Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I don’t see or hear in the same way as I did before. Last year all I saw was majestic beauty and heard was the cadence of languages and sounds. When I travel the countryside now, I muse on individual species and plants rather than overall landscape and I listen to the subject of conversations rather than the sound. Perhaps it’s something everyone in a new environment goes through…with time, losing the forest for the trees. I think also because I’m insanely busy with schools support work that I’m blinkering myself to the world around me. In some ways I miss the awe of my first year here but in other ways it’s comforting to feel the familiarity and routine of life here now. I feel as though I’m home.

Here’s a new routine, though. This past week we’ve had a whirlwind of Very Important People here. First, to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Poverty, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations came to Mapaki. Yes, to the little village of Mapaki. He said that he had heard of such good things happening here and of the chief’s reputation as a dedicated and committed leader that he hoped to be able to bring the country’s major donors to visit…to see success stories in action in the poorest part of the world. A day later the chief, headman, and I headed to Magburaka to see another contingent of Very Important People…in this case for the president’s visit to present the country’s plans for agricultural development on World Food Day. Somehow, with the chief still at the junction, I ended up on the dais behind the president in the centre of the contingent of the country’s Paramount Chiefs. Again, sitting there amongst and chatting with the country’s traditional rulers, many in traditional garb, felt not at all unusual or strange.

So…agricultural plans….As the world careens around rising food and fuel prices and an economic meltdown, Sierra Leone, despite being called the world’s “least livable” country, stands well placed to achieve self-reliance in food, should the whims and will of the international community allow this. The Paramount Chief who introduced the president spoke very eloquently on basic economic tenets, explaining that wealth or surplus can only be generated after an entire population has access to food basics. In other words, the country needs to focus on building infrastructure to feed itself before exporting agricultural products, a common sense notion that, unfortunately, runs counter to current international economic orthodoxy and pressure. Both the President and the U.N. Special Representative who spoke on behalf of the international community assured us that agricultural development would be the new national and international community’s prime focus in Sierra Leone. Hopefully the words of the wise Paramount Chief will guide.

Slightly smaller Very Important People… Today I donned my comfy blue pajamas, sensible crepes, and Canadian helmet to take my first solo motorbike ride to the small village of Maso with our “mobile library”…books in my backpack. Carefully picking my way over and through gravelly hills and gullies and ditches and never going beyond third gear, it took a little longer than it should have but it gave me a wonderful feeling of freedom and I did arrive in one piece with about a hundred small cheering children running behind. I spent the afternoon with the young children, bringing them the first books they’ve ever handled, exchanging information about our respective communities, reading one of my favourite books, The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry, and making plans with the children to create their own local forest issues book. I think I must have the very best “job” in the world doing what I love the most…bringing together my favourite books and people in meaningful work with the most receptive and appreciative students and teachers in the world. I can’t imagine anything better.

On appreciative teachers, we have extended an offer of scholarships to volunteer teachers in all the schools we work with….teachers who have been working for many years with no salary, no training, and usually no materials. Turns out that almost everyone in the schools has applied, all with very compelling and moving reasons of why they need this training. I’m thinking of inviting people to “sponsor a volunteer teacher”…contribute $200 for a year’s distance education tuition and support materials to a teacher of their choice (many teachers are also hoping to correspond with Canadian teachers). Anyone interested? So far I’ve been able to allocate my Queen’s honorarium to this and several people have offered to help.

Interestingly the climate in our pilot schools has palpably changed over the past year. Where before teachers (and often designated older students) ruled with the cane, this appears to be a thing of the past. Classes are in session much more regularly, teachers prepare lessons and engage children in activities and I never see poyo at school anymore. It’s very encouraging.

As I type this I’m chasing a colony of baby cockroaches out of my laptop. They seem to have found many ways of slipping into the innards and I fear an imminent crash. Also as I type this, an unimaginably wild thunderstorm rages outside with torrential rains, road turned to river, lightening strikes and claps of thunder that shake the library and crash into eternity. Each time a storm like this happens I run to ask if it’s the most severe that people have seen. They laugh. Maybe I’m not yet completely blinkered or blasé.

Photo - Rice harvest at Maburra, Gbonkolenken Chiefdom