2/28/10

Soulful shakes and the African walk-by

In Sierra Leone greetings are different from Danish greetings. I’ve come across three types. The occasional hug does happen and resemble what we do in Denmark to close friends. Other than that there is the handshake and the oral greeting.
I really like the handshake. When you meet up with someone you do this special shake. You meet the hand of the other in the normal fashion, but then both greeters twist their hand around the others thump interlocking in a new position and twist them back. This is sometimes repeated for a number of times. Then you keep hold of the hand, while you talk, for a long time having close eye contact as if making some kind of unspoken bond. A bond of trust maybe. As if you need to look closely in the eyes of the other to penetrate the blank mirror, reach the soul and communicate in a silent, forgotten language.
As intense the shake can seem as superficial can the oral greetings be. It seems like they’ve taken the consequence of just how meaningless the standard: “how are you?” can be. They still ask, but doesn’t even take the time to stop when asking it. Two people going in opposite directions can easily have a lengthy greeting session without ever slacking their pace. You start when the other is at arm’s length. “How are you?” [tu pendera?] “I’m fine, and you?” “Good – thank God. The weather is warm today (surprise), don’t you think?”… It can carry on like that for some time - the last sentences often half shouted long after the other has passed.

2/24/10

Samsoes

Running along the beach, as if my feet seemed to suggest, that it would be able to run away from the waves every ten second eating away at the sand beneath them, is a good place to appreciate life. With the sun setting over the wet horizon, it becomes obvious why so many Africans used to worship the elements of nature. They are indeed mighty, beautiful, and full of life – giving life, taking lives without ever asking.
I was running away from Samsoes. Not really that there was much reason for running away, but this place offers views – such as sunsets over the sea and the backdrop mountains – so splendid, that it seems natural to run towards it. With the waves caressing your feet.
The previous night Joseph (aka. Samsoe) had light a bonfire after serving the most delicious barbecued barracuda (it was seriously good) in an impressive effort to top the king-size lobster from the previous evening (for the royal sum of 60.000 Le (90 DKK) (for an entire lobster) and the barracuda at 25.000 Le (40 DKK)). There Joseph could tell the story of, how Lars Larsen had set up a hotel close by before the war. Therefore he had met some Danish tourists, which had all recommended him to go to the Danish island of Samsø. Many years later he made the trip, and deciding to name his own place (consisting of three bungalows at the beach) after it.

He and I later got to talk a little about politics. I’ve been noticing the strong presence of Chinese interests in Sierra Leone, which is to be considered as the natural consequence of “the new scramble for Africa” (the popular name for the phenomenon of the West and China battling over influence in and access to African resources). The newspapers (I managed to get hold of quite a stock of old ones in Makeni on a visit) often mentions Chinese prestige projects such as new railway construction (of course with an endstop in Farangbaya – a huge iron ore deposit) and even talks of a new airport, which should be located in Freetown itself.
As I tried asking Joseph, who he thought would fill the position as Sierra Leones closest allies for the coming years, he answered: “The British and the Americans because we can relate to them. We don’t like the Chinese – we only want to take their money”. That really leads me to think, that the greatest cultural diplomatic weapon down here is the Premier League. How should Chinese money compare with the joy these matches bring to the population?

I ended my visit at Samsoes promising, that I would be back in Juli, when my work in Masanga comes to an end. And with an accommodation price of 50.000 Le (75 DKK) the promise shouldn’t be a problem to fulfil.

2/18/10

In Sickness and Health

Lately I’m been feeling somewhat under the weather. This isn’t supposed to be a bad thing, when the weather most days is clear sun heating the air to 30 degrees – in the shade. But my body choose to play the card of irony in these conditions, and managed somehow to catch a heavy cold.

Life is odd.

But I have been improvising, and can now almost swallow without pain and walk five paces without getting dizzy (oh yes as all men I get the biggest cry-baby, when the smallest signs of sickness hits).

Sunday was Valentine’s. I was still not feeling at the top of my form, and sadly very aware of those not at my side – such as a certain Danish girl. But comfort was on the way, as I was invited to play in the local men’s football match between the married and not married men. I teamed with the later. A funny experience. A thing I found entertaining was to watch no. 7 (“My name is Beckham”) and no. 11 (aka. Carlos Tevez) argue about, who should play number 9. It was clear that the reason was – as I experienced in China – that they don’t argue on, who should play right back or left wing. Instead they discuss who should play the position as number 9; meaning striker.

Culture is strange.

Nowhere is the colonial legacy more apparent than in the way they played football – good English kick-and-rush. This made my position as midfielder a bit difficult. They played with the heart outside the shirt but played fair.
The match was very even, with the ball mostly high in the air or way outside the pitch. The Pitch! It is worth mentioning that it didn’t exactly encourage technical football, as they had been burning the vegetation here as soon as a month ago to make room, and the earth was still a bit sodden and very uneven. And not a single piece of grass.
Half-time. 0-0. It is an exhausting pleasure to play football in this heat – and my knee had as always turned into some unidentifiable mix of gravel and blood. But then teen minutes into the last half, I got the luck, that sometimes seem to smile on the debutant. A reflected ball landed at my feet at the edge of the goal area and with a left footed half-volley the ball found its way into the right corner. So unbelievably lucky, but the crowd went wild. Soon I found myself in the middle of a huge crowd of team players (high-fiving and embracing me) and spectators (shouting ‘Aporto’ or ‘White Man’) and ‘thank you’. A funny experience indeed.
As we won 2-0 I got to watch another player go through the motions, and it seemed impressive indeed.

Life is funny.

It has collectively been decided that this weekend will be spend on one of the world’s best beaches. Sierra Leone got amazing beaches, which hardly is visited, because of the small number of tourists (which will no doubt change as a long held stability will remove the feeling of danger many connect with the country). I was hoping to wait a little longer to go, but I seemed a pity not to enjoy it with the others. Hope the sandy beaches will drive away the memory of sickness, although it is now clear to me, that I am in Sierra Leone to stay (for a while) – in sickness and in health.

2/13/10

Week of construction

This week I have assumed the title as “head of construction”. Not really what I expected, but an interesting challenge. The workcamp left Masanga with a lot of work still to be done, which left Hinduja and I in charge of a total of 9 workers (4 carpenters, 3 messeners and 2 unskilled workers) and the purchase of further building materials. This confronted us with a number of issues.
First of all the issue of discipline. What do you do, when some of your workers arrive late, and others get sick or complain about dental problems. My answer was to threaten everyone with the necessary fact that coming in late would automatically result in a one hour deduction from the salary. It was somewhat satisfying to see the same worker, who the day before came slowly walking towards the site fifteen minutes late, and a sprint to make it at the contractual decided time.
Secondly there is the problem of deciding whether to pay the workers in advance, when they have a good reason. I didn’t. Our workers are paid every fourteenths day. After one weeks of work (on our first day of supervision) two of the workers thus asked me to be paid for that week, because they needed money to pay for their children’s school fees (schools are formally free to attend, but there are substantial costs connected with yearly school fees and expenditures for uniforms, materials etc.). But something seemed wrong. I noticed that the two guys in an unusual way avoided looking me in the eyes after they had asked, as if they had done something wrong. I therefore consulted Abibu, which works as Assistant Business Manager at Masanga, but has been hugely involved in the work at the Education Centre. He advised me not to pay, as their motive probably was to leave the work early, as I was possible, that they saw better a better income-opportunity at the local gold mine (which I have actually visited). This let me to turn the enquiry down with a lame excuse, which evolved around the time needed to wire money from Denmark. It was bullshit and they probably knew it. Nonetheless they didn’t argue and left the site crestfallen like two pupils caught in the act of doing something not allowed. Their lack of objection let me to the conclusion, that it was the right way to handle the situation.
Thirdly deciding who should continue working, and who should be “sacked”. Yesterday it was the day of payment. But also a day of deciding, how many workers we needed for the rest of the work. A locally employed carpenter – Johnny – has functioned as work-coordinator and supervisor at the site (when he has had the time to oversee the work, while also working on two other projects) and we had a close dialogue with him regarding the issue. We followed his advice of letting five people stay onboard (2 carpenters, 1 messener and 2 unskilled workers). Luckily we had the same impression of who was working hardest, which did not include the two before mentioned, who had also both had half a day of because of sickness and dental problems – which was hard to deny them. And suddenly I was confronted with a situation, where we called the workers in one at a time, paid them and told them whether we needed them next week, or they needed to find a new place to work. But they know that is the term of employment on a project like this, and I think they reacted very nicely to my message. But that is definitely the first time I’ve ever tried to “fire” somebody.
Finally there has been the problem of purchasing enough and the right materials. That isn’t necessarily a simple task in Sierra Leone, as you can never count on the shopkeepers promises about when their truck will arrive from Freetown with the materials you need. That has led me to spend way too much time in a Lebanese shop in Makeni. But that gives you the chance of meeting a bunch of interesting people – besides the two brothers running the shop, of which one has already invited me to spend the night, I have met the police officer of Makeni (who reported on very little crime and mostly small-time hustlers), as well as the man who constructed all the wells in Masanga and a former America-based Diaspora member, who returned to set up a logistic firm.

This is definitely different from the Danish university-life.

2/8/10

Leproville

The Education Center is situated within an area belonging to a hospital called Masanga Leprosy Hospital. The name has its clear historical roots. Before the civil war lepers were expelled from their communities on account of the contamination risk. Homeless and discouraged many of them were left to their destiny in the jungles of Sierra Leone. At some point some of them had come together to make a simple home for themselves near Masanga.
They for found by the Seven Days Adventists from Denmark, who later build a hospital to treat the patients and a church to christen them. All of this was left empty at the outbreak of the 11 year war.
After the war a Danish doctor, Peter Bo, found himself with some leftover machines from his hospitals, which couldn’t be used in Denmark, but which he thought of being too good for throwing away, when people were suffering from lack of hospital equipment all over the world. After exploring the opportunities for this equipment he stumbled upon the left hospital-buildings in Masanga and decided to take action.
Today Masanga got a well functioning hospital seeing over 200 patients a day without charges (unlike other hospitals in Sierra Leone). Also Masanga is home to a number of enterprises – such as a bike shop, a wood shop for carpenters, a tailor shop, a poultry farm etc. – the profits of which should ideally in the long run help to finance the hospital. And then there is us – to advance the level of knowledge among the locals.

Today the remnants of the leprosy community remain visible. All over Masanga you can meet people with deformed hands or feet. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the small ghost-like village of Leproville – a somewhat morbid name in my opinion. Leproville is a gathering of seven of so small cottages housing 12 lepers. Everyone here has suffered greatly – even for a Sierra Leonean. But yet it is a place of hospitality and hope. This is where I have made friends such as the blind Abdul Deen, who hopes to by a small piece of land this year to do agriculture (!!!) and the very talkative, wheel chaired Daniel Mansaray, who can’t wait to learn more about using a computer. Both have badly misshaped hands – but obstacles are there to be defeated, I guess.

This is where we bring the food that is left from our meals. We bring it there in a big bucket – like the ones you use for feeding hence. In a way it seems inhumane and cruel. But there is beauty to be found in this arrangement in my eyes. When we deliver the food, a leper woman is responsible for distributing the food – in the best socialistic manner – among the villagers. Greed doesn’t seem to be inhibiting towards this arrangement. Maybe I just haven’t witnessed it. Or maybe greed is more of a privilege of the rich.

The people condemned to life as ghosts in a ghost town – ghost to their families, ghosts to their old community and ghosts to the government – seems to be clinging to existence, and nourish at the hope of a better future. Leproville is definitely coming to life in my eyes.

2/5/10

Meetings And More

Only a week into the job, and I have already had a bunch of rewarding meetings. My work here more or less started out with a meeting. Every week we have a board meeting in Masanga. Present will be the manager of the hospital (Mr. Fortune), managers of the local businesses (Jasper and Abibu), and managers of the education department (Hinduja and myself). It is more than anything else a coordinating meeting, where ideas can be exchanged and everybody can be updated on, what is new in Masanga. We were warned that Mr. Fortune doesn’t always understand the concept of separation of the three branches, and like to be in control of everything. And he did talk quite a lot at the meeting – commenting on everything. But his comments were actually quite clever and thought through so no problem there. The trick is probably to let him think, he is in control of everything.

Next meeting was with Mr. Bah, who is District Education Officer (DEO) and as such the highest ranking ministry representative in the district – in other words an important man for our work. Previous to the meeting I was a little anxious. Was this to be my first meeting with the inefficient and corrupt statesman emptying the states finances into his own pockets instead of enriching those he is supposed to serve? Such an administrative system as is described in much africanist literature such as the classic ‘Politics of the Belly’ by J.F. Bayart written back in the late 1980s but still mandatory reading for any student of African societies.
Quite the opposite turned out to be the reality that confronted me at my first real working day in Africa. The man that sad before me was neither fat nor arrogant. Instead he seemed genuinely committed to the cause of bettering the districts level of education, and talked a lot about the immense obstacles confronting this mission. It was a pleasure to acknowledge many of his opinions as truly knowledgeable and clever.
I regard to us he gave us a lot of great stuff to use at the Education Centre, including new books (A book project financed by the World Bank had actually reached rural Sierra Leone to my great pleasure and astonishment), new school-related materials from UNICEF and volleyball net with two balls. The latter was explained with the following phrase “when people see all these things, they will be attracted, and they will come”. I hadn’t quite expected a give-away party of this calibre.
He also promised that if we were able to put together a decent adult education programme, he would be able to certify it, meaning that the “student” would be allowed access to the various technical schools in other towns. If this is to become reality, it could indeed make a different for the huge number of people, who because of the war never had the chance to learn a trade.
Lastly he promised me, that he would show me the grave of Sankoh (the former leader of the rebel movement RUF), which we be accident came to talk about. A really interesting opportunity to see a fascinating site and learn to know Mr. Bah better.

The day ended with a (very comprehensive) tour of Masanga, where we got to meet so many people, that my head was spinning at the end. But it had been an amazing day.

The next day offered a meeting with Jim from IBIS regarding a future collaboration regarding the teachers training programme. It was really promising, and there are indications that the first steps of our common work may start in may (now with word-games). We also accepted Jim’s proposal to go to Koidu in the east of Sierra Leone to see their training programme in the start of March. But more about that later.

On The Run

I have grown into the disgusting habit of getting up at 7 o’clock to go for a morning run with a guy called Jasper (my only male company when the workcamp leaves). It’s the most fantastic thing. Running on a gravel path surrounded by forest at both sides, until you reach a clearing and to your left, marvel at the most extraordinary scenery. The rising sun beaming in red delight and bathing the mountaintops of the horizon in the first beams of a brand new day. That’s the moment in the entire day, where I feel most at home in Masanga. It’s truly breathtaking.

After a run of either 5-6 km or the longer 8 km route, I make my way to the outdoor shower. A really simple construction mostly consisting of a bucket, some wooden planks, a standing stone, a shower head and some strings. Nothing is better after a sweaty run than a soothing shower in a soft stream of cold water with yet a view to kill. From the shower there is a plain view to majestic mountains, the nearby river and the sun, still rising and setting the horizon on fire.

Once I get a decent internet connection, I promise to post pictures.

2/2/10

Sightseeing and Premier League

Masanga is seeing its fair share of ”[op-a-då]” (definitely not spelled that way but pronounced similarly – meaning ’white man’). Besides hosting both the volunteers/interns leaving and Masanga and the new people such as myself a party of ten people or so working within the realm of Café Retro are here to renovate the Education Center, where Hinduja and I will be working from. First of all let me underline the fact, that they are doing a terrific job in collaboration with local workers. You can really see the changes from day to day, and the work will result in a much brighter, prettier and more functional Center. But it is a lot of people in a small place, and the local kitchen women really have a challenge in keeping up with demand.
Most of the newly arrivals (interns including yours sincerely and Retro-workshop members) went to see the waterfall up in Bambuna this Sunday. The second day of my stay in Masanga. It was a beautiful site yet untouched by tourism and exceptionally naked of shops selling small souvenirs as you would have seen in many other countries. The entire afternoon were spend swimming, talking and sun-bathing on the rocks at the foot of the fall gazing at the rainbow embedded in the falling water.

Sierra Leone is a country of football (European-style) to such a degree that my guidebook describes, how DJs in Freetown can pause their music and shout the name of Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal to get the crowd going wild. Therefore I was anxious to watch a top-match in the Premier League with the locals. An earlier pit stop in Bambuna town had diverted my attention to the giant signs there doing commercial for the days match between Arsenal and rivalling Manchester United. One of the seasons absolute peak matches. It was a chance, I couldn’t miss. Before leaving the waterfall, I had talked half the people into going (to my delight many of whom was the girls staying for a long time – a good sign indeed) back to watch the match. We arrived at Bambuna town square to the sound of two loudspeakers cranked to max., streaming the match commentary, so that everyone in the village couldn’t miss what was going on, and who was in the lead.
We paid the 1000 Le (1,5 DKK) to enter a room concealed by a black carpet. The small room was crammed to the brink (almost literary) by locals glued to the small television screen. Not a word being uttered as everyones full attention was on the game. And with the final scoreboard reading 1-3, it was a spectacular match.
Bambuna like every Sierra Leonean village I’ve visited have their own local market, where you could buy everything from the major English teams jerseys to fly covered fish. My mom would have loved it. In the town centre we witnessed both a child dancing in “devil” costume and an old man drumming African rhythms.

Back in Masanga I retired after a cosy night with good company ready for my first real day of work in Sierra Leone. A day that offered both a board meeting with the leading figures of Masanga, and a meeting with the District Education Officer of Tonkilili district. One of the eleven districts comprising Sierra Leone.

2/1/10

Town of the Free

The name of Freetown is to be taken literally. In 1786 380 freed black slaves from Great Britain thus set sail for the coast of a promised land. Many destinations had been considered, but the Brit, Henry Smeathmans’ keen interest in animal species - and his lack of funds for financing a trip to Sierra Leone, where a range of exotic specimens had recently been discovered - were to make for the deciding factor. An expedition serving to free slaves back into their “natural habitat” was an outstanding opportunity to actually make money going there.
Of course he hadn’t considered that the soil was unsuitable for growing crops and within a few years the entire colony had died away from diseases and hunger.
That did nothing to scare London and by 1792 a fresh batch of men (this time 1190), who recently regained their freedom, touched ground in Freetown. In spite of the harsh conditions they somehow managed to get the city up and running. How free the town actually was can be a point of discussion as the British made sure, that everything was run by English officials and profits extracted from the people through heavy taxes.
When I arrived, I was to find that Freetown still hadn’t turned into the paradisiacal land once promised to the hard tried Africans. But that hadn’t seemed to break their spirit.
I awoke to the sound of heavy activity from the street. I went to the balcony and witnessed an entirely new world from the night before. Back then the dark street had had a cold and somewhat creepy look to it, with closed-down garage-like stores lining the empty road. Today it was as if the street itself had come alive. Everywhere was entrepreneurial people trying to make a living: some selling sim-cards, some selling small dishes (carrying their kitchen on top of their heads) and even others selling everything from locally produced clothes to Dolce Gabbana look-alikes.
A walk around Freetown also were to show that a new kind of internationals had opened their eyes to Freetowns’ potential – and once again with profit in mind. Here I was difficult not to take notice of names such as China House, Jilin Chinese, Shanghai Restaurant, Bamboo Hut, Youyi Building, and Beijing.
The same walk gave me more new friends, than I had made in Copenhagen through the last couple of months. Everywhere people smiled and took contact. But not in the aggressive way, you can experience in some other poor countries. Most of the men I talked to was simply curious or wanted to help me, when I looked confused.
After breakfast Hinduja (who will be my co-manager at Masanga, and travelled with us – although I realised she didn’t really get a mention in my last post), Simon and I went to change our pounds into Leones (as the local currency is aptly named). Contrary to sound logic the best way to do this is through the informal market rather than banks (which are slow and can’t compete with regards to exchange rate). After talking to a couple of guys to make sure, what was an appropriate rate, we found a guy, who seemed reliable. We went into a nearby shop and briefly discussed the deal. I wanted to make an exchange of the small fortune of 500 pounds into the seemingly much bigger fortune of 200 million Leones. Remarkably enough I was never unsure of the situation. There was no rush, and I was allowed plenty of time to count the money before handing over my pounds. Strange feeling to be standing with 200 million regardless of currency type. Especially considering that they were given in 10.000 Leones notes. That sums up to a heck of a lot of money, I might add.
Before leaving Freetown I managed to bargain myself into the national jersey for Sierra Leones soccer team for the sum of 18.000 Le (which can be converted into DKK if you divide by 1000 and multiply this number with 1,5 = 27 DKK)
We caught a taxi from outside our hotel to take us to Makeni for 100.000 Leones (150 DKK) – a four hour drive, which brings me to the start of the last blog.
After a light lunch in Makeni we went the rest of the way to Freetown after switching taxis – taxis have certain stretches they allow themselves to drive on, and does in this way bear resemblance to trains.
Masanga is beautiful. Pictures and further descriptions will follow in a separate post at some point. We were so (arguable) fortunate to arrive at the day of a group of former volunteers going-away party. They had themselves sponsored food for the whole village. And the whole village was there. Therefore the night passed away with a lot of introductions, speeches, and African dancing all accompanied by a giant stereo shouting rhythms and lyrics into the dense forest surrounding our hostel. Half past one your tired narrator finally retired to his room, defying the loud music and falling a sleep, only to wake later that night by the sound of the forest. I was in Masanga – more or less in the jungle.

Wow it’s difficult to blog my experiences. Simply because they pile onto each other at a frantic pace. I hope soon to catch up with myself, but there are just so much to describe, not a lot of alone time, and few hours of electricity. But I promise you, that I will soon be updating you with more stories from rural Sierra Leone.

Just now I’ve checked whether any grades where made available from Copenhagen University. I’ve actually received my first grade at masters level – for a paper on the relationship between state and civil society in Angola and Liberia, which I wrote with a guy called Jesper – and we got 12. Brilliant!
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