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!!


Monica Edinger said...

Loved this post. I'm a rather shy person who prefers to stay in the background, something that was impossible in Salone. Even in Freetown the neighbor children peeked in my windows, followed me and my moves were tracked everywhere. I think this completely different concept of personal space/privacy and such was really good for me.

If you don't mind I may blog about this post.

Richard Frazier said...

Reading your account of public transport reminded me of this fellow who was studying anthropology at the U. of Ghana--Legon. Enjoy.


Enjoying your blog. Electricity--wow! We are getting plans together for another teacher workshop in Bo toward the end of July. Would love to hear more about your science teaching.