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 – Trouble in the afternoon

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.

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Concentration levels in the afternoon not so good

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.

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.

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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.

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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 – 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.

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Fintonia

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.

Into the Jungle – Fintonia and its water

Straight after lunch we took a very enjoyable walk that kept us awake.  During the meeting, the elders were interrupted by an interesting man.  He had returned to Fintonia after living in Ealing in West London, where he had been studying.  He had the air of both external education, and one which wants to be seen to have had an external education.  The elders seemed to tolerate his interventions but I am not sure they respected all his views.  He did advocate a lot of what STEWARD was about.  He talked of the need to conserve the watershed.  He remembered as a boy that the springs dotted around the village would never all dry up in the dry season.  And he wanted to show us where one of these springs had been dammed and the catchment above conserved so that the village could have good water all year round.  We followed him out of the village through some well goat-grazed vegetation and down to a stream, rising up through some thickly forested land we came across a small triangular lake held in by a short concrete dam.  The problem with all dams are that they don’t just hold back the water, but also all the detritus brought down on the current, silt and leaves and branches.  The dam was clogged with this material.  But it was an example of how good management of water could help a village.  A thin black plastic pipe led back from this location down the stream and then up into the village to a standpipe in one of the streets.  With a little bit of cooperation amongst villagers, the dam could be cleaned out, and future conservation of the forest above it would help preserve the aquifer from which the water came.

On a later trip, I discovered how many villages are sited in these locations.  Fintonia itself was on a low dome of rock with the houses firmly stuck on top.  I imagine that this helped in the rainy season – the water escaped in all directions away from the houses, the ground beneath them was never waterlogged with all the associated bads that come from that.  The surrounding hills were also based on these domes of rock, but with much more soil and vegetation than the one at Fintonia.  With all that going on, when it rained, the water would more likely soak into the soil and percolate into the rock itself, hence being stored in the aquifer.  At various points around the dome, the water would discharge into these open springs, but in a much more controlled way than after rainfall, and that water would be sweet – having had the soil and dead vegetation that would get mixed up in larger rivers and flash floods filtered out.  It was an excellent system.

Our guide here, the man from Ealing, with his white cap and blue flowery shirt, and most importantly a notebook and pen in his hand to prove his educational superiority over his fellow villagers, talked at length about the issues here, wider than STEWARD had budget for but important points – better education, better ability and support to make community decisions, better basic tools to get the job done.

He enjoyed lecturing, and made some good points, but we had to move on.  There was at least one more village to visit that day, and it was further away from the camp.  We headed back to the vehicles and although delayed for a few more moments while Stephanie and Annie dealt with a whole bunch of STEWARD administration  – since communications was so poor they had to take any opportunity in the field to have face to face meetings with their extension officers.  By the time all that was complete, it was decided we would have to abandon our plans to visit the final village; we’d never reach there, do our business and get back to the forest camp in time before dark.