Saturday, January 19, 2008

Angels, Goats, and Gold

I started this post three hours ago with a lighthearted account of my confusion of the past month, from thinking that the three Angels I’ve been working with (two are teachers, one is an agriculturalist) were one and the same person. I finished the anecdote, closed the computer, and stepped out to fetch water at the well. Three pumps of the handle and tragedy descended as suddenly I was confronted with a small, somber group that had emerged from the house behind me tearfully carrying a white shroud-wrapped body to the burying ground. Two minutes later I turned to see an elderly blind man crying and stumbling as he tried to pick his way over a pile of mud bricks to follow the gathering to the burial. In shock, as all was well three hours before, I asked a neighbour what had happened. Apparently a young woman, daughter of the blind man, had died two hours ago and the family was now burying her. When I asked what caused her death, I was told they didn’t know, but that she had been sick for a few months, had been in hospital and sent home as they had no medicine for her. While I don’t know if I should rage or cry, all around me life passes as usual. Well. I will continue where I left off typing earlier…

Today, Saturday, I went on a long motorbike patrol, which any trip out of the village is called. As there are no places to buy food outside of the main town and our meal of the day is usually served mid-day, I planned breakfast ahead of time and feasted on oranges and groundnuts purchased at the junction yesterday, some basil leaves out of the Maso garden, two radishes out of our garden, and some rice and potato leaves courtesy of the chief. I was very pleased to have these greens as I’ve been missing vegetables (it seems this is not the season for vegetables). The patrol was to a village which is closely connected by family to our village (home of the chief’s late parents and several of our students), followed by an impromptu stop at a local newly opened gold mine. On this trip another myth was blown away when we were stopped at a police checkpoint and Kouame was unable to produce a valid driver’s license (his is from Cote D’Ivoire). Rather than the shakedown I’ve been told to expect, the police officer very kindly told Kouame how he can get a license and why it’s important for him to carry it, before sending us off on our way. The village was a magical place, nestled at the base of some mountains and accessible only by walking through forest and pineapple fields and crossing a stillwater stream on a treacherous, rickety, bamboo and vine bridge. Once over the bridge we were met by young boys carrying homemade fishing poles and oranges and welcomed by the elderly women and young children who seemed initially to be the only people to populate this village. We were given gifts of oranges and bananas (and some kind of distilled drink for Kouame) to take home and after visiting with the elders and family, continued on our way (with great caution as we were told the societies were out and we could hear the drumming in the forest).

Our second stop (well, third, as we had first stopped to greet the paramount chief of this chiefdom) was at a nearby gold mine, on the off-chance that we’d be able to see the operations. Not expecting to get past the barbed-wire surrounded compound, we were pleasantly surprised to be warmly welcomed by the resident “investors’ representative” and mine manager, who, it turns out, is also one of the land owners and is related to our chief. We were taken through the entire site and offered all the sand and gravel we need for building. Another assumption blown away. Knowing the record of many mining operations in the global south, which usually are justly criticized on environmental and social justice grounds, I was expecting to be turned away from a well-guarded acrid site. Rather, this mine seems to have been established by the local owners of the land and appeared to be operating with local support and control. I look forward to learning more about this as the manager asked if I’d meet with the workers, many of whom are also land owners, in Mapaki to give them some basic lessons in geology and literacy, which I’ll happily do (I was fascinated by geology at university and look forward to especially sharing some of what I learned from environmental geology classes). I’d also like to be able to challenge my own biases against mining and find out if local control is really possible and can benefit, rather than harm the people living in the vicinity of the mine.

During our journey we were several times surprised to hear our names called out by friends from Mapaki. Twice this was due to customs regarding marital discord. In the first case a friend of mine who had had a dispute with her husband returned to her family’s home and village. After a few days, her husband arrived with a financial contribution to the family, they settled their dispute and we found her preparing to return to Mapaki. In the second case a husband had also come to resolve a family conflict and was hoping his wife would return with him. I’m always interested to see how gender relations are played out here and was also struck on this trip by apparent differences between chiefdoms. For instance, in the chiefdom we visited I saw several groups of women and girls carrying heavy loads of firewood on their heads while men and boys walked alongside empty handed. On the other hand in our chiefdom both men and women were carrying firewood, perhaps a small symbol of greater gender equity here.

Goats. Watching the occasional goat or handful of goats being walked on the end of a rope down the road to feeding grounds always puts me in mind of Canadian dog walkers. I’ve been so pleased with the interest people in Canada have taken in helping replace some of the breeding stock of goats that were destroyed during the war. Our plan is to help both the women’s committee and the schools acquire goats, which will be purchased in a chiefdom south of here where cdpeace will also be working and which suffered less goat loss in the war. The goats purchased when I first arrived have started to kid and when allowed to roam freely in the village will venture into the occasional house and nap on porches (which I enjoy but the elders discourage). Our household has a few goats which are kept outside of the village. Someday I’m going to try my hand at making goat cheese.

Once again, tonight the library is shoulder to knee jammed-packed full with adults and children and I can barely pick my way across the room without stepping on toes and fingers. Young Al-Hassan, the first one in every evening, is sitting next to me as I type, commenting on his “reading”. First of all, he told me he needs glasses to read (I think I’m the only person in Mapaki who wears reading glasses). Next he brought me an ad from the back of a National Geographic and asked me to help him read the words, carefully repeating all I read. After that, he pointed out a photo of a red car, exclaiming “APC!” (the colour of the ruling party here, the All People’s Congress, is red). Al-Hassan, the twin who doesn’t know his age (maybe seven?) and lives next door with his grandmother, is one of the people I most enjoy spending time with these days.

It’s now eleven at night, I’ve just returned from sitting out on the stoop with the bereaved family and am drinking a half cup of palm wine while listening to music and typing, The other half cup will become an experiment with vinegar-making (based on internet instructions) as we continue to explore a variety of food-preservation methods. Tomorrow I return to remote Ketanta to deliver the last of the medical supplies.

(The photo is of the road next to the gold mine.)