Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Daily life in Sierra Leone

Food in my room - cucumber, oranges and coconuts. From Miscellaneous

I have gotten a few questions about my daily life here in Sierra Leone, so I thought I would share how I go about some of my basic tasks.

Food and Drink
I generally eat pretty well here, although I suspect that I am consuming a lot fewer calories here than I would at home, simply because there is less variety and availability of food. I do not often feel very hungry though, which is a good thing. The custom here is to eat one big meal a day, usually in the mid to late afternoon. I get my meals in Mapaki from the Chief’s kitchen (photos of the kitchen to come soon). They make me breakfast as well as the main daily meal. I have learned to keep a few other items on hand in my room (right now I have: bread, cucumbers, oranges, coconuts, some trail mix, peanut butter and granola bars brought from home, and some crackers and laughing cow cheese recently purchased in Makeni), which I usually eat around lunch time. Then I eat the main meal for my supper. So, here is a typical day of food:

Breakfast – One or some combination of eggs, fried plantain (yummy!), corn meal porridge with bread, or some combination of the above. Along with my instant coffee of course (have I talked about coffee a lot so far? Feels like I have. The true sign of an addiction to caffeine :-)

Lunch – One or some combination of bread, sometimes with peanut butter (not every day as I’m trying to stretch it out), cucumber, oranges, coconut, laughing cow cheese. I now have some mayo and ketchup as well and I may try adding these into the mix too. Perhaps I’ll get myself some spam for sandwiches too.

Supper – rice with some kind of plasa (sauce) with meat. The plasas are groundnut (peanut) soup, cassava leaf or potato leaf, squash or sweet potato. The meat is fish, chicken or some other unidentified red meat (probably bush meat of some kind).

As you can see, there isn’t much available in terms of snacking and treats. It’s a pretty basic diet, and there is definitely a lack of vegetables, although I try to eat as much as I can. Next time I’m in Freetown though I am planning to stock up on a few other goodies, perhaps some nutella, cookies and whatever else might last in the heat and taste good.

For drinking, in Mapaki I stick to bottled water, coffee, and tea. I probably drink 2-3 litres of water in a day. Pop is available here, but it’s not cold. When I was in Makeni I drank A LOT of coke because it was nice and cold, but I don’t want to make that a habit. The local beer here, Star, is also quite good and readily available many places in Makeni.

Water and Sanitation
There is no running water in Mapaki. Some places in Makeni have it when there is a generator to run the water pumps. I am lucky enough to have an “en suite” bathroom, which includes a place to bathe and wash clothes and dishes and a toilet, which is flushed by pouring water into it. Most people would have outdoor pit latrines, not indoor toilets.

In the rainy season (which it is now) water is generally not a problem, although there are shortages here in the dry season. My water for washing comes from a well just across the street. The well is chlorinated, well-maintained and protected and the water is clean. People here drink this water; I don’t because it could have microbes in it that my body isn’t used to that would upset my stomach, and I figure better safe than sorry. There are a few containers in my bathroom which are filled with water. No, I do not get my own water – Mabinty brings it for me. Some day soon I will learn how to pump water from the well though.

Despite Mabinty’s protests, I do my own laundry. There is a line in my bathroom where I hang it to dry. I try to do it on a regular basis, every day or two, so that things don’t pile up. The line is only so long, so I can only hang a few things to dry at a time. Mabinty takes care of washing the sheets and things like that.

As I mentioned before, I now use my handy dandy shower in a bag to bathe, which is awesome. Before that (or if I’m somewhere without my shower), I took bucket baths. This involves pouring water over yourself with a cup, soaping up, and then rinsing. It’s hard to rinse with one hand while pouring water with the other. This is one of the things I appreciate the most about having the shower.

The only downside of being in Mapaki is that it is off the highway, so it is much more difficult to get places. Luckily for me, the road between Mapaki and the highway is in pretty good shape, and I have access to both Carolyn’s motorbike (with Kouame driving) and the Chief’s vehicle if needed. Fuel is about 15,000 LE per gallon (about $5 Cdn). It takes 3 gallons to go to Makeni and back in the car, and one gallon on the bike. I could also get a ride out to the highway and try to catch a taxi or a motorbike from there into Makeni, but that might prove difficult. For getting around in Mapaki I use my feet. There is also a bicycle available, but I’m not sure what shape it’s in.

Exercise has been woefully lacking over the last few weeks, although I did manage some yoga, but now that I am back and settled in Mapaki for a little while, I plan to get into a regular yoga and running/walking habit. Plus I hear that somewhere around there’s a chin up bar that was built for Gerald van Gurp when he visited last winter. I might have to give that a try as well. I am finding my back a bit sore from the lack of ergonomically correct chairs and the soft beds, but I’m hoping regular yoga and exercise will help with that.

Did I miss anything? If you have any questions, feel free to ask!

p.s. a few new pictures from Makeni and elsewhere are up on my photo page,

A few more links

The Nova Scotia Gambia Association (NSGA) has a new short documentary on their work in The Gambia and on the lessons we in the developed world can learn from our friends and partners in West Africa. The NSGA also works in Sierra Leone. I haven't watched the whole film yet (stupid slow internet), but the 6 minutes I did watch were very good. You can see the film online at - click on the photo of the African man in the bottom right corner to watch.

Sign Amnesty International USA's petition on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone:

Also, if you're interested in issues like development, global health, aid, and Africa, there are quite a few blogs that I read regularly on these topics - see the blog roll I have posted (scroll down, it's on the right) for a list of a few.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Costs of living in Sierra Leone

I'm heading back to Mapaki this afternoon. Before I go, here's a quick post on some of the costs of living in Sierra Leone. I am finding that in Makeni and Mapaki it’s generally not too expensive - prices would be higher in Freetown. Below are prices for some basic things. All prices are in Leones (LE). The Canadian dollar is worth about 3,200 LE and the American dollar is about 3,900 LE per dollar.

Night in a guesthouse in Freetown with power, running water, clean beds and mosquito nets: 40,000 LE

Meal of rice and plasa (sauce – can be groundnut soup, cassava, beans, stew, etc.) plus a drink: 5,000 – 8,000 LE depending on the plasa and the drink

Bag of water (this is clean filtered water, about 10 L in a bag I think): 4,000 LE

500 units of time on your mobile phone (to send a local text is 7 units and to make a call during the day is 5-7 units per minute): 17,000 LE

Oranges: 500 LE for 3 oranges

5” foam mattress for a bed: 170,000 LE

Goat (mmmmm): 100,000 LE

Large bag of rice (not sure of the size, but they are big bags): 120,000 LE

Motorbike taxi ride anywhere within Makeni: 1,000 LE

Taxi ride from Makeni to Mayagba (12 miles on the highway): 4,000 LE (keep in mind that this fee is for the taxi shared with the driver and 4 other passengers – you could pay more to have the whole car to yourself – probably 25,000 LE or so, but that’s just a guess)

One hour at the internet café in Makeni: 5,000 LE

Printing at the internet café in Makeni: 1,000 LE per page

Coke in a can: 2,500 LE

Gallon of gas (3.8 litres): 14,800 LE

Star beer (the local beer): 3,500 LE

Lighter: 400 LE

Bread: 1,000 LE

Killdriver (short bread cookie - see my previous post on these. Yummy!): 500 LE

Swimming at Wussum hotel: 10,000 LE

Rent for KK and Heidi's house (a compound with 8 bedrooms plus a back house and a second building for a generator - fit with electricity and running water if you have a generator to power it.): 5 million LE per year

Many of the prices I’ve listed above are fixed prices, but some can vary because you have to bargain for them.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Makeni night life

I had quite an exciting weekend here in Makeni and had the opportunity to sample some of the night life, which was fun. We went out both Friday and Saturday nights though, so I’m a little sleepy today. That, and the lack of coffee. Heidi and KK are still in the process of setting up their kitchen as they just moved into their house, so until Saturday there was no way to cook or heat anything. Saturday we got some coal for the coal pot, so on Sunday I attempted to use the coal pot to boil water. This, apparently, is harder than it sounds, because I was unsuccessful. I don’t know what I was doing wrong, maybe not enough coal or not lighting it properly, but the water never boiled, although it did get hot. I couldn’t get enough heat going to boil it I guess. Because it was well water I didn’t want to drink it without having boiled it for a few minutes, so I just gave up on the coffee. I’ll need to get a proper lesson in how to light the coal pot some time. Anyways, I’m looking forward to getting back to having my morning java back in Mapaki, even if it is instant :-)

On Saturday Heidi and KK and their friends threw a big party for another friend, Rabia, who was leaving Sierra Leone the next day after spending a year here as a VSO volunteer. We borrowed a barbeque (not a gas bbq, just a big barrel cut in half and filled with coal) and spent the day preparing food. The main event for the meal was a goat. The goat was bought that morning and tied up in the corner of the yard for a while before he was turned into supper. I think that’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to meat that was alive before I ate it :-) It was tasty though! There was a ton of food at the party, lots of different things, which was great. About 20 or so people came and everyone brought something. We ate a lot, but there were a lot of leftovers as well. Unfortunately because there is no way to preserve things (i.e. no fridge) a lot of the leftovers were wasted.

During the party we had quite an audience. The party was out in the front yard of the house. The gate to the compound is just bars rather than a solid gate, so you can see into the yard if you are standing outside the gate. We are often visited by children coming over to stare at and to talk to us. The night of the party there were at least 10 or 12 kids standing around outside looking in. It’s a bit disconcerting. Every time someone would tell them to get lost, they would leave but then come back after a few minutes. Eventually it got late and they went home, but we had an audience for most of the night. We would have liked to give them some of the leftover food, but didn’t for several reasons: first of all, it just perpetuates the stereotype that white people have food (or money, or other things) and they will give it to you if you hang around them enough. Also, because there were so many children, with more near by, giving out food to some would most likely have caused a bit of a ruckus and there may not have been enough food for everyone.

Once the BBQ portion of the evening was over, we went out dancing. There are two “clubs” in Makeni, Apex and Flamingos. Apex is bigger and nicer and is part of the Wussum hotel (the one with the pool) and Flamingos is a more local kind of a place. On Friday night we went to Flamingos, and Saturday to Apex. The dancing was a lot of fun! The music was pop, but they played mostly Sierra Leonean and Nigerian music (same at Flamingos). I am getting to know some of the most popular songs now and am going to try to track some down to bring home with me. The bars felt similar to clubs at home, except for a few things. The group I was with were the only white people there of course. Also, many people dance by themselves (less common to see this in Canada), and people of the same sex dance together. Girls dancing together is common in Canada as well of course, but you’d never see guys dancing together in the same way that you do here. You also often see men holding hands here. This is not considered a sign that they are gay or romantically involved in any way. Perhaps this is because homosexuality is so totally hidden and taboo here. Anyways, the dancing was a lot of fun. We stayed out very late though, so Sunday was spent mostly lying around being lazy. I am still a little tired today (Monday), but not sure if that is related to the lack of caffeine or actually being tired, since I slept pretty well last night.

Two more Krio lessons today and tomorrow and then I’m heading back to Mapaki on Tuesday. One of the things that I have enjoyed about being in Makeni is becoming more comfortable doing things on my own. There has been more opportunity here for me to go to shops, the office, out to eat, etc. by myself, and I feel quite comfortable doing that now. Makes me feel more at home in the country, which is good. I’m sure I’ll be down in Makeni for the occasional weekend, but for now I’m looking forward to going back to my quiet village life in Mapaki tomorrow. I will be taking some food treats from Makeni back with me though – crackers, laughing cow cheese, hot chocolate powder and soya sauce (for those days I don’t feel like eating the plasa (sauce) that is available). The cheese especially will be a nice treat – there is very little dairy here because of the lack of refrigeration.

More on Makeni - September 25

So this is now my fourth day in Makeni. Unfortunately, the internet hasn’t been working very well all week in the UN office, so I’ve had some trouble getting online. Heidi assures me that it’s not usually like this, I guess I’ve just picked a bad week to be here. Too bad, I was looking forward to a more reliable connection than I have in Mapaki, but I guess not.

The issues with communications (bad internet connections, lack of cell phone signal, my inability to send text messages to Canada) has been one of my biggest frustrations with being here so far. It’s difficult not to be able to communicate with people when you want to, especially with my friends and family back home. It also makes it difficult to get work done. Poor communications prevent you from doing work because you need to communicate in order to do it, and they also waste time because you spend time fiddling with the internet or your phone or whatever instead of working on something. Sigh. I know I will be more appreciative of our reliable telecommunications network when I get back home!

I want to describe Heidi’s house, where I am staying while in Makeni. The house is a compound, meaning it has walls around it and a gate. In addition to the main house, which has about 8 rooms plus a big living room and a bathroom, there is a second, smaller house in the back. Lecturers that work in the mental health program that KK works on stay in the back house when they are in Makeni. Everything is surrounded by the wall. The gate is always kept locked for security reasons, and there is a guard at night. All of this makes it sound like Makeni is very dangerous or something, but that isn’t really the case. I haven’t felt unsafe or worried for my security the whole time I’ve been here. It’s more to guard against theft. Especially since it would be known that white people are living in the house, there is a greater risk for theft because it is believed that there would be more to steal.

A few other stories from the past few days: Two nights ago (Wednesday night) we went to the launch of a new Amnesty International campaign to reduce maternal mortality in Sierra Leone (I mentioned this in a previous post, along with a link to some information about the campaign). This kick-off event was part of a tour Amnesty is doing around the country – the first stop was in Freetown, and they were going to a few other places in addition to Makeni as well. The launch was held outdoors at the football “stadium” (it’s not a stadium in the sense that you would normally picture it – it was just a huge dirt pitch with some goal posts where football is played). The event started about 2 hours late. This seems to be fairly typical here. The Secretary-General of Amnesty was here though, as well as the Paramount Chief in the area and a few other dignitaries. Following the speeches, there was entertainment, local Sierra Leonean dancers and singers. It was fun, pop type of stuff with some dancing as well. There was quite a crush of people there, but we managed to situate ourselves right in the front, so we had a pretty good view of the entertainment.

I think that a campaign around maternal mortality is a good thing - according to the WHO statistics, the rate in Sierra Leone is one of the highest in the world. The two main issues I think are the inability to access medical care because of cost or distance, and the poor availability of care because of staff shortages or poor training, lack of supplies, etc. For example, I visited a clinic in Makonkorie in Gbonkolenken chiefdom when I was there - they had almost nothing there. They didn't even have scissors or forceps to use during a delivery. From what I have seen from the Amnesty campaign so far, it focuses primarily on cost and transportation barriers. In my opinion, the supply side problems in health care here are equally as important.

Speaking of health and access - I got conditional approval from Carleton's research ethics committee on my research today! Yay!! I have to make a few changes and send it back, but they are minor, and it's nice knowing I'll be able to go ahead as planned. I'm hoping to start interviews within the next couple of weeks.

Oh, I also had my first taste of something called a killdriver at the Amnesty event. It’s a cookie, very similar to a shortbread cookie taste. You can buy it from sellers on the street. It’s called a killdriver apparently because it’s so good that when drivers eat it they crash and die. Funny, hey?

Last night we had a fun evening. In the late afternoon we went over to the Wussum hotel, the nicest hotel in Makeni. They have a pool, and you can swim for only 10,000 Leones (about $3). I didn’t swim, not having a bathing suit with me here in Makeni, but the others did. Then we sat around and had supper and drinks (chicken shwarma, yum!) and watched “Africa Magic” – movies from Nollywood (Nigerian Hollywood – apparently the third largest film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood). The Africa Magic films are generally terrible, or so I’m told. The one we half-watched while sitting around wasn’t much of a gem. The acting is bad and the stories are silly. But it’s still neat to see African popular film. I also very much enjoyed the tv, electricity, cold drinks and food available at Wussum. All in all, a good night!

p.s. no new photos until I am back in Mapaki as I didn’t bring the cord for my camera with me.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Krio in Makeni

On Tuesday morning I came to Makeni. I will be here for a week doing Krio language training and working in the office with Heidi (she works in an office that is available to NGOs in the UN compound here in Makeni – there is power, internet and best of all, air conditioning!!). Makeni is the capital of the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. The population is about 200,000, so it’s MUCH bigger than Mapaki.

There are good things and bad things about being in Makeni. The city is loud and much more crowded than Mapaki, and things are further away from each other of course. I am staying at Heidi’s house, which she shares with a few other people. The house is great – lots of space and conveniently located close to her office (it has no running water or electricity though). The only unfortunate thing about the location is that they are close to a mosque, which has prayers every morning at 5:30 am. These are quite loud and have been waking me up. I’m hoping I’ll get used to it after a couple of nights and am going to try sleeping with ear plugs tomorrow night.

On the plus side, there is much more available in Makeni than in Mapaki in terms of food. You can get vegetables (lettuce, tomato, carrots, cucumber, beans), fruit (apples, bananas, plantains, oranges, grapefruit) and a lot of other stuff – chocolate powder (to make cocoa), coffee, soya sauce, tuna, eggs, etc. Some of this is available in Mapaki as well, but much of it, especially the vegetables, is not, so that part is a treat. Yesterday I even had ice cream! I think the box said that it was egg flavour, but it was still yummy :-) Something cold to eat on a hot day is always nice.

Speaking of hot days, it hasn’t been as hot here as I initially expected. I don’t have a thermometer, so I’m not sure of the temperature, but I would guess it’s usually in the high 20s or so. It’s not usually super muggy, although some days are worse than others, but it does rain almost every day. It’s nice when it rains because it cools things off a bit. The cloud cover that we often have makes it feel less hot as well – yesterday it was sunny and it was wicked hot in the sun. I’m sure as the rainy season comes to an end (October) and the dry season starts, it will get hotter.

One of the other things I have been enjoying about being in Makeni is getting to know some of the other expats working here. There are several VSO volunteers working for local NGOs based in Makeni. Amy and Rabia work for Future in Our Hands, Sahiel works for MADAM (I can’t remember what the acronym stands for but it’s something to do with development and agriculture I think), and KK works for CAFOD (Catholic Association for Development).

The Krio lessons are going well – so far we have learned basic greetings, how to ask for a few things, for directions, food, prices. We did a whole thing on how to bargain, which is key here. Some prices are fixed, like for smaller food items, or in some of the shops, but you really do have to bargain for any larger items. I don’t consider myself a good bargainer, but perhaps now that my Krio is a bit better I will have more opportunity to practice.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some links of interest

Sorry for the relatively few blog posts lately. I’m in Makeni for a week and have been having some problems with the internet connection here. I’m in Makeni for Krio language training. I’m staying with Heidi (another cdpeace volunteer who lives in Makeni) and I’m working out of the UN office (they have an office available to NGOs). The internet connection here hasn’t been that reliable unfortunately, but I am enjoying the air conditioning!

More posts coming soon! In the meantime, here are a few links that might be of interest.

An article written by the staff of Newport Sports Management – a Canadian business that donated the funds to rebuild the Mathombo school here in Sierra Leone.

Article about state of tourism in Sierra Leone:

An article on the current health situation in Sierra Leone:

More information about Amnesty International’s new campaign in Sierra Leone to reduce maternal morality (I attended the campaign launch event in Makeni – more about that to come):

Happy International Day of Peace!!

September 21 was the International Day of Peace, a day first declared by the United Nations in 1981 to highlight efforts to end conflict and promote peace. Here in Sierra Leone, we organized the first celebration of International Peace Day in Mayagba. I have a few pictures posted of the day ( Below is the text of what I said at the meeting. Wishing you all peace and happiness!

“Today we have gathered here to celebrate the International Day of Peace, celebrated every year on September 21. This special day was established by the United Nations in 1981 as an annual event to highlight efforts to end conflict and promote peace. Every year, people in all parts of the world honour peace in various ways on this day. We, gathered here in Mayagba, are celebrating peace in Sierra Leone and in our lives in solidarity with many hundreds of thousands of other people around the world.

Anam Prem from India said that "Simply the absence of war is not peace”. Peace is much more than just the absence of armed conflict. Peace means development. Peace means having enough food to eat and clean water to drink. Peace means having adequate shelter. Peace means a clean environment. And peace means having family, friends and the freedom to express your own religion and culture. Building peace means working together to achieve all of these things. You can create peace in your life and you community simply by showing kindness to your fellow human beings, to animals, and to your environment.

All around the world, many people are working for peace. For example, Sierra Leone has many friends in Canada who are working in partnership with us to help bring peace and development here. TMT and Mary, co-founders of cdpeace, asked me to share with you the news that Logan MacGillvary, a 12 year-old boy in Canada, has won the “Me-to-We” award for his work on raising funds and materials for Sierra Leone. Logan will donate his award of $5,000 for the construction of the “Listen to the Children Multi-purpose Center” at Mayagba. Thank you to all here who helped to vote for Logan.

Logan’s work is just one example of the global partnership for peace in Sierra Leone. Our gathering today is an important celebration of over 7 years of peace here, and a demonstration of cdpeace’s commitment to working for peace in this country. It is an expression of the wish of everyone here for peace in the world made in solidarity with many other people around the globe. Thank you for coming, and thank you for your commitment to peace and development in Sierra Leone.”

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On water and power

Yesterday was an interesting day. The chief had a visit from a couple of staff from the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) along with someone representing the embassy of Japan. UNDP is the donor who funded the building of the community centre in Mapaki a couple of years ago, so they came back to see the project and to talk about new projects. It looks likely that UNDP will fund the replacement of pipes so that water can be piped into Mapaki. The water comes from a dam about a mile from the main road in Mapaki. The walk there was beautiful (pictures are posted - link is in the "links" section). The dam was built originally in the 60s or 70s. Water from the dam was carried down to the village via a pipe system (you can see the pipe sticking out in the photo on the right) and allowed people to have much easier access to water, especially during the dry season when water shortages are a problem. However, during the conflict a lot of the pipe, made of copper, was ripped up by fighting forces to be sold or used for other purposes. Since then, the chief has been trying to get the pipe repaired, and it looks like there could be water from this source in Mapaki by the end of this year. Very exciting!

Last night there was the biggest rainstorm I have seen since coming to Sierra Leone. The rain was so heavy, the lightning bright and frequent, and the thunder loud. I find heavy rain here is magnified even more because all of the roofs are made of metal (zinc I think), so the sound of the rain is made even louder when it hits the roofs. Then, in the midst of a very heavy downpour, around 6:30 or so, just when the sun was going down, it started to hail. Yes, you read that right, hail. I didn’t think it could hail in such a hot climate. One of the people I was talking with said this had only ever happened once before. Everyone seemed quite surprised by it, and the kids ran out in the rain picking up the tiny balls of ice. Especially because there is no refrigeration here in Mapaki, ice is really a novelty, so the hail caused a lot of excitement.

If this storm had happened in Nova Scotia, our power would most definitely have gone out! Luckily, there’s no power here to lose! :-) I read an interesting little note yesterday about off grid electricity. The article said (I’ll look for the link and post it if I can find it again) that donors are finally starting to realise that providing central grid electricity across Africa is not going to be feasible (for example, here in Sierra Leone, only Freetown, Bo and I believe Kenema have grid electricity, and even that can be unreliable), and that they need to begin to look at local, off-grid power solutions like solar power, small scale hydro, and other options. The next big revolution in local, small-scale power generation could happen right here in Africa. Interesting.

p.s.  saw a very large centipede in my room this morning - about 6 inches long and half an inch wide. Nice.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bits and bytes

A collection of thoughts today.

This morning I had a shower!! SO exciting! Thank you Hetty for the shower in a bag. It's a thing that you fill with water and it has a spout on the bottom that you can turn on and off. Yesterday I got one of the carpenters to rig something up to the ceiling so I could hang up my bag, and he also built me a stool to make it easier to get up and down. See the photo - the bag hanging is the shower bag, and below is the stool I use to hang it up. :-) The shower is great because I can bathe more quickly and I actually use less water than for a bucket bath. What a great gift!!

I think I have forgotten to mention that I now have an African name. When I arrived in Mapaki one of the elders told me that I would have to take an African name. I was christened Isata (eye-sah-tah) Conteh. Conteh is the Chief's family name. Isata is much easier for people here to say than Clare. The kids in Mapaki have already started calling "Isata, Isata" instead of "Opporto, Opporto" which is nice.

There is a big tree just outside and across the road from the guesthouse. Kouame tells me it is a Neem tree. In the tree live many bright yellow birds. Since I arrived, I have really admired this tree and loved the sound of the birds singing every day and every evening. However, yesterday I learned that these birds eat rice from the fields, and that farmers dislike them for this reason. I still think the birds are pretty, and enjoy their song, but it makes me a little sad to know that they also eat the food that people here need. I'll post a photo of the tree eventually. For any who like birds, this country is a birder's paradise!

Two days ago a young boy came to visit me in the guesthouse and asked me to take him to Canada with me when I go back. He is about 11 years old. I was quite surprised at this request – it’s the first outright request for help I’ve had in Mapaki. I’m sure he has no idea about what is involved in bringing someone to Canada, including the cost or the regulations. He did offer to work very hard for me and my family and to earn lots of money for us if I brought him to Canada. He told me that his father was dead, leaving his mother to care for him and his two siblings herself. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more to help him, but I did share my breakfast with him, so at least that’s something. Carolyn told me that on the few occasions when people asked her about coming to Canada she used to joke and tell them that they wouldn’t like it because it’s so cold there :-)

Oh, one more thing - I got my first sunburn yesterday :-( Luckily for me it's not too bad, but it's my own fault for not applying enough sunscreen. Lesson learned for next time. I did have my rain jacket with me, but that didn't do me much good in the end, since the day was hot and sunny!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Schools in Sierra Leone

Now that I have visited a number of schools in Gbonkolenken and Paki Masabong chiefdoms, I’d like to describe them a little bit for you. All of the schools I have visited so far are in rural parts of the country. They are generally all community schools, meaning that they are not run by the government. Some of them receive government support to pay some of the teachers’ salaries, especially in the secondary schools, but most receive insufficient support, or none at all.

Many of the school buildings are built by either ministries (Adventist and Catholic are two that I saw), by NGOs (two communities near Mapaki have new schools that opened officially today that were built by Plan), or by the community (for example, the old school in Makambray – the one whose roof blew off). The buildings are then turned over to the community to care for them.

The schools I have met with range in size from about 250 to 700 students. Class sizes are large, generally around 40-50 students per class. The official government policy is a maximum of 50 students per class, but you do see classes bigger than that. In one secondary school we visited in Mathombo, last year they had 400 students and cold only get 4 teachers. Imagine that, 100 students to a class. Definitely makes it more difficult for the students to learn.

For primary school, students pay no official fees to attend school. However, there are other associated costs, like uniforms, shoes and books, that can present a financial barrier to attendance. Once students reach the Junior Secondary (JSS) and Senior Secondary levels, there are fees just to attend. These fees are in the range of between 210,000 LE and 420,000 LE per year, and the books and uniforms these students require are in addition to that. Also, in many cases there isn’t a senior secondary school located nearby, so a student from a rural community would also have to pay room and board to attend school in one of the bigger centres.

From what I can see, and what I understand from others, the majority of teachers are untrained. Very often they have only a high school education, with no formal post-secondary training. Sometimes they have a post-secondary degree in a subject area (e.g. math) but no training in teaching. One big reason why teachers are not able to get qualified is that there is no way possible for them to afford the training. Those teachers who do earn a salary would receive between 150,000 to 300,000 LE per month (about $45 to $90) depending on their qualifications and years of experience teaching. With a bag of rice to feed a family costing about 100,000 LE, there isn't anything left over at the end of the month. Many of the teachers I have talked with do not receive a salary of any kind, and work completely as unpaid volunteers. Some of them have been teaching 6 or 7 years without being paid at all. Later, in thinking about this, I asked Kouame why he thought the teachers were willing to work for no salary. He said that they saw that there was a need for teachers and they valued education. The children needed to learn, and there was no one to teach them, so these volunteer teachers stepped in.

The government now intends to pay teachers once the community schools go through an approval process. However, government will only pay teachers who are formally trained and have a teaching certificate, so this remains a challenge for many of the current teachers. There simply aren't anywhere near enough qualified teachers in the country to meet the need.

As is evident from all this, the educational system here is struggling. However, at all of the community meetings I have been at so far, people have mentioned the importance of education for their children. For example, the women’s groups I met with in Gbonkolenken spoke about the importance of being able to earn income to support school fees for their children. There seems to be a great desire and interest among all people in improving their level of knowledge and education, regardless of the obstacles.

This is one of the reasons cdpeace and PSI are working on education issues here. We do this in a few different ways:
- scholarships for teachers that cover the costs for teachers to attend the teacher training college part-time and through distance learning and get their teaching certificate;
- scholarships for students to help support their fees and costs at school, especially at the secondary level;
- training workshops in basic teaching skills for teachers;
- some funding from our CIDA project also assisted with the repair and reconstruction of some schools.

Alleviating the financial burden on families and being able to properly train and pay teachers would result in a big improvement in education in the country.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Visit to Gbonkolenken

I’ve just returned from 2 days in Gbonkolenken chiefdom, visiting the communities of Mabarr Line, Makonkorie, Mathombo and Yele. We stayed overnight in the cdpeace guesthouse in Mbarr Line and I had my first experience with a pit latrine (an outhouse). The outhouse wasn’t so much the problem, just the fact that we had to walk outside to get there and it poured rain most of the night. I’m definitely spoiled here in Mapaki with a bathroom right in my bedroom.

A few interesting stories to tell:

On the first day in Gbonkolenken, some kids from the neighbour’s house came over to sit with us at the guesthouse (we were all sitting outside). One little girl, maybe around 3 or 4 years old (it’s difficult to tell someone’s age, and the kids don’t know how old they are) immediately adopted me. Her name was Maio. She started telling the other kids that she owned me and they weren’t allowed to touch me. One of the other adults asked her how much she paid to bring me from Canada and she said “5 block” (that’s 500 Leones, or about $0.25 Cdn). She generously also offered to pay that amount to send me back home too :-) Maio is the little girl on the right in the picture – the kids here are generally all familiar with cameras, and “opporto, snap me” is heard quite often (meaning, white person, take a picture of me).

Another story: we met on the second day (this morning) with the women’s groups from the 6 surrounding villages. Cdpeace gave them groundnut (peanut) seeds to plant this year. The women told us that apparently the seeds weren’t good and the crop they have is poor. The women were asking about the possibility of getting access to microcredit to help them earn additional income in times like this of poor harvest. I was curious how they knew about microcredit – turns out that a lot of the bigger towns have access to microcredit either from government or NGOs and that’s how these women heard about it. The women would use the loans to supplement the food they got from their farms through petty trading. For example, they would tie dye cloth or make soap. Selling these items would then help them earn a cash income that could be used to buy additional food, to pay education costs, or any other household expenses. I’ll have to look into the microcredit situation here and see what I can do.

While in Gbonkolenken, I also saw much more evidence of the conflict than I have seen so far. For those who don’t know, Sierra Leone experienced a horrific 11-year civil war (1991-2002), and there are still plenty of reminders about the war around the country. In Gbonkolenken I noticed many more homes that were burnt out or destroyed during the conflict. We also visited the community of Mathombo, where they have just had a new school built by cdpeace with funds from the PSI-cdpeace project supported by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). I was told that the old schools was burned down by RUF fighters, with many children still inside. The effects of the war are visible in other ways as well – when we stopped on the highway to buy some bread, a young man came and stared in the windows of the car. Sally told me that most likely he had probably fought during the war, and gotten addicted to drugs (the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel fighters, used drugs to fuel their fighters, especially child soldiers), and was now crazy. She said that there were many boys like this all around the country, and no help for them, so they just wander the streets. I met someone last week who works on mental health here and the situation is pretty dismal. There is almost 0 support for mental health, so many of the people who are dealing with mental health issues are left to fend for themselves if they have no families to help care for them.

Oh, I also learned an important lesson on my visit to Gbonkolenken: Never go anywhere without your raincoat in the rainy season. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, even if it seems nice, just bring it anyways :-) I was caught in the rain more than once over the two days I was there, and riding on a motorbike in the rain is not so fun!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pictures and offline for a few days

Tomorrow we are going to Gbonkolenken chiefdom for three days. I should be back on Friday, so expect a few more accumulated blog posts to be posted over the weekend.

I've got some photos up now: The link is also available in the "links" section.

Mapaki – September 12 and 13

The morning of September 12 (Saturday), we had a staff meeting of all the cdpeace staff in Mayagba (see the “people” post) for a list of most of the staff. The staff meeting was really good – gave me a chance to meet everyone and to hear a bit about the work that is happening so far, and for me to introduce myself. I’m looking forward to hearing more from the staff about what I can help them with in terms of training. Some of us are meeting again on Monday to plan something for International Peace Day. Should be good!

After our meeting, I went to Mapaki with Sally Conteh (the Chief’s wife) and Mabinty. It was very nice to finally get to Mapaki and be able to unpack and settle in somewhere, rather than lugging my stuff around all over the country. The handle of my suitcase broke on the journey over, and I think this suitcase has seen the last of its travelling days (it’s lasted me 6+ years and many trips, so I can’t complain), but it still needs to make it home again! It’s a relief not to have to drag it around any longer though.

I began my stay in Mapaki by inadvertently doing something to the lock on the door of my room, AFTER I had put all my things in it so that the lock no longer worked. The carpenters had to come and remove the lock and put on a new one. Sigh. But I got in fine in the end and have now settled in quite well to Carolyn’s room in the Mapaki guesthouse, which is very comfortable :-)

Mapaki is the capital of the Paki Masabong Chiefdom, one of the areas where cdpeace works. TMT (Thomas Turay, one of the founders of cdpeace), grew up in this area. It is about 17 miles (I think, have to double-check that) from the Azzolini highway to Mapaki, and the road, although dirt, is quite good. Apparently the chief lobbied the government quite hard to get them to repair and maintain the road. There are a few potholes because it is the rainy season, but for the most part the road is fine. Makes the journey so much easier!

Mapaki is fortunate to have both a guesthouse and a library, newly built by the community in the last year or so. Both have access to power from a solar panel and a satellite internet connection. There were some problems with the internet over the last few weeks, but it seems to be working now, so I should have relatively reliable internet access. It is for this reason that Mapaki will be my home base while I am here in Sierra Leone, although I will be spending time in Mayagba and in Gbonkolenken chiefdom as well.

Yesterday afternoon/evening was pretty quiet, just spent mostly settling in. Today was much more exciting! The morning started with the sounds of drumming and singing outside the guesthouse. Mabinty came in to tell me that they were drumming for me (I didn’t realise that at all – thought it was something to do with church since it was Sunday). I went out and got to dance for a bit (fun!) and then we had a community meeting to introduce me to the community (similar to what was held in Mayagba). It’s really a humbling experience to be introduced to a whole community as someone who can help them, and I hope that I can live up to their expectations. I’m very interested in learning more about all the communities I will be working with.

I also had a tour of the village today, courtesy of Kouame and Sorie. I saw both the Mapaki schools (primary and junior secondary school), the court and jail, the community centre, the church and the mosque, the site of the new youth training centre that is currently being built, and all the important houses. I met many people, although I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most people’s names . . . I really need to carry a notebook with me to write these things down!

After a few hours on the internet (oh how I missed the internet! SO happy to have it working now!!) and a yummy supper, I spent the evening sitting on the front porch of the guesthouse. I read until it started to get dark. As dusk fell I just sat and listened to the sounds of the village. I can see already why Carolyn loves it here so much. It is a beautiful place, and all the people I have met so far are wonderful! I know I am going to have an amazing experience here.

A few observations

Now that I have been in Sierra Leone a few days, here are a few things I have learned so far:

- The pace of life moves more slowly here. Despite spending vast quantities of time waiting for people or things in the first few days, I haven’t found myself feeling impatient. Perhaps that’s because I have no sense of all the things that I could otherwise be spending my time on, as I would in Canada. It’s really very nice not to feel impatient, and I’m hoping that Sierra Leone teaches me this virtue well enough for me to practice it when I'm back in Canada.

- The car horn is used differently here. The driving in general is a bit erratic and crazy, and there are usually people and/or animals and/or objects on the road at all times. (I definitely have no plans to drive here by myself at all!) So the horn is just used to say “look out, coming through”. Seems like a wise move to me, given the context.

- You see a huge variety of things for sale that people carry balanced on their heads. I saw people in Freetown and Makeni selling everything from socks and underwear, to bread and fruit, to gum, to DVDs, to firewood, all balanced on their heads. Children learn to balance things on their heads from a very young age. It’s actually quite impressive – I know my balance is nowhere near that good!

- In the rainy season (which it is now), you will get wet. Guaranteed. It seems to rain about 3-4 times a day with dry breaks in between, but sometimes it just rains for several hours, alternating between drizzle and downpour. You can’t always tell when it’s going to start pouring though, so there’s always a good chance of getting wet, which I have done several times already. Only once so far have I been absolutely soaked to the bone though. Unfortunately, it was on the way to meet with Peter Koroma, chair of the cdpeace board, in Freetown. Luckily, he was about a half hour late (see, waiting can be a good thing!), so it gave me a chance to dry off first.

- Bathing out of a bucket and drinking water out of a bag are not as hard as they sound and I am getting the hang of these things. You just have to stand the bag up right after it is open so it doesn’t spill all over (yes, I learned that lesson the hard way!).

- Villages are not quiet places. I had this idea in my head that the rural setting would be quieter than Freetown, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. You can always hear people shouting, talking, children laughing or crying, birds and insects chirping/buzzing. The sounds of the village have their own interest and beauty, and they’re generally more natural than the sounds of a city, but it is definitely not super quiet.

- Also, people get up early. The town crier wakes everyone at a certain time, usually around 5:30 or 6:00 am. It’s not really a place for sleeping in, but that suits me very well.

- Mosquito nets are wonderful things. Sleeping under a mosquito net gives me a safe, cozy feeling, and protects me from any crazy bugs that might be out there in addition to mosquitos. Given I have seen both a cockroach and a spider the size of my hand in my room, mosquito nets are my friend :-)

Mayagba – September 11

**Pictures to follow soon!**

Today was my first full day in Mayagba. After getting up, Heidi and I sat on the porch and greeted people as they walked by. I have learned a very few things to say in Krio (a pidgin English) and Temne (one of the major local languages here), but am still struggling. Looking forward to doing some Krio and Temne language training in about 10 days from now.

Around noon we had a community meeting, organized by Mr. Mark Fornah, the cdpeace Literacy Coordinator. This meeting was to introduce me to the community and vice versa. It was really wonderful. Not too long and with the opportunity to meet and talk a little bit with people. I doubt I will remember very many names though. The meeting ended with prayers and blessings for myself and Heidi and singing.

One interesting thing about Sierra Leone is that there seems to be no religious strife at all here. Perhaps that is a generalisation, but thus far it seems that Christians and Muslims coexist with no problems. There is a mosque and a church in Mayagba, and there were both prayers from the Imam and Christian prayers at the meeting today.

This afternoon, after a visit to Makeni to use the internet briefly (too briefly to type out these posts and post them on the blog!), I returned to Mayagba. I spent a few hours sitting on the porch and was soon surrounded by the small children of the village (pictures to come). The kids here are very curious about white people – they shout “opporto, opporto” (white person in Temne) anytime they see one. They all wanted to hear me talk and touch my skin and hair as well. While white people are perhaps more common in the bigger centres (still not a frequent occurrence though), they are rare in the villages. Many people, both adults and children, are curious about what I’m doing here and want to say hello. I took a few snaps of the kids (pictures coming) – they LOVE getting their picture taken and seem to find it hilarious.

One of the older kids (his name was Fred and he spoke a bit of English) brought out a deck of cards. We played cards for about an hour or so, first a game taught to me by Fred where you add cards together and collect pairs, and then I tried to teach them to play slap. I’m not sure he fully understood the game, but we had fun anyways! All the while we were playing, there were 7 or 8 other children crowded around me. I tried teaching them my name, but it turns out that Clare is a bit hard to say. I’m sure they’ll learn over time though.

Oh, also today I rode on a motorbike taxi for the first time (1,000 LE from anywhere to anywhere in Makeni) and took my first solo taxi ride from Makeni to Mayagba!

A final word about taxis in general. I am writing this post a few days in, so I have now had the opportunity to be in several “taxis”. The term taxi here is used to refer to an car that picks up passengers. The cars are not in the best shape unfortunately, but they generally get you where you need to go. Many do not have working gas or speed gauges, and often doors and windows don’t work properly. During my taxi ride from Makeni to Mayagba, when it started to rain the driver had to pull over and open each door in order to roll up the windows by manually connecting the wires. Taxis are also maximally crowded – 7 to a car is the norm. I’m learning that transportation here can definitely be an adventure!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Freetown – September 10

My second full day in Salone (term of endearment for Sierra Leone) was spent in Freetown. Freetown is a bit of a frenetic city. There are people and cars and noise everywhere, even at night. It actually took us most of the day just to get out of the city. We went for brunch at a café called Bliss and I ate the last pastry I’ll probably eat for a long while. We then had a few errands to run, but actually spent much of the day waiting.

By the time we arrived in Makeni, the capital city of the Northern Province (about a 2.5 hour drive on the only paved highway in the country) it was dark. It gets dark here around 7 or 7:15, and by 8 pm it is pitch black. The dark is a bit hard to get used to. For one thing, it’s kind of a weird feeling for it to be dark so early yet still warm. For another thing, when it is dark, it is REALLY dark, since there are no street lights and very few outdoor lights. Lanterns or candles are generally used in the evening and I have been making liberal use of my headlamp too (thanks Chris!).

We stopped for dinner in Makeni (meat on a stick from a street vendor, yummy!). then drove on to Mayagba, where the cdpeace main office is located, and where Heidi and I spent the night. Heidi was living in Mayagba, but has just moved to Makeni in order to be able to easily access the internet every day (if you want more of a background on Heidi, or anyone else I’m mentioning, see the “people” post, which I’ll update whenever I meet someone new – I will bookmark it in the links section). We arrived in Mayagba after 11 pm, so no one was around. People generally seem to go to bed early and get up quite early here, which suits me just fine! MKK (Mohammed K. Kamara), who runs the guesthouse for cdpeace, did get up to greet us and make sure we had everything we needed though.


So I thought before I continued with my posting I should draft a quick list of the main people I will be referring to in case you get confused. I will update it as I go. The list is in alphabetical order by first name.

Alysious Fornah: Alysious teaches computer classes in Mayagba.

Agnes Bah: Agnes is the Gbonkolenken Coordinator and works with the Gbonkolenken chiefdom.

Carolyn van Gurp: Carolyn is a Canadian volunteer who now lives for most of the year in Mapaki, Sierra Leone working on peace education projects. Carolyn is currently in Canada but hopes to return to Mapaki soon.

Chief Kebombor Conteh: Chief Kebombor is the Paramount Chief of the Paki Masabong chiefdom, the head village of which is Mapaki. The chief lives in Mapaki, across the street from me.

Francis Massaqoui: Francis is the Financial Officer for cdpeace, and also acts as second in command when Thomas, cdpeace's Executive Director, is not available. Francis lives and works in Makeni.

Heidi Davis: Heidi is a volunteer working for cdpeace as the Fundraising Coordinator. She is from the US and has been in Sierra Leone for the last 6 months. She is planning to stay another year. Heidi lives and works most days in Makeni - the nearest big city.

Hetty van Gurp: President of Peaceful Schools International, who I am also representing here in Sierra Leone.

Kieran King (aka KK): KK lives with Heidi in Makeni. He works on a mental health program with CAFOD (Catholic Association for Development). He's been in Sierra Leone for almost a year.

Kouame Maxime: Kouame is also in Mapaki, he takes care of the guesthouse and library with Mabinty and is also in charge of maintaining the solar panel and internet connection here. He is also helping me out a lot - taking me to Makeni when needed, showing me around, helping me figure things out. Oh, and he is also the official cdpeace videographer & photographer.

Mabinty Kamara: Mabinty lives in Mapaki and is in charge of the library. She also takes excellent care of me at the Mapaki guesthouse.

Mark Fornah (Pa Fornah): Mark is cdpeace's Literacy Coordinator. He lives in Magboroka. He is also Mary's father.

Mary Turay: Mary and Thomas Turay (Thomas is known as TMT here in SL): Mary and TMT are the founders of cdpeace and the reason I am in Sierra Leone. They have lived in Canada for the last few years, which is how I know them. TMT is returning to Sierra Leone next month.. They have lived in Canada for the last few years, which is how I know them. TMT is returning to Sierra Leone next month.

MO: the Chief's driver.

Mohammed K. Kamara (MKK): MKK is the cdpeace Program Secretary and he also takes care of the cdpeace office and guesthouse in Mayagba.

Sally Conteh: Sally is cdpeace's Community Animator. She is also Chief Kebombor's wife. Sally lives in Mapaki, across the street from the guesthouse.

Sheka: the cdpeace driver.

Thomas Conteh: Thomas is Francis Massaqoui's assistant and helps with cdpeace finances.

Thomas Turay (TMT): TMT, along with his wife, Mary, is one of the founders of cdpeace and the reason I am in Sierra Leone. TMT and Mary have lived in Canada for the last few years, which is how I know them. TMT is returning to Sierra Leone next month.

Arrival in Sierra Leone – September 9

Leaving home is always hard. I will miss all my friends and family back home immensely, especially my husband. I know the time will go by quickly, and the experience will be well worth it, but it’s still hard to say good bye. In the days leading up to my departure, and even in London and on the flight to Freetown, I kept thinking to myself “wow, I can’t believe I’ll be in Africa on Tuesday night.” I found it kind of surreal and impossible to really understand until I arrived.

After an uneventful journey from Canada (which is what all good journeys should be!), I arrived in Sierra Leone at about 10 pm on Tuesday, September 8. Luckily for me, I was met at the airport by three people: Harold (Thomas’s cousin), Amadou (Saidu’s cousin), and Heidi, a cdpeace volunteer here in Sierra Leone. Both Amadou and Harold work at the airport and helped me get my bags and go through customs, which was nice. Then Heidi helped me change some money and took me to the guesthouse in Lungi where we stayed that night.

(An aside about the international airport in Freetown – it’s not actually in Freetown, it’s in Lungi. In order to get into Freetown proper from the airport you have several choices: take a helicopter or hovercraft (each takes about 20 minutes I think and costs around $60), drive around the bay (which takes about 5 hours) or take the ferry, which is what the locals do. We took the ferry in the next day – more on that later.)

Arriving in Sierra Leone was kind of overwhelming. Even though I feel that I did a lot of preparation before coming here in terms of finding out what to expect and reading about the country, actually experiencing it was totally different. You can only mentally prepare for something so much. Anyways, realising that I was actually in Sierra Leone and was going to be here for the next few months was initially somewhat of a shock. The first night was quite hard as I felt sad and homesick. It took me a day or two to get over that feeling of shock properly, and although I am still homesick at times, I feel much more adjusted and acclimatized at this point.

The first night in Lungi we stayed in a Guesthouse called the Gateway. It wasn’t bad – they had electricity and running water. Well, the water was kind of running when we arrived, and not at all the next day, but at least in theory they had running water. I “flushed” my first toilet by pouring water in from a bucket :-)

The following day, two of Heidi’s friends met us in Lungi (KK and Rabia, both ex-pats working for NGOs in Makeni). After dropping KK’s sister off at the airport, we headed for Freetown. We took the ferry over. It cost us 5,000 Leones (LE) for a first class ticket (equivalent to about $1.25 CDN). I certainly wouldn’t have done this by myself on my first day in Sierra Leone, but KK and Rabia speak excellent Krio and know their way around quite well, so I felt very well taken care of. As a first class passenger on the ferry (about a 40 minute ride), we got to sit on hard benches and were treated to a Sierra Leonean comedy routine. I’m afraid that most of it was lost on me as my Krio is so far pretty non-existent, but other people were laughing!

We arrived in Freetown around 10 pm and found a cab to take us to the guesthouse that Heidi had arranged for us. I can see already that it is always important to haggle on the price in Sierra Leone, and even more so if you are white. The cab driver started at 30,000 LE, but got talked down to 12,000.

The taxi ride itself was an adventure. Firstly there was both a driver and his assistant, as well as the 4 of us as passengers, so we were a little squished in. Then, the car stopped 4 times while we were in it, twice in the middle of the road. Apparently there was a problem with the fuel line (although I really doubt that is all that was wrong with the car). Finally we made it to the gas station where the taxi refuelled and managed to get to our destination without any more stops. When the cab stopped for the fourth time before hitting the station, the assistant who was sitting beside me and who was from Guinea so spoke French turned to me apologetically and said “African cars sont comme ca. L’Afrique, c’est difficile” (translation: African cars are like that. Africa is hard).