Living in the Community – The Shape of Fintonia

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

Living in the Community – Claydiggers

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.

Living in the Community – Bricks

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.



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.