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.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Road trip to Lungi

I'm back from Lungi, arrived in Mapaki yesterday evening just as it was getting dark (around 6:30). We had a pretty uneventful journey. Our Canadian visitors, Jane Gloor and Nancy and Vaughn Wellington all arrived safe and sound on Tuesday night. We stayed in Lungi that night and took the 8 am ferry over to Freetown the next day. I enjoyed taking the ferry in the daytime (when I took it before when I arrived it was night) - great views of Freetown from the water. I'll post a few pictures. Had breakfast in Freetown (mmmm, Bliss cafe!) and picked up some groceries (among the treats I got are jam, raisins and some chocolate! No nutella though, which I was disappointed about), then met with cdpeace Board Chairman Peter Koroma and headed out of town.

I haven't been in Freetown since I arrived. It's so crowded and the traffic is so terrible. Makeni seems very pleasant and quiet by comparison :-) I did find that Freetown seemed much more manageable to me this time around than the first time I was there though, which I think is a sign that I'm adjusting well to life here. Looking forward to spending some more time in the big city with Chris when he's here.

I have heard from other ex-pats about having trouble at checkpoints on the road to and from Freetown, but we were waved through every time, probably because we were driving in the cdpeace vehicle rather than taking public transport. The journey was a little crowded with 6 passengers and the driver and 6 suitcases (some full of medical supplies to be donated to clinics here) and a few bags all packed into the truck, but we survived just fine :-)

Yesterday we stopped in Mayagba to meet the community there before coming to Mapaki. There was a death in the village just the day before, so rather than doing a big community welcome, TMT asked us to come and "greet the burial" - paying our respects to the community who were gathered because of the burial. It was a neat experience to participate in that. You give your greetings and show support by giving a small amount of money (we gave Le 20,000) or if they didn't have money, many people would bring food items. The villagers were very surprised that we white people came and participated in their custom, but I think they appreciated it.

After visiting Mayagba we made our way to Mapaki. In Mapaki the new guests settled in and had some supper. Then there was a big community welcome for them, with dancing and drumming of course. Today they are just resting and exploring Mapaki.

It's been neat to receive people who are visiting for the first time, to be the one who knows the country (at least a little bit by now) and can explain things and help them settle in. I remember what it was like for me when I arrived, how overwhelming everything seemed the first couple of days, so I hope that I helped smooth the way a little bit for them. It was also a good practice run of picking someone up at the airport since I'm heading back there to get Chris on Sunday night. Yay!!

This afternoon I am participating in a skype videoconference presentation to Carleton university. This is part of the public engagement activities that I need to do as part of the CIDA grant that funds my internship. I'm a bit worried about the quality of the internet connection, but I'm crossing my fingers that it all goes well.

Tomorrow we are heading to Gbonkolenken chiefdom to visit the school in Mathombo and the clinic in Makonkorie. I also have various other things to do there (meet with the women, visit the other schools, meet with the teachers receiving scholarships for teacher training and do a teacher workshop!). We may stay over night and come back on Saturday, but I'm not sure about that yet.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The work has begun

As I mentioned in my last post, this last week has been busier than my first few weeks in Sierra Leone. Things feel like they are finally picking up steam. Just like with any new job, it has taken time for me to settle in, figure out what my priorities should be, get to know the people involved, and really get started on the work. Add in adjusting to a new community and culture, and it makes for a somewhat slow start. I very much appreciate the time I took at the beginning to visit various schools and communities, do language training, and more or less get adjusted, but it's great that more concrete things are now happening on the work front.

I gave my first teacher training workshop this past weekend, on Sunday. First of all, the date was originally planned for Saturday, but on Thursday afternoon we discovered that donors who built the two new schools in Maso and Makambray (from Plan) were coming to visit on Saturday. With half of the teachers attending the workshop coming from those two villages, we had to reschedule, so we moved the workshop to Sunday. Unfortunately, this conflicted with attending church services for some, so the turnout was a bit lower than it might otherwise have been. However, we still had 22 teachers attend, so I'm pleased with that.

Overall the workshop went well I think. Rather than focusing on training on learning methods (since I am not a teacher myself, I didn't feel comfortable offering that kind of training), the workshop focused on peace education and classroom management. It was really a follow up to a workshop held by PSI and cdpeace here in January. That day-long workshop focused on eliminating corporal punishment in schools (now illegal in Sierra Leone). The workshop I did yesterday offered a quick review of the key items learned at that workshop and then checked in with the teachers about how things are going in terms of the goal of eliminating corporal punishment. My role was as facilitator rather than expert, which was exactly what I wanted.

I'm generally very  impressed by the teachers here. Even though many of them do not earn salaries (our work here is primarily focused on the volunteer teachers), they are always eager to learn new skills. Some of the teachers who attended the workshop walked 5 miles on a Sunday afternoon just to be there. Teachers seem very dedicated to improving their teaching and creating a more peaceful classroom and community. At the end of our session we brainstormed about ideas for future workshops that cdpeace & PSI might offer. Among the subjects mentioned were child-centred learning techniques, using local materials as teaching tools, agricultural training, training in activities like games, sports and music, human rights training, and record-keeping and computer training. Classroom management is a major issue as well, especially with the huge class sizes here (for example, my neighbour in Mapaki, Fatmata, teaches nursery at the school in Maso and has 75 children in her class, ranging in age from 2 to 5 years old). There is obviously a great need for ongoing support for teachers here, and PSI and cdpeace are both working to meet that need in whatever way possible. It is also inspiring to hear the teachers talk about what they can do to help themselves without waiting for outside support (e.g. from government) that may never come.

Also on the work front, I have done my first few interviews for my research. I have started with interviews with my key informants - people in the community who are knowledgeable about women's health and are in a leadership role. Already some interesting findings and ideas have come up, and  I am really looking forward to starting the interviews with local women themselves, hopefully later this week. Lots of typing to transcribe interviews is ahead for me!

I will be out of touch for the next two days. Tomorrow morning I am heading to Lungi (where the airport is located) to pick up three visitors from Canada arriving late in the evening. The visitors are Jane Gloor and Nancy and Vaughn Wellington. Jane is a pediatrician and the parent of a student at Parkview school, one of the schools in Canada that is twinned with a school in Sierra Leone (Mathombo school). They will spend a week in Paki Masabong and Gbonkolenken chiefdoms visiting schools and clinics and then are planning a week of holidays.

On our way through Freetown to the airport I'm also planning to stop in to the grocery store. I'm inordinately excited about this, especially the prospect of getting my hands on some real cheese and maybe some nutella and/or some jam :) I'll report back on all my food goodies when I return to Mapaki on Wednesday.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The week that was

As you can probably tell from the lack of posts this week, it’s been a bit of a busy week. We had a visitor in Mapaki for 3 days, Anne-Reed, who works with Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL). She is here in Sierra Leone visiting libraries and scouting for a possible expansion of FAVL’s work into Sierra Leone. She was looking at the cdpeace community library in Mapaki as an example of a community library here.

TMT, cdpeace’s Executive Director, has just arrived back in the country, so we had several meetings this week to confirm plans for my next couple of months here. I will continue with my school visits and teacher training (our first teacher workshop is coming up this Sunday). The twinning program is getting started, with the first letter having gone out to schools in Canada already, so I will have school twinning work to do as well. I am also hoping to do a needs assessment with staff in the next couple of weeks now that TMT is here.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here almost 6 weeks already and have only a little over two months left. Suddenly it seems as though there’s a lot to do in the next 9 weeks. In addition to my cdpeace work, I am hoping to start my interviews for my thesis research this week. I have been waiting for the final approval from the ethics board on some revisions to my questions, and I need to get more copies of the consent forms made. Unfortunately, I have not been successful thus far in getting the printer in Mapaki working, so that means if I want to print or copy something I have to do it either at the cdpeace office in Mayagba or in Makeni or Magburaka. But now I think everything is in place and I will be starting this weekend.

On the topic of research, I had an interesting conversation with one of the people who is going to help me with translation, a friend form Mapaki, Michael. I reviewed the questions and the letter of information about the research with him to make sure he understood everything. For the most part it was fine. However, I had some difficulty explaining to him the concept of research ethics and what it meant to have ethics approval from the university. The gap between the requirements of academia in the developed world, and the understanding and knowledge of people here was evident and it seems silly to even have to include this information for people here I will be interviewing, as it really has no meaning for them. But, as the ethics board requires it, I will proceed as planned :-)

I’m in Makeni today and tomorrow and then doing the first teacher workshop on Sunday, so probably no posts for the next couple of days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


This past weekend I went to church in Mapaki. I am not religious, but I was interested in seeing how the service was conducted. The church here is a Catholic church, and the priest rotates between communities. He is in Mapaki every 3 weeks. I happened to attend on a day he was here.

The sermon was interesting. The priest spoke in Krio, which was then translated into Temne, so I could follow along quite well with what he was saying. The sermon was about the importance of equal and respectful relationships between men and women, and the importance of communication and faithfulness in marriage. The priest talked about how women should be seen as equals and how men should tell their wives about their activities, and treat them fairly and with respect. He emphasized communication a lot. He also talked about the importance of being faithful. He even assured people that it was ok to have sex during pregnancy and after childbirth and that this could not be used by men as an excuse to cheat.

I’m not a church-goer, but I imagine this topic would perhaps not be as likely to come up at a church service in Canada. I thought it was a good message though, especially the emphasis on equality between men and women.

Later that day I was telling one of my friends here about the service and the topic, and this led to a long conversation about love and marriage in Sierra Leone and Canada. I explained to him the whole concept of dating, which he found quite interesting. He was also very surprised to find out that in Canada we don’t practice the custom of paying a bride price (lucky thing for my husband that we don’t!). But we both agreed that getting married can be an expensive and time consuming affair :-)

Sunday, October 11, 2009


On Friday I went to a meeting for women’s groups in the Northern province organized by SLANGO (Sierra Leone Association of NGOs). SLANGO is the national coordinating body for NGOs in Sierra Leone. The purpose of the meeting was to share information with women’s groups in the region and to try to connect them with NGOs that want to work with them.

The NGOs at this meeting were two local NGOs that offer microcredit. In several of the development blogs I follow (see list on the right), there has been quite a bit of debate recently about the merits of microcredit (does it actually lift people out of poverty?) and how it should best be done (non-profit vs. for profit), so it was interesting to me to hear about some of the programs offered and hear what the women here thought afterwards.

Both organizations focused on working with women and offered a variety of different types of loans, starting from about Le 300,000 (a little less than $100 CDN) all the way up to Le 20 million for bigger groups (e.g. agricultural associations). The loans had to be taken out to support or expand an agricultural operation, or to expand or start a business. Loans could be made to borrowers without collateral in groups, so that the people in the group serve as each other’s guarantee of repayment. Interest rates were low, 2-3% depending on the purpose of the loan. Each loan also included an element of forced savings – part of what the borrower repaid was put into a savings account, which they were able to access once the loan was fully repaid. Each organization also required borrowers to attend training/information sessions before borrowing so that they fully understood the process.

After the meeting, Sally and Mabinty told me that the conditions offered by these organizations were not feasible for women in Mapaki. There were a few reasons for this. The first is that the amount of the loans in general was too large – the women here are either engaged in small-scale agriculture and sometimes in petty trading as well and wouldn’t be able to either use such a large amount of money all at once, or earn back enough income to make the required payments in time. Another problem is that because Mapaki is located in a rural area, women here who do petty trading may only have the opportunity to sell their goods once a week at the nearest market in Mayalaw (at the junction of the road to Mapaki with the highway, 7 miles from here). This means it takes much longer for women here to generate income from an investment compared to someone in a town that is able to go to market every day.

The women from Mapaki who attended the SLANGO meeting in turn met with the rest of the women here in Mapaki to share the information. All the women here generally felt the same – that these programs would not work for them. However, there is still an interest here in microcredit. The CIDA project currently ongoing here (a project of cdpeace and Peaceful Schools International) includes a small amount of funding to support women’s groups, Le 320,000 ($100 CDN). The women in Mapaki decided that they will use this money to start their own smaller-scale microcredit project here in the village. This way it will be organized by them locally and can work with very small amounts, making the payments easier to achieve. The women will retain control over the money and can make decisions together about how it should be used. I think that this is a great idea and am looking forward to seeing how it works. This is a good example of how given a big of support, a community can find its own solution to development challenges.

Oh, and the meeting was also an excellent test of my Krio as I took the minutes. My comprehension is really pretty good. Now if I only I could learn to speak it a little better . . .

Friday, October 9, 2009

Visit to Government Hospital Makeni

Yesterday I visited Government Hospital in Makeni. I have made friends with two VSO volunteer nurses who are working there (Vicki and Susie) and they showed me around. Seeing the health care system here definitely makes me appreciate our health system in Canada.

The Government Hospital in Makeni is the main government-supported hospital for Bombali District (the district Mapaki is in). There is another government hospital that is actually closer to Mapaki, in Magboroka, but that is in Tonkolili District. I am hoping to visit the Magboroka hospital as well.

There are 4 wards at the hospital in Makeni: male, female, children and maternal, and a total of 86 beds. If you’ve ever read about, been to, or seen photos of a hospital in a poor country, you probably have an idea of what it looked like. If not, I will try to describe it for you. The facilities are very basic. There are about 20 beds on each ward, and most of the beds had patients in them. The beds are close together - no such thing as a private room here. Often family members surrounded the beds as well. Some people appeared very ill, and others not, but it’s difficult to tell from appearances. The equipment and beds generally seemed old. Each bed has a mosquito net hanging above it. Each ward has at least one nurse’s aide and sometimes several staffing it. Patients are fed a few times a day, but the food is pretty minimal – tea and bread for breakfast, an egg and some bread midday, and then rice with sauce in the evening. A patient's family usually supplements the food provided by the hospital.

Currently there are 2 doctors on staff at the hospital, both Sierra Leoneans, one of whom is a specialist surgeon in orthopaedics. There are 8 nurses and about 120 nursing aides. The nursing aides are the ones who really run the day-to-day activities of the hospital. Apparently here they do many of the same things that an RN in Canada would do. Some have many years of experience and are very competent. Others have almost no training – they do a 2 week training course when they first start at the hospital and that’s it. A matron (head nurse) might earn around Le 300,000 per month, and a regular nurse about Le 200,000. Nurses aides earn even less. Qualified nurses often work 2 jobs (either at another hospital, a private clinic, or they run their own work on the side) to make ends meet.

There is no running water and the electricity for the hospital is from a generator, which I understand is not always totally reliable. There is one operating theatre. I was told that they often don’t actually use the generator during surgeries, for fear of it going off part way through. They just do them when the room is very bright with daylight.

In terms of fees, from what I understand, fees are really set individually at each hospital or clinic – this seems to be basically at the discretion of the doctors that are in charge. In many cases, fees are charged that aren’t “official” fees in terms of being mandated and/or approved by government. As an example of fees, a c-section at the hospital would cost about Le 150,000, and an X-ray Le 40,000.

While we were on the tour, when we stopped in the women’s ward, the mother of one of the patients came to tell us that her daughter’s dressing (she’d had surgery I gather) had not been changed in two days. The nurse’s aide who was on the ward said she had informed the people who were responsible for this, but that they still had not come to change the dressing. Unfortunately, my impression is that this standard of care is more the norm than the exception.

Now that I have ethics clearance for my thesis research, I will most likely be writing more about health care here as I start my interviews and continue to do observational visits like this one to government hospital. Hope you find it as interesting as I do.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

World Teachers Day Celebration

Today I woke up to rain, and it rained most of the morning. The day has so far been cloudy and one of the coolest days since I got here. I haven’t seen a cloudy, rainy day like this since the first week I was here. Last night I was thinking about the end of the rainy season because we have had a few clear evenings lately, but perhaps I spoke too soon. When the sky is clear at night the stars are amazing, but I’ve only seen this a few times so far since it is usually cloudy. The rainy season is beautiful at night too though – the way the lightning here lights up the sky is incredible!

Ok, enough about the weather and on to World Teachers Day, which was Monday, October 5. This was the first celebration of World Teachers Day in Mapaki. The event was organized by the Paki Masabong unit of the Sierra Leone Teachers Union (SLTU). Apparently, this unit is the only one authorised by the SLTU to organise such a celebration. Considering the unit was started only a year or two ago, that is very good.

The day kicked off with a march past by the teachers and students. There were about 60 or 70 teachers in attendance from schools all around the chiefdom, although apparently many of the teachers from further away were not able to attend. There were about 400 students who took part in the march past as well – most of them from Mapaki, but some from other nearby schools as well. I have some photos of this: I have a few videos too but have been unable to upload them as of yet.

Following the march, we had some formal presentations. A representative of the teachers spoke about the importance of investing in teachers (the theme of this year’s day). This is especially true in Sierra Leone, where many teachers are unpaid volunteers, and where training and support for teachers is minimal. The Chief spoke about the importance of education in the Chiefdom. Although in 2002 after the conflict there were very few schools here, there are now 15 government-supported schools and 12 community schools in the Chiefdom, so this is good progress. Chief also encouraged community members and teachers to become involved in the democratic system in order to further advocate on behalf of teachers. I also spoke briefly about the school twinning project and the sharing of information and skills between teachers in Sierra Leone and teachers in Canada.

After the formal part of the day (which took until about 2:30), the SLTU also organized a football game between teachers and a disco at the community centre here in Mapaki. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well due to too much sun on Sunday and too much heat on Monday morning, so I skipped both of those activities and spent most of the rest of the day lying down and then went to bed early. I am especially disappointed that I missed the disco, as I’m sure it would have been a lot of fun. I woke up at 4:30 am and the music was still going! Next time I won’t miss out . . .

If you have a teacher in your life, even though World Teachers Day is over, it's never too late to thank them for all their work! So thank you to teachers everywhere!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Maso and Makamray school opening - September 18

I have been meaning to post the post below for some time – it was written a while ago, but I forgot to post it. The school openings took place September 18, so a few weeks ago now. More to come tomorrow on today’s World Teachers Day celebration in Mapaki.

Yesterday I attended the opening of two new schools, primary schools in the communities of Maso and Makamray (both in the Paki Masabong Chiefdom) - photos are at The schools were built by Plan (formerly Foster Parents Plan) Sierra Leone with funds from Plan Japan. I went with the Chief, who was speaking at both events.

Each school is a building with six classrooms (for classes 1 - 6) and an administrative area. Along with the school building, Plan also builds a latrine and a well for use by students. This is important because schools must have these facilities in order to get approved by government for support. In addition to the buildings, Plan also provided some basic educational materials (e.g. text books) as it is difficult for schools to get these. Plan also provides some scholarships for students, to help with fees and costs (although there are no school fees at the primary level, the required books and uniforms cost money), and for teacher training. PSI and cdpeace provide similar scholarships, and these two schools were involved last year in our school twinning project as well.

Both openings were similar – the communities, students and teachers were waiting to greet us with song when we arrived. The first opening began about an hour late, and the second one was then late as well. The late starting time is fairly typical here. Each opening included speeches by the Chairman of the Teacher’s Council, the Paramount Chief of Paki Masabong, representatives from the district council, the national government, and the school management committee, and by Plan staff.

At both openings, the children from the school performed a few short skits and songs. The skits were cute. In Makamray the skit was focused on allowing all children to attend school. The kids in Makamray also sang a song, directed at the government officials present that included a request to approve the school. Both Maso and Makamray are community schools, so they currently get no support from government. Now that they have school buildings, latrines and wells, they can apply to become a government-supported school. This would give them some support for teacher salaries (for those who are certified teachers) and some support in terms of books and learning materials.

In Maso, the skit the kids did was about HIV/AIDS prevention. They talked about safe sex, about ensuring that any needles and razors used are clean or sterilized, and about getting tested for HIV. They also sang a song about protecting yourself from HIV using the “ABC” method: abstinence, be faithful and use a condom. While AIDS is not as big of a problem here in Sierra Leone as it is in other parts of Africa, the song and skit was a reminder that it is present here too.

A few stats on HIV in Sierra Leone from UNAIDS ( In 2008. an estimated 55,000 people were living with HIV in the country, a prevalence rate of 1.7%. There were approximately 3,300 deaths due to AIDS, and 16,000 children orphaned due to AIDS. Of course, data collection is a challenge here, so it’s a bit hard to say how reliable these statistics are (for example, the estimate on AIDS orphans ranges between 6,400 and 26,000).

Some colleagues who work in hospitals in Makeni have told me that they think that the official prevalence rate is an underestimate based on their own experiences. Given how prevalence data is collected, this could definitely be the case. From what I understand, prevalence of HIV is usually estimated primarily by testing pregnant women who present at clinics for prenatal care and extrapolating that data to the population at large. There are a few problems with this approach in Sierra Leone:
1. Many pregnant women here never go to a clinic for a variety of reasons.
2. Taking a quick look at the map of testing sites in Sierra Leone shows that they are highly concentrated in Freetown, with a few in the south and east of the country. There are none near Makeni or anywhere in Northern Province, except one in Kambia District.

If you are interested in learning more about HIV/AIDS in Sierra Leone, take a further look at the UNAIDS website link above.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Today I had spaghetti for breakfast Sierra Leone style - with boiled eggs, mayo and ketchup. It's actually pretty good, but I think my Italian family would be appalled :-) I also had an orange and a banana. Yummy!

There is a spider that lives in my bathroom. If I saw this spider in Canada I would likely have considered it a large spider, but since I've come to Sierra Leone my standards on spider size have changed. I have decided to let it live there as long as it doesn't bother me. Also, I'm a bit afraid of trying to kill it, since I think it can jump :-|

On the topic of animals/insects in my room, I saw a little lizard on the wall yesterday. Unfortunately it scampered away before I could take a picture.

I think I'm going to head to Makeni tomorrow to meet up with another SFD (Students for Development) intern, David and do some errands. I'll probably stay the night, so might be no posts for a couple of days. Wishing everyone a good weekend though!

For some reason, searches done through my Google search bar in Firefox keep converting to Google Italy and I get all my results and text in Italian. It's incredibly annoying since I don't speak Italian. If anyone has any ideas for solving this, please share them!

Monday is World Teachers Day. There is going to be a big celebration here in Mapaki, so I'm really looking forward to that. Expect a full report.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A visit to the farm

Yesterday Alpha took me to visit his farm. Alpha is a boy of 15 who lives here in Mapaki with his family. He and Carolyn were good friends, and he has come often to visit me as well. He is currently in the last year of Junior Secondary School (JSS) here in Mapaki. Alpha dreams of becoming a doctor one day, so he works hard at his studies.

I mentioned to him that I was interested in visiting some farms, so yesterday he brought me to visit. (Photo at right is of Alpha's father harvesting rice. See more photos of the farm at The family farm is close to Mapaki, only about a 5 minute walk down the road towards Maso, and then a climb up a path to the top of a hill. Alpha told me that his farm is probably smaller than the average in the village. I am rubbish at estimating area and distances, so I won’t try to guess how big it was, but it didn’t seem huge. Alpha told me that a farm’s size is really just limited by the amount of seeds a family has. Families save seeds to use in planting the next time, but of course they also need to eat so are limited in what they can save. If Alpha’s family had access to money for more seeds they would simply clear more land for planting.

The farms here are generally mixed crop farms. On Alpha’s farm was planted rice, sorghum, corn, cassava, a few types of beans, and some vegetables (I saw a few hot peppers and tomatoes). There are also palm trees for coconuts, palm wine and palm oil. Different cops are harvested and planted at different times, and even rice is generally harvested and planted 3 times per year (depends on the type of rice though). The staple crop here is definitely rice (there is a saying that a Sierra Leonean hasn’t eaten until he has had rice), so that is the majority of what is planted. Planting is not done in an organized way in the sense of rows or anything like that – my understanding is that seeds are just thrown and grow where they land. There is no form of irrigation available as far as I can tell – this is why the dry season here is also known as the “hungry” season, because food doesn’t grow as well without the rains.

Apparently Sierra Leone also imports a lot of rice, so people have really been affected by the increasing price of rice and other food commodities over the last year. The price of a bag of rice has increased from 100,000 LE to 120,000 LE. I noticed that the rice I ate at chop houses (restaurants) in Makeni was plain white rice, different from the rice we eat here in Mapaki, which is harvested from the fields.

When the rice is ready to be harvested, it is cut down with a machete and then tied up in little bundles and hung up for a few hours to dry. Once dried, it has to be threshed to separate the seeds from the stalks. Then it must be pounded to open up the seeds to get the grain for cooking. Maintaining the farm and harvesting and processing food are hard work. Generally, the whole family works on the farm. When we visited, Alpha’s father was there as well as his two sisters, Sine (sp?) and Alice. I think that Alice is the older sister, around 24, and the two little boys in my photos are hers. Sine is 19. People go to their farms in the morning and sometimes do not return until dark. Everything is done by hand or with basic tools. Children work on the farms as well as adults – they gather wood, clean, pound rice, etc. Now that Alpha is back in school after the holidays, he generally only works on the farm on weekends.