Thursday, December 24, 2009

Back in Canada

Well, here I am, back at home in Halifax. The trip from Sierra Leone was relatively uneventful. I managed to meet a couple of people at the airport in Lungi, and chatting with them helped pass the almost 8 hours we had to wait before the flight left. They both work for an organization called Orphfund that helps abandoned and orphaned children. They have a couple of projects in Sierra Leone, as well as in a few other countries.

The only downside of my travels home is that one of my suitcases didn't make it. I am still hoping that it will come back to me eventually - it hasn't officially been declared lost yet. While there was nothing of significant monetary value in it, it did contain almost all the souvenirs and gifts I bought to bring back with me, so I will be sad if it doesn't turn up.

It's really nice to be home, especially with the holidays about to start. It's amazing how quickly everything here feels comfortable and familiar to me again. Things here are basically the same - almost like I was never away at all. Although being home is great, it's strange too. I went grocery shopping yesterday and found the whole experience slightly weird. I kept staring at all the food and thinking about people I left behind in Sierra Leone that don't have enough to eat. It really drove home the inequality that exists in our world, and the fact that there are enough resources available to meet our needs globally. It's just a coordination problem that they can't get to the people that need them. I mean do we really need 500 kinds of salad dressing to choose from? Couldn't some of that money and food be diverted to others? Obviously, it's not that simple, but it does make you wish that there was a way it could be simple.

Wishing all my friends and family in Sierra Leone, Canada, and all over the world a very Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Goodbye Sierra Leone

I'm leaving Mapaki in about an hour for the airport, so this will be my final post from Sierra Leone. It's been an amazing experience, and it's sad to say goodbye, but I am really looking forward to being home again.

I will continue to post on this blog once I return to Canada. There are a few more topics I want to write about, and I want to be able to post more about my thoughts on the experience after having a bit more distance from it. So you have not heard the last from me yet! :-)

Remember, you can always keep up to date with what's happening here via Carolyn van Gurp's blog: Carolyn will be returning to Sierra Leone in late January.

Also, if any of you are looking for last minute Christmas/holiday gifts for that person that's hard to buy for, consider making a donation to PSI or cdpeace in their name. Check out the websites for more information:
Peaceful Schools International
You can also donate to support the work in Sierra Leone directly with PSI's gifts of peace for Sierra Leone.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Departures and Arrivals

Tomorrow I am leaving Sierra Leone. Hard to believe that my time here is almost over. As I get ready to leave, here are some thoughts on the things that I will miss in Sierra Leone, and the things about going home that I am looking forward to.

Things I will miss about Sierra Leone
The people: I have made some wonderful friends here, both locals and other ex-pats, who I will miss a lot when I leave. I’ll miss the kids I say hello to in Mapaki every morning. I’ll miss all of the cdpeace staff, and the teachers I’ve been working with. I will miss all the people of Mapaki, even the ones that I don’t know well. People here have been so warm and generous. I’m always amazed by those who have so little stopping by to bring me a small gift of fruit or corn or a coconut. Everyone here has made me feel so welcome, and it will be very sad to say good bye.

The weather: I think I probably picked the nicest months to be in Sierra Leone. It really has not been as hot as I thought it would be, and in the part of the rainy season I was here for it rained mostly at night so it didn’t affect me too much. I love being able to go out without even thinking about needing a sweater, jacket, or even a long-sleeve shirt. I love being out in the sun, or sitting in the cool shade on a warm day. I could live permanently in a climate like this, that’s for sure. It’s going to be a big shock going back straight into winter.

The food: I have come to love the food here. The rice I eat is mostly the local rice, and it’s really good. Actually, all the food I eat in Mapaki is generally local – it’s nice to know I’m lowering my impact on the planet by reducing my “food miles” while I’m here. I love the different sauces (groundnut soup, potato leaves, cassava leaves, squash) and will have to experiment to see if I can reproduce them at home (I know you can get cassava leaves in Halifax, so am looking forward to that!). I also love the fresh fruit here – oranges, grapefruits, papaya and pineapple have all been in season while I’ve been here. There’s nothing like the taste of a fruit that is fresh off the tree. I’ve never had such delicious pineapple and papaya or such flavourful oranges and grapefruit! The coconuts are great too.

The sense of community: there is such a strong sense of community here, in Mapaki and in the other communities I’ve visited. People look out for and care for one another. Decisions are made together by the community after discussion and debate. Problems are resolved locally by elders. People know their neighbours and greet them every day. I will definitely miss this when I go back to Canada, and I think I will work harder to get to know my own neighbours at home.

The sky: the sky here is often so amazing to look at. During the rainy season there were piles of clouds that looked so different from what we see in Canada, and lightning that would light up the whole sky like daylight. I’ve seen beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and the stars in the night sky are incredible. That’s one of the benefits of not having electricity – without electric light, the sky is so much clearer and more beautiful, especially at night. I never knew there was such a difference in light at night when there’s a full moon in the sky compared to when there’s no moon.

The music: I love the fact that people here are always singing, dancing and drumming. Even though they don’t have much, they always find a way to have fun, and they love to dance and sing! I think if people in Canada sang and danced more, we all might be a little more relaxed about things.

Things I am looking forward to about going home
Family and friends: Of course the thing I am looking forward to the most about going home is seeing my family and friends, and especially my husband. Even though I have made new friends here, I miss my people at home a lot and can’t wait to see everyone again!

Electricity and running water: A close second on the list of things I am looking forward to at home are the modern conveniences of electricity and running water (hot showers, here I come!). Actually, I could probably live for a long time without running water, especially in a warm climate. Here in Mapaki I have my shower in a bag and my indoor toilet, and someone else carries my water in, so I really have it pretty good. I don’t miss the hot water because it’s usually too warm for a hot shower anyways :-) If I had to use a pit latrine or haul my own water every day, I guess I might feel differently, but as it stands, the running water I could live without. Electricity, however, is another matter. I never realised how much I love and appreciate having regular electricity. It especially makes a difference at night. When it gets dark at 7 pm and you don’t have electric light, there aren’t too many options except to go to bed. Also, the lack of regular electricity can be a big barrier to getting work done and being efficient. Electricity is definitely one of the things that I have a new appreciation for after being here. I’m also looking forward to the other modern conveniences that come along with electricity: washing machine, coffee maker, refrigeration, microwave, etc.

Food!!!: Although the food here is tasty, there really isn’t much variety in the diet, and it’s not all that healthy. Vegetables are not readily available in Mapaki, and the cooking is done with a lot of oil and salt. Along with specific foods like broccoli, asparagus, cheese, and yogurt, I have really missed the food variety I am used to. I am looking forward to cooking for myself, grocery shopping, and accessing the wide variety of foods we are lucky enough to have available to us in Canada. I also desperately miss real coffee (I’ve been drinking instant since I got here) and am SO looking forward to my first cup in many months in the airport at Heathrow when I arrive there :-)

Being ignored: One of the things that is difficult about being here is constantly being noticed as a white person (see my previous blog about this – I must admit that I am really looking forward to being able to blend into a crowd again. To be able to walk down the street without being called after, and to not being particularly noticed everywhere I go. I am sure that I will appreciate anonymity even more now than I used to.

Comfort: Sierra Leone is not the most comfortable country. The beds tend to be either too hard or too soft. My working environment is not very ergonomically correct and this causes me some problems sometimes. There is never a couch to lie down on, only chairs to sit in. I am looking forward to sleeping in my own comfy bed, lying on my own comfy couch, and sitting at my own desk in my own office chair, all adjusted for me. I’m even looking forward to snuggling up in my housecoat under a blanket because it will be cold winter when I arrive home (brrr!), although I’m not sure how long that will last!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A woman’s work is never done

Today I went to a gender sensitization workshop organized and presented by cdpeace. Although it was in Temne, I managed to catch some of what was being said through an interpreter. It really made me think about the role of women here in Sierra Leone. There are beginning to be more women in positions of power here, but there is still a long way to go, but there is still a long way to go for the average woman in Sierra Leone, especially in rural areas.

One major area is work. This was really emphasized in a small group activity we did at the workshop. Each group was assigned a person (man, woman, boy and girl) and had to write down all the activities that person typically did in a day. On the list for men were the following:
- Pray
- Rest and eat breakfast
- Work
- Rest and eat supper
- Go to sleep

Although many men here do hard physical labour, the rest of the time they don’t have too much work to do. The list for a woman, on the other hand, looked like this:
- Get up and get water for your husband and children to wash
- Prepare breakfast
- Sweep the house and make the bed
- Get the children ready for school
- Go to work (working on the farm doing weeding or harvesting, petty trading activities, or perhaps an office job in a few cases)
- Go to the market to get food for meals
- Start cooking around 2 or 3 pm to prepare the evening meal
- Clean up after cooking and prepare the children for bed
- “Answer the call of your husband” – euphemism for sex
- Sleep

So, as you can see from these lists, women have many more tasks for which they are responsible than men. Women here are responsible for all domestic work and all child-rearing duties. So they clean the house, do laundry, purchase and prepare food, take care of the children, and collect water and wood for everyone’s use. They work on the farm, doing all the weeding and a lot of the harvesting work, and they process the food harvested as well (e.g. pounding rice, making palm oil, etc.).

In the workshop, the speakers talked a lot about gender roles and how we should begin to accept that men can do work considered “women’s work” and vice versa. I agree that work and the burden of work is an important area, and maybe that is where gender equality begins. But the gender inequality here of course goes deeper than just surface work tasks. In relationships, women are generally not treated as equals. The man is considered head of the household. He makes all the decisions, controls the money, and in turn is responsible for taking care of his wife (or wives – polygamy is still fairly common here) and children. Women often do not have access to money and have no say in decision-making for the household. And if the husband leaves, this can leave the woman and her children in very dire financial straits. It is still common to arrange marriages here, and to pay a bride price.

There is a lot of work still to be done to improve gender equality in the country, and I think it’s great that cdpeace is working in this area, especially in rural communities. Will one or two workshops change societal attitudes? No, certainly not. But societal change happens slowly over time, and the more people are exposed to the idea of men and women being equal, the better. So even the small things, like this workshop, can help a little bit.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The library

I can’t believe that somehow I have not yet written a post specifically about the Mapaki community library. Many of my evenings in Mapaki so far have been spent in the library. The library is open Monday to Friday evenings, from 7:30 – 9:30, or until the battery, charged during the day by the solar panel, runs out of juice, whichever comes first. If it’s raining the library doesn’t open, and if it is open, the kids usually scatter for home at the first hint of raindrops.

The library here is really quite incredible (a few photos here:, although they don't really do it justice!), and is already known about quite widely in the country. The library is so popular that the younger children have to be limited to one visit per week (Grades 1 – 5 on Monday to Friday evenings). The older children (Grades 6 and JSS students) and adults can come any evening. On any given night there could be 15 – 30 people in the library. Young kids looking at books, older kids studying or doing homework, volunteer teachers looking at teaching resources, and adults from the community reading or having a computer lesson. I often go with a book and just read in the electric light. Sometimes I bring my computer and do a bit of work, although this tends to attract a lot of attention :-)

One of the great things about the library is that it is open in the evenings. In a community where electric light is rare or non-existent, it really helps the students to have extra light at night by which to study.

The story of how the library came to be built is worth repeating for those who don’t know it. The following was written by Carolyn van Gurp, PSI volunteer Regional Coordinator for Sierra Leone, and was published in the January 2009 issue of Peace Talks International, PSI’s quarterly newsletter for our member schools.

New Library for Mapaki
by Carolyn van Gurp

Thank goodness the people of Paki Masabong ignored my advice. “No, it can’t be done, money’s not there,” was my response when I was told the community really wanted to build a library to serve the needs of the hundreds of children and adults who were trying each evening to pack into the small temporary room that was serving as community library in this small chiefdom, where only about one in thirty adults have been to school.

Here we are, one year later, preparing for the big feast planned to thank the many youths who donated their time, labour and local materials to make this dream a reality. A beautiful, spacious, well-stocked, solar-powered, internet-equipped library which is the talk of the country (the only village-based library of its kind in Sierra Leone) is about to officially open its doors (we expect the President to be here for the opening). And this dream is the result, not of the initiative of a wellheeled, well-funded NGO, but rather the determination and hard work of the people of this small community and their visionary Paramount Chief.

All this started two years ago when a visitor to this community, seeing no books in the schools but observing four teenage boys each evening poring over a decades-old dog-eared Shakespeare book, sent over several boxes of books which were then set up in a room designated as community library in a just-built “guest house” in the village. Lit in the evenings with a single bulb powered by a donated solar panel and battery and staffed by a volunteer teacher, this became such a popular and crowded place that each child in the village had to be limited to one visit to the library per week and there was no room for adults to squeeze in.

That’s when the Paramount Chief and elders intervened. “We need a library…we need a place where both adults and children can come and read and study and learn about the world.” Unable to envision a source of funding such an undertaking, I was sceptical. The community, though, knew it had to and could be done and at a community meeting called to discuss the library, two families came together to donate prime land in the centre of the village for its construction. The youth, meanwhile, organized in three work brigades representing all sections of the village, started making the mud bricks needed for walls and footings. Each day school children would stop on their way home from school to carry endless buckets of water for the youth who sweltered in the hot dry season sun
to make enough mud bricks for a large fourroom library. Just in time to cover the walls and protect the mud bricks before the rains came, the community received a small grant to purchase zinc roofing and cement and the outside shell of the library was completed.

Over the ensuing months, the youth of the village developed hands-on experience and training in carpentry, masonry, wiring, painting, boardmaking, and woodworking as they volunteered their time to complete the library.

And what a library it is! Housing an amazing collection of hand-picked culturally-relevant visually-rich books about people, animals, plants and the planet and stocked with several laptops and digital video and still cameras donated from Canada, the library has a donated satellite internet connection which has been put to some very unique uses (a Skype wedding, agricultural research, discussions between youth here and in Yukon, video postings, etc.).

Staffed by two volunteer teachers living in the community, the library will be hosting classes for adults and children in health education, computer basics and functional literacy, workshops for teachers on a wide range of topics and will serve as a chiefdom “lending” centre for learning materials for community schools.

The community has asked me to pass on thanks to the many people and institutions that have come along on this journey and contributed to making this a place of pride for all. A huge thanks to CIDA, Friends of Sierra Leone in the USA, Centre for Development and Peace Education (cdpeace) and Peaceful Schools International, staff of Halifax Film, Green Solutions and the kind and caring individual donors who have contributed in various ways.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Black and white

Since I arrived in Sierra Leone, I have been thinking about the experience of being a white person here, and this post has been in various stages of draft, both in my head and on the computer, for some time. It’s hard to describe the experience without it coming out sounding wrong somehow . . . but I also think it’s an important thing to try and explain, so here it goes.

As a white person in Canada, I have never been personally touched by issues of race. Here in Sierra Leone, my whiteness is pretty much always obvious to me (as well as to everyone around me). In general, being white here means that you can never blend in, get lost in a crowd, or go unnoticed. This is especially true in the villages, but even in Freetown (the capital) you get stares and attention (although much less so than in Makeni, the country’s third largest city, where stares, greetings and the constant cry of “opotho, opotho!” from children and sometimes adults is common – “opotho” means “white person” in Temne, the local language most common in the north). Aside from “opotho”, other terms that have been used to address me range from “hey white” to “white girl" (or worse, "white man") to “hey you” to “Ma” or “Auntie” (these last 2 at least show some respect). I know that these greetings are generally not intended in an offensive way, but they can definitely come off sounding rude. I have known people to call back “Owinibie” (no idea if that is spelled even close to correctly), which means “black person” in Temne.

I guess all the attention is to be expected, especially in places where people are not very used to seeing white faces. I personally find it rather exhausting. I’m someone who appreciates the ability to be anonymous sometimes. Even though people are generally friendly and just curious (sometimes they are asking for money or your phone number, but usually they’re just interested in you and what you’re doing in their country), it still feels tiring to me to constantly be getting attention. There have been more than a couple of times where I have felt like an animal in a zoo – being stared at as a curiosity to see what I’ll do next. I know people that have visited here for a shorter time have found all the attention kind of amusing (some of the small kids shriek “opotho” as you drive by in such an enthusiastic way that you can’t help but smile), and I did too at first. You do end up feeling a bit like a minor celebrity. But after a while it begins to wear on you, and I think that most of the longer-term volunteers I know here feel the same way. Sometimes you just really wish you would be ignored.

Luckily for me, in Mapaki people seem to be used to seeing white people around, and it’s really different here than other places I have been. I do get the occasional “opotho” call, but mostly from small kids I don’t know. Generally, because people here know my name (my Salone name of course, which is Isata in case you forgot), when they call out greetings they are actually greeting me, not just trying to get the attention of an amusing white person. I’m sure Carolyn’s being here before me had a lot to do with that. Also, in Mapaki, I never mind the attention that I get because I like talking to people and getting to know the community and I still have my own space I can retreat to if the attention gets to be too much.

Although it can be tiring and annoying, there can be positive and interesting things about being noticed too. I hate to say this, but you often get treated better as a white person. Kind of sad, but true. For example, a friend of mine here was seen at the hospital before a whole line of other patients because she was white and the doctor thought she wouldn’t want to wait. On the interesting side of things, I have certainly had conversations with people that I never would have talked to if they hadn’t approached me because I was white. So it’s a good way to meet people and learn more about the country too.

There are certainly some specific perceptions about white people here (and of course I am, of necessity, making some mass generalizations here based on my own personal experiences). Although the perceptions are generally positive (for example, white people are often seen as both rich and experts/smart), it does give you a sense of what racist behaviour must feel like. It's unnerving to have assumptions made about you just because of the colour of your skin, even if they are more positive assumptions.

Young children often seem to be amazed or fascinated by white people. I’ve had a few very small kids (a year or two old) be quite scared of me and start to cry upon seeing me – they’d obviously never seen anyone white before. Adults/older siblings often think this is hilarious and will continue to bring the kid near me to watch it be scared, laughing all the while. Kids are also really interested in my skin or my hair, and will just stare or try to touch it.

As I said, white people are generally perceived as rich. I think that this bothers some expats, because they don’t see themselves as rich, and certainly wouldn’t be considered rich in their home country. However, compared to the majority of the population here, I am most definitely rich, both in terms of dollars in income and in what I am able to do because of that income. I have no problem feeding, housing and clothing myself and my family, and I have money for things like health and education, and even for luxuries like fun and travel. Some of the women I’ve talked to here are living on petty trading, earning maybe 20,000 or 30,000 Le per month (less than $10). Yes, per month. When I compare myself to them, I am most definitely rich.

Despite this income disparity, I haven’t had too many people ask me for money or other things here (aside from street beggars of course, which you get a lot of in any bigger city). I think this is primarily because of the work Carolyn did here in Mapaki and in the other communities where I am working in emphasizing that she was a volunteer here and didn’t have an income either. I am thankful for that, as it can be very hard to turn down requests, but it's impossible to help everyone who needs it. And the danger is that if you help one person and word gets around, others will come to you for help also. I end up feeling a little bit selfish for wanting to hang on to my money when people here have so little, but the reality is that it is impossible to help everyone that needs it. Even if you meet one request, another might come that you can’t help with. Pretty much every expat I know here has helped people in personal ways – for example, paying medical costs or school fees – and of course, we are all here volunteering, but for me, I end up feeling like there is no way I could ever really do enough.

In Canada, we are generally isolated from poverty. Yes, we see images on TV or sometimes people asking for change on the street. But being here, seeing how little many people have on a daily basis, and comparing it to what we are so lucky to have in Canada, it really makes you think about inequality in the world. And in the end, it's not about race. And it's certainly not because I’m fundamentally better or smarter in some fundamental way that I am better off in this world. It’s because of where I happened to be born. Not only the country I was born in, but the kind of family I am lucky enough to have. For me, this kind of inequality makes me feel that I have a responsibility to help those who weren’t born into such fortunate circumstances. Even if what I can do will never be “enough”, even if it only makes a small difference in someone else’s life, at least I can do something, help somehow. I guess that’s one of the things that being here has really made me think about. And for that I’m grateful.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Getting around in Sierra Leone

Although I have talked in previous posts about some of the challenges in getting around in this country, I wanted to do kind of a summary post about the various transportation options, and my experiences with them.

One of the problems with transportation options here is that there are the very expensive options and the dirt cheap options, and not too much in between. So, for example, you can the regular car ferry from the airport in Lungi across to Freetown at a cost of 2,000 Le (about $0.60). It’s cheap, but you have to arrive early, wait for the ferry, which sometimes leaves late or early (or occasionally does not go at all) and then it takes about an hour to get across. Or, you can take the helicopter or the hovercraft, which will get you to Freetown in about 20 minutes, but which both cost around $60 US.

By far the best option for getting around the country by motor vehicle is in a private vehicle, preferably a newer, 4x4 type of vehicle. Fortunately for me, this is the way I have mostly travelled. I haven’t rented a car while I’ve been here, but I think it’s fairly expensive – $100/day or so. This is because of the price of fuel (about $4 CDN a gallon) and because you can’t just rent a car by itself, you need a driver too. And trust me, you definitely need a driver! I’ve been lucky enough just to have to pay for fuel, but this is expensive too. For example, to go to Freetown and back is about 250,000 Le in fuel (about $70 CDN). In comparison, if I take public transportation, it will cost me 12,000 Le each way from Makeni (so about $15 CDN).

If you don’t have access to a private vehicle or the money to pay for one, you are stuck taking public transportation. This in itself can be quite an adventure. I’m lucky that in the few times I’ve had to take public transportation, I’ve never had too much of an adventure, but I certainly know people who have. For short trips (like around Makeni, or even Makeni to Mapaki), a motorbike taxi (or occada) is a great option. The only downside of occadas is that it’s hard to carry anything big or heavy on them (although people certainly do – I saw someone carrying a double bed headboard on an occada once). Also, in Freetown occadas can be a little scary because they go quickly and zip in and out of traffic quite a bit. I only took an occada once in Freetown, and that was enough.

Another option is a public taxi or poda poda. A poda poda is a big van that on the inside, instead of the original seats, you will find 4 benches that each seat 4-5 people. Plus at least 2 in the front seat next to the driver. So you’re talking about approximately 20 people in said van, plus sometimes there are one or more sitting on top or hanging off the back (see the photo above!). I have only ever taken a poda poda within Freetown. I wouldn’t take one on the highway, they just seem far too dangerous for that. Happily, they are cheap, only 800 Le for a one way ride in Freetown. Unhappily, they are hot, squishy and generally uncomfortable.

A public taxi is a better option than a poda poda, especially for longer distance trips. They are still squishy and hot – they seat 2 people in front with the driver and at least 4 in the back. But the cars that do long distance trips seem to often be in better working condition than the local taxis in Freetown and the poda podas, and if you wanted to you could pay for 2 seats to be more comfortable.

Regardless of whether you take a poda poda or a taxi, the process is similar. You go to the place where the vehicles gather (each city has a main spot). You find a vehicle that is going where you want to go. You get in to claim your spot and wait for it to fill up. Sometimes this can take 5 minutes, and sometimes hours. Then you depart, hopefully making it to your destination without breaking down or getting in an accident.

Within Freetown, both taxis (regular cars) and poda podas run on predefined routes as the are shared taxis. It costs 1,000 Le one way for a taxi, a little bit more than for a poda poda because the city taxis only seat 5. The problem for visitors is that you don’t know what the routes are. So to find out the best way to get from one place to another, you need to ask around. Often getting to your destination involves taking taxis on more than one route and can be a little confusing.

In Freetown you can also charter a taxi to drive you around for 15,000 Le an hour. Beware of drivers who say they know where you’re going but don’t, and be careful of the condition of the vehicle. Most of the vehicles are in terrible shape, but some are better than others. It’s always wise to check out the car before making a deal with the driver, especially if you’re going outside of Freetown where the roads are not paved. This is a lesson I learned the hard way.

A final word about the roads. From what I know, the only really good paved roads in the country are the highway from Freetown to just past Magburaka (runs through Makeni), from Kenema to Bo, and most of the way from Bo to Freetown (there are small sections of that highway that are currently being improved). On any other road you are going to be dealing with potholes (often more pothole than road) or just dirt roads, which in the rainy season become a mud swamp. Don’t be deceived by distances (“it’s only 100 km it won’t take us long to get there” . . . 5 hours later, we arrived), or by your map, which has roads marked as “primary highway – paved.” Yes, it was paved . . . 20 years ago!

To be honest, if Sierra Leone wants to become a tourist destination, roads and transportation options are one of the major things they are going to have to improve. Right now, travel in this country is definitely not for the faint of heart!

A few transportation related photos:

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The "cold" season in Salone

Everyone has been telling me that in December when the Harmattan winds blow in from the Sahara desert, it will be "so cold". Well, the "cold" season in Sierra Leone is now in effect. At night and in the early morning it does cool off, maybe to about 20 or 22 or so (no thermometer here though, so not too sure of the actual temperature). I actually have to sleep with a sheet on me now, and in the mornings everyone walks around in hats and jackets. By late morning it has warmed up pretty good again though :-) I find it really very pleasant.

Also, I heard my first Christmas carol on the radio today, Jingle Bells. It's so strange to think that Christmas is just around the corner. Without the cold weather, and all the incessant advertising and Christmas music we normally have in Canada in the lead up to Christmas, it's a little hard to believe it's so close.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Climate Change - in Sierra Leone and in Canada

This week, as countries from around the world are working to negotiate a new agreement on climate change at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change taking place in Copenhagen, I thought it would be fitting to post something about climate change. I have found that there is generally very little talk about environmental issues here in Sierra Leone. This is not that surprising to me, and I’m sure is the case in other developing countries as well. Both your average person and the government tend to be focused on first meeting basic needs (food, water, shelter, health, education) before they can begin to think about environmental issues. Unfortunately, many environmental problems tend to have longer-term effects, which are generally less pressing than the urgent and immediate needs of survival today. However, environmental challenges, including climate change, will have an impact on the country’s ability to meet its development goals, if not right now, then certainly in the future.

Climate change is already having an effect in Sierra Leone. Over the past few years, changes in weather patterns have been noticeable. The rains are starting later in the year and continuing on longer. This affects farming patterns and timetables, and can reduce agricultural productivity. The longer wet season results in more mosquitoes, which spread malaria. The later start to the rainy season also has the potential to affect the provision of reliable power in the country from the Bumbuna hydro dam which has recently come online. Developing countries like Sierra Leone tend to have the lowest emissions and are the least responsible for causing climate change, yet they will likely experience more devastating effects from climate change (droughts, severe weather, food shortages, rising sea level, etc.) and have far fewer resources to be able to mitigate and adapt to these changes. This actually seems to be one of the big contentious issues in the discussions in Copenhagen – how much will rich countries help poor countries adapt to the problems caused by climate change.

A little more on the negotiations happening in Copenhagen: The intention at Copenhagen is for countries to reach a new agreement on climate change that will replace the Kyoto Protocol (set to expire in 2012). The Copenhagen negotiations are aiming to achieve agreement on greenhouse gas emissions targets (with the aim of bringing developing countries on board to mandated rather than voluntary targets), financial support for developing countries to help them mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, and a carbon trading scheme. About 100 world leaders are attending (including US President Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but not Canada’s Stephen Harper) and all 192 countries will be represented. (Most of this info is from this BBC article). More info on the Copenhagen conference is available at

Although it is important to bring developing countries into any agreement on climate change, especially the big developing countries like China and India, in order to reach the targets being discussed (keeping global average temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius, or even 1.5 degrees), it is critical that developed countries step up and implement their fair share of reductions. Unfortunately, Canada’s reputation on climate change is currently pretty abysmal. Now, with the new Obama administration in the United States, Canada seems to be performing even worse than the United States under Bush, which is saying quite a bit. We’ve already been awarded the “fossil of the day” award in Copenhagen – awarded by a coalition of 450 environmental groups to the countries “doing the most to obstruct progress in the global climate change talks.” Canada is the only country to actually renege on the greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets it agreed to when it ratified Kyoto, and now has the lowest targets among developed countries (a 20% reduction by 2020, but from a 2006 base year – only a 3% reduction from 1990, the base year for Kyoto). This stinging critique of Canada’s actions on climate change (or lack thereof) by George Monbiot ( has actually made me feel embarrassed to be a Canadian.

All countries must do their part if we are to prevent global warming from having a devastating effect on the planet, and a disproportionate effect on the poor.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Research update

I haven’t yet posted too much about the research I am doing here for my thesis, so I thought I would do a little update. I now have only 10 interviews left to do out of a total of 25. I am going to add 2 more interviews (hopefully) with key informants, so I will probably have a total of 27 interviews when I’m finished.

For those who don’t know, the research I am doing here is for my thesis, for my MA in International Affairs from Carleton University in Canada. I completed my coursework at Carleton last year (08-09) and just have the thesis left to do. I am doing the fieldwork here in Sierra Leone, and will finish the writing when I return to Canada. I’m hoping to graduate in the spring.

My research is on barriers to accessing health care for poor, rural women in Sierra Leone. I am using Mapaki as a case study. The research takes a qualitative approach – I’m trying to understand how women here perceive barriers to health care as well as what barriers actually exist. I’m interviewing 20 women from the community and 5-7 key informants, people in leadership positions in the community, or those that are involved in health work or service delivery.

The interview process so far has been quite a learning experience. For many of the women, this is one of the first times they are really being asked their opinion about health services, and it seems to me as though this is something they have not given much thought to before. Sometimes the interviews are difficult because the woman I’m interviewing just doesn’t really have much to say. Also, with the language, cultural and class barriers, it’s very challenging to make women who are shy feel more comfortable. It’s difficult just to be able to have a casual chat with a woman before beginning the formal interview when you are using an interpreter. It’s also difficult to interview people who are currently suffering with a health issue when there’s nothing I can really do to help, except to sympathise.

In some of the interviews I have gotten very interesting nuggets of information, like stories about the effect of the belief in witchcraft on health, or about how fees for health services have affected people. I am looking forward to finishing the interviews and really being able to start the analysis to pull out all the interesting bits of information. As my supervisor told me, sometimes it’s hard to see what’s interesting or important when you’re in the middle of doing the interviews, and it’s only afterwards when you can really see the results of your work.

One thing I have struggled with so far is getting official information on health statistics and the health system here in Sierra Leone. There is some information on the Ministry of Health’s website, but a lot of it is old and outdated. Last week when I was in Freetown, I visited the Ministry of Health offices to see if I could find out anything, get copies of reports, etc. Unfortunately, the whole planning department was out of town for the whole week, so there wasn’t even anyone there I could talk to. Luckily, I have made contact with a VSO volunteer from Australia working in the Ministry offices, and I think she will be able to help me with access to some reports and information.

I also just did an interview this morning with someone from the District Council, and they let me know about the launch of the 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey results that is happening this Thursday. I will be able to get a copy of that report on Thursday or Friday, and that should have a lot of good data. That will really be helpful to my work, and I'm so glad it's being released before I leave. A breakthrough in the search for data!

With only 2 weeks left before I leave it seems like there is a lot of research work remaining. Wish me luck in getting it all done!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Teacher workshops #2 - Using Play in the Classroom

Last weekend I finished the second set of teacher training workshops for volunteer teachers at cdpeace pilot schools in Paki Masabong and Gbonkolenken chiefdoms. Like the last set, the workshops were well attended, and I think the teachers really enjoyed them.

This set of workshops focused on using play in the classroom. They were facilitated by Delia Kay (photo at left is Delia with teachers in Gbonkolenken). Delia is from the UK and currently working as a volunteer at the Fatima Institute in Makeni. I met her in Makeni, and one day we were talking about our work and interests, and she mentioned that she was a teacher for many years in England, and was head teacher at a primary school. She also said that she was interested in doing more volunteer work with teachers while she was here in Sierra Leone. I immediately took advantage of the opportunity to ask her to facilitate some teacher workshops for us, and happily, she agreed. Since I am not trained as a teacher myself, I was happy to have someone else with actual classroom experience help me out with the training.

In the workshops, Delia set the context by talking about how students learn. She reminded the teachers that students learn not only by listening (auditory learners), but also by seeing (visual learners) and doing (kinaesthetic learners). So much of the teaching style here is teachers standing at the front of the room and talking at students, and many students just don’t learn well that way. Games are a great way to offer stimulation to different learners and also to give the kids a fun activity to do while they are still learning. Delia also talked about using games as a behaviour management tool, something which fits well in our overall efforts to eliminate the use of corporal punishment in schools.

Delia then taught the teachers a series of games they could use in their classrooms, and the teachers themselves actually played the games to see how they worked. The games they learned were Housie, Housie (hangman, but with a drawing of a house instead of a hanging man, which is really quite gruesome when you think about it), several math games involving math problems as clues (Ten Numbers and Multiplication Bingo with actual bingo cards), a couple of word/spelling games (one with homonyms and one with scrambled letters that you make into words – kind of like Boggle), and charades.

The teachers seemed to enjoy playing all the games, but my favourite by far was charades. No one had ever played this game before, so the teachers were a bit unsure of how to go about it. The things they had to act out were all animals, things like lion, frog, butterfly and monkey. To be honest, they all kind of looked the same to me when the teachers acted them out, and I had no clue whatsoever which animal they were trying to portray :-) But the teachers seemed to be able to guess, and there was lots of laughter, so it worked well for them. I have some good videos of the charades as well – they’re posted with the photos from the workshop at

Delia also mentioned a website which has many resources and ideas for primary school teachers in particular:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Memories of the war

Sometimes I forget that Sierra Leone experienced a brutal civil war in the not too recent past. People here are generally so hopeful and focused on future plans for development and improvement in the country that I can forget the tragedy that affected everyone here. Although it sometimes comes up in conversation, people here don’t talk often about the war, and I generally don’t ask many questions in order not to pry into something that may be very difficult for people to talk about. Also, since this is my first time in Sierra Leone, I have nothing to compare it to in terms of how the war changed things here. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between what was destroyed by war and what has deteriorated due to neglect.

Two days ago, Mary Hawa Turay, co-founder of cdpeace, arrived in Sierra Leone for a visit (she is still living in Canada). As we were driving back from Freetown together, she talked about some of the changes she could see due to the war, and some of the things the communities I’m working in have experienced. One thing she mentioned was the state of people’s houses. Before the war, the houses used to be bigger and better constructed – whole compounds with several buildings and a wall around where families lived together. Unfortunately, many homes were destroyed during the conflict. Throughout the country you can see the remains of buildings, still charred from being burnt to the ground. When people had to flee their homes as the fighting advanced, they left everything behind, and in most cases lost it all. Although people have been able to build new homes, they are working with much less than they had, and the houses now tend to be smaller and less solidly constructed.

The two chiefdoms in which I’m primarily working (Gbonkolenken and Paki Masabong) were really affected by the war, Gbonkolenken more so. Mary told me that when the rebels were advancing through the country from the south, when they came to the villages in Gbonkolenken chiefdom (which is essentially right in the middle of the country), the people of Gbonkolenken were one of the first groups to put up real resistance to the rebel advance. Because of this, the rebels decided to punish them – many people were killed and injured. Children were kidnapped. People were forced to commit atrocities (raping, killing, maiming) against their family, friends and neighbours. Whole villages were destroyed and burnt to the ground, so much so that there was nothing left. In the village of Mathombo, school children and adults were locked inside the school and it was set on fire. Many people died. The foundations of that school are still visible in the Mathombo community (Mathombo school is one of the cdpeace pilot schools and has just recently been rebuilt by cdpeace with the support of donors from Canada). Mary said that after the rebels made an example of Gbonkolenken, other villages throughout the north surrendered to them more easily.

I repeat these stories not to dwell on the terror and destruction of the war, but to contrast that with the current climate of hope I see here, and to remember what Sierra Leoneans have experienced. In the face of the devastation of the war that was really so recent (the war began in 1991 and was declared officially over in 2002), it is even more admirable and inspirational to me that the people I have met here now live so peacefully together and that their focus is so strongly on bringing development to the country. Of course there are many challenges here, and a lot of work to be done, but it is obvious to me how much people here are ready to move beyond what happened to them during the war and work hard to build a peaceful and prosperous country. It's pretty impressive.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A typical day in Mapaki

With just 3 weeks left in my internship, I thought that I should finally post something about my typical day in Mapaki. I’ve been meaning to do this for some time, but at least I’m getting to it before the end of the internship! :-)

I normally get up early, around 6:30 am or so. Village life starts early, and most people here are up and about even before that. I wake to the sounds of roosters crowing, people talking, my neighbours cooking and sweeping their yard, and people coming back from mosque.

I usually eat breakfast around 7:30 am or so, and then go and say good morning to Chief, Sallay, the kids, and the other women in the kitchen, plus whoever else is around. Kouame and Mabinty often stop by the guesthouse in the morning to discuss plans for the day.

Some days I stay around Mapaki. I work on the computer (the photo is me in the office in the guesthouse), check my email, write reports, do some research work, etc. Sometimes I do chores like dishes or laundry (although I get in trouble from Mabinty for doing my own laundry instead of giving it to her to do), or sweeping out my room. I usually spend time every day sitting outside and watch people go by, or I read. Sometimes there are events going on here that I participate in – for example, there was a District Council meeting here on Wednesday afternoon that I sat in on.

Other days I visit the other schools and communities that I work with. Usually Kouame and I go by motorbike to these other places, villages like Maso, Makambray, Makonkorie, Mbarr Line, Mathombo, Bumban, Yele, Moria and Mayagba. I visit the students, meet with the teachers or deliver letters from schools in Canada and collect replies from schools here to send back. Visiting the schools is a lot of fun. The furthest schools are a little over an hour’s drive away, in Gbonkolenken chiefdom. The closest ones are outside of Mapaki, just a 10 or 15 minute drive.

Often in the evenings I do an interview for my thesis research. I generally do yoga every other day. Later, after eating dinner, I usually go to the library to read in the electric light. Sometimes I watch part of a movie on my computer, or stay in the guesthouse office to do some work that requires more quiet and concentration than the library provides. I go to bed early, usually by 9:30 pm or so. Without electricity, there isn’t much to keep me up late at night.

It’s a pretty quiet life, but very relaxing and peaceful. I can’t remember the last time I was getting 8+ hours of sleep a night consistently and I quite enjoy it. I might have to keep up my going to bed early habit when I get home!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Black Magic Justice

Yesterday I witnessed for the first time the use of black magic/witchcraft in Mapaki. There is a very strong belief throughout Sierra Leone in witchcraft, evil spirits, magic, etc. even among people that are well-educated. This has come up in my health research a few times – people believing illnesses are caused by witchcraft or seeking treatment through spiritual means as opposed to medical ones – but I have never seen it in actual practice. Yesterday, I saw the village witch/sorcerer (not sure what the right term would be here) was using it to catch a thief.

Apparently a woman’s phone had been stolen, and she had hired the witch to find the phone and the thief. The witch had a magic circle with various potions, a mirror, a rooster, and a set of sticks in the middle. She then used the sticks to locate the thief. Before this could begin though, the sticks had to be tested. Someone hides a small coin (100 Leones), and the witch uses the sticks to find it. She was successful in doing this, which indicated that she would be able to find the thief. She then used the sticks to locate the thief. I wish I could have taken a photo or video of this process, but I didn’t have the camera with me. Basically she holds the sticks and shakes them, and the sticks seem to lead her around various places. Of course she is followed by at least 50 children and a handful of adults to see what is going on. More adults wait by the circle for her to come back with the thief.

Eventually she identified the thief’s house and his name. It was a teenage boy, about 15 perhaps, but he wasn’t home. So then she used the sticks to find him (he was apparently off doing something in the bush). He was brought back to the circle. However, he denied that he had stolen the phone. A couple of possible witnesses were also brought forward but he still denied that he was the thief. In the end, because he refused to admit it, nothing more happened. I was told that normally if the person admits their crime, they return the property and the witch is paid a fee by whoever hired here. The offender is also fined. However, if the person denies it, the witch then usually produces the stolen property as proof that they are indeed guilty. In this case though, the witch refused to produce the phone unless she was paid 200,000 Leones (a huge sum of money here).

Anyways, it all seemed a bit confusing to me as I didn’t quite understand who paid what to who and why. It was very interesting to see in action though, and many other people in the village turned out to watch as well.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Nova Scotia Gambia Association (NSGA) and their work in Sierra Leone

When Chris and I were travelling, we had the good fortune of travelling with a friend of mine from Nova Scotia, Andrea MacDonald. Andrea is the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Gambia Association, which works both in The Gambia and here in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, their project is called the Nova Scotia Sierra Leone Program (NSSLP). Andrea was here visiting some of NSSLP’s projects and invited us to travel with her. We went with her to Koidu, Kenema, Bo and then back to Freetown. This was a great way for us to see other parts of the country without going through the trials of using public transportation or paying a lot of money for a private vehicle. Some of the roads were pretty bad (as evidenced by the mud-soaked truck in the photo) and we were thankful to be in a 4x4 vehicle. So thanks Andrea!

Over the 5 days we spent travelling with NSGA, we had the opportunity to visit some of their projects, and I really wanted to say something about the work they are doing here. The NSGA’s work focuses on peer health education. Their motto is “learn and teach others”. The also do voluntary counselling and HIV testing in coordination with health services here. We were able to see some of their peer health education work in action. In Kenema we visited a boys school that had a peer health education program around HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health. It was so neat to hear the boys that are the peer leaders in this program talk openly and without embarrassment about how you can get HIV, how to prevent it, how to have safe sex, and other topics that are so important to sexual health. These boys share this information not only with their peers at school, but also with their families and communities (many of them come from villages outside of Kenema). Without open and frank discussions on these subjects, health issues like HIV (with prevalence rates currently around 2%) and teenage pregnancy (already a big problem here) are sure to become more serious problems in the country.

(As an aside, one of the boys from this group in Kenema told me at the end of the session that he wanted to marry a white woman :-) I don’t think he was proposing to me, because I was there with Chris, just expressing his general dream!)

The project that NSGA is involved in in Kono District (the eastern part of the country) was really interesting to learn about. They are doing the HIV testing and counselling and peer health education component for a larger project that is run by the German Technical Cooperation, GTZ (GTZ has a similar role to that of CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, in Canada). This project aims to help youth that were displaced by the civil war to urban areas like Freetown, or to the diamond-mining areas, resettle in their old villages. A 3-month pilot project just finished, and GTZ aims to soon launch a five-year project to do the same work, resettling 30,000 youth.

This is how the project works: GTZ “scouts” find young people in Freetown, or in the mining areas in Kono that want to go back home but don’t have the means to go themselves. The scouts then visit the home communities and mediate with the villagers to ensure that the return will be accepted and peaceful (some of these youth may have been perpetrators of or witnesses to atrocities committed during the war). GTZ provides returnees with basic support in terms of transportation and getting set up with farming and housing when they return to the village, and works with them to educate them and the rest of the community in the areas of hygiene, water and sanitation, reproductive health and HIV. This education work is where NSGA comes in. They also work with district health teams to HIV counselling and testing for returnees and villagers.

With Andrea, we visited one of the villages where resettlement has taken place as part of the pilot project, the village of Gbematambadu (photo of villagers to the left), about 15km outside of Koidu (on a TERRIBLE road). The villagers and returnees talked about their experiences thus far (they had been back for about 3 months I think). Everyone generally seemed to be happy with the new arrangement. The returnees were able to feed themselves from their farming (as opposed to living on Le 1,000-2,000/day doing alluvial mining in the diamond areas), and the villagers appreciated having more young people around to share in the work. While there were certainly ongoing challenges (housing and education for the new influx of children seemed to be two big ones), the project seemed for the most part to be successful.

The whole concept of the project is very interesting, as the general assumption in the west is that anyone working and receiving a salary is better off than someone depending on subsistence agriculture, and that moving to an urban centre is better than being in a rural area. However, this GTZ project seems to demonstrate that this is not the case. In fact, rural communities have a lot to offer. Although subsistence farming has its own challenges and is by no means easy, at least people have a certain measure of control over whether or not they can feed their families. Trying to live in a city and pay for lodging and food for your family on only pennies a day (Le 1,000 = about $0.28 CDN) is pretty tough.

In addition, returning to their home communities offers people a support network that they likely did not have in Freetown or Koidu. From my own experiences here, I’ve seen that extended family networks are very important, especially in rural communities. If you live close to your extended family, when you are sick, they will take care of you. When your harvest fails, they will share their food with you. You help each other with work in the fields and in the house. Children take care of parents, grandparents take care of grandchildren, siblings take care of siblings. Again, it’s certainly not a perfect or an easy life, but the family and community networks in rural communities act as an essential safety net for people here, in a country where social services provided by the government are limited or non-existent.

At the community meeting, people talked about what they had learned from the peer health education program. Topics included prevention of sexually transmitted infections, child spacing, and basic sanitation. Some spot checks in different project areas have already seen some changes in behaviour (for example, always covering food and water to prevent contamination, hanging laundry up instead of laying it on the ground to dry, etc.). In a year or two, other bigger changes (such as in the birth rate or rate of STIs) will hopefully be visible as well.

I have more to say about rural communities and about both agriculture and mining in the country, but those will be topics for other posts. For more information about NSGA’s work in Sierra Leone and The Gambia, or to donate to NSGA, please see their website,

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Freetown and area tourist review

On our travels, Chris and I spent 3 nights in Freetown and 3 nights at River No. 2, a gorgeous beach just outside the city. We were complete tourists during this time, so I wanted to write up a little review of our experiences for other potential visitors to Sierra Leone.

In Freetown we ate at 4 restaurants (breakfast was at the guesthouse every morning), Balmaya’s, Mamba Point, Chez Nous, and The Rooster. They were all good. The Rooster is right downtown and more of a lunch spot – lots of shwarmas, burgers, and that kind of thing. Very reasonably priced. Balmaya’s and Mamba Point are both more expat type of spots. The food is very good, but the prices are comparable to a decent restaurant at home (i.e. $50 - $60 for dinner for two). We even had burgers at Balmaya’s one night – yummy! Chez Nous is on the Lumley beach strip and it’s nice to be right near the ocean. The food was good – lots of fresh seafood and a yummy fried rice.

Getting around
Getting around Freetown can be somewhat challenging until you figure out how the system works. Taxis generally run on pre-determined routes and are Le 1,000 a person for a one-way ride. We did this a few times, but our main challenge is that we didn’t know the routes. We got in one taxi that actually was supposed to turn in the opposite direction we wanted to go. When we realised this, the driver made the other passengers get out and took us onwards. Motorbikes also offer taxi rides and can make for a faster journey as they zip through traffic. They’re not good if you have much to carry though.

If you have a few people, you can either negotiate a one-way rate with a taxi driver, or you can charter a taxi for yourself for Le 15,000/hour. We chartered a car to take us to Charlotte Falls and Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and to River No. 2. My only advice on chartering a vehicle to take you out of town is to inspect the car first. The roads outside of Freetown can be 4x4 territory (i.e. bad!) and the more reliable the vehicle, the better. Also, make sure you know where you are going and have an idea how to get there. Although your driver may say he knows where you are going, there is still a high possibility that he doesn’t :-)

Downtown Freetown

On Saturday we spent the day wandering around Freetown’s frenetic downtown. You really get a much better feel for a city from walking around in it. First of all, for those that have any concerns about safety, I want to point out that it is perfectly safe to wander around (although watch out for traffic!). We definitely got a few stares as you don’t see many white people walking around, but over all we didn’t attract that much attention.

We stopped in Victoria Park, a small green space in the centre of town, to sit in the shade for a while. We discovered that hundreds of bats make their homes in the trees in the park. I have never seen so many bats in the daytime before. It was quite incredible.

We decided to make our way to Fourah Bay College to see the botanical gardens (mentioned in the Bradt Sierra Leone guidebook). The college is at the top of a very big hill and the views of the city from the top are incredible and worth the trip up in and of themselves (we took motorbikes up but walked down). Less so the botanical gardens. On arriving at the campus and I suppose looking lost, a man approached us and asked what we wanted. We mentioned the gardens and he offered to point us in the right direction. He took us to a treed area behind a building. It looked like it could once have been a garden, but it certainly did not appear to have been maintained in any way. Our guide then proceeded to show us around the college campus, something we weren’t really looking for but got anyways. We did see some small alligators (or crocodiles?) in a cage near the biology building, but that was about it. There didn't seem to be anything remaining of the botanical gardens that was worth seeing.

As I said, it’s worth the trip up for the views, but there’s not too much else to see there. Fourah Bay was actually the first university in sub-Saharan Africa (founded in the early 19th century) and used to have an excellent reputation. People used to come to Sierra Leone for university from all over the continent.

After our Fourah Bay adventure and some lunch, we visited Big Market to pick up a few souvenirs. This was quite an experience. The guidebook recommends going in with a firm idea of what you want and what you are willing to pay, and I would heartily second this advice. Upstairs in the market there are some very nice things – wood carvings, batik, country cloth, gara cloth and other printed fabrics. However, the problem is that there are about 40 stalls each selling almost the same items. Once people know you are spending money, each seller eagerly tries to get you to look at the merchandise in their stall. Chris had a bit of a hard time with the persistence of the sellers, but I think the trick is really just to be firm rather than too friendly, and to get an idea of what you want before you start to buy. For example, we knew we wanted a hippo carving. Once I said this, the sellers kept bringing me different hippo carvings until I found one I liked. Now that’s service! We managed to escape without spending too much money, but I may go back for one or two more things next time I'm in Freetown :-)

Freetown photos:

Charlotte Falls

Charlotte Falls is a beautiful alternative to the beaches and is just outside Freetown, about a 30 minute drive along the Mountain Road from Congo Cross depending on the traffic and the reliability of your vehicle. The falls are beautiful and the water flows fast enough to make swimming safe. The water was so refreshing, especially after the walk in to the falls in the heat. We only had about 1.5 hours there, but it was definitely worth the trip and if I was in Freetown I would definitely go again.

FYI: do not drive down the road to Charlotte without some good quality breaks. The taxi we hired to take us out there was probably one of the worst cars I’ve seen here. The road is fairly steep with lots of loose rock, and the brakes definitely weren’t working as they should. After a slightly scary moment of sliding down the road while the driver pumped the brakes, we decided to walk the rest of the way to the falls :-)

Charlotte Falls photos:

Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary was a great experience, and they really do great work there (for more info, see There used to be quite a big population of chimpanzees in Sierra Leone (about 20,000 in the 1970s), but there are now only about 1,500 – 2,000 left in the whole country. They are threatened by two major factors: deforestation and hunting. Deforestation in the country due to mining and agricultural activities has been significant, and this destroys the habitat for chimps (and many other wildlife!). Chimps are also hunted for meat (a large chimp will fetch about Le 60,000 – 80,000 for the meat), and unfortunately to be sold as pets. When a hunter kills an adult chimp with a baby, the adult can be sold for meat, and the baby can be sold for about $100 - $200 US as a pet. Keeping chimps as pets in Sierra Leone is illegal, but it is apparently still a big problem. When the chimps are little, they are cute and manageable. However, as soon as they start to get bigger, people have problems (an adult chimp weighs an average 110 lbs and is 5 times as strong as a human), and the chimps are often either mistreated or killed.

Tacugama primarily rescues chimps that have been kept by people as pets. They started with only 8 chimps, but now have over 80 at the sanctuary. There are two bigger enclosures where the older adult chimps live, and two smaller areas for a group of adolescents, and for the youngest chimps. The idea is to eventually release them into the wild; however, without a safe and protected area in which to release them, which doesn’t exist right now in the country, releasing them would only further endanger them.

The coolest part was watching the young chimps swing around and play. We could have stayed there watching them for hours really. They’re amazing to watch, and so human-like! Apparently 98.6% of our DNA is the same as a chimp’s DNA.

Tacugama photos:

River No. 2 Beach

We spent 3 nights at River No. 2 Beach, about an hour’s drive down the coast from Freetown. River No. 2 is absolutely beautiful. I think it’s one of the top beaches in the world actually. White sand, warm blue water, and the best part – we only shared it with about 8 other people! Take a look at the photos to see what I mean:

The whole set up at No. 2 is run by the community and could really serve as a model for tourism in other communities in Sierra Leone. The community members take turns working at the guesthouse. They don’t get regular salaries, just a small incentive for their work. Whatever the guesthouse brings in is used to help improve the whole community. For example, the generator used for the guesthouse for electricity in the evenings is also available to community members for electricity. The guesthouse also provides income for local fishermen and guides with their excursions and restaurant.

The accommodations are basic but comfortable. The food is delicious, freshly caught seafood for supper every night (we tried the barracuda, the lobster, the crab and the shrimp, and all were SO good!). We ate right on the beach, looking out over the water. Breakfast is included with the room rate.

We did one of the little excursions they offer as well – a trip up the river by boat, and then a hike up one of the hills (the Guma Valley nature trail). It took about an hour and a half. We didn’t see any animals (a couple of other guests saw monkeys), but the boat ride was interesting, and the view from the top of the hill was amazing.

The weather wasn’t the greatest while we were there (it rained 3 out of 4 days if you can believe that!), but the ocean was still nice and warm so we got in lots of swimming. Less lying on the beach in the sun than we hoped for, but to be honest, the sun is so hot that the clouds were a nice relief at times! We also had beach bonfires two nights we were there. We didn't need the heat from the flames, but it was really nice to sit around the fire on the beach and chat.

River No. 2 is definitely one of the nicest beaches I’ve been on, and is highly recommended!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Back in Mapaki

I'm back in Mapaki - just arrived late this afternoon. I have much to write and lots of pictures to share from my travels, so look out for more blog posts coming soon!

Monday, November 9, 2009

On the road

I will be travelling for the next 10 days or so, to Koidu, Kenema, Bo and Freetown, and then to Lungi to see Chris off at the airport. I will try to post while I'm on the road, but I'm not bringing my computer with me so I'm not sure what will be possible. I'm sure I'll have lots to say when I get back to Mapaki though!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

School twinning

This week I received the first letters from schools in Canada that are twinned with schools here in Sierra Leone. I received three letters, all from grade 6 classes, and all from schools in Nova Scotia. The letters were from Mount Edward Elementary School, twinned with SLMB Primary School in Mabarr Line, Gbonkolenken Chiefdom; from Madeline Symonds Middle School, twinned with Makambray Community Primary School in Makambray, Paki Masabong Chiefdom; and from Shannon Park School, twinned with Mapaki Primary School in Mapaki, Paki Masabong Chiefdom. A few photos of the Sierra Leone classes are posted online in the school twinning album.

Doing the twinning visits was a lot of fun. I visited all the schools in Sierra Leone this week to share the letters. It was really interesting to share information with the schools here, and find out from them what they wanted to share with and ask their new Canadian friends. Generally, for ease of understanding with translation and in order to make sure the content is as relevant and interesting as possible, I don’t read the letters exactly word for word. Instead I share the main ideas in the letters, and any questions the Canadian students have asked their twinned school. The Canadian students at each school shared a lot of the same information in their letters: games and sports they enjoyed, subjects they studied at school, and how they spent their free time. They asked questions of the Sierra Leonean students about what the country was like, the seasons, the animals, and any famous people here.

The schools here in Sierra Leone were very interested in the letters and seemed happy that students in Canada were thinking of them. Some of the students asked me to ask the Canadian students to visit them here, eager to get to know their new friends better. Students here were curious about students in Canada as well. They asked about the weather in Canada, the food, if students liked to play the same games and sports as them, and if they had farms. Generally in the twinning visits I focus on sharing similarities between the students rather than differences. Also, the focus of the twinning is on friendship and sharing, and not on material support, although in many cases the Canadian schools do raise money to support our work with schools here.

I have already sent the reply letters back to Canada and am looking forward to another round of twinning visits. I think it’s a great for students in both countries to learn more about each other and about global issues in general through the twinning process. Peaceful Schools International is right now in the process of examining how we can expand the twinning program. There’s been a lot of interest in school twinning, both from schools in Canada and the US and from developing countries as well. The main challenge is the distribution and interpretation of letters in developing countries. In many cases, schools don’t have access to computers or to the internet to be able to receive letters that way, and the mail systems are often not reliable. The twinning program in Sierra Leone works because there is a volunteer here available to receive the letters that come by email and take them to the schools. Once we figure out this challenge, PSI hopes to be able to implement a more comprehensive twinning program for our member schools from all around the world.

If you want to find out more about PSI's twinning work, please see:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Our OK Adventure

Yesterday evening Nancy, Vaughn, Jane, Chris and I returned to Mapaki after our trip to Outamba-Kilimi National Park (known as OK for short). The trip was definitely interesting. Unfortunately, although we saw hippo and elephant tracks, and the place where the hippos go to eat grass, we did not see any actual hippos or elephants. The elephants are very rare and you’re unlikely to see one, but most people who visit see hippos, and seeing the hippos was really the main reason for making the trip. However, because it is still raining quite a bit, and this is right at the end of the rainy season, the river was very high. Apparently the hippos stay inland when the water is high like that. I was very disappointed as I really, really wanted to see the hippos, but what can you do. On the bright side, we did see lots of monkeys, which was pretty cool, and we saw some huge trees and other interesting vegetation, some neat birds, and lots of insects (of course!).

The facilities at OK are basic – as the guidebook we have says, “serious BYO territory”. We brought all our own food and water with us, and arranged for someone there to do the cooking for Le 2,000/meal. The cabins are equipped with bed nets and keep the rain out, but not much else (for example, we found little lizards in our bed when we arrived). The toilets are pit toilets (BYO toilet paper too :-). There is a water tank that provides water through a spout for a shower, but unfortunately it was broken. Three days without a shower wouldn’t have been too big a deal, but on the drive up we all got incredibly dusty from road dust coming in the windows. Without being able to really wash properly, we pretty much just stayed dirty until we got home again.

We arrived in the late afternoon of the first day and just hung out, attempted to clean up a bit from the dust, ate supper and went to bed early. The next morning we did the hippo canoe ride. I enjoyed being out on the river, even though we didn’t see the hippos. It was about a 20 or 25 minute paddle downstream to their usual spot. When we didn’t see them, we got out of the canoes and walked a hippo trail (there's a photo of hippo footprints in my photo album,, if you're curious). We were slightly worried we might run into a hippo on the trail (apparently they are most dangerous on land and can run up to 45km/hr in short bursts), but we didn’t. And I’m sure our guides would not have taken us on that path if they didn’t think it was safe. The paddle back to camp took about an hour and was quite hard work as we were going upstream.

In the afternoon, Chris, Jane and I went on the “elephant safari” jungle walk. Talk about bushwhacking! A lot of the trail was through incredibly high elephant grass and our guide hacked his way through with a machete. I made the mistake of wearing sandals instead of sneakers (I was worried about there being a lot of mud), so my feet got a bit scratched up. We did see some elephant tracks, and the view from the elephant platform was pretty nice, but no actual animal sightings. Our guide pointed out the border with Guinea, which we could see from the platform.

After those two adventures, we were pretty tired and went to bed early the second night. In the morning we got up and headed for home by 9 am. We didn’t arrive in Mapaki though until about 8 pm, so it made for a long day. Why did it take us 11 hours to get back you ask? Well, we ran out of fuel. Our driver (we went in the Chief's vehicle so were with his driver), MO had misjudged how much fuel it would take us to get there and back. He actually didn’t really know where we were going, which I didn’t realise until he stopped to ask for directions on the way there! Anyways, we had enough fuel to get back to Kamakwie (26 km from the park – took us almost 2 hours to drive, including the ferry crossing), but not to get all the way back to Makeni. We had seen fuel stations in Kamakwie on our way up so thought we could refuel there. Unfortunately, there was no diesel anywhere to be had in the city. We visited the Chief of that area (Sella Limba Chiefdom), and he made a few calls for us, but there was no diesel anywhere. We had to wait for some to be brought from Makeni for us. 5 hours later, we were on the road again, leaving Kamakwie around 4 pm and arriving in Mapaki around 8 pm. Needless to say, we were pretty tired. We all learned a valuable lesson though – always start a journey in this country with a full tank of gas!

I think I would likely go back to OK while I’m here if I have the opportunity as I’d still like to see a hippo in the wild. The main thing that would be a deterrent in going back is the journey. Unfortunately, the road to the park is extremely bad on some stretches. To give you an idea, the distance from Makeni to OK is about 110 km, and it took us about 5 hours to drive there, including only one short stop in Kamakwie for a cold drink on the way there. I have a few pictures in my photo album of the road – some samples of some of the huge potholes we drove through. The worst stretch is actually the first 30 km or so of the road, from Makeni to Pendembu. This is a main route into the north of the province, but like the majority of the country’s roads, it is unpaved. In the rainy season (now) the roads are especially bad. We drove through some potholes the size of the car. The potholes are a problem for a few reasons – not only do they slow you down quite a bit, but they are full of water, so you’re never sure how deep the water is, or what might be underneath. I have friend that flooded their engine driving through one of these pothole puddles because the “puddle” came up over the hood of their car!! Luckily we were in the Chief’s jeep, which is in pretty good shape. We had a minor scare when the car didn’t start right away the morning we left OK, but it started with a push start, and was ok after that.

It was quite the journey overall, and I’m very happy to be back home in Mapaki! I'm looking forward to sharing some twinning letters I've received from schools in Canada with schools here this week.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Photos and weekend trip

Lots of new photos posted on the photo page, including some of recent trips to Freetown:

We're planning a weekend trip to Outamba-Kilimi, one of Sierra Leone's national parks in the north of the country. Supposed to be great for birds, primates of various types and . . . HIPPOS! The road there is supposed to be terrible, but we're going to make an attempt. We should be back Sunday, hopefully with lots of wildlife pictures to share. So no posts for the next few days.

In which I make a truce with spiders

Before I came to Sierra Leone, while I did not consider myself to be deathly afraid of spiders, I still didn’t like them very much and was definitely kind of scared of them. To be honest, I didn't give much thought to potential bugs here before I left, until a friend asked me about it. Even then, I tried not to think about it too much. In the six weeks since I arrived here, I have to say that I have become much more used to spiders. In fact, I would go so far as to say I have called a truce with them. I originally titled this post “in which I make friends with spiders”, but I don’t think I can go that far quite yet. I see spiders here every day. They are in my bedroom, in the bathroom, in the office, in the library, and of course, outside. Some are small, but most are bigger than any spider I have seen at home. Apparently in the bush the spiders can get to the size of dinner plates!

At first they really freaked me out, especially because they tend to come out more at night when it’s dark. This makes them much scarier to deal with. In fact, at the beginning I even avoided getting out of bed to pee a couple of times because I could see there was a spider in the corner by the door to the bathroom. However, they are impossible to avoid. The houses and buildings here are all pretty open to the outdoors, so you can’t keep them out. If you kill one, another will just come along and take its place. Spiders do a good job here – they eat mosquitoes and other bugs that might be in your room, and they aren’t poisonous. I don’t think they even bite. No one here is afraid of spiders and they find it kind of funny that we are. I guess the fact that I am hundreds of times bigger than the spiders and that they usually run away from me makes them easier to deal with too.

All of this, plus seeing them and dealing with them daily, has made me basically resigned to spiders. Eventually I worked up the courage to use my little broom made of twigs to at least poke them out of the way of where I wanted to walk. Now I tend to pay them little attention (although if I see one, I do check if it’s still there later). A spider crawled on my hand the other day when I reached in to the cupboard to get something, and I didn’t even scream :-) Ok, so it was on the smaller side, but I’m pretty proud of myself all the same. I'm even starting to find them kind of interesting.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the “friends” stage with spiders. I still wear shoes almost 100% of the time I’m not in bed, and I especially wear them at night, just in case I step on one while walking to the bathroom. And I still shine the light on the ground to make sure one isn’t in my path. But for the most part I have declared a spider truce. As long as they don’t bother me, I am happy to let them go about their little spider lives.

Side note: I wrote this a week or so ago, before Chris arrived, but didn't have a chance to post it until now. However, seeing him see his first big spider here reminded me how far I've come since arriving in terms of my acceptance of spiders :-)

p.s. the spider photo in this post was taken in my room - it's hard to tell the size, but it was about as big as my hand.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another trip through Freetown

I’m back in Mapaki now after my second trip to Freetown in a week. I’m almost getting used to the city now :-) Chris arrived safely late Sunday night (2 am on Monday really). Meeting him at the airport at that time was interesting. At around midnight both the cafes in the airport closed. It was very quiet and most people who were around were lying on whatever surface was available sleeping. MO (Chief’s driver) and I just sat around waiting. I read a lot! Luckily the flight came in on time and by 2:30 am we were headed back to our Guesthouse in Lungi. It’s not a bad place and I’ve stayed there before, but this time there were quite a few mosquitoes in our room and we also got temporarily locked in the room due to a broken lock, so I think next time I might look for somewhere else to stay.

I actually like taking the ferry from Freetown to Lungi. Although it’s long (you have to arrive about an hour before to get on with a vehicle, then the crossing takes about an hour), I find the people watching very interesting. Watching people and vehicles disembark from the ferry is also quite a sight. Everyone crowds the gangway, and generally people start jumping off the end of the boat and onto the landing area even before the ferry is properly docked. When people get off, they usually run off in order to get a place in a taxi or on a bus. Watching the cars try to come off is also pretty funny. There is only one gate on the ferry, so all the cars that drive on have to turn around in order to drive off forwards again (it’s very difficult to back off because your wheels have to be properly placed, otherwise your vehicle goes into the water). Usually every car is trying to turn around first without waiting for the other cars to get out of the way. Often there are 4 or 5 men “helping” the cars turn around but without watching what any of the others are doing. Even when told to wait for someone else, cars will just start trying to turn around. It’s incredibly chaotic. Chris got a good video of it I think. I doubt we’ll be able to post it while here because it will take too long to upload, but I’ll be sure to put a few videos online when we get home.

In the harbour where the ferry docks in Freetown, there are several old metal wrecks of ships (comforting, isn’t it?). I had noticed people in the water swimming out to these wrecks but wasn’t sure why they were out there. On the ferry trip from Freetown to Lungi someone told me that they swim out to break off metal parts of the ship. They do this by hand, with hammers or some other hand tools. Then they swim the pieces of metal back to shore to sell as scrap. Pretty incredible.

I also had an interesting experience at the immigration office in Freetown on Monday. I had to go there to renew my entry stamp. I have a visa for 6 months which allows me to enter and leave the country, but when you come in to the country you only get a one month visit permit (this is what allows you to stay in the country). I had no idea this date would be different than the six month visa I already had. Various other people I talked to here also had this same problem. Anyways, by the time someone told me about this and I actually looked at my stamp, it was already expired. Luckily, Chief has a nephew who works in the immigration office. His nephew advised Chief to write a letter explaining that I was staying here as his guest and requesting that the permit to stay be extended, and he also talked to his boss in Freetown (head of the foreign nationals section) to tell him I was coming to get this issue resolved.

So on Monday morning, I took this letter and my passport to the immigration office when we arrived in Freetown. We went there around 10:30 am, after breakfast at Crown Bakery (delicious!). When we got upstairs to the office, there were about 10 staff there. Most of them were sitting around, appearing to do nothing. One person was sleeping. The TV was on and a few were watching football. I spoke to one of the immigration officers, explained the issue and showed him the letter. He told me I’d have to come back tomorrow since the boss who needed to approve the extension was away at a meeting. I explained that I couldn’t come back tomorrow since we were headed back to Mapaki, so he advised me to try later in the afternoon.

This gave us a couple of hours to kill in Freetown. While it was a pain to have to hang around, we decided to go to the beach (Lumley beach), so at least we enjoyed ourselves! The beach was beautiful and almost deserted. We put our feet in the water and sat in the shade on the sand for a while. Then we walked down the beach and met a guy who asked us to bring some gold dust back to Canada with us to sell for him. Interesting. We decided to stay on the safe side and politely declined :-)

Finally we were able to pick up my passport around 2:30 with the extension granted and headed back to Freetown. It was around 6:30 by the time we got back to Mapaki. Chris is getting adjusted to life here and settling in. We hope to do a couple of small side trips over the next week or so, but will be staying based in Mapaki so I can continue to work.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Off to the airport again

Heading to the airport again today to pick up Chris. Woo hoo! Back some time tomorrow.

Visit to Gbonkolenken Chiefdom

On Friday, we (Jane, Nancy and Vaughn, the visitors from Canada, plus myself, TMT, Pa Fornah and Sallay) spent the day in Gbonkolenken chiefdom. I had a lot to do there in terms of work – teacher workshop, meetings with the women and with teacher training scholarship recipients, and delivering the PSI flags and certificates for the schools there that have become members. Jane, Nancy and Vaughn also wanted to visit Mathombo school, which is twinned with Parkview school in Ontario where Jane’s children go to school, and deliver some of the health supplies that they brought with them (the supplies were divided between the two chiefdoms, some to Gbonkolenken and some to Paki Masabong).

It was a good, although very long day. I’ve posted some pictures. The children at Mathombo school were singing as we arrived at the school – a very nice way to be welcomed! The last time I visited Gbonkolenken, school hadn’t started yet, so it was good to see the kids in class this time. Mathombo is a community school and all of the teachers there are volunteers. It’s quite inspiring to see their commitment to the kids, especially in the area of peace education. I could see when visiting the classes that the teachers there were practicing some of the alternatives to corporal punishment that they have learned, especially in terms of providing encouragement and praise to students for participating in class and getting answers right rather than punishing those who got answers wrong.

The teacher workshop we did was the same topic as the one in Paki Masabong last week. We had an excellent turnout – over 30 teachers and a few elders from the area as well. We started the workshop with a review of a previous workshop on alternatives to corporal punishment done by Carolyn, Hetty (van Gurp, founder of Peaceful Schools International) and Thomas. During this review, when I asked the teachers what they remembered from the workshop, one of the elders recalled the story of Hetty’s son Ben (Ben died as the result of an act of bullying by another child at school) and told it again as a reminder why it is so important to build peace at school. I thought it was very touching that he remembered her story.

We also had a very sad health-related experience in Mathombo. Since both Jane and Nancy are doctors, one of the village elders in Mathombo asked if they could examine his wife who hadn’t been feeling well for a few months. The woman was frail and elderly (I find it very hard to tell people’s ages here so I won’t hazard a guess), and was obviously in some pain. Jane and Nancy did the best they could to examine her, asking questions and checking her stomach, which is what was bothering her. In the end they thought that she likely had cancer and that a tumour in her stomach area was causing her the pain. They encouraged her to go to hospital (Mathombo is in Tonkolili District, so the nearest hospital is in Magburaka, about a 45 minute drive), but she said it was not possible because of the costs. All we could do is leave her a bottle of ibuprofen in the hopes of offering her some relief from pain. It was difficult to see someone in obvious pain and distress and not be able to do more to help.

The costs of treatment and the distance to health services are both major barriers to care for people here. However, even if she could get to the hospital, I’m not sure what they’d be able to offer in terms of treatment or pain relief/palliative care. I know that the hospital in Makeni can’t perform any surgeries requiring general anaesthesia for example. I suspect that unless she was able to go to Freetown it would be very difficult for her to get the care she needed. Unfortunately, the inability to access care is an all too common problem for people here.