Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mapaki is a happening place!! Moonless Saturday night, cavern-depth dark, I’m sitting out on the porch trying to decide whether to come in to get a torch or wait for the community centre generator to provide light to the guest house. The generator fires up and presto…the whole of Mapaki is lit up by a string of electrical lights the chief has installed. With most of the rest of the village, I stroll up and down what used to be the dark main road to visit friends at the far end of the village, passing a few groups of youth huddled under a light with school notes and just beyond the last light, a cluster of friends warming their cold toes around a bright outdoor fire (temperatures dropped to 20 degrees last night, all are complaining and those who can are donning hats and jackets). “Tank-O!” all proclaim as they comment on the cold weather and console each other that it can’t last. I agree and think that I’ve finally become a real Sierra Leonean as for the first time ever, I feel the cold and also huddle under a cover at night. Meanwhile, all are amazed by the lights which have transformed life here. People now no longer need to go to sleep at dusk and are able to venture places they would before shun for fear of snakes. Visitors from the nearby towns tell us they are very envious, as we are surpassing them in services available to residents. A library, a guest house, a community centre and now lights…just like European villages, I’m proudly told by passers-by who stop to tell the chief, “Momo!”

Two weeks ago, Michael Thullah’s new used shoes were stolen and as you can’t attend junior high in bare feet, Michael was in trouble. His solution…stay home for a week to weave bamboo baskets (sold here for pennies) to earn the $4 he needed to buy a new pair of second-hand shoes. I’ve been pondering this problem and thinking one solution might be to leave at the school a box of used shoes from the market for “emergency” use by students facing similar predicaments…an idea I’ll put forward to the young people and teachers to see if it would fly. After our workshop many of the teachers are now going around asking, “But why?” and coming up with alternatives to old practices. Maybe rules about school footwear will also change.

Yesterday I had a visit by my friend Sheriff, a young man who became a child soldier at the age of ten when his community was embroiled in conflict between rebels and military. Sheriff lost fifteen years of schooling during and after the war as he fought with the rebel forces. At the age of twenty, he played an instrumental role in peace negotiations between rebel, government and U.N. forces, leading the RUF negotiation team in the North. His efforts at creating peace have been recognized far and wide (he’s been to Cote D’Ivoire for peace talks, to Belfast and Geneva to represent to voice of child soldiers and speak of peace, etc.). Since the end of the war he has devoted his life to working with ex-combatants to establish training programs, farm, teach health, life and literacy skills, and has worked his own way through literacy and a college diploma program in Population Studies. Sheriff told me that his dream is to study and write about his experiences and get a graduate degree in Peace Studies as his lack of academic credentials is stopping him from doing the work he wants to do at the national and international level. Paradoxically a number of doctoral students from abroad have “studied” Sheriff, resulting in academic credentials for them but not him. As Sheriff is an amazingly intelligent and committed person, I have no doubt that he will succeed. I’ve offered to help him find information on scholarships at universities in Canada and Northern Ireland. If anyone out there has contacts or information that might be useful, please let me know! Sheriff and I work together through the “Learning Alliance”, made up of representatives of many organizations that come together monthly to learn with and from each other, especially in the area of food self-sufficiency and empowering civil society to play a greater role in governance. Our last meeting was held at the farm and training centre that he runs with ex-combatants and I left very inspired with the stories I heard there.

Just back now from working with the boys who are helping me build a wonderful small garden plot just outside Nakama’s room, where I now stay. I’m loving my new space, though miss my old housemates and wander back for visits daily. Have transplanted the basil, which is now in bloom, and hope to plant vegetables later today. Then it’s back to school visits, which have been sorrowfully neglected over the past few weeks. If you are waiting for twin letters, they will be arriving very soon! Thanks for your patience!

Photo - Visitors stopping by as we set up the new library. First time with books for some.