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 – 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.

Into the Jungle – All three in the north

As we crossed I noticed for the first time there was a second higher cable just downriver from us, and I followed it to see a cage on the northern bank.  It turned out that during the height of the wet season, the river current was too fierce for this little ferry and the cage is used to carry essential supplies on this aerial ropeway.  Another five minutes across and our driver powered our car off and up the hill, and we slowly ambled up behind him to join some of our colleagues.  Back went the ferry for the final vehicle.  I wandered first up to the village then back down to the river’s edge, and was aware that the large convoy, almost a traffic jam for Tambakka Chiefdom, had attracted the attention of almost every child from the village.  They both watched the ferry, which they were used to, and the assortment of people in their rich man clothes, about three quarters of them white.  They would quietly stand near us, observing sometimes, but often just finding it a nice new experience to be close to some outsiders.  Once or twice a little discussion would occur amongst them, maybe causing a giggle or a slap, but it was all very dignified.

The whole process to get the three vehicles across took about fifty minutes, including the original trip across to collect us.  Stephanie was still stressed that we had a drive ahead of us but at least our fate was in our own hands and we battled ahead in the near dark. That last hour at the ferry had to be counted as one of those gems of a moment in Africa.

A tale of two swamps – Chiefdom issues

After so many years of working throughout Africa, I had rarely been close to chiefs.  Apart from a rather drunk one in Zimbabwe and being at a few formal events where I was barely in the same company but a distant onlooker.  Here I was able to be part of a proper conversation with one, where we learned of the chief’s concerns and wishes, and were able to talk in detail about the project and fishing in general.

Tribal issues in Zambia, as in much of Africa, place a different network of administration onto the country and its people.  In most countries, there is a national government followed by some sort of provincial or regional government, then a district administration that look after so many affairs that other countries lay on their local government.  They deal with the roads, the waste, schooling, businesses, health care and social care.  I often find all of these to some degree are done by all agencies too, so it is often confusing to know who to go to to find information or get things done.  While major roads are maintained by the national government, tracks and side roads are district level; health care is supervised at national level but often clinics might be run from local administration.


The best map of chiefdoms I could find for southern Zambia

Laid over this administrative infrastructure and scattered across the country are areas which are called chiefdoms.  Because of historical land grabs by Europeans, the chiefdoms do not necessarily cover the whole country; commercial farming and city or towns have taken on large chunks of the best agricultural or industrial land.  In a very deterministic fashion, however, areas were set aside for traditional administration to go ahead.  In Zambia, when it was still the colony of Northern Rhodesia, these were called Tribal Trust Lands.  After independence they were given the name Communal Lands.  In recent years the definition of these has changed, and the term Chiefdom is again more widely used.  Despite attempts by outside powers to impose rigid boundaries on these chiefdoms, the picture is more complicated.  The people of these chiefdoms are joined by a complex set of relationships based on blood, marriage and inheritance.  With the world’s more dynamic populations these days people will move around into cities and between villages.  So you can live in what the map says is one chiefdom, and yet your allegiance is to a different chief.

We had found this out when we were with the villagers in Namyala earlier in the day.  Two chiefs claimed the swamplands around the village as incomers had settled in the region from across the border.  In theory the House of Chiefs, a ministry of the national government with an associated parliament for all the chiefs of the country, were the ones to sort out these disputes, but any arbitration, let alone resolution, was a lengthy and often bitter process.

The conversation ranged across a lot of issues, and at the end, the Chief promised to phone through some extra material that Ian requested.  At this point he pulled out a small but relatively new Nokia mobile phone.  He huffed a little and said; “When I was coming back from Nairobi recently, I had put this thing on Flight Mode and now I can’t work out how to turn the signal back on.  While Ian was talking, I took a look at it, already lowering his hopes of my technical knowledge by sympathising with him about the complexity of menus on such devices.  I clicked and punched my way through everything for about ten minutes, realising with the meeting drawing towards a conclusion that I would have to hand it back unfixed.  Then I just happened to click on a combination of key presses to reveal the right menu item, clicked it on and hey presto it was sorted.  Of course, being still miles from the main road, there were no mobile masts in the vicinity and so no signal in his house.  But as I handed it back, the Chief was delighted and, as Ian commented to me later, if I were ever in the vicinity again, I would probably get paraded through the streets as a hero.

A Tale of Two Swamps – The appeal of a swamp

The most intriguing environment in Africa to me is the swamp.  In this enormous continent there is such a variety of landscapes, but as I have mentioned elsewhere those landscapes are huge and much is monotonous – miles and miles of Bloody Africa or MMBA.  Whether it be the long expanses of desert across the Sahara, the Sahelian, East African or Southern African Savannahs, the thick humid forests that stretch from Guinea in the west down to Congo, Angola and Uganda; it can all look a bit samey.

There are, though,  oases of alternative landscapes in Africa – the volcanic areas with its deep rifts and conical mountains, the highland plateaus with their cooler air and temperate vegetation.  Of course the Finbos in the southern tip is remarkable, the Atlas mountains and Mediterranean coast varied.  My favourite without a doubt, where Africa livens up,  is when there is clean fresh water all year round in a semi-arid zone.  The Great Lakes are superb inland seas, the great rivers like the Zambezi and the Nile bring life to parched ground.

Less well known and hidden away are the swamp lands.  The most famous of these is the Okavango Delta, where a great river from the highlands of Angola spreads over a near flat plain before disappearing on a geological fault as the desert finally wins back the water to the sky.  But there are hundreds of smaller swamplands dotted all over sub Saharan Africa.  The word swamp conjures up a lot of negative imagery; African Queen with Humphrey Bogart hauling his boat through reeds and becoming covered in leeches.  Deep muddy holes, crocodiles and hippos at every turn and of course infestation by biting, malarial mosquitoes.

Apart from Humphrey Bogart and the African Queen, yes these elements do exist here, but these watery landscapes are also hugely biodiverse and productive.  The legions of invertebrates swimming, crawling and flying around the swamp are bountiful food sources for animals higher up the food chain, as well as the ever present vegetation providing limitless grazing for the herbivores.  So the bird life here is as incredible as anywhere in the world, a range of antelope specialise in plodding through sodden grasslands, others wallow in the water.  And in its turn, the rivers, lakes and flooded reed beds provide the perfect habitat for an immense amount  of fish.


There is something about a swamp