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.
We stopped work well before lunch time – mainly as the heat of the day was too much to be out walking the fields with a GPS. Kofi and I would return to our house to find a big hot steaming meal of rice and either goat or chicken sitting there. I’d take some for calorie sake but it really was not my lunchtime habit to eat a big meal at home, let alone in the tropics. Both of us usually had a siesta after this; I would lie on my bed and listen to the background village noises or the expansion of the roof in the afternoon sun.
We reconvened with our guys about 3pm and had a couple more hours, but we soon gave up this practice. Kofi had been dealing with the per diems for these guys and he gave daily handouts of Leone to them, which they immediately would spend on palm wine. I never tasted the palm wine in Sierra Leone; I had heard just how rough and badly made it could be. It was the stock local drink out in Fintonia where getting a cold beer was nigh on impossible, but its potency and the warm afternoon weather meant that our three trainees were not able to concentrate in our second sessions. This was also where the problems arose. We had been very careful that we might cause some problems in the community; the idea of people using high tech yellow machinery going round people’s fields and backyards was bound to cause some gossip and controversy, and we had all our messaging ready to help explain our purpose and how Fintonia was potentially helping us define a new protocol that could help villagers across Guinea and Sierra Leone. For the most part people were very accepting of this. We even were able to explain about the possible disputes between neighbours and say all we were doing was defining where those disputes were and not resolve them ourselves.
No, that was not where our problems lay; it is always the trivialities which are there to upset. What concerned the villagers and became rampant gossip was more how these three were hanging round with us and getting drinking money. It seemed unfair. Of course we had not played any part in the selection process and we had to have quiet words with the guys about not flashing the cash around in the afternoons (hopefully meaning they would not get drunk as well) and to avoid having these arguments.
I’ve dealt with land titling in various countries – the listing of what ownership or tenancy people have on documents like house deeds. It was complicated even in countries that had very formal systems. Not only might there be one owner, but maybe joint owners or a company owning the land. There were leasings and tenancies, and sub letting, and then various extra issues such as rights of way and easements that gave permission to some people to use the land that someone else owns – for example giving an electricity company access to overhead wires on a farmer’s field.
In a country that had very a very limited land registry (the Freetown peninsula alone had a crumbling formal system), the documentation of land use was tortuous. It was difficult enough even to understand what types of rights existed. The traditional ideas of ownership and tenancy went out the window. In theory the land was held by the whole community but in Tambakha the de facto ownership was in the hands of a few families. Within that people had rights to a form of tenancy to farm the land – some of which was done by payment, others by agreement within families. This works quite well where the population is fairly static; but for people who move into villages, or have a marriage that changes family circumstances, it becomes very difficult to get hold of any plots. Some people are allowed to rent land from one of the families, but the tenancy period can be as short as a year in some cases. This may allow you to produce one or two crops, but you do not invest in anything which may produce higher or more long term returns. You won’t plant a fruit tree that will not yield for ten years if it is possible you will be evicted after one.
We tried to work out the ownership issues with our trainees, but I was concerned we could not get the whole picture from them and it would have been better to established the terms we were going to use before we started the training. Kofi did follow up on this later but then we had to retrofit the software to make it work for us.
All in all it was a big mix of land uses, and over the top of this, imaginary (or in some cases) real lines were drawn to delimit the property rights. The kitchen garden areas we tackled next; the big problem here was that many had mango and banana trees in them and it was difficult to determine where the property line might be as you walked it. Rather than confuse the trainees by recording GPS lines straight away which might need correcting, we taught them how to work with the farmer who managed the plots to walk with them before switching the GPS to determine where the boundary went. We found most of them determined features which sorted this out quite easily – a tree here, a ditch there, the corner of a building. Where the problem came is when we got to the far end of the plot away from the buildings and the farmer would wave vaguely off into an impenetrable tangle of vines. We showed our trainees how to stop the recording at one point, walk all the way round the obstruction to a second point where you could stand at a plot corner, start the tracing once more and the GPS would record a straight line between the two points.
Of course not all neighbouring farmers would agree on the lines you were drawing but we told our trainees not to worry – there was no problem about plotting two neighbouring parcels of land and having overlap. All it was doing was highlighting that there was some disagreement over where the land was that the villagers or the elders could sort out later. One of the purposes of the exercise was to show where possible disputes existed. What we had more difficulty understanding was what was the actual rights to property that people have.
Mapping the boundaries
Over the course of the next couple of days we spent training the guys in the techniques and discussing the issues around land ownership in this part of Sierra Leone. We would start early in the morning and we tried out different types of plot. After the initial trial in the small open clearing opposite the house, we ramped up the difficulty. I realised there were different types of land use in many Sierra Leone villages and Fintonia was a classic model. In the centre of the village were most of the buildings. The immediate surrounds, particularly at the back of the houses, were store houses, latrines and a hard pan of land used for most domestic activities – cooking, washing, laundry, fixing bits and pieces. In the plots behind this there was usually a kitchen garden where high value and small crops were grown. I’d seen maps the previous year of villages in Guinea where the word “Peppiniere” was used. I was a little confused at first but comparing that to where I was in Sierra Leone I now saw it was the same kitchen gardens, predominantly where higher value chillies and other peppers, herbs or spices were grown. The big cereal crops were grown much further away; I suppose since land was at such a premium close to the housing. Two types of this agriculture existed. Sierra Leone was riddled with little river valleys; the humpy bumpy nature of the terrain here meant you were likely to cross one of these every kilometre or two. While some dried out on the surface every season, they still contained a high water table of wet, organic soil that was vital for good yields. Irrigated rice cropping occurred here but also vegetables and some fruits would be grown. On surrounding hillsides land was much poorer quality and drier. Here other cereal crops such as maize and dryland rice could be grown. The scrub was being extensively slashed and burnt to make new fields for this kind of cropping. In between the dryland and the wetland Fintonia had conserved a wedge of high value forest. Yes some agroforestry went on here, but the forest was also used for beekeeping and the clay extraction, and other activities; there were pools for bathing – women in one area, men in another.
Fintonia – with thanks to Google Earth
The clay here in Fintonia was bright golden and great stacks of bricks had been extracted. In another location under some trees we found more excavation going on. A whole family were eagerly digging away in a pit over 10m square and already several metres deep. They seemed pleased to see us and willing to show what they were up to, pose for photos which we then showed them through the viewfinder to hoots of laughter. The base of the pit was completely churned up and they were putting the clay into buckets of plastic bags and hauling it up to a dry area in the sun to form the bricks. They had several ways of forming the bricks with different results. Some of the bricks looked misshapen and were hand crafted, others they put weights on or formed them from a simple wooden or metal mould. The clay in the bags appeared to be being taken off to be used to make pottery. It was all surprisingly industrial for this small rural village. But here and elsewhere the clay was transforming the landscape. The traditional “mud huts” or rondavels that were so typical in Zimbabwe in the 1990s were being replaced by square, quite substantial buildings with galvanised roofing and proper doors and window frames.
This family were interested in what we were doing so we laid out the satellite image on the ground on a dry spot up the slope from their pit. Covered in a grey slime, they heaved themselves up out of the clay, wiped their wellington boots on the ground and stood around us as we explained the project. I’m not sure they got the whole story of the property rights issues, but they were fascinated by the satellite imagery. I know from past experience that people often can interpret satellite imagery easily; once you have orientated them a little they are away. We showed them the village centre and the roads heading out in different areas and soon they were pointing out where we were currently standing and where they lived, as well as the school and the community forest. It was all very encouraging.
The Clay diggers pose
We gave it to Karim. He was much more methodical and he made sure he prepared the instrument carefully first, then walked slowly around the edge of the field, pausing for a moment at each corner to ensure it was recorded. The shape was nearly perfect first time. We did the same for Alusine, whose skills were somewhere in between. Demba was a bit frustrated at this, and insisted on another go. His efforts improved and we praised his enthusiasm but we still needed to temper his rushing about.
We turned our attention to the survey sheet and taught them how to fill it in. Then we decided to head to another place to do more GPS training. The plot of land we had concentrated on first was a clearance where a house was wanted. Dembo farmed some land in a valley bottom on the far side of the village. We took a circuitous route to this plot so we could explore some of the other features of the village. One area I was interested in was a bright orange spot on the image. It was relatively small and set deep inside a thickly wooded river valley. We followed a small path which opened up to reveal a stack of bricks drying in the sun. In recent years I have noticed a trend in Africa that I never observed on such a scale in the 1990s. Using bricks to build houses and store rooms had become common practice. Once the preserve of the richer or higher status people in these rural areas now many people were favouring this construction over the old wooden wattle and daub style houses. Clay soil in many African countries is at a premium; the best locations to dig out clay is in the waterlogged river valleys. Of course it is only worth doing this in the dry season – the clay can be accessed from pits and they can be left out in the open air to harden. In some countries I have see villagers using charcoal to bake the bricks but here in Sierra Leone the predominant method seemed to be relying on the sheer intensity of the sun to harden them off.