Sunday, March 21, 2010

The elderly started arriving at 7am this morning, small children guiding blind grandfathers, young mothers with babies on back, elderly women, youth with tools in hand. By the time the meeting started, there were about 70 women and men of all ages gathered on and around the chief’s porch ready to discuss the future of the library. The meeting started with a brief the library started, got built and has been running and moved on to plans for greater community input and planning for sustainability. As always, I am blown away by how the community comes together, finds ways of including all points of view, listens to each other, and comes up with interesting innovation. By the time evening rolled around, a steady stream of youth and adults were wandering into the solar-lit library to sign up for the new, expanded library advisory committee and staying to browse, with the children, through the new Osu books.

The distant village of One House continues to expand (up to eight houses!) and today I plunked myself down on the top of the One House hill with long-lost friends Marie and little Teresa, and, to my surprise, my rival Makapr, who had come to help with the communal rice-planting preparation. In the shade of the palm-roof kitchen hut, with cooling breezes wafting by and a breath-taking 360 degree vista of far-off hills and forest, a gang of young boys who were hauling 100kg sacks of seed rice took a shade-break to fill me in on how this farming works. The boys were transporting the rice from the threshing grounds to the new mud and wattle storage shed. Once the new tractor arrives next week, a huge new area of land will be tilled and the local seed, saved from last year’s harvest, planted, with an expectation of a greatly increased harvest next year. Six sacks of rice were being held in reserve to feed all who help with the planting and the harvest will be shared among those who lent their labour to this process (kind of like the story of the Little Red Hen). The boys explained that some of the women with us, who were busy drying and cooking rice, would otherwise have difficulty getting their own rice as they have no land of their own or access to extended labour. By the time I left, my belly was filled with the warm rice and slippery sauce cooked for the workers by the women and Teresa (sister of Saodatu), who could barely walk when I last saw her, was happily chatting to me in English and Temne.

On a smaller farming scale (upland versus boli), this morning Benjamin, Marie, Kouame, Mabinty and I walked the narrow path to Mabinty and Kouame’s farm. About four acres of hillside, the farm was covered in trees or brush when I last saw it. Since then, it’s been laboriously cleared (by hand and cutlass) and planted with about 100 palm trees, 25 pineapples and sorgum, which was harvested and put aside as food for poultry. Next, Marie (whose family has “leased” the land to Kouame), Mabinty and other women will use the land to plant their own groundnuts, which will keep the brush from returning, produce food and replenish the soil. After that, cassava will be grown for four years or until the palms start bearing fruit. At that point, the poultry will be built on the land, enough chicken feed will have been produced for the first year, and the palms will be producing oil for eating or selling. Sounds straight forward, but just as with the large farm at One House, the levels of complexity of social relationships involved in all of this is overwhelming (much friendly and informal bartering and negotiating of labour and land and food went on throughout the visit as I heard of the brother who needed to advise the younger to pull his weight, the man-without-a-woman who would exchange his labour for food, the role of women versus men in doing the harder clearing, etc.).

Our return to Mapaki was tinged in sorrow as, along with the rest of the village, we stopped to sympathize with our good friend, Michael Kalokoh, who was commemorating the 40th day of his father’s death. The elder Mr. Kalokoh has been in my thoughts and mind for a long time, since his illness during my first “hunger season” here sparked much of my current concern or involvement with agriculture. I remember Michael telling me, when I first met him, that he was an only child but I really had no idea of the impact of that statement until recently. As an only child and now without parents, Michael cannot access the systems of mutual support that a large, extended family provides here, and not having that family support would make farming a difficult choice for Michael, who supports himself through teaching in the primary school. Few teachers who are lucky enough to receive salary can actually feed a family on teachers’ wages here so Michael’s dream and plan is to return to school next year.

Meanwhile, teacher Joseph is finishing his schooling this year (thanks to one of the scholarships) and is also working on rebuilding his father’s house. The lack of water here has forced him to move his mud block production to an area some distance away, which explains the stream of children I sometimes see returning home from school with a large mud block on each head (mutual support operates on many levels!). And as labour is generally paid in food here (people work for a meal of rice), Joseph is in search of more rice to feed more block-makers so he can finish the house before the rains really arrive in April. Joseph also has great plans for a number of agricultural initiatives, and I have no doubt that he will be successful in his many goals and dreams.

Volunteer teacher and college student (among many things!) Mabinty cleared up some confusion for me today. I’ve been noticing that the number of children and women pounding rice seems greatly diminished since my first visit, when the rhythmic thump, thump of the heavy wooden pestles was a backdrop to almost all activity here. It’s because of the new rice-mill, she explained. Apparently the village has acquired a milling machine and for the cost of two cups of rice to pay for fuel, the miller will mill a large quantity of rice, freeing children and women from this somewhat hated task. As Manbinty explained, pounding rice always resulted in blistered hands when she was a girl, and she would dread the call to pick up the heavy pounding pestle. I miss the sound, myself, but have never been able to pound long enough to raise even a tiny welt. Apparently all are delighted with the new machine.

This is a long post today, but may be my last as I’m moving on to Makeni soon, where I may have difficulty accessing a computer. This year’s time here seems to have been all about beginnings and ending for me. It started with the devastation of baby Kadiatu’s death, which has led to a new beginning for me (as Kadiatu’s bare-footed older sister, first-grader Mary, has become a more frequent companion, quietly slipping her tiny hand in mine as I absent-mindedly walk along the road back from school). The ending of the peace project marks a new beginning for me also, as horizons and visions expand and contract while plans and dreams for the future are made. And as I pack up my bag here and prepare to move on for a short time to the bigger town of Makeni, I also start a new phase as a member of the Timbo household and family, which feels like a somewhat more nebulous existence when I am lodged continents away. I look forward to spending time now with daughters Kadija and Helen, Umar and the many cousins and family members in the household. Who knows from where or when the next post will come or what new beginning or ending will have revealed itself by then. Life continues to surprise.