Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It’s difficult to sleep when the moon fills the night sky, you’re worried about events happening half a world away and your mind is whirring with thoughts and reflections on new experiences. It’s 4 a.m. and I’ve been back from Gbonkolenken for 12 hours. I know that the election results are out in Canada and I don’t think I can wait until daybreak to find out what happened. I also know that with each passing hour, experiences from my past five days will slip from memory unless I record them. So, stepping carefully along the road (still slightly wary of snakes after last week’s events), I’ve wound my way to the now silent library (about fifty second graders were packed on the small floor when I left last night) and am pecking away at the laptop in the dark, waiting for the first rooster crow and sound of small children sweeping compounds and fetching water.

Gbonkolenken…so much to say! The history of this chiefdom, three times the size and population of Paki Masabong, is fascinating. Each evening elders and youth of the community would stop by the porch and tell me stories from the past and present. They told me of the saddest man in the village who lost fifteen of his twenty children and three of his four wives. Stories of the Gbonkolenken Kamajor who rimmed the chiefdom after the early destruction by rebels and, reputedly with herbs and special powers, repelled bullets and kept the rebels out for most of the rest of the war. About the time of the population shift three generations ago when rivers ran blood and small children could not play on riverbanks without scratching skulls out of the mud (reminding me of tales I’ve heard about WWI France). About courageous chiefs and compassionate strangers and young men escaping from rebel training camps to warn of impending war and of how this chiefdom has developed in quite unique ways. About interactions with child RUF fighters during the war, who broke down and talked of how they had been captured and forced to fight and were being injected with a cocktail of drugs. Having spent virtually all my time up to now in Paki Masabong, being in Gbonkolenken has given me a new lens through which to view and try to understand my home chiefdom, has given me new appreciation for, and many new ideas and thoughts about this chiefdom, country, and humanity as a whole.

Some early impressions and experiences. On arriving as I gathered my materials on the front porch of the cdpeace guesthouse and young boys played a rousing game of grapefruit (making do when you don’t have a real football) in the yard, a very elderly woman came by, sat next to me, gingerly picked up my pen with two fingers, made some tentative scratches in my notebook and indicated that she was writing her name. She would often stop by and no matter what I was doing, find a way to turn our interaction into a demonstration of her new knowledge or desire to learn. This interaction came to symbolize many of my interactions with people and I often ended up in conversations, usually with the elders, about life in Canada and Sierra Leone and what we have to learn from each other. They were fascinated to hear my tales of Canada and decided that despite their constraints, they would not exchange their life for life in Canada where villagers don’t have the opportunity to have every conflict, no matter how small, mediated by wise elders, where there are people in jails, where those with wealth don’t necessarily share with the less fortunate and where people can live and die alone. My most challenging question, the first asked in grade nine, was why Canada has so much more wealth than Sierra Leone. I didn’t talk about the mining companies that are draining the mineral wealth from the country or the unfair terms of trade that benefit our farmers over theirs or the global economic system that leaves their government virtually powerless to chart its own course or the legacy of slavery and colonialism but instead talked about how not everyone in Canada is wealthy and that there are children and adults in communities like theirs that have no clean water or secure source of income (remembering the exhibit of jars of contaminated water from Ontario First Nations communities that I saw in the Kingston market). We decided that each of our communities has a lot to offer the other and that the relationship our communities are establishing might turn out to be a two-way street. As I so often hear only about the good of Canadians and the need or poverty in Sierra Leone from people here, this was a very welcome message (have had many conversations recently about “asset-based community development” or the need to identify and start with people’s and communities’ strengths rather than deficits when dealing with both education and community development). In Maborra, incidently, when I asked about community issues I was told that even if NGOs came and helped every individual in the village, no real change would take place...that the only long-lasting benefit to the community could come through the education of their children and that this was their first priority.

Most of my time was spent with teachers, students and the women’s groups as the school twinning takes shape and as the women took me to visit the groundnut farms they had established through the facilitation efforts of the local cdpeace staff. We traipsed through villages and woods and stream beds and small farms, crossing a river via a high bridge made of two shaky poles, stopped to bathe our muddy feet (significant amounts of rain fell and we were all soaked through) in a river where I also lost my glasses (they were found and returned the next day). Unfortunately I had come with my elegant $4 plastic shoes rather than my utilitarian plastic shoes and had slightly blistered feet on my return, which matched the blisters on my hands raised from working the large hoe as I made vegetable beds in the back of the cdpeace guesthouse (and yes, my hands are turning palm oil orange again).

I expect to return to Gbonkolenken many times…to the cosy guesthouse at Makonkorie, the community of Maborra where I held hour-old twin babies and the hand of a hundred-year old woman, to Mathombo where the children charm me every time I visit and the elders are insightful (seems also that I’ve acquired yet another husband there…the headman who has claimed me and is considering learning how to cook after I told him all Canadian husbands cook for their wives). The school twinning will be generating much correspondence between schools, there is so much that the students here and in Canada have to learn from each other and the women are as welcoming as in Paki Masabong (interestingly, there are significantly more women teachers there than here). Paki Masabong will remain my home but I can tell already that Gbonkolenken will be calling me back often.

So now the sun is up, the children are off to school, the weaver birds are calling from the tree outside and the chief has invited me to go see the rice harvest that’s being threshed and winnowed by almost everyone in our household. Rice is more plentiful than it’s been all year, we’ve just been able to offer school fee scholarships to children from about fifteen tiny villages and teacher scholarships to many of the teachers who work each day for no pay at most of our twin schools, twice as many people as were expected turned up for and enthusiastically participated in our two community education program planning workshops, and my belly is full (plenty of gifts of bananas and oranges to bring home). In one school I visited this week the youngest children told me, “We think that your country is a fine country, that people work and cook and learn there and that people are just like us.” On this day I’m going to try not to think about election results or the recent illnesses of old and new friends, but rather use it to finish the first round of connections between schools and communities here and afar and to think of all of you who are working and cooking and learning in Canada, just as we are in Sierra Leone, and wish you all a peaceful post-election day.

Photo - Adama Thollie reading. Bringing home the rice