Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ninth Post - November 29, 2007

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Oh, Freetown! Oh, UN! This has been a whirlwind half week. After packing my bednet and water filter, I headed to Freetown with the chief to find a used “ambulance” and knock on doors of NGOs. No success with our first mission (well, we did find one that cost twice as much as our budget) but great success with mission two. We had numerous very productive meetings with NGOs that should lead to longer term work in agriculture, job creation, reintegration of internally displaced, school support, reproductive health, maybe road work, etc. (though considerable follow-up administrative work for me in the meantime as I work with communities to help develop funding proposals). We arrived back in Mapaki late last night, pleased with our success and for me, sated with the chocolate that I received from Bill and Joan in Freetown (heaven again!). Bill, Joan, Catherine, and Peter (all working on the peace education research project) arrived the day we left and we were happy to have a chance to greet them after their 40 hours of travel.

This was my first visit to Freetown since arriving and, while a congested, overcrowded city lacking basic infrastructure, it started to show its charms. We stayed in the centre of the city with the family of the chief on a hill half-way up a mountain overlooking the bay with an incredible view (the topography reminded me of Nice on the French Riviera). The drive to and from Freetown was magnificent, especially as we neared the mountains of the coast during sunset on our way and drove straight into a massive, rising orange starlit moon peeking through black clouds on the Mapaki road on the way home, listening to Malian music and greeting the few late night road walkers we passed. In Freetown we also picked up much-needed technical items that were donated to PSI and will go a long way in moving this work forward. As well as nine copies of “Where There is No Doctor”, we received two more solar panels with batteries, inverters, cables, etc.; a multimedia laptop and digital video camera; ink for the printer; flashdrives; dvds; data projector, mouse; etc. After brainstorming names and ways of having the youth take control of the learning and use of these materials to support development and peace work in the chiefdom, all of this was thrown into action this morning when Mapaki was inundated with a calvacade of UN and UNDP vehicles and personnel from New York and Freetown (flew in by helicopter!) and Makeni. This chiefdom is seen as a model for the UNDP disarmament program and we video-recorded the meeting where it was explained how, while one of the least developed and historically most neglected chiefdoms in the country, the people (led by the chief), have been able to create post-war miracles with the small support they received from UNDP. We’re really hoping this will lead to more support and are putting together a package to address issues in the more remote communities (boarding for students to come to the junior high, culverts for roads where vehicles can’t pass, a van for transport out of the chiefdom, etc.).

After three days away, returning felt very much like coming home. While the morning preparations for the UN were hectic, all went well, they’ve come and gone (through the gauntlet of all the students and community members lining the road with song and welcomes) and I’ve been happy to be able to do my rounds of greetings, unpack,

“brook my cloths” on the back porch, and return to the computer. When I’m done I’m scheduled to give bike riding lessons to the girls of the house.

Later…so, it turns out the fabled “cutting-grass” is real! I just had a call from the chief to come see five brave hunters and their prey…three large rodents the size of small dogs with pig-like bristles and beaver teeth (perfect for cutting grass). The hunters would not sell the cutting-grass to the chief because they said they could get much better money selling them in Magburaka to the drunkards (who apparently buy cutting-grass pepper soup in the bars for a high price). The whole episode put me in mind of the warning signs I saw in Freetown…”beware, bad dog lives here” next to a hand-painted picture of a smiling Saint Bernard…not overly terrifying but taken very seriously. One of the hunters was a young boy who stands out because he wears his hair in dreadlocks and I see him with his hunting gear on distant roads quite often. When Kouamie stopped to ask him why he didn’t go to school anymore (he should be in grade five and is apparently a brilliant child), he told us it was because he had no book or pen. When we asked about his dreadlocks (very unusual for this area), we were told he had them because he was born that way.

I just received a message, incidently, from my three teacher friends, Kouamie, Benjamin, and Usifu, who left on Sunday for a three day education workshop in a far-off town. It turns out the three day workshop is actually three weeks and they are stuck with no money at all and only the clothes on their back for the duration (all three are volunteer community teachers and generally get by on about $5 per month). While I can’t imagine enduring a similar experience, this is not uncommon, and people manage to get by with no money at all for extended periods (they get a daily meal at the workshop and have been given a place to sleep).

Very soon I will be doing a workshop on alternatives to corporal punishment with teachers in Makeni, at the request of people at the local college. This (corporal punishment in school) is the only cloud in human interaction that I have witnessed so far in the north. Other than my run-in with the driver the first week (which was completely my fault) I have neither had nor witnessed any negative interactions between people. I did hear the story of a conflict between two students, which was immediately resolved through counseling with the headman and the chief and one hour in the village jail cell (the slap by one student to another was not to be tolerated) and the students came out saying they were good friends and the problem was solved. Abdul, one of the disputants, has written the whole story of the conflict and resolution at my request. As I’ve mentioned often, I continue to be very impressed with the conflict resolution structures and strategies in place and have such a hard time reconciling this with what I know about the war. Much of the issue is, I think, that the traditions in place in the villages were eroded when desperation and economics forced young people to leave their home communities to search for sustenance in the city and mining areas. The fear, I hear in Freetown, is that the root economic problems have not yet been solved and until they are, conflict is just under the surface. I don’t see this but my sense is that life in the city and mining areas is very different on many levels, one of the reasons we hope to embark on a project to bring people home from these two areas (with the support of a German NGO that has done very successful work in this area).

Thursday November 29, 2007

Another interesting follow-up to yesterday’s post. This morning I read the newspapers that the chief picked up in Freetown and they were full of a range of accounts of an incident at a Muslim secondary school in the east end of Freetown. While each paper’s story varied widely, the key elements are as follows. A squatter set up home on the 45 acres of property owned by the school and there have been some tensions with neighbours around property ownership. Students, upset with the squatter, confiscated his “bacon” (I’m assuming this means his pig) and were accused of throwing stones at neighbors. Police arrived at the request of the neighbours and somehow in the fracas that ensured (I’m not sure of the order of events) 45 students and teachers put in jail, a police car and station was burnt, and the school was massively vandalized (one paper reported it was the police who destroyed the school property). This whole event is in such contrast with life in the village, it again makes me realize the vast divide between peace-keeping traditions in the village and city (or the apparent lack thereof in the city), and how fragile peace can be when communities disintegrate because of economic or environmental hardship. When I think of my role here in terms of peace education I realize that the best I can offer is my ability to see the strength of the traditions in place here and help (technical and otherwise) with having the community/youth community record and share this within the country and abroad. I’m thinking of working with the students to create a powerpoint and video presentation on peace-keeping traditions, using the new equipment we’ve just received.

Shortly I’ll be heading to Makeni with the chief with a long list of errands to run for various people in the village, emails to send, and an appointment to meet with a German volunteer who has set up a computer class in Makeni and may come to Mapaki to help us. Tomorrow Mary arrives.