Thursday, February 7, 2008

Teaching, guns, and gunpowder tea

The first photo is of a typical community school here...dirt floor, no seats or books, sorrowful chalkboard. The second depicts what's possible with few resources...two women teachers reading a book on equal opportunities and Gandhi while learning computer skills in the library in Mapaki. Everything you see here has come through donations by individuals in Canada and Mapaki. Thanks, all!
The wonderful thing about living with little is the amount of pleasure small finds can bring. Today, for instance, I reveled in the joy of eating a wonderfully sweet pineapple found at the junction while drinking gunpowder tea from China (my medicine, as the women call it) shared with friends and listening for the first time to BBC news on the small short-wave radio I got in Magburaka (run on solar-charged batteries). In Makeni I found Sunil, a VSO volunteer from India who is stationed close to us at Magburaka who helped me also find a lone cabbage-seller (just in from Kabala) with a load of five cabbages for sale (same price as pineapples). Tomorrow the cabbage will form the base of the first salad I will have eaten in Mapaki. I also found a curriculum document (the first I’ve seen) for which I’ve been looking high and low in Freetown and Makeni at schools, teacher’s college, teacher union, and ministry of education offices. My friend, Mabinty, has agreed to serve as volunteer teacher in grade one at the Maso community school and I’m thrilled, as she will be the first female teacher at any of the schools with which we work and will serve as a role model, especially for the girls whom I hope will consider taking up teaching. I’m also very eagerly looking forward to working with Mabinty to develop a program with a strong integrated literacy and peace education component for the 80 grade one students and hope to use this as a model for other schools (we’ll be using only locally available materials and incorporating indigenous culture and practice). In Makeni I also found a very helpful primary school staff that is interested in helping the teachers at our schools develop methods and practices and we planned several teacher exchanges and workshops to learn from and work with each other. Teachers here very rarely have the chance to meet with other teachers and for the community school volunteer teachers especially, this will be a wonderful learning opportunity.

Like the hydro-power, the new radio is a blessing and curse. Last night, delighted as I was to have news from the outside world, I got few hours of sleep. As I still struggle with limited solar power and generally use the internet only while the library is full, I haven’t been able to make as much use of internet news services. I sleep now with the solar-powered laptop and radio on the bed next to me and alternate between these when the mouse or crickets wake me at night, rising in the morning with earphones still in and batteries cold dead.

Having missed months of news, I forgot the impact that hearing news could have. While delighted to hear that the opposition to Canada’s fighting in Afghanistan is growing, other news (U.S. use of torture, child soldiers in Iraq, etc.) was depressing and reminded me of why contact and work here is so important. The juxtaposition of experiences with peace-making and keeping at the village level with the horrific experiences of the war here (considered by some to be the most brutal war in history) has so much to teach us about how violent conflict can arise and be inflamed and how it can be prevented and resolved. As I’ve often mentioned, traditional ways of resolving conflict here involve patience, time, diligence, and the involvement of all. Yesterday, for instance, a mother in our household was taken to the elders by the other women in the household after she smacked her daughter (while physical punishment is endemic in schools, I rarely see it used in family life). There was a lengthy, emotional discussion and at one point the mother was threatened with an hour in the village jail cell (the only other time I’ve seen the cell used was when one student hit another and both were “jailed” for an hour). With the help of the elders and other women in the household, an alternative resolution was found and all left satisfied.

Yesterday in Makeni I was told at one NGO office that our chiefdom is “officially” the poorest or most vulnerable in the district, with the lowest indicators of social well-being. As this district is the poorest in the country and our country is the poorest in the world, it would suggest that the poorest people of the world live here. And while poverty or competition for scare resources clearly contributes to conflict, violent conflict is not necessarily a given in an egalitarian society such as this is, where culture and tradition calls for close attention to be paid to promoting peaceful and harmonious coexistence. If only the leaders in Canada who advocate for a greater combat role in Afghanistan and elsewhere could learn these lessons (and would put sorely needed resources into peace education/work), we’d be so much better off. (Can you detect some impatience in my writing with the fact that we are still waiting to hear about official funding for work here?) I must add, though, that I feel some impatience with myself for not having achieved more with linking Canadian communities with communities here (I seem to be having greater success with Norway!). This is one of the reasons I have extended my stay here from an initial eight months to a commitment of at least five years; two years to solidify a strong pilot project with the five schools and set up international partnerships through cdpeace and an additional three years to broaden and extend this. I expect to be in Canada from mid-April to August and hope to do similar work with schools and communities there. This leaves just two months here this stay, a fact that worries me and has me feeling home-sick for Mapaki already, though I do look forward to seeing family and friends and attending daughter Cecilia’s wedding in April. When I return during the rainy season in August (we've had not a drop of rain in months), I hope to see the fruit trees I'm planting flourishing and the garden still producing.