Monday, February 11, 2008

Katekeah, George Soros, and Foofoo

Talk about juxtaposition. Yesterday my day was spent on two diametrically opposite activities. First of all, the girls of Katekeah who have been in the forest for several weeks for initiation were due to return, and many people from Mapaki made the long trek to this village, completely inaccessible by any kind of motor vehicle, to celebrate and help welcome the girls back. I traveled by bicycle with my teacher friends, fording streams, crossing swamps, and stopping to admire the breathtakingly beautiful vistas from the hilltops. Katekeah, the chief’s ancestral home, is a large village which survives on subsistence agriculture (which around here means at least three months on the brink of starvation) and lacks any health or educational facilities. The children who do attend school walk a long distance to go to the community school at Maso. Because of accessibility issues, no NGOs work in this area and the village also lacked a well until the chief made arrangements to have one dug (by hand as it’s inaccessible to large machinery). I was surprised to learn that the mother of the twins in our household walks each morning to Katekeah to purchase palm wine which she then sells in Mapaki, to be able to purchase rice for her children to augment what she gets from our communal pot (which needs to stretch far and wide). The women of Katekeah walk each Friday to the junction (about 14 miles) to sell whatever products they have grown, gathered or made. Unfortunately, I had to leave before the girls actually returned, as I was expecting to meet with the Minister of Information in Mapaki. I’ve been trying to track down information on meeting with George Soros, a billionaire reported to be in Freetown investigating opportunities for supporting education and health needs in Sierra Leone and hoped the minister could give us some leads. I’ve also been investigating possibilities for community-controlled fair trade mining after an American mining person stopped by here to use the internet, and told me about some interesting, small-scale mining opportunities. While it’s rumoured that we have both gold and diamonds in the chiefdom, the experiences of other communities in mining areas send up large red warning signals, especially in light of recent events (community members killed during protests against harmful impact of mining on communities).

So, how do you prepare and serve 800 meals in one day when your kitchen consists of five three-stone fire pits, five big pots, knives, and an oil drum of water? (We expect 400 guests tomorrow who will have two meals each.) Call on all neighbours and friends to gather leaves from all the potato plants, collect lots of freshly harvested rice, gather fish by the basketful, pound mounds of peppers, grind buckets of groundnuts, boil lots of palm oil and water for tea. Grab every child within sight to haul water, gather firewood, clean fish and leaves, help with the groundnuts, and prepare the pepper. The fires of the kitchen are burning brightly tonight as we prepare for a big meeting tomorrow on education of the girl-child (still a problem here). There is a rumour circulating that the wife of the president will be attending and the village is swept clean and guest house rooms readied, just in case. My task has been to commandeer any spare child to help organize and clean the library and guest house, prepare rooms, round up water buckets, and chat with visitors, while happily sampling the odd cup of palm wine from the carpenters who are home from Makambrary. With the library sparkling clean, I decided to cancel our nightly “open house” and computer class and am enjoying my first free evening in weeks (I’m otherwise in the library seven nights a week). Made and shared tea, tried to figure out the radio (there are ten short-wave bands and BBC seems to switch to a different band every ten minutes), visited with friends, finished off the last of today’s foofoo ( a delicious ball of paste made from cassava root), ate the bean harvest, and kept a wary eye on the new goat brought in by motorbike from Malimp.

And how do guests in from remote outlying Limba villages keep themselves entertained for 12 hours while waiting for the big meeting to start? It’s 3:30am and I’ve just stepped in from visiting the fire where guests and villagers have been drumming, singing, and dancing since nightfall. (The world over, parties or social gatherings are the same, I think.) I still can’t figure out where the stamina comes from for all-night drumming, which seems to be a common trend. I often think that I must be the only person in the village in bed at night.

Next day…after the big meeting. No president’s wife but lots of women politicians and NGO workers (including the only female driver other than me that I’ve seen here) arrived in SUVs from Makeni and Freetown and all left feeling satisfied and with a “next steps” action plan in place. Today I’m going to start drafting a three-year plan integrated plan to support the education of girls (integrated with other community and boys’ needs, as the girls’ needs are so closely linked to community needs in general). On a very small scale, here’s an example. In our household, we have virtually all the female junior secondary school students from outlying villages living with us. With no secondary school available to students in most of the chiefdom, many girls were simply married off after completing grade six. After the chief traveled around the chiefdom, pleading with communities to end this practice and send their girls to school, many families responded by sending their daughters to the chief’s household. As the household itself is very strapped for cash, there is a continual push and pull between meeting basic needs (like food) and other needs (like shoes for school or soap to wash uniforms) and children might go the school hungry and at times without shoes (and everyone comes looking for soap). In a situation where every cent is spent before it comes in, long-term financial planning is unheard of. I plan to set up a small monthly fund to be managed by two groups… students and women who will make decisions on how money is to be spent for both short-term and long-term needs. This is a scaled-down version of what the women’s committee has set up for Mapaki as a whole, and will be good practice for when we set up a student-run boarding home, where students will have to make decisions about financial planning, both incoming (there will be an agricultural component to this plan as it will need to be self-sustaining) and out-going. The challenges are both daunting and promising!

Today I will travel to Magburaka to repair the motorbike, which suffered a small collision this week, and to meet with two Canadian women here to investigate projects.