31 December 2010

First of many random food related posts

It's interesting how this is the first food-related post of mine as a PCV given all the interesting mishaps and successes we have all had with local food here in Sierra Leone!

Ok so during the early days as a freshly minted Peace Corps volunteer, back when everything was so new, foreign, intimidating (still seems that way sometimes!), and exciting, I decided to do a random food experiement. I was bored one day and had on me a bag of raw palm kernels, some salt, a loaf of locally made white bread, and a killer appetite. This was back when I was still trying to navigate the complex foodways of Bumbuna, Sierra Leone and didn't quite know what my next meal would be. What would seem like a random vichyssoise of ingredients to most people was to me at the time a complete meal! So thus began the experiment...

Behold the palm kernels

You take a piece of bread, dipped in a small amount of salt (Iodized if your feeling fancy that particular day) and take a bite

You take one palm kernel (Your fingers may get stained in the process...don't worry, this is normal)

And take a sizeable bit of the selected palm kernel, taking care to leave behind the stringy pulp, with the salted bread still in mouth

Then chew chew chew the mish-mash together, taking note of the ohh so complex, bitter and oily undertones of the palm kernels and the way they blend together with the salty, earthiness of the locally made bread, all up in your mouth, giving you a satisfying and memorable eating experience!!...Then Repeat at least 15 times...or at least until you feel like throwing up, it's your call ;)

Note: I'm not responsible for any unintentional staining of the lips, teeth, clothing, and/or fingers during this experience.

30 December 2010

Christmas Na Bumbuna

Masquerade fun in Kamankay!

Na mi firs Chrismas away from me fambul dem (This was my first christmas away from my family) and it was great! Although not because I was away from my family, simply because, Christmas in Bumbuna was that good. Sierra Leoneans from all over the country, even some from Europe and America came to spend Christmas in Bumbuna. Bumbuna's populations is already swelling due to the presence of the two companies: African Minerals and Salini Construction. The electricity in my village is also another reason why so many people in Sierra Leone are trying to press their luck in Bumbuna. Christmas day was not so much as festive as the day after Christmas...what's known as Boxing Day, which to my knowledge is not widely observed back in the states. To be honest I really didn't do that much on Christmas day. I relaxed and ate food with my neighbors and baked them some peanut butter bread (which they loved!...Peace Corps recipe) in a dutch oven with local materials: A coal pot cooker, metal pot, sand, a small baking tin, and a small empty tin can. I didn't take pictures, but it's really easy to do. Next time I bake I will document it. On Boxing Day, the tradition here is to spend the day at the Bumbuna waterfalls drinking, enjoying good food and music, and having a grand-ole time. There were actually two outings: The one at the Bumbuna Waterfalls, and the other in Kamankay, where I live, down at the rivers edge, again with music, food, drink, and merriment.

Later that evening, there were two dances held. one in Bumbuna and one in Kamankay. I of course attended both and had a blast dancing and having fun with all the beautiful people. I get the impression that the best places to spend your holidays is in the village instead of Freetown. Freetown tends to get too congested at this time of the year because of the influx of holiday travelers. So how ironic it is for me to writing this post from Freetown. I was originally going to spend it at another PCV's village, but I had an emergency situation with my macbook pro charger. It quit working altogether so at the recommendation of one Peace Corps staffer, I traveled to Freetown to have it looked it by a computer specialist. Afterwards I was told that the voltage regulator was completely fried and replacing it would be impossible. Unfortunately Apple hasn't made it's way over to Sierra Leone so for the time being, I'm without a laptop, until my family can send one over to me.

Until I recieve it (If I recieve it) posts will be fairly limited :(

Patricia and I, the yogurt lady, at Bumbuna Waterfalls

Some of my neighbors in Kamankay at the Kamankay outing on Boxing day...There is a strange, inexplicable contrast going on here

20 November 2010


Ohh anonymity, that concept is virtually non-existent here in my village, especially if your are an individual perceived by others to be high on the social hierarchy i.e. paramount chiefs, section chiefs, principal of the secondary school, or an American Peace Corps volunteer working hard to adjust to the different customs (ME!). Back home, you can go about your business in complete anonymity, although it varies from city to city, state to state and region to region. That is why America is soo unique. But here in my village, every act I engage in is subject to the public sphere. When I’m in a room with a group of people or anywhere in fact, and I so much as utter a word to one person, EVERYONE gets silent, as if what I’m saying was meant for their ears. I experience this a lot in on the public transport here is Sierra Leone. The differences etiquette on all modes of public transport between America and Sierra Leone are very striking.

For instance; Lets say I decide to take a trip from Bumbuna to Makeni or Makeni to Freetown, and vice-versa. As I have established in previous posts, all individuals are usually packed like sardines with no room to reach into your pockets let alone breathe comfortably. And lets for a minute assume that all individuals traveling are complete strangers (a rare occurrence in a country with about 14 ethnic groups and as well connected socially as Sierra Leone is). We are all hot, sweaty, aggravated to be squished beyond comprehension (No mash mi! is a common Krio phrase you will hear in taxi or poda-poda rides which literally means: Don’t mash me! Or Shoob smal! Which literally means: Move over a little bit!), and quite frankly scared out of our wits in the event that an accident occurs. Yet through all the stress, the Salone man/woman will never miss an opportunity to engage in public lament, in Krio: E no easy mi brotha (Its not easy my brother), or again Krio: Look mi how ah/wi de suffa (Look at how I’m/We’re suffering). Lets just say, its one of the ties that binds; those that suffer together, stay together as they say. Yet, if there is every a place a stranger can learn about the issues facing Sierra Leoneans today it’s on public transport, I’m telling you! You will hear the most interesting conversations, and all you have to do is just sit there and listen, if you are an anthropologist by trade, just forget about participant observation! Most of the discussions revolve around politics and the general direction the country is going, sometimes the travelers will talk about me as if I’m not sitting there in the car with them or as if I cannot understand their language. People constantly ask me in Krio: Olman, u no de speak? (Gentleman, don’t you talk?) and when I answer in Krio, there is amazement and slight embarrassment when they realize that the person they have been talking about has understood every word. I never get tired of it  People will talk and converse with each other on these rides as if they known each other all their lives.

Contrast that to your average bus/subway ride on the NYC metro or any other major metropolitan area in the U.S., COMPLETE SILENCE. One of three things usually happen though: people have their heads buried in a book; their ears are plugged with the latest tunes from their iPods, consciousnesses out of step with the outside world, they are talking to their friends/acquaintances, or they’re just sitting there in abject silence. To merely speak to the random stranger sitting next to you feels like an interruption of his/her life rhythm or flow. (I’m generalizing just so you know). When my time here as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone is finished, I’m going to have a hell of a time re-adjusting to the pace of life in the U.S. The U.S., generally a society that prides itself on individual novelty and achievement, and Sierra Leone, a society in which the maintenance of group cohesion trumps any individual zeal. There are many more differences, relating to anonymity but indirectly I suppose. I heard a proverb on the BBC radio program, Focus on Africa one day that went something like this: If you want to learn about Africa, you should open your ears, and close your mouth. That’s a creed I’ve been trying to live by here, (It’s difficult for me because I like to ask questions) but what you hide by closing your mouth, you inevitably give away with your face, a more indirect mode of communicating your intentions or emotional state(s). What is interesting is that people here are EXTREMELY sensitive to that (indirect communication that is). I’ve had numerous experiences when I’d be listening to a conversation not knowing that I was giving away my opinion, en bloc. The only way I knew that I was giving away my views? People would say things to me that made me think, DAMN! How’d’ they know that I felt that way? I have been told that I have really expressive eyes (thank you Miss Jennifer Sloan), so I probably shouldn’t be surprised.

Bottom line? Anonymity here is scant. Even the ants, mosquitoes, and black flies (What a menace those black flies are!!!!!!) wont leave you alone…haha

Noteworthy developments:

-My school now has real, 24 hour, 21st century, sustainable electricity!!! No more generators, no more fuss, no more nonsense. As per the conditions of their contract with the government of Sierra Leone, Salini Construction, the Italian firm developing the hydroelectric damn here in my village, Bumbuna, has connected my school with electricity from the Damn. As I’m writing this post now, I’m using electricity from the Damn itself. The day that they installed the power, all of the students at the school dug a trench leading from the street lamp on the school campus, to the building where the electricity would be distributed to all of the other buildings. The only reason we had the students dig the trench was because of the impatience of the school staff. Usually Salini digs the trenches but they were on a tight schedule, and wouldn’t have installed the power at our school for a while, unless somebody dug the trench for them (the students!!)

-We have just finished building a second well near my house in the village that I technically reside in, Kamankay (The first well was constructed by World Hope). Kamankay is technically part of Bumbuna, it is separated from Bumbuna by the River Rokel, the longest river in Sierra Leone. Until recently, the only way you could access Bumbuna from Kamankay and vice versa was by boat, until Salini built the road bridge. A three-person team came in and drilled through the iron-oxide rich soil and rock approximately 30 meters underground to find an underwater reservoir. It was a long process with a series of repetitive steps, although it was completed in about two and a half days. I served as the “apprentice”. Whenever I wasn’t teaching at school I came back home and helped wherever I could. It was a dirty job! When I’m able to, I will post pictures and you will see how dirty I became despite the fact that I probably helped with 20%-30% of the work. All that is left now is to pour cement around the pvc pipe casings, and construct the pump mechanism that will allow residents to draw the water up. It was great to be a part of the development process, bringing clean water to the residents here.

-You know what else is great? ELECTRICITY, and STREET LIGHTS. Bumbuna is being light with street lamps on a level that will far surpass that of Freetown, when looked at in terms of percent coverage. Salini is now constructing streetlights in Kamkankay, and they are all really close to my house. Which means that when they are finished and the National Power Authority (The government electric power authority) moves in, I will have the opportunity to have electricity diverted to my house, although there is no telling when that will happen (hopefully soon, fingers crossed).

-We have finally started making moves to construct the basketball court at my school. On Friday, I had all of the students taking Physical Health and Education (P.H.E.)_brush the 50x84 foot demarcation we made in the field where the court is to be constructed. I’m sure that anyone reading this who has grown up farming in Sierra Leone or anywhere in West Africa will know that brushing is not an easy task, especially when the only tools available are the native ones: a blunt cutlass, a blunt hoe of various sizes, and a shovel. Those are the tools that the students did the work with which consisted of removing all the grass from the field. We started with about 5 students, all in JSS3 and then one of the PHE teachers gave me all of his students to assist us with the work. What happened next was pure chaos! You would think that having more hands for a tough job would make it go smoothly right? No. I thought we were working pretty efficiently, but as soon as the students came, loud shouting ensued with little work to accompany any of the shouting. I was afraid that the work wouldn’t get done. I was getting annoyed and was on the verge of flipping out on all of the students until Richard, one of my JSS3 students, reassured me that I should not worry and that the work would get done. Sure enough, I waited a bit, and the students began working with me as one of the overseers. The other overseer, one of the P.H.E teachers for JSS 1 &2 used a small whip made from a tree branch to enforce the order. Needless to say, I used to power of my cool voice to maintain order among the unruly bunch, but I will admit, if I didn’t have him around, the job would not have been finished. Don’t worry; I’m not about to accept corporal punishment anytime soon! People here have their own peculiar way of getting tasks done which may seem nonsensical to you or I, but if you wait awhile, the job will eventually get done, emphasis on the awhile.

Now all that we have to do is figure out how we are going to acquire the resources for the backboard, concrete for the court, and poles for the goals. We already have a nice basketball and a set of rims and nets. What I think I will do is ask the local carpenter who is working on the school, to build a backboard for us, once he has the appropriate dimensions. I still haven’t figured out if we should use a wooden or metal pole for the goal. Metal is stronger, although more expensive, and wood, especially strong bamboo is more plentiful, although it will weather much faster. Once the court is constructed, all that is left is to paint the lines, e.g. half-court line, three-point/free-throw line, the lane, and the out of bounds line. I’m trying my best to help the students take advantage of their local resources in this project, rather in getting outside help to magnanimously bestow them with a basketball court, from the very Gods themselves. The concrete will be a problem though. Cement is expensive, especially for the large area it’s needed for. I have been taping with my camera the students working and have also recorded a few students’ responses to the question: Why do you think Saint Matthews Secondary School of Bumbuna, Sierra Leone should have a basketball court? With the hopes of showing it to anyone who might be able to provide us with a donation (of cement, the manpower to mix and pour the concrete, or anything!).

Suggestions are welcome!

Well Na in Dat (Well that’s that)

All of us posing after finishing the first phase of the well construction in Kamankay

The one of four streetlights in Kamankay!!

30 October 2010


A few weeks before being sworn in as PCVs, we held a supervisor workshop where all the soon to be PCTs met with their soon to be supervisors. It was pretty fun; we all sat through various sessions and learned about the core expectations that PCVs should have of their supervisors while at site. Before we began those sessions, we took part in a little matchmaking icebreaker (Peace Corps love ice-breakers!). All of the PCTs and supervisors were given a slip of paper. On each paper was one half of an African proverb and our job was to find our counterpart (supervisor) who we thought possessed the other half of the correct corresponding proverb. Afterwards, we were instructed to learn a little bit about each other and figure out the meaning of the proverb, and share our findings with the rest of the audience. I just want to share some of the proverbs that caught my attention. Feel free to comment if you have an interpretation for any of the proverbs below!!:

“News doesn’t have feet but it travels.”

“No matter how you fix a chimpanzees nose, it is still ugly.”

“No matter how big a child is, he will never be bigger than his father.”

“If you don’t get along with a hunter in town, don’t follow him into the bush.”

“If you can’t catch a black goat during the day, you certainly can’t catch it at night.”

“The stick you find inside a canoe is the one you will paddle with.”

“The same rain that beats bitter leaf until it is bitter, beats sugar cane until it is sweet.”

“If you beat a drum for a madman, you are also crazy too.”

“If a cotton tree falls down, it is still taller than the grass.”

“A family tree can bend, but it will never break.”

“You cannot hide something under your armpit while beating rice in a mortar.”

“If you listen to the noise of the market, you will never buy what you want.”

The last one is one of my favorites, due both to its shallow and deep meaning. The market woman here can be really aggressive and distracting if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for ;)

23 October 2010

Development and Me

I have been an official bona fide Peace Corps Volunteer here in Bumbuna for a little over three months now, and already I have been thinking about what precisely my role here during the next two years will be. Not necessarily my role as I see it. From my point of view it is pretty clear what my role is. But more importantly, I have been wondering what my role here is as a PCV from the point of view of the locals here. There was immense excitement upon my arrival here, and rightly so. PCVs have and done a lot of good things in the villages they have served, but essentially we are development workers when it boils right down to it, and being a development worker comes with a whole host of responsibilities, none of which should be taken for granted in any context whatsoever. But honestly, I’m still wondering what expectations people here in Bumbuna have for me. Ill give a few incidents I’ve experienced that I hope will clarify or illustrate what exactly I’m trying to say.

So in case you were wondering, there is corporal punishment at my school, St. Matthews and most likely, in every other secondary school in this country, despite the fact that it is against government policy, whatever that means! It is a policy that was instituted, I suspect, at the behest of any number of Western institutions or NGOs operating here in Sierra Leone. To me it is a strange policy not because I agree that corporal punishment should be used in the schools (I in fact do not); It is strange because the teachers in the schools seem to lack alternative means of disciplining the students. They truly believe, at least from the discussions that Ive had (In the interest of not over-generalizing), that the “African child”, whatever that title entails, will not listen to you unless you institute the cane. In the beginning, I definitely made my views regarding corporal punishment known to all of my colleagues at the school and the principal (My supervisor), without any concern of offending any of them. But of course I did so always in a respectful way, making sure to back up all of my assertions and viewpoints with what seemed to me (and to any of my other Peace Corps friends/colleagues I’m sure), to be sound logic and intuition. The only problem is, most people here don’t operate on logic! I can’t explain it, Ill try sometime later.

There was an incident at my school where a few of the JSS girls were kneeling down in the hot sun as punishment for some unknown crime. I asked the girls what they did to deserve that punishment, and they told me that they were caught idling outside of class when they should have been inside it, although I should say that the teacher didn’t show up to the class at the appropriate time, something that happens frequently at my school so I simply wanted to understand the rationale behind the punishment. I approached my principal and questioned her as to why the students were kneeling down. I just wanted to hear both sides of the story. But unfortunately, when it comes to discipline, only one side matters here, and that is the side of the teacher/headmaster, their word is infallible. My principal was annoyed that I was impudent enough to even question her and she fired back at me saying that I should allow her to discipline her kids the way she disciplines them. I was incredibly offended and left school wondering what the locals thinks my role at the school and Bumbuna is. Do they want me to just fill in a niche (Biology SSS) and keep my mouth shut about things that could be done better at the school and community? And there are Boku things that could be done better. Do they just see me as an extension of the many NGOs here in Sierra Leone and expect me to procure funds on command for all the material things they want in? It’s not easy. All I know is when it comes to teaching my students, I want to make them feel that there is a very big and interesting world out there outside of Sierra Leone and get them to enjoy learning about biology, all in the same breath, something that is not easy to do. Right now it’s pretty easy because wer’e talking about ecology, so it’s very easy to illustrate ecological principles using relevant examples in their communities. Ive been bringing my laminated National Geographic map when talking about the places certain animals and plants are able to survive in the biosphere and also when showing my students all the places Ive been in America and the World. They absolutely love it, and they absolutely want it! In other words, they want me to leave it at the school for them. BUT I think it would be more meaningful if the students created their own map, instead of having a  “big man” (Me) magnanimously give them one, out of the goodness of his heart. What if they crafted a map on their own, with my facilitation of course, that they could take great pride in knowing that it was theirs and that no one could take it away from them? I think the world map project is in order here. But I still need more time to gauge just how badly they want it. If they don’t want to map badly enough to be wiling to put the work in building it, then maybe, just maybe, they don’t want a map at all.

A lot of the students at my school are also really interested in basketball! They eventually want to build a court on the school grounds, we have the space, but whether we have the resources is another matter. They have been looking to me for help in building the court, as if consulting me will magically result in there being a court constructed overnight. I played basketball in high school and used to play for fun during my spare time back home so I would love nothing more than to see a court constructed. Right now, we have the ball, and two rims and nets for the goals, but nothing more. Deep inside, I know that my students have what it takes to utilize their local resources to help build one. But right now, as with the world map, I want to gauge just who wants the map badly enough to be willing to put the work in necessary to build one. Those are the people I’m most interested in helping to construct one. As of now, what we need is cement for the court, metal poles for the goals (strong wood poles might work just as well), backboards which could easily be constructed by our local carpenter, Mr. Koroma, the man who also built a lot of the furniture for my home, and paint for the court itself, and backboard. An easy task? Well we will see just how bad they want it.

I hope to be meeting with U.S. representatives of the World Bank tomorrow. One really friendly and helpful person here in Bumbuna, Mr. Moore, who works for a local NGO here in Bumbuna that works directly with the World Bank, will hopefully be introducing me to them. From what I understand, there are a few projects under the Bumbuna Hydroelectric Project that are receiving direct support from the World Bank and the purpose of their visit is to ensure that everything is going smoothly. For me it would be a great opportunity to meet them and see if there are any opportunities for collaboration on secondary projects. I’m really excited about their arrival. The last time I talked to Mr. Moore about his work with the World Bank he told me about one of the project goals of the Bumbuna Hydro-Electric Project, the establishment of a viable ecotourism industry in Bumbuna. Mr. Moore told me that there are rare bird species up near the site of the damn, but their population numbers are in jeopardy due to the extensive habitat destruction as a result of the construction of the damn. There are other sensitive animal and plant species near the site of the damn as well, and it would be awesome if the villagers here understood that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between preserving biodiversity and preserving land for farming purposes. I really think that if instituted properly, it would be a great source of revenue for Bumbuna proper.

The last thing I want is for people to look at me and see a walking bank. If I’m able to help start one, two, three or more projects while here in Bumbuna, I want for the locals to feel that they did it themselves, not that they did it with any sort of assistance from me, whether or not its true. I think that empowerment is much more desirable than dependency in any development scenario, no matter where you find yourself.

Quick updates:

-I’ve had bird number three die in my possession, another weaverbird caught by one of my students. Something tells me that I probably should take it easy in trying to care for wild birds, maybe if I find a pigeon Ill consider it, they usually do well in captivity.

-My carpenter finally got around to fixing my leaking  roof! I wont know till the next heavy rain if he actually did the work properly.

-Im going to have a street light right near my house pretty soon! Salini is also constructing an electricity box literally right in front of my house so if I decide to opt in for electricity in my home, the opportunity is there

-I have a gas tank now and I’m now cooking with gas, not all the time though, just so I can make it last…Soo convenient!

-I stepped on a baby chick on accident yesterday in such a way that its guts exploded from its body. I felt soo bad! And you want to know what made it infinitely worse? When I placed him at his final resting place, I was horrified to later find one of the other local hens cannibalizing the  baby chick. It puts a new meaning on the circle of life I guess. I really have been having bad luck with birds lately…

09 October 2010


My late vice principal and I
This past week, I've witnessed death about, 3 times now, the 4th time was indirect, but it hit close to to home. Two were major ones, the other two were minor, I guess, it depends on who you ask, but nonetheless, they put the cap on an otherwise death filled week.

1)My vice principal, Mr. Conteh passed away at the young age of 42 two thursdays ago. The circumstances surrounding his death are still unknown, and it was very depressing to see it happen to such a young individual and to a community that valued the contributions he made to the school. Carlos and Sarah came to visit me two Saturdays ago and we decided to visit my principal, Mrs. Jalloh, who happens to the official community.  "supervisor" the Peace Corps assigned to me here in Bumbuna. When we arrived at her house, she wasn't around, so we waited only to see her arrive with Mr. Conteh who complained that he wasn't "feeling to bright", (A local idiom used here which essentially means that the person is sick). He had just returned from the hospital, so I gave him my condolences and he went to his house. Carlos, Sarah, Mrs Jalloh, and I chatted for a while only to have our conversation interrupted by a child screaming hysterically, "Mr. Conteh! Mr Conteh! Come quick!, he is dying, he is dying. So Mr, Jalloh and I bolted to his home. Up until that time, I never once stepped foot in his home, but at that particular moment I didnt need any directions because the sounds of women and children wailing in complete and utter despair guided me to where I needed to go.

When I arrived, I followed the crowd of people to Mr. Conteh's bedroom only to find Mr. Conteh lying in his bed. He was unconscious, convulsing, sweating profusely, his pulse was racing, and his body was cold to the touch. There were men standing over him, fanning him furiously because the room he was in was unbearable hot. I tried to remain calm and did my best to restore any semblance of order in the room. I instructed those who were crying or crowding him to leave at once, and made sure that the men fanning Mr. Conteh kept it up. All I could really do was make sure that he was getting enough air and space.

It was very unsettling to witness this event, considering especially the random nature of it all. All I could do was hope that this man, this young, seemingly healthy individual, didn't die right before my eyes, in my arms even. His convulsions were alternating between fast, sporadic and slow, halting gyrations which forced me to hold my breath with the hopes of not witnessing firsthand what would eventually become inevitable.

He was eventually taken to Makeni in my principal's own vehicle where he spent the week recovering. Around that tuesday, I heard that he was conscious and recovering, although he didn't remember anything from that saturday. That thursday, I was walking back to my house from town, and I heard from a unidentified man walking down the street that Mr. Conteh had passed away that evening. I couldn't believe it so I called Mrs. Jalloh to ask if she heard anything, she said no, and called that hospital and family and it was later confirmed that he had indeed died that evening.

I think it is disturbing for anyone, especially a PCV, to witness the death of a colleague soo soon, especially somebody who showed no sign of sickness, and someone who was considered an invaluable resource for the school; Mr. Conteh was teaching a full course load at the school across many different subjects. At the same time, I have to be aware of my surroundings. Adequate systems of healthcare are minimal to non-existent here in Salone and it will take time for things to improve. In the mean time, people will continue to be misdiagnosed or go untreated for what are considered in the west as treatable diseases.

2) A student at my school who was pregnant recently died earlier this week during childbirth.

3) One of my colleagues came to work one day with a baby weaver bird! So I asked him if I could have it. I kept him in an empty chalk-box that was punched full of holes and fed him an eclectic diet of rice, peanut butter and earthworms, but he unfortunately died about a few days after taking him in :( His death occurred the same day as...

4) When one of my students in Integrated science (JSS3) showed me a bird he stoned. When he brought it to me, it was practically half dead, my scientific side took over, and I spent about 30 minutes looking through my Birds of Western Africa guide trying to identify him, to no avail ( He was a sparrow of some kind, There are soo many birds here!) One of the other teachers in my school, seeing that I was busy trying to identify the passerine, carelessly flicked him while saying, "ohh what's this?" No sooner than when he flicked him, its violently shuttered in my grips, and summarily died....

Well, I do plan on keeping an exotic pet or two, or three, or four, in my house, but at the rate Im going now maybe I need to reconsider my options?....Ehh...no..

Life is still good

02 October 2010

Lost photos

Marty and I during our swearing ceremony

Allie, my Limba language trainer during training

Not quite sure what Miss Gavina is doing here

My bird house!!

Kristen during Amanda's birthday party

Me after crawling in the manhole of my roof, trying to fix my leaks


Imperceptibly slowly, but surely, things are gradually falling into place. School has begun (I think!), my tiles are finished, although my roof still leaks, Im almost finished painting all the rooms in my house (only one left!) with the hope that it will look less depressing and dungeony, I’m finally getting the hang of how to consistently start and maintain the fire on my charcoal cooker (It’s pretty ingenious how this seemingly primitive device works), I’m learning more and more about the needs of the community that I live in each and every and I’m gradually falling into somewhat of a routine. It’s amazing how aware I’ve become of just how vital having a daily routine is to my well being, at any given time. You don’t become aware of it until you move to a very strange and different place and are forced to find ways to adjust. I’ve been at my posting now for about a month and a fortnight, and I have had my mental resolve tested on multiple occasions, both from my own experiences, and witnessing those of the people I’m living among. It’s really interesting.

Living in a country that ranks towards the very bottom on the U.N. development index in development really opens your eyes to all the things that makes every existing modern society run efficiently, things that are simply non-existent in Sierra Leone. Indeed by growing up as an American I have taken for granted all the technological advancements that seem all too banal and commonplace to most of us.

My goodness, I just can’t help but think about the poor state of road infrastructure in Sierra Leone. Anyone who has had the experience of travelling in this country will quickly understand how precarious an experience it is, especially when it comes to the ever present need of transporting goods and services from point A to point B. Back home, if I want something, there is very little standing in the way of me getting it. Hell, if I want an MP3 player, Ebay, Amazon, a quick drive to the local radio shack, next-day delivery and/or a smooth car ride and it’s mine, all with a money back guarantee, no questions asked. In Sierra Leone, especially if you live in a rural village that is inaccessible during periods of heavy rain (a constant occurrence during the rainy season) as I do, it takes SOO MUCH effort to obtain the items you want/need. And to transport them where you need them is another source of constant worry and stress, especially if you don’t own a vehicle! There are so many structural deficiencies in this country that it is easy for the average citizen here to feel as if they have no control over their fate, that it is all left up to God, and indeed I find in talking to people that that is a common attitude. I will share a personal anecdote regarding the tiles I recently installed in my house to try and reinforce this point.

It was about a few weeks ago that I travelled to Makeni, Sierra Leone one Saturday morning with the hopes…key word hopes…of purchasing the boku boku (Krio work meaning “many”) packets of tile, and boku boku bags of cement needed to commence with the laborious work of tiling my small house. It’s not easy to get to Makeni from my village. A distance of about 30 miles from Bumbuna on an all dirt road takes about an hour and twenty minutes with a driver who is good, and knows the boku boku bumps and potholes like the back of his hand. With the amount of material needed to begin the work on my house, it would have been impossible to transport any of it via taxi which by definition, must be cramped (two in the front passenger seat, and five to six in the back is pretty standard) so I spent many weeks waiting for the right opportunity. Luckily, I was introduced to a man by the name of Dennis a couple of days before. Dennis is one of the many locals who is employed by Salini Construtori (Construction) the Italian company under contract by the Sierra Leonean government to develop the damn project (which just now after 30 years of work, is providing Bumbuna with street lights…yes street lights!  Bumbuna is no longer living in darkness). About once a month, in correspondence with their monthly paycheck, his family, and the other locals who work for Salini Construtori, take a trip with one of the company vehicles to Makeni to do some needed shopping. After talking to Dennis about my desire to tile my home, he said it wouldn’t be a problem if I tagged along and purchased the needed materials.

Note: What I neglected to discuss with him was the shear number of materials I needed: 23 packets of tiles, 17 tiles in each packet at a weight of 18kgs each, 8 bags of cement (18kgs each), and 1 bag of white cement.

The morning we were to leave, I witnessed a scene that one local described as reminding him of apartheid times in South Africa when blacks, according to this man, were transported effectively as slave cargo on18 wheelers equipped to carry a large number of black South Africans to prisons. I was to meet one of the drivers for Salini at the “PK Camp”, where all the Sierra Leoneans who work for Salini live with their families. When I entered the compound, I heard a loud rumble and I followed the noise inside the camp to find a large mass of people, approximately 200, clamoring to fit into what can only be described as a prison on wheels. An 18-wheeler with a rusting yellow “cage” linked to it. This “cage” was completely enclosed, save a few spaces interspersed throughout the cage for openings to allow for air to enter. Of course the openings were barred! The entrance of the cage was full of eager and enthusiastic Bumbunians trying to enter, with the occasional motal-man (Krio for human-being, think mortal-man in English) falling out or hanging on to the outside of the cage if there wasn’t any space on the inside, with the hopes of staying attached one way or another. I asked a gentleman next to me what the meaning of this curious scene was. He said that once every month, Salini frees its cargo truck to anyone needing a ride to Makeni to do needed shopping. They leave early in the morning for Makeni and return to Bumbuna early in the afternoon. I walked away towards the waiting van thinking how luck I was to not be riding on the truck.

Little did I know that I would be returning to Bumbuna later that day with all of my materials in that very same truck, packed like cargo, human cargo.

When we arrived in Makeni (only after many random detours, many involving a “quick” stop to chat with a friend, which of course really means 30 minutes), we finally got down to discussing the business of transporting my materials. The only problem was that silly me!! I failed to discuss with Dennis beforehand the shear number of materials that I needed to transport. When I told him he immediately said it would not be possible because there were many other people in the van who were also buying items to bring back to Bumbuna, and the cargo space in the van was virtually non-existent. No sooner than when he said that, my heart sunk. Another wasted opportunity?! NOO!!!! Out of desperation, I asked him if there was any other possibility, I simply could not leave Makeni empty handed (Sound familiar? Think about my experience in Freetown with trying to find gas, oh and by the way, I have still yet to find a full gas tank in this country, there is a shortage J). And I’m sure you know exactly what he said. He said that he could refer me to his friend, the truck driver who could possibly allow me to transport all of my tiles and cement bags. He called him up and said that it wouldn’t be a problem. At this point all I wanted to do was buy the shit that I needed and get the hell out of there, bottom line, so I said fine. He referred me to one of his co-workers and friends who tagged along with us. He knew a guy that could give me a good deal on tiles. We went there, I found the tiles I liked and bought them, along with all the cement bags, and then transported them to the then empty cage waiting for me at a nearby lorry-park. After loading everything up, I left to do some more shopping in the marketplace.  Around 3 o’clock, I returned to a cage packed full of human cargo and all imaginable goods purchased during the day. I also returned to what would be the beginning of what some of my fellow Peace Corps friends have called “TIA” (this is Africa), meaning an unexpected, seemingly random turn of bad luck that has characterized so many of our day-to-day experiences thus far.  

Seeing as though I was one of the first people to load my belongings onto the truck, it was fitting that I would have to swim through 100Ibs bags of rice, bicycles, bed frames, ceiling fixtures made from the same material used in basket weaving, computers, mirrors, clothes, and people, seething with anger at this Black American who kept stepping on their feet while trying to get to the front of the cage to attend to his delicate tiles; Tiles that were in the process of being stepped and sat on by people seemingly oblivious to the delicate nature of tiles as a matter of principle. It was an acrobatic feat just to even get to them, luckily for me there were bars hanging from the ceiling and I engaged in a few gymnastic man I’ve been waiting for. In 2 hours time, I will finally have transported my entire set of tiles home to later be installed. Uhhh no, things don’t work that way here of course.

So the truck pulled out of the lorry park, and onto pavement. Smooth sailing here on out right?...RIGHT?....no. The first minor bump we hit on the asphalt sent me along with the tiles I was sitting with, sailing two feet into the air only to return to the earth with a resounding CRASH!! The crash being my tiles of course. I panicked and thought my God, the road to Bumbuna is all dirt and if that measly bump had that effect, my tiles will be powder by the time I arrive in Bumbuna. Of course the ride was on asphalt for a good while, only because we ended up taking the long way back to Bumbuna…naturally of course!...through Magburaka, where Carlos and Sarah stay. It was during the many minute bumps that I peeked inside one of my tile packets and noticed that it was a different design then the one I asked for. I was too careless when buying the tiles that I failed to inspect each packet as it was being loaded onto the van. By then I was just praying that my tiles make it home relatively intact to care about the different design.

It got progressively worse after we arrived in Magburaka. The road from Magburaka to Bumbuna is one of the worst roads I have ever ridden on, no lie, and I knew that once we set out on it, that trying to keep my tile packets in place would be a futile effort. All I can say is that being on that road forced me to revaluate any semblance of order I might have been striving for as a PCV. My tiles with every vibration of the truck it seemed were being demolished. Packets were falling over, and I recruited people to help me sit on top of them just to minimize the height the tiles flew with each perturbation. Long story short, we arrived in Bumbuna and all the passengers unloaded their cargo. I was towards the front so I was last to unload my belongings, but I waited until after buying a big bowl of cassava leaf soup with rice which was very therapeutic, only for Le 1000, or about $0.25, a deal you can’t beat. When my tiles finally arrived at my house, there were soo many broken tiles! I was soo annoyed that I didn’t touch them or look at them for a week because it would remind me of the traumatic experience of transporting them home. Luckily after doing an inventory, I found that I had just enough intact tiles to tile all three rooms in my house…Isn’t it funny how things work out in the end? The man who ended up doing the actual work…Patrone… was very entertaining if not frustrating at times. He, just like everyone I’ve met here, preferred to work at his own pace, and it took weeks to actually finish the work as a result. Although in working with him, I wouldn’t be surprised that if by the end of my service, I given a Limba woman to take back to America!...More on that later

SOOO the man who sold me the tiles ended up selling me two designs I didn’t ask for. Of course I was angry, BUT I was faced with two choices: 1)Go through the added inconvenience of trying to exchange the unbroken tiles I didn’t ask for, which meant either waiting a month for the Salini transport or hassling people in my village who own cars; 2)learn from the experience and make the different designs work for me. I chose the latter, and I’m quite happy with the choice. I actually went to Makeni yesterday and saw the man (A Lebanese man) who sold me the tiles. I let him know the mistake he made and how upset I was, but I forgave and told him not to worry about it, not that he would have anyway.

I turned stressful, potentially disastrous situation into a work of art. I’m proud of myself!

On a more somber note, the Vice-principal of my school passed away on Thursday, a completely unexpected event. It was especially traumatic because I was with him the day he was sick one day, had a serious seizure the next day and was dead within one week. I don’t have much power left on my laptop so I will write about it tomorrow...

11 September 2010

Dis na Africa

I’ve been at my site for about three+ weeks now, and I have to say that I have had whole host of experiences that I think only Africa can provide. I haven’t even begun teaching at St. Matthews and I have already been hopelessly frustrated in general inspired, often one before the other and at the same time.

So in my village, there are three and a half functioning radio frequencies, radio Makeni 88.0 FM, BBC 15400 AM (Which only broadcasts in the morning and mid to late afternoon, there are also other shortwave frequencies that broadcast BBC during the other hours when 15400 is down), and radio Numbara 102.5 FM. Radio Numbara is the only station that broadcasts solely for Bumbuna, Sierra Leone. A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around downtown Bumbuna (Downtown is literally the market place and a few buildings) and I decided to stop at a local bar and buy a fanta, which to my surprise was cold, despite the fact that there is yet to be electricity in Bumbuna and there was no generator running. The seller told me that she receives shipments of ice blocks from either African Minerals (the Sierra Leonean mining company responsible for the iron ore mining in the surrounding Sura mountains) or Salini Construtori (The Italian company contracted by the Sierra Leonean government to develop the damn in Bumbuna that powers Freetown with a substantial proportion of its power). I enjoyed the fanta and on my way back to the house, I ran into Ibrahim, one of the DJs at Radio Numbara. We started talking about affairs of the village and I asked him about general issues in the village that people are the most concerned with. It was such a vague and undirected question that he wasn’t quite sure how to address it so I helped him out by giving him some ideas Id bounced off of other people in my village. 

I told Ibrahim about the observation I made about malnutrition among some of the children in my village and related it to eating a balanced diet, particularly one rich in fruits since fruits are in high abundance in my village during the dry season. I told him that it would be great if there were some way for people to enjoy those fruits at other times during the year, through energy efficient means of drying and storing.

I told him that it would awesome if the old town library, which I believe was started by one of the first if not the first PCV in my village, were resurrected. Upon hearing that Ibrahim eyes lit up and he immediately exclaimed that that would be a wonderful idea. Although I’m curious to know the general literacy rates in my village. I had an experience one day near my house that was a bit discouraging. A few days back, I was doing some exercises in the outdoor patio at my neighbor cecillia's house and a couple of the men in my village were sitting down and talking. One of them offhand mentioned something about Fadugu, a village in the northern province of Sierra Leone, and I immediately thought of the book Black Man’s Grave which all of the PCVS received as a gift from the Friends of Sierra Leone back during orientation in D.C. in June. I haven’t read the book yet, but it was co-written by two PCV's who served in Fadugu and it is a collection of letters written individuals during the war to their loved ones. I brought out the book so that they could have a look at it and they were utterly amazed that there is in existence a book written about their little corner of the world. Although one of the gentlemen I showed the book to upon receiving the book, behaved as if he never before held a book, let alone read one. There was a moment when he held the book upside down and I had to patiently explain to him that a short synopsis of the book was to be found on the back. I guess the moral of this experience is that before one tries to get busy building a library in a post conflict area, it might be good to make sure that people can read.

I also told him that it would be awesome (forum for health issues) if there existed a forum wherein members of the community could discuss issues regarding health hygiene and sanitation, which is always a pertinent issue in developing nations. I would prefer to see a radio segment/show hosted by the youth in my village, i.e. students at St. Matthews, because I could easily host a show on these issues myself, being an outsider, I easily see things that could be changed for the benefit of the people here, but the change is much more SUSTAINABLE if the people here come to the realization themselves.

I think he was so enamored with the fact that there was a stranger in town interested in making a difference, especially through the radio, that he invited me to visit the radio station and observe on of his segments. The night that I picked to visit him was fortuitous. It was pitch-dark, and the station was on the top of a HUGE hill overlooking Bumbuna. The only light I had was the phone flashlight of my Peace Corps issued phone. PLUS I was carrying a plastic bag full of raw, fragile eggs. A precarious situation indeed! (I definitely slipped and fell quite a few times both on my way to and fro the station, without breaking them, how I don’t know!) Luckily I had help finding my way from one friendly man whom I saw a few days later and acted as if we were long lost friends; I felt bad because it was too dark for me to see his face so I didn’t recognize him. When I got to the station, a nondescript, unassuming little station with breathtaking scenic views of Bumbuna proper, they were in the middle of a segment talking about environmental sanitation and hygiene issues in the community. It was Ibrahim as the moderator, Francis I Want You (Yes that is his name) as the community elder representative, and two other local Sierra Leoneans representing a European NGO.

Quick side note: This conversation was in anticipation of the monthly cleaning day held in Sierra Leone, which usually falls on the last Saturday of every month. Basically it works like this. On this day, citizens are expected, no, required to stay in their compound and clean, up until 1000HRS. Apparently, if you leave your compound before that time, you can be seriously fined or arrested. There was an incident early on during training when a couple of PCT's went out running, oblivious of the law and were harassed by policemen who were wondering why the funny Americans were running on cleaning day. Point being, Sierra Leoneans take cleaning seriously on that day!

I was incredibly pleased because I know how powerful tool the radio can be for helping me stay connected, and giving them a forum to discuss germane issues within the community. To my understanding, a Dutch NGO started the station shortly after the war, and I believe that it is very important that the people here utilize it. I’m soo excited about the prospect of utilizing the radio during my time here for raising awareness, more consistent awareness, of problems specific to Bumbuna.

2) One night early on, I was sitting with Alfred, Cecillia, her peekin dem (children) Thomas and Banko, and a few other random individuals, enjoying some palm wine straight from the source, not watered down, and fresh, before any fermentation occurred (surprisingly good when enjoyed every once in a while!) when we started talking about past PCV’s in Bumbuna. Bumbuna has had quite the illustrious list of volunteers! One of Alfred’s brothers, Daniel Turay is currently in the states visiting Nancy Marder who apparently was the first PCV in Bumbuna and helped procure the resources to help build the library that once stood in Bumbuna but was destroyed during the war. I also found out that Joseph Opalla, who is doing important work archaeological and historical work at Baunce Island, was a Peace Corps volunteer in my village. I believe he was an agro-forestry extension, and given all the man has accomplished since his time as a PCV, it is pretty big shoes to fill. He has also been instrumental in linking so called Gullah communities in South Carolina to their families in Sierra Leone who were separated during the war. One particular Gullah family I believe retained certain vocabulary words in Mende, and there was one woman, who through old historical records, was reunited with one of her family members.

3) A few weeks back I decided to take a trip to Freetown with Carlos and Sarah Borrego to run some errands and get away for a couple of days. Settling into my house has been hectic (Doesn’t even begin to describe some of the experiences I’ve had in trying to make my house livable) and I want to be able to cook for myself quickly when the time calls because once school starts, I will have very limited time to be fooling around with a charcoal cooker, let alone other things. I can’t tell you how many times Id travel to Makeni and leave empty handed when searching for a gas cooker. It wasn’t until recently that I bought the gas burner set, which was ordered from Freetown, but the only man in Makeni who sells gas tanks did not have any full gas tanks on the day I picked up my burner. He did have them in the past, but that was when I was still wishy-washy on whether I was going to use gas. If there is one thing I’m learning slowly as I go along is that if there is any particular item you want and you happen to see it on any given day, it is best that you buy it right then and there! You never know if you will ever see it again, believe it! It happened to me with the gas burner and it happened to me in Freetown as well.

I heard through the grape vine that Freetown was the only place where gas could be purchased, so I travelled with the sole purpose of finding a gas tank…my other big mistake! In this country, never assume that what you set out to do will work the way you plan. Not only did I not find the gas tank I was looking for, I walked all over Freetown with Allie Kargbo (one of our Language and Cross-cultural facilitators during training in Bo) from one place to another, after multiple referrals, and all I had to show for it was an empty gas tank, (Of course, no gas to be found at all in Freetown…of course) which I bought to exchange for a full one on my next trip to Makeni, and a Sierra Leone/Freetown road map, which I wanted for the longest time. I almost bought another “full” tank from this man near K-stop in Freetown who claimed to have a full tank he purchased from his friend, Ibrahim Jalloh at one of the NP gas stations in town. But after testing the tank I found out that it was bone dry. The dude was going to make me pay the full price and then some for an empty tank! During this whole time, I was with an individual whose home village was none other than Bumbuna, luckily enough, and decided out of the goodness of his heart, to help me negotiate with this man regarding the “full” gas tank he somehow magically procured. Essentially, I came all the way to Freetown empty handed, but on the bright side, I found an item that I probably would not have thought to purchase had I found the gas tank. We stayed for two days. The first day, all over Freetown, I saw people walking around with welcome mats, and those are items I wanted to purchase for my house in Bumbuna. Unfortunately, I’ve come to find that Africa rewards those who capitalize on EVERY situation, no matter the circumstance. When I saw those welcome mats, I thought to myself, ‘they can wait! I’m looking for a gas tank today, I’ll just buy the welcome mats come tomorrow, they are selling them everywhere!’ Well what do you think happened the next day? It rained like a bitch, which makes sense because it is the rainy season after all! And the boys selling the welcome mats were NO WHERE to be found…missed opportunity.

Again, Africa has this funny way of surprising you when you least expect it. In other words, when you are looking for order, expect to find disorder. When looking for meaning, expect to find chaos, unless you are patient enough to sit and wait a while, which is what Carlos, Sarah and I did when our transport from Freetown to Makeni broke down on the highway. While we were in Freetown, we found a private vehicle going to Makeni, and generally, those are more preferable to taxis or poda-podas that, by definition, operate in a semi-dilapidated state. We found this one SUV that looked fine, but the same could not be said of the driver, who wore these dark wide-brimmed sunglasses and was gesticulating wildly for no good reason when he found us. It was my bright idea though, to look for another, potentially better vehicle, and I did, at first appearances, find this smooth looking Peugeot hatchback which was spacious and had plenty of room in the back seat for 4 people, Carlos, Sarah, me and one other person, so we made the switch. Well, of course the car broke down, about an hour into the trip and there we were, witnessing that good ole African ingenuity hard at work trying to restart the car, to no avail and we were as stranded as stranded can be on the side of a very busy and very dangerous highway wondering how the hell we were going to get home that day. We were sitting there and around the corner comes a mini school bus…yes a preschool bus came to our rescue. The bust was going to Makeni so we hopped on, and at least for me, it was the most comfortable ride id had since arriving in Sierra Leone, I swear to God! (I think Sarah disagrees with me that it was comfortable) I had all the legroom in the world, and the company was great.

There was a woman sitting a few seats in front of me who had her foot propped up on one of the benches in the aisle and I noticed that it was badly swollen. So, I decided to take that opportunity to inquire about the nature of her injury and practice my Krio, so I asked her how she was fairing and we proceeded to have a nice little conversation, all in Krio; and I even suggested things she could do to help it feel better and/or heal faster, again all in Krio. It wasn’t until we started talking more and more that I realized she understood my English perfectly and she spoke perfect English herself and I told her what my business in this country, Sierra Leone. It turns out that she (Miriam is her name) is from Washington D.C. and she is here in Sierra Leone for a short period of time visiting family (She was born in Salone and moved to the U.S. about 15 years ago where she’s been living ever since). She was very excited to hear see that we were here in this country as education volunteers, and we talked about the challenges we would face as PCV’s and the general state of affairs in Salone. We exchanged contact information and went our separate ways once we arrived in Makeni. For me, this is a prime example of how an unfavorable situation can turn into a favorable one, if you are willing to just go along with the flow, and take life as it comes...If you think you have one iota of control over your life, think again, my experiences thus far have led me to believe that control is merely an illusion, a clever turn of the human psyche to make us feel more at ease in this world…

4) Soo I think that my roof is finally fixed? We will have to wait and see. When I first moved into my house, I noticed that there were approximately three leaks, one of which was so bad, that strange mold and upside-down fungal specimens I’d never before witnessed were growing on my wall and window sill. It has been hell trying to get my house the way I want it to be during my stay in Bumbuna. As of now I have the walls in two rooms painted, and the ceiling in one room painted with the hopes of hiding the rain damage. The other room with the leak is unpainted because I want to neutralize the source of the leak before any additional water damage occurs. My first efforts at finding a handy man to fix the leaking roof were futile. This man ‘Bame’-which in Limba means ‘For us’ or ‘For we’ in the direct LimbaàKrio translation since the pronoun ‘us’ in Krio does not exist- replaced a few nails, but didn’t adequately fix the problem. It was very difficult to get him to come back the second and third time. I think he was expecting some sort of compensation, but I didn’t tell him that a functioning roof was a basic housing condition that should have been met by the community that provided the housing for the PCV so it is not the responsibility of the PCV to fix it. The next man, T.K., isolated leak in one section of the roof, but he didn’t do anything about it for the same reason that Bame didn’t. He was expecting some sort of compensation, and he even asked me for money for ‘chop’ (Krio for food) after looking at my roof but I denied his request. The third man who looked at my roof, Marco, fixed on leak, but was really upset when he found out that I would not be compensating him directly for the reason I mentioned earlier. I felt really bad when one of my neighbors gave him about Le 8,000 for his efforts. It made me look like the selfish American who is not willing to give or share anything that he owns, which is not at all the case!

I finally brought my problem to the attention of one of the Peace Corps housing coordinators to let him know just how desperate I was to get the leak fixed. It worked, and he told my supervisor what Id been going through and she sent my carpenter, Alimani, who has been building my furniture to look at the problem (It still took him three days to come to my house!) He finally fixed the problem using one of the many techniques devised by the various ‘bush chemists’ in Sierra Leone. He took Styrofoam and mixed it with Gasoline, or ‘petrol’ as it is called here and it turned into this sticky puffy which he used to plug up the leaking spots. I think it worked!!

If there are any chemists reading this who can explain the chemistry of this reaction, Styrofoam + gasoline = sticky putty, let me know! I will use it for my chemistry lessons when I begin teaching.

New developments?

I’m finally tiling my floor after SOO MANY setbacks, I will write about it next time.

And school is starting Monday and I have NO IDEA what I’m doing…Oh well, it will all work out in the end.


24 August 2010


Yea so Im now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer!!! Just thought Id let you guys in on that small little fact. It has been almost two years since I first began the application process, and those of you who were privy to all the ups and downs I experienced during this time, Im sure you will appreciate just how much this moment means to me. I have actually been at my site for over a week now. We swore in on 13 August, and it is good to finally be on  my own and away from the pleasant but often suffocating experience of living with a host family. I can actually leave the house when I want, eat the kind of food I want, without having to worry about offending anyone, which is very easy to do. I can't tell you how many times the locals here when we were served an oily plassas with rice (Plassas is a general term used to refer to any soup that accompanies a rice dish, the staple grain in Sierra Leone: Cassava, Potato, Groundnut, Kren-Kren), how concerned they would be over the fact that we were not eating, you would think that the sky is crashing down, with the amount of concern they would express. And it feels awesome to be able to move about my house without having to worry about people watching my EVERY MOVE. Life here for alot of people can be a bit monotonous and having peace corps volunteers around serves as constant entertainment for almost everyone.

Surprisingly I have not been too bored at my house, there is always something for me to be busy with: laundry, cooking, fetching water, talking with my neighbors who are really entertaining, especially Alfred Turay who is a teacher in Agricultural science at my school. I have had alot of interesting discussions with him about the kinds of crops grown here in Bumbuna, and he his going to be a valuable resource in helping me learn about the different varieties of crops grown here in Bumbuna, and the problems present with fertility of the soil, crop productivity, and adequate storage of sustenance crops, which is lacking here. I have found out also that the international presence here in Bumbuna is pretty extensive. Most notably the World Bank is involved, indirectly through a local development agency, in a lot of projects. There is a major damn operation here in Bumbuna that supplies most of Freetown with its power, is being operated by an Italian company. However, in the process of constructing the damn, alot of residents had to be relocated, and as a result, lost their income generating potential, almost exclusively in the form of agriculture (rice growing). The region I'm in also is rich in iron ore, the extraction of that ore has resulted in alot of environmental degradation. With Sierra Leone being last on the UN development index and its recovery from the devastating 15 year civil war, alot of international organizations have been assisting Sierra Leone in getting back on its feet. There are alot of opportunities for me in my village, and honestly I don't know where to begin: Mango trees are BOKU (Krio for alot), and during the harvest, alot of them just go to waste. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way for them to be preserved so that their beneficial nutritional qualities could be enjoyed at all times during the year?; Basic habits regarding hygiene and sanitation that we take for granted in the West simply do not exist here. Wouldn't be nice if people here understood the direct relationship between lack of latrine use and the increased prevalence of intestinal diseases? Or how about the fact that in my village, there is not a library? (There used to be one, I was told my Alfred, by neighbor, that past PCVs in Bumbuna started one, but it was destroyed during the war) Even with agricultural products, no reliable method here exists for the their storage. Cassava and rice are the main staples and I know that with cassava it is relatively hardy, especially when compared to other tubers like potatoes, and yams, but cassava and rice are not the most nutritious source of carbohydrates. To be frank, malnutrition is a HUGE problem here in the rural areas, and even in parts of Bo I noticed it, especially among the children. In a country where food and land are abundant, malnutrition should not be as pervasive as it seems to be. Maybe there are other larger structural factors at work here? I know that at least in my village Bumbuna, wouldn't it be nice if people had a basic working knowledge of the more nutritious foods available to them in their community and understood the benefits of increasing the consumption of those foods? Especially for the peekin dem? (children)

A full plate indeed. 

Small victories thus far?

-Learning how to use a coal stove

-Finally purchased a gas burner, but Im still missing the propane tank and regulator

-Getting excited and intrigued by the smallest of things....i.e. the gradual diminishment of boredom

-Recovering from a bout of Giardia

-Getting my laundry done

-Finally putting up a new blog post!

-Meeting up with some PC colleagues/friend

-Drinking fresh palm wine...straight from the source...not watered down...It's not bad!

I'm writing this post from Magburaka, Sierra Leone, and it looks like this will be the place where I'll be blogging from/using the internet so all I have to do now is get into a routine. My life has been hectic these past few weeks with training and getting adjusted to my site so once I get settled in, expect more regular post updates...with pictures of course.

Gavina, Arteeca, and I during swearing in ceremony.

Albert and I at the house

Site visits.....Way back when

I’m not sure that there is any one word I can use to help me describe the natural beauty that encapsulates Bumbuna, Sierra Leone. I don’t think I could have asked for anything more in terms of natural scenery. We had our individual interviews quite a few weeks ago (I was interviewed by Andrew Kondovoh-Program Manager, and Annaliese Limb-Programming & Training Officer). During my interview, I really stressed how I wanted to be in a town where I could utilize elements of the natural environment when teaching biology and other science subjects. Well it seems like they were listening to me I think. I know for certain that there were other people in our group whose preferences didn’t match their site placements, so I consider myself extremely lucky. Now for some more information on my stay and trip up there and back.

The Peace Corps staff up top wanted us trainees to get more acquainted using the public transport here in Sierra Leone, with the exception of the okadas (Motorcycles) in which we are forbidden to ride. The Peace Corps has apparently done an assessment on the circumstances surrounding the cause of PCV deaths in West Africa, and the operation/riding of okadas was the number one cause, so there is one convenient mode of transportation that is off limits to us. That leaves us with the poda-podas,, taxis, bicycles which we wont be getting from Peace Corps until December at best, and our own two legs which if anything, shouldn’t fail us. The poda-podas here are EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, and in my biased opinion, can be a death trap on wheels. Poda-podas are essentially minivans, or cargo vans,  usually painted with religious innuendo/propaganda and other random phrases (I don’t know about you, but they are incredibly good for comic relief) on the hood, side, or trunk of the van. There are a couple of things that make these vans so dangerous both to operate, ride in, or get in the way of one barreling down the street (Yes, you’d better get out of THEIR way):
No seat belts….If you ask taxi or okada drivers about seat belts, they will look at you as if you are speaking a foreign language

They pack you like sardines inside…Unfortunately, the drivers are paid per passenger so therefore, they have an incentive to pack as many people as humanely possible inside. In-fact, a common occurrence is the overbooking of seats so to ensure that the poda-podas are packed. The same goes for taxis as well. You will often find that there is no set schedule of departures for a particular destination. They only depart when the compartments are packed to the brim, i.e. arms, legs, the occasional goat or chicked dangling out the window.

The overload the rooftops…99.99% of the time, these passenger vehicles function as cargo vehicles. Its not an unusual site to see the roofs of these poda-podas and taxis overloaded with goods of all kinds: Huge bags of rice and other agricultural products, goats, chickens, more people (the apprentices as they are called who help push these vehicles up hills), extra fuel, extra luggage, and anything imaginable. Oh and there is no reason to believe that the overly ambitious driver wont hesitate to place any of these items in the passenger compartment!

These vehicles are in various states of disrepair…It is almost laughable to assume that any of these vehicles regularly undergo maintenance…EVER. Despite this, it’s amazing to see these vehicles still functioning. I think it’s more of the African ingenuity that keeps these vehicles moving down the road, many of which are 30+ years of age.

No road rules…The only rules of the road are that there are no rules of the road. Simple as that…Well, maybe there are a couple: If you are a pedestrian or biker, you do not have the right of way. The bigger your vehicle is, the more privileges you have on the road. And people generally operate their vehicles on the right side of the road, but that is not always predictable or even guaranteed.

Luckily for me, on my way up to my site (we left a little over a week ago, the 24th of July), I rode in my supervisor’s vehicle so I had a break from all the chaos at the lorry park. Eric Silverman was the only other PCT in the car with me so we had plenty of space. All in all it was a comfortable ride, not including the bumpy unpaved roads. We even stopped a couple times to do some site-seeing, stopping at a palm oil processing facility somewhere along the way to explore a little bit. Eric and I, and most everyone else were pretty anxious about seeing our sites and meeting the people we will be collaborating with for the next two years, and when Eric and I split up at Matotoka , the reality only became more real for me. It was just my supervisor, her driver, and I in the car.

The drive up to Bumbuna was absolutely breathtaking!  I was hanging outside the passenger side window most of the time gawking at the rolling hills and reveling in the cool mountain air. When we arrived in Bumbuna, I immediately knew that if all else fails, the scenery alone would be enough to keep me happy and busy exploring. The town itself sits nestled within whole chain of rolling hills and valleys that are visible from any part of town. Bumbuna proper is airy, and the sky is so BIG and vast, it is heartbreaking. I’m going to have a good time star watching with my students and other friends once the dry season comes. And there are birds everywhere!!! Especially the weaverbirds, which always become active in the evening time. Before our arrival, at the supervisor workshop, I talked to Theresa about seeing the other two houses she showed the Peace Corps. Andrew, and Morlu have been extremely busy visiting each and every single one of our sites to make sure that we all have houses before training ends. The way I understand it, our supervisors showed the peace corps staff a few houses, and the Peace Corps staff picked the house that they felt was the best and most reasonable, given the standards that peace corps sets in housing, while taking care not to place the volunteers in a residence that would attract unnecessary attention. My house is small. It’s a three-room house in an area called Kamankay, and the views that I have of all the surrounding scenery is definitely something I could get used to.

A quick word on my school. It is an agricultural school, Saint Matthews Agricultural School, established in the late 1970s. I visited it with my supervisor and was pleasantly surprised to see how well put together the school was. Soo much land devoted to agriculture: Potato plants, cassava, cashew trees, mango, pineapple and coconut trees, bean plants, rice paddies, I could go on and on. All the students have to have practical working knowledge of how to grow and sustain certain sustenance crops, and Im going to have a lot of fun teaching here, especially being a biology teacher where I will have ample teaching materials to utilize outside of the classroom. The school itself also has a really nice library, which I’m really happy about. There is a wide collection of materials on a whole range of subject: fiction, geography, philosophy, history, mathematics, general science, psychology, economics, and religion. Of course most of the textbooks are out of date, but at this point, I’m just happy to see that these books are here! The library itself is a bit disorganized, but that’s nothing a little work wont fix.

Enough for now!!!!

Me at Bumbuna Waterfalls

My lovely house

31 July 2010

Summer School Commencement and Supervisor Workshops

It’s kind of late to be blogging about this, but summer school is finally over and wow was it an eye opening experience! We taught for about 2 weeks and 2 days; the first term lasted from Monday till Friday with exams on Friday and the second term lasted from that second Monday till Wednesday with exams on Friday and the award ceremony on Wednesday. The Sierra Leonean Peace Corps staff and the staff at Ahmadiyya Senior Secondary School really did a good job at advertising this summer school to the local community. I guess the opportunity to get taught quality lessons by the wacky pumuis (Englishman) and black Americans…oh, and Chinamen (To the average Sierra Leonean, those are the only races of people that exist in America) was too good to pass up. This was also apparent by the fact that during the first few days of school, we kept turning people away eager to join a class who missed the preliminary registration.

For the first term, I taught a JSS level 1 class for the first period (830-1030) and for the second term, I taught a JSS level 2 class (1050-1250). There were three of us to a class spread out across three subjects: English, Math, and Science. Our JSS1 kids were awesome! Even though these kids were fresh from primary school, they were incredibly bright and eager to learn. There were mostly girls in the class (literally only a handful of boys in a class of 50+ kids) I taught integrated science, Gavina taught English, and Kat taught Math. It was obvious that the kids were way behind and we all had to adjust our lessons to fit this sobering reality. Especially for Kat and I, who taught the kids relatively dense science subjects.  If there is anything  I learned from teaching this JSS1 class is that I do a pretty good job of feeding off the energy of my students. I really get excited when my students understand a concept I’m trying to convey. I should also thank Jesse and Jarrad, two former Peace Corps volunteers in Guinea and Liberia (They moved to Liberia after political unrest in Guinea). There was one teaching practical they held where they talked about effective comprehension checks to use on the students. If there is one endearing-if not maddening at times-fact about the students is that they are so damn polite! They are all so prim and proper; they will always say they understand you but when you ask them to repeat or paraphrase a simple concept you literally just explained they usually aren’t able to, either because they weren’t listening or because they don’t understand your English. A quick side note: I ditched the Sierra Leonean accent. It didn’t feel natural and honestly, if you speak slowly enough, and I mean SLOWLY the students will understand you. The Krio accent is only good every once in a while, when used quickly and obliquely referencing a culturally relevant aspect of Sierra Leone, be it food, music, geography, or what have you.

Our second period JSS1 students were a whole nother story! Teaching them-and I think Gavina, Kat, and the rest of the PCTs can attest to this-really tested our classroom management skills. It was clear from the very beginning that most of the students assorted themselves to the classes that would take them, and didn’t necessarily attend their appropriate grade level class. As a result, I had a lot of older looking students in my JSS 1 class and a mixed JSS 2 class. I don’t know if it was pre-pubescent restlessness or what but the JSS 2 students were the most unruly group of students attending the summer school. Teaching these kids definitely forced me to be a stern presence in the classroom. If you don’t earn your students respect from the very beginning, you can forget about ever getting it further down the line. The kids were so bad, that shouting at them when: they were talking during a lesson, or slapping each other during a lesson, or cheating on a test, or throwing paper, or even eating it, proved futile. Your best bet was to threaten to throw them out of class and do it if they refused to comply, and give them a zero for the term, although I didn’t have the heart to do that for a summer school.

I was glad to be able to teach SSS students for the second term. It was a science specific class with Erin, Scott, and I teaching math, physics, and biology respectively. The kids were a bit older, and pretty bright. It was good to be able to teach some more advanced material to the students, seeing as though my ultimate preference is to teach at the senior secondary level. My second period students were again JSS 2 level students, and while they weren’t as rowdy as my first term JSS 2 students, it was definitely a step down from my first period SSS class in terms of classroom management and behavior. It was Eric, Kristen and I (Language Arts x2, and Integrated Science respectively), and let me just say that Kristen may be little, but she is a force in the Classroom! I swear, there were times when she had me  quivering at the knees! Based on what I observed in her classes, I can guarantee that that she will be a teacher who commands respect, end of story.

 I actually had an incident in my SSS class that deserves some mention. In order to discourage cheating, I had my students take two tests, an A and B test. I had them write down on their test paper test A or B, then I had them write down their test letter on a master list which would stay in my possession so that if the students changed their tests, I would know and give them a zero for not doing the correct test. Afterwards, I noticed that there were only two students who actually did the incorrect test. When I handed them back their exams, one of the students didn’t try to contest it at all-He was actually one of my students who did a little dance number to Michael Jacksons Beat It in class the day before the award ceremony. The other student, who was one of the brighter students in my class, was incredibly disappointed when he saw that he did the incorrect test and swore on the bible that he did the correct test. I wasn’t inclined to believe that I made a mistake, but out of respect for him, I told him that I would look at the master list to make sure that I wasn’t the one who made the mistake and change it if I did, this being after I gave him a lecture on how he should have followed my directions. I also told him that he shouldn’t let this discourage him. I was well aware of just how bright of a student he was, and I told him that this summer school was more for us as Peace Corps trainees to practice our teaching methodologies. I told him that I admired his work ethic and that he should keep it up once the school year begins. Well, I bet you can guess what happened?? I was the one who made the mistake, so I kept to my word, and graded his exam and changed his final grade., to his delight. In looking back, I’m glad I didn’t waver in my decision to change his grade without looking at my master list, but I’m pretty sure that I earned the respect of that particular student, just by letting him know that I’m only human and as a human being, I’m liable to make mistakes.

The award ceremony was pretty special. We awarded the top boys and girls from each class who had the highest averages across all subjects from both terms. When the students were called to receive their awards, they came up to the stage and received them from their class masters. There were two class masters for each class per term, and some were class masters for both terms (Including me). A class master’s responsibilities included making sure all the grades in all the subjects taught for a particular class were tallied and averaged, so that the top performing male and female students could be recognized for their efforts. When Chrissy and I were called to give our JSS 2C top performing students their awards, something happened that made me more aware that with regards to standards of discipline, things are done completely differently here. One of the girls in the JSS 2C class, (which was one of the classes that I actually taught during the second term), when called, failed to show up and receive her award so we all assumed that she either wasn’t in attendance, or had momentarily left the premises and would later return to receive her award, and most of the staff on stage assumed this as well. However unbeknownst to me, there was at least one staff member who knew what was up.

Eric, Kristen and I

Erin, Scott and I. We taught the SSS science only class.

I went back to my seat, and a short while later, I noticed a girl to my left crying uncontrollably, but I couldn’t quite understand her Krio, so I asked the gentleman sitting next to me, who tried in vain to console the girl, exactly what was bugging her. He told me that there was a man in a plaid collar shirt (It ended being Dauda, one of the science technical trainers) who told her she had to leave the assembly and that was the reason she wasn’t around to receive her award.  I was a bit confused, but me not seeing it as a major problem, I assumed that she would be able to get her award since she was now here. I brought her to the stage where Abubakar, one of our cross-cultural facilitators, was standing. When I explained to him that there was a female student who didn’t receive her award, he was going to hand it over to her when Dauda, appeared out of nowhere and said she would not be receiving her award.  Feeling outraged, I asked why this girl who worked hard enough during the summer school would not be receiving her award that was owed to her. Dauda shouted at me saying that the girl would not receive her award because in the beginning, when the students were asked to set up the benches for the ceremony, she allegedly, obstinately refused to carry any benches, and for that reason alone, she would not receive her award. What really annoyed me, was how all of the Sierra Leonean staff members mindlessly agreed with Dauda, even though none of them witnessed the incident. I should state that Abubakar himself wasn’t even immediately sure why she wasn’t  to be given her award, and he would have handed it to her if Dauda hadn’t have appeared. His verdict was final, and my student (Elizabeth was her name) was not going to receive her award. After a few minutes of loud arguing, Sesay recommended that I let it go and go back to my seat; I did everything I could to stand up for this girl, but I had to let it go. Luckily the fact that I made a lot of noise must have made someone feel guilty, because Sesay later approached me to say that the award had been given to the girls parents and that for the one bench she refused to help set up, they made her put back five benches. Ultimately, I thought that the punishment was fair, rather then penalizing the girl for something done outside of the actual summer school. Maybe Im a bit to relaxed, but I do believe in rewarding hard work. Yes, there is responsibility that comes along with it. But rather than withhold her reward, why not punish her in a manner that fits the actual crime? I know that this is just one of the many challenges I will face as a teacher within the Sierra Leonean context: disagreements on over how to enact discipline, teaching methodologies, language barriers, priorities in setting up and maintaining secondary projects…and many more…Sigh.

I caught a chameleon near my home-stay and brought it to one of my classes when I taught my JSS kids the difference between mammals and reptiles. It freaked the kids out!

We ended our supervisor workshop last week before heading out to our sites where we will be posted for the next few years. It was an opportunity for the PCTs to meet and greet with our respective supervisors/principals (for those whose supervisors didn’t show up). My own supervisor, Theresa Conteh is a short, but incredibly lively and talkative woman who exudes confidence and self-assurance. I would expect nothing less from someone who was educated by a Peace Corps volunteer and also had assistance paying for her education by a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s interesting because there is one language and cultural facilitator here, Allie, who is actually my Limba instructor (I’m the only trainee out of the 38 other trainees who is learning Limba) who grew up with Theresa. He told me that all of the kids at the time were intimidated of and admired Theresa because of her beauty and also because she had the Peace Corps hook-up. Numerous people have told me that Theresa has a lot of power and influence in Bumbuna. She is a teacher at St. Matthews where I’ll be teaching and sits on numerous boards and committees in town. Generally she is just highly visible figure in Bumbuna, and everyone knows her. I’m fortunate to have somebody like that on my side.

The actual workshop lasted for two days, and we did a lot of ice-breaking exercises to get us talking to our supervisors. There were also a host of presentations and group activities wherein the primary goal was to make sure that all parties involved understood the ways that supervisors and trainees can work together and address issues and problems that are bound to arise throughout the next few years. I got good vibes from my supervisor form the very beginning; She was very excited to see me!

I think the workshop was effective in preparing us to deal with our supervisors. We actually visited our sites last week and for me it was an amazing and exasperating experience! I’ll write about it next time because unfortunately, my writing time here at Mars Internet Café is running out, and I need to take the time to post this entry and my photos…which takes FOREVER…..