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.