Thursday, April 3, 2008

Final Post?

A few final comments as I expect this to be my last post before departing on Monday for Canada for a while. Yesterday we sent off the last of my strangers of this year, criss-crossing paths on the dusty Mapaki and tarred Makeni roads on the way to town on bike. Reflections on these, my last few days here this dry season, sadly again turn to death, as we heard at the junction of the community (volunteer) teacher who died just hours before and was about to be buried, leaving family bereft and students teacherless. As so often happens, death was sudden, unexpected, and not really explained (though one rumour cites tuberculosis). I’ve come to understand how children die from malaria and poverty-related illnesses and how mothers die in childbirth or during pregnancy but I’ve not yet figured out what so frequently takes otherwise seemingly healthy young men and women. I’m hoping to be able to focus more, when I return, on understanding and addressing community health issues. (As an aside, we’ve just heard that the chiefdom will be receiving a donation of 32 copies of Where There is no Doctor…one for each school community, an invaluable gift!)

Very closely related to health and community development, is the role of adult learning in community development. As I’ve mentioned before, only a handful of adults, including only three women in Mapaki, are able to read or write (fewer than 100 adults in the whole chiefdom have been to school). Last week Kouame and I attended a “learning alliance field trip”. With a group of very insightful staff and volunteers from local NGOs who learn, reflect and plan together, we headed to a small community in Tonkolili to visit the women who meet daily in an adult learning program. The women and elders of the community sat with us under the spreading mango tree and explained all the ways this learning has changed their own lives and affected the community as a whole (empowering them to address many issues as a group and developing confidence and ability to make changes in personal and family life). With new learning alliance friends, we reflected on differences between Freirian and traditional approaches to literacy, ways we could work together to bring this learning to our own communities, issues of power related to language of instruction and teaching approaches, etc. As literacy development related to issues of power has been such a key focus of my own teaching and learning life (my thesis research was on critical literacy, and working with adult learners in literacy programs one of my most rewarding activities), I’m also quite excited about returning in August and taking up this thread, especially as it relates to cdpeace plans in the two chiefdoms. I can see centering a lot of community adult literacy work around the contents of Where There is No Doctor.

And closely related to adult education is the work that has been going on here with the computer class. This week each of the students took the Canadians to their place of abode and introduced their lives and history, a very moving experience for all as we heard of hopes and plans made in the face of what I’d see as insurmountable challenges related to illness, war, poverty, etc. The students also reflected on the impact of the computer class on their own and the community life and again I was moved to discover the impact that this initiative has had, far beyond what I could even begin to imagine (inspiring to see what's possible with a few donated laptops, solar panels and internet!). I think this is going to lead to some very interesting future community developments and look forward to putting heads together with many to see this come to fruition. Ideas and possibilities are endless!

On computers, the impending internet wedding has sparked lots of community discussion and debate. Last night Momi told the village headman that Kouame would soon be wedding his daughter (niece), Mabinty, also via the internet, causing some consternation. No one is quite sure how Friday’s marriage will be consummated and if children can really be produced through a computer marriage. Time will tell.

Also on computers, last night the computer students viewed a documentary on the laptop about Canadian students connecting with post-war Serbian students through PSI. As I watched the Canadians (some former students of mine discovering Canada’s role in this war) interacting with the Serbians (students I came to know) in the company of my Sierra Leonean friends, shivers ran down my spine as I realized how susceptible we all are and how subtle the line is separating victim and perpetrator. Lots of food for thought for all of us in this peace education project of linking young people and teachers.

And it’s official. Saturday will be the first annual chiefdom-wide “Carol” day, marked with a big celebration in the village with visiting cultural groups (the drummers and dancers from other villages), a feast, and an all-night dance in the community centre. I begged the community to change the name to “cdpeace day” (Community Day for Development and Peace) and they agreed to a compromise of “Carol’s Day for Development and Peace”. This will be a good way to say good-bye to friends as I head off to the unknown for four months (unknown as I’ve given up my Canadian employment and living space and am not quite sure what the long-term future holds). I expect to be quite busy as I’ve got lots of presentations lined up, want to create a number of resources for use here, will be working on a schools materials container, taking two research-related trips to Ontario, and have been invited to help my Mexican sister move back (temporarily) to Canada.

Some people have asked what I’m looking forward to most when I return to Canada. Next to seeing family and friends, right now it’s having my curiosity abated regarding health issues. Yesterday Sister Mary in Makeni pointed out that my skin has changed colour to yellow and orange, because of the amount of palm oil I’m consuming. I’m curious to see if it will change back and curious about the health impact of a diet of rice, palm oil, occasional fish and potato leaves, and fruit when available. There are times when I think that diet might be a critical factor in life expectancy here (lack of vitamins and minerals due to limited access to vegetables and very high consumption of palm oil) and I want to learn more about this. I feel like I have come full circle here now, and am beginning to understand the root of some misconceptions about health and food. Our current main hazard is mangoes….mangoes dropping on your head, squished mangoes on the road, etc. Last year when I asked the chief if there was a time that was particularly bad for mosquitoes he told me to watch out during “the time of the mangoes”, which is also the very beginning of orange season, meaning that four weeks from now (also the incubation period for malaria) it should be prime orange season. This, I figure, might explain why people believe that malaria comes from eating oranges (oranges are ripe…people succumb to malaria…what could be clearer?).

My parting gift to the community has been a “basket” that addresses key community emergency needs (re housing, health, education, women). This, combined with plans for Saturday’s celebration, has caused some confusion as half the community now believes I’m not returning, and some of the women are starting to cast covetous glances on my fine bucket and new dress. I’m not sure if I’ll keep posting while in Canada and not sure if this will really be my last post of this trip. But if so, and if I’m able to jumpstart this blog in August, you'll hear more then. In the meantime, thanks for reading! (And Canadian friends, yes, I'll accept all invitations to come by for a meal and talk.)

Photo: Young initiates to the Limba traditional society return to Royemah after weeks in the sacred forest