24 August 2010

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


Monica Edinger said...

I was a PCV 1974-76 and visited Bumbuna once and it is spectacular. Sounds like you've lucked out for your placement! (I loved the weaverbirds,by the way.)

Sounds like travel hasn't changed too much in the last few decades. When I was there PCs would often buy their own motorcycles, much discouraged by the official PCs as there were accidents and deaths. They are giving you bicycles? Interesting --- not much in use in my day by anyone. (Lorries were the typical longdistance vehicle for us, poda-podas were just in Freetown and the provincial capitals..)

I will be following your blog with interest.

Ikenna Achilihu said...

Yes we are not allowed to ride moterbikes and it is a pain!!!! I counting the days till I get my bicicyle. Walking from Kamankay (The section of town that I live in) to the market and the school is pretty inconvenient. Where did you serve? Were there any PCVs in Bumbuna during that time?

Monica Edinger said...

I served in Freetown. First I taught at Leone Prep on Tower Hill and then worked with the Ministry of Education on teacher training. One of my cohorts, Rosella Falcon was a primary teacher at Bunbuma. I think she was known as Zella though.

We were a big cohort --- couple hundred Education PCVs, more Ag PCVs, and a few others. So glad you are back!

Mark & CJ said...

Same travel for my group in the early 1990s... lorrys and Peace Corps-issued bicycles. A recall a very nice, blue mountain bike.

Thanks for the memories of lorry travel. I've blocked out a few long, difficult trips. Another tidbit I recall is how they'd labor up a long hill, and then cut the engine on the way down to save gas.


Susan S. said...

This post brings back a lot of memories! PCVs in my time (1981-83) were allowed motorcycles, though I didn't have one and relied on lorries and taxis instead. Yes, they were jam packed but riding in them made me feel more a part of Africa. Your house looks real nice. You can even set up a rain gutter. Weaverbirds! I haven't thought of them for decades--they were fun to watch but the noise was sometimes annoying. Keep writing these great entries, Ikenna--I'm really enjoying reading them!å