The Embrace of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone doesn’t just say hello. It embraces you in a rush of sights, sounds, crush of people, heat, humidity, smells, women’s clothes the colors of tropical birds, drumming, music, throngs of kids with smiles from ear to ear. Life spills out onto the street and the village front porch. Here’s some of my images and impressions in returning to Salone after 14 months.

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In Freetown, you invariably find yourself on Siaka Stevens St., the center of town, in a crush of traffic with the famous 200-year old cotton tree in front of you. The winter’s harmattan dust was hanging in the air, making it hazy all day, but much of that haze is now diesel exhaust pollution.

USD cash exchangeI have two visual barometers for the Salone economy. Freetown’s beaches were empty. No tourists, which adds to unemployment. People can’t afford to go to their own gorgeous beaches.

The other is how big a pile of leones you get when exchanging dollars. 5,000 and 10,000 denominations are used, and so devaluated, they’re only worth $0.70 and $1.40 each. 

The leone devalued about 25% during 2016. Petrol prices soared. People say the economy is at its worst in years.

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Leaving the highway for small feeder roads to Rotifunk is entering another world. The Ribbi ferry is virtually unchanged since I used it 40 years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer; a platform on pontoons and you’re manually pulled across. A crowd of small children collect on the other side chanting, Ah-bey, ah-bey, ah-bey — Temne for chief. They know Paramount Chief Caulker is coming bringing them sweets. He started this during Ebola and continues it with every crossing. “I can’t do much to really improve their lives, but I can at least make them smile for a couple hours.”

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Our first week included a trip down the beautiful Bumpeh River to Mamu village to celebrate the opening of new primary school. Taking a big boat with the Paramount Chief, front right, for an official visit is not an everyday activity. So, it’s a party on a boat. Gliding down this unspoiled river, pure joy.

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Bundu devils from the women’s society join drummers and singers to welcome the chief to Mamu village. Traditions in a small village like Mamu are very much alive and well. Opening a new school is a happy day, this school built with donations from young Norwegians.

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Back in Rotifunk, there’s simple pleasures of seeing friends again and meeting new friends.

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Early evening is a favorite time of day to stroll down the hill to see vegetable gardens being planted and tended in the rich flood plain of the Bumpeh River. Raised beds of various leafy greens, a diet staple, and peppers were coming to life. Kids “fished” in a field well, bringing up salamanders from the mud. They’re probably added to the pot for dinner.

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Another moment of joy was walking into our partner CCET’s new education center at 5 p.m. when it was abuzz with activity. Three adult literacy classes and the first regular high school computer class, all going on in the main hall. Most adult literacy students are single parents. Babies are welcome.

IMG_2109This mother of twelve shows us it’s never too late to learn your ABCs for the first time, and how to “carry over” when adding three digit numbers.

Women have graduated from Adult Literacy and entered other vocational training as primary school teachers, nurse aides, a policewoman and one ready to start as a surveyor’s assistant.

 

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Computer training classes for Bumpeh Chiefdom students and adults was a dream five and a half years in the making. It grew from offering classes in one school to a full education center in its own 2,600-square-foot building built during Ebola. I learned to dream big; then it happens.

vlcsnap-error383   IMG_2036For Bumpeh Academy, one of the Chiefdom’s newer schools, progress happens in small steps. Very small steps. Senior high classes, previously run “second shift” in a primary school, moved to the main school addition, still in progress as funds are available. In 2015, a concrete slab was poured for three classrooms. In 2016, a zinc roof and partial walls between rooms were added, and classes started. I was happy to hear from Vice Principal Koroma, above, SFSL funded part of the addition with the school fee scholarships we paid for girls. They used the money to buy bags of concrete. Still, children at Bumpeh Academy are in school learning. 98% of Academy students taking the 2016 senior high entrance exam passed! And they have a new Peace Corps teacher, Ethan Davies, above, right corner.  

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Visiting Bumpeh Chiefdom’s small villages is always a trip highlight. Nyandahun, one of the oldest and smallest villages with 25 houses is the birthplace of Chief Caulker’s grandmother. It has a long tradition of women village chiefs. Chief Lupe Bendu, above left, definitely has a chiefly demeanor. By tradition, she’s considered the queen of Nyandahun. Asked how their village orchard will help them, she immediately replied, “It will help our children and we’ll use it for their education.” 

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Passing village homes like this one, I’m reminded why our Women’s Vegetables Growing and Village Orchard programs are so important. They’re simple to implement, following local agriculture traditions, income can be earned quickly, and it goes directly to families that need it the most.  With cash income, their children can go on to secondary school in Rotifunk.

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There’s little for a village child to look forward to without education. But we don’t want them to be leaving their villages. We want to teach schoolchildren and their parents they could be earning a good living growing coconuts like these, and guava and cashews. Make agriculture a small business.

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Developing the local village economy includes having cash to set up a small front porch shop for neighbors. A dilemma is not losing your small profits to transportation costs of going to Rotifunk or Freetown to buy cheaper goods to sell. There’s little public transportation from a village like Mosundu.

IMG_2190  IMG_2168In full swing, CCET’s fruit tree nursery grows a variety of trees from seed: orange, grapefruit, lime, avocado, guava, cashew, mango. Three workers plant seeds collected from local fruit, and water and nurse them for a year+ until ready to plant in the Village Orchard program. Some go to newborn parents, restoring the tradition of “baby trees.” Some will be sold for income to continue to operate the nursery. Abdul learned to write and make signs in Adult Literacy class.

IMG_1992  IMG_1988Bumpeh Chiefdom is a prime coconut growing area. Pa Willie personally raises coconut seedlings in a closed pen behind his house to keep out thieves. The coconut, husk, shell and all, is embedded in soil until it sprouts. It’s a longer-term venture taking two years, but they’re worth more. Pa Willie’s tree-growing skills date back to working in a Liberian rubber plantation before the war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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