Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Eleventh Post - December 12, 2007

Wednesday December 5, 2007

After a week of worrying about how to complete meetings and draft funding proposals with the ten agricultural groups in time for a January deadline, I’ve come up with a plan to do so involving four visiting Canadians, laptops, a generator, and friends who can translate. This is a huge relief as it frees me up to follow through with some other sadly neglected initiatives, like the farm. Tonight I returned to my garden and with the school agricultural teacher, made a plan to work on a seedling nursery and plough (manually with hoes) in the next two days. Gardening here is a whole new experience for me as tradition and necessity make it impossible to do so on your own, as I’m used to. This will very much be a communal effort and I’ll be sharing all aspects of gardening with friends and the wider community. I’ll also be gardening on a much larger scale than I’m used to and probably look at marketing some of the produce, as mine will be a school demo garden as well as a household garden. I hope to have the students document as much as they can and create a short video on farming here. Students and teachers are also very interested in seeing how we garden in Canada, so I hope there will be a good exchange of information happening.

Friday December 7, 2007

The headlines in the business edition of the paper we picked up in Makeni yesterday declare that “IMF conditions keep 240,000 kids out of school.” Research I did before heading to Sierra Leone also implicated the IMF in the crisis of hiring qualified teachers (a ceiling is placed on the percentage of employees the government can hire and the Ministry of Education has had to appeal to the IMF, not the Ministry of Finance, to increase the ceiling of GDP that can be allocated to hiring teachers and health workers). According to research by Action Aid, there is one qualified teacher for every 112 pupils, well beyond the international standard of 40. (Also, up to 30% of all primary-age children are not in school.) As I see the hurdles that need to be jumped by community schools applying for government recognition (meaning at least one teacher will be paid), I understand why so many children are not in school.

Saturday December 8, 2007

As always, this day started out like many others…me rushing from one place to another, trying to meet some self-imposed deadline that matters to nothing and no one but me (expecting the Canadian guests shortly, I rudely forgot to greet friends or feed teenagers while running around collecting sheets and buckets, organizing bikes, gathering school paperwork, setting up barrie for a meeting, etc). And as always, the day ended in a wildly different vein. I’ve just returned from sitting under the brightest star-filled sky with a small group of community members sharing tears and hopes by the light of a flickering candle as we, once again, tried to console the family that lost a son today. Eighteen year old Dennis, like many other young men, had missed years of schooling during the war and was enrolled in grade six. Gathering sticks used to weave baskets, Dennis stepped into the bush, was bitten by a viper and within two hours was dead (see need-for-ambulance-and-medications post). The news of his death reached the village just minutes before the arrival of the long-awaited and much anticipated Canadians. Villagers who had walked in from neighbouring communities turned around and slowly returned home and the dancers and drummers quietly packed up their skirts and drums. It was a bittersweet welcome and tears flowed. We met with the strangers as a somber community and explained the lack of fanfare.

After a lengthy teacher meeting that followed and visit with the secretary-general of the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union and with Peter Koroma (director of adult education NGO), the visitors had a chance to unpack, eat, and look around. It was the first time for officials of the union to visit the chiefdom and they told us that with the Canadians and project in place here, they would be back frequently and would send many others to Mapaki. Supper and discussion with the Canadians and chief by the light of the kerosene lamp was sweet as the reflections, thoughts and plans flowed and I felt, for the first time, that I was part of bigger team of educators representing a much larger constituency committed to this work for the long term.

We said goodnight to the visitors, found children for the leftover rice and headed into starlight. I wandered with dreams and condolences over to the house of the grieving family. Sitting on benches close to the candle, here my friend Brima Sesay, the town headman, repeated his frequent offer, welcome, and request for me to forsake Canada and spend the rest of my days in Mapaki. With the other community members, we hatched a plan to have Sulie, the carpenter, build a very large boat that would hold many bags of rice and people of Mapaki to cross the seas and visit my home periodically. We also talked at length about prospecting possibilities (they assure me there is gold and diamonds in the chiefdom that just needs to be unearthed). While I shudder at the curse that mining brings communities, I promised to join the others with shovels, shakers, and headpans at the river to do some prospecting in the next little while (I used to do the same in Nova Scotia in my geology days). During the conversation people wandered in and out, stopped to say “oash”, and added creative embellishments to our boat plans. I was also told how the leader of a neighbouring women’s Bundo (secret) society had predicted Dennis’s death (she told of death by snake bite) and the car accident when she joined the community women in dance recently during one of the women’s weekly gatherings. (Was also told later how it was a devil that killed Dennis and how the snake/devil returned via the back of the house to see him laid out just as we were sitting outside.) Reluctantly (the sky, breezes and candlelight were just too enticing) I left the gathering and again headed for home and bed. I expect to sleep soundly tonight to be ready for a very busy two weeks (starting at 7:30am tomorrow when I’m supposed to say a few words about the importance of educating girls at a community meeting called to discuss the high rate of teen pregnancy).

Monday December 10, 2007

“If you build it, they will come.” And come, they have. Since Saturday we have had a steady stream of visitors from away coming to see guests/guest house/computers. So far these include officials from the teachers’ union, director of adult education, Father Bruno, “senior expert” in computers from Germany, director of Child Help (teaching girls computers in Makeni), and ten others working with Child Help or in the technical field from Freetown and Makeni. It seems that every half hour I’m looking for the headman or Paroq to come and “officially’ welcome another set of guests. And so far most are making plans to return or get involved in our work in some way. For instance, on Wednesday three of the Makeni technical people are returning with bedrolls and computers to stay till Friday and help the agricultural groups write funding proposals. The German man, Manfred, is returning in March and Father Bruno says he’ll be sending Italian visitors when they come through. The Canadians plan to return in May and are sending three Ontario teacher candidates in March. The whole village is buzzing as vehicles pull up and another group comes round to do a village walkabout. It’s been difficult for me to understand why visitors are so deeply wanted and welcomed here, but I think I’m slowly coming to understand. Yesterday the chief explained how, after the war, people had lost so much hope that it became difficult to even work on the farms (their war experience was that anything they had worked for was lost or looted). The presence of so many visitors, even if there is no resulting material help, represents hope, which ultimately is the greatest gift.

The last two days have been an interesting experience for me, as I flit back and forth between my two lives (African and Canadian). We’ve installed two more solar panels and so have a light and electricity in the new house “parlour”. Last night after sharing our food with ten unexpected guests, I brought out Brooks’ donated guitar and Joan picked chords while Bill kept us riveted with his flute playing (both are accomplished musicians) and we talked and planned late into the night about ways of infusing social justice into the Canadian curriculum…just what I’d be doing on a Friday night at Yukon St. in Halifax. Afterwards I stepped into the night again under the stars and returned to my room with the hungry teenagers, friends studying on the porch, and bikes to sort out. Woke early this morning with a box of Peter’s left-over chocolates, David Myles and Bach on my ipod, and a fully charged computer to pick at and thought about the contrast with Dennis’ life and prospects, had his life continued. Dennis lost his life gathering sticks to weave large baskets, which are unique to Mapaki and sell for 800 Leones, about the equivalent of twenty-five Canadian cents. I suppose I can dream that if Dennis had lived, he could be corresponding with Canadian students and contributing to the development of K-9 curriculum that helps Canadian students know about, understand, and act on conditions that have created the disparity between his and my life. My plan now is to travel to Kingston in May where I’ll be working with a group of educators to develop this curriculum through the Canada-Sierra Leone “research alliance” we’ve got going here. Am really hoping to get Nova Scotia educators involved.