Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Dams, Witches, and Radishes

Last night, after being caught later than planned at Sports Field Day, I found myself driving a 30 year-old car (with lights that had a mind of their own) through the dark, narrow, pot-holed winding dirt roads of Magburaka, leaning on the horn like the best of them to clear the road of pedestrians, dogs, and goats. Actually, as there are so very few cars in operation here, driving is a lot less hazardous than it could be. In Mapaki there are only three people able to drive; the chief, me, and Amadou Conteh who is recovering from the tragic accident, so if the chief is away, by default I would be the “ambulance driver”, which has encouraged me to try my hand at driving.

There is a dramatic divide between locally-owned and NGO vehicles. Every NGO vehicle (and many have convoys of vehicles) seems to a large, imposing, white, new, four-wheel drive SUV. And every locally-owned vehicle (of which there are few in the provinces) is a very old, beat-up, held together with wishes and rope, overloaded car or van, with the occasional old Benz thrown in the mix. Next week I’ll be applying for my Sierra Leonean driver’s license, which should be an interesting experience as the practices here differ wildly from our’s (e.g. when you see an approaching car at night, turn on your left turning signal so they can see the edge of your car). I’m hoping they don’t insist on a driving test. In the meantime, I’m quite happy to stick to the motorbike and bicycle for my patrols.

Sports Day was a well-organized, highly entertaining (ask me about the heated debate around the official rules of musical chairs), and enlightening experience as it helped me understand issues of city school violence a bit better (most school violence seems to be related to sports days). This event involved thousands of spectators, most of whom were students and children, and relatively little official adult supervision. Somewhat disturbing (and motivating me to speed up peace education plans) was the small group of young boy scouts keeping the crowds off the field with the use of big sticks swung like whips a little too vigorously and accurately (and I fear modeled after adult/teacher use of the cane). Exploring alternatives to corporal punishment, which is prohibited by the Ministry of Education, will be a strong focus of our peace education work. This is a topic of growing interest and I’ve been asked to also plan workshops for two high schools in Makeni, where caning is used and controversial.

Yesterday the women’s committee wrapped up the last of the distribution of the container items and is now ready to set up their shop. It’s been delightful to see this process in action and to try to understand the complicated, consultative course of action they have taken. First of all, all the women of Mapaki elected nine delegates (three from each section of the village) to make up the committee. Together (and with the witness of community members) they sorted, priced, and allocated items to each section delegation. The delegates then were responsible for distribution in their section, charging a small amount of money for each item, which will be used to seed the women’s shop. With the support of two members of the youth committee who have been to school and have the needed literacy and computation skills, detailed accounts have been kept of transactions by each section delegation. And with the total amount raised, the women will buy and resell buy rice, onions, salt and maggi, the staples of cooking that are not available in the community. The women have also been bringing me samples of beautiful crafts they produce and I’ll be returning home with woven baskets and tie-died cloth.

So, the women of the household have finally decided that I am the world’s worst cook. They are not impressed with my experiments with local food (such as the time I poisoned myself with barely cooked cassava leaf) or my cooking of the Nova Scotia vegetables (such as the big pot of cooked radish roots and leaves I made after Maso dropped off their entire radish harvest). I’ve been trying to cook with only the food grown locally, which means no maggi, tomato paste, or onions in many of my concoctions. The children, who are a little less discriminating in their tastes and less set in their ways, are happy to sample my wares, but the number of adults who stop by with a bowl or plate can be counted on one hand. It’s all discussed with great humour and, even if I’m not able to share my food anymore, I’m happy to provide the kitchen with a source of entertainment. Meanwhile, our garden is yielding the first of the bean crop and the beginnings of tomatoes and cucumbers. We plan to take the best of the harvest to sell to the “oportos” in Freetown.

Yesterday the chief and I attended a meeting for community leaders at the site of the hydro-electric dam about emergency measures in the event (God forbid) that the dam bursts (we are on the course of the river). Quite interesting to hear both plans and questions, to learn a bit about the process of community consultation, and reflect on gender impact issues. I look forward to seeing the outcome of this meeting when the trainers come to our chiefdom to meet with people in the most affected communities, and also hearing more about the fate of the communities upstream that are to be relocated (in an area with tight access to land). On the way home we stopped at about five small, beautiful villages where the chief had family or friends and I waltzed back into Mapaki with my camera full of pictures and my belly sated with palm wine, rice, and coconut water.

There was a wonderful headline in the Makeni newspaper today, “Youth Protest Peacefully”. Apparently the youth are protesting death by witchcraft after four youth died unexplained deaths recently. There is debate on whether the youth should use similar measures on the perpetrators, but since the perpetrators can’t be pinpointed and there is a general sense that you shouldn’t use violence to suppress violence, they simply took to the streets to demand greater government attention to the issue. I’ll be very curious to see how the government responds!