Friday, April 2, 2010

It must have been the plaintive lowing of the perplexed cow that first alerted our Lungi neighbours to the bizarre situation unfolding between our houses. No one has yet figured out how the rather large long-horn cow ended up still alive in the murky pit at the bottom of the deep narrow well of the latrine (we think it must have been the soft landing) and all day curious and worried community members gathered around to peer down the hole, wondering how this story would end. Happily, when the Fullah men started arriving with ropes in hands and debating who would be elected to descend into the hole we began to hold out hope for the fate of the poor cow. Sure enough, by mid day, the lowing of the cow became more pronounced and we witnessed a relieved though somewhat smelly cow emerging lassoed-horns first from the pit. Everyone’s faith in and respect for the Fullah men’s ability to resolve all cattle-related problems was deepened and we all heaved a sigh of relief for the cow and for collective community cohesion.

Considered the safest place in the country during the war due to the presence of a large peace-keeping force in place to secure the airport, Lungi is a now a quiet and sleepy town and home to many of our relatives who escaped from rebel-occupied Makeni. During this visit I heard how family escaped Makeni with nothing but the clothes on their back and returned home after some time to find all belongings looted or destroyed. Like Freetown, residents from all parts of the country and all ethnic groups are now represented in Lungi and living harmoniously side-by-side. My last few days in Sierra Leone were spent there visiting with children and cousins, marveling over Fullah cow extraction techniques and exploring this very appealing new environment, rounding out the final family and town-based phase of my fourth stay in Sierra Leone.

Life in Makeni mirrors, in many ways, that of the village. Wandering the back alleys with Mother Rebecca to drop by a myriad of aunts and uncles and cousins and in-laws, hurriedly pulled by various children of the household behind crumbling structures to escape the roaming porro society, I was often overwhelmed by the combinations of sights and sounds and smells that pulled me back to Mapaki. The pungency of fresh planed wood shavings in the carpenters’ shop mixed with freshly fallen brilliant purple blossoms with the background scent of quietly baaing sheep roped to the wood pile evoked such memory. The taste of sweet Maltina sipped under the moon while discussing pressing issues of national urgency with the wise Makeni Paramount Chief, just back from parliament, contemplating maneuverings of international companies and institutions. The searing heat on sweat-drenched back traversing heaps of cassava planted by nurse Theresa who explains how the salary structure of health professionals would result in starvation for those not fortunate to have access to land for planting (she told me nurse salaries would soon be raised to $40 per month). And of course, the warmth of armloads of small children who, no matter where they live, either delight or run in fear from this strange pale creature who periodically turns up in their homes and neighbourhoods.

My last action on leaving Makeni was to visit the shiny new chiefdom tractor that had just arrived, causing me to also reflect on the dramatic changes I’ve witnessed in subsistence agriculture in Paki Masabong, a chiefdom that has struggled to feed its people for some time. In my first year, there was no local rice remaining during the hunger season and many suffered. Second year, after manual expansion with hoe and cutlass, the rice lasted through the twelve months. This year, not only have we enough local rice to eat through the planting season, but enough left to seed, with the help of the tractor, twice the acreage currently under cultivation. At the same time, this expansion will keep twice the number of youth gainfully employed in the chiefdom and away from the powder keg of the towns and city, diminishing the hopelessness and unemployment of rural youth that in during the 80s contributed to the destabilization of the country into the chaos of war. I depart this year with a greater sense of hope for the chiefdom than I had on departing in prior years.

As expected, this final week reinforced the current theme of endings and beginnings. My final hours in Salone were spent with Umar fast asleep in my lap, Fati resting with arms tight around my waist and Helen and Kadija curled up next to me. I spent the Freetown to London leg of my return journey in tears after a sorrowful good-bye with the children, not knowing when we would be back together or how their lives would unfold in the coming months. The London to Halifax leg, on the other hand, was spent planning, scheming and visioning a future in which the family is reunited, work in the chiefdom solidified and new horizons of collaboration opening and expanding. I have no idea now of when I will be returning to Salone, though hope it will be very soon. As plans develop, I will try to keep this blog updated. Till then, I’m signing off and out! Owah nu!!!!

Photo - Uncle Timbo in Makeni with the new twins