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.

Into the Jungle – Fintonia for the first time

We returned to the vehicles and thanked our hosts before heading off to the next village, Fintonia.  This was to become a very familiar place to me later in the project, and was where the acting paramount chief lived, the chief of chiefs of all of Tambakha.  The drive was relatively short, relative to the previous day anyway, and in about 45 minutes we were driving across a stream (where naked women were taking their ablutions and who giggled at us as we passed) and into a much more substantial village than Kortor.  A wide street with houses that gave way to a mosque, a community centre and off to one side a health centre.  At the head of the hill was a small roundabout, and we turned down another equally long road of houses.  About half way down the vehicles were parked and we gathered on the veranda of a low house with a rusty corrugated iron roof, some washing hanging outside and a few women sitting on a low wall chatting.  It took some believing that this was the paramount chief’s house.  But there were a few tell tale signs, the most obvious was a large drum hanging from the roof.  A small man wearing a brown safari suit came out from the interior of the house and we all went up to greet him.  The paramount chief had recently died and this man was acting in his place till a new one could be appointed.  He took his seat at one end of the veranda and patiently waited for the meeting to start.

One of the villagers; I seem to remember he was the secretary for the village, beat the hanging drum loudly several times, and Momoh reassured us that “the elders will be here soon”. And sure enough, one by one various men would walk in, some well dressed, others in wellingtons and overalls, greeting each other and introducing themselves to us.  A large crowd of onlookers had now gathered outside, first brought in by the cavalcade of cars that had passed through the streets, and partly because since the drum had sounded, they knew a big meeting was to happen.

We could not all fit under cover for the meeting, and several people sat on benches provided under the tree; there was a good breeze and it was still just before noon, so it was tolerable for those outside.  The same series of prayers, introductions, explanations and ratifications went on as in Kortor and we then were told that lunch would be provided followed by a tour of the STEWARD activities.  STEWARD maintained an office in Fintonia at the top of the village so we drove up another small street.  The office was one of the most substantial in Fintonia, and painted brightly in green and white.  It had a small compound round the back where cars, motorbikes, generators and other knick knacks were kept; the edifice itself contained a couple of offices and a spacious veranda both front and back.  In the centre of the back yard was a large satellite dish, which provided the only solid outside communication with the world for miles around.  You could not even get a mobile signal round here.  I had brought my laptop with me, taking it out of its bulky case and wrapping it carefully in amongst most of my clothes and wrapped in a kikoy.  It proved that it went on a bumpy and useless journey as I never turned it on once for the whole trip.  But there were others who could not resist downloading their emails.  So while we sat on the veranda and waited for lunch, they retreated into the offices and gawped at their screens.  A lady turned up with several helpers carrying a pile of white plates, several heavy enamelled pots and ladles.  She laid them out on a table an invited us to partake.  Taking a huge chunk of sticky rice, and pouring over a chicken in peanut sauce spiced up with some chilli, and drawing a glass of water from a nearby plastic barrel, we tucked in to our hot heavy lunch in the midday heat.

In the Jungle – Meeting in Kortor.

In Kortor we started with a meeting with the elders, extension workers and selected individuals from the community.  The vehicles were parked under some trees and we were guided through the houses to a large spreading tree.  From every angle, people brought out seating – long planked benches, plastic moulded chairs, stools, wooden chairs, armchairs –  and placed it around the tree.  The morning life of the village was going on around us, cleaning the breakfast dishes, some washing, changing babies, a little purchasing in the one or two stalls established in people’s houses, and some coming and going to the surrounding area to farm or collect firewood. Almost every house had a goat tied up either on their veranda or next to the house. We were watched intently by all, especially by the children with nothing much else to do and to whom a white man was, while not a novelty, certainly a rarity.  Over the visits to Sierra Leone I was forever being shouted at by children as we drove through villages “foute foute foute”.  The grown kids would do it immediately, the smaller ones would be encouraged by their older siblings or mothers or grandmothers.  It was a game and all it meant was “white man”.


Ready for the meeting

The elders and the local chief approached and we greeted them; Momoh said a Christian prayer, the local Imam offered blessings and the chief said a few words.  The secretary of the village – like the Parish clerk in the UK I suppose, helped to translate and embellish the comments that whatever we were here to do, the chief would give us every consideration.  I kept quiet as I was still so new on the project but the chief recognised Annie and Stephanie from their previous visits and they gave some background on where the project had got to and what plans we had and what we wanted to do today.

A tale of two swamps – Cramped conditions

About twenty minutes later we heard a large drum being beaten and gradually about twenty people drifted in to view from various directions.  There was some humble greetings before they sat patiently in the shade waiting for something to happen.  Eventually the representative from the local fisherfolk association, exercise book and Bic pen in hand, arrived and we were able to get underway with the meeting.

In the shade were the men; a small group of women, one or two with babies wrapped against them, sat at the back in the full sunlight listening in.  The meeting was slow as in this case, none of the people had sufficient English to talk freely so Alphart had to meticulously translate each phrase in each direction.  More people drifted in as we went along so by the end the shelter was overflowing with people.  When the meeting broke up several of the attendees insisted on having their photos taken and to be shown the results.  We boarded our boat and were waved off by about thirty people; such a contrast to our arrival.

The day was drawing on and the river was a lot busier than when we came down for the meeting.  Fishermen were hauling in the day’s catch, we saw several “buses” – larger canoes transporting villagers back from a day in Namwala.  Maybe they had been to market, had an appointment at the clinic or some government office; a couple of suitcases and bags suggested some were returning from a much longer trip and this was the last leg before reaching home.  One boat even had a few cycles and a motorbike being carried down the stream.