Thursday, March 6, 2008

Rain, Royemah, and the Rokel River

I’m told that when the rains fall in March, it’s a signal that it’s time for the farmers to brush the fields in preparation for planting. As calendars (and time pieces) are not used here, messages such as these are essential. Listening to the rain falling on the roof throughout the night and waking to the smell of smoke wafting through the rain brought on a strong association or memory this morning, of so many Nova Scotia camping trips, sleepily waking in a snug but damp warm tent while my camping partner stokes the fire outside the tent. Smells do that I’m told. Tonight the rains are falling, the second time since the dry season started, and I expect we’ll see the farmers heading to the fields tomorrow. Bad news for the grasshoppers and for the library, which relies on the labour of the young men free from the fields to make mud blocks and put up the walls but good news for the garden and wells. Good news also for the schools that have lost so many of their students to the initiations and traditional societies that function most actively in the dry season.

Tonight as I sat out in the moonlight waiting to head to the tiny village of Royemah to attend the ceremony ending the boys’ initiation, a firefly, first I’ve seen since the last rains ended, flittered above my head, leaving me with a strong sensation of some kind of impending eventful happening (something about this place seems to trigger such sensations, something I’ve not experienced before). The evening in Royemah was lit by a multitude of fires that flickered through clouds of dust kicked up by the feet of entranced Limba dancers responding to and directing the deep beats of drums, unlike any others I’ve seen here. I’m still not quite sure what happened (I’m learning to simply not question unexplained events related to the traditional societies), but at the height of the dancing there was a great commotion as people disappeared into the bush in great haste, concerned voices called out to take me home and I was safely whisked away back to Mapaki. This was such a contrast to how the day started and continued. Just before Royemah, the evening was spent with the local students and teachers in discussions with Thomas and Mary in Halifax and Bill in Saskatoon, simultaneously talking on Skye and Elluminate, two internet conferencing programs we’re using to connect Mapaki to the rest of the world (turned out that even Thomas and Bill, through separate programs, could hear each other). Before that I was in Freetown, breathing the diesel fumes, sweltering in traffic, and experiencing occasional air conditioning (Freetown has electricity now!) while meeting with NGOs, government officials, UN, and the airline. The Freetown trip, actually, was extremely beneficial and enlightening as I was reminded of the good, bad, and ugly of development work. I was very impressed with the Ministry of Agriculture worker we met who talked passionately about Sierra Leone’s need to become food self-sufficient before embarking on large-scale export schemes and the importance of supporting small-scale, community-driven initiatives designed for success. I was also pleased with the results of the UN meeting, which could lead to some much-needed support for the chiefdom and for cdpeace. And I was delighted to connect with my friends Joan and Karlheinz, whom I joined for a meal and touch of the warm Atlantic Ocean on the beach under the stars (sending hopes and best wishes to my friends on the other side of the ocean). This was my first non-Salone-based social event since I’ve been here (I ate mashed potatoes!), reminding me of how much my life now revolves around food worries and concerns about hunger. This also reminds me of several other visits, past and impending. Last week volunteer human rights lawyer Louise from London, now living in Binkolo, came to spend the day and night in Mapaki and we had a wonderful time swapping stories and experiences while meandering through villages, plantation, and roads. This was followed by a visit of three strangers from Freetown who came to us after walking the course of the Rokel River all the way from the hydro dam site with GPS in hand to map the course of the river in preparation for a potential damn break. Geographer Soloman gave us all a GPS demonstration and offered to come back when the computer students use a GPS unit to map Mapaki and the chiefdom. Each day, now, brings someone in from Magburaka or beyond to use the internet. Yesterday I had an email from Maggie in the UK, heading here for a peace and conflict studies program and planning a stop in Mapaki. Luke and Tony will be here from Canada in another two weeks and the house is full today with many people from Makeni and Magburaka here for meetings, an agricultural workshop, and the internet (oh, and offering me palm wine on the front porch…got to go!)

Just back from more very enlightening discussions with the agricultural workers, who promise to return with a VSO volunteer from Kenya, who can advise us on systems to water the garden in the dry season and promise to return with a sure-fire means of countering the grasshoppers…an “appropriate-technology” spray made from grasshopper carcasses that will repel the most persistent of pests. Lots of ideas also of developing a pilot “demonstration project” integrating appropriate agriculture with health and nutrition education with income-generation for the students at the school “boarding home”, which itself will be integrated into family and community life (could board both students and elderly members of the community and possibly be located in the middle of the chief's compound). Palm wine, it seems, improves both eyesight (the main reason people drink palm wine is for improved night vision, I’m told) and long-term visioning.

Photo is of the construction of the library...bricks made of mud held together with mud mortar and assembled by the youth of Mapaki.