Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Binkolo, Bread, and the BBC

Bizarre! I’m listening to a scratchin
g radio show out of Montreal on winter sport fashion on the short-wave radio that’s propped up in the lone corner in the room that picks up a radio signal (have been trying, unsuccessfully, to pick up BBC news). It’s about 35 degrees here this night and I’ve just come in from a full-moon lit evening on the back porch with friends and a good gallon of palm wine (costing about 50 cents). This has been my second evening free since the library has been set up and I was celebrating the fact that the computer students have taken over all aspects of running the library and use and care of the technology in preparation for my departure. My goal is to make myself completely expendable and I am withdrawing from and passing over all of the initiatives with which I’ve been involved. The current computer class will be teaching the next group of students; this morning the school girls in my house, on their way to economic independence, arrived with the first batch of soap they made to use and sell (up to now they have had to find someone to ask when they need a pen or notebook or soap); the women’s shop committee is in full gear with weekly meetings, initiatives, and a plan of action; we’re about to start a school community-based committee to move forward with peace education; and the school market garden is ready for the Makeni customers that are lined up.

This past week has been spent largely on the road. It started with a two-day workshop in Makeni for teachers, students, and community members on eliminating corporal punishment in schools, a very timely initiative of Defence for Children International, an organization that is working on a number of common issues. The Makeni trip included a harrowing classic motorbike-chase through Makeni following a speeding motorbike that was to take us to Mabinty sister’s house (we lost the lead bike and had to rely on suggestions and directions of many strangers). My friend Mabinty, who has been asked to work as a volunteer teacher at the community school, had taken her son to stay with her sister in Makeni in preparation for this assignment and Kouame had promised to check in to see him. It’s very common here for children to be raised by aunts or uncles and I’ve been offered children on a number of occasions, including at the Moyamba junction yesterday (have gracefully declined so far, though am under some pressure from Kathleen and Cecilia to find them a brother or sister).

Yesterday we traveled for about nine hours by motor-bike on sorrowful roads to visit Moyamba, a town renowned for its schools (the sole place I’ve heard of where corporal punishment is banned). The roads were sorrowful both for their condition (though I love bad roads best as the slow journey allows for good viewing) and the history of this area. Most of the houses on this line had been destroyed during the war, and this area suffered greatly. On the way we stopped at the community where peace is reputed to have been born (where negotiations with rebels led to peace) and we stopped in to see my new friend Dan Lavin, who had just been crowned chief. I met many wonderful people at Moyamba whom I hope to continue to connect with and brought home lots of ideas and inspiration for the schools here (we really, really need to work on boarding for the students from outlying villages and until we can create our own senior high, I’m thinking we need scholarships for students from here to attend senior high schools).

Sunday was truly a day to remember as it involved five back-to-back memorials and a good grounding in local politics (one of the key functions of funerals and memorials the world over, I think). One year ago the paramount chief of the neighbouring chiefdom (who is rumoured to have 80 children) passed away, as did a local Fullah leader in Magburaka. Both memorials were attended by hundreds if not thousands and it was an opportunity to connect or reconnect with many. I had hoped to meet with Louise, a volunteer human rights lawyer from London, at the first memorial at Binkolo but missed her. The other memorials, of mostly family members, were a bit more low-key and intimate.

This week we also witnessed (and tasted) the first bread to be baked in Mapaki. Led by the town headman, Brima, a group of young people baked delicious loaves of bread on classic stone fire-pits, while waiting for a mud oven to be completed. I have mixed feelings about this initiative. On the one hand, I’m delighted to have access to bread and to see it boost the local economy (current bread-eaters usually bring it in from the junction). On the other hand, the world news this week raised a few red flags. First of all, the BBC reports that world-wide rising grain prices will harm people in Sierra Leone, already highly food insecure, the most. Also as an imported food, wheat has the potential to disrupt local grain production, harming the local economy and people’s health (classic pattern in a number of countries in the global south). All of this causes me to reflect on the impact of our interventions here. Each day I’m more convinced that whatever we do or bring in, needs to directly benefit the local economy. As an example, in Dan’s village, the hospital beds were constructed by local carpenters, benefiting both health clinic and carpenters, the football jerseys requested by the youth were designed and sewn by local tailors, and school furniture and materials were all locally made. In Mapaki we have many skilled and experienced artisans who, with seed support (tools, workshop, etc.), are able to produce most of what is currently needed and used here (virtually everything used here is locally made). As I type this, outside the window, the youth of Mapaki are constructing a new mud brick library which so far has used only local materials and free labour. Our role will be to provide the two materials not locally available (roofing and cement for the floor and wall plaster), books not locally available, technology (computers, video recorder, solar panels, etc.), and hopefully to employ the local artisans to build the needed furniture. The library will officially open in August when a number of Canadians will be here (a junior high class from Newfoundland, a film maker, PSI people, etc.) and the first computer class will officially graduate. We’ll also thank the community for all their efforts with a community celebration and meal, compliments of the Canadians (who don’t know about this yet). This will be the beginning of the “starvation season” (when food runs out here) and I hope the impact of some of the agricultural initiatives will pay off or be solidified by then.

This past week we were also visited by several doctors from Denmark (wanting to use the internet), two Canadians from Canadian Food for Children, and Chief Dan Lavin from Seattle and Sierra Leone. Tomorrow we’ll have three Canadian doctors visit and Friday we’ll have the first ever Sierra Leone Teacher’s Union meeting here as well as a visit by Louise from London and Binkolo. After that I’ll be in Gbonkolenken where there are no solar panels or internet, so may be out of touch for a while.

Again, as I’m typing this, I was just visited by a local human rights NGO rep, who is interested in supporting a local resource centre to address human rights issues and we agreed to combine our efforts and limited resources. Things do have a way of working out and I'm looking forward to seeing what this trilateral partnership will yield (apologies to Chinua Achebe, author of the favorite book here, Things Fall Apart) .

And it's official...the grasshoppers have won! After an absence of several days, I returned to the garden this evening to find it....gone! Nothing left but lettuce, parsley and tomato plants. The many pepper plants, carefully nurtured for the past two months which had previously withstood the onslaught were reduced to a few twiggy stems, as were the beans, carrots, and radishes. My first response was to give up, to forgo the hours of hauling water, digging heaps, seeking compost, weeding. But by the time I reached the village and shared my sorrow with everyone I passed, I discovered that we are all suffering the same fate (all the cassava have also disappeared). While the loss of cassava can mean the difference between eating or not, most people were very philosophical about the situation, and I believe there must be alternatives that we can find together. For starters, we'll keep experimenting with other grasshopper-resistant crops (and do internet research), I'll seek loads of netting (the cauliflower growing under nets are also fine), and probably plant more lettuce, parsley, and tomatoes. Thins have a way of working out.