Beating off the Waves – Getting down to business

It was so good to see Jeremy – the last time was four years beforehand when I had to hurriedly leave Rodrigues.  While he introduced me to Dave,  a large cheerful Glaswegian, we quickly caught up on key important updates in our lives, and they gave me a run down in what they had achieved given the 24 hour advantage they had over me in terms of Maldives knowledge.

They had done all the introductory meetings with the government people we were to work with.  We were to head off quickly tomorrow morning to one of the nearby islands to look at the real world implications of the guidelines we were to write.  Then after a further day, Dave and Jeremy were going to head off to some of the more far flung islands while I was to be left in town to work on some database and have a few more meetings with officials.  I was a bit disappointed that I was not to travel further but what I was already seeing was more exotic and enchanting it was bound to be a rich trip.

This small reception area with barely room for a small table and a few comfy chairs, was not conducive to a proper meeting so  we decided we would head off to a cafe to allow them to update me on progress to date.


Finding a cafe to talk

We headed west from the hotel and in no time at all we had emerged at an open square.  On the far side was a harbour stacked with small coasters, their cargoes packed tightly but rather haphazardly across their decks.  We crossed the road and entered one of several tiny bars – barely a canopy across plastic tables and a small garden area under the trees.  There was little difference between any of them and we flopped around a table and ordered some mint teas.  Jeremy and Dave filled me in on the details; it was a relatively simple operation.  I was dumped with a load of reading materials and told to design a database for them that would catalogue all the sea protection schemes both hard and soft around all the islands.  I was also given some past attempts. One document I was to read at my leisure told of a highly detailed and technical document about harbours across the archipelago, and the government was keen on something similar for coastal protection structures.  I decided mine would be a lot more simple and manageable, and started to think about how I could make a map of the elements and how the detail could be logged easily on a database.

The other element of this was that we would do some sample surveys of a few islands.  I was to help out with one the next day, but then Jeremy and Dave would fly around the islands filling in the gaps while I was to be left along in Male.

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.


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.

Into the Jungle – Kansema

We had one more stop that morning in the small village of Kansema to the east of Madina Oula.  The sun had come out again and the village looked very pleasant, mostly thatched rectangular houses in the centre shaded by mango trees.  We were greeted by a couple of men and we waited as the chief came out of his house and his secretary started to direct the locals to obtain some seating.  As was now a routine, various chairs and benches, even a bucket or two, were dragged out of all the nearby houses and we had our meeting right there in the centre of the village.

As in all the other places we visited we attracted a lot of attention.  At one point I looked across the road to a shady open wooden shed and was greeted by about twenty pairs of eyes of children staring back; new ones would arrive every minute and shuffle inside to keep cool, as well as for them to feel safe from their shyness.  We could not get away without inspecting the community forest so we trooped up a gentle hill to the north.  As we headed up the view to the south revealed itself.  So far in Guinea, the land had been gently undulating and, without the forest of Sierra Leone, you could see for miles across the plain.  Here we were close to the border and the northern edge of the Kuru Hills abruptly rose up and imposed itself on Kansema.  Deep in the hills were chimpanzees and elephants, so close to a manicured human landscape on the Guinea side.  Here was the physical evidence of the fine balance needed for thriving environments but sustainable livelihoods.

Into the Jungle – A morning of meetings

And so to work.  Another busy morning started with a meeting in the STEWARD office just opposite the guest house.  Then we travelled a few kilometres up to a new school.  A large number of guests had been invited in to get the formalities achieved as efficiently as possible.  This included chiefs, politicians, representatives from various farmers organisations and a few others.  In many senses this trip was a launch in the field of the third phase of STEWARD’s work in the region and it was vital to sensitise and observe due respect for the key decision makers in the region.  Without their support nothing was going to happen.

Everyone introduced themselves and I surprised a few of my colleagues that I could muster enough French to apologise to them how bad my French was and that I was ” géographe qui travaille avec le teledetection et les Systems Information Geographique” .  Slightly sweating I sat down again and hoped no one would ask me to speak again.

The next part of the morning was spent at one of STEWARD’s activities from past phases; a large development plot on a hillside outside Madina Oula.  Several hectares had been hedged in and different organisations were working on improving the ground and making demonstration sites to teach farmers new techniques.  There was plenty of scrubby space up here for expansion, but there was still a lot going on, as we were treated to orchards, beehives, fruit shrubs, tree nursery,  bananas, crops, and goats, pigs and cattle.  At each part of the compound we met up with various collectives, including a very enterprising women’s group that was developing their own ventures up here.  We inspected their plots, the wells, the trees and animals, even the compost heaps.  I absorbed it all; I am fascinated when people want to impart their specialisms on you, and whatever I could retain could be useful for Kofi and my work when we returned to Freetown; helping people map the activities out here, and do spatial analysis and comparisons with other data.

As we were making to leave, a middle aged farmer in navy blue overalls who had been following us around the plot invited us to cross the road to his own fields. He took a lot of pride in showing what amounted to a miniature version of the official demonstration plots.  He had a set of small trees in plastic packaging ready to be planted out; he was multicropping to reduce pests and diseases, he composted and manured, he had a kind of drip irrigation system.  This was extension in practice and it might only be a little win for STEWARD, but it was encouraging to see it happening.

Into the Jungle – On to Sumata

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 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…..

A tale of two swamps – Short cruise down the river

When at last the fisherfolk association themselves came this same issue was one of their key concerns.  We met on the enclosed veranda of one of the fisheries buildings and learnt so much about the management of the fisheries.  In general the pressure on fisheries in the upper reaches was low, but these niggles of being taken for granted by the electricity generators, plus feeling remote from the department of Fisheries in Chilanga, were ripe topics of conversation.  As we listened to the conversation, with occasional translation by Alphart, my eyes wandered around the veranda we were on.  Half way up the wire grill covering the windows I spotted the most beautiful praying mantis, a luminous green colour, its heart shaped head alert to any activity from flies caught in the veranda.  Then I jerked back and refocused on the debate.

The meeting was useful, but we had to curtail it as we were already late for another appointment downriver.  We made our way to a covered aluminium boat on the riverbank with some of the fisheries staff and pulled away downstream.  We made rapid progress along the wide Kafue River, and once more I was aware how life and the landscape here was dominated by water.  The land was a distant green line occasionally punctuated with spreading trees.  Much more immediate was the blue ripples of the river, the reeds, the fishing tackle and aquatic species.  We spotted a couple of the fishing villages I had seen on the map – the round huts peeking up above the reeds lining the Kafue’s banks which in turn would occasionally thin to reveal a landing site filled with dugout canoes.

As we came round a large meander I saw the ferry crossing which was to be where we were to hold out next meeting.  The ferry itself was a simple flatbed boat but it had two small engine rooms on either side.  Some donor had provided this mechanical device to improve over an old hand drawn version that had served the community for many years.  Unfortunately the operation could not afford the fuel and the engine had seized up with lack of use.  This meant that any vehicles now had to travel over 70km west to the dam to find the closest crossing.  Sometime old technology works better than new.

We drifted in alongside the ferry to a small landing site.  The boat ran aground still in open water and we had to leap across the last couple of feet to dry land.  In front of us several tracks and paths converged on the ferry but the closest village was on raised ground about half a kilometre to the north of us.  The only buildings on the shore were an open shelter that was to be our meeting room, and a small grass hut that served as a store.  We bought a few peanuts and a drink and waited for our participants to arrive.  As usual it was a slow process and I took the time to sit on a small wooden stool next to the store and soak in the scenery.  It was so peaceful there; we could hear distant voices chattering away in the village.  One of the fisheries officers headed up to the village to find out what was happening.


Waiting for the meeting to start

A tale of two swamps – Meeting in the swamp

We were transferred by boat across to the main island, to a bustling little harbour almost completely surrounded by huts.  We sloshed ashore trying not to get too muddy, and worked our way around some carts (that obviously were high enough to traverse the shallows to transport goods out to the cattle and other fields), along heavily compacted soil pathways between houses to a larger hut. Various people stared at us, or said “Hello”, the children giggled at us like they do almost anywhere in Africa.

The meeting house was a poorly maintained house close to the main channel – during the meeting I kept hearing the noise of outboard motors or punt poles sloshing in the water.  The visitors were introduced to the village headman – the most senior person in the village and representative of the chief for the whole community.  Then several other senior men were introduced to us, mainly the headman’s secretary and seniors from the fisherfolk association.  Gradually the room filled up with men of various states of dress; some in dishevelled t-shirts, torn trousers and sandals, others in overalls and wellingtons.  Our party of eight shook hands with every one of them as they came in,  the left supporting your elbow as you extended the right hand.

The meeting was slow, as many large community meetings had to be; a word of prayer, a welcome by the headman, a lengthy explanation from the Chief Fisheries Officer and Ian about the project.  This was made longer, of course, as every word had to be translated back and forth and Alphart fulfilled most of this role in a quiet respectful manner.   It always takes time for people to get used to translation; either saying far too much and then the translator having to try to remember things, or talking over the translator, or there being long pregnant pauses as people wait for the next element to be said.  Gradually a flow comes together; a dialogue, conversation and finally debate.  As Ian started to ask questions about the fishery and look for people’s opinions, the responses were a little staid to start with, half an eye on how both the headman and their peers react to their opinions.  When they saw some support for what they were saying they grew in confidence and moved on to new topics.  When someone disagreed, the whole room started to get animated.  From the quiet shady room we had walked into there was now a lively discussion.