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.
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.
It was good that we split the day up into field work in the mornings and other activities in the afternoon. We were all more productive when fresh and relatively cool, and the afternoons gave Kofi and I a chance to catch up on other work. Our biggest problem was that most of our work was computer based and our guest house had no electricity. So daily we would hike up the road to the project office and call on the caretaker there to unlock the building and turn on the generator. We would settle ourselves at the table on the back veranda there and get our maps and laptops out while he would run off to find the fuel in a storehouse at the back of the compound, fill the generator, prime the pump, and switch it on. It took a couple of pulls before it would whirr in to life. Only then would we connect our laptops to the plugs – we took no chances with spikes in supply. The generator was linked to a whole bunch of plugs around the building and also powered the satellite dish. This meant we could get a little connectivity with the outside world and I was able to quick download emails and reply to the most essential ones. I felt a little bit of a cheat here; in theory I did not need to keep up to date and there was little I could do with such limited connectivity but my western mind had grown too used to not being out of touch with my life back home. We would stay at the office only as long as it took to power up our laptop batteries, then we would walk back down the hill.
All in all it was a big mix of land uses, and over the top of this, imaginary (or in some cases) real lines were drawn to delimit the property rights. The kitchen garden areas we tackled next; the big problem here was that many had mango and banana trees in them and it was difficult to determine where the property line might be as you walked it. Rather than confuse the trainees by recording GPS lines straight away which might need correcting, we taught them how to work with the farmer who managed the plots to walk with them before switching the GPS to determine where the boundary went. We found most of them determined features which sorted this out quite easily – a tree here, a ditch there, the corner of a building. Where the problem came is when we got to the far end of the plot away from the buildings and the farmer would wave vaguely off into an impenetrable tangle of vines. We showed our trainees how to stop the recording at one point, walk all the way round the obstruction to a second point where you could stand at a plot corner, start the tracing once more and the GPS would record a straight line between the two points.
Of course not all neighbouring farmers would agree on the lines you were drawing but we told our trainees not to worry – there was no problem about plotting two neighbouring parcels of land and having overlap. All it was doing was highlighting that there was some disagreement over where the land was that the villagers or the elders could sort out later. One of the purposes of the exercise was to show where possible disputes existed. What we had more difficulty understanding was what was the actual rights to property that people have.
Mapping the boundaries
The clay here in Fintonia was bright golden and great stacks of bricks had been extracted. In another location under some trees we found more excavation going on. A whole family were eagerly digging away in a pit over 10m square and already several metres deep. They seemed pleased to see us and willing to show what they were up to, pose for photos which we then showed them through the viewfinder to hoots of laughter. The base of the pit was completely churned up and they were putting the clay into buckets of plastic bags and hauling it up to a dry area in the sun to form the bricks. They had several ways of forming the bricks with different results. Some of the bricks looked misshapen and were hand crafted, others they put weights on or formed them from a simple wooden or metal mould. The clay in the bags appeared to be being taken off to be used to make pottery. It was all surprisingly industrial for this small rural village. But here and elsewhere the clay was transforming the landscape. The traditional “mud huts” or rondavels that were so typical in Zimbabwe in the 1990s were being replaced by square, quite substantial buildings with galvanised roofing and proper doors and window frames.
This family were interested in what we were doing so we laid out the satellite image on the ground on a dry spot up the slope from their pit. Covered in a grey slime, they heaved themselves up out of the clay, wiped their wellington boots on the ground and stood around us as we explained the project. I’m not sure they got the whole story of the property rights issues, but they were fascinated by the satellite imagery. I know from past experience that people often can interpret satellite imagery easily; once you have orientated them a little they are away. We showed them the village centre and the roads heading out in different areas and soon they were pointing out where we were currently standing and where they lived, as well as the school and the community forest. It was all very encouraging.
The Clay diggers pose
We gave it to Karim. He was much more methodical and he made sure he prepared the instrument carefully first, then walked slowly around the edge of the field, pausing for a moment at each corner to ensure it was recorded. The shape was nearly perfect first time. We did the same for Alusine, whose skills were somewhere in between. Demba was a bit frustrated at this, and insisted on another go. His efforts improved and we praised his enthusiasm but we still needed to temper his rushing about.
We turned our attention to the survey sheet and taught them how to fill it in. Then we decided to head to another place to do more GPS training. The plot of land we had concentrated on first was a clearance where a house was wanted. Dembo farmed some land in a valley bottom on the far side of the village. We took a circuitous route to this plot so we could explore some of the other features of the village. One area I was interested in was a bright orange spot on the image. It was relatively small and set deep inside a thickly wooded river valley. We followed a small path which opened up to reveal a stack of bricks drying in the sun. In recent years I have noticed a trend in Africa that I never observed on such a scale in the 1990s. Using bricks to build houses and store rooms had become common practice. Once the preserve of the richer or higher status people in these rural areas now many people were favouring this construction over the old wooden wattle and daub style houses. Clay soil in many African countries is at a premium; the best locations to dig out clay is in the waterlogged river valleys. Of course it is only worth doing this in the dry season – the clay can be accessed from pits and they can be left out in the open air to harden. In some countries I have see villagers using charcoal to bake the bricks but here in Sierra Leone the predominant method seemed to be relying on the sheer intensity of the sun to harden them off.
I was given a few moments to talk about the project; I had to do a little work to clarify some of the simplifications Momoh had made on our behalf. And we unrolled the maps and showed them the preliminary work we had done. I had simply taken a satellite image and drawn many of the key buildings, roads and other features on top. We presented a copy of this to the Paramount Chief and I posed rather awkwardly for a photograph for the website. A few words of thanks from the Paramount Chief himself, where he told us that he trusted the good work of the project so far, and that any friend of Momoh’s was a friend of his. We were so grateful for this – I must admit in all the years I have worked in Africa I have been uneasy over my imposition on the communities in which I work. When I have a fixer or a local who introduces us to those communities, I am so much more relieved and confident we shall get cooperation.
I was a little overoptimistic here, but for reasons that did not reveal themselves for several days. We commenced our training with the three guys straight after the meeting with the chief. We started by heading back to our own guest house and spreading the materials over the table on the veranda. I explained to them the basic theory of what we were doing and got them to orientate themselves from the printed out satellite image. Then Kofi took over and gave them a detailed lesson in how to use a GPS. He had quite a sophisticated GPS, which used a pen and a touch screen and for people who rarely used a small mobile phone, let alone any other digital device, it took a bit of getting used to. We wandered across the road in front of our house to an area of cleared land right on the edge of the village. Kofi walked around the edge of the plot with the GPS and came back, saved the result with his magic pen and showed the trainees the results on the little grey screen on the unit. The GPS had recorded his movements every few seconds and he had created a neat little square on the screen. He handed the unit to Demba who eagerly took it in his hands. Kofi was a good trainer – very serious and strict but incredibly patient. With this GPS there were several things to do to set up the unit ready for walking the boundaries. Then you let it go and it made beeping noises when it was recording data. We stood next to the road as we watched Demba walk half way round the field. Then he said “It has stopped beeping”. Kofi walked over to fix it. He completed the walk. Kofi helped him press all the right buttons to ensure that he saved the track in the unit and we took a look at the results on the screen. There were one or two short lines in different places in the screen and that was all. Kofi reset it and off he went again. This time he was more successful at having a track that went all the way round the plot but it was a very peculiar shape. I’d spotted what was going wrong. With a GPS you have to have the unit exactly where you want it to record – there is no point in walking a boundary if you wiggle around any obstacle, or hold the machine away from where the actual boundary was. And some of the lines went haywire, points all over the place. The problem stemmed from Demba being in too much of a hurry to get round. GPS is like a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail. It does not record every step you take, but records a point every few seconds. If you walk too fast you end up with very few points and in some places, where there is tree cover, for example, the precision of the location accuracy can drop. With this unit, it can average out and help make a smoother picture of the route you took, but only if you walk slowly. This guy kept on cutting corners which made the shape of the plot very dubious. If he had stood in each corner he would have got a much cleaner shape on the GPS.
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.
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.