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…