Thursday, November 20, 2008

I forget, sometimes, about the unbelievable beauty in the land around me. Last night Joseph, Mabinty and I walked through the deepening dusk through forest, stream and village to the open hilltop cassava farm that Joseph carefully tends every day after teaching, and witnessed on our arrival the most spectacular, could only be computer-generated, shimmering in a million shades of pink, sunset sky. Very humbling. On the way home Mabinty and Joseph were discussing the box of food in Makeni being offered to teachers who could afford transport to collect it, breaking out in Bob Marley songs as they realized their's would be the only school that would have to forfeit this offer. We sang our humour and sorrows all the way home through the dark, passing clusters of curious children returning from the farms with their loads of firewood and threshed rice on their heads.

After three days in Gbonkolenken I’m back in the Mapaki library tonight with its solar light and wonderful collection of books and study area for the junior high students and kids immersed in favourite books in all parts of the room. Spending the last three nights going to bed at 7:30pm because of lack of light and having nothing to read and seeing children with no place to study reminds me of how far things have come in Mapaki in just one year and how similar life in Mapaki was not so long ago. Bringing my backpack of culturally-relevant non-fiction picture-packed books into the classrooms of the villages in Gbonkolenken and seeing the wide-eyed and intense response of children who have never before seen or handled books also reminded me of tremendous potential there is to make a huge impact with very few resources. When I left Gbonkolenken, the community was gathering sticks and rocks and palm fronds to start construction of their own library too. I’ll be investigating sources of solar power here and funding for books to provide whatever support we can offer to help get this initiative off the ground soon.

While visiting class three and four in Makonkorie, I chatted with the teacher and asked how he came to be teaching in the school there (he’s originally from Paki Masabong). This is his story. Daniel was a boy caught in throes of the war that engulfed the country during the 1990s. While much of the north was under the control of the rebel forces, options for young boys of the north were few. Either you were captured by rebels and forced under drugs and intimidation to fight, you joined because you were displaced and starving and they provided the only source of food, or you were one of the few who found some way to resist and escape. Daniel fell into the last category. He was persistently pressured to join the rebel forces by friends who used various tactics to force him into their camp. He resisted until he was finally captured, forced to act as porter and then escaped. At the time, there was no real safety in the North, except for in Gbonkolenken, which was ringed and protected by the Kamajor (local militia). After escaping from the rebels, Daniel made his way on foot through forest and river to Gbonkolenken, where he met up with his mother who fell into tears, assuming that her son was either captured or killed. While in Makonkorie, as well as scratching out a living in whatever way he could, he would spend time at the school until one day the headmaster asked if he would formally sign up as a volunteer teacher. For the past six years Daniel has been teaching as a volunteer and dreaming of the day that he could go to college and become a qualified teacher. Daniel was one of the 34 teachers who applied but was not fortunate to receive a cdpeace teacher scholarship this year. He is determined to start his education in whatever way he can, and when I offered a workshop for volunteer teachers on “how children learn” Daniel was the one teacher who asked to stay through two consecutive sessions, hoping to glean a little more knowledge from this opportunity. My hope is that we can extend the scholarship program to include teachers like Daniel (we’ve already offered 12 three-year scholarships this year, six times what we had originally budgeted for, thanks to the support of friends abroad). I’m writing about Daniel, not because he is exceptional, but because I think he represents so many of the volunteer teachers at the schools we work with. So many have come through and still live precarious lives yet manage to find the reserve energy and hope to be able to keep coming to school day after day, teaching without books or materials and no expectation of reward beyond the knowledge that they are helping their community…leaving school daily to engage in the back-breaking work that’s involved in providing food from the land for yourself and your family. In case anyone else is interested in helping Daniel or others, one year’s tuition and materials at the local college is $200, the program starts in one month’s time and runs for three years.

Other experiences from my time in Gbonkolenken… I spent one morning with the class of about sixty grade nine students and shared several letters from Canada with them. Again there was wide-eyed wonder as they heard their Canadian friends’ perception of Sierra Leone and pondered the possibility of their war-torn country serving as a model of peace and unity and understanding to others around the world and their own valuing of education as something to be envied by their Canadian friends (they are so used to hearing themselves described as the poorest of the world and most in need of “saving” by others that turning the tables on this concept seemed revolutionary but very welcome). Also a very interesting experience to try to explain Santa Claus and the Easter rabbit and hockey and Halloween (they had asked the Canadian students about celebrations) to a group of young people whose only experience with the world is their direct interaction with their direct environment…no mediating TV or movies or books or magazines or pictures to tell them about anything outside of their immediate environment. A very challenging task that made me realize how bizarre our world must seem (welcoming a witch into homes with children, walking on dew with knives on your feet, sending your children to beg at neighbours...).

Other experiences… Baby Thullah, the class two teacher, invited me to walk to her village of Makura after school one day, which I did. The road was long and hot and we were tired but the children who skipped along with us and the passing villagers who stopped to greet us and the occasional coolness of overhanging trees kept us going until we reached the tiny village nestled at the base of a nearby mountain where I cooled in the shade of the thatched roofs with the elders, savoured the sun-warm oranges freshly picked for me by the children and….got to cook macaroni over the three stone fire! Baby had bought and was saving a package of spaghetti (here known as macaroni) for just such an occasional and the whole village watched as I boiled the noodles and cooked up a sauce of two onions, palm oil, salt, pepper and two eggs. Like the loaves and fishes, the macaroni was passed around, shared and enjoyed by all.

And on eating oporto food, last week someone from Freetown who can't believe that I can happily exist on local food turned up with....bread, a dozen eggs and imported weiners, bacon, two kinds of sausages, butter, coke, cheezey crackers and...a Snickers and Dairy Milk bar. My new friend is working on a bio-fuel project that will be supplying Europe's ethanol needs. I had a million comments and questions but politely restrained myself as I wiped Snickers crumbs from my bacon-greasy chin. Next time! So how do you cook and share bacon and eggs with a guest and the twenty hungry under-fives and four teen suckling moms and five elderly women and assorted other school children and friends who are all silently watching and waiting and sniffing the unfamiliar scent at the fire's edge in this hungry and curious household of fifty-four? Not easy! I packed one plate for me and the guest and left the rest in the capable hands of the eldest women. Mabinty tells me the kids were embroiled in a riot before I turned the first corner.

Other bits and pieces. The night before leaving for Gbonkolenken, there was a conflict in the village between a school boy and girl which left me vexed with the young people and in tears in the dark in the library thinking about the role of by-standers in situations near and far, small and global (bystanders in small conflicts, in genocide, in a world where power over global economics leaves the vulnerable without the means of producing food and others with too much). I had a long talk with the young by-standers in the morning before leaving and since I’ve been back, most are bending over backwards to step forward and offer support where they see a need. Had three young boys offer to fetch my water this morning and two others fill water bottles for me. This situation was the first time I have felt any annoyance with anyone since being here (annoyance which disappeared overnight when I put all in context) and the first time traditional conflict resolution processes seemed to falter (perhaps because the chief and other elders have been away). While I hope it will be the last, it was a good opportunity to have a long talk with the young people, who I really do hold in great respect, and good to see that even in this community, which I hold in such high esteem, problems need working out. It also makes me realize how much a part of the community I am now, with the children coming to me to resolve the issue and feeling quite in my rights to sit the young folk down for a talk. As the Gbonkolenken people are lobbying hard for me to spend 50% of my time there as are the Mayagba folks, it might become a challenge to continue to feel like a true community member (the first to pay my taxes) here. We’ll see.

Photo…humour, Makonkorie style (with my new motor-cycle helmet)