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...