One evening we had finished early enough I decided I needed some exercise. I had been trooping around with the trainees but the walks were short and there was a lot of time just standing round explaining or fixing problems or interviewing the land holders. I felt the effects of too many chicken and rice curries and felt I needed to reduce the bloat. So I told Kofi I would head along the main road and see where it took me.
The sun was just beginning to drop low enough to redden the sky; I estimated I had about 90 minutes before it got too dark to see. I dropped down from the house and within 100m was in amongst the community forest which bounded much of the village. At the bottom of the hill was the women’s bathing pool and a couple of semi naked women were washing and chatting down there, their children playing in and out of the water half covered in soap. The road rose quite steeply into the dry scrubby vegetation; I left what was called the “gallery forest”, the tall thick tropical trees, behind, and entered a low but densely treed area with thick tangles of grasses and creepers now almost completely dried out. To me it was a very pretty landscape, a sort of crowded parkland; one I heard was innately within our blood to connect with as it was the savannah landscape our first ancestors ever looked out on. The road dipped again and there was a wide valley bottom. As opposed to the community forest, this valley had been stripped of all but a few trees, and the floor carved up into different farm plots. A variety of food was being grown here; as well as rice paddies there were vegetables including onions, chilli, okra, gourds. People had devised different ways to control the water flow and water logging here; some of the crops were grown on small round soil mounds about a metre above the valley bottom, others in ridges of soil. In other places bunds had been put up to shelter the crop from the little channels of water than ran between each plot. It was so carefully controlled, meticulously managed.
And the contrast between the green of these bottom areas (bas fond in the French was a common term used for them) and the dry scrubland vegetation around was stark. No wonder you could pick it out from satellite imagery so easily.
I did find the heat at night very difficult to deal with. When you looked at what Fintonia was built on, you saw in the main that it was sitting on bare rock. It was a massive dome shaped hill of stone that had a few areas where soil had built up, but usually you dug down more than a few inches and you were on the bedrock. I realised it was for a good reason; in the wet season you wanted to be in the driest possible place. With all the buckets of rain that would fall daily from May to October, you didn’t need to live in waterlogged soil and you wanted that water to run off into your surrounding valleys, not fill up your living spaces. The downside was that during the dry season in particular, these rocks heated up intensely through the day, and at night radiated back into the houses. This was why I was so hot at night and no amount of aeration of the rooms was going to make a difference. I saw that many people in the houses around us would take rush mats out on to the veranda or onto the ground in front of their houses and lie there at night, idly chatting , trying to rest. It was just that amount cooler to be in the open air and on soil than in a bed in a claustrophobic room with a concrete floor radiating through the heat from the rocks below. Of course these people had to deal with the mosquitoes but maybe it was still more comfortable. I could have really done with a hammock with a mosquito net to form a cocoon strung up on the veranda.
We continued our work with our guys each day, we worked on more types of plot. One day we went into the valley bottom and walked one of Demba’s own fields of rice. A healthy crop of green shoots were wallowing in a thick muddy soil; the sun on our backs and the humidity rising from the sodden soil made it a challenging environment to do work. Added to this was the boundaries of the field – raised bunds built to contain the water during the early growing period were now strewn with tangled weeds. We walked the entire bund together first to look for any challenges and mark out where the key turning points were. Then we left Demba to carefully plot out his field. He had calmed down a lot since his first rash enthusiasm. He was a man who did not like to be shown up, and seeing how Karim and Alusine had patiently become quite expert in how to operate the GIS made him all the more determined not to be left behind. We also walked some family plots with houses, and finally went up into the scrub to look for fields in the dryland areas. These proved hard to find and I often have trouble with these myself. To determine that there is a field here is not a problem, but to both identify the boundary between field and scrub, and determine the status of a field like this is very tricky. People cut the scrub or burn the excess vegetation off in one season, but may not get around to returning to the site for a couple more years to cultivate. By that time the scrub vegetation, the herbaceous bits at least, will have invaded back and parts of fields can look neither cultivated nor natural. Where do you draw the lines here?
It was obvious the number of these fields in the drylands were increasing and the scrubby forest degrading away. We were told later that we should not concentrate on these lands. There were issues not only with who should be giving out this land to farmers, what they were taking for themselves and effectively squatting, and even in defining where the boundary between one village’s lands and another’s was not an easy task. When the populations up here had been low it was not a massive problem but ,even with the losses in the civil war, the pressure of population up here was starting to fill in gaps between the villages – an ever increasing demand for land to graze and cultivate crops. As I had seen, people walk a fair distance from Fintonia to tend their crops; others have stopped this commute all together and set up their own small villages in other places closer to where they are cultivating. I wondered at the availability of all the other amenities a settlement needed – was there enough water in these areas in the dry season for example. Fintonia was in a good site. the hillside we could see against glowing evening skies was a massive rounded rocky outcrop and several permanent springs exuded a fresh supply of water for the village. I had seen the small dams they had put up to tank the water, and it was piped down into the river valley and back up to the small hill on which Fintonia sat and the head of water from the dam was enough to sustain pressure from a number of taps set around the village. The rubber pipes were mainly on the surface. One reached a standpipe about hundred metres from our house, but the pipe, exposed to the elements and all the human activity, had sprung leaks. It did mean while someone was using the tap to fill large buckets or bowls, often you could stand over a leak and collect enough for a pan or kettle of water without having to wait your turn.
The lack of lighting in the evenings was mesmerizing. The pin pricks of light from the phones just about lit up the chests and chins of the people walking by with them. One or two houses might have a Coleman lamp, but most of the domestic light came from the fires and was both a dim orange and constantly fluctuating. Then the odd headlight from a car or a dimmer front light on some of the bikes. That was it. The ground around was dark, the trees only just discernible against the night sky. And of course the night sky itself was intense; whether it be from the myriad stars of the Milky Way when we arrived to the first slivers of the new moon on subsequent nights.
One other light would make an impact on us. Some nights we would look out and the silhouette of the nearby hill was clearer than usual – a red glow behind gave away that a fire was burning up in the distance. The glow would burn quite intensely, pulsating for many minutes. It was difficult to gauge how far away the fire front was, but one night, we had been watching the glow getting stronger and could then hear crackling. The active fire must have been several kilometres across and it was having an effect on the air around us. First we noticed that we were being rained upon by black cinders, then there was a whoosh from the west and a rush of wind blew straight out of the forest, down the road and out to the east, taking with it a huge swirl of cloud and ash. The air around us was being fiercely sucked up into the fire front. We had to hold on to our papers on the table to stop them joining the wind. It blew for a couple of minutes, the trees violently tugging at their own roots in the maelstrom, before something happened which turned off the wind. The fire never reached the village but it was another reminder of how vulnerable these places were. As part of the project, the village had been encouraged to have fire wardens that kept watch for fires in the dry season, and a store of beaters and other equipment was kept in the community centre in case there was a need to protect the properties in the village itself.
Fire became an increasing hazard as the dry season went on. Not only was there little water on or in the ground to dampen any sparks, but the luxurious growth of understory that built up over the wet season dried out to be perfect tinder. The scrunching noise you hear as a fire whips around a forest is all caused by it catching a frond of dry grass and exploding along the parched stems and into the dry undergrowth.
They played with pencils and paper and we got lax about leaving stuff out and about. One day I could not find my penknife – I searched high and low in my suitcase and room for it. The last time I had remembered using it was to cut open a mango on the table out front. I mentioned I had mislaid it to Momoh one morning and wondered if one of the kids had taken it. I was not accusing in any way; I was half certain it was my own absent mindedness that had caused it to go missing, but he said he would have a word and by the end of the day he handed it back to me. To me it was not a theft; these children just were not used to seeing that many gadgets; a kettle or a bowl was about as sophisticated a piece of machinery they would come in to regular contact. To see the array of torches, pens, pencils, knives and of course the laptops and GPS was a world away from their experience.
The one ubiquitous technological item that we saw in the village was the mobile phone. There was no coverage at all in Fintonia – people would take their phones with them to the nearest town, Kamakwie when they were heading to market. When they reached the town they were within range of the huge mast there and would download their messages and send out new calls and texts. In the village the phones were mainly used as torches, and recharged on solar cells accessed at small stores or from the better off residents. Some used them to play music, but in the evenings it was much more common just to hear various stations being played on the radio rather than stored music on other devices.
On our first night we had arrived in near darkness and ate alone. The following morning we were observed by the neighbours and the children in particular were fascinated to see the Foute using the house. At first they kept their distance but would spend minutes at a time staring at us. When we waved to them they might get embarrassed or smile and giggle, but a few waved back. Next day they were a lot closer and started grouping together on the ground in front of the veranda. We would say hello to them and start asking questions. After another couple of short conversations we found a few of them up on the veranda creeping closer to us at our table. Three in particular were from the family next door. We discovered they were called Sami, Ibrahim and… Ibrahim. I had to call them Ibrahim 1 and Ibrahim 2. They would be so happy just to be around us; they were not after pestering or demanding things. Sometimes they would whisper to each other but otherwise they would spend hours in our company. In the evenings we had to be very firm about saying “Good night” and making sure they went back to their own families. But we chatted simply about how old they were, where they went to school, who was related to whom. I let them play with the items on the desk – they wore my large floppy bushhat and laughed for ages about it – even heading off round the street in it until I had to demand it back.
One day they turned up with a wheel hub and were using a stick to roll it up and down the street. I asked them to give it to me and I stepped down on to the ground from the house and took it in my grasp and used it as a Frisbee. They had never seen anything like it – it hovered across the road, landed on its edge and rolled down into the bush. The kids laughed and went and retrieved it for me and begged for me to do it again. So I threw it up the hill and this time is skimmed along the bare earth sending up clouds of dust. The older children started doing it for themselves and realised how easy it was. I had to help the younger ones who just threw it and it clanked to the ground about two feet away from them. I showed how to put that twist in the wrist as you are about to release the hubcap. It was great fun for them but I had to be careful as if a taxi or 4WD came along I had to stop them – I really did not want to be the cause of any traffic accident in this part of the world. The game ended abruptly when I flung it down the hill, but released at the wrong moment myself and it went sailing up on to the roof of the next door house. The kids and I sheepishly laughed and decided to make ourselves scarce.
Ibrahim tries on my hat
We were attracting a lot of attention from the locals; Gray and I were the only white guys in the vicinity and even Kofi, a Ghanaian, was much more smartly dressed and had a different manner to the local Sierra Leoneans. Children would follow us around the village, or when we waved at them would smile sheepishly and raise a hand. A few, often egged on by their parents or grandparents would shout out “Foute foute foute” the term for foreigner or white man. I tried to talk back to them saying “Alan Alan Alan” in the hope they may say my name when I greeted them. One afternoon Kofi and I were talking about this and we realised this could backfire; the children could start going round and call all the foreigners “Alan Alan Alan”.
We were always greeted in a friendly way by the locals here; a simple hello or good morning, a wave and a smile. It was all so peaceful. I started to get familiar with some of the people – the neighbours opposite would always greet us in the morning and evening. It was an eclectic array of households down there. On the left there was the plot in which we had started our trainees working with the GPS, then a house which was under construction. Clearly there had been some foundation to this house before; on discussion with a few people it emerged that there was potentially some dark history. Sierra Leone was only ten years from a horrific civil war, and the northern regions had been where some of the worst atrocities had occurred. There were stories of whole families being wiped out, others where the young men had gone off to fight and never returned. The population was substantially reduced and old family houses had become abandoned. Now with the population rising new people were taking on the plots and building in established villages, as well as building new hamlets out in the dry scrubby forest around.
The third plot contained a substantial house which had a lot of activity; an extended family of 15-20 people seemed to live here. One of the men there was a carpenter. To the right of the plot, under an old spreading tree, he set up his workbench and spent long hours there chiselling, planing and sawing. Around him the fruits of his labour, shelving (we could have done with some of that in the guest house), doors and frames, as well as fresh wooden planks waiting to be turned into something.
I loved to sit out here on our veranda and work or read or just sit and observe village life. The more I saw, the more I realised there were patterns. The exodus of people in the morning heading down the roadway; heading out to their fields to check on their crops for any overnight damage from pests or disease, do their weeding, planting, pruning or even harvesting. The kids and young women heading off in the bush to return half an hour later with a headful of dead branches for cooking wood. A mother with a lethargic but purposeful gait taking a couple of the smaller kids down to the stream with a large bowl of washing on her head, and returning an hour or two later to lay out the washing on the big poles that all Sierra Leone villagers seemed to prefer over lines. Then there were the various vehicles. During the day they were more varied than the night-time mix of motorbikes and taxis. There were a couple of farmers who owned small tractors in the village and they were put to extensive use to ferry people around or drag equipment to the fields and produce back to the village. I say tractors; a couple of these were barely motors with a couple of wheels, a place to sit and a couple of chopper style handle bars to guide them over the terrain.
It was good that we split the day up into field work in the mornings and other activities in the afternoon. We were all more productive when fresh and relatively cool, and the afternoons gave Kofi and I a chance to catch up on other work. Our biggest problem was that most of our work was computer based and our guest house had no electricity. So daily we would hike up the road to the project office and call on the caretaker there to unlock the building and turn on the generator. We would settle ourselves at the table on the back veranda there and get our maps and laptops out while he would run off to find the fuel in a storehouse at the back of the compound, fill the generator, prime the pump, and switch it on. It took a couple of pulls before it would whirr in to life. Only then would we connect our laptops to the plugs – we took no chances with spikes in supply. The generator was linked to a whole bunch of plugs around the building and also powered the satellite dish. This meant we could get a little connectivity with the outside world and I was able to quick download emails and reply to the most essential ones. I felt a little bit of a cheat here; in theory I did not need to keep up to date and there was little I could do with such limited connectivity but my western mind had grown too used to not being out of touch with my life back home. We would stay at the office only as long as it took to power up our laptop batteries, then we would walk back down the hill.