Living in the Community – Demba tries the unit

I was given a few moments to talk about the project; I had to do a little work to clarify some of the simplifications Momoh had made on our behalf.  And we unrolled the maps and showed them the preliminary work we had done.  I had simply taken a satellite image and drawn many of the key buildings, roads and other features on top.  We presented a copy of this to the Paramount Chief and I posed rather awkwardly for a photograph for the website.  A few words of thanks from the Paramount Chief himself, where he told us that he trusted the good work of the project so far, and that any friend of Momoh’s was a friend of his.  We were so grateful for this – I must admit in all the years I have worked in Africa I have been uneasy over my imposition on the communities in which I work.  When I have a fixer or a local who introduces us to those communities, I am so much more relieved and confident we shall get cooperation.


Handing the chief a copy of our satellite map

I was a little overoptimistic here, but for reasons that did not reveal themselves for several days.  We commenced our training with the three guys straight after the meeting with the chief.  We started by heading back to our own guest house and spreading the materials over the table on the veranda.  I explained to them the basic theory of what we were doing and got them to orientate themselves from the printed out satellite image.  Then Kofi took over and gave them a detailed lesson in how to use a GPS.  He had quite a sophisticated GPS, which used a pen and a touch screen and for people who rarely used a small mobile phone, let alone any other digital device, it took a bit of getting used to.  We wandered across the road in front of our house to an area of cleared land right on the edge of the village.  Kofi walked around the edge of the plot with the GPS and came back, saved the result with his magic pen and showed the trainees the results on the little grey screen on the unit.  The GPS had recorded his movements every few seconds and he had created a neat little square on the screen.  He handed the unit to Demba who eagerly took it in his hands.  Kofi was a good trainer – very serious and strict but incredibly patient.   With this GPS there were several things to do to set up the unit ready for walking the boundaries.  Then you let it go and it made beeping noises when it was recording data.   We stood next to the road as we watched Demba walk half way round the field.  Then he said “It has stopped beeping”.  Kofi walked over to fix it.  He completed the walk.  Kofi helped him press all the right buttons to ensure that he saved the track in the unit and we took a look at the results on the screen.  There were one or two short lines in different places in the screen and that was all.  Kofi reset it and off he went again.  This time he was more successful at having a track that went all the way round the plot but it was a very peculiar shape.  I’d spotted what was going wrong.  With a GPS you have to have the unit exactly where you want it to record – there is no point in walking a boundary if you wiggle around any obstacle, or hold the machine away from where the actual boundary was.  And some of the lines went haywire, points all over the place.  The problem stemmed from Demba being in too much of a hurry to get round.  GPS is like a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail.  It does not record every step you take, but records a point every few seconds.  If you walk too fast you end up with very few points and in some places, where there is tree cover, for example, the precision of the location accuracy can drop.  With this unit, it can average out and help make a smoother picture of the route you took, but only if you walk slowly.  This guy kept on cutting corners which made the shape of the plot very dubious.  If he had stood in each corner he would have got a much cleaner shape on the GPS.

Living in the Community – Protocol insists

This was in theory a much smaller affair, but the same ritual had to be gone through.  When we arrived the front door was shut.  Momoh knocked and talked to a lady who appeared through a  crack in the door.  She asked him to wait and reappeared a few moments later with an elderly gentleman.  This was the current acting paramount chief.  Fintonia is a special place in Bombali District.  It is the centre for the chiefdom of Tambakha, which covers most of the area north of the Little Scarcies River.  Most villages will have a headman who is in charge of the administration there, but then groups of them are looked after by a chief.  The whole chiefdom is ruled by a paramount chief.  I say ruled; his word is law, but the relationship is often more paternalistic and the individual chiefs have some fair sway in the way things go.  But they are still pretty powerful people and have influence with the administrative governments at district, province and national levels.

The method to communicate that a meeting has been called is very simple.  No mobile phone networks here, no letters sent round, not even runners to reach out to the village elders.  The village secretary beats a drum with a stick.  It hangs in the corner of the open room from a rope and it resonated throughout the village.  I am sure there must be other drums in Fintonia but the timbre of this one must be so familiar to the villagers that it immediately attracted attention.  Some plastic chairs had been placed out in the open room and we sat there for about twenty minutes while we waited for the elders to arrive.  They drifted into the room in their ones and twos, each greeted the chief and introduced themselves to us.  The drum also attracted many other people.  A lot of kids who had skipped school that day hung around the periphery, some women stopped their chores to come and look, and some of the older men, or the lazier ones who were not out in the fields, came drifting into the area.  Many, too , greeted us, and then started up side conversations with neighbours as we waited to get things started.


Calling people to the meeting

Eventually the secretary did a head count and reported that most of the elders he knew were around had attended.  The Paramount Chief, resplendent in a bleach white robe and white cap, motioned for the secretary to approach, and asked for prayers to be said.  The local imam was present and gave some words from the Muslim side, and Momoh, as a preacher himself, gave a Christian Prayer, then followed this up with a lengthy introduction to us.  It was not quite accurate but was probably the best way to introduce the issues.  I had to hand it to Momoh.  What we were providing was something that could prove quite controversial and cause a lot of disturbance.  We wanted to map the property in the village; marking out the boundaries between different people’s plots and gathering information about the types of relationship.  We had some software on which to plot the GPS points.  And we wanted to present the final map to the people and in particular the chief for their future planning and arbitration.  We were aware of how complicated the relationships in land were but we were to discover that we had not even started to understand.  But we stated from the outset that we were not here to resolve any disputes over land.  We could find ways of mapping all points of view and present them on the map, but then allow the villagers and the elders themselves to resolve it.

Living in the Community – Mobilising the work

The previous evening, one of our wider team of workers, Momoh, had popped up on our veranda to greet us.  Momoh was the primary field coordinator on the Sierra Leone side of the boundary and spent much of his time living in the village.  He had already briefed the chief on our intentions and that we had arrived in Fintonia, and had set up a formal meeting for first thing in the morning.

Momoh turned up at the house just as Gray was leaving for the park.  He also introduced us to three people who we were going to train.  One, Demba,  was tall and lanky and very outgoing.  The second Alusine, was not quite as tall and relatively relaxed, the third, Karim,  was slightly older and much more serious.  We shook hands and we exchanged talk of how excited we were to be here, how grateful we were for their time, and they said how much they wanted to learn.  The usual pleasantries at the beginning of one of these exercises.  Kofi and I collected the maps we wanted to use and our equipment and followed Momoh and the three guys to the other side of the  village.  We did not take the road; there was no need and since it zigzags through the village, it was much easier to head through the back of our plot, past a large store house and down through the backs of some more houses to where the paramount chief’s house was on a main street corner.


Meeting our crew

At first sight the house looked little different from many of the others in the village; it was relatively large, but was most noted for having a long open room, less a veranda, where the chief held his most important meetings.  There was only room here under the shade for about twenty people, and if more attended they peered in from all the open spaces or listened from the shade of a tree nearby.  I knew this from past experience.  When we had travelled here the previous July with the whole team, we had a big meeting here and it had been a village wide event.

Living in the Community – Morning ablutions

There was nothing to be done; I just hoped my Malarone tablets could form a second line of defence against the malaria parasite.  I arose, picked up my washbag and towel and went into the bathroom.  I took off my shorts and took up a quart  jug from one of the buckets.  I scooped up some water and poured it quickly over my head.  I had to bite my tongue as the coldness of the water reacted against the hot sweat of my body.  I had to repeat this to wet my whole body; then I reached for the washbag and soaped myself vigorously down as fast as I could.  Then I had to repeat the process with the jug to rinse of the soap.  I cleared my eyes and reached out for my towel and quickly rubbed myself dry.  It was a relief to be clean but by no means a pleasurable experience.

I came out and we had some breakfast – our cook had laid on some hot water and we made coffee, ate some bread and some fruit we had picked up en route from Freetown.  I then had to face the latrine; this time for the serious end of business.  I picked up the key and a roll of paper that we had left next to it, and I headed out back.  Unlocked the door, then pushed the bolt across to stop anyone following me in (including the goats that were browsing a few feet away).  I looked at the small hole I had to aim at.  It was less than a foot across, and of course being a triangle there was not a lot of leeway.  I dropped the trousers, but made sure they did not hit the floor and did the most intense squats I have ever done.  It is remarkable how good that is at moving the bowels and it did make me wonder that it is more efficient than the western bowl style toilet where you bend only to 90 degrees.  But of course the problem with this method is that unless you relieve yourself quickly you have to deal with cramp, stiff limbs and, if you have an itchy nose, no way of scratching it without going off balance.  As I rose I saw I had hit the target cleanly; I did not want to deal with the consequences if I had not, and beat a retreat from the latrine as fast as I could.  While the smell from the pit was not overpowering, nothing about this place was pleasant.  Not just the smell; the austerity of the surroundings including the concrete floor, but also the wind whistling under the gaps in the walls and the activity nearby was enough to put you off your evacuations.

I replaced the key and the paper, washed my hands and got myself prepared for the day.  Gray was heading off to do some surveying in the nearby Kilimi National Park and would take our driver and vehicle with him.  Kofi and I wanted to train some people to use GPS and survey sheets to record the property rights of the villagers of Fintonia.  We could not start the work until we had permission from the village elders so our first order of the day was to go and have a meeting with them.



Living in the Community – A painful night

Occasionally, the peace was broken by a vehicle coming along the road.  You heard the roar of an engine as it crossed the stream and the driver accelerated up the incline to the village limits – a headlight revealing their location to us.  Mostly they were small motorbikes, the odd taxi.  Rarely did we see lorries at night.  Once or twice another four wheel drive might bounce through.  Everyone would look up from what they were doing and look across, even in the darkness you knew these outside effects were still rare enough to gather villagers’ interests.

Our conversation thinned; we were all tired.  Even though it was not yet 9pm, we decided to retire to our own rooms.  We brought in all the crockery and pans and left them in a plastic bowl  for our cook to take off to clean.  We carefully carried the chairs back inside but decided to leave the table out under the veranda, and I struggled to close the two doors and lock up.  In the dark I fumbled to use the latrine, then tried to make myself as comfortable in my bedroom.  It was horribly stuffy inside.  I tried to open the window shutter, but one of the hinges was broken and it wedged hardly an inch out from the frame.  I noticed there was no screen on the window.  I hoped the mosquito net would provide sufficient barrier.  I undressed.  I wetted a flannel which is a precaution I take in all hot stuffy houses, and left it on the chair which I positioned near my pillows next to the bed.  I took off my clothes and left them on the lid of my suitcase with the hope they would be away from dust and clambered into bed through the gap in the net.  I had my torch on my head and surveyed the quality of the net; as I had dreaded there were a lot of holes in it – too many to try and block.  I removed an itchy thin blanket and climbed in under a thick polyester sheet.  It was uncomfortable from the start and as soon as I lay down I realised I had started sweating.  I reached out and grabbed the flannel and tried to wipe water on every part of my body.  The cold of the flannel and the few moments of evaporation that followed were an exquisite release, but only for a few seconds.  I was hot again in moments.  I tried some reading but was dog tired.  I turned off the torch and put it to one side of the pillow and lay there in the dark  and tried to relax for sleep.  For a time I found I was concentrating on the noises in the houses around me.  Being at the back of the house my bedroom was adjoining another property and there was still some late night cleaning of pots and pans and general chit chat going on; and the chickens and goats never stopped their clucking and bleating.  Gradually this started to mentally disappear into the background.  I started to relax and feel slumber coming on.

I was startled out of this state by a noise coming across the room at me.  It was the high pitched buzz of a female mosquito.  I knew I was not to get to sleep now.  Even though it might not find its way through the netting, the constant hum moving around the room was distracting; no that is wrong; it was not distracting, it was completely fixating.  I flashed my torch around in the hope of catching it in the beam but no luck.  I had to just lie there and take my fate.

I tried all sorts of tricks to get me off to sleep, counting, reciting lists of geographical features both real and imaginary; things like all the railway stations from Victoria to Dover Western Docks or the countries of Middle Earth.  I tried to breathe more deeply and slowly.  Nothing worked.  Or so I thought.



I awoke at first light and realised I must have at last dropped off.  Although still glum I could make out the austere contents of my room.  I also felt some irritating pain in my calves.  I drew my leg up to take a look and saw a constellation of mosquito bites.  The other leg was equally affected, and  had one or two on my midriff and arms.  It always feels that I have been attacked by a whole army of mosquitoes but it was probably just one or two.  Why they cannot just suck blood from one hole and reduce the number of itchy places on my skin; maybe the swelling gets too much for their proboscis.

Living in the Community – Settling in the village

Inside the house, even though it had now been fully dark for nearly an hour, was still boiling;  Just walking around we were sweating cobs.  We decided to take the table and chairs out on to the veranda so we took everything off it and carried it towards the door.  I forgot to mention it was a double door so we had to work out how to open them both before we could squeeze the furniture out, but then we carried the food and the plates and forks out.  Gray then came up trumps and said “Who would like some wine?”  He produced a bottle of South African Red from his hand baggage.  We poured it in to our tumblers and it helped the stew go down easily.

We talked for a while, then stopped and soaked up the atmosphere.  Our driver, Ibrahim, had parked up the vehicle next to the house so we had a clear prospect both to the road about ten yards away, and up and down the rows of houses.  To the east, the main road back to the ferry disappeared into the woodland that surrounded a small stream.  Up the road two lines of houses guided travellers to the centre of the village.  At this time of night, we could see where the houses were mainly by the fires behind each one.  Everyone was cooking outdoors in the dry season, setting up little hearths on neatly swept bare ground.  There was very little noise and what there was mingled with the natural sounds of the forest, the crickets and wind blowing through drying leaves. There were lots of low voices from different directions, mainly murmurings with the odd outburst of laughter, children giggling or may be a baby crying.  You could hear cooking pots being clinked together on the hearths, or the sound of scrubbing as a woman cleaned the used dishes after their meals.  There was the bleating of goats and the clucking of chickens.  One or two people passed along the road in front of us. They obviously spotted that someone was staying in the guest house by our torches and the noise we were making; they were used to the place being closed up for long periods.  They may have been surprised when we said “bon soir” or “good evening” as they drew close, but most mumbled a greeting back to us.


Village Life

Living in the Community – Our home in the community

There was still an hour or so of road to go before we reached Fintonia so it was pretty much dark when we emerged in to the village and drew up almost immediately.  Here on the right hand side of the road was a small house, with a small veranda, very similar to almost every other house around.  Our driver went off along the road and returned with a lady a few minutes later who held up a bunch of keys.  After a bit of twiddling she managed to get the main door open.  We could not see the detail of the house exterior at present as the light was almost gone, but we offloaded the vehicle and placed it all on the terrace, retrieved our head torches and explored the inside of the house.  It had obviously been shut up for several weeks, it was baking hot inside and had a musty smell; a mix of animals, dust, possibly bats and the past sweat of many other villagers.  There was one large room at the front with a table and chairs, behind there was a row of rooms, three bedrooms and a couple of wash rooms.  The bedrooms looked as stark as the main room; the one I chose had a small broken wooden chair and a large bed with a plastic mosquito net draped over it.  My closest wash room was even more rudimentary, a small narrow space split in two.  The area nearest the door had a similar mud concrete floor to the rest of the house and was packed with several large plastic buckets, but on the other side of a row of bricks covered in tiles, was another concrete area with a drain at one end; basically a small hole in the wall that led out to the garden behind.  This was to be my shower.  There was no toilet indoors.  The caretaker showed us where a small key was hung on a nail in of the rafters, then led us through a small metal back door and round to the right.  There was a small shack made of four corrugated metal sheets.  She unlocked the padlock on the hinged sheet at the front and opened it to reveal another concrete floor.  In the centre was a small triangular hole.  That was all.  This was to be our latrine for the next week.


Our new home

We thanked her for the tour and went back to take all the goods into the house.  Everything more or less ended up on the floor – there were no cupboards or drawers.  A few of the more precious food items we put on the table , but my suitcase, all the maps in rolls and other work materials were stacked in various corners on the ground.

Our caretaker introduced us to another lady who lived in the next house.  She was to be our cook for the week and had got our evening meal ready.  She humbly came in with a series of dishes; some plates and knives and forks, then two large metal pots with lids.  Under one lid was a mountain of rice, large and sticky; under the other was a chicken stew… a rather scrawny chicken with more bone than flesh, but mixed with a number of onion, okra, spices and sauce.  After eight hours in the passenger seat it was still welcome and filling.

Living in the Community – The plunder of the forest

In village after village we saw the red crosses and steadily increasing numbers on the houses – I seem to remember it got to over 500. North of Kamakwie it was only a long term plan to widen the road, but instead we got evidence of another change that had occurred since my last visit.  Near the ferry across the Little Scarcies River, there was a massive truck piled high with thick tree trunks.  The driver was being assisted by a couple of others to load more massive timber in the vehicle… he was planning to drive it back towards Freetown that evening.  I’d seen parts of the road had deteriorated even further from what I remember already.  I speculated what more damage this vehicle would do.  I also wondered how these huge trucks got through the occasional drains, or crossed the strange little bridges that were frequent along the northern section of the road.  They were basically a large tube covered in a square of concrete.  I think at one time the top of the block would be level with the road, but the road either side tended to erode away, and vehicles had to bump their way up on to these bridges and bounce down the other side.  Not so bad in a light 4WD but a nightmare for a heavily laden lorry.

These lorries had not been going up and down this route last time I had been here, but the government had reversed a policy that allowed logging concessions in the forest.  This was not good news for our project.  We were trying to find ways to work with the communities to conserve and regenerate the remaining precious Guinea Forest.  Our work was slow and incremental.  Compared to the loggers who came in with their chainsaws and heavy machinery could clear the best and most precious gallery forest for these gigantic logs a million times faster than our efforts to regrow trees.  It was quite depressing to see before we had even reached Fintonia to start out own work.


Sunset on the Scarcies River

It was sunset as we got on the river bank and the serene atmosphere calmed the spirits; we waited for the ferry to come over from the north bank, with a ancient blue tractor aboard.

Living in the Community – A new road

Compared to my previous journey to Fintonia, we had a very simple trip.  It had only been eight months since I had last been in the area but I was shocked at the changes.  Somehow you believe these rural areas of Africa never change but here was the evidence against it.  A new road was being created “for development” through to the regional town in the north,  Kamakwie.  On the long drive from the central town of Makeni, we saw where clearance of the bush had already taken place; usually along the course of the old road.  Our road passed through countless villages, which had weatherworn but solid houses with verandahs, and many villages had thriving communities and resources; the water pumps were along the road, there were community centres, mosques and churches, many little stores.  But the plan seemed to be to drive the road through the centre of these villages instead of making bypasses.  They were condemning every house in its path; portentous red crosses marked the ones to be destroyed; and ominous numbers which gradually increased from the Makeni end of the new road.  It was astonishing that anyone was contemplating ripping apart these communities for the sake of the people travelling through.  How long these villages had stood here I could only guess at – certainly the houses looked 40,50 ,60 years old, maybe some were older; and maybe they were built on previous structures that had stood there much longer.  How come they would destroy this?  Why not bend the road around one side of a village or the other.  The only downside to my solution seemed to be that some good farmland would be lost, but the alternative was that the village would be permanently split in two or completely relocated.  I’d seen the results of the first on the highways closer to Freetown.  Four Wheel Drives and heavy trucks screamed along these tarred roads and residents took their lives in their own hands every time they tried to get from one side to the other.  And their livestock often did not make it at all.  What it did for human health living next to all the fumes was not worth thinking about.  To relocate, though, was to lose the benefits of the existing location.  These villages were often chosen as they were near a good source of water, the soils were better around them (indeed had been improved by years of cultivation) and they were probably situated so the worst of the rainy season was avoided.  What would the new locations be like?


On the road north

Living in the community – The privilege of immersing in local communities

It is a privilege to travel beyond your usual routine locations, it is a privilege to go beyond your own country’s borders, and it is even more of a privilege to work alongside people from other nations and explore not just the landscape but the rhythms of places.  But to actually embed within a community, to live alongside them, share their whole days and nights, work play and socialise with them, is a supreme honour.

It has happened rarely in my travels – apart from the two years I lived in the Virgin Islands.  Conditions there were similar to the UK; yes we had our frustrations with electricity and water supply, bat droppings coming through the roof and cockroaches, but overall it was a comfortable and familiar homelife.

One of the few other times where I spent more than one night in a community, the experience was very different.  I knew the village I was to stay in, Fintonia in Sierra Leone.  My previous visit had been a few hours visiting the STEWARD office and having a meeting at the acting Paramount Chief’s house.  Now I was to travel there, stay at a small “guest house” in the village among the community for a week and work with them.  I knew from the prior visit that the only known location for electricity was a generator in our project’s office.  There was no running water and no sewerage system.  It was going to be basic.

I was travelling with my colleague, Kofi, from Ghana, and was lucky enough to have a good friend of mine, Gray, from USGS, with me.  I’d arrived in country a few days before and had caught up with various friends and new colleagues at the project office.  It was so nice to have arrived in Freetown in the dry season.  My previous two visits, although interesting, had been frustrated by the almost constant torrential rain.  Even the travel to work had been a nightmare, trooping along wet potholed roads, avoiding miserable commuters on foot, bike, motorbike or donkey.  Everything was damp, inside and out.  At the weekends you were left in your apartment looking out at sheets of water hurtling down out of the sky.


In the office at Freetown with Gray

Now in February, the evenings were pleasant and warm; the daytimes there was blue sky.  The ground was dry and baked hard in the sun; only the larger rivers had any decent amounts of flow in them and the water was clear and black as opposed to brown and muddy.  I was looking forward to this excursion.