Women taking the lead in Sierra Leone

I continue to see stories of women coming into their own and taking the lead in Sierra Leone  Here’s one I enjoyed a lot.

The first woman president of the Sierra Leone Football Association, Isha Johansen is working to do more than line the pockets of team owners. As one of only two woman presidents of national football associations in the world, I would say she is making her mark.

Isha Johansen, Sierra Leone Football Association president

Isha Johansen, Sierra Leone Football Association president


Of course, “football” in most of the world means soccer to Americans.  (Maybe that’s why things are more civilized for Sierra Leone football.)

The FIFA story linked here notes Isha’s goals include using football to get youth into school, and to stay in school.  And, need I say, promoting football for women in Sierra Leone.

This picture and story come from the website of FIFA, Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body of association football.

50 Computers Have Shipped Bound for Rotifunk

Fifty computers are on a container ship as I write this steaming its way from New Jersey to Sierra Leone and the grateful people of Rotifunk. These will be the first computers that allow The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation to set up a computer literacy program and start teaching regular computer classes for Bumpeh Chiefdom.

This will not just provide computer skills, but skills to give the people of Rotifunk a shot at the 21st century job market. Skills to modernize school and chiefdom administration.  Skills to help people start or expand small businesses.

This is the dream that Prosperity Girls High School Principal Rosaline Kaimbay and I had two years ago when I made my first trip to Rotifunk in over 35 years and first met her.  Prosperity Girls was just finishing their second academic year after the school was founded in 2009.  She then had 67 girls in 7th and 8th grades – or as they say Junior Secondary School 1 and 2. The school now has four grades and triple the students. 

As Principal Kaimbay and I talked about her goals for the school in July 2011, we acknowledged that most of these girls were unlikely to go on to college.  They need vocational training programs in the school to give students practical job skills.  We quickly agreed computer training was top of the list.  Whether going to college or being a clerk in a shop, people today need computer skills to excel.

By next month at this time, our dream will become reality.

This dream has been made possible by two generous U.S. companies that I serendipitously met in Cincinnati – Schneider Electric and TIP Capital.

I went on the spur of the moment to a preview showing of the new PBS series, Half The Sky, about the plight of women and girls in the developing world that was given at the public library. Jenny Brady, Schneider Electric employee and CARE volunteer was leading the showing and a discussion afterwards.  She encouraged the audience to not just watch the video, but to find a real project to help a girl or a woman like those we had just seen.  Progress starts with one person here willing to help one girl/one woman somewhere in another country struggling to move her life forward.

OK, I said to myself, raise your hand and let people know you have such a project, and in Sierra Leone, one of the countries just profiled in the Half the Sky video. My “project” then was a discussion with a principal in a small town on the other side of the world, and a piece of paper she and her teachers prepared with their objectives for a computer lab for the school and the community. 

Teaching lab by day, Internet café by night.  Never mind they have no Internet service and no electricity. That was part of our dream for Rotifunk, too.

schneider elec_logoJenny liked this project herself.  She invited me to another Half the Sky showing where she brought the Schneider Electric HR manager, who I spoke with. She liked it, too, and took it back to Schneider Electric management as a proposal to send laptop computers to Rotifunk. 

The project now had legs.

This is an example of the kind of social responsibility effort I found Schneider Electric is globally known for as a multinational corporation in the world of energy management and sustainable development. They are recognized as one of the Top 100 World’s Most Ethical Companies.

TIP Capital logoSchneider leases their office IT equipment from an IT leasing company, TIP Capital.  They would get refurbished computers from TIP, who very generously agreed to sell these at cost and pay shipping charges to the New Jersey port. Giving up their profit on 50 computers was another very kind donation made by TIP.

As we were getting this underway, the Boston marathon tragedy occurred.  A horrific vicious circle of hatred where just two people wreaked incredible havoc and heartache.  How fortunate I remember thinking that I am instead involved in a circle of virtue, where one person’s desire to help on a compelling need enlists the help of another, who in turn draws in another person, and another.

Other donations have followed as people have heard of the project and seen it taking shape.  But a huge thanks goes out to the people at Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for the being the first ones to step up and say, I want to help on this.

A lot has happened in the last year and the project has grown.  More teachers have come to Rotifunk for the growing Prosperity Girls High School and formed an all-volunteer community development Nonprofit they call The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET).  I found other worthwhile projects needing support in Rotifunk on a later trip, and formed the Sherbro Foundation. 

The computer lab project has already grown in anticipation of receiving 50 computers.  CCET and Sherbro Foundation decided we should open computer training to more of the community beyond one girls schools.  There are four secondary schools in Rotifunk with girl and boy students needing computer skills.  There are school graduates in town that would like the opportunity learn computer skills for their own career development. There’s other adults who want the chance to learn to use a computer, or who have basic skills, but no access to a computer in town.  People now have to go the capital or another larger town with an Internet café to use a computer.

Even the women in the adult literacy class who are just learning to read and write their own names are excited at the prospect of learning to use a computer.  If primary school kids learn to use them, why not these women?  I say more power to them.  In this way, I hope computer classes will serve as an incentive for all students, young and old, to continue in school and keep learning.

Computer based training via DVD’s can also be a boost for students trying to master basic subjects like math and English grammar.

Paramount Chief Caulker has given CCET a building to use for their office and classes.  Sherbro Foundation has contributed some money to pay for a local carpenter to build office furniture and tables to hold classes.  And, next month, they will be firing up their own computers.

It’s one thing to learn to use a computer, but what do people then do with a computer in rural Africa?  More on that in another post.

If you would like to become part of this circle of virtue going out to the small town of Rotifunk, Sierra Leone, you can by using the on-line donation button to the right of this website.  There’s still plenty to do. 

We need simple things.  $15 will buy a computer bag to store and carry laptops. $25 will buy five gallons of fuel to run a small generator for hours of charging time. Educational DVD’s will help, like math and typing tutorials and programs like National Geographic and PBS.  Used DVD’s you’ve outgrown are fine. Let us know on Contact Us for that.

Top of the list though is a long term plan to provide power for this new computer lab to charge computers and light classrooms at night.  Part of the initial dream is still on the table – to fund a solar power system for the computer lab and to run adult education classes at night.

We haven’t given up on that part of the dream. It’s still growing.

It’s really raining! Bridge collapses

This week is typically the peak of the rainy season in Sierra Leone, and it’s really raining this year.   A main bridge in Freetown collapsed yesterday under the heavy rain and a landslide.  Several people are known dead, and more likely dead with homeless normally sheltering under the bridge.

This bridge connects main routes in the capital, and will further snarl traffic in the already gridlocked city.  The bridge is called a relic of the colonial days, and is perched on one of Freetown’s many steep hillsides that descend down to the bay.

Many U. S. cities feel they are in a dilemma in not being able to repair or replace aging bridges and infrastructure.  In comparison, Sierra Leoneans would feel privileged to have the bridges we have.

You can see pictures of the King Jimmy bridge collapse here.  The road descends to the King Jimmy Market near a wharf.  It’s a popular place to buy fresh produce brought to town from the countryside.  http://africansuntimes.com/2013/08/sierra-leone-landslide-destroys-historic-slave-area-king-jimmy-bridge-causing-fatalities/

It’s also a historic area where slaves leaving Sierra Leone for the New World were brought to the wharf as their departure point.  They usually were taken to Bunce Island, a major slave fort now in ruins on a small island in the bay to await the sale sealing their fate.

Another bridge collapse occurred in February on my route from Rotifunk to the capital. We had planned to take the Mabang bridge back to the capital on a Saturday morning prior to my flight home on Sunday.  Late Friday afternoon Chief Caulker received word that the bridge had collapsed under a heavy truck trying to cross it.  Fortunately, Principal Kaimbay had just safely crossed twenty minutes earlier in a small vehicle.

People blamed the Mabang collapse on the truck.  I said, the truck is bringing goods upcountry, and that means business.  If you want development and bigger business in this area, you need a bigger bridge.  It wasn’t the truck’s problem; the bridge was inadequate for the people who needed to use it. The bridge creaked and groaned when we had crossed a few weeks earlier in a car.  We literally inched our way over loose boards placed length-wise to strengthen the old bridge surface with its many gaps.  It was fightening, especially knowing we were perched 20+ feet in the air and crossing in the dark.

Chief Caulker paused on hearing the news of the collapse that Friday last February.  He then quietly leaned towards me and said, people don’t know how hard we fought to protect the bridge from rebel control during the war.  Four lives were lost, one my cousin.  The bridge is at a strategic point and rebel control would have given them a clear line onto the capital.

So, now the bridge long overdue for rebuilding was lost to overuse. And the people of Rotifunk must today take alternate feeder roads to get to the main highway that goes to the capital.  That adds one to one and half hours onto to their already four hour long trip to Freetown – a city that’s only 55 miles away.  Well, that was in the dry season.  The chief told me two weeks ago it took him eight hours to reach Rotifunk.  That probably includes over an hour to get through Freetown’s traffic gridlock.

Canoes crossing where the Mabang bridge collapsed

Canoes crossing where the Mabang bridge collapsed

Or, people can risk taking a canoe across the river past the collapsed bridge, and pick up another public transportation vehicle on the other side.  The cost of the trip is up significantly either way you go.  You can take the longer detour in one vehicle, or pay two vehicles with the river crossing.  Either way, people who can hardly afford the normal trip, are penalized with extra cost on top of extra time to now make the trip.

The government promised a temporary pontoon type ferry of the type I used 35 years ago.  Fifty five gallon drums are strapped on a platform big enough to hold a small truck. A cable spans the river and you are pulled across – by hand.  Five+ months later, there is still no ferry.

One of my Rotifunk colleagues, Alpha, passed on recent Facebook pictures of the collapsed bridge crossing. The river swollen with the heavy rains is running fast with strong currents, and crocodiles have been noted now in the rainy season.

His caption:  “We are still going through this deadly situation. No ferry, no bridge construction.”


Two weeks ago he posted: “Here, we were dragged by heavy current of water underneath the suspended part of Mabang bridge. It was horrible. The boat captain did not make it up to pull the boat. I took the paddle from him and captain the boat. Thank God we were saved.”

Most would say climate change is increasing the rains over and above the usual monsoon level rain.  How rainy is rainy?  Here in Cincinnati, we’ve had a year with a lot of rain.  We hit 30 inches now for the year to date, with 27.5 inches the norm.  We’ll easily hit the 42 or so inches normal for the year.

Freetown is the wettest part of Sierra Leone, being the western-most peninsula of the western-most country in West Africa.  It’s the first place to catch all the prevailing winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean – and with those winds, all the rain.  The city gets 175 inches/year, with most of that falling June – September.  July and August are the rainiest, each month bringing in over 40 inches.  That’s more than Cincinnati gets for the whole year in one month.

Road outside Rotifunk in last year's rainy season.

Road outside Rotifunk in last year’s rainy season.

Rotifunk used to get “only” about 120 inches per year.  These days, who knows.  When you’re faced with traveling on roads like this, does it matter if it’s 120 or 130?!

I remember this week in Sierra Leone very well.  It’s my anniversary.  Our Peace Corps group arrived  in-country on August 9.  It’s also the week the rain seems to reach the peak of its crescendo over the past three months, and it rains 24 hours a day almost without a break for seven days.  That’s what you call rain.

Let’s pray the Mabang ferry is installed soon, and this new hardship for the people removed.  In the meantime, the silver lining is that all that rain is what’s making the rice grow.

Sierra Leone Devil Dancing – People love it

When I checked my Sierra Leone videos and slide shows on YouTube this week, I was amazed to see the one on devil dancing in Rotifunk had passed 4000 views in ten months.  That in itself is not so remarkable.  What surprised me more was viewers had come from 100 countries.  This video  I put up just to entertain friends and family hit 4224 views this week from 100 countries.

Goboi devil dances in Rotifunk.

Goboi devil dances in Rotifunk.

What makes people drawn to devil dancing? It makes sense that half the views come from the U.S., followed by U. K., Canada, Netherlands and Australia.  There are plenty of former Volunteers like me, and lots of Sierra Leone and West African expats in these countries.  But why would two people hit Like in Turkey? Why 25 views in Greece?  Why eleven in Brazil and nine in Venezuela.  Why Indonesia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Caymen Islands and Afghanistan?  OK, maybe there are Western soldiers of West African descent in Afghanistan.

This video doesn’t have my name on it, nor Sherbro Foundation.  Only a pseudo name – Salone Arlene. You can view it here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScHVE2B_pHk

Everyone enjoys Sierra Leone devil dancing.  The drumming has an infectious beat. The devils are completely covered to show no sign of the human under a raffia costume disguise that’s flying around with their wild dancing.  It’s exotic. It’s colorful. It’s festive.

It has a nuance of the unknown and the forbidden for Westerners. Or based on the global YouTube viewers, I should say for non-Africans.  What do you do if the devil comes to you? They are leaders in the secret society and command respect and obedience from society members.  Some male devils draw fearful respect from women.

It’s hard to explain “devils” to Westerners.  Devil is no doubt a bad translation to English for what these secret society figures stand for.  They’re not evil. Their purpose is not in doing bad things to people, at least not if you stay in line with the norms of behavior for the secret society and community.

That’s my best understanding of devils and the secret societies they represent.  They’re there to supervise and maintain good behavior and cultural norms in small communities that operated long before the colonial powers brought westernized forms of “law and order.”  Even today, there’s very little, if any government presence in villages and small towns.

Secret societies have long maintained behavior considered proper for their community.  It goes well beyond what we would consider the domain of police in our country, who address criminal acts and unacceptable behavior.  i.e., disorderly conduct.  African secret societies foster good behavior. They teach and enforce positive social and sexual norms; they moderate political activity (the local or traditional kind of politics, anyway.) 

The men’s and women’s societies help keep peace and harmony in their communities, and traditions and customs live on through their schools for young initiates and their ceremonies.  No holiday or special event is complete without a show of devil dancing.  The event in my video was to celebrate the first sports meet held by Prosperity Girls High School, a big community event in a rural town.

Devils are the visible manifestation of the secret society and its leaders.  They’re not really unique to West Africa.  I remember going to a Founder’s Day kind of parade when I lived in Belgium.  The town celebrated their origins going back to the 1200’s with a parade that included ten foot creatures that were men covered in costume on stilts with a huge, somewhat menacing paper mache mask on.  They called them puppets. 

A Belgian friend explained to me the puppets go back to medieval times when townships were first taken over by foreign kings and emperors.  The emperor would visit occasionally to reinforce his power over the local people, and parades and ceremonies would ensue.  This was the chance for the locals to come out with their huge and slightly menacing “puppets” to symbolically let the emperor know he may have power, but so do they.   How did Sierra Leone devils behave when the British colonial governor came to visit?

Puppets, devils – whatever you call them, when they come out to parade and dance today, it’s festive and a time to celebrate local culture.  I thought you might enjoy seeing this video from the Prosperity Girls first sports meet.

Arlene enjoying the devil dancing at the Prosperity Girls sports meet

Arlene enjoying the devil dancing at the Prosperity Girls sports meet

There’s a few still slides (no sound) at the beginning showing the Mokebie dance troupe marching into town from their village.  Then the video begins with drumming and singing.  The big Goboi devil from the men’s society does his dance about a minute in; stick with it as he really gets going as he continues.  There’s a woman Sampa dancer at the end.  I could imagine her getting a standing ovation if she was on America’s Got Talent.

If you can explain why people in 100 countries go to this video on YouTube, please let me know.  That part I would like to know.