There was no time for more as we had to set off for the fields. The children, now enchanted by the visitors with their high tech gizmos followed like the children of Hamlin. We saw the plant nursery, the community forest and the watershed catchment; to be honest it was very similar to the other two villages, but the villagers were so proud of their achievements that we had to afford them the same time to explain their activities. As we went round the children started by following a few paces behind us, then we found them walking along side us, usually in silence. If one of them made a silly remark or laughed too loud they were scolded by their peers. They wanted to be around us and see what we would do. I started to feel like a zoo exhibit. Then the most remarkable thing happened. Anne and Stephanie put out their hands to a couple of the children and they in turn reached out and walked alongside. The other children were immediately jealous, but still slightly nervous. I put out my hand to one quiet boy, he must have been barely three feet high. His cold fingers touched mine, gingerly at first but then with a tight and what felt like a content grip. Someone else took my other hand without me even gesturing. At one time I actually had three on one side and two on the other, reaching for any part of my arm that was not already taken. This way we walked back to the village. The conversation was very stilted- we could all manage Bonjour and Hello, but if I said more than Ca va, they went quiet on me. But they just enjoyed the experience.
The Scientist and Children crocodile
Surrounded by the village’s kids
As we walked back through the village, some of the kids broke off naturally, bored of this game. Others were bawled at by their family to get on with the work they were supposed to have done hours ago. I got a couple of garbled “goodbye’s” from them but that was all.
Next morning we had another early start. We had to pack the vehicles with all our kit, pay our bills to the warden – nice that the project would pay for accommodation in spite of being big assistance to their programs. No point in giving aid if you take advantage of those who you help by taking freebies. We had given quite a nice tip to our warden on the river the day before; it was a nice extra not an expected right.
We bounced off back to the main road and on up to Fintonia. A small stop to pick up Momoh who was renting a room there, and a quick stop at the office then we headed down to the paramount chief’s house once more, but this time we turned left into a deep dark river valley and up the other side. We travelled several miles, past a small hamlet where a couple of families were doing their chores round the house. Several of these hamlets had grown up over time. With shifting cultivation, it usually starts with farmers in some central location and heading out to the bush to clear and farm. Over time, the number of fertile plots decreases close in and people have to travel further to cultivate land; which means more back and forth by foot, or if you are lucky, on a bike or small tractor. There comes a point where this is too far to be economical or healthy, and families might relocate to a fresh area to start cultivation away from the congested or infertile lands near the village. My only concern about this is whether these new hamlet have enough access to permanent water, but I assume some borehole or stream was near enough to make it viable.
The kids crowd around…
… to see their faces on the photos
The next village proper was Sumata and as we drove in, I was taken at how elegant its main street looked. Not just the substantial houses we had seen elsewhere but both sides of the road were lined with mature mango trees dangling an excess of near ripe fruit. As we parked up at the top of a street, most of the villagers not in the fields or in town came to greet us and walked down to the chief’s house. He had a good size veranda that accommodated most people for the meeting, but the surrounding ground was still full of children and onlookers.
The meeting went as the others, and we broke up to take a walk around the STEWARD activities again. While some side meetings were going on, Gray’s USGS colleague, Matt had seen that the children were following him around, so he made them form a group and take a photo of them. It’s a scene from any travel blog or writings of the last twenty years. Some people are still not happy for you to take photos of them (the fishermen at Kabba Ferry were some), and some would like to have some money for you taking their photos, but the big advantage with digital cameras, particularly with the large displays on the back, is you can instantly show your subjects the results. And the reactions are wonderful – embarrassed teenage girls wishing they had spent more time on their hair, cheeky children laughing and giggling as soon as you show them their mugshot, older men and women just happy to see themselves on this new fangled technology. Matt got all the children to crouch down and quieten them, but once taken, they thronged around him to get a view from the tiny screen. Even the local imam took a peek. Of course once they had seen the trick once, they wanted it again and again and again and again…..
We passed through about a dozen checkpoints on the way through. Of these I remember only two being official with a police sentry. Fortunately we all had STEWARD badges pasted to our vehicles and on passes on the front dashboard. STEWARD cars were passing up and down this road so regularly we had no questions asked. I’m not sure what they were checking up on – whether it be contraband, or illegal logging. I cannot believe it was any internal security as the police were not armed. I suspect it was the same as several other of the checkpoints, set up by villagers. They wanted to know what your business was coming into their area, and encourage these big vehicles to slow down and treat their main street with respect. Given that little babies, chickens, goats and old people were often moving into the middle of the road as we approached, we could understand why. The checkpoints were simple and effective affairs, sometimes chain but more often string, they were fixed at one end to a tree or post, the other end slung over a barrel or through the eyehole of a piece of specially shaped rebar, the barrier would be dropped with a simple slacking off of the string by the holder, and raised by pulling it back.
The third type of roadblock, the most common, was designed by children. In some ways they could be seen as enterprising, in other ways just chancing their luck. They would be appearing to repair the road, digging up lumps of mud from one area and filling in holes in other. As you approached one boy would rush for the string and pull it taut with one hand, while extending the other cupped hand out for a donation. Our drivers refused to give them anything. The smaller children would immediately drop the string and allow you to pass, the teenagers would often look at you belligerently, pleadingly, sadly, any which emotion which they thought would make you part with the money. On one occasion our driver said something to one of these kids; when we asked what it was – he said he had no change now he would give them something when he came back from town. Of course we were on a one way route back to Freetown that day. Cruel but maybe a valuable lesson there to the children.
There was no point in paying for shoddy work – their road repairs were often hopelessly futile. They were packing wet slimy mud on hardened mud. The next rainstorm would soften the whole area and the next vehicle, particularly some of the larger trucks which plied up and down this hopeless road, would dig huge new ruts in the road. Even in Freetown where there were some efforts by locals to fill in some of the potholes, the repairs were rudimentary at best – they might pack stones in to the holes with tampers, but the tarmac around was still flaky and eroding and the next chip in the surface would explode everything that had been packed in the hole.