Friday, January 23, 2009

My sister, Chief Nakama Kawaleh, has left an invaluable gift to the children of the two chiefdoms, one that I imagine will go down in history. This morning as I stopped to greet the women in our kitchen, Sallay explained the new practice instituted in the schools since we held our peace education workshop last week. While previously the response to virtually all misdemeanors was flogging or caning (beating the child with a stick, a relic practice from British colonial days), the children and parents have been told that the teachers are now using alternatives to corporal punishment and that children will no longer be caned at school. This morning both children and parents were anxiously preparing children to arrive at school on time because now if a child is late, rather than suffer the short-term pain of flogging, they are asked to bring firewood the next day for the women who cook the food for the new school feeding program (cooked bulgar from World Food Program). This, of course, takes time away from the children’s work on the farm or play, meaning that all in the family have a stake in ensuring children arrive on time and thus participate fully in the day’s learning, also meaning that teachers don’t need to take time from their day for reteaching. The workshop “but why?” conflict analysis and discussions around logical consequences seem to have sparked a significant change in practice and attitude. I’ve searched far and wide in Sierra Leone for schools that don’t flog and I think these may be the first.

My sister’s departure has also resulted in a significant change in my life. As she needs someone to be “caretaker” of her new abode (one of the rooms in the chief’s guesthouse) until her return with my other sister, Susan, next year, I’ve relocated across the road, and now am able to cook more easily (using both solar cooker and clay charcoal cook pot) and have started a new small garden, close to a source of water. The new room has space for a worktable and has light in the evenings (when the community centre generator is on) so I expect to also be a lot more efficient in the work that I’m doing. Last evening a number of friends stopped by and sat around the new “parlour”, the room that had been our library until last week, dispelling my main worry about the move, a concern that I would become the lone resident in what’s undoubtedly the most comfortable living space in the chiefdom. Tonight, incidently, new computer classes are starting in the new library, taught by Mabinty and Kouame, the first “graduates” of our first computer course.

Thank goodness the people of Paki Masabong ignored my advice last year. “No, it can’t be done, money’s not there,” was my response when I was told the community really wanted to build a library to serve the needs of the hundreds of children and adults who were trying each evening to pack into the small temporary room that was serving as community library in this small chiefdom, where only about one in thirty adults have been to school.

Here we are, one year later, preparing for the big feast planned tonight to thank the many youths who donated their time, labour and local materilas to make this dream a reality. A beautiful, spacious, well-stocked, solar-powered, internet-equipped library which is the talk of the country (the only village-based library of its kind in Sierra Leone) is about to officially open its doors (we expect the President to be here for the opening). And this dream is the result, not of the initiative of a well-heeled, well-funded NGO, but rather the determination and hard work of the people of this small community and their visionary Paramount Chief.

All this started two years ago when a visitor to this community (me), seeing no books in the schools but observing four teenage boys each evening poring over a decades-old dog-eared Shakespeare book, sent over several boxes of books which were then set up in a room designated as community library in a just-built “guest house” in the village. Lit in the evenings with a single bulb powered by a donated solar panel and battery and staffed by a volunteer teacher, this became such a popular and crowded place that each child in the village had to be limited to one visit to the library per week and there was no room for adults to squeeze in.

That’s when the Paramount Chief and elders intervened. “We need a library…we need a place where both adults and children can come and read and study and learn about the world.” Unable to envision a source of funding such an undertaking, I was skeptical. The community, though, knew it had to and could be done and at a community meeting called to discuss the library, two families came together to donate prime land in the centre of the village for its construction. The youth, meanwhile, organized in three work brigades representing all sections of the village, started making the mud bricks needed for walls and footings. Each day school children would stop on their way home from school to carry endless buckets of water for the youth who sweltered in the hot dry season sun to make enough mud bricks for a large four-room library. Just in time to cover the walls and protect the mud bricks before the rains came, the community received a small grant to purchase zinc roofing and cement and the outside shell of the library was completed. Over the ensuing months, the youth of the village developed hands-on experience and training in carpentry, masonry, wiring, painting, board-making, and woodworking as they volunteered their time to complete the library.

And what a library it is! Housing an amazing collection of hand-picked culturally-relevant visually-rich books about people, animals, plants and the planet and stocked with several laptops and digital video and still cameras donated from Canada, the library has a donated satelite internet connection which has been put to some very unique uses (ask about our Skype wedding, agricultural research, discussions between youth here and in Yukon, video postings, etc.). Staffed by two volunteer teachers living in the community, the library will be hosting classes for adults and chilren in health education, computer basics and functional literacy, workshops for teachers on a wide range of topics and will serve as a chiefdom “lending” centre for learning materials for community schools.

The community has asked me to pass on thanks to the many people and institutions who have come along on this journey and contributed to making this a place of pride for all. A huge thanks to Friends of Sierra Leone in the USA, Centre for Development and Peace Education and Peaceful Schools International, staff of Halifax Film, Green Solutions and the kind and caring individual donors who have contributed in various ways.

We hope to follow the lead of the people of this community and contribute in whatever way we can to this collective endeavour. We hope to raise funds for staff salaries ($150 per month), transport for a bookmobile to visit outlying villages ($50 per month), upgrading electrical needs ($500 for an additional battery) and purchasing additional resources to be loaned or given to schools. Ideas of funding sources are most welcome!

Photo - Mabinty and Kouame in the new library