There and back again

”To travel is to live” is quite a famous quote. One of those quotes which are used so often that it becomes a cliché. I certainly don’t agree; but I definitely do love to travel.
Sierra Leone does have some obstacles for the traveller. Infrastructure is crappy, official transportation almost non-existent, and timetables exist to be broken. Nonetheless Africa just seems to work in its own logic. If you are a control-freak by nature, travelling here is certainly not for you. To have a journey planned out to the slightest detail, will just get you frustrated as you see your expectations tumble down around you. Are you on the other hand up for the impulsive journey, which doesn’t necessarily have to live up to westerners’ concept of comfort and relaxation you are in for quite an experience.

All of us Danish people living in Masanga have a land rover available, which we can use for our work and leisure related trips. That is indeed a very comfortable way of travelling and can be a must if our trips go beyond most of the major cities and thus beyond the asphalted roads (not that every major city can be reached by asphalted road). Especially when the rainy season sets in (Argh) this vehicle will become indispensable. A few weekends ago a lot of us headed for Outamba Kilimi, which is the biggest national park in Sierra Leone. The roads were terrible and we were many in the car, which resulted in that the people in the back had kind of a rough ride. This made me think, that I might as well sit on the rough instead of bumping my head against it. The driver didn’t object and before long I had mounted the steely, modern-day rodeo-bull. It was quite intense. Zooming through the African landscape, the vehicle spitting out a tail of red dust, people waiving and laughing along the way at the stupid Dane, the sunset revealing the awe-inspiring full moon and me dodging (most of the time) the low-hanging mangoes (unfortunately the one I managed to pick wasn’t ripe), clinging to the rope, which fastened our bags onto the roof.
Under the starlit night sky on the small forest path it appeared to me that travelling may not give you life. But it may let you experience it more fully. I remember my dad telling me how many years working at the same place seemed to speed up his life. How the drive there became this half unconscious routine, and the whole day could just wither away without any new impressions to linger at. Suddenly a month had gone by – suddenly a year. When you travel, you sentence your senses to a multitude of new impressions that needs to be taken in. And that will unavoidably – in my eyes – seem to lower the pace of how you experience the world around you. Because you cannot help to take in the small details, your senses will not allow it.
That is why I think that travelling doesn’t lead you to live. You can easily live without ever leaving your daily routines - if you call that a life of course. But maybe: to travel is to live longer. Because you live slower; because you notice that you live and that the world around you breathes.
Then travelling can as readily be a trip to the beach, a picnic in the forest, a canoe-trip down a river, or a dinner date at an untried restaurant as half a year in Sierra Leone.

But travelling in a land rover can seem quite inaccessible and exclusive. Often I prefer to travel by local means. As Sierra Leone haven’t rebuild the train lines, that did exist prior to the war (although Chinese building companies are in the process or changing this) the only official means of transportation are the government busses. These are very rare, only travel on a few select distances and cannot be booked in advance. I still haven’t been able to travel with them. But there are also the unofficial, private busses – the so called poda podas – which can best be described as a sort of minibuses, always excessively decorated with bright colours and philosophical mottos such as: ‘God Bless Allah’, ‘Big Boss’, ‘Never Trust A Stranger’, or the more common ‘God Bless Manchester United’. These busses is build for approx. 12 passengers but is not really filled until the double number are cramped together. They are cheap, a good way to meet people and just seem to be there, when you need them. If there isn’t a poda poda waiting for you, odds on is that a taxi is. Taxis function to a high degree like the poda podas with fixed routes and prices – slightly more expensive. Of course they can be chartered to go of the fixed route, but that will cost you. The same goes if you want to travel cha cha in the taxi – meaning only your (or your party of people) – but of course then you will need to pay for the entire taxi, which according to the locals easily carries min. 8 people (2 at the drivers seat (!!), 2 at the other front seat and 4 in the back). It should be unnecessary to point out, that you are not always that comfortable seated with this amount of passengers, but again you get to meet people.
A better way to travel cheap and comfortable is the Honda, which pretty much covers every kind of motorcycle type. Again they are difficult (and expensive) to get to travel outside the designated routes, but the feeling of flying through the countryside with the sunrays caressing your skin and the wind stroking back your hair is worth recommending. For me this is – as with the land rover roof experience – really among the moments where you take in the outside world. When you travel without a screen between you and the passing landscape, it seems closer, more real and forces you to notice where you are.
That is why I constantly find myself on Hondas going here and there and back again; in the generous sunlight, in the hard rain, and under the delicate moon – of for a new travelling tale.


Local ownership

Can there be responsibility without ownership? Can dependency be turned into a cultural trait? How much autonomy are you willing to trade-off for involving others in your decisions? These are some of the questions that work down here has given new life and meaning and put to the forefront of my mind. Not simple questions with simple answers but nonetheless questions that guide many of the choices you face in Masanga – professionally and personally.

A lot have happened during the course of the last couple of weeks, especially in the area of involving the locals in our work. We have created an advisory board for our own work. This board is made up of local stakeholders and capacities in matters of educational activity. The members thus include (beside us) a primary school headmaster, a librarian, a representative from the local teachers’ association, and the assistant business manager from Masanga. I was really anxious going into the first meeting. Were the members really interested in being permanent members, could the discussions reach the necessary level for giving qualified input to our work, what would they demand in return for their participation, and would they seriously participate or mainly observe.
I had prepared a PowerPoint show to partly explain our visions with the board and the various programmes flowing from the centre and partly make an agenda we could stick by. It worked like a charm. People paid attention; participated and made possible really useful brainstorming on some issues we were interested in getting their opinion about. I was quite positively surprised by the quality of our discussions and the board easily reached consensus on a lot of things regarding some otherwise difficult discussions.
In sum a really successful act of securing local ownership. Or was it?
Local ownership has long been a real buzz word among donors and NGOs working with development. Most project descriptions or funding requests therefore include this word in every second line: “the project will have special focus on matters of local ownership”, “participation of the locals will be ensured in every phase of the work”, “local ownership will guide the work”. The advisory board can serve as a good example for how easy this concept can be manipulated.
For how much local ownership is there really in selecting some locals by yourself (whereby you retain the possibility to choose members, that you know share your ideas about the project), to sit at meetings where you are in charge of the agenda (and thereby retains the advantage of the agenda-setting “hidden” power that lies in being able to structure the meeting) and doesn’t grant the board any real authority (so that you can always disregard their decisions).

As much as I enjoyed that the meeting (surprisingly) went according to my hopes and plan, it was necessary to make the board more independent. The next meeting was therefore used to select a new chairman, which should be given the responsibility to make sure that an agenda was made for each meeting, and that everybody have a chance to influence that. Luckily it ended up being the guy, we hoped would be selected.
For the position as secretary it was decided – with little invention on our part – that Hinduja should be performing the task with the assistance of our librarian, who in this way could receive training in doing minutes (first step was to teach him to actually take notes).

Still the board has no real power, but it is really a great way to hear the local voices, which have proven sufficiently, that they do want to speak – and are capable.

The power we haven’t yet given to the board we are on the other hand ready to give to the future manager. Right now we are in negotiations with a Sierra Leonean candidate. But I must confess that it felt somewhat strange to do interviews for this position. To suddenly be “on the other side of the table” to interview a guy, who have a better educational background and loads more experience than myself: “So, what do you consider your major weaknesses?”. Sometimes it feels like this internship let you skip 10 years of your career in terms of the character of your assignments. Which Danish company would let a guy like me be in charge of other people, or do interviews with a man tenfold more experienced than me, or be in charge of the budget?
And he certainly is qualified for the position. During our last conversation he told us, that he “was 85 %” about the job. Nothing is settled, but it has been great discussing the project with him. He has a lot of ideas and his many years working for different (western) NGOs are definitely visible in his choice of words and his perspectives on doing development. In other words he talks a lot about local ownership.

In time I think he could be the right man to show, that the concept can move beyond being the “façade décor” that many development thinkers criticise it of. But of course that will need us to dare transferring much responsibility and autonomy.

Local ownership is in my eyes extremely important. Sometimes it seems that the long, long record of NGOs working in Sierra Leone (from long time before the civil war) has had some perverse effects. The most visible of these is the culture of dependency that I sense in so many people I encounter. The idea that white men are like mango trees – if only you shake them enough (and in the right way) you will enjoy the fruit of your labour, and you will eat (eating is a far-reaching metaphor in Africa). The problem is then, that nobody want to plant new trees, and start up their own farm (to take the metaphor further), because that doesn’t feed you today. This culture of dependency thus produces an atmosphere of inaction. And maybe that is why it is so difficult to buy Sierra Leonean products. Everybody is to busy shaking the trees. That is a contributing factor why the cheap toothpaste you can buy in the streets are Chinese, the sweets are Lebanese, and the beers are Danish.