook, etc. Generally children spend most of their time with other children with very little adult involvement. This seems to work superbly and I very rarely see an adult discipline (or need to discipline) a child. This extends into the later years and in my house there are four teen-age girls sharing a room with no obvious connection to adults (although, always hungry and sharing my food, they seem to have adopted me and tonight one of the girls gave me a delicious roasted cassava and orange and told me that she loves me “like her god”).

Thursday November 22, 2007

I’ve just come back from a moonlight bike ride from Maso, where I went to view the work being done on the demo farm. Was delighted to see all the seedlings from the Nova Scotia seeds germinating finely in a protected spot behind the school, and got good ideas for germinating my own. As there are no stock animals here, I’ve been puzzling over where to get manure for my garden and was shown how to use composted oil palm waste materials. On my return I hurried back to “the office” where we managed to get both laptops working at once and, best of all, were able to set up the printer and get it working by the light of the wind-up lanterns! I had typed up two documents that need to go to the ministry of education for the community schools and wasn’t looking forward to having to make a trip to Makeni to use the Fatima printer. Each day, I seem to being integrating both halves of my life (Canada and Africa) a little more, feeling more settled, and less like a visitor or guest. The computers and nightly listening to music on itunes seems to be my key connection to my “old” life.

This afternoon I shared the letters from Canadian students with the junior high kids and have been splitting my sides and wiping my eyes as I read the responses. Maxwell to Meranda, “When I see your letter, straight away my mind told me you are serious with your education. I love you so much.” Abdul to Lily, “In the place where I live children I like my age die because of lack of clothings and not enough to eat but it is not a problem because we are use to the climate.” “After school I go to the farm and do many work. The day you do not go in the farm that day you don’t eat.” And on they go.

Friday November 23, 2007

Forgot to mention yesterday’s encounter with the cobra. As I sat by myself outside of the school waiting for my classes, I heard someone making a loud clicking noise. Checking to see who it was, I spied a very large cobra speeding across the path towards me. It traveled with one-third of its body raised upright and its head in the classic cobra position. The combination of its size, speed and how close it came to me raised goosebumps on my back. From now on I’m wearing boots when I work in my garden, which is very close to this spot (apparently they only bite when you step on them).

Today was spent traveling to Makeni on motorbike (first time since I got sick) to email, connect with a Canadian NGO, and pick up a document for the community school. A breakdown on the way home resulted in a lovely stop in a neighbouring village where we were entertained in the coolness of a thatch house by about 25 delighted five-year old children (usually I speed by them waving as they run out calling “oporto, oporto!”). At home I sat out on the porches and visited with several friends who stopped by. I always am of two minds about the amount of time I spend “visiting”. On the one hand, some people (like me) seem to have a lot of time for sitting and talking, which can be done for hours at a stretch. On the other hand, most of the people are involved in back-breaking tedious physical labour in the hot sun on the farms every day until late in the evening (families stream past my porch late into the moonlight on the way back from the farm…telling me, as always, “momo!” or “thank you!”) and I often do a lot of rationalizing when I feel guilty about being one of the few who eats without producing food.