Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Grasshoppers, Sex, and Social Justice

Yikes! After a couple of questioning emails from readers, I realize it has been over a week since I posted. With my impending trip to Canada, I’ve been more than busy preparing videos, slideshows, meeting with schools, traveling, meeting, computing, managing the library, harvesting and planting, etc. The following are a few posting starts from the week.

Garbage. Al Hassan just showed me a bottle cap he found, and without thinking, I told him it belonged in the garbage. His puzzled look reminded me that he has no knowledge of garbage which doesn’t exist here as any discarded item (of which there are few) is immediately put to some other use. I probably create the most garbage and since I’ve been here I’ve generated no more than one small bag full. Same with compost. After building a compost spot behind the house, I realized that no one produces compost as all food parts are consumed. I’m one of the few who generates fruit peels to compost as most people don’t eat fruit, or actually much of anything other than rice.

Last night during a long internet talk, my brother Gerald asked if I thought my actions here are more or less effective than the social justice work I was involved with in Canada. With this question still in my mind, this morning I woke early to catch the radio news. I picked up the tail end of a panel discussion on the effectiveness of aid and also the news that in 45 minutes, George Bush is scheduled to arrive in Benin. I’m thinking now about time frames and geographic scope of social justice work (one of the panelists criticized NGOs and governments for limiting time frames to 6-9 years). I’m wondering whether my original plan to stay for five years is long enough, what I can reasonably hope for during this time, and how much of the focus of my work should be in Canada (as the root source of so many issues here stem from international policies and actions). These days I’m telling people that I’m staying for another 49 years.

Two developments since writing the above have given me cause to reflect further. I’m greatly troubled by the fact that there are only three women from Mapaki living here who are able to read or write. This means that community committees requiring literacy skills automatically exclude women (this happened at a meeting this morning). The situation at the schools is not a whole lot better. I’m told by the teachers that few of the junior high school girls are able to read or write and that last year, two girls in elementary school left school to get married, a common occurence. In searching for girls to participate in an exchange with Canadian students (involving computer training and thus requiring some competence in English and literacy), the teachers had to leave the village to find two girls.

At the same time, the impact of the internet, library, and AV equipment has been tremendous and is very promising. Tonight the students could not come to the library and it was given over to the “old nannies and belly women” as pregnant Hawa described the delegation of women who came to see digital photos and videos from Mapaki and the neighbouring communities. Two hours later the women have been joined by many of the young men and are thrilled to be able to find children, themselves, and sisters as we pick our way through hours of video footage (as I’ve mentioned before, most people have not even see mirror images of themselves, let alone photos or video). Two nights ago the teachers here were able, through the internet, to meet and talk with the Canadian teachers who are coming in March, to share and view photos of each other, and share hopes and dreams. Witnessing this first trans-Atlantic contact between Canadians and people in this very isolated community who have difficulty communicating even within the chiefdom sent shivers down my spine. The challenge now is to find women to teach and find a way to communicate with the women who don’t speak English or Krio or read or write. I’m thinking the video camera will come in very handy.

Sex. The limitations of knowing only a smattering of Krio and Temne was brought home this week during the community meeting to introduce HIV testing. The few words I picked up combined with the highly entertaining graphic pantomime and audience response confirmed that those in the know were receiving information about sex far beyond my own knowledge (something about needing a pound of meat a day, etc.) The purpose of the meeting was to prepare the community for the visit of a group of Canadian doctors who will be conducting HIV testing next week (I’m slated to be the first to be tested).

I’m determined not to give in to the on-going battle with the grasshoppers. They have arrived in the garden in biblical numbers and seem to double in size each day. According to the internet, our only options are to cover the garden with huge nets or surround the garden with chickens or cilantro plants. So far they have devoured just about everything except tomatoes (first one ripened today), parsley, beans, and lettuce. We’ve arranged customers in Makeni for our produce (the Italians are especially exited about the parsley and basil) and expect to start sales in March. This is quite a breakthrough as it’s the first time since before the war that this community has grown vegetables for sale. As we experience both success and limitations of land, I’m getting more offers of land to farm from people in the community.

As I type this and am trying to close up the library, I've been visited by the leaders of the women's traditional society, who want to see the community videos and photos. I think it will be another late night.