Living in the Community – Life goes by

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.

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Our carpenter neighbour

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.

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.

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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.