Thursday, December 27, 2007

Thirteenth Post - December 27, 2007

Thursday December 20, 2007

This morning the road and paths in Mapaki rang with the songs and percussion of the traditional men’s secret society. Starting at 7am with a call for the men and boys to meet in the bush, they continued until late afternoon. Tonight’s music is about as far from this as you can imagine. As I mentioned before, we have become a model community for the UNDP because of how successfully the community used its disarmament development money to build the community centre. As a consequence, we have received a number of items designed to bring the young people home and keep them there (attempting to address issues that fueled the war). So in the space of a few weeks we’ve gone from a quiet sleepy village that goes to bed when the sun goes down to a community with a pulsating music video “nightclub” in the community centre, fired by the UNDP generator (when there’s money for fuel). Mapaki is the talk of the whole district and I hear from people in both big towns how envious all are of us now, with our two containers, satellite TV, computers, library, and visiting oportos. Rumour has it that all the young people are coming home for Christmas this year to check out the changes.

Friday December 21, 2007

So tonight the moon is neither waxing nor waning, it’s almost as full as it can get. I’m just back from the garden where I sat under the mango tree with my book as the sun set and the mourning doves mourned. This morning as Mary and I met with the women’s committee, a gang of my friends toiled in the sun, doubled the number of beds to be planted, and seeded them all with the Nova Scotia seeds. As grasshoppers seem to have feasted on the new tomato seedlings, they also made a new seed nursery, replanted the tomatoes, and covered all tender plants with mosquito netting. After the meeting, Mary and I headed down to the garden along with Brima, the village headman, who has been promising to help plant. The garden has become a curiosity and we had a steady stream of people stopping by to look and hear our plans for marketing in the big towns. I’ve gotten over my hesitation about asking others to help as so many are keen to be involved in this project and there is a regular group of young boys who do all the watering now. At the same time, Kouamie and Benjamin are designing a bamboo irrigation system to reduce the number of trips to the river with the watering can and Ma Binty promises to come from her village regularly to help out. The blacksmith is making me two hoes (big and little) and a cutlass, so I’ll be able to be involved in all stages also (we plan to garden twelve months of the year). Tomorrow we’ll brush the surroundings to keep snakes away. Another friend has promised to make my palm frond house and I have plans for a tire swing in the mango tree (if I can find rope and a tire) and solar cooker for my cup of tea (if I find tea). The boys have been bringing fishing line and hooks and promise a catch soon.

This morning’s meeting with the women was quite insightful as I continue to come to understand the impact of the lack of formal education for women on individuals and community. Of the nine leaders chosen by the women of the community, none reads or writes. Mary explained last night how, when the first school in the chiefdom was opened in the sixties, the teacher had to go house by house, pleading with each family to send at least one child to school. Five years ago, there were only six schools in the entire chiefdom (and no secondary school). Between general historic lack of opportunity and disruption of war, it seems that very few women here have school experience. Our discussion revolved mostly on who should have ultimate decision-making power and the women agreed that they would, despite initial requests for Mary, me, and the three supporting young men to take lead roles.

Other big news…the medical container arrived and has been off loaded. It came just as the health workers from the other villages arrived for a meeting with Chuck, and there was great excitement as beds, medicines, stretchers, and wheelchairs were rolled into the community centre. Tomorrow we’ll fuel up the roto-tiller and deliver beds to the health centres that are inaccessible by other vehicle.

Saturday December 22, 2007

Last night I slept in the new house. The chief and Saley are encouraging me to move, both to have someone permanent in the new guest house and for my comfort. I’m quite torn as I enjoy being part of a big, noisy, tumultuous household where many people stop by and visit and because it’s just too cliche that a beautiful new house is built and the first person who moves in is the lone oporto in town. On the other hand, it does need a permanent resident, I can work any time of day or night as it has solar power, and can keep the library open more hours (the parlour now serves as temporary community library). We’ll see what happens over the next two weeks as the house expands and more visitors come. About an hour ago, incidentally, the first library customer stopped by. I invited in seven year-old Al-Hussein who was hanging around on the front porch. Now there are four young boys and three young men poring over the books. I’m very tempted to hop over to the kitchen and invite some of the young girls who are perpetually around there preparing food. (Just sent Al-Hussein to get Saodatu, the brightest little light I’ve met in a long time…the small girl who turned up in all of the photos I took in March). Sitting here with my laptop, double doors open to the road, cooling breeze wafting in through the louvers, surrounded by people immersed in and enjoying books for the first time…very hard to remember that I’m in the most neglected chiefdom in the poorest district in the “least livable” country in the world.

I was, though, reminded of this in the morning when Saley and I stopped by to see Andrew, survivor of the tragic bus accident, who came home this week with a pin in his leg and many healing wounds. Andrew told us that he no longer wanted to live as his pain was so heavy and future so bleak. Andrew sleeps on an uncovered bit of foam in a room with half walls with his family, reminding me of all the friends I have here whose beds consist of a sheet of cloth or straw mat in a room shared with others. My dream is to contribute one dollar to house rehabilitation for each dollar spent on the guest house. Apparently, when post-war money was available for replacing houses destroyed in the war, Mapaki was passed over as its houses were destroyed with bullets through the roof rather than fire.

Sunday December 23, 2007

This morning as I sat on the back porch reading the mail brought by the Canadians, one of my elderly women neighbours stopped by to say hello. Picking up a Christmas card I received from Kathleen, she pored carefully for a long time over the cartoon picture of the large bearded man in the red suit and then asked if this was my obai (chief). I was thrilled that she took an interest in what I was reading, as very rarely does anyone pick up any print material I have. I like to think today’s interest might have been sparked by her visit to the library yesterday, when she came by to find one of the children and stayed to look at a book about babies I offered.

Watching the children, many of whom had never seen a book before, interact with the materials was quite interesting. While all peered very intently at the pictures and some mimicked reading or alphabet calling, often the books were held upside down until I turned them and children seem to turn pages from the back to the front. When they found pictures from Africa or pictures representing activities they knew, they would get very excited and come show me. One child also came to show me every picture of an oporto she found. By the end of the day, about ten adults and fifteen children had spent time here and all sections of the temporary library (half still in boxes) were perused. I’ve met with the chief to develop a plan to finish the library (we really need to build a bigger space) and very much look forward to making this a permanent fixture in the village. This afternoon, as I sit on the porch typing, four little neighbours are at my feet discussing the contents of a big box of books they are sampling and several adults have come by to ask if they could come in the evening.

Each day I discover something new about a person I thought I knew well. Just now I found my friend Michael (my religion coach) behind his mud house with needle and syringe, medications, dressings and a friend with a large open wound in need of treatment. Michael, it turns out, as well as teaching at both primary and secondary schools, heading the youth committee and participating in all community development groups, also seems to be the local medicine and first aid man. He explained how he loves the medical field, is largely self-taught, and dreams of taking courses some day (unlikely as he is the sole supporter of his extended family). Last night another friend, Kernal, stopped by the library to read a biology textbook I have and told me that he intends to enter a three-year dispenser course, to be able to come back to the community and provide for much-needed health needs. Just now I was visited by a bright and respectful 17 year-old high school student who came all the way from Makeni to tell me his problem…his uncle died, he comes from a very poor family and no one can pay his term school fees. He is also looking for a Canadian “penfriend” (he hopes to study in Canada eventually) which I said I would help him find. If anyone out there is interested in corresponding with Abdul Karim by mail or email, please let me know! He is anxiously waiting for a response.

Monday December 24, 2007

It’s day two of opening the temporary library and I continue to be delighted and astounded at its popularity. Starting the library has probably had a greater impact than everything I’ve done in the past four months combined. Men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds have been stopping by to sit and either read (the dictionary is highly popular) or look intently at the photos in the books (particularly about people around the world and the birth of babies). Elderly women who have not had a day of schooling or ever held a book have been telling me of their dreams of being able to read, the blacksmiths have asked for my book with illustrations of blacksmithery in Canada, and the chiefdom speaker, Paroq, has browsed through everything I have on Africa. Youth home from studies at college sit side by side with the elderly while young girls with babies on back sprawl on the floor with boxes of books. I sit in the corner with my laptop, still drafting funding proposals and taking the occasional break to sweep a floor or greet a passerby (the front doors here are open to the main road and the chief’s house where visitors stop on first entering the village, is directly across the road). I’m quickly learning to expect the unexpected…a dirt floor would make much more sense for the babies who don’t wear diapers here, when children lick their hands clean before entering, there is less palm oil left on books, the floor is a wonderfully cool spot to fall asleep with a book after returning from the fields, oranges, lemons, and grapefruit are very popular as gifts from the children who visit the most often. This room, meant to be the guest house “parlour” is exquisite I think. Made of cement plastered mud brick, it’s finished with care by a very gifted carpenter, Sulie, who also makes every single piece of furniture that’s used in the village.

Last night I slept in the new house again (I’m making a small bed in the cdpeace office as a compromise to my concerns) and woke to clear radio reception, a first since I’ve been here. I think I’m going to like this new space.

Well, tonight is Christmas Eve and it’s quite an experience in Mapaki. After spending much of the day in the library and in my garden, I’m taking a break between the village “outing” (dance in the late chief’s field) and the village dance in the community centre, which I expect to be an all-nighter. Just had a visit with Saley and the women who were cooking by the light of the fire pits in the kitchen. I told Saley that I expect my family in Canada to be doing something similar tonight…probably sitting by the light of the fire in the fire pit in John and Heather’s backyard. There has been no hint here of all the accoutrements of Christmas common in Canada … no gifts, decorations, cards, shopping for food, etc. Simply lots of people coming home from away, dancing, and I’m told people will be visiting each other and sharing food tomorrow.

Tuesday December 25, 2007

Christmas Day, and what a day it’s been. It started with a leisurely walk to the garden with friends to water, weed, and generally inspect progress of the seedlings. As always, I had a hard time tearing myself away from the beds and meandering stream, quiet this morning as it was too early for the washing boys. We took the long way home to be able to stop at neighbours’ and friends’ houses to greet and share food. As many people told me they’d stop by to sample my cooking, I spent a bit of time in our kitchen, completely ineffective in the cooking department, as always (still struggling with smoke from the fire pits). Saley delivered two wonderful treats from Mary…two pots of Mary’s mothers’ cooking and a box of chocolate! I joined the Christians, who were dressed in fine new clothes, at church and enjoyed hearing Father Bruno give a historical account of the social and political status of shepherds in the time of the birth of Jesus. My newest little seven year-old friend, Al-Hussein (the reader, not the dancer), joined me, clutching my hand and falling asleep on my side through the service. The walk back to town afterwards involved dancing, drums, and singing. More visiting, a little reading, a call from the internet installers, who promise to come tomorrow, and then a lovely bike ride to Mafina, two villages away, to partake in my second Mapaki “outing”. And what an outing it was! The venue was on sandy beach on the riverside, nestled behind a little village on a small side road. I arrived to see people of all ages dancing in the sand under the shade of the mango trees to the beat of Sierra Leonean music and spent the next two hours dancing non-stop with friends of all ages. Ma Binty and Saley arrived with a picnic and with the teachers we took a break from the music to eat, enjoy the view, and chat. I was delighted but surprised to see Al-Hussien there, especially as it took him some time to recognize me. When I introduced him to Saley, she explained that this was actually Al Hussein’s twin brother who lives with his stepmother in Mafina (Al Hussein lives with his grandmother in Mapaki). Both are part of a large group of children who live with people other than their birth parents. The outing wrapped up just before sundown so that people could get back and prepared for…another dance in the community centre. I’m taking a little break in the library right now with Foday, the health worker who’s reading a picture book about Nelson Mandela; Joseph, the phone charger who’s reading “Where There is No Doctor”; Saley, who’s reading Chinua Achebe’s “People of the City” and “Alphabeasts”; and Rosalee, a visiting teacher who’s reading UNICEF’s “Children Just Like Me”. In a little while we’ll all head over to the dance.

A couple of other unrelated food observations… People have been very concerned and curious about the fact that the Canadians started their day with eating oranges and grapefruit. When I asked why the concern, I was told that fruit is not a good morning food as it can’t be eaten with salt and your first meal must include salt. I was also told by the same person, when discussing children’s diets, that it’s “taboo” to give children meat as protein is not good for them. I’m very curious to see the secondary school home economics curriculum’s section on nutrition and food!

Wednesday December 26, 2007

I could write again about the garden, trying out my new hoes and cutlass, and the expanding group of gardeners involved in this venture but you may want to hear of something else. My big excitement today was having the internet installers arrive and then watch the entire village throw themselves into this project as four year olds gathered and delivered the stones needed, the youth dug and made cement, carpenters built forms and shelves, and many gave advice and opinions. The installers commented that they have never had such a reception and cooperation from a community anywhere they worked (This is, though, the only village in Sierra Leoen with internet.). We now have a shiny new satellite receiver installed in front of the library and tomorrow should have connectivity. It will be very interesting to see this community go from a 90% illiteracy rate to the age of information. We’ve invited the installers to spend the night (yeah for the guest house!) and on taking them on a walk to the garden tonight, I discovered my second treat of the day. I’ve been searching for musicians who play instruments other than drums and until tonight, have been unsuccessful. Tonight, though, I found an old man sitting on the edge of the drying floor, singing traditional songs while playing the most wonderful thumb piano, one of my favourite instruments. I promised to come back another night and, as I had my ipod with me, let him have a listen to a recording of Ugandan-Canadian Achilla also play thumb piano.

Breaking news…Mapaki is now online…the first village in Sierra Leone to get internet, thanks to a generous donation to help connect schools here and in Canada!