Thursday, January 10, 2008

Fire and earth - January 11, 2007

There is a definite nip in the air in the mornings and evenings that I am loving and everyone else complains of greatly. I think I will come to love the Hamattan, which is what this season is called, as the cold wind blowing in from Europe crosses the Sahara and picks up a fine dust that creates phenomenal sunsets. In the evenings the shadows from the fires that are scattered throughout the village in doorways and under trees dance eerily and suggest mystical happenings. Early morning sleepy children huddle around the kitchen firepits wrapped in cotton lappas hoping for a cup of hot rice pap to come their way before they venture off to school. Meanwhile, I’m still waltzing around in tanktops and bare legs. Once the sun is up the temperature rises to the high 20s and complaints ease off for a bit.

It might have been the cold that contributed to a recent fire in remote Katanta this week, which destroyed a three room mud and wattle house and left a family of fifteen homeless and belongingless. Two of the children, Josephine and Zainab, are students in our junior secondary school and arrived back in Mapaki the next day with all their worldly belongings on their backs (the clothes they were wearing). I had traveled to Katanta by motorbike (it’s inaccessible by car) that day and was asked by Zainab to carry her baby back to Mapaki for her. With baby Kemombor warmly nestled asleep in my lap on the back of the bike and carefully passing through an awe-inspiring mountainous vine-entwined enchanted forest, Stan Rogers lines “There’s God in the trees and I’m weak in the knees” perfectly described the way I felt.

On fires, I’ve neglected to report on my New Year’s Eve, another magical time spent on the top of the highest hill in Mapaki, lit by a bright bonfire that reflected on the faces of those gathered there with drums and song. For the first part of the evening, the fire belonged to the women, who danced and sang around its perimeter while the men drummed. This continued until one intrepid soul (not from around here) challenged this division and joined the women in dance, calling his comrades to join him. One by one the men shyly joined the women’s circle until all were dancing together, leaving the few drummers to provide the beat. I think it was this bold move that inspired someone else, later in the night, to bravely suggest changing the direction of the dance, resulting in some shock and debate. Direction was switched… this seems to be a time of change. I ended the night (or started the morning) returning to the village arm-in-arm with the elderly women who were celebrating making it through another year joyously singing, “Happy New Year, I didn’t die!” in Krio.

Yesterday was spent dividing my time and focus among three major events. First of all, the chief was addressing a generations-old rift as he had invited descendents of his ancestors who had been banished from the chiefdom during the rule of a particularly bad paramount chief. People came from far and near, were traditionally welcomed during a ceremony that extended for many hours and were invited to return home during this era of change and new beginnings. I was asked to address the gathering and record this historic event with photos and video. Secondly, several doctors, dispensers, medical officers, radio interviewers, and all the health workers in the chiefdom (6) were gathered in the community centre with the cdpeace staff to divide and distribute the medical supplies that arrived from Canada. This was also a Herculean task that took many hours and many hands. The health workers happily headed for their villages with sheet-wrapped loads of supplies and medications on their heads, while the beds and other materials will be delivered to the communities by roto-tiller over the next few days. Thirdly, representatives from three community farmers’ associations, including the secondary school, were meeting with me in the library to create a coalition of groups that will work together to grow and market crops and apply for job-creation funds. My time was divided equally among the three events and my running shoes were smoking by the end of the day. Today I followed up the farmers’ meeting by completing and reviewing with the farmers several funding applications (a huge relief!) which will go to Freetown early next week. I’ve also been giving a hand today to a growing number of people from Mapaki and beyond who have been accessing email and doing internet investigations (exploring the globe/world satellite images, reading world news, doing agricultural and innovation research, etc.) and meeting with the headteachers of the two community schools involved with our work. Friends and community members joined me on each of the day’s three trips to the garden, which serves as my refuge from the computer. As I come to work beside people, and especially more of the women in the community, I realize what a socializing function farm work also provides. It has been a great way for me to get to know the women, few of whom speak English, as we pass each other watering cans dipped in the stream, walk squishy-toed through the warm mud and gently separate nurslings from the nest of mimosa weeds. I go to bed each night eagerly anticipating the next days’ garden developments and each day a greater number of people stop by the garden to look, visit, and sample the crop (so far, radish). Tomorrow, though, I’ll head to Mayagba, home of cdpeace, and possibly venture further afield to visit Theresa, the health worker who used to live in Mapaki and became a good friend. My plan is to take one motorbike trip a week to environs beyond the village. As I no longer need to make weekly visits to Makeni for the internet, this is an opportunity for me to open my eyes to new possibilities and avoid becoming too entrenched in one community, a distinct possibility as I would quite happily stay here endlessly.